It wouldn’t have been a reach to name Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour NSJ’s 2019 Coach of the Year last week.
The 49-year-old with the vintage hockey nose and workout regimen that shames active NHLers half his age dragged the Hurricanes out of the abyss and into prominence when the calendar flipped to 2019.
Carolina not only returned to the postseason, but it went all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, knocking off the defending champion Washington Capitals and upstart New York Islanders along the way before falling to the more seasoned Boston Bruins.
In the offseason, the team signed two free agents — Ryan Dzingel and Jake Gardiner — to contracts that not only made sense but were seemingly to the team’s advantage.
The common threads in both signings were the team’s trajectory and, of course, Brind’Amour.
“That’s one of the main reasons. … I heard nothing but great things about the coach from every single person I talked to,” Dzingel said after he signed a two-year, $6.75 million contract with Carolina.
“He seems like a great person and a great coach, and I’m excited to play for him,” Gardiner said on the day he signed a four-year, $16.2 million deal.
It’s not just that Brind’Amour says the right things at the right times — he means it.
“The word is out,” Brind’Amour told ESPN in October. “We’re getting players that want to be here. This is a place where they know they can win. But this year is really important. We had a good year, but we have to back it up. And then you’ll start to see real change stay around here.”
Brind’Amour’s reputation precedes him, and it’s that which makes the North State Journal staff believe he can take the Hurricanes to even bigger heights in the coming year — and leads us to prognosticate he’ll be 2020’s Coach of the Year.
It won’t be easy. Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes cleared the low hurdle of returning to the playoffs like a deer jumping over landscape edging, and in doing so set the bar even higher for 2020 and beyond.
“Coming into this year with the young guys and into the playoffs, it was all talk, right?” Brind’Amour said after the Hurricanes were eliminated by the Bruins in four straight games in the conference final. “You tell ’em this is how it’s going to go, you’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to enjoy every minute because you never know and the battle level. All that stuff.
“But that’s why experience matters,” he continued. “Now that they’ve had a taste of it, I don’t have to say it again. They know. … Next time that comes around, you’re a little hungrier. You’re a little, ‘I don’t want to go out now.’ And that’s what has to happen.”
The results thus far have been promising.
Brind’Amour has the Hurricanes among the NHL’s top 10 teams heading into the new year. His team’s offense is powered by four players with an average age of 23 — Dougie Hamilton is the oldest at 26, Andrei Svechnikov the youngest at 19 — and all are hovering near a point-per-game pace.
The defense continues to be among the league’s best, with Hamilton having his best season, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce bringing their usual defensive brilliance to the ice every night, and newcomer Joel Edmundson adding some needed snarl to the group.
And the goaltending, as it was last season, continues to surprise with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer evenly and ably splitting time.
The final word on this season, however, will come in the playoffs.
Can Brind’Amour one-up the job he and his team did last season and return to the conference final — or even reach the Stanley Cup Final?
As Brind’Amour has said all along — from back when he was a player, captaining the Hurricanes to the 2006 championship, to now as the team’s coach — that’s the goal.
One look into the eyes of Brind’Amour’s players will tell you all you need to know. They trust him, believe in his vision and are ready to put in the work to take that next step.
They are willing to go to war for Brind’Amour, and he would bet on them any time.
There’s no reason we shouldn’t either.