Luke DeCock: Hurricanes' 'new guys' need to become regular guys, but it's a hard process to rush
RALIEGH, N.C. — After two weeks of training camp — and, for many, several weeks more of informal practices here — they're still the new guys. That's how they're described, without hesitation, by coaches and teammates alike.
There's always a process of integration at the nexus between offseason and season, the feeling out of roles and learning of new systems, but what's different for the Carolina Hurricanes this season is how many guys are "new guys."
With the expectations the Hurricanes are facing, and justifiably so, there isn't a lot of time to meander through that process. They need all eight of the newcomers, pending possibly an additional rookie, to be up to speed — the speed Rod Brind'Amour's system demands of foot and action and thought — before the season starts on Oct. 14, a day that once hovered far off in the distance but is now insistently close.
It's not really something that can be rushed, nor can it be truly incubated in the preseason, even with as veteran a lineup as the Hurricanes iced in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. It takes a crucible, real games for real stakes with real moments of anger and triumph that can bring former opponents together as actual teammates.
Still, once several Hurricanes making their preseason debuts shook off some early rust, Tuesday was a step in the right direction.
"You could see things clicking a little bit," Brind'Amour said. "Still a long ways to go, but I liked it. It was positive, for sure."
Having a real training camp rather than abbreviated scramble is a benefit, but it's not enough. The Hurricanes would have been in a difficult position trying to integrate this many new players into the roster during the last pandemic-shortened season; they unquestionably benefited from continuity on their way to a division title.
Jumping in to defend a new teammate in a scrum. Scoring a game-winning goal. Bailing out a lost defenseman with a big save. That can't be hurried. It just has to happen.
The systems are simple enough. It's everything else that takes time.
"Every team pretty much plays the same way. Every team wants to do the same things," new Hurricanes defenseman Ian Cole said. "Teams go about it different ways, and that's where the reads are going to be a little different, but if you keep that same mindset things will work out."
The task ahead of the Hurricanes is magnified by the scope of the turnover. It starts in goal, where there's an entirely new tandem of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. Ethan Bear, Cole, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith will all collectively try to make up for the departure of Dougie Hamilton while adding the defensive depth the Hurricanes lacked last spring.
It's easy to forget Derek Stepan is only 31 and would be a third-line center for a lot of teams. And then there's Jesperi Kotkaniemi, poached from the Montreal Canadiens, ideally a key piece for the Hurricanes at center in the long term, but for now yet another skilled winger.
For a team that had more or less the same roster for three seasons, with a few tweaks here and there, it's a lot of change, even if it seems like half the roster played for the New York Rangers at one point.
And for a team that found consistent success by developing a defined style and identity both on the ice and in the dressing room, the acclimatization process is something that has to be not only managed but cultivated. It also can't be faked. It has to happen organically.
"They'll be new guys for a while," Brind'Amour said. "They're fitting in great in the locker room. It's on the ice where we haven't played enough."
Tuesday's preseason game, even with a lineup that was only missing a handful of regulars, wasn't the same as the opener against the New York Islanders will be, let alone beyond, all of which is right around the corner. But it's one step closer.