While another line went through a drill at the Carolina Hurricanes’ practice Thursday, Manny Malhotra leaned over the boards to point out to young linemate Drayson Bowman a more direct route across the ice, one that would put more pressure on the defense. It wasn’t a long conversation, but it was a detailed one, with Malhotra looking less like a teammate and more like a coach.
“It’s just communication between linemates,” Malhotra said. “The more veteran you become, the more you realize how easy it is once you talk, once you know where each other is going to be. You don’t have to have a sixth sense out there.”
That Malhotra saw nothing very unusual about it is exactly what made it so exceptional. The Hurricanes haven’t had many of those conversations in recent years, with a young roster and a young leadership group, but an influx of thirtysomethings this season has changed that.
Mike Komisarek, 31, has played sparingly this season, but his influence can be seen in the strong play of rookie defensemen Brett Bellemore and Ryan Murphy. Radek Dvorak, 36, was already a veteran with the Edmonton Oilers when they lost to Carolina in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. Ron Hainsey, 32, has played more than 600 NHL games. And Malhotra, 33, was an emergency midseason signing. He came in to help out on faceoffs but has contributed in so many other ways.
For years, the Hurricanes were built around that kind of experienced, veteran leadership in the locker room, often from players who weren’t designated as captains. The list is long, and it includes some of the most revered names in the franchise’s history: Kevyn Adams, Matt Cullen, Jeff Daniels, Bret Hedican, Dennis Seidenberg, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward, Ray Whitney and others.
It wasn’t about rah-rah leadership. They were veterans who knew how to play the game the right way, knew what it took to win and expected nothing less from their teammates, no matter how young or old they were.
“It’s just what older guys do. It’s why they’re older guys and they’re still playing,” former Hurricanes captain and current assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “They’re doing something right. They get it. Teaching young kids how to be a pro, it’s one thing to tell them and another thing to show how to do it. You take that for granted. You don’t realize how much you have it or how important it is, until it’s gone, until you lose a lot of older guys.”
Since that Golden Generation departed, the Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs in four seasons. Whitney was one of the last to go, in the summer of 2010, and almost all of the new arrivals until now have been younger players.
If there’s one word to describe the latest influx of players, “young” isn’t it. But what this group may lack in pace, it makes up in professionalism. The Hurricanes have followed a five-game losing streak with a 3-0-1 run thanks to a sound team defensive game that in many ways follows the example of the Bowman-Malhotra-Dvorak line.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental that our losing streak ended when we added a character guy like Manny and Radek came back from injury,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. “They were accepted in the room right away and they made a real contribution. They’re making everybody accountable very quickly.”
Bowman is a prime example. The 24-year-old winger has played parts of five NHL seasons but always seemed to be on the fringes of the roster. His brief time on a line with Malhotra and Dvorak has improved Bowman’s all-around game dramatically.
Coaches love this kind of mentoring so much that if Dvorak can’t play against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday, Muller said he’s considering using Komisarek as a seventh defenseman even though rolling four lines has been a big part of Carolina’s recent success, just to reward the veteran defenseman with a spot in the lineup.
“He’s been a perfect pro,” Muller said, the highest praise a coach can deliver.