Working out in the summer with other NHL players in Toronto, Jeff Skinner never noticed that in years past, no one asked him about the Hurricanes – not until his peers started asking questions this summer.
“Players you train with that play on other teams, everyone’s comments are all the same – all positive things,” Skinner said. “That’s the kind of thing you want to hear as a player on this team. It’s exciting.”
Skinner’s experience was just one of many signs that the Hurricanes enter this NHL season as one of the league’s “hot” teams, a designation that isn’t worth anything but does signify that the rest of the league had an eye on the way the Hurricanes played last season and noticed the moves the team made this offseason, a combination which has attracted attention in hockey circles.
It’s a start. As training camp begins Friday, the Hurricanes still have a long way to go to take the next step and become one of the NHL’s “cool” teams – a designation they had their hands around but couldn’t capture in the post-2006 years – but being noticed is a big step forward from being ignored, which was the NHL’s standard posture toward the Hurricanes in recent memory.
Seen in their most dismissive light, all the Hurricanes did this summer was add the Blackhawks’ backup goalie, a 35-year-old 20-goal scorer, a fourth-line center and a third-pairing defenseman. But because those moves filled specific, obvious needs and have the potential to pay off dramatically – more consistent, quality goaltending from Scott Darling would go a long way by itself – they have combined with the increasing awareness of the Hurricanes’ emerging young players to catch the league’s attention.
“Now, it sort of seems like people are starting to notice a little bit,” Skinner said. “I guess it’s better than them not talking about you, but at the same time it’s only talk.”
So how does an NHL team go from hot to cool? There are a few ways teams get there, only one of which is currently available to the Hurricanes.
1. Be a Canadian franchise. This buys all kinds of immunity from the kinds of questions U.S.-based teams face, like attendance. Ottawa couldn’t sell out the conference finals and recently reduced seating capacity in its arena, but no one talks about moving the Senators to Quebec or Seattle. Vancouver is a mess. Generally speaking, it’s deserved: Between Hockey Night in Canada and the cultural resonance, a Saturday night in Toronto or Montreal is not merely a game but An Event. A playoff series is something else entirely.
2. Be an Original Six team – or owned by the league’s TV partner. The first part is obvious. The second explains the Flyers.
3. Have a star. This is the other way to get on national TV and be the focus of NHL marketing efforts. Eric Staal was close to this, if he had continued to punch out 100-point seasons, but he didn’t. No one on the current roster has that potential. It would take, say, a John Tavares trade to do it.
4. Be consistently good and/or unique over a period of a few years. The latter is the niche the Hurricanes were on their way to filling after 2006, with the tailgating and the noise and all of that. Even as late as the 2011 All-Star Game, an unexpected and resounding success, the team was still considered a model Sun Belt franchise. Nashville is there now. Making the playoffs this season would be the Hurricanes’ next step on a long journey toward joining the Predators.
Being hot is nice. Being cool gets you on national TV and into outdoor games. One is only the first step toward the other, but the Hurricanes have finally taken it.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock