Luke DeCock

With or without you: Ex-Canes having big years but changes had to be made

Tough loss for Canes

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton discusses a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Feb. 3, 2019 at PNC Arena. Hamilton had a goal and assist against his former team.
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Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton discusses a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Feb. 3, 2019 at PNC Arena. Hamilton had a goal and assist against his former team.

Jeff Skinner came back and scored three weeks ago. Not to be outdone, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Derek Ryan all scored for the Calgary Flames on Sunday. The quickest path to NHL success seems to be a trade away from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Couldn’t the Hurricanes have used these guys?

Sunday was particularly galling, with every former Hurricanes player on the Flames’ roster scoring in a 4-3 win for Bill Peters behind the Calgary bench. Even more so than Skinner’s return since it was a loss, and especially once Lindholm mocked the Hurricanes’ postgame celebrations on his way off the ice. If only he had showed that kind of spirit in a Carolina uniform more often.

“There’s always going to be a little bit of a rivalry between the two teams now,” Dougie Hamilton said, “after the trade and the coach and whatnot.”

But those offseason moves, the Skinner trade for not much and the massive draft-weekend swap with the Flames that sent Lindholm and Hanifin north for Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and prospect Adam Fox, were as necessary a part of the franchise’s transition as the coaching change from Peters to Rod Brind’Amour or the belated appointment of Justin Williams as captain. (Ryan followed Peters to Calgary as a free agent.)

Perhaps the most telling part of all of it are the answers to different questions: Would any of these guys be doing any of this here? Would the Hurricanes be better off with them than without them?

Almost certainly not.

Some of this had to happen, for player and team alike.

For players who have spent their entire careers with one team, being called part of the team’s core right from draft day, the phone call that they have been deemed surplus to requirements can be a healthy kick in the professional pants. That change in mental security can be a bigger factor than the change in physical scenery.

(Sometimes, it’s even as simple as watching it happen to someone else: Justin Faulk was probably on the change-of-scenery list last summer, but has been a factor in the dressing room in a way he wasn’t when he was co-captain. Being stripped of that title in name made him a leader in fact.)

Take Skinner, who wore out his welcome after eight up-and-down years with the Hurricanes and wasn’t in tremendous demand leaguewide despite his unquestioned natural goal-scoring ability. The Hurricanes spent months trying to trade him and the best they could do was a package headlined by a second-round pick.

Put on a line with Jack Eichel, a better player than he ever saw here, Skinner has been a sensation with 31 goals, only two short of his career-high, and is plus-12 after being a minus player in all but his rookie season in Carolina. But he’s also in a contract year, playing for the rest of his career while being yanked out of the comfort zone he was in with the Hurricanes, and forced to confront all of that at once, which wouldn’t entirely have been the case here.

As productive as Skinner has been in Buffalo, it’s hard to imagine the Hurricanes having the kind of work ethic and team-first mentality they have developed this season under Brind’Amour with Skinner here. The return on the trade, the best Carolina could get by the end of the summer, is pretty good evidence that Brind’Amour certainly felt that way.

The assessment of the Flames trade is more nuanced. The mixed results of the Hurricanes’ return are already well established and may eventually depend on whether Fox is the elite offensive defenseman the Hurricanes think he is. And Hanifin hasn’t been any better in Calgary than he was with the Hurricanes.

Lindholm, though, always showed signs of this – he had 17 goals in his sophomore season – but was never able to put it together the way he has in Calgary playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He extended his point streak to 10 games Sunday with his 23rd goal, by far his best NHL season already.

Still, the Hurricanes got good players back, and you have to give up talent to get talent. Throw in the uncertain contract situations with Lindholm and Hanifin, both of whom turned down extensions at the draft, and at worst the trade figures to be a wash in the long term even if it was a conclusive loss on the ice Sunday.

Even Peters has a better team in Calgary than he did in Carolina – older, with higher-end skill – but there was no question it was time for a coaching change here.

None of which was any consolation when the Hurricanes went through a stretch where they couldn’t score and Skinner and Lindholm wouldn’t stop scoring, nor is it any consolation now watching two popular players succeed elsewhere while the Hurricanes live on the edge of the playoff bubble, nor was it any consolation watching all of them score Sunday in a game Brind’Amour admitted the Hurricanes needed more than the Flames.

But you need only look at last year’s loss to Calgary – the utter capitulation where Peters basically threw his hands up and Sebastian Aho was knocked out – to see how far this franchise has come. The Hurricanes battled, even when behind, and Ferland and Hamilton combined to set up the goals that cut the Calgary lead to 3-2 and 4-3.

The Hurricanes remain a work in progress, but they’re ahead of where they were then, and the departures of Skinner and Lindholm had to happen to get to where they are now.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.