Von Alex Ohari
Sad. That’s the feeling that most people get when they realize that summer is coming to an end. Me? I’m different. Because the game I love becomes an aftertaught during the warm summer months. I love winter. I love snow. I don’t love, but I embrace the cold. I love being able to walk or drive a few minutes from my house, lace up my skates, and lose myself & lifes problems on the rink for countless hours of the day. The sheer cold doesn’t matter to me anymore. People will go great lengths to do the things they love and believe in – which for me includes the greatest sport in the world – the game of hockey.
Let me take you back to 2002. I was 5 years old, and more excited than a kid on Christmas morning to start my first year of organized hockey. My parents were thrilled that I wouldn’t have to turn my living room into a hockey rink anymore – just me, my mini stick, and a laundry basket for a net (although ice hockey didn’t stop me from still doing that). But, despite my love for scoring goals, I wanted to play goalie. Why? Because of the Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe – who at the time was playing for the Carolina Hurricanes. I loved his style, his pads, his demeanor – everything about him was unique. And that’s the day the Carolina Hurricanes became my favourite team. My first practice ever – for the Gold Timbits team, I realized how much I sucked at goalie. And besides one time when I was forced to play goalie in Novice – every kid on the team had to take a turn – that’s the day my dream of being a goalie died. But not my love for the Canes. When I realized I could fly by everybody in initiation – most of my team couldn’t even skate – and became the go-to goal scorer for the team, Rod Brind’Amour became my favourite player. His leadership, dedication, and skill were what I wanted to mould my game after. Although my two-way game never developped, I was always one of the top scorers on my team, and the Canes remained, to this day, my lifeline to hockey.
So lets fast forward to 2016. The highs – the Stanley Cup win in 2006, playoff run in 2009; and the lows – the ongoing 7-year playoff drought; have made life wild to be a Canes fan. In my entire middle school & high school life I never got to watch my team play a single playoff game. But love and loyalty prevail for me, and I never even thought of dumping the team to bandwagon another. There’s no pride in that for me. So people ask me all the time, what business does a 19-year old kid have cheering for a team almost 1500 km away from his city? and the answer is simple – loyalty. The Canes gave me so much joy and happiness as a kid, and still today, that I could never turn my back on them, despite how good or bad they may be. Which brings me to the topic of this article – What can fans expect from the Canes in 2016-17?
The winding road of the NHL offseason, which has started in April for 7 consecutive years for Canes fans, brings us to a point where I’m as excited as ever for the Canes new season. Good team development led by Canes legend & GM Ron Francis along with head coach Bill Peters have made the Canes an extremely under-the-radar force to be reckoned with. The team, who fought deep into March 2016 on hope for playoff run, which just came up short, has taken a pretty large step forward over the last few months. Gone are perennial disappointments like Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Zach Boychuk and yes, former fan-favourite and captain Eric Staal. Replacing them are youngster Teuvo Teravainen, NHL veterans Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg, as well as young phenom Sebastian Aho, who finished 2nd in MVP voting in the Finnish Mens League as an 18-year old. That’s a pretty sizeable improvement if you ask me. Factor in hopeful development and a step forward from guys like Elias Lindholm and young-gun defensemen like Noah Hanifin and Jaccob Slavin, and the Canes & their fans have a lot to look forward to in 2016.
As easy as it would be to sit here and say „Wow, the Canes look destined for a playoff run this season“ there’s a lot of work to still be done. Bill Peters in currently coaching for Team Canada in the WC, so the team will have to wait until deep into training camp to have their Coach direct them. There’s numerous Canes players as well playing in the tournament – missing out on valuable reps with the team in training camp, but also gaining experience playing against top competition. Then you have to factor in the Canes‘ competition – their divison is loaded with teams like the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who will be nearly impossible to bump out of playoff spots. The NY Islanders and Rangers are also in the mix with solid rosters, the Devils surprised people last year, and the Philadelphia Flyers & Columbus Blue Jackets also underachieved last year. So no doubt it’ll be tough for the Canes to come out of that pack in a playoff position, but we have the necessary talent to believe there’s a glimmer of hope. Lets check in with how the roster is currently looking.
Locks- J.Staal, E.Lindholm, T.Teravainen, A.Nestrasil, J.Nordstrom, J.Skinner, V.Rask, J.McClement, B. Bickell, V. Stalberg (10)
On the bubble: Phil Di Giuseppe, Sebastian Aho, Brock McGinn, Derek Ryan, Sergey Tolchinsky, Julien Gauthier, others.
Defense: Faulk, Slavin, Hainsey, Pesce, Hanifin. (5)
On the bubble: Ryan Murphy, Haydn Fleury, Trevor Carrick.
Goalies: Cam Ward, Eddie Lack.
Analysis: I think the Canes have put together a very respectable roster – not too flashy – but an acceptable combination of size, skill and hard workers. This will be a tough team to play against. Off-season additions Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg are both upwards of 6’3 and 210lbs. Lee Stempniak and Teuvo Teravainen were brought in to help the Hurricanes lack of offensive playmakers. Gone is Canes legend, Mr. 47-second James Wisnewski, who’ll be replaced by a younger, higher upside defenseman. There’s a few spots open for young guys to impress in training camp and earn their way into the Canes opening night lineup. I personally envision Aho, Di Giuseppe and Haydn Fleury making the cut.
The Canes will also need improvement in the crease by solid, but inconsistent goalies Ward & Lack. If they can at least play solid on a conistent basis, without the mental lapses resulting in weak goals every game from seasons past, the Canes will be in great position to make a run. Their defense showed they’re very much capable of shutting down offenses last season and the Canes offense has had a drastic improvement since July 1st. Let’s try not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Canes‘ chances to be successful are looking better than they ever have in this decade, and we as fans should be more than excited about this years team – and as loyal as we’ve been – we deserve it. Now I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m positive I’m not alone when I say that Thursday, October 13th – the Canes opening night – can’t come any faster. It’s been a long time coming for us, and the wait is shaping up to be more than worth it. Bring on Canes hockey!