Our second NHL Saturday miniseries now examines the semi-illustrious history of the Carolina Hurricanes—a team once known infamously as the Hartford Whalers. Starting as an inaugural team in the WHA, the original New England Whalers were often a joke, more known for playing their home games in a shopping mall than anything else. The Whale joined the NHL for the 1979-1980 season before relocating down south as the Hurricanes in 1997. The franchise then won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
That remains the singular high point for the organization, but the Hartford Whalers once made the Cup playoffs seven seasons in a row (1986-1992)—something the Hurricanes have been unable to match. In fact, since moving to Carolina, the team’s best effort is its current four-season postseason appearance run (2019-2022), despite also making the Cup Finals in 2002. Either way, enjoy our assessment of the best teams in franchise history, and never forget the Whale in the shopping mall … or the whale-tail logo!
These were the surprise Stanley Cup champions, despite finishing just 18th out of 30 teams in goal prevention. The Hurricanes scored the third-most goals in the league on their way to a 52-22-8 record and 112 points—which won them the Southeast Division title. The team went 16-9 in the playoffs, winning seven-game series in both the Eastern Conference Finals (over Buffalo) and the Stanley Cup Finals (over Edmonton). That’s grinding it out, for sure.
The scoring stars were center Eric Stall (45G, 55A, 81 PIMs, 82 games) and left wing Cory Stillman (21G, 55A, in 72 games), both of whom finished the regular season with minus ratings. The top goaltender in the regular season was journeyman Martin Gerber (38-14-6 for 11.2 Point Shares), who took a backseat to rookie Cam Ward in the postseason (15-8, 2.14 GAA). With more stability in net, the Hurricanes benefitted from some upsets in the Eastern Conference to slide through and win it all.
This is a sabermetric surprise, as these Hurricanes posted a mere 81 points off a 38-25-5 record which placed them just fourth in the Metropolitan Division. But with only two teams in franchise history finishing with over 99 points, it actually ends up making sense. Finishing 14th in scoring offense and 6th in scoring defense, overall this club was the sixth-best team in the league during the regular season. In the postseason, Carolina swept the New York Rangers in the first round before losing in 5 games to Boston.
Covid kept this regular season to just 68 games, but the top skaters were forward Sebastian Aho (38G, 28A), F Teuvo Teravainen (15G, 48A), and right wing Andrei Svechnikov (24G, 37A). In net, both Petr Mrazek (21-16-2, 2.69 GAA) and James Reimer (14-6-2, 2.66 GAA) were solid enough to help the team finish with that Top 6 defense. In the playoffs, the two goalies split time to combine for a 2.18 GAA, but the offense managed just 22 goals in the eight playoffs contests combined. That hurt.
No. 3: 1985-1986 Hartford Whalers
Hurray for the Whale! With a mediocre 40-36-4 record, Hartford finished just fourth in the Adams Division, but the team was Top 5 in goals scored and Top 10 in goals allowed. All this equated to being the seventh-best team in the NHL, sabermetrically, and in the postseason, the Whale swept the Quebec Nordiques in the best-of-five first round before losing in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montréal Canadiens in the second round. That Game 7 was an overtime heartbreaker for Hartford.
The team had four point-a-game skaters: LW Sylvain Turgeon (45G, 34A, 76 games), C Ray Ferraro (30G, 47A, 76 games), C Ron Francis (24G, 53A, 53 games), and RW Kevin Dineen (33G, 35A, 57 games). If the latter duo had been healthy all year, the team would have finished with more points, although the Habs still would have been a playoff opponent either way. Mike Liut (27-23-4) was the primary goalie, but this era was about scoring, scoring, and more scoring, and the Whale was never better.
The three most recent teams for the franchise are all in this Top 5, so you can see that the Hurricanes are enjoying their best stretch ever right now, by some measurements. With a 36-12-8 record in another Covid-shortened season, Carolina won the Central Division and beat the Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs in six games. However, the Hurricanes lost to eventual Cup champion Tampa Bay in the next round over five games. The team was tenth in scoring and fourth in scoring defense.
Aho was, by far, the top skater on the team with 57 points (24G, 33A) in 56 games, along with his 32 PIMs and plus-16 rating. But this team relied on defense: Mrazek (6-2-3) and Reimer (15-5-2) combined with Alex Nedeljkovic (15-5-3) in net to put up a combined 2.23 GAA on a .920 save percentage. Mrazek and Nedeljkovic each posted 3 shutouts as well. That was the strength of this squad, but the Lightning were able to score 14 goals in the 5-game series to eliminate Carolina way too easily.
How many times in this miniseries of columns will a franchise’s best team be its most recent one? We’re betting not too many, so this is interesting. The Hurricanes went 54-20-8 to set organization highs in wins and points (116). The team was ninth in scoring and tops in the league for goals allowed, as Carolina won the Metropolitan Division once again. In the postseason, the team beat the Boston Bruins in 7 games before losing to the New York Rangers in 7 games, which had to be disappointing for the ‘Canes.
The top scorer was Aho (again), as he put up 81 points (37G, 44A) in 79 games. and every skater who played in at least three games finished with at least an even plus/minus rating. This was due to stellar team defense, led by goaltenders Frederik Andersen (35-14-3, 2.17 GAA, .922 S%) and Antti Raanta (15-5-4). But the scoring dried up in the playoffs, and the goaltenders couldn’t maintain their stellar pace, so that brought the best season in team history to a premature end against the Rangers.