April 18th, 2024

Guentzel, Kuznetsov settling in with Hurricanes after Carolina’s big deadline moves

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on March 20, 2024.

Carolina Hurricanes centre Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) celebrates a goal as Ottawa Senators defenceman Artem Zub (2) skates past during second period NHL hockey action in Ottawa, on Sunday, March 17, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Rod Brind’Amour would prefer a longer runway.

The Carolina Hurricanes have tended to make their big roster moves – signings, trades and, of course, offer sheets – in the summer with an eye toward ensuring new additions are firmly entrenched when the puck drops.

“You don’t have this massive change with 20 games to go,” said Brind’Amour, the team’s head coach.

This time, however, Carolina went off script.

Following last spring’s Eastern Conference final sweep at the hands of the Florida Panthers accented by four excruciating one-goal losses, the Hurricanes had a relatively quiet off-season.

The club instead stayed patient – and made its moves as the clock ticked towards the NHL trade deadline.

Carolina acquired prized forward Jake Guentzel from the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 7 before adding winger Evgeny Kuznetsov from the Washington Capitals the next day.

The bold strokes represented a vote of confidence from general manager Don Waddell. The players took notice.

“They watch,” Brind’Amour said. “They see other teams adding people.”

It’s just that Carolina doesn’t usually respond at this point in the schedule.

“When you’re adding the quality of players that you are, that should give you a bump,” Brind’Amour added. “The guys are all excited about it. It’s up to me now to fit it in.”

Humming along before the trades, Carolina is now 9-2-0 over its last 11 games and sits second in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the first-place New York Rangers.

The Hurricanes were right there with the Panthers in last spring’s East final, but couldn’t muster one more goal in those four heartbreaking losses – 3-2 in quadruple overtime, 2-1 in OT, 1-0 and 4-3.

The hope is Guentzel and Kuznetsov, who entered the league’s player assistance program in February before passing through waivers with his US$7.8-million salary cap hit earlier this month, can help push the group over the line.

“Quality players, but the fit has to be right,” Brind’Amour said. “We really hit it off.”

Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho added: “Definitely have given us a little life in the room.”

Guenztel, who won the Stanley Cup in 2017, was hurt leading into the deadline, but knew he would be healthy in time for a contender to pounce.

With rumours swirling, his bags were packed.

“You’re sitting back and watching,” said the 29-year-old pending unrestricted free agent with 24 goals and 60 points in 55 games this season.

Kuznetsov, meanwhile, entered the fray as a significant unknown after not skating at all while receiving care in the NHL/NHLPA program.

Having passed through waivers earlier this month, he practised in the AHL before the swap that will see Washington eat 50 per cent of his salary the rest of this season and next.

“Haven’t even had a chance to learn the drills,” joked the 31-year-old Russian, drafted by the Capitals in 2010 and a Cup winner in 2018. “It’s easy when you’re excited like that. When you (have) a lot of energy, a lot of emotions.”

Asked what keeps him going through the ups and downs, Kuznetsov deadpanned “paycheque” before turning serious.

“You don’t realize how big the impact in your life hockey makes,” he said. “When you step away a little bit, you get anxious. It’s a privilege to be able to step up and look from the side and see what are your real needs in life. We get paid a lot of money, but this is life.

“That’s what motivates me to come back every day and work hard.”

The Hurricanes are doing their best to make the new additions feel welcome.

“Group’s been unbelievable,” Guentzel said.

Things have also been going well on the ice. The Omaha, Neb., product has two goals and six assists in five games with Carolina, while Kuznetsov has scored twice as part of his five-point output in seven appearances.

“They wanted these players,” Brind’Amour said of the existing roster. “They’re going to do everything they can to make sure these guys feel good.

“And get up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Because there isn’t much runway.

KUZY QUOTES

Kuznetsov held court in a lively media scrum with reporters in Toronto over the weekend.

When the conversation shifted to Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov – a friend and former Washington teammate back on his game following a rough stretch – he took a friendly dig at hockey’s biggest market.

“You guys have been so hard on the players in general,” Kuznetsov said. “I’m so happy that he doesn’t speak English well, so he doesn’t understand everything. That’s huge for him.”

SCORING PUNCH

Jamie Benn won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer in 2014-15 with a paltry 87 points.

Heading into Wednesday, nine players this season had already equalled or surpassed that total.

Nikita Kucherov leads with 118 points, followed Nathan MacKinnon (117) and Connor McDavid (108).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2024.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on X.

Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

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