The last time the Carolina Hurricanes won a division title was way back in 2005-06 when the crew, led by captain Rod Brind’Amour, won the Southeast Division. Fast forward to 2021: The Hurricanes, led now by head coach Rod Brind’Amour, are the Central Division champs.
While it has been 15 years since the Canes have snagged a top spot, it’s all very familiar to Tripp Tracy, who joined the team’s broadcast crew at the start of the 1998-99 season. Now a part of Bally Sports’ telecasts, Tracy has seen it all — including that 2005-06 team, which won the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup.
Carolina ends its regular season Monday with a matchup against its first-round opponent, the Predators. With the season winding down and the team gearing up for what it hopes will be a long postseason run, Sporting News chatted with Tracy on all things Hurricanes and the NHL.
(Editor’s note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
SPORTING NEWS: Is this a surprise, that the Hurricanes are having such a good year?
TRIPP TRACY: No, I wouldn’t say it’s a surprise. I would say that the part of it that makes it more impressive, in these unparalleled times, not that other teams haven’t dealt with significant injuries and the COVID list, but for the Hurricanes to have had a significant COVID pause back in January, to lose some heavily relied-on players and to have gotten a strong start that they did. And then significant injuries to players that you lean on at all positions — whether it be [Petr] Mrazek, who has missed the majority of the season in goal; whether it be Teuvo Teravainen and Vincent Trocheck up front. Recently, a guy like Brady Skjei, Jaccob Slavin was part of that COVID list, took him a while to get back.
So for Carolina to be chasing a Presidents’ Trophy with that adversity is what makes it, surprising isn’t the word for me that I would use, but it certainly makes it more impressive to me.
SN: Do you look at this team and say, “OK, this is definitely a team that can go deep in the playoffs”?
TT: No doubt about it.
But I also look at it with perspective. It’s a great privilege for me and I’d like to think it’s an advantage that I’ve been here since ’98, and I have plenty of weaknesses, but one of the things I do have is, I have a memory like an elephant. . . . The 2000-2010 decade was feast or famine for the Carolina Hurricanes. Really. Either you didn’t make the playoffs or, when you did, you made a long run. Three times, in 2002, 2006, 2009, [they] make it to the conference finals. Twice you make it to the Stanley Cup in 2002 and 2006, and you win in 2006.
Typically speaking, when you go deep . . . there’s early playoff adversity; usually happens in the first or the second round and if you get through it, you become that much more of a galvanized, determined team with a deeper level of belief that it can be accomplished. So this team, for the reasons I just mentioned, they’ve had a ton of adversity within this regular season.
It’s tough to compare, and I don’t like to compare to the Stanley Cup team in 2006, because that was a veteran crew . . . that had played a long time without winning. This is still a very young team that’s going to have a lot of kicks at the can. But they’re resilient like that 2006 team and when I look at them just on paper, it’s tough for me to say this and comparing a championship team that is central to my heart, but, the Hurricanes are as deep and as star-studded up front. Probably have a deeper blue line and . . . argue you’re deeper in goal [than 2006], and you have a coach that was the captain of that team.
So I hope that answers your question that, yes, I believe they can win. Although there always seems to be an inevitable adversity along the way.
SN: What does that say to have a roster with these young kids? Is it a weakness but a strength at the same time, because there isn’t a long memory of previous bad playoff runs?
TT: It’s a great question and the answer is that the guys that are young, went to the conference finals two years ago and they were already leaned upon as difference-making players. The one, in particular, is [Sebastian] Aho.
Aho, I will guarantee you unequivocally, that as a centerman, having been eliminated in two playoffs by the Boston Bruins where the overall impact of the Bruins’ centers — of [Patrice] Bergeron, [David] Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Sean Kuraly — in two consecutive eliminations, I guarantee you, has burned Sebastian. When I say burn, I say it’s created a burn in him. It’s created motivation in him, that he may still be a young player but he’s a seasoned guy when it comes to the playoffs and I know for a fact that that’s driven him, the way that you hope.
(Editor’s note: This interview occurred before the Hurricanes lost 3-1 to the Predators on Saturday. As previously mentioned, the two teams play again Monday at 8 p.m. ET.)
SN: It looks like it’ll be Nashville-Carolina in the first round. How do they stack up against the Predators and is there a team that could stop this Carolina team?
TT: If there’s anything I’ve learned from all my years calling playoff games, and the first time I did it was 1998, anybody can beat anybody. So, and you have to also be careful what you wish for, because I can remember a situation that always pops out to me in 2009 and the second round: the Boston Bruins were the top seed in the East and they had not only beaten Carolina in all the games in the season series, they had smoked them. And the Hurricanes ended up in a very entertaining series [and] they beat Boston on the road in overtime in Game 7.
So Carolina’s won all six games against Nashville. They’ve all been close games. They’ve been close games that have been determined, that have swung in Carolina’s favor more than anything because of special teams play. Carolina has been able to match Nashville’s goaltending and, when I say that, Juuse Saros is having a Vezina candidate-type year. Carolina’s goaltending not only has taken big steps this year on the majority of nights, whoever’s been Carolina’s goaltender has outbattled the guy at the other end.
Do I like Carolina’s team? I love their team, but I’ve been on the other side of this for Carolina in the last two playoffs where you know you have to really scratch and claw to get in at the last minute.
But once you get to the playoffs, you and I both know, it’s different than other sports in the postseason. Truthfully, and earnestly, anything can happen, because it’s such a fine line. And that would extend to anybody the Hurricanes play, including the Nashville Predators.
SN: Your take on Connor McDavid’s season? As a former goaltender, could you imagine facing him bearing down on you?
TT: The things that he can do, and in the fastest game of any of the major sports — and another notch or two faster — are just extraordinary. I really can’t imagine dealing with that type of speed. But to be able to do things, whether it’d be a pass or whether it’d be fire the puck, or whether it’d be making a brilliant, spontaneous move at that type of Autobahn-like speed, it’s marvelous. And I think [his chase for 100], phenomenal for the game of hockey. . . . I hope that he and Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers can find a way to get something going in the playoffs because when all the eyes and the added attention in the postseason — best postseason in sports — that’s the stage. And you hope that, with potential new hockey fans that a playoff run from Connor McDavid would be, that’d be one heck of an advertisement for the National Hockey League.
SN: Auston Matthews, as well, is having a phenomenal season. What does it mean for the game to not only have him have the year that he’s having but as an American?
TT: First of all, the American piece is substantial . . . When you talk about, and you see the growth of American-born players, having just won a World Junior Championship again. And for a player that grew up playing hockey in Arizona, to go to the center of the hockey universe with all that pressure in Toronto . . . and have the type of season that he has is, again, remarkable, tremendous for the NHL, but specifically, as well, for USA Hockey and the growth of the NHL in our country.
What a sniper. He has quickness and heaviness in his release at the same time — and deception. So, just a thrilling player to watch . . . And much like Connor McDavid, [will] Matthews and [Mitch] Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs take that next step? . . . Brilliant hockey players [McDavid and Matthews] — they will both be Hart Trophy finalists. Connor McDavid, I’m sure, will win.
You don’t know what’s going to happen, but for the growth of the league, a prolonged playoff run from either Marner or McDavid, both in the same division, would be a tremendous thing for the NHL. Hey, how about a Toronto and Edmonton matchup in that division? That would be just absolute Oscar-, I’m sure, winning material.
SN: Who will win the Stanley Cup? Do you have a prediction for the playoffs? Is it Carolina?
TT: I do think it’s Carolina. I do. I think it’s Carolina because of how resilient they’ve proven to be in the regular season. Their star power, I think, is chomping at the bit. You asked me about Matthews, McDavid; I’ve been asked recently a bunch of why Sebastian Aho is not more of a household name in the NHL with regards to being a true superstar. Well, how do you create that? A long playoff run.
I think that the Hurricanes have current star power. They have far more depth in every position than they’ve ever had. They have faced significant adversity this season that when, inevitably, they face adversity in the playoffs, it’ll serve them well. They’re going to need some luck with regards to health that they haven’t had this year. . . . And they have the coach of the year, it’s that simple, leading the way.
So for all those reasons, the great teams that are out there, if you’re asking me to make a pick: Vegas, great, Colorado, great. Some real strengths in the teams in the [North] Division. Some very, very good top-to-bottom teams in the East. The Stanley Cup champions here [the Lightning] that you’re going to have to go through if you’re Carolina . . . But I would say the Carolina Hurricanes would absolutely be my pick.