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The Carolina Hurricanes Are Better Than Anybody Expected

Coach Bill Peters and a talented young defensive core have the perpetually mediocre Canes in playoff contention.
February 11, 2016, 7:46pm
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Three Hills, Alberta isn't exactly a bastion of forward-thinking radicalism. A quick Google map search of the farming community of 3000 reveals the Prairie Bible Institute as the town's largest building. In the 2015 Canadian election, staunch Conservative Party member Jason Sorensen won the rural riding's seat in Parliament with a whopping 80.91% of the vote. This tiny town is where Bill Peters grew up. The same Bill Peters who, in his second season as Coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, has quietly transformed the team into one of the more progressive outfits in the NHL.

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You could be forgiven for assuming at first that Peters would be a tough-as-nails coach who favors an old-school, "Beat 'em to a pulp" approach on the ice. But the 2015-16 Hurricanes are anything but: they have just eight fighting majors this season and rank last in the NHL with an average of 6.41 penalty minutes per game. (Or first, depending on where you stand).

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Pegged by many before the season as a likely disappointment in the Metropolitan Division, the Canes are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. In what has to be one of the most surprising stories of the season, the Hurricanes have looked like the team most likely to bounce the talent-laden but underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins out of the mix.

Eric Staal and Cam Ward are still very much the faces of the franchise, but their albatross contracts both expire at the end of the season. No longer do those two define the franchise like they used to. Under Peters, who is now in his second season on the job, Carolina has created a strong identity as a cohesive puck-moving unit.

Under Peters, the Hurricanes have evolved into one of the better possession teams in the league. This should come as no surprise given Peters' three-year tenure as an assistant under Mike Babcock for the possession-heavy Detroit Red Wings. There, Peters was largely tasked with the team's defensemen. Now Peters—a man raised in a town once described as a "blue collar, small community," and who Babcock once called a "straight, old-fashioned Alberta redneck"—is taking the comparatively radical step of letting his defensmen loose.

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The rapid transformation of the Canes is one that mirrors Peters' ascent in the hockey world: it has come quietly. Under Babcock, Peters learned how to transform a team's defense into a powerful offensive weapon. His work didn't go unnoticed: before being hired by the Hurricanes in the summer of 2014, he was rumored to be coveted by the Pittsburgh Penguins to fill their vacant head coach job. Before he got to Detroit, he was the head coach of the WHL's Spokane Chiefs. In his first season, the team finished out of the playoffs. Two seasons later, the Chiefs won the WHL Championship and then the Memorial Cup as the Canadian junior hockey champions.

Justin Faulk is the future of the Carolina Hurricanes. — Photo by James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports.

The Rockford IceHogs hired Peters for his first head coaching stint in professional hockey. For the three seasons he spent in Rockford, Peters was a sponge. "He talked to a lot of coaches throughout the league through the course of the year about different power play breakouts, different things he might have seen and he was always trying to get better," says Ted Dent, Peters' assistant coach at Rockford from 2008-11. "He was always trying to be on the cutting edge of new things for the team."

This season, the Canes transformation is two-fold: Peters' insists that all five skaters, not just his three forwards, have offensive responsibility. But also because their young, mobile core of puck-moving defenseman, led by All-Star and Canes leading scorer Justin Faulk, have responded with remarkably mature play.

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The game continues to evolve towards a five-man offensive unit and away from traditional, stay-at-home defenseman separated from offensive production. Babcock, who is generally regarded as one of the best coaches in the game, has long preached the importance of a five-man unit on the ice. And Peters has established himself as a similarly forward-thinking coach.

"I don't think you generate any offense in the National Hockey League unless you activate your D," he tells VICE Sports. "Teams are too good defensively. If you don't have your D joining the rush it's almost impossible to score."

Faulk, the anchor of the team's offense, still sits only 9th in defensemen scoring in the league. But given the team's relative lack of scoring—they're 23rd in the league in goals per game—Faulk's position as the Hurricanes leading scorer speaks to the team's dependence on him. Only four other teams in the league feature a defenseman as their leading scorer. (Erik Karlsson, Roman Josi, P.K. Subban and Oliver Ekman-Larsson) "He's going to be in the Norris Trophy conversation for years to come," says Peters.

After being largely written off before the season, Peters and the Canes aren't content with the surprising success they've achieved so far. Peters can't keep his old-school work ethic at bay for long; relentlessness is something like his default. No player goes without criticism, not the least of which being his lone All-Star, Justin Faulk. "There's a few things he needs to tighten up," Peters says. "He's going to have to play big minutes for us: 25 or 26 minutes a night. We like him better at 23 or 24. He's got room for growth away from the puck defensively, through the neutral zone and on the penalty kill. Those are the things he's going to get better at."

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As Faulk and the Canes D improve, so too will the team as a whole. Remarkably, all of the team's young defenseman have registered even-strength Corsi For percentage this season. They're being outscored right now, but all indicators point to the goals coming eventually. "Our back-end is more mobile and puck-friendly," Peters says. "They're younger guys that are used to making plays in tight spaces. The game has changed over the last few years. You have to be able to execute under pressure."

Sure, they're still building from the back end, as many good teams have in the past, but as the game becomes more focused on speed and skill and less reliant on large but immobile stay-at-home defenseman, so too have the Canes evolved. "We're not especially big," Peters says. "So we'd rather have possession when entering the offensive blue line rather than chipping and dumping."

When you realize the franchise you led to its only Stanley Cup doesn't need you anymore. — Photo by Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports.

Peters and the Canes are very much a product of progressive, if not unconventional, thinking in the NHL. On a recent edition of the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast, Peters spoke about how the Hurricanes continually work on line changes in practice. It was something legendary coach Scotty Bowman used to practice and Peters emulates this with his own purpose.

"It's actually a hidden bag skate, don't tell anybody that," he said.

Even if he was kidding at the time, the pace of Peters' practices is the one thing that left the most indelible impression on Dent. "Bill wanted his players going fast all the time," Dent says. "Very little break between drills. It was always go, go, go. That was the biggest thing I took away from Bill: the preparation and the intensity."

There is an inherent risk in relying heavily on young defenseman who have yet to grow accustomed to the physical grind of a long 82-game season. Peters welcomed the All-Star break and said that some of his young defenseman were "running on fumes."

Given their place in Raleigh and the fact that they're lumped in the same division as teams with the sort of megawatt star power as the league-leading Washington Capitals and the Penguins, the Hurricanes began the 2015-16 campaign flying under the radar, as they so often do.

You have to imagine that doesn't bother Peters. When asked what he thought about the low expectations that met his team this year, Peters quickly changes the focus of the question and defers to the organization as a whole. The Hurricanes want to become a deeper organization, he said, ad that includes a focus on improving the roster on their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes will continue to build through the draft and develop their players. "That's the way we're built and that's the market that we're in," he says.

ESPN's Corey Pronman, an expert on all things NHL prospects, recently ranked the Hurricanes 11th in this NHL in prospect rankings. The strengths, he noted, played right into Peters' system: "This is a rebuilding organization with a lot of talent," he said," particularly at defense." Under Bill Peters, that rebuild appears to be happening faster than expected.