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Hurricanes still coping with offseason of change as season approaches

Jordan Staal was newly installed in the center locker of the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room Tuesday, having been given not only the role but the important real estate previously occupied by Justin Williams.

Staal’s move across the room — he remained in his old locker two seasons ago, throughout his ill-advised co-captaincy with Justin Faulk — symbolized as much as anything just how much has changed from a year ago with a group that will have not only a new captain but five new players on the ice Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, a quarter of the roster turned over in the five months since they lost to the Boston Bruins in the third round of the playoffs.

As much as everyone wants and to a lesser degree expects the Hurricanes to pick up where they left off last spring in the conference finals, change has swept through this dressing room like a microburst that leaves a trail of fluttering debris in its wake.

And with all the change comes an even bigger question: Will the Hurricanes, if they win Thursday, continue with their postgame Storm Surge celebrations?

“You’ll just have to see,” Staal said Tuesday.

There’s a case to be made either way. The argument against is that the Storm Surge, from opening night 12 months ago to its many complicated permutations, was an organic evolution from the energy and spirit that started flowing through last year’s team early in training camp and never really stopped, with Williams as the critical catalyst. Resuming the celebrations, especially without Williams, could feel forced or even contrived.

The best counterargument is a simple one: The fans love it.

Continuing the Storm Surge would make that spectacle less about last year and more about the franchise, nudging it along from novelty to tradition, perhaps without the props and intricate choreography but with the same intent.

That it’s even open to debate is testament to how disjointed this training camp has been and how little continuity there is from last season. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, in naming Staal captain and Jordan Martinook and Jaccob Slavin alternate captains on Sunday, offered some unexpected insight into the timing of the decision: Things didn’t feel right, and he wanted to empower Staal to take charge and fix it.

It was a moment of possibly unintentional honesty, but the coach was only saying out loud what everyone around the team has been whispering. The three weeks of training camp felt like three months. So many of the new players have been banged up, it’s been hard to integrate them into what’s left of the old group. The Faulk trade speculation hung over the first days of camp like a gas cloud until a deal was finally concluded. The preseason performances were generally limp and uninspired.

It was a long, long way from what happened a year ago, when September set the tone for an entire season, on and off the ice. So much of that training camp was about changing the culture; this camp has been a stiff test of that foundation.

The anointing of Staal as captain, handing him the keys to the dressing room, was a step in the right direction, and his new seat is a very visible reminder that the Hurricanes are moving on from Williams. There had not been any team-building on the schedule, but with the final cuts settled and everyone on the ice for practice, the Hurricanes headed off to play paintball Tuesday afternoon.

This training camp and preseason weren’t what the Hurricanes hoped they would be, and perhaps not unexpectedly so. Williams was such a big part of what went well last time around, and his late decision to semi-retire left the leadership group in flux. It was always going to take time for this many new guys to settle in, and that will only get easier now that the roster is set.

As for the Storm Surge, as much as the players are playing coy, it feels like that’s something they want to do. It’s certainly something the fans want them to do. And on a team that lost so many links to its (very recent) past, bringing the Storm Surge back may be exactly what the Hurricanes need to bridge that sudden and very large gap.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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