Luke DeCock

Rod Brind'Amour's mandate as Canes coach is simple: It's the culture, stupid

At 6 a.m., 14 minutes before sunrise and six hours before the press conference where he was officially introduced as the next head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, only the fifth person to hold that position in the two decades the team has been in North Carolina, Rod Brind'Amour arrived at PNC Arena for his morning workout. He spent the rest of Wednesday morning watching tape before putting on a black suit, white shirt and red tie and stepping into a job he never thought he wanted while a dozen of his former teammates watched from the back of the room.

That timeline says a lot about Brind'Amour, from the workouts that didn't stop when he stopped playing eight years ago to the work ethic he'll expect his players to match, to the long-delayed and surprising realization that coaching was the only thing that could sate his inner competitive fires the way playing once did, to the respect he commanded from the players he captained.

Tom Dundon saw all this when he bought the team, recognized Brind'Amour as someone who could bring the change he quickly saw the Hurricanes desperately needed. To him, as to many if not all fans, Brind'Amour represented the culture he wanted the franchise to have, just as he did as one of the great NHL captains of his generation.

And if Brind'Amour is the right man for the job, it won't take very long to figure out whether Dundon was right nor not. If this is going to work, if Brind'Amour is going to wring every drop of effort and commitment out of this roster, he won't need much time. There's nothing he can do about goaltending right now, but the rest of it, if he's going to get the most out of this team, it's going to happen right away.

This is about culture, not about Xs and Os. Which isn't to say the latter doesn't matter, but the Hurricanes were actually pretty good at both the Xs and the Os under Bill Peters – look no further than their consistently excellent shot totals, Corsi and other measures of possession. Beyond save percentage, they have been lacking in less quantifiable areas: grit, toughness, hustle, accountability, preparation, commitment and, above all, belief.

“My philosophy is much more about culture and leadership and I felt like we had a sure thing,” Dundon said of Brind'Amour. “For sure, we had someone that does it the right way. If we're going to change the culture here, we've got to have someone leading it. We know what he embodies in life is the culture we want for the team.”

That's why Brind'Amour got the job. And if he's going to get through to this group, scour out the complacency, demand accountability and build confidence, it may take him two months to do it, but it won't take two seasons.

In four seasons, as much as Peters instilled a tight, structured style of play that in theory gave the Hurricanes a chance to win every night (if they could finish more scoring chances and make a few more saves), he never connected with the players or got the most out of them. The preposterous co-captaincy, in which Peters named two players as captain he had passed over the season before while ignoring Justin Williams completely, shows just how little grasp he had of the dressing-room dynamic.

Whatever happens on the ice, there's no chance Brind'Amour repeats those mistakes off of it. However he sorts out the captaincy – and while most neutral observers already consider Williams the de facto captain, and for good reason, the job Jordan Staal did under difficult circumstances should not be overlooked – it will be with an innate understanding of who in that room is capable of leadership and who has made it clear they are not. There's no fooling Brind'Amour on that front.

“There are a lot of guys in the room who can give more,” Brind'Amour said. “There are great personalities, great character, but they didn't produce the way they can produce. We can get more out of every guy. We don't need to make any changes to be where we need to be. I know we will, but we're going to demand more from our players. At the end of the day, I think they want that.”

Now, as for the goaltending, upon which Brind'Amour's ultimate success is likely to depend, that remains as unresolved as ever. The Hurricanes hope a fitter, more focused Scott Darling can still be an NHL starter, and pushed hard to get him on the U.S. team for the World Championships in an attempt to boost his confidence. But after he essentially cost both his coach and general manager their jobs in his disastrous first 12 months with the team, only a credulous idiot would count on Darling at this point.

Something's going to have to give, whether that's a Darling departure (or one-way ticket to Charlotte) that allows the Canes to keep Cam Ward – who thrived in a backup role – or a new arrival to compete with and presumably supplant Darling. Regardless of everything else, Brind'Amour's ultimate success or failure is likely to depend on that outcome.

But goaltending isn't the only area where the existing Hurricanes roster has more to give. They had too many passengers on too many nights; jumped out of too many hits instead of taking them to make plays; and had too many players unbothered by losing and unwilling to make the commitment — in every phase of their lives — that it takes to win in a league where the gap between success and failure is defined by the finest of margins. Brind'Amour, as a player, cut no corners in any of those areas. Nor will he accept it as a coach.

"You can't fool me," Brind'Amour said.

“Some of the issues that we had that I wanted to fix, that I thought were going to take some time, got a lot faster today,” Dundon said.

Brind'Amour will get everything out of these players, just as he did from his teammates as a captain. That still may not be enough, if there isn't enough scoring talent and there's too much incompetence in net. But it won't take very long to find out.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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