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Guentzel and Kuznetsov have been a perfect fit for the Hurricanes as they eye a long playoff run

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When the Carolina Hurricanes considered at the trade deadline how they could best position themselves to contend for the Stanley Cup, they looked for players who could score that one more goal they'd need when it matters most.

General manager Don Waddell sought and received permission from Washington to talk to Evgeny Kuznetsov, the talented but inconsistent center who had been waived and sent to the minors, and he and his staff did all the homework they could on pending Pittsburgh free agent winger Jake Guentzel. In the final 20 hours before the deadline, he acquired both in deals with division rivals.

The Hurricanes are 10-2-1 since, with Guentzel and Kuznetsov fitting in perfectly so far on a strong team that skates up tempo and can score but also wins because of sound structure. Of course, the real test is still upcoming when the first round starts April 20, with a long playoff run in Carolina's mind.

"We’re ramping up hopefully at the right time," Waddell said by phone Monday. “Sometimes you make moves that don’t work out, and we’ll see how it all works out when playoffs come. But we knew we were bringing in two really good team guys into the locker room.”

And guys who answer the Hurricanes' central question of how they get over the hump after a series of disappointing postseason exits. Last year it was a sweep by Florida in the Eastern Conference final with each game decided by one goal, 2022 a second-round loss to the New York Rangers and 2021 a second-round loss to Tampa Bay cruising to back-to-back championships.

They won just five of 13 on the road during that stretch, a trend they hope to reverse by bringing in players with tried and true success who are accustomed to this style of hockey all over North America. Guentzel is a point-a-game producer with 34 goals and 24 assists in 58 playoff games with the Penguins, and Kuznetsov was the Capitals' leading scorer on their 2018 Cup run.

Season-ending injuries last year to Max Pacioretty in January and Andrei Svechnikov in March hampered Carolina's 2023 title pursuit, but scoring shouldn't be a problem this time around after adding Guentzel and Kuznetsov to a mix that already includes Sebastian Aho (33 goals), Seth Jarvis (29), Marin Necas (23) and Teuvo Teravainen (21).

“We know we were getting two great players,” coach Rod Brind'Amour said. “It’s all about how the fit is. You’ve got to fit them in right and get them up to speed as quickly as possible for them to be the best they can be.”

Guentzel has slid in on a line alongside Aho and Jarvis and has two goals and 14 assists in his first 11 games back from an oblique injury.

“He works his tail off, skates well, plays fast, scores goals, makes plays,” Aho said. "He has unbelievable vision and just a great player to play with and lucky to have him here.”

Guentzel, who has characteristically been more of a shooter than a passer, called his assist fest "just how it’s playing out. You just try to be a well-rounded player.”

The Hurricanes would love for Kuznetsov, pass-first to a fault sometimes, to shoot the puck more. But they'll gladly take his playmaking ability at half his salary — $3.9 million, with Washington paying the rest to get him a change of scenery.

“He’s a very smart of offensive player,” Brind'Amour said. "You watch him a couple times with the puck, and you know his vision is very, very high end. There’s no doubt about that, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re excited to have him.”

Kuznetsov recently struggled to explain why he and Guentzel have settled in so well with Carolina, saying, “We’re trying to do simple things, don’t bring anything special from outside so we don’t mess up anything.”

Not messing up anything for an established core is always part of the concern for GMs at the deadline, as it was for Waddell this time. Having a longtime friend and former teammate of Kuznetsov's around in defenseman Dmitry Orlov helped, as did knowing the locker room culture from Brind'Amour to captain Jordan Staal down would make for smooth adjustments for the newcomers.

“We’ve got good leadership in our locker room, and I think the guys make them feel welcome, so I think it’s a combination of all that stuff that’s worked out for us,” Waddell said. “When you walk in that locker room, it’s a feel that, ‘Hey, we’re all in this thing together. We’re not about points and goals and assists, we’re about wins.’ I think that has rubbed off on both new players.”

One of the players the Hurricanes did not trade for Guentzel was top prospect Scott Morrow, and they signed the 21-year-old defenseman Tuesday to a three-year, entry level contract that begins this season and runs through 2025-26.

"Scott is a dynamic, offensive-minded defenseman who has consistently been one of the top-performing blueliners in college hockey,” Waddell said of the UMass product whose college season just ended in the NCAA Tournament. “He has shown the drive and dedication to graduate in three years, and we look forward to seeing the next steps in his development.”

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