Ryan Dzingel quickly caught Rod Brind’Amour’s attention when the Carolina Hurricanes were playing the Ottawa Senators the past few seasons.
“He opened my eyes,” the Canes coach said Wednesday. “Every time we played them it was like, ‘Who is that guy?’ As a coach when you don’t really know the other team or certain players and they stand out ... he was always standing out for me.”
And now Dzingel’s a part of the Hurricanes. As Brind’Amour put it, “I’m hoping he has the other coaches asking that question.”
When Canes owner Tom Dundon and general manager Don Waddell came to Brind’Amour this summer and asked about Dzingel being signed as a free agent, the coach quickly agreed. The forward, an unrestricted free agent after last season, agreed to a two-year contract that will pay him $3.25 million this season and $3.5 million in 2020-21.
Dzingel is 27, and only centers Jordan Staal and Erik Haula, another newcomer, are older among the Canes forwards. He’s a former seventh-round draft pick by the Senators. Dzingel also has made the most of every opportunity in his hockey journey and career and now has another one with the Canes.
“I like being written off and finding a way,” Dzingel said Wednesday. “A lot of things happened to get here, but I’m glad it worked out. It’s so fresh and new to me that I’m just excited. I think the system we play is built off speed, so I’ll be able to fit right in and hopefully contribute right away.”
That’s what Brind’Amour is counting on. Dzingel scored 22 goals in 57 games with the Senators last season before the Wheaton, Illinois, native was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 23. Dzingel did his job in the Blue Jackets’ late push to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs with four goals and eight assists in the last 21 games of the regular season, but was a nonfactor offensively once in the playoffs — one goal in nine games, his only point.
But in looking at his season as a whole, Dzingel had career highs in goals (26), assists (30) and points (56). He had five game-winning goals, another career best.
“We’re hoping he brings that offensive speed element,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re going to rely on him to score some points and get on the board and play the way we want to play, which is fast and getting on the puck.”
And helping the power play. The Canes have had myriad problems the past few seasons and in last season’s playoffs, finishing 20th in the NHL last season at 17.8 percent, a slight dip from 2017-18. Dzingel set new career marks last season in power-play goals (five) and power-play points (11), and could help offset the departure of Justin Williams, who hasn’t retired from the NHL but hasn’t decided if he’ll play this season.
“I obviously took strides in my game and had career highs in pretty much every category,” Dzingel said. “And I got traded and I learned a lot after that. I learned what it’s like to be traded and getting with a new team. Obviously, it’s much different halfway through a season to have chemistry.
“To come in fresh into a new team is going to be a lot nicer. But I definitely learned a lot and think I’ve grown in all four years in the NHL ... and think I have a lot of room to grow. I hope I bring a lot of things, but a few things I try to do well are use my speed and my shot. That’s what I rely on most. I think the system that we play is built off speed, so I’ll be able to fit right in.”
From afar, playing in a Canadian market, Dzingel formed a perception of Raleigh and the Hurricanes that many have had: A team in a nontraditional hockey market that struggled to fill PNC Arena, hasn’t created a lot of buzz and couldn’t make the playoffs. All that changed last season. The Canes became the talk of the league and reached the Eastern Conference finals in the playoffs.
“When you come in during the week [to play] you heard there wasn’t the greatest fan base, but that comes with winning,” he said. “That’s with any sport, any city. You need to have a good product out there and you need to win for the fans.
“When we showed up, they showed up. That’s awesome and we’ll continue to show up and they will, too. And in the playoffs it was the loudest rink in the National Hockey League. It’s good to hear, and I’m just excited. I think there’s a winning culture now and everything is together.”
Brind’Amour, in his first year as a head coach, quickly gained a reputation for being a players’ coach, honest but fair, willing to listen but firm and fiery when he needs to be.
“He’s going to demand you to work and that’s how I pride myself,” Dzingel said. “He’s going to tell you when you don’t play well and tell you when you don’t work hard, and he’s going to tell you when you do well. He’s going to keep you accountable.
“He’s a coach who communicates with you well and that’s what you want. You don’t want to come in the room and walk on eggshells. You want to know where you stand. I’m happy to play for guy like that.”
And for more than two years, if everything works out. Dzingel was engaged in January to Elise Lobb, a co-host of Fox Sports’ “Swing Clinic” who has had a big following on YouTube and Instagram. Both are avid golfers — Lobb a scratch player and former college golfer, Dzingel a 5-handicap — who would enjoy staying in North Carolina.
“I like the fact that he really wants to be here,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s the kind of people we want to get and attract. He wants to make a difference here.”