Brind'Amour's surprise season no shock to Canes

RALEIGH, N.C. -- On the day Rod Brind'Amour was named captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, he stopped in to visit his neighbor, Ron Francis.

Brind'Amour chatted with the man they called Ronnie Franchise about being a captain and whether Francis had any advice. Brind'Amour then warned that he might be dropping by for some late-night consultations if things didn't go well in the land of the Hurricanes.

Suffice it to say Brind'Amour hasn't been pounding on Francis' door in the middle of the night, not with the Canes' enjoying their finest season ever.

But the meeting was significant in that it marked a symbolic, if low-key, transition from the past to the future.

Whereas Francis was the classy leader who helped introduce a growing community to a foreign sport, Brind'Amour is the tough-as-nails warrior who has led the Hurricanes into uncharted territory: the top of the NHL standings and positioned as a Stanley Cup favorite.

He has led, as all the good ones do, by talking less and doing more.

The 35-year-old leads all NHL forwards in average ice time per game.

He kills penalties.

He's second in the league in faceoff percentage.

He is a regular on one of the team's two power-play units.

His line regularly faces down the opposing team's top units.

Offensively, Brind'Amour is poised for his most productive season since 1998-99.

"I told him: The new NHL is kind of a young man's game; I don't know how you're doing it," Francis said jokingly.

There is a tendency to look at a season like Brind'Amour's and assume it is the result of some radical change. Did he use a different breakfast cereal? Different deodorant?

Not really.

"I'm not playing any better or any worse," Brind'Amour insisted.

Instead, he said, he is simply surrounded by a more talented supporting cast than in recent seasons, when his point totals ranged from the high 30s to the mid 50s.

"You need everyone around you to make you better. This is a perfect example of that," said Brind'Amour, who was acquired by the Canes in January 2000 for Keith Primeau.

"He was the hardest-working guy before this year and he's still the hardest-working guy," coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's been given an opportunity to be a leader on this team and the guy that sets the tone. It's hard not to follow his lead."

It is such an overwrought cliché to say a player leads by example. Except sometimes, it's just the way it is. It is so with Brind'Amour.

"He is, actually, the epitome of that," Matt Cullen said.

Like many of Brind'Amour's new teammates, Cullen was aware of Brind'Amour's reputation for physical fitness and preparation.

"But I just didn't really know how good he is. He's really, really good," Cullen said. "A lot of people don't know that. He's one of the most intense and competitive guys I've ever seen. We'll be up 6-1 and he'll be on guys for long shifts."

In a recent 2-1 win over Tampa Bay that secured the team's first playoff berth since 2002, Brind'Amour met quickly with the local media, then disappeared into the weight room. He was still there when most of his teammates were showered and heading for the doors.

"He's a freak of nature," said longtime Carolina teammate Kevyn Adams. "He's getting better, and he just goes and goes."

Mark Recchi, in some ways, grew up with Brind'Amour in the Flyers' organization. Now, Recchi sees a more vocal Brind'Amour, one who isn't hesitant to be heard.

"He's a little bit more vocal," Recchi said. "But he's still the same guy. The biggest difference is that he gets up and he speaks his mind."

When Recchi was asked to waive his no-trade clause in Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, one of the factors in his decision was knowing what kind of leadership was in place in Carolina.

"It makes a huge difference," Recchi said. "It absolutely made a difference [in the decision]."

If it is true that the only difference for Brind'Amour has been the results on the score sheet and the attendant recognition, it is also true that he comes to the rink with a different frame of mind than in recent years.

Although he is reluctant to draw a line between his on-ice performance and a particularly difficult split with his wife, Brind'Amour said his life is as full and rewarding as it has ever been.

"I'm the busiest I've ever been in my life," Brind'Amour said.

Every day the Canes don't play, Brind'Amour spends with his three children -- two boys and a girl ages 8, 6 and 5 -- dropping them off at school, picking them up, ferrying them to basketball, baseball and such. The kids, like many of the players' children, are fixtures around the rink, especially Brind'Amour's older boy, who is a hockey sponge.

Sometimes on the drive home after games, his son will point out something he has noticed during the game that surprises even his father.

"I love that," Brind'Amour said. "It's those little moments. What he notices."

Certainly, his teammates see a more relaxed Brind'Amour at work and at play.

The things Brind'Amour went through, "I think they would have affected anybody, no matter if you're a businessman or whatever you did as your profession," said longtime teammate Glen Wesley. "He's past that point and he's over it now. He's more of a relaxed guy in that sense and he can come in night in and night out and enjoy himself and not have anything hanging over his shoulders."

As the Hurricanes' superlative season has impressed hockey observers, there has been a quiet murmur that Brind'Amour might be in line for some postseason recognition, perhaps a Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. There is also a school of thought that Brind'Amour deserves consideration for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded to the player who is most valuable to his team.

"You'd have to look at it," Laviolette said. "He's a warrior. He's had a super year at both ends of the ice. He's the complete package in all areas, all aspects of the game."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.