We hit the midway point of the Metropolitan Division preview today with this preview of the Carolina Hurricanes. NotOpie of Canes Country was kind enough to give us his thoughts.
1. It seems like since winning the Stanley Cup, the Hurricanes have spent a lot of time hanging around in the area just below making the playoffs. There does seem to be a growing young core though. What would you consider a successful season for the Hurricanes this season?
The Carolina Hurricanes, prior to the last couple of seasons, were essentially cursed by not being good enough to get into the playoffs, but not bad enough to get a game-changing draft pick. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Canes have made the playoffs exactly 1 other time, getting to the Eastern Conference Final only to lose to the Penguins, the eventual Stanley Cup winners. At least one other time (perhaps two) they were essentially in a “win and you’re in” scenario only to lose their final game of the season. The team is also known for mid-to late-season runs after horrific starts. This past season is no exception. In the last ten years Carolina has not picked higher than #5 but has had middling 1st round picks of #13, #12, #27, #14, and #11. This past season is the first time in Hurricanes’ history that the team has had two 1st round picks. This is not a recipe for a successful “draft and develop” strategy…unless you are very good at the “draft” part of the equation. One could argue that in the last 7 drafts, they have been very good at exactly that.
As a Hurricanes’ fan, it is strange actually looking at solid depth in the system; depth that includes size, skill, and speed. Particularly on the blueline, the team has done wonders. Three young defenders, Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin, and Brett Pesce, more than held their own on the NHL squad this past season. Sprinkle in a continuously improving 24 year old Justin Faulk along with Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown banging on the door in the AHL, and it is easy to see where some of the optimism comes from. Ron Francis, whom many of us believe influenced some of Jim Rutherford’s better draft picks (at the end of his tenure in Raleigh), has done an excellent job at the most recent drafts. Beginning in 2014 when Fleury, Nedeljkovic (heir apparent in the net), Foegele, and Wallmark were drafted, followed in 2015 by the Hannifin, Aho, Booth, and Roy selections, and finally capped with this year’s selection of Bean, Gauthier, and Kuokkanen, the prospect pipeline looks very good indeed. Jeff Skinner seems to have found his way in the Peters system. Victor Rask has emerged as a true Top 6 centerman. And the previously mentioned Justin Faulk has evolved into a true #1 RHD. Add some savvy signings and trades (Lee Stempniak, Viktor Stalberg, and Teuvo Teravainen) and it is easy to see why the fanbase is cautiously optimistic.
Success to this fanbase probably means a couple of different things. For some, just taking the next step and competing all year long for a playoff spot while ending up with more points than last year might be reflective of a successful season. This would be especially true if the young defense didn’t take a step back, if the young potential showed off some scoring prowess, if the net minders were at least league average, and if certain underachievers (cough, cough, Elias Lindholm, cough, cough) took the next step that we know they have in them. This is, in essence, the “close but no cigar” crowd who may have a longer view and will be fine if the team stays on track while following the Francis/Peters plan. The other fan cohort camp, of which I’m decidedly a part, feels that this team can and should make the playoffs. Sure there’s a lot of untested youth. There’s a lot of dependency on a defense that could be set up for a sophomore slump. The overall skill level of the forward corps has been called into question. And we all know about the skepticism around goaltending. Still, for those of us who have watched this team intently, there’s a pretty significant expectation of higher quality play leading to breaking the playoff drought. It will become obvious very early as to whether this team has what it will take as they start the season on a 6 game road trip and play 8 of their 1st 10 games away from the friendly confines of PNC Arena. A 5-5 start would bode pretty well for a team that usually starts slowly and often gets worse before getting better.
2. The Hurricanes let their face of the franchise go this offseason in Eric Staal. What would you say is the identity of the team moving forward?
As much as this may sound like a cliché, this team’s identity will be excitement. Actually, it may be more appropriate to say enthusiasm. The Carolina Hurricanes will vie with the Sabres, the Oilers, and perhaps the Coyotes for one of the youngest rosters in the league. By definition there’s going to be youthful excitement. The last couple of years of Eric Staal’s leadership (often called into question by the fans) were, frankly, difficult to watch. In some games it appeared that the “face of the franchise” was going through the motions, or was pouting, or even worse. At other times you could see the “beast mode” that Eric was famous for where he could and would take over games with his play. That happened so infrequently this past season as to basically be non-existent.
The team’s identity will be shaped by a number of young players. Jeff Skinner developed his game so that it actually now includes a pretty fair defensive component. Victor Rask continues to evolve into a “good and getting better” two-way center. Jordan Staal and his shut down partners (Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom) showed flashes of possession brilliance, even going a month not giving up a goal. An ever-improving defense that moves the puck quickly and moves the puck well will be even more involved in the offense this season. In the end, the team identity will be wrapped up in a possession game where speed and quickness will allow the creativity of the more skilled players to shine. Young Sebastian Aho is coming into the league and onto a team with what are likely significantly overblown expectations. However, the youth has to perform and that will be part of the team’s identity going forward. Play hard, play to win, and be fun to watch.
3. What do you think is the biggest hole in the Hurricanes' lineup right now? When do you think they will fill it?
Speaking of a hanging curve ball….the easy answer lies in net. The Hurricanes have two goalies, both of whom are statistically below league average at their craft. Similarly, both demonstrated flashes of what “could” be from December through February of last season. Both were very good during that stretch. However, Cam Ward and Eddie Lack were also the definition of inconsistent. That inconsistency grates on the guys playing in front of you and leads to a loss of confidence all around. Eddie Lack, in particular, seemed to let this inconsistent play destroy his confidence early in the season. He just wasn’t very good. Not that Cam was much better, the number of untimely “softies” that ultimately led to close game losses did its own damage to the team psyche. However, that confidence seemed to return when the duo turned things around. Cam was particularly good in late December and early January. Eddie was equal to the task when Ward went down with an injury winning 4 out of 6 tilts including two shutouts in January. So while it would be easy to wring one’s hands over goaltending, it is also easy to understand Ron Francis’ decision to stand pat with the existing tandem. The mid-term plan seems to be to ride the Ward/Lack tandem until Alex Nedeljkovic is ready for the bigs.
Another area that seems to be lacking is a #1 center. The roster doesn’t currently have that guy. Perhaps, if Elias Lindholm takes the next step he can serve that role. Or maybe Jordan Staal proves his critics wrong and he demonstrates that he’s more than a very good two-way #2 centerman. There’s even some thought that Aho or Teravainen who both have center play in their background might step up into that role. Yet, realistically, the team is missing that true number one pivot. While that could be a huge hole for some teams, it isn’t as big of a deal to this team (in this writer’s estimation) because the team essentially rolls 3 second lines. In the Peters possession system those lines can provide some pretty significant match-up nightmares. There seems to be no hurry to find “that guy” right now. If the players continue to buy in to responsible two-way play, then this type of line construction could indeed carry the team to the playoffs. Once there, all bets are off. And that’s exactly what the fanbase is hoping for.