Canes and Coffee is thrilled to add another writer to the team to start the 2018-19 season. Please welcome Brandon Stanley and give him a follow at Twitter=@bwstanley26.
Brandon Stanley introduction
Welcome to another season of NHL hockey, folks! My name is Brandon Stanley, and some of you may have read an article or two of mine here at C&C. For the majority of you who don’t know me, I am a communication media student at NC State, where I also am on the hockey team (DII Club baby!). I was born and raised right here in Raleigh. I spent a good chunk of my childhood traveling all over North America in youth hockey and spent multiple years in the Jr. Hurricanes organization. So, essentially, I have lived and breathed this game since the age of about 6.
Being a Canes fan the last few years hasn’t been the most enjoyable thing in the world. Not exactly a hot take, I know. Since the team’s birth there have been many more painful years than ones that ended with joy, or even moderate overachievement. We are almost trained to expect the worse at this point. I know we’re all tired of being one of the laughingstocks of the league and hearing the Canadian media and their fans troll about relocation and such. The only thing that is going to stop such things is winning.
2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes season preview
So, will this be the year things change? At the very least, Dundon and Waddell did not just sit on their hands and hope the team would improve through experience and development. There are quite a few new faces, and on paper the team looks legitimately better. Will it be enough to end the drought? I think we are all tired of hearing about ‘potential’ and ‘building’. It is time for results. Another year short of the postseason will mark ten years. That would tie the NHL record set by Edmonton (’06 until ‘15-‘16) and Florida (’99 until ’10-’11). Not exactly the kind of history you want to chase.
So, we’ll dive into each position group, highlight the new guys, the returnees, and go through the rundown on what you can expect out of this edition of the Carolina Hurricanes. I included “Lines/Pairs if I were coach”, since (at the time of this writing) we do not know for sure what groups Brind’Amour will put together as the season rolls forward, and also because with all the new faces there is a good chance we see a lot of mixing and matching early in the year while he tries to find the best fits. Lastly, I took a shot at how the season will shake out. I even threw in a couple dark horse award candidates, since saying McDavid for the Art Ross, Bobrovsky for Vezina, Doughty for Norris, etc. is getting a bit boring.
Before we get to the on-ice product, we’ll start with the changes made behind the bench. Obviously, we all know about franchise legend Rod Brind’Amour taking the head coaching job, which will be one of the more fascinating storylines to follow. With no head coaching experience to speak of (though seven years as an assistant), plus only an additional seven years as assistants combined between Dean Chynoweth and Jeff Daniels, there will certainly be a learning curve. However, I like the energy and style of play that he has brought to the team early. I expect Roddy to continue to demand that hunger and tenacity out of his players, and if he doesn’t get it, players who fall short can expect to watch from the press box. No-nonsense kind of guy, which I think is good for a young team trying build a culture and learn how to win in the NHL.
The aforementioned assistants, Dean Chynoweth and Jeff Daniels, were also brought in this summer. Chynoweth, a former first-round pick who played 241 NHL games with the Islanders and Bruins, was brought in to replace Steve Smith. I will not sit here and say the loss of Smith was insignificant; I thought he did a great job in recent years with the defense and penalty kill. Large shoes to fill for sure. During his career Chynoweth was mostly known for his toughness, accumulating 667 penalty minutes against a *whopping* 22 points. Hopefully he can instill some of that edginess into a defense that has too often been too soft in recent years. There have been too many instances of an opponent taking a hack at one of the goalies or a cheap shot on one of our players, but no one called on the offender to answer for it. Hopefully Chynoweth instills a sense of pride in the D, and they will make it a point to show the league that taking such liberties will not fly anymore.
This will be the third stint as a Hurricanes employee for Daniels, who played 425 NHL games, 262 of those with Carolina, before serving as an assistant to Peter Laviolette from 2003-2008. Obviously the team’s lone Cup falls into that period, so we have another member on the staff that has tasted success here. While there may be something of a shortage of experience, there is plenty of knowledge and leadership. Bill Peters had solid systems in place, but there was a clear disconnect with his team. I like the change of direction.
Lines if I were coach: Zykov – Aho – Teravainen
Foegele – Staal – Svechnikov
Ferland – Necas – Williams
McGinn – Wallmark – Martinook
This core has loads of potential, and to be honest I am probably more optimistic than most that this group could surprise and take a legitimate step forward this year. This is a new-look offense without the most recognizable and longest-tenured player. I know everyone despised the deal that sent away franchise legend Jeff Skinner, and I will not argue that the return was a bit light, but it was time for both the player and team to move on. Now, we turn to the youth, with the young Finns leading the charge. The new face of the franchise, who has been the best player on the team for a year and a half now anyway, is obviously Sebastian Aho. Now is the time I’ll remind you that he will be 21 years old for the entirety of the 2018-19 season. That is at least 2-3 years away from his prime, folks. He is still learning, and we haven’t even seen close to the best of Sepe. However, this year will be a pose a challenge as he adapts to playing center. On the one hand I like seeing him in the middle with the puck on his stick, driving possession. I do worry, though, about the increased responsibilities that come with it (which is a theme with 50% of our centers on opening night). There is a significant amount more to process in the middle at the NHL level. This year will surely have its share of growing pains in that regard, but Aho is a special player and certainly has the IQ to make the transition. Luckily, his new head coach knows a thing or two about playing center in the NHL. It’s nice to have a sounding board like that on the bench.
On his wing, we already know about his chemistry with Teravainen, and it is very easy to envision the duo taking another step forward this year and really entering the top tier of NHL talent. Aho could absolutely push for 75 points, maybe even get up to a point-per-game player. Teuvo surely wouldn’t be far behind. It is nice to actually have two-thirds of a legitimate first line, since there have been plenty of years where we essentially rolled out three third lines and a fourth. The options to place alongside those two are numerous. In my ‘lines if I were coach’, I really had a hard time fighting the urge to put Foegele up on the top line. That game in Washington with him in that slot was absolutely beautiful. Watching him constantly hound the puck, win battles, open things up for the two Finns, and generally fly around like a bat out of hell alongside top-notch talent was incredibly intriguing to me. I simply have been impressed with everything he has done on the ice every time I have seen him play since his UNH days. He really does it all. Why not reward him and give him a chance? Kid just flat-out makes winning plays. He is not going to average two points per game and have a positive shorthanded Corsi like he seemed to in preseason, but his impact goes WELL beyond the box score. Even after just three games to end last year and a slate of preseason games this year, I hope to see him in a Carolina uniform for a long time.
I am fairly confident Foegele will make a large positive impact on this team, but how quickly the other rookies adapt will play a huge part in deciding how good this team will be. The NHL is becoming a young man’s league, and Dundon has already said the best players will play, regardless of age. Will these kids prove up to the task? Second overall pick Andrei Svechnikov plays a man’s game already at 18. He works the corners, thinks the game at an elite level, has a great release, and skates with a powerful stride. I am probably least worried about him out of the five rookies on the opening night roster, as I think he has the goods to be a star in relatively short order. He will likely be eased into a role in the middle, maybe even bottom six, but it is fun to think about what could come of his future alongside either Aho or maybe Necas. Which leads to my next rookie who will be under the spotlight this year, one who is also going to be very fun to watch right away. On the power play and in the offensive zone, there is a good chance he will make a significant amount of plays and contribute right off the bat. Even more so than with Aho, though, I’m nervous about him playing center in the NHL right now. He would likely benefit from easing in on the wing and having fewer responsibilities, as he needs to add weight and get used to the speed and lack of space of the North American game. Of course, the Rask injury does not afford such a luxury. I just am not sure he is ready to fight for space in the corners, support his defensemen down low in the defensive zone, or read and react to what is happening in an instant, as NHL centers must. He is another highly intelligent player with elite skills such as speed and creativity, so he will figure it out eventually. But as will be the case with this young forward group as a whole, quite a few tough nights will certainly exist along the way. And we all know what is going to happen in these parts if the team gets off to a slow start, again. The PTSD is real, guys. Another rookie breaking camp with the big club, Lucas Wallmark is entering the regular season as the 4C. The young Swede has already played some solid, if moderately underwhelming minutes with the big club. Is he ready to make more of an impact as the team looks for a little more offense from its fourth line? His AHL track record would suggest so, as he posted 55 points in just 45 games last year in Charlotte. While those numbers are highly unlikely to translate and he is more suited to a bottom-six role, his solid all-around game and faceoff ability make him a candidate to carve out a full-time tole. This is a big year and a big opportunity for him.
One thing I am really looking forward to seeing this year is the added edginess throughout the lineup. We’ve heard the gripes about “being hard to play against” for some time, but have rarely seen it practiced. I think we’ll finally get a little more of that with Brind’Amour’s team. One of the young guns we saw for a brief call up last season was Valentin Zykov, who made some noise tallying three goals and seven points in ten games. Hopefully that solid play will carry over for the reigning goal-scoring champ of the AHL. He is one of those gritty, dirty area players that this franchise has been lacking. Most Zykov highlights mostly follow the same storyline: using his sturdy, immovable 225-pound frame to park in the crease, causing havoc, and banging in rebounds. Along with Z and Foegele, the team added a couple more similarly-styled, physical players in Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook this summer. While Martinook provides more of a versatile, penalty-killing fourth line grinder type, Ferland is actually a relatively skilled power forward that spent much of last year playing on the top line in Calgary with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. I would like to see him play next to Necas, partially because of his finishing ability next to a playmaking center like Marty, but also because we need someone that is going to step up and protect the kid when the PK Subbans or Tom Wilsons of the world take their runs. Ferland threw some thundering hits in the preseason and showed a willingness to stand up for his teammates and drop the gloves as well. He is going to add a much-needed presence as a big hitter who can also really play.
Lastly, we have the returning veteran section. Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn do not really jump in the mind when one thinks of players who would qualify as “grizzled veterans”, but when taking their teammates into consideration this is probably the most logical spot for them. Getting another 15+ goal season from McGinn in a depth role would be a big boon to what looks to be a deeper team, along with his solid physical play and penalty killing. I hate to see Di Giuseppe on the outside looking in after he looked great to end last year as well as in the preseason, but I do not see him making the opening night lineup over any of the above players. We do know that he has the talent to make a positive impact, so it is nice to have that kind of solid depth at the ready (and in Charlotte with guys like Kuokkanen, Maenalanen, Roy, etc.) to call upon when injuries inevitably strike. We all know by now what Jordan Staal brings to this team. We saw a glaring example of just how important he is when he dealt with the incredible tragedy of losing his infant daughter last season, an occurrence that still breaks my heart every time I think of it. He looked to have some pep in his step this preseason. The 30 year-old center can be counted on to provide his usual spectacular two-way play, around 20 goals, and 45 points or so. With the talented youngsters around him, maybe he even sees a slight uptick in those numbers. There are some interesting line combinations to put next to him. I think we will likely see Justin Williams, as they looked fantastic and dominated possession together at times this preseason, along with one of the rookies. Speaking of Williams, the new captain also looked energized and a good ten years younger than his birth date suggests this preseason. With proven winners leading this team as coach and captain, the leadership that seemed to be lacking last season looks to be in place. I think they will command the respect of the room and teach these kids how to succeed in the NHL.
Pairs if I were coach:
Slavin – Hamilton
De Haan – Pesce
Van Riemsdyk – Faulk
Doesn’t take a genius to identify the strength of this team. I will put that top six up against any in the league, save for maybe Nashville. It is a bit tough to leave Haydn Fleury out, as I thought he looked much quicker and more comfortable this preseason. Sometimes there simply is not room for a deserving player when a team has solid depth. I am just glad the Hurricanes are in such a situation. Too often in recent years we were instead reaching out of desperation for mediocre players that did not necessarily deserve it. Things really are looking up, and this depth is one of the ways that improvement is visible. The great part about that top seven is that they are largely interchangeable; in the event Slavin and Hamilton do not mesh, you have a great pairing that is known to work to fall back on with Slavin and Pesce. In that case, Hamilton and de Haan seem like a solid match, with Dougie having the ability to roam and jump in the play with a responsible, stay-at-home partner to cover for him. This defense is nasty, and is going to be a lot of fun to watch.
The big-get of the summer in the blockbuster deal with Calgary, Hamilton is one of the best defensemen who has ever donned a Hurricanes jersey. He is an elite offensive defenseman, posting double digit goals each of the last four seasons, including 17 last year. That mark was tied with Victor Hedman and Ivan Provorov for most in the league among defensemen. He has an absolute cannon and is deadly quarterbacking a power play. I also love that this slides Faulk into a one-timing position off the Dougie’s left on the man advantage, similarly to how Washington uses Ovechkin, and I think this addition could actually jump start Justin and lead to something of a bounce-back offensive year (ironic, because I originally thought the Hamilton deal likely signaled the end of Faulk’s tenure in Raleigh). Dougie uses his long reach and 6’6 frame quite well, and while he isn’t the most physical player, is certainly capable of delivering his share of bone-crushing checks. I also think the addition of Hamilton could lead to a big breakout year for Slavin that’ll inform the rest of the league just how good he truly is. We all know about the big Coloradan, but considering our lack of national coverage he is a pretty well-kept secret. Hamilton could change that. There has always been a significant amount more offensive potential in Slavin, and with a truly elite partner next to him (possibly, at least, since nothing is set in stone as of yet) for the first time, this could be the year he jumps into the Norris conversation.
On paper, Brett Pesce and free agent pickup Calvin de Haan makes for one of the better shutdown pairings in the league. Their proclivity for blocking shots is superb, and both of these guys are well-known for their ability to shut down opposing rushes and quickly get the puck moving back up the ice. There isn’t a ton of offensive upside here, but you could comfortably send this duo out for 20-22 tough minutes every night and come out just fine. The only question we have here is health, as de Haan has only played all more than 72 games in a season once in his five NHL seasons. That includes 33 last year in Long Island, as shoulder surgery shut him down for the season in December. Pesce missed the final 17 games of last year as well, and had a shoulder surgery of his own summer. Additionally, he reportedly was dealing with an illness this summer, but he seems to be back to 100% now. Pesce has been a remarkably solid presence on the Canes blue line the last few years despite his age and inexperience, and he is another young player with a potential higher level in him that could take a step forward in 2018-19.
One of the more interesting story lines to me is which Justin Faulk we are going to get this year. Are there really even two versions of Faulk anymore, or is the slow-footed, defensively inept player we’ve seen the last couple years just who he truly is? I do not believe that, but this year could go a long way in determining his long-term value. With just two seasons left before he hits unrestricted free agency, coming out of a very competitive camp with multiple options waiting behind him should he falter, and having been the topic of trade rumors for some time now, we should see Faulk come out firing. When he’s at his best, he’s a bruiser on the back-end who is firing the puck on net from all angles and moving the puck crisply and confidently. He’s the longest-tenured defenseman on the team, and while this defense could still be very good without him, it could be unbelievable if he turned back into the Faulk of old. With Fleury and van Riemsdyk rock-solid options already, and Bean and McKeown getting close as well, it is now or never for Justin.
This was always going to be question mark #1 with this team. Probably questions #2-#4 as well. I really liked what I saw out of Darling this summer. Good on him for making a concerted effort to re-shape his body and not repeat the travesties of 2017-18. He looked very sharp in the preseason, too. He was confident handling the puck and stood tall in his crease. While he was scrambling a bit at times and seemed to occasionally be fighting the puck, he made it work. Results matter, and hopefully Scott can build off of what was a very promising preseason. If the hockey gods are just, the lower body injury suffered in the finale won’t linger, and he can get back on the ice for his redemption season in as soon as possible. The injury has been described as a “concern”, although not especially serious, and he is expected to miss a few weeks. In the meantime, we will turn to another goaltending gamble in the form of Petr Mrazek. Like Darling, there is good tape out there on Mrazek. He has succeeded in the NHL before. What’s more, unlike Darling, that success actually came in a starting role. He’s a highly athletic but small netminder who battles hard and has confidence in his abilities, but he is not even close to a sure thing. He wasn’t great playing behind a bad team in Detroit, then was worse in a small sample size in Philadelphia. He signed a one-year, prove-it deal, and is determined to show that he is, in fact, a starting-caliber NHL goalie. Here’s hoping.
After the Darling injury, it was announced that 35-year old Curtis McElhinney was picked up on waivers after being cut by Toronto. The veteran journeyman is coming off a very solid season (albeit a very small sample size) where he posted a .934 save percentage with a 2.14 goals against average. That marks the third straight season he posted a save percentage north of .914, which is a number the Hurricanes haven’t seen out of a starting goalie since Cam Ward in 2011-12. Also, he posted those numbers behind a Toronto defense that was… Not great. Certainly not the group he will have in front of him in Carolina. However, he has only played 39 total games in the last three years, and his career numbers paint a less rosy picture at 2.86 GAA/.909 SV%. He will likely only be needed for a handful of games if things go according to plan (knock on wood), but hopefully he can continue to provide the steady play of recent years while Darling recovers.
The good news is, behind a stacked Canes defense, it is well within the realm of possibility that at least one – maybe even both if things get weird – of Darling and Mrazek bounce back and provide the stability this team is desperate for. Average goaltending. That is all that above lineup needs. There is a significant range of outcomes for the 2018-19 Hurricanes, as there is with any team so reliant on youth. Not to mention the NHL is unpredictable in general; strange things happen with injuries, breakouts, slumps, you name it. But at the end of the day, this season will likely fall on the shoulders of the two (well, three) men highlighted here.
The Bottom Line
If you saw or attended the last preseason game you know this year has a different feel to it. I have not seen PNC that lively in quite some time, and for a preseason game? Awesome stuff. It has not been that long since we had one of the rowdiest buildings in the league. I think it will get back to being that in the Dundon-Brind’Amour era. There may a good deal of uncertainty with this team due to youth and goaltending, but there is also as much talent as we have had in some time. Maybe ever. The Hurricanes play in a tough division. The reigning champs in DC aren’t going anywhere as long as Ovi, Backstrom, and Holtby are in town. Ditto for Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin, and co. The Canes will have to battle it out with a very good Columbus team, another team on the rise in Philadelphia, and a young New Jersey team determined to show that last season wasn’t a fluke. I can’t tell you this will be the year we Raise Up (sorry), but I’m as excited to see how it shakes out as I’ve been in years. This team is going to be good. Very good.
It just may not be in 2018-19.
2018-19 NHL predictions
Oh, almost forgot. What’s the point a season preview without an absolutely, positively sure-to-be 100% accurate prediction?
Pittsburgh – (48-25-9) 105 points Dark Horse Award Candidates
Washington – (46-26-10) 102 points Art Ross: Mikko Rantanen (COL)
Columbus – (45-29-8) 98 points Rocket Richard: Brock Boeser (VAN)
Carolina – (43-28-11) 97 points, WC1 Lindsay: Aleksander Barkov (FLA)
Philadelphia – (43-30-9) 95 points, WC2 Norris: Matt Dumba (MIN)
New Jersey – (41-33-8) 90 points Jack Adams: RBA, Duh.
New York Rangers – (37-35-10) 84 points Calder: Dominik Kahun (CHI)
New York Islanders – (32-41-9) 73 points Vezina: John Gibson (ANA)
My best guess, both WC slots come from this division, as the Canes, Philly, and NJ will probably battle it out with Boston to get in. Florida, Toronto, and the Lightning are my picks to get in from the Atlantic. Here I have the Flyers narrowly edging Boston for that last spot.
But most importantly, I truly think this is the year things change here in the Triangle. This franchise will begin to dig out of the doldrums of the league, and start the journey back to respectability.
And one of these years I predict the drought to end it just has to actually come to fruition. Right?