I wrote most of this before the Hurricanes loss on Tuesday night which puts a Tuesday night damper on optimism, but just maybe that makes the timing even better.
As we flip the calendar to 2017, the Carolina Hurricanes are in the best position they have been in in a number of years. They started the new year 6 games out of a playoff spot but also with 3 games in hand. My rough math counts that as 2-3 points out of the playoffs.
There is obviously no guarantee that the Hurricanes will make up the difference and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but if you are a Hurricanes fan and do not at least think it is possible, I think you need to question your ability to muster optimism. 🙂
Here are 10 reasons why the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes will in fact return to the playoffs:
1) Cam Ward is playing arguably the best hockey of his career. If Ward completes the season at his current pace, his 2.29 goals against average would be a career high and his .916 save percentage would be second only to to his 2010-11 campaign that saw him win 37 games.
2) The Finnish return. The last time the Hurricanes did make the playoffs in 2009, the Finnish contingent of Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen played a huge role. Young newcomers Sebastian Aho (19-year old rookie) and Teuvo Teravainen (22-year old obtained via trade) are playing well and only getting better as they settle. Expect an even better second half offensively from both of them.
3) Justin Faulk is ready to rise. As the young leader of an even younger blue line, Justin Faulk has had an up and down first half of the season. His scoring has been solid, but he has struggled at times defensively. He has always been a slow starter and has much more to give in the second half as both a key player and also a leader. Reports are that he could return from injury on Thursday or Friday. Count on a strong winter for young veteran Justin Faulk.
4) PNC Arena dominance. As I write this before the Hurricanes Tuesday match up against the New Jersey Devils, the team possesses an 11-game home points streak that dates back to November 10. With a remaining schedule that has more home games than away games by 5 after Tuesday, the opportunity is there to use a home ice advantage to fuel another push up the standings.
5) The rapid rise of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. It is hard to believe that at this time 2 years ago both were playing at the NCAA level as promising mid-round NHL draft picks who might/might not ever make the NHL. Fast forward to today and the 2 are united and playing stellar hockey as a top defense pairing at the NHL level. At just 22 years old each, the duo stands to be even better as the Canes rise up over the coming years, but they are incredibly good right now. The young duo makes the team deep defensively and makes the blue line a a strength probably a year or 2 before anyone expected it.
6) Jeff Skinner will carry the team in if given the chance. Suddenly 24 years old and a veteran on a young team, Jeff Skinner leads the Hurricanes in scoring with 27 points in 35 games. His elite scoring ability is nothing new, but especially this season Skinner has shown a propensity to find a higher gear when the team really needs it with an early, notable example being his clutch performance in the home opener that set the stage for what has unfolded on home ice this season. If the team needs a couple huge games from a scoring hero down the stretch, I think Jeff Skinner is primed to be that hero.
7) Jordan Staal is the perfect yin for Skinner’s yang. Whereas Skinner is the team’s top scoring forward, Staal is the team’s best defensive forward. He was the catalyst for the extended 3-month good period in 2015-16. He played his best hockey as a Hurricane last winter during the 3-month run that pulled the team from up from the bottom of the very edge of being in the NHL playoff hunt. It is winter again, and the deficit that the Hurricanes must make up this time is much smaller. When some players start wearing down from the long season grind, Jordan Staal gains an even bigger edge with his big body, strength and powerful style of play. Look for Staal to have competition but again be the team’s best player in January and February and lift the team in the process.
8) Top-tier special teams. The Hurricanes boast the NHL’s best penalty kill and a decent 14th-ranked power play. That special teams advantage has the potential to tip tight games in the incredibly busy March schedule into the win column when every point matters.
9) Players like Derek Ryan and Ron Hainsey deserve it. Journeyman Derek Ryan who went undrafted out of junior hockey and traversed North America and Europe in an extended development plan that saw him finally make the NHL as a 29-year old rookie last season deserves a playoff appearance for his persistence. Similarly 35-year old Ron Hainsey who has yet to play in the playoffs in his 14-year, 835-game NHL career deserves his fair chance. The same is also true for younger but now veteran Canes players Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk who arrived after the fun 2009 playoff run.
10) It is just time! Since taking over as general manager almost 3 years ago, Ron Francis has patiently been building a sustainable winner that relies on young talent and system depth. His steady approach did require more patience for loyal Caniacs, but the results are starting to show. NHL hockey is a young man’s game. The kids are going to rise up early and get it done down the stretch.
Who has more reasons why the Hurricanes will be playing playoff hockey in the middle of April 2017?