Though it does not feel like it from a fans’ standpoint, I think there is actually a debate to be had as to whether the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2016-17 season is officially over in terms of playoff hopes. For today’s Daily Cup of Joe, we will leave that debate for the Coffee Shop and jump straight to looking at a few silver linings if the 2016-17 does die an early death.
A starting point is noting how much season is left. The 26 games remaining represent nearly a third of the season. And as long as the games need to be played, they might as well be used productively.
In that vein, here are 5 positives for the Hurricanes’ current situation:
1) The opportunity to even further stock the Canes’ improving prospect pool
We are quickly approaching the point where General Manager Ron Francis will sell off whatever he can from the unrestricted free agents. The sale will not be nearly as big as in years past when Andrej Sekera garnered a first round draft pick and recent second round pick in Roland McKeown in 2015 and when Eric Staal netted 2 second round picks plus recent third-rounder Aleksi Saarela. But nonetheless, Francis should be able to collect a few extra mid to late round picks.
2) Significant time to assess the blue line heading into 2017-18
This could be the single greatest benefit long-term for the team. As things stand right now, the Hurricanes have 3 top 4 defensemen pretty much set in Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk. And right now, Noah Hanifin is sitting in the third pairing. That leaves 2 slots to be filled for 2017-18 with a decent possibility that none of the players currently playing in those slots (Ron Hainsey, Matt Tennyson, Ryan Murphy, and Klas Dahlbeck) will still be doing so at the start of the 2017-18 season. To adequately fill those slots next summer, Francis will need to make a call on what he can expect to use from within the system and where those players slot.
March and April could become an extended try out and training camp in that regard. Roland McKeown rightfully won the #6 slot in the opening day 2016-17 roster before Francis decided to go a different direction for the sake of his development instead claiming Dahlbeck and Jakub Nakladal off waivers. Haydn Fleury has settled in, grown and generally done what was hoped of him in Charlotte this season suggesting that he might be NHL ready. In addition, the forgotten man, Trevor Carrick, might finally get a longer look at the NHL level to see if he is capable of filling a role. The range of what is possible with those players greatly impacts what Francis needs to either add or re-sign this summer. If 1 or more of Fleury or McKeown miraculously make 3 for 3 parachuting straight into the top 4 in the NHL (like Slavin and Pesce), Francis’ shopping list decreases. If instead, both players and Carrick as well do not look ready and appear to be in a bit over their heads at the NHL level still, then Francis might have a couple holes to fill at least short-term on defense.
In addition to the AHLers moving up. March and April could be critical to Noah Hanifin’s development. In short, he has not progressed as hoped in 2016-17. The physical skill set is there, but he has yet to show much in terms of being dynamic offensively/with the puck on his stick to match his pre-draft scouting reports, and his play in the defensive side of the puck is still a work in progress. But is it possible that challenging him by giving him a short run in the top 4 helps light the spark that helps him take the next step forward in his development? It is possible. And if nothing else, Francis also needs to get a read on where he expects to slot Hanifin to start the 2017-18 season.
The blue line is projected to be a Hurrianes’ strength as the team rises back up, but it is still very much a work in progress. March and April could present an extended run of real game action for on the job training and also assessments.
3) Eddie Lack
Also in the figuring out figuring out where current players fit in the 2017-18 plan is Eddie Lack. If the season ended today, I think the only 2 options would be to try to package him as part of a bigger deal and/or paying a small fee in futures to Las Vegas to take the contract or if neither of those works out to simply buy him out and move on. An extended run of free games could help in 1 of 2 ways. First, if Lack plays well, he could rebuild trust and confidence such that he becomes a viable #2 for 2017-18. (Note that I think this would be really risky suddenly overriding 1 1/2 seasons based on a short run.) A good run could also modestly boost his trade value not to a level where he will generate a great return but maybe at least to the point where he becomes movable.
4) Another evaluation round for the forwards
I do not think there is as much to be gained at the forward position. Most of the fringe AHL/NHL players are fairly well known quantities at this point from extended runs at the NHL level. There is an ongoing evaluation for Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe, but I think the team mostly knows what it has. There is also a chance that Andrej Nestrasil returns from his extended stint in Charlotte. Past that, I think the most interesting call up could be Lucas Wallmark. He was a surprise start in the final preseason game in the fourth line center slot after the vast majority of the players headed to the AHL were gone. With Jay McClement scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, Wallmark along with Derek Ryan is among the players who could be given a chance to win the fourth line center slot for the start of the 2017-18 season.
5) A few more extended runs with new combinations for NHL-level forwards
Even though they did not look great together in the first game on Tuesday, I would like to see if Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask can mesh, build chemistry and lift each others’ games. I am on record as liking an Aho/Rask duo at a conceptual level in my Daily Cup of Joe post at the beginning of the week. Though again at a conceptual level, I am not high on an Aho/Skinner pairing that would require Aho to move to either center or right wing, if Peters has 20 games to play with, I would at least take do a short trial to see what combining the team’s 2 most gifted offensive players looks like. On that note, I think it might also be interesting to try Aho at his natural center position. I have ranted and raved about how the Hurricanes need to add a playmaking center. Just maybe they already have him and can instead look for a wing if that slot is easier to fill.
The bullet list
So the bullet list in no particular order is:
1) Give Lack a run to assess him
2) Try Hanifin at least briefly in the top 4 to see if the challenge sparks development
3) Assess Fleury at the NHL level
4) Assess McKeown at the NHL level
5) Assess Carrick at the NHL level
6) Take a longer look at Aho/Rask
7) At least briefly try Skinner/Aho
8) Consider Aho at center
9) Make a deeper assessment of fringe AHL/NHL players Ryan, McGinn, Nestrasil and Di Giuseppe
10) Collect more futures to build the prospect pool or use as trade collateral
That is quite a checklist to keep the Canes busy even if things do not rebound and March and April at some point officially transition to preparation for the 2017-18 season.