Well-timed maybe after the disappointing conclusion to the Hurricanes season opener, here is a collection of things I really like about the Carolina Hurricanes right now:
1) Age and trajectory
Ron Francis and the Hurricanes TV broadcast crew have recently been quick (and I think right) to calm expectations for the 2016-17 season. I could not find it in writing but Francis’ comment from the intermission interviews was something along the lines of not knowing how the the young players would react. He is basically hedging and cautious on the when, but the one thing that is unmistakable is that the Carolina Hurricanes are becoming both younger and better at the same time. That charts a great course even if the exact timeline is unclear.
2) Noah Hanifin’s shot
During a slow day in the long hockey summer, Twitter produced a short video clip of Noah Hanifin working on his slap shot. And now we are seeing positive results. He ripped a short side blast for a power play goal in the preseason finale against Washington significantly against Braden Holtby who is obviously a good NHL-caliber goalie. More significant for me than the simple notion that Noah Hanifin is now more likely to score goals are 2 things. First, his work demonstrates not just a desire but equally importantly a commitment by Noah Hanifin to improve his game. Second, the results also suggest that Noah Hanifin has the propensity to learn and grow as a player not just ride his natural ability. Both of these things are critical to the development from having raw skill to being a great NHL player.
3) Noah Hanifin starting to look more like Joni Pitkanen
In my opinion, the version of Noah Hanifin who is great (not just good) looks a lot like former Hurricanes player Joni Pitkanen. When he was playing well Pitkanen’s game was defined by 2 things. First was his incredible skating ability in all situations that enabled him to make the NHL rink look tiny. Second was his freelancing style of play that valued puck possession and created offense from the back end. My very first impression of Noah Hanifin at the prospect camp last summer as he toured around the ice against players mostly levels below him in terms of skating was the Joni Pitkanen comparison. Hanifin’s early games in the NHL looked nothing like that. Trying to get his feet under him, he buttoned things down significantly and seemed to focus on avoiding mistakes. On the one hand, I understand that there is an adjustment period for the NHL game. On the other hand, I do not want to see Noah Hanifin wander too far from what I think is his strength and a key component to him one day being not just a serviceable top 4 defenseman but instead the kind of elite player that drives wins.
4) Phil Di Giuseppe
This one has popped up here and there over the course of the preseason. ‘The forgotten man’ as I like to call him is a great model for how to build upon a natural skill set. I would have labeled version 1.0 of Phil Di Giuseppe as a skilled, dangling type of wing whose strength was offense. He has since become bigger, stronger, more physical and better defensively. Ironically, I think many now view him as a complementary player maybe of the Tuomo Ruutu-lite variety who is physical and strong on the forecheck and good enough offensively but not a driver of success. That might be accurate, but part of me thinks he has another level if he can keep doing what he can do away from the puck and then tap into his skilled scorer starting point. He was not in the lineup on Thursday, and there is a good chance that he will not see it on Sunday with the fourth line of Bickell/McClement/Stalberg having a solid first game. But I continue to think Di Giuseppe ultimately seizes a place in the lineup at some point and looks good doing it.
5) Jaccob Slavin’s first game of 2016-17
I did not think Jaccob Slavin was bad in preseason, but I did not think he was great either. Chalk it up to rust, getting up to speed or whatever, but he had some challenges positionally at points when the game transitioned from offense to defense. This is a recipe for problems against elite NHL lines that attack quickly without allowing time for defensemen to recover from even small read and positioning mistakes. I also think (wrote about it in some detail in Thursday’s game preview) that it can be much easier for young defensemen to step into a bigger role when they are in mid-season rhythm and playing well as compared to trying to go from a stop over the summer up to top gear right out of the gate to start the season. As such, Jaccob Slavin was 1 of my top watch points for the first game, and he passed with flying colors.
6) Lee Stempniak’s ability to drive/create offense
As a journeyman with pretty good but not elite scoring totals, I pictured Lee Stempniak as being another pretty good complementary offensive player capable of playing on a scoring line. After watching him in preseason and now a single regular season game, I think I underestimated the breadth of his skill set. He does consistently make little plays throughout the game, but he has also proven to be a driver of scoring chances both with the puck on his stick and without. The result should be more scoring chances for Jeff Skinner and to some degree Victor Rask which is obviously a good thing.
7) Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury playing in the AHL
As much as I enjoyed the rapid rise of the Hurricanes rookie defensemen in 2015-16 and as much as I like the prospects of Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury, I am happy that both will be developing gradually in the AHL. (Note: McKeown is still technically at the NHL level, but my expectation is that he will head to Charlotte as soon as Jakub Nakladal joins the team.) Being able to push young players down to the AHL even if they have a good training cap says 2 things. First, it says that the Hurricanes are finally starting to become deeper in terms of NHL-level talent. Second, it says that Ron Francis gets the importance of prioritizing proper prospect development over band-aiding the current roster.
8) Bryan Bickell’s game early on
When he was acquired via trade early in the summer, Bryan Bickell was deemed to be just the cost of obtaining a young skill player with high potential in Teuvo Teravainen. If Bickell simply served as a #13 at the NHL level or even had to be discarded to Charlotte, the trade would still have been a good one from a risk reward standpoint adding a potentially good young player without giving up anything significant. But thus far I have been impressed with Bickell’s ability to rejuvenate his game. He had 2 scoring points in preseason, and though he did not get on the score sheet in Thursday’s opener, he played a key role in Lee Stempniak’s power play marker by being the screen on Noah Hanifin’s point shot. If Bryan Bickell can be a serviceable fourth line forward, bring a physical edge shift in and shift out and serve a net front presence role on a second power play unit, that will be a huge bonus relative to just writing him off as a player acquisition cost.
I challenge everyone else to come up with and share 1-2 things you really like about our hockey team right now.