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With a much-improved and pretty respectable 18th place finish, the Carolina Hurricanes are moving up in the standings already. When one considers that the 2015-16 improvement was driven to a large degree by the play of rookies and young leaders, the current trajectory looks even more positive. It is difficult to project if it will happen this season or otherwise soon, but the gap that needs to be gained to at least push into the top 16 and return to the playoffs suddenly seems within reach.

While a return to the playoffs in itself would be a huge milestone after 7 consecutive playoff misses, the ultimate goal and Ron Francis’ mantra since he took over as general manager has been to build sustainable success and to push up into the upper echelons of the NHL.


Need for elite players – 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes

To do that will require more than gradual improvement and a number of good players. NHL success, especially of the long-term variety, generally requires a team to have at least a handful of elite players and then depth behind them. The 2005-06 Hurricanes road a Selke-winning season from Rod Brind’Amour and a first line of Cory Stillman, Eric Staal and Erik Cole that was as good as any in the NHL boosting Eric Staal to seventh in the entire NHL in both goals scored and total points notching the team’s only 100-point season.


Need for elite players – Today’s NHL

If given tasked with picking the best teams in the Eastern Conference to emulate based both on what they have accomplished and a measure of their potential going forward, my list would be the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.

Each and every one of these teams’s success has built upon a foundation of high draft picks developing quickly to become elite players.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are led on offense by 2008 #1 overall Steven Stamkos and 2009 #2 overall Victor Hedman. Stamkos has been an elite regular season scorer for a number of years now, and Victor Hedman was arguably Tampa Bay’s best player during the 2015 NHL playoff run to the finals.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins success for numerous years now has started and ended with 2005 #1 overall Sidney Crosby, 2004 #2 overall Evgeni Malkin and third-rounder Kris Letang who shows that it does not require a top pick to find an elite player. The complementary players have come and gone over the years with varying degrees of success, but Crosby and Malkin have been front and center for both Penguins’ Cup wins.

Washington Capitals: The Capitals have yet to push over the hump in the playoffs, but based on total wins has as good of a claim to anyone in terms of being an elite team. Again, the roster starts with a couple elite players who were drafted by the Caps. 2004 #1 overall Alexander Ovechkin and 2006 #4 overall have been mainstays on the team’s top lines, power play and annual scoring leaders list.

Florida Panthers: Some might be surprised to find the Panthers in an elite list of Eastern Conference teams, but I include them here over a few other teams because I think they are rising while a couple others like the Rangers and Islanders could be falling. Not surprisingly, the Panthers are led by a trio of young stars who went incredibly quickly from rookie to elite NHL player. Aaron Ekblad (#1 overall in 2014), Aleksander Barkov (#2 overall in 2013) and Jonathan Huberdeau (#3 overall in 2011) make up half of a Panthers first unit and have been a key part of their rapid rise.

If given the chance to pick only 1 team from the Western Conference, it would be Chicago by virtue of their 3 recent Stanley Cup wins.

Chicago Blackhawks: Again we see the common theme. The Blackhawks have mostly been able to round up good depth from their system and some veterans on nicely-discounted “want to play for the Cup” deals, but the core of stars clearly drives the team. #3 overall in 2006 Jonathan Toews, #1 overall in 2007 Patrick Kane and second-rounder Duncan Keith play heavy minutes and do the heavy lifting for the Blackhawks when the chips are down.


Today’s Carolina Hurricanes

When you look at today’s Carolina Hurricanes roster, I am not sure any would truly qualify as elite. But there are a handful of experienced players who are close and could reach that level. And there are also a number of high draft picks from where elite players often emerge.

The experienced

Jordan Staal: I think you could make a case that Jordan Staal actually was elite for about half of the season right in the middle of it in 2015-16. His dominant defensive and possession-driving play coupled with a 65ish-point pace while taking as many of the hard match ups as possible over about 40 games is in the neighborhood of what Jonathan Toews does in a good year. Elite would require a full season at this pace and scoring in that 65-70 point range.

Jeff Skinner: He has stretches where he is an elite scorer for stretches, and importantly his defensive play took a big step up in 2015-16. To reach an elite level, he needs to both push back up closer to 70 points while at the same time maintaining his improved defensive play all while doing it in a top 6 role with a regular dose of tough match ups. Slotted to play on a top scoring line for 2016-17 after Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg’s departure, he will get the chance for this challenge in his upcoming seventh NHL season.

Justin Faulk: He was elite and arguably the best in the NHL as a blue line NHL scorer on the power play for about half of the 2015-16 season. The original core of his game was sound defense that was ahead of his years. But still only at 24 years old, he took a small step backwards defensively in 2015-16 and has yet to put it all together. Of the 3 experienced Canes players listed, I believe that he has the best chance to become a truly elite NHL player. It just takes putting it all together and doing it on a consistent basis.


Those with high draft pedigree

While there are exceptions, the one thing that jumps out when reviewing the list of elite players on elite teams is how many were drafted early in the first round. By virtue of struggling in the standings in recent years, the Hurricanes have collected a good number of players drafted in the range from where elite players often come.

Noah Hanifin (#5 overall in 2015): He clearly has the physical skill set to be an elite, puck-carrying NHL defenseman. It is matter of tightening his game with the puck a little bit, building comfort and confidence carrying the puck and rounding out the defensive side of his game. Because of his skill set and full year of experience, he arguably has the greatest potential for improvement from April 2016 to October 2016 with a summer off to work on things, process what he learned and emerge at a higher level than when he left Raleigh last Spring.

Haydn Fleury (#7 overall in 2014): Fleury is on a more gradual path to the NHL and is likely to spend at least part of the 2016-17 season in the AHL. But he has made progress, and his size and skating ability offer a high ceiling as with Hanifin. Despite taking a few years to even reach the NHL, is it possible that he ultimately emerges as an elite NHL defenseman? It is at least possible given his draft pedigree and physical skills.

Elias Lindholm (#5 overall in 2013): Lindholm is a bit like Fleury in that his development pace has been modest. The difference obviously is that Lindholm has worked through his early development at the NHL level. Based on his 2015-16 season, Lindholm does not project to reach elite status, but whereas some players reach that level instantly and others work toward it quickly, there are also cases of players who just suddenly find it. At this point, I think most likely is that Lindholm plateaus as a decent middle of the roster player, but it is not impossible that he just suddenly finds a higher gear.


The wild cards with less experience and pedigree but maybe just as good of a chance

When sorting potential elite players, the obvious categories of veterans who are close and recent high draftees emerge quickly, but a third category of player who fits neither description could actually prove to be the most likely source for an elite player or 2 for the Hurricanes.

Victor Rask: He is a second round pick not a high first-rounder. He is also more of a good all-around player than a flashy playmaker or pure scorer. But what is interesting about Victor Rask is his age and trajectory. In only 2 NHL seasons, he has notched 33 and then 48 points all while being generally solid in all situations. My wild guess is that his ceiling offensively is something less than 60 points which is perfectly fine for a good second-line center, but only entering his third NHL season, being only 23 years old and currently riding a curve that points upward for scoring, is it possible that despite making progress he is still far from his ceiling? Especially with the challenge of bumping up to a first scoring line to fill the hole vacated by Eric Staal, the opportunity and challenge for a bigger role will be there for him in 2016-17.

Jaccob Slavin: If I had to pick a single Hurricanes defenseman who could compete for both best defenseman in 2016-17 and also highest ultimate ceiling longer-term, I think I would take Slavin in an upset over Justin Faulk who has a much greater resume thus far and also over Noah Hanifin who I do think has the highest long-term ceiling (but not by much) because of his elite skating ability at such a young age. The way his game stepped up not down as it to say ‘I’m ready’ when pressed into top 4 responsibilities and a ton of ice time in the final third of the 2015-16 season was eye-opening. He was very legitimately a top 4 defenseman down the stretch and at times even better than that. As with Hanifin his raw physical ability gives him a higher margin for error compared to less mobile defensemen, and while I would rate Hanifin better for pure skating skill and straight line speed, I think Slavin was actually better in terms of quickness used for getting to loose pucks, recovering in the event of mistakes or changes in flow of the game, etc.


Carolina Hurricanes future looking brighter

I think what is most striking from this list is the sheer volume of players who at least have a chance. I did not even include Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier or Teuvo Teravainen who are also first round picks who could rightfully be included in the list of players with draft pedigree.

Had I written a similar article just last June (before the 2015 draft), I think my list would have been half this size. I do not think I would have included Jordan Staal who was coming off 2 lackluster seasons. Noah Hanifin, Jake Bean and Julie Gauthier had not even been drafted. Jaccob Slavin would not have qualified as a promising college player moving up, and Teuvo Teravainen was obviously not a Hurricane yet.

I think the list would have included Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner for the same reasons noted above and then Haydn Fleury and Elias Lindholm out of requirement because of where they were drafted. And that is it – only 4 instead of the 8-11 today.


But it still requires results

But it still takes results. I think there is a path up into the bottom of the playoffs simply by continuing to improve and add depth. But the next level of being a true Cup contender, team in the top 10 in the league and every season playoff team will require 2-3 of these players to take another big step upward to become part of the next group of Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Stamkos, Hedman, Ekblad, Kane, Toews, Keith type of players necessary to get deep into the playoffs and match up best against best against the other teams that do.

Which of these players do you think will become the elite players that the Hurricanes need?


Go Canes!

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