Today’s Daily Cup of Joe will be part of 1 of 2 or possibly 3 going player by player both looking back at the 2021-22 season and forward to building the roster for the 2022-23 season.
Coming off three consecutive playoff seasons and even modest playoff success with four series wins, cutting lose all three goalies and replacing them with a completely new group is not the norm. But that is the route the Canes made following the 2021-22 season when they let Petr Mrazek and James Reimer leave via free agency and trading up and comer Alex Nedeljkovic, and replaced them with free agents Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta at the NHL level and adding Alex Lyon as a #3 at the AHL level.
That transition was generally successful.
Driven by recency bias, some might point to Raanta’s poor play in the game 6 loss to the Rangers and that he was the starter in the ugly game 7 loss. But looking bigger picture, Raanta played well in the playoffs except for game 6 versus the Rangers. Even in the lopsided road losses versus the Bruins, Raanta was much more a victim playing behind a rough night for the skaters than a cause of the outcome. And in game 7, Raanta maybe could have made a big save or two to hold the fort longer, but at the end of the day the Rangers were better by a wide margin in game 7, and it was not a game that one can pin on Raanta.
During the regular season, Frederik Andersen was Vezina finalist level for over half of the season before fading a bit down the stretch and then missing the last month with an injury. We will never know how the playoffs would have turned out with Andersen in net. At the same time, I do not think one could ask for more than what Raanta was able to do in the playoffs. And with Pyotr Kochetkov showing promise in a limited run at the NHL level, I think the Canes are as good as possible in goal for the 2022-23 season.
My 2 cents: Elite goalies are generally unavailable via trade or free agency. I would run it back with the same group that is already signed for the 2022-23 and focus on improving elsewhere.
Just like in goal, the Carolina Hurricanes made significant changes on the blue line despite a run of three consecutive playoff appearances. Most significant was letting Dougie Hamilton walk via unrestricted free agency leaving a hole in the top 4. Management also decided to rebuild the third pairing and depth. First the team traded Haydn Fleury at the trade deadline and let Jani Hakanpaa who was acquired in that trade walk at the trade deadline. Jake Gardiner who had found a higher level during the 2020-21 season before again being sidelined by a recurring back injury missed the entirety of the 2021-22 season. And the team also traded Canes draftee Jake Bean to clear the deck below the top 4.
Whereas the goalie additions worked well, the blue line changes were a mixed bag. The Canes acquired Ethan Bear in a trade for Warren Foegele, added gritty veterans Ian Cole and Brendan Smith via free agency to build out the bottom of the lineup and made a controversial move to add Tony DeAngelo on the cheap. Initially, it looked like the Canes would try to replace Hamilton via committee with Bear being a steady #4 next to Jaccob Slavin at even strength and DeAngelo replacing at least some of Hamilton’s scoring and power play duties.
The original plan faded when Bear was unable to stick in the top 4. He started a bit slow and then seemed to rebound only to have what could possibly have been a rise interrupted by a bout with COVID and injuries. By the end of the regular season, Bear had fallen from being penciled into the #4 slot next to Slavin to being out of the lineup completely for the playoffs. During the regular season, it looked like things might work anyway. DeAngelo stepped into the #4 slot and seemed to be good enough defensively in addition to being every better than hoped for offensively.
But under the pressure of runs of seven games against good teams, the blue line personnel mostly ended up where they started the season for expectations minus Bear who was out of the mix.
DeAngelo contributed offensively in the playoffs but was not as sound, solid and steady as preferred for a top 4 role. Cole and Smith brought the grittiness and toughness that was expected of them, and on top of that each had an unexpected game-winning goal versus the Rangers. But the duo also struggled on the road at times when Brind’Amour could not control match ups. Brady Skjei also having some ups and downs including a tough game 7 versus the Rangers also contributed to the Canes blue line being a bit of a mixed bag in the playoffs. While not bad, the blue line was not the same top to bottom strength that it was when the team was a player or two deeper in the 2019 NHL Playoffs.
The domino effect of Bear not working out had multiple impacts. First, despite Slavin playing at the top of his game, that pairing was not as air tight as one would hope. In addition, with Brind’Amour using the third pairing for offensive zone draws a decent amount to be safer defensively, that third pairing could really have benefited from having DeAngelo as a #5 on the third pairing shooting into traffic and helping generate more offense.
Looking forward to the 2022-23 season, I think the Hurricanes blue line is very much where it was at this time last season. First and foremost, the team needs another steady top 4 defenseman to build out the top of the lineup. While I do think DeAngelo could be part of a successful mix going forward, I think his skill set slots best as a #5 which could be challenging salary cap-wise if he wants a sizable raise given his top 4 role and offensive production. I also really like Jalen Chatfield at least as a #7 with the ability to compete for regular ice time. I think Cole or Smith could work in a depth role, but for Cole who is coming off a $2.9 million salary, he might not fit salary cap-wise as the team looks to make upgrades higher in the lineup.
My 2 cents: Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce continue to be a solid starting point for building out the blue line. Despite some ups and downs in the playoffs, Skjei has meshed well with Pesce. I view that as the answers with what to do past those three as the questions. Past that, I am torn on DeAngelo and if/how he fits if he pushes for a contract in the $3-5 million range based on his offensive production and top 4 role. Coming full circle to when he was signed, I again do not view him as being sound enough defensively to be a regular top 4 defenseman. I view him as a great #5 defenseman who can play on a first power play unit, help push for goals late in games when losing and be good enough defensively for a third pairing role. From that starting point, the tough question is where the budget can afford to spend $3-5 million on a higher-end #5 defenseman who brings a lot offensively. I really like Jalen Chatfield as a #7. I am okay with Cole for the third pairing, but coming off a $2.9 million one-year contract, the question is what he costs for 2022-23 and if the Canes are better off spending a chunk of that to fix issues higher in the lineup. Skill set-wise, Bear seemed to be a decent fit but somehow found his way to the press box for the entirety of the playoffs. He seems to be a trade chip based on that.
Give me Slavin, Pesce, Skjei and the best the team can add for a #4 and go from there versus spending too much on #5-7 and having questions on #4.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree with running it back with the goalie group?
2) On the blue line, where do you see Tony DeAngelo fitting on a solid blue line? Do you think he can be a top 4 on a peak Hurricanes team? What is the maximum salary you would allocate to his role on the 2022-23 team?
3) More generally, what changes, if any, do you think are necessary on the blue line? Who would you bring back? Who would you keep?