Looking forward to the Canes future but also considering the 2016 NHL playoffs, here is part 2.
Over the past couple weeks since the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes season again ended before the playoffs, I have written already written a decent number of posts starting to look at what the team must do this summer to do better in the 2016-17 season. And over the course of the summer I will write many more slicing and dicing trade possibilities, free agent options, roster needs, potential player improvements and just about every thing else that could be pitched over the course of another long offseason.
It’s the blue line
But when I sort through the details and get to the core of what is important, I think both the timing and the degree of the Canes coming success will be driven largely by a single factor – the emerging blue line. While getting significantly younger with the insertion of Noah Hanifin (18), Brett Pesce (21) and Jaccob Slavin (21) (all ages at start of 2015-16 season), the Canes also improved on defense. The current version of those players could be borderline good enough to push for the playoffs as early as the 2016-17 season. Modest improvement could be what pushes the team over the hump and into the playoffs. How rapidly and how much they improve is the single greatest factor in the scheduling the Hurricanes return to the playoffs.
The blue line as the driver in today’s NHL
In today’s NHL that is lighter on scoring, the ability to defend and then move the puck and create offense from the back end has the potential to be the single greatest catalyst for offense. Of course teams need finishers and playmakers at forward, but if a team’s blue line can win, possess and create offense with the puck, it boosts the entire set of forwards. And in today’s NHL that is increasingly minus old school pluggers, that offense generation from the back end is the path to depth on scoring across all lines.
That is the holy grail for the Hurricanes. The goal is not for the current group of defensemen to grow modestly to be pretty good, serviceable top 4 defensemen. The goal is not for them to simply fill out a young top 4 that can hold its own without the puck. The goal is for the Canes young blue liners to grow to be the difference-makers that drive puck possession, create offense and decide games on a nightly basis.
Even good playoff teams are struggling to be more than 3-4 deep on the blue line
Depth on the blue line in today’s NHL is really hard to come by. Travis Yost from TSN wrote an interesting article today that pegged the (largely inadequate) third pairings on D for both the Pens and Caps as a potential tipping point in the series. These are 2 very good hockey teams both of which could win the 2016 Stanley Cup. But both are shallow on the blue line to the point where it could be a significant weakness. Already out of the playoffs are the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks. Unable to make the salary cap numbers work, the Hawks had to part ways with stalwart #4 defenseman Johnny Oduya. The Hawks tried Trevor Daley and then some young players and then a random committee to round out their top 4. In the end, the Blackhawks mostly tried unsuccessfully to get by with 3 reliable defensemen playing a huge number of minutes in that playoffs. That ultimately failed.
The Carolina Hurricanes have the potential to be as good or better than all 3 of these Cup contenders on the blue line and in a young man’s NHL that regularly sees stars in their early 20s, I do not view this necessarily as being a long-term project that takes multiple years.
Can the Canes do better and ride it to the top of the NHL?
If the Hurricanes can match and even surpass the blue lines of good NHL teams both in terms of top end talent and also depth, it could be the team’s path into the top third of the NHL. It will require the big 4 (Faulk, Hanifin, Slavin, Pesce) to continue grow and not settle for plateauing early at a ‘pretty good’ level. It will require the promising bunch of young prospects (Fleury, McKeown, Carrick and to some degree Murphy) to also progress, provide elusive third pairing and injury replacement depth and be capable of filling holes left by departing veterans or the need to let 1 of the back 4 go via trade because of salary cap issues. And it will require GM Ron Francis to work the tricky combination of player assessment and salary cap math correctly to keep the majority of these players under contract and make the right call on who to keep if/when salary limitations say it cannot be all of them.
I think the current trajectory has the Canes blue line leading the team to the playoffs soon as long as the big 4 continue to improve and do not rest on what was accomplished in the 2015-16 season. And if Francis can figure out the math to keep 4 of the key players and add young depth for the bottom of the roster, I think the group has the chance to push to be among the best blue lines in the entire NHL. If that happens, I think it easily pushes the Canes into the playoffs with the potential to move into the category of teams that have the potential to win it all if the team can also round out its forward ranks.