I will NEVER be the type to scrap a hockey season before it starts. As a fan, I treat myself to optimism no matter what the odds makers and experts say to start the season. And past my table pounding ‘this is the right way to be a fan’ stubbornness, there is actual some legitimacy to this as a Canes fan based on the 2006 Stanley Cup win when the team was picked unanimously to finish in the bottom 5 in the NHL before the season started.
But I am also okay with a gradual assessment of the season based on reality as real results roll in. And sitting tied for dead last in the NHL after 28 games, things are not going well at all for my optimistic dreams of climbing into the 2015-16 playoffs, things are not going well obviously. But if you start from a playoff miss, I think the current path of the 2015-16 season has been just what the doctor ordered for building past the current season in a number of ways.
Accelerating the pace of development
This could actually have been a big negative if too many prospects were forced up to the NHL before they were ready and struggled because of it. But Noah Hanifin (who made initial roster), Brett Pesce (who was pressed into action with Wisniewski’s injury and Jordan’s struggles filling his slot) and Jaccob Slavin (who was pushed up when Murphy was injured) all seem ready to play and develop positively at the NHL level. Had the team been healthy and pushing for the playoffs, at least Pesce and Slavin might have been held back.
The same is true at forward. Brock McGinn saw his first NHL action to provide a spark when the team was struggling, and Phil Di Giuseppe was part of another effort to spark the team.
Allowing a margin for error while learning
And with the team struggling in general and the alternatives (i.e. Michal Jordan on defense) not offering better, it has been easy to run the kids for regular minutes. Pesce is playing top 4 minutes, and now getting regular power play time, Hanifin has also been pushing close to that despite playing on the third pairing. If the Canes drift further from playoff hopes this situation developmentally will get even better. The team will increasingly gain the ability to hand out ice time and responsibilities for the young players based on what is bet for their development not what is the most likely to win a single hockey game on a given night.
Fueling the rebuild with players
The struggles can also help personnel-wise in 2 ways. First, sitting near the bottom of the standings could give GM Ron Francis earlier and greater certainty with what path to take with the team’s lot of players headed to free agency this summer. These players can be turned into draft picks and possibly even prospects that are needed to build depth in the Canes system. Second, in a draft that looks to be forward-heavy in the top 10, more losses means a higher selection from that talent in next summer’s draft.
Helping assess roster situations
In addition to all of the moving parts on the blue line and at forward, Ron Francis needs to figure out the goaltending situation for 2016-17 and beyond. The deeper Cam Ward goes into the 2015-16 season without looking like he has what it takes to be a #1, the more likely it is that his time as a Carolina Hurricane comes to an end. In addition, Ron Francis committed roughly half of his goalie slot to Eddie Lack when he extended his contract for 2 years past this 1 at $2.75 million. That is not a pure backup type of salary. Lack’s struggles so far are a concern going forward in that the team needs him to be part of the solution going forward. If/when the Canes find themselves out of the playoff chase, it affords Francis and Peters the opportunity to just run Lack out as the goalie for a stretch of games to see if he can find a groove and assess his viability as half of the future goalie tandem.
As much as Canes fans would rather just win hockey games already, there is are some silver linings for the future from the struggles today. And plus that young blue line continues to look incredibly promising.