With teams busy filling rosters and taxi squads, the start of the 2020-21 NHL season will be only hours away when people read this on Wednesday morning. And the Hurricanes season opener will be only a day away.
If you missed it on Tuesday, the Hurricanes had an interesting day maneuvering to finalize its opening day roster and taxi squad. In a related set of moves, the Hurricanes added goalie Anton Forsberg off waivers and then placed Alex Nedeljkovic on waivers seemingly to be placed on the taxi squad if he clears waivers. If not, Forsberg appears to be plan B. I wrote about the set of transactions in some detail HERE.
Today’s daily post is part 1 of 2 previewing the Carolina Hurricanes 2020-21 season.
If the team fails to make the 2021 NHL Playoffs, the season will be a significant disappointment.
Now a couple years deep in at reasonable success under Rod Brind’Amour, that statement is not something that Canes fans should breeze past. The team and its hockey community are only two years removed for nine consecutive playoff misses and some challenging times. To put making the playoffs as a bare minimum starting point says a lot about how far this team has come.
The question is how much more is enough. Rod Brind’Amour has been very clear from the beginning that really the only goal is to win the Stanley Cup. With a young team that is good but still with potential upside from within, I think that that goal is in range now.
That said, I tend to think of measuring growth separately in two parts. First is the regular season. I think a significant indicator that the team is in fact getting better would be more easily making the playoffs without need for a big second half push and competing for the division title instead of the playoff cut line. That accomplishment over 56 games is a good measure of progress.
Ultimately though, results are measured by success in the playoffs. In that regard, I see three levels. Returning to the playoffs is a bare minimum to avoid disappointment. Winning at least on round in the playoffs and being competitive in a losing round would be sort of an acceptable but still slightly disappointing baseline that suggests things are on the right track but is still slightly disappointment. True success would be measured by being at least close to competing for and winning the Stanley Cup. I think that could include a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals with a competitive loss or anything past that.
What are the keys to achieving the lofty expectations
Taking another step forward will require a couple key ingredients.
1) Growth of the young core
The Hurricanes did not make significant additions during the off-season and that is fine. The team is now deep enough that it is difficult to improve by adding mid-tier pieces. Jesper Fast adds quality depth and makes the team better, but the next step up must come from continued growth from the team’s core of young players.
More than anything else, the play of teams’ best players drive results. I wrote about the possible ceilings for the team’s top 5 offensive players just yesterday HERE. Does Sebastian Aho have more step up to the 100-point level that places him truly among the elite scorers in the NHL? Similarly, does Andrei Svechnikov make more step-wise progress in 2020-21 or does he rise with Aho to become one of the top scorers in the NHL? Can Slavin, Hamilton and Pesce make the Hurricanes blue line best in a division that features a ton of blue line talent? To what degree the Canes young core that makes up the top half of the roster can take another step forward from an already good base is the primary factor for how the 2020-21 season goes.
2) Building the second level
Also critical, will be building a strong second level. The team needs a second scoring line to balance the offense and also make the team potent enough with Staal’s third line maybe being a little light scoring-wise. In addition, after some struggles and roster tinkering in 2019-20, the Hurricanes need to again have a second defense pairing that is on par with its top pairing as was the case in 2018-19. In the cross hairs are two relative newcomers in Vincent Trocheck who figures to center that second scoring line and Brady Skjei who will start the season next to Pesce in the second defense pairing. I tagged these two players as critical to 2020-21 success in a recent article that you can find HERE.
Goaltending is always part of the necessary ingredients for success in the NHL. The Canes goalie tandem needs to be good enough and consistent enough to give the team a chance to win nearly every night. The team is good enough that it does not need a Vezina candidate to make it look better than it is. The team just needs solid play which is more or less just a repeat of the 2019-20 season that saw both Reimer and Mrazek play roles.
4) COVID/injury depth
I hope I am wrong, but I suspect deep depth is likely play a role in the 2020-21 season that has already seen a pair of games postponed after a whopping 17 players on the Dallas Stars tested positive for COVID. The compressed schedule could also require more depth. Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that in addition to regular injuries which take a toll on their own that most, if not all teams, will have to reach for deep depth to fill out lineups for some stretch of games when the pandemic comes calling. The Hurricanes have had significant departures in the NHL-ready-ish part of their prospect pool with the departure of Julien Gauthier, Janne Kuokkanen, Nicolas Roy, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen and others in recent years but added some older fringe AHL/NHL players who figure to play some role at the NHL level.
Netting it out
When I net it out, I think the ability for an already successful Hurricanes team to take another meaningful step forward rests with continued growth from the top half of the roster. That includes a group of 6-8 young core players who have been part of the success so far, and it includes a couple more players (with Trocheck and Skjei first in line and most likely) to make the core a bit bigger and the team a bit deeper and more balanced. At forward, I think its Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, Necas and Trocheck. On defense it is Slavin, Hamilton, Pesce and Skjei (or whoever replaces him if he falters). Put in the required call for decent or better goaltending, and growth from the top half of the roster decides if 2020-21 is treading water, a step forward or a step back.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is the measuring stick for success for the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes after consecutive playoff appearances under Rod Brind’Amour?
2) What do you see as the keys for the team taking another step forward and pushing up into the top tier in the NHL?
3) Is there anything that you would add as keys to success in 2020-21 or comments you have on my thoughts for the same?