First, it is important to note that any assessment of the 2016-17 Hurricanes roster right now is an interim assessment. Even a single big move could significantly change the make up of the team. And last summer did save his biggest move for early September.
That said, we are entering the slow part of the NHL offseason, so taking a look at the current roster even if it does not prove to be final is an interesting exercise.
Top areas for potential improvement over 2015-16
After a slow start to the 2015-16 season, the Carolina Hurricanes surged from the beginning of December through the end of February. In March and April a combination of an Andrej Nestrasil injury, trade deadline departures and maybe just finally succumbing to too much of a deficit from October and November finally did in the Hurricanes 2015-16 season. But during the surge, the Canes closed to within 4-5 points of a playoff spot and ultimately finished the season with a respectable and significantly improved 86 points in the standings.
Despite the standings improvement and roster progress, the Hurricanes entered the summer of 2016 needing to improve to push up into a playoff spot in 2016-17.
In my assessment shortly after the 2015-16 season ended, I called out 2 priorities for improvement.
Goaltending is 1 area for potential improvement. Cam Ward did find a rhythm for a couple months when the Hurricanes as a team were surging, but when you look at the 2015-16 season in total, the Hurricanes goaltending rated somewhere between below average and near the bottom of the league depending on who you asked or which statistics one used.
The other opening for significant improvement year over year is scoring. The Hurricanes finished 27th out of 30 in the NHL in total scoring (goals per game) in part due to a low 24th out of 30 finish in power play proficiency.
Measuring summer moves to address the 2 areas for potential improvement
In terms of directly addressing either of the 2 areas identified above with summer player moves, Ron Francis did very little.
At the goalie position, Francis chose to re-sign Cam Ward for 2 more years thereby bringing back the same goaltending duo as 2015-16.
At forward there were a few moves, but it is not as if Francis did not shop from the premium free agents and significantly increase the raw scoring fire power as measured by 2015-16 statistics.
Important is to compare the mid-season winning 2015-16 roster (not the end of season roster which was already depleted) to the roster currently expected to start the 2016-17 season. When you do that and focus on the top 9 forwards who are expected to drive much of the scoring, the net result is that 2/3 of the top line, Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg, are gone. To replace them, the Hurricanes added Teuvo Teravainen via trade and Lee Stempniak via free agency. Staal and Versteeg totaled 28 goals and 77 scoring points in the 2015-16 season. Teravainen and Stempniak combined for 32 goals and 86 points. There is a modest gain statistically but not so much so that I think you can make a strong case that improved scoring is a given as a result of the volume of sheer fire power added.
The biggest potential upgrade at forward comes in the form of rookie wild card Sebastian Aho. He had an incredible 2015-16 both playing professionally in Finland and standing out in international play especially in his age group. But as a rookie, it is difficult to project how quickly and how much of Aho’s scoring potential will transition immediately into the 2016-17 season.
The Canes roster did also see significant changeover in the depth forwards with the departure of Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash, Chris Terry and Brad Malone. Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg are the 2 additions for these depth roles, and if you assume Sebastian Aho into the top 9, Phil Di Giuseppe could also be available to provide depth scoring from the bottom of the lineup.
But when I net it out, I like the individual moves that Francis made this summer, but he did not go all out to upgrade the roster and the raw fire power on it.
So are we looking at another season with mid-80s points and a playoff miss?
That is a possibility. And for a knowledgeable and objective broader NHL media outlet, I think that is a reasonable assessment for the Hurricanes prospects for the 2016-17 season.
But 2 things stand out to me in terms of Ron Francis’ moves.
First and most notable is how steadfast Francis continues to be in terms of priority 1 which is to build a deeper organization that is on a path to not just making the playoffs but importantly doing it in a way that is sustainable. That approach might call for a bit more patience.
Second is that whether it is intentional or partly a function of budget Francis’ summer of 2016 largely bets the 2016-17 season on the continued development of the team’s promising youth. It is difficult to project how much sophomore blue liners Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce will progress in their second NHL seasons and if any will have setbacks. It is reasonable to predict that after a season to acclimate to the NHL game and pace that the confidence and comfort that they gained will power them to higher levels quickly. It is equally reasonable to predict that in bigger roles with bigger challenges they will have setbacks along the way upward.
On the forward side of the ledger, the Hurricanes will have an interesting mix of young but experienced players stepping into more challenging roles (Skinner and Rask on a top 6 line), experienced but still young highly-drafted forwards in Lindholm and Teravainen who are still seeking a higher gear and the wild card rookie Sebastian Aho. When you net it out, there is a ton of upside potential that could be tapped from young forwards finding a higher gear scoring-wise.
Waiting for the blue line to boost scoring across the board
It is difficult to predict if it will be in the 2016-17 season or if it will a bit later, but I continue to thing the big jump up for the Hurricanes offense will not necessarily need to come from individual contributors at the forward position. Instead, I think I think the biggest gain in Hurricanes scoring will come when the Canes young skating defensemen begin to drive the offense by pushing pace and creating scoring chances from the back end.
Could that happen starting in October and drive the team upward and into the 2017 NHL playoffs?