If things start better and the team can build some momentum early, the 2016-17 NHL season has the potential to be a turning point for the Carolina Hurricanes. That would require continued progress by a still very young team.
There are also a number of players whose NHL careers could be at important inflection points. Do they rise up to the next higher level? Or do they settle where they are now or lower?
Jeff Skinner’s place in the NHL is obviously solidified. And he is a proven scorer at this point in his career. But the 2016-17 season is still a fork in the road for the suddenly 24-year old with 6 years of NHL experience. Skinner actually rose up the depth chart and settled into a top 6 role in his stellar rookie season that is still marks his career high in points with 63 and his second best goal total with 31. But since then, Skinner has spent more time slotted on a third line and has not excelled and has yet to stick when boosted into the top 6. From the beginning I questioned his fit with Jordan Staal whom he played with for most of the 2012-13 season, and though he saw a few turns and even a couple decent scoring runs on Eric Staal’s line, he never stuck there either. With the departure of Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg, Skinner is set to move up into the top half of the forwards and do so with familiar centerman Victor Rask. The 2016-17 season could prove to be a fork in the road for Jeff Skinner’s career. Coming off a solid offensive 2016-17 season that equally importantly also showed significant improvement in his play on the defensive side of the puck, is he ready to put it all together and become a leader of a top line? Or is he destined to slip back to being a still valuable depth scorer who fits better on a third line where it is a bit easier for Peters to be selective with match ups?
Murphy is probably the player who most people would think of first for a list like this. Last season saw Ryan Murphy get passed on the depth chart by the trio of rookies, Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce. Important to note is that this happened not so much because he took a step backward but more so because the rookies took such a huge step forward. I would not classify Murphy’s 2015-16 season as a huge success, but it was not horrible either. He found his way back to Charlotte a couple times, but he did continue to show progress, albeit gradually, in the defensive part of his game. And I think his straight line speed and ability to rush the puck is a good fit for where Coach Bill Peters style of play for the Hurricanes is headed even if it is in a #5 or #6 type of role. But with 2 more young defensemen moving up to the professional level (Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown) and Trevor Carrick possibly ready if deep depth is all that is needed, Murphy’s time to seize a role in the Hurricanes lineup is either at or very close to now or never time. A bad season could actually see him become the required experienced defenseman exposed to the expansion draft. More likely if he does not seize a role in the 2016-17 season, he gets traded to a team that is lighter on young defensemen and has a need for puck carrier. The penciled in version of the lineup for 2016-17 sees Murphy as a front runner to start the season in the third pairing. Can he put it all together and establish himself as a valuable NHL player? Or is he destined for another try with another team that has more room on the blue line? I think the first half of the 2016-17 season could answer those questions.
In a similar boat: His path to even getting a chance on a suddenly very deep blue line depth chart is difficult, but if/when he does get opportunities at the NHL level, Trevor Carrick will need to make the most of them.
Lindholm is still young at 21 years old, but now entering his fourth NHL season, he needs to transition from being capable of playing at the NHL level to being a regular difference-maker. As long as Canes broadcaster Tripp Tracy has to go out of his way to note it repeatedly when Lindholm has a good shift, period or game, it means Lindholm is not there yet. When a high level of play becomes the norm, it means Lindholm has arrived. He has a decent set of tools and plays a sound game in terms of positioning and decision-making. After some challenges transitioning to the NHL as an 18-year old in my opinion before he was ready, he has settled in at the NHL level. I do not think the next level of play for Lindholm comes from learning, adjusting or building his physical skill set. Rather, I think it comes more from things like intensity level, consistency and style of play.
In a similar boat: Newly-acquired Teuvo Teravainen is actually a year older than Elias Lindholm and in a similar position as a player who has proven capable of playing at the NHL level but potentially has a higher level yet to be reached. The key difference and reason I would not put Teravainen in the same category is that he is transitioning to a new system, team and head coach and will be doing so with a very short training camp after parachuting in after playing in the World Cup. A little bit of patience while he adjusts is fair.
By no means is this season do or die for McGinn who is 22 years old. But I do think that his window could be as open as it will be for him. With the next wave of young forwards in Nicolas Roy, Aleksi Saarela, Julien Gauthier and Janne Kuokkanen still likely a year or 2 away, McGinn’s time is now. I am not nearly as high on McGinn as his usual ranking and projections among Canes prospects, but if the Canes encounter an injury or 2 at the forward position in training camp McGinn should be in the mix of players considered to step up to the NHL level. The challenge is that his game was not a great fit for fourth line center Jay McClement which is a likely destination if a roster spot opens up. The 2016-17 training camp and capitalizing on any chance to play at the NHL level either to start the season or later could decide whether Brock McGinn becomes an NHL regular or an AHL/NHL depth player.
In a similar boat: The same applies to Brody Sutter, Brendan Woods and Patrick Brown, who are all 24 years old and with multiple years of AHL experience.
3 of the 4 players named have key roles in the Hurricanes lineup. How their individual seasons go will also likely have a significant impact on how the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes season goes too.