Carolina Hurricanes players facing bigger challenges in 2016-17
The Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 season will be fascinating from the perspective of seeing players take on new challenges and watching how they perform.
At least 1 rookie: Very likely, at least 1 rookie, Sebastian Aho, will enter the mix. He does so with no North American experience which makes it mostly a wild guess predicting how well he will do. Especially if injuries enter the mix, the potential is there to also see someone like Haydn Fleury play at the NHL level in his first season of professional hockey.
The sophomores on the blue line in bigger roles: The season also sees 3 NHL sophomores in Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce expected to take on even greater roles with the departure of John-Michael Liles and the buy out of James Wisniewski. As of right now, Slavin could pair with Faulk on a first pairing and Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce could be the second pairing. Wow! This time last summer, the question was how many years away this promising group was from being NHL regulars. Ryan Murphy is not a sophomore, but he too is another young player who could see more ice time and a bigger role.
The new guy: Teuvo Teravainen, who was acquired from the Blackhawks, is another new face with significant potential.
Jumping up from third line to first: The duo of Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask are currently expected to fill the hole left by Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg’s departure. Both had solid 2015-16 campaigns, but it was in more of a third line role that saw a mix of match ups and some ability for Peters to cherry pick them especially at home. With the Hurricanes other top line a little bit more of the defensive variety, if/when Jeff Skinner gets hot, he will be immediately targeted with the best defensive combinations that other coaches can put on the ice.
Shorter version: Almost half of the players in the Canes lineup will be facing much bigger challenges role and match up-wise than they did in 2015-16. How the majority of these players fare will have a significant impact on the fate of the 2016-17 season.
Trendy summer 2015 picks to be difference-makers
Lost in the excitement are 2 players also with the potential to be difference-makers. Had you asked people before the start of the 2015-16 to name 2-3 Hurricanes players with the greatest potential to boost the Hurricanes prospects, both of these players would have been cited regularly. Those players are Eddie Lack and Elias Lindholm.
Eddie Lack: Coming off a disappointing 2014-15 season that saw goaltending as a weakness, many expected Eddie Lack to seize the starting job at some point during the 2015-16, provide an upgrade and possibly even cement himself as the Canes #1 goalie going forward. At the time, such projections were reasonable. Lack was coming off a solid 2014-15 season in which he supplanted veteran Ryan Miller as the starter in Vancouver and helped carry the team up the standings and into the playoffs.
Elias Lindholm: After a shaky rookie campaign as an 18-year old, Lindholm managed to get his feet under him in 2014-15. His statistics were not eye-popping at 17 goals and 39 points in 81 games, but they were a significant step up from only 21 points in 58 games in an injury-shortened rookie campaign in 2013-14. Maybe more significantly, Lindholm finally started to look comfortable at the NHL level. For many, it seemed reasonable to predict a breakout season for Lindholm in his third season in 2015-16.
But both players missed
But despite the seemingly sound logic behind picking Lack and/or Lindholm to help lead the team upward, it really did not happen. Instead, it was a combination of young defensemen, a Jordan Staal line that jelled and dominated and a stronger second half by Cam Ward that helped the Hurricanes rise to 86 points.
Eddie Lack struggled mightily early in the season before getting his feet under him. But even once he righted the ship, he never really found a groove that last more than a game or 2, and he never took the starting job from Cam Ward.
Similarly, Elias Lindholm was unable to take the big step up that many projected. He finished the 2015-16 season with 6 fewer goals than the previous season and the same 39 points. He never really found chemistry and a role in which he was an every night difference-maker. He spent some time with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner, but that duo’s best stretch of hockey came with Phil Di Giuseppe in the right wing slot vacated by Lindholm. And when moved up to play with Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg, the line was good in terms of possession, its inability to produce anything close to first line scoring left the team short offensively.
Reasonable expectations for 2016-17
Eddie Lack: I think it is reasonable to expect Lack to have a better 2016-17 season. He can do that simply by getting out of the starting gate better and finding any kind of rhythm even in a backup role. Things are subject to change early and often, but he clearly enters training camp as a #2 after Ward played his best hockey in a couple years during the Hurricanes surge last winter.
Elias Lindholm: At this point, I think it is reasonable to say “what you see is what you get.” He is entering his fourth NHL, so the probability of a sudden break out is decreased a little. And having yet to string together a stretch of high offensive production for more than a week or so, it seems less likely that he will suddenly vault up the list of Hurricanes scoring leaders.
Shorter version: I think it is reasonable to expect year over year improvement from both players, but any kind of huge impact seems less likely.
But is it possible for Eddie Lack and/or Elias Lindholm to surprise?
I think it is.
Eddie Lack: Lack’s situation is interesting. The start of the 2015-16 season was all of a new team, a new bigger contract, a new goalie coach and a new environment/situation. The combination of changes was substantial, but the biggest impact might have been the new goalie coach. Early in the season, former goalie Tripp Tracy from the broadcast team pointed out the adjustment being made to Lack’s game from working with Canes goalie coach David Marcoux to get him to use his big frame to get out to challenge shots and take away shooting angles. There is some amount of speculation and probably multiple causes for Lack’s horrific start to the 2015-16 season, but I think the adjustments were the biggest factor. At the most basic level, Lack just looked uncomfortable and like a fish out of water at times. More significantly, I think the adjustment just did not play to Lack’s strengths. It became increasingly apparent as the season wore on that skating just was not 1 of Lack’s strengths. So by asking him to get out farther and then sometimes have to get back quickly when the situation changed, Lack was being asked to skate more and cover 2-3 times as much ice as his previous style of play that saw him sit pretty deep most of the time and rely on some combination of his big body, some athleticism and a bit of scrambling to make it work effectively.
If working with a young prospect goalie with a 2-3-year development timeline, it would make complete sense to make such a big adjustment and live with the growing pains on the path to a potentially better future a couple seasons down the road. Such a change would also be coupled with significant work on improving the skating ability needed to make this transition successful. But in the case of a 27-year old goalie who had found a way to mold whatever combination of strengths and weaknesses he had into success at the NHL level, such a drastic change in style was risky and in my opinion failed.
I am not privy to exactly what happened and when in terms of coaching adjustments, but somewhere just before the midpoint of the season, Lack seemed to revert back to sitting deep in net and just battling to make saves. Tripp Tracy again alluded to changes in approach. The results were not phenomenal but they were better.
Entering the 2016-17 season, it is easy to just peg Eddie Lack as a backup, hope for modest improvement over his 2015-16 struggles and hope that Cam Ward can match his play during his solid stretch of hockey in the dead of winter. But with a summer off to reset a bit mentally and in terms of getting back to what he is good at, is it possible that Eddie Lack could re-find the level of play that was good enough to boost a similar playoff fence team in Vancouver into the playoffs? I think it is. Just a small break in getting out of the gate a little bit better and playing with confidence early on could make a difference.
Elias Lindholm: I think Elias Lindholm’s story is more that of a late bloomer suddenly putting it all together. In a league that regularly sees young stars emerge before any kind of predictable progression, Lindholm is young but not that young entering his fourth season already. It is not as if Lindholm is a complete flop in terms of skill set and capability. He is a serviceable third line forward right now. And his power play scoring and some of the heady plays he makes suggests that he can think the game offensively at NHL speed.
It is just speculation on my part, but I think the next step up from Lindholm will come from shifting from 80/20 positional play over pure aggressiveness to more of a 50/50 split that sees him maintain his smart play but become a bit more aggressive engaging the puck and looking to attack a more both offensively and defensively. My speculation aside, Lindholm will be only 21 years old when the 2016-17 starts. Is it possible that he is still capable of being more than a decent top 9 forward? I think it is entirely possible that just when it becomes less trendy top pick him for a break out season, he does exactly that.
What say you Canes fans? Do you see either Eddie Lack or Elias Lindholm as just being a year late in terms of being difference-makers who boost the Canes win totals? Or do think both are just depth players with roles to play behind other players who are the stars that drive the Canes resurgence?