Putting important context first, with 12 games remaining in the 2020-21 regular season, the Carolina Hurricanes have amassed 15-point lead above the fifth place Dallas Stars who represent the playoff cut line in the Discover Central Division right now.
Though real success will be decided by the playoffs, becoming a team that is playing for positioning well above the playoff cut line is significant progress for a team that only a couple years ago was trying to break a decade-long playoff drought.
So though I will go on to ask some challenging type questions below, notable and a good measure of the trajectory of the team is the fact that “Will the Hurricanes make the playoffs?” is not among the list of interesting questions right now.
But despite the unmistakable positive trajectory of the team right now, today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a set of challenging questions.
1) Did the Hurricanes get the right player but make the wrong trade when adding Jani Hakanpaas?
Before the trade deadline I questioned the rumors about Haydn Fleury being on the market (and was wrong) simply because I expected the Hurricanes to look to add on the blue line. Trading Fleury for Hakanpaas obviously did not subtract from the defensive depth, but that coupled with no other moves did not add either.
In a here and now world that ignores potential future upside, I like the idea of adding a steadier, stay-home defenseman who is a right shot in place of Fleury if I had to pick one or the other specifically for the 2020-21 season and playoffs. But I think the question is why not both? As a depth defenseman who is 29 years old and a pending unrestricted free agent for a team that is out of playoff contention, Hakanpaas was likely a player available for a modest price to the highest bidder. My thinking is that the Hurricanes could likely have netted Hakanpaas for a third or maybe even fourth round draft pick in which case the Hurricanes would be up a defenseman.
If the point of adding Hakanpaas was to solidify the third pairing, I would argue that Fleury/Hakanpaas would be better than either of the two current options in terms of steady and solid. The downgrade would possibly be the top of the umbrella on the second power play unit, but Jaccob Slavin could probably adequately fill that role. Further, the Hurricanes would then be eight deep on the blue line which is not a bad thing come playoff time.
Instead, the Hurricanes seem to have bet big that alongside stay-home support with Hakanpaas on the right side that one or both of Jake Bean or Jake Gardiner can be half of a third defense pairing that is capable. That bet is far from a sure thing. Jake Bean has struggled defensively of late. With a decent amount of NHL film on him now, I think the book on him is that he is a very good puck mover once he can get going north/south with a bit of space to navigate and assess things, but that he can struggle a bit when teams get to him early and force him to try to move the puck going laterally or off the end wall under physical pressure. Even the best version of Jake Bean leans offense with some risk on the downside defensively. Jake Gardiner looked much better from the start of the 2020-21 season after a tough 2019-20 campaign that saw him salvage the second half of the season with better play. But after being out of action for an extended period of time with a recurring back injury, he is a question mark too. The 2020-21 pre-injury version of Gardiner would be a nice complement and competent partner for a stay-home partner like Hakanpaas. But the question is whether Gardiner is and can stay healthy enough to return to that level. And past Bean and Gardiner, the Hurricanes depth at #8 and beyond is ‘iffy.’ Joakim Ryan has a good amount of NHL experience and would figure to be the #8 defenseman and the replacement for Gustav Forsling who was lost to waivers. Past that, if Roland McKeown could be retrieved from Europe, he could offer deep depth with some NHL experience and Joey Keane maybe factors in, though he would be making his NHL debut in a playoff game.
Netting it out, I think the Hurricanes could possibly be in a much better spot had they instead traded a draft pick for Hakanpaas and kept Fleury for now to be one deeper on defense.
2) What is the plan at forward?
Finally getting Teuvo Teravainen and to some degree Brock McGinn back in the lineup would help, but with 12 games remaining in the regular season timing is right for building forward lines with an eye for matching up and beating elite teams in the playoffs. Partly due to injuries, I feel like Brind’Amour is still tinkering a bit and just reaching for couple-game type solutions. The 2020-21 version of the Carolina Hurricanes is deep enough offensively that it can win regularly in the regular season even on lesser nights. But deeper in the playoffs, the margin for error will be smaller and the need to maximize the roster will be greater. In that vein, after seeing all kinds of forward combinations do to COVID, injuries and the flexibility that comes with success in the standings, what does the peak version of the Hurricanes forward lines look like?
Are Trocheck and Necas a pair? And if so is the other slot a good one to maximize Niederreiter’s re-found finishing ability? Or could this line benefit from a more defensive forward to balance things out?
Should/will Brind’Amour stack a top line around Aho for the playoffs? And will that line be good enough to beat other teams’ best lines or are the Hurricanes better going with the balance that Brind’Amour has shown a preference for in the past?
When healthy, is it possible to build four lines that can score regularly, or will it be better to focus on being sound and competent defensively for the fourth line?
And so on…
Once Teravainen returns, time will be short to identify the best forward combinations for the playoffs not with an aim of running through the regular season but with an aim of being able to beat other top teams.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Might the Hurricanes have been better off parting with a bit more futures and keeping Haydn Fleury to increase blue line depth for the playoffs? How do you feel about the current options to fill out the third pairing and even fill out the top 4 in the even of an injury?
2) Do you similarly feel like the current forward lineup is still written in light pencil and/or very tentative? What do you see as the cores or pairs for forward lines that give the Hurricanes the best chance to beat other top teams in the playoffs?