Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part two of a two-part series that suggests that the path higher in the standings and up into the playoffs could very well be hiding within the current roster. Part one took a somewhat painful look backward into a 2017-18 season that on average did not see the team improve from the 2016-17 campaign. Today’s part two considers a long list of possibilities for the team to improve from within as young players continue to grow and veterans who slipped in 2017-18 look to rebound.
Simply because my Thursday ran out of time before I got to this, I will do it as part 2A for goalies and defensemen and part 2B (hopefully for Monday) for the forwards.
Assuming he is not traded or bought out (which is the party line from team management so far), Scott Darling arguably represents the greatest potential for a single player to improve and pull the entire team forward with him. Despite struggling, Bill Peters and the team committed about as long as it could hitching the team to Darling in 2017-18. It was not until December that the Canes started to shift to Ward as the starter. As such, Darling started about half of the team’s games and was largely a liability in doing so. But here’s the thing…Darling is not a young goalie who has yet to prove he could play well at the NHL level. Though the sample size is somewhat limited, Darling did prove that he is capable of playing well at the NHL level. My fear is that the mental and psychological hurdles that Darling must now overcome are huge, but is it possible that a summer off to reset and a restart can see him rebound? Could Rod Brind’Amour help him re-find his game? If Darling is part of the 2018-19 tandem as expected, the room for gains over the 2017-18 season are immense.
To be clear, Jaccob Slavin was a positive player in 2017-18. But that said, I do think he took a small step backward from the 2016-17 season and because of that has room to improve for 2018-19. Slavin is underrated offensively with 30 points because he did it with so little power play ice time that is often the catalyst for blue line scoring. But his defensive play actually took a small step backward in 2017-18 with an extended tough stretch in the middle of the season and a puzzling propensity to be on the ice for nearly every power play goal against. Slavin is already a solid top 4 defenseman, but I still think he has one higher gear where he makes modest gains in terms of every game consistency defensively and takes one more step up offensively.
Justin Faulk’s game declined in 2017-18. He did not really rebound from what I thought was a tough 2016-17 season defensively, and his goal scoring prowess that made it almost worth it also dissipated in 2017-18. The result for Faulk was a tough campaign that saw him a step slow defensively to the tune of an earned minus 27 at even strength that was second worst only to Jeff Skinner. In addition, his goal total was cut in half from 17 in 2016-17 to eight in 2017-18. The burning question is if he is just on the wrong side and moving further in the wrong direction in terms of having enough quickness and acceleration to be the top-tier defenseman that he was a few years back. If Faulk can return a step or two quicker and regain his offensive prowess, he represents a potentially sizable gain on the blue line for the 2018-19 season.
Suddenly entering his fourth season in the NHL, Noah Hanifin is still more potential than performance. He did make strides offensively notching 10 goals and leading the Hurricanes defense in scoring with 32 points. But he also (rightfully) finished the season as a third pairing defenseman. He still has occasional lapses that are costly and has yet to figure out how to consistently defend a 2-on-1 or other odd man rush skating backwards in his own end and just generally is still a work in progress defensively. With his offense trending upward, if he suddenly puts it all together defensively, he could represent a significant upgrade over the 2017-18 season if he can leverage his elite skating ability to become a solid top 4 defenseman with offensive ability to boot.
With a quietly solid 2017-18 campaign, I think Brett Pesce has a good claim to be the most steady Hurricanes defenseman. (Trevor van Riemsdyk does as well though it is important to note his somewhat easier role as a third pairing defenseman.) I do not think one could ask for too much more defensively from Pesce. Like regular partner Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce’s scoring is held back a bit by his lack of power play ice time. Nonetheless, Pesce could represent scoring upside if he can find a higher gear and better his three goals and 19 points in 65 games in 2017-18. I actually think Pesce is second only to Faulk and maybe possibly a growing Hanifin in terms of identifying when and where to step into the offensive play trailing the rush, but he does not yet possess the ability to finish many of these chances. A modest increase in finishing ability trailing the rush could boost Pesce’s play and scoring and with it the whole team in 2018-19.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which player on the defensive side of the puck represents the greatest potential upside going from 2017-18 to 2018-19?
2) Which of these players do you see fulfilling their upside and boosting the team in 2018-19?