The relatively high changeover of players including a decent number in the top half of the lineup brings some changes to the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes and with it some questions on how some things will shake out.
Below are a couple of the top things that I am watching closely early in the season to try to get a read on how good the 2021-22 team will be.
1) The #4 slot on defense
Arguably, the biggest gap created by off-season moves was the departure of Dougie Hamilton. I actually think it is possible to replace his scoring just from a couple of the young forwards taking next steps production-wise. Bigger for me is figuring out how well the team can fill the all-important slot next to Jaccob Slavin defensively. His pairing plays most of its shifts against other teams’ top lines which makes for a challenge. While I still feel like Ethan Bear is a work in process in terms of being more aggressive on the puck like Brind’Amour wants, his conservative style has mostly steered clear of errors through two games.
Opinion so far: So far so good.
2) Goaltending – stopping pucks
Frederik Andersen’s ‘meh’ first start still held at three goals against and notched a win, and he followed it up with an even better start. Two games is not enough to declare it completed, but thus far the transition to a new team is going well. For good teams goaltending does not need to steal games, but winning with consistently sub-par goaltending is a challenge even for good teams, so the good start is encouraging.
Opinion so far: Still waiting for Raanta’s first regular season start, but Andersen is tracking well.
3) Goaltending – effect of decreased puck-handling
For whatever reason, this is maybe the most interesting thing for me with the significant change in puck-handling ability of the goalies. While I do think the ability to advance the puck quickly from the crease or behind the net can help boost offense, I also think that decreases over time as teams adjust. As I wrote recently in another article, teams adjusted how they forechecked the Canes and forced many of the outlet passes from Nedeljkovic to be received coming back toward the Canes net which more or less eliminated any advantage. But then there was also the occasional spectacular play that actually saw a goalie pass lead very directly to a scoring chance. So is it possible that Hurricanes ability to generate chances off rushes started from the crease significantly decreases with the goalie changeover? That is what I am trying to assess. In the first game, the Hurricanes had no trouble generating scoring chances. The second game was maybe a little bit more subdued, but still decent offensively.
Opinion so far: At least through two games, I do not see the Canes missing this goalie bonus too much.
4) Jesperi Kotkaniemi
The Hurricanes still have scoring upside in young returning players like Svechnikov, Necas and even to some degree Aho. But in terms of outside additions, Jesperi Kotkaniemi stands out as the player with the greatest potential to significantly boost scoring and make the Canes one player deeper in terms of top half of the roster scoring potential. But he comes more so with potential than proven ability. As such, I continue to watch him closely to see if he looks like a good young player ready to take a big step or if he looks more like the player who had five goals and 20 points in 56 games last season. Again, two games is not even remotely close to enough to make any kind of final judgment but through two games, he looks more like a 30ish-point player. My early comparison for him continues to be Julien Gauthier who showed flashes of being a capable NHL scorer but was too often invisible in between offensive plays.
Opinion so far: He has not shown much yet, but two games is a tiny sample size.
5) Brind’Amour’s bias towards balance
Through three seasons, Brind’Amour’s approach to building forward lines has always leaned toward balance versus being top-heavy and/or creating purpose-built lines like a checking line, top scoring line, etc. This is evident in Brind’Amour’s seeming hesitance to just put his three best forwards on a top forward line and also his willingness to pair players like Svechnikov, Necas and others with Staal at times even when they were new to the NHL and still climbing the learning curve defensively. And thus far it is important to note that the results Brind’Amour has achieved get high marks. The team has fared well obviously, but in addition, the young scorers have made good strides in their development. But with the team becoming deeper at forward such that building a true top line does not leave the team as thin in the middle of the lineup, I continue to wonder if Brind’Amour will break down and pair Aho and Svechnikov with either Teravainen or Necas.
Opinion so far: Brind’Amour started the season with his traditional balanced approach but did tinker a bit in the second game aiming for a spark which he found. So this week will be interesting to see if he sticks with that or reverts back to closer to what he had previously.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts so far on my five questions and also how you think each will ultimately be answered?
2) What additional questions or watch points do you have early in the season?