Today’s Daily Cup of Joe has a similar theme as my Daily Cup of Joe from Tuesday that looked at the 2020-21 Canes roster from a high level. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe makes a short list of players who offer the most upside (and potential risk as the flip side) looking forward into the 2020-21 season.
Alex Nedeljkovic (if he sticks at the NHL level as I expect for the 2020-21 season)
If the Hurricanes make room for Alex Nedeljkovic at the NHL level for the 2020-21 season as I expect, he represents both significant upside and risk at the same time. Recent times in the NHL have seen many rookie or young goalies be given an opportunity, seize it and boost an entire team. Jordan Binnington is top of the list, but in addition Elvis Merzlikins has capitalized on Sergei Bobrovsky’s departure in Columbus, Carter Hart has burst onto the scene in Philadelphia, Tristan Jarry has risen up in Pittsburgh, Pavel Francouz has challenged in Colorado, Ilya Samsonov has done the same in Washington and Igor Shesterikin has accelerated the transition to the next generation. At least 25 percent of the NHL had goalies who were not even in the mix two years ago lead the way. So with Nedeljkovic, the upside is the potential that he is part of a revolution in the crease which increasingly seems to be a young man’s position. The downside is that the Canes clear space for him only to learn that he is not ready. In today’s NHL, a #2 goalie is generally expected to shoulder about one-third of the starts. And in both of the past two seasons, Petr Mrazek has required help manning the crease especially early in seasons. So if Nedeljkovic is unable to rise to the occasion, he could represent a significant downgrade compared to significant roles played by Curtis McElhinney and James Reimer over the past two seasons.
If one figures that Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce will return from injury and play at their normal levels, the Canes are three deep in terms of bona fide top 4 defensemen. But to make the math work, they need one more. The team definitely has potential options in this regard, but also a bit of uncertainty.
Based on his acquisition cost which was a first-round draft pick, one would figure that the intent was for Brady Skjei to play in a top 4 slot or at least be capable of it while slotting as #5 defenseman on a deep blue line. In a limited audition before the suspension of the 2019-20 NHL season, Skjei has been a mixed bag in my book. He very clearly has the physical skill set as a big, agile, mobile defenseman. But so far the negative-leaning version of the scouting report on him has proven true too. He seems prone to an occasional ‘oops’ which is not a great recipe for a top 4 defenseman. I would expect that when Brett Pesce is back in the lineup that Skjei will get a first chance to pair with him. Could Pesce be the perfect complementary partner for Skjei as a stalwart stay-home defender who can erase occasional errors and allow Skjei to thrive as a bit of a roamer.
After a tough and extended acclimation period in a Hurricanes uniform, Gardiner has been better of late and has at at least found the offensive part of his game. But telling also is the fact that the Hurricanes are down two top 4 defensemen, and Gardiner is still slotted in the third pairing. On a deep blue line, I think it is possible that Gardiner adds value as a competent #5 defenseman who boosts scoring. But it is also possible that Gardiner finds a higher gear and adds more offensive punch to the top 4 on defense.
Thus far, the player who has most capitalized and benefited from the Canes injury woes on the blue line has been Haydn Fleury. His minutes are up significantly. He is in a top 4 role. And he is playing the best hockey of his career at the NHL level. Just when many were giving up hope for Fleury to ever be more than a depth defenseman, might be be taking the next step? The evidence is favorable, but the sample size is small. He is the third of three options who could provide upside for the entire team if he wins a top 4 slot and excels in that role.
In different ways, I have clamored for another playmaking/scoring leaning center. With Jordan Staal being limited offensively, the Hurricanes could benefit from having two scoring lines around him. The top line anchored by Sebastian Aho makes one, but finding a second consistent scoring line has proven elusive. Dzingel/Haula/Necas looked good early but ultimately fizzled. Lucas Wallmark developed into flexible top 9 center but in my opinion was never the player to drive a second scoring line. That puts the Hurricanes still looking for this elusive skill set that would be pricey to add via free agency.
The Hurricanes gave up two NHL centers in Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark and also two mid-tier futures to obtain Vincent Trocheck via trade from the Florida panthers. Based on that trade cost and also his salary, the intent is obviously for Trocheck to be a key player in a top 9 role. He brings a skill set that matches Brind’Amour’s system as a hard-charging forward with some playmaking ability. His start with the Hurricanes has been a bit slow, but it is too early to pass judgment on Trocheck. He figures to get every chance to play in a middle six role with wings who should be capable of scoring. As such, he represents the next try for the Hurricanes to find a centerpiece for a second scoring line.
Martin Necas was having a solid rookie season when it was abruptly halted. His 36 points in 64 games which represents about a 40-point pace is not eye-popping, but he reminds me a bit of Andrei Svechnikovo’s rookie season in 2018-19. Svechnikov went from a similarly modest 37 points in his rookie campaign to a big step up and 70ish-point pace in his second season. Like Svechnikov, Necas has shown flashes of the skill necessary to post big numbers at the NHL level. And as he has grown comfortable at the NHL level, his elite skating has started to show. Necas is playing right wing in 2019-20 but is a natural center with playmaking ability and mobility. Is it possible that makes it back to center and becomes the the two in a one-two punch for offense at the center position?
Morgan Geekie is the interesting wild card. A couple weeks ago, he was an AHLer with promise but nowhere close to even being in the conversation. What a difference a couple of huge games to kick off his NHL career makes. A trajectory that smooths for his fast start suggests that Geekie more likely settles into a depth role with power play ice time somewhat similar to how Wallmark did. But sometimes players just rise to the occasion, play at a high level and excel from there. So until Geekie shows that he cannot, I would not count him out of anything right now.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the three roles (backup goalie, #4 defenseman, scoring catalyst center) I identified as potential upsides and risks for the 2020-21 season?
2) Which, if any, of the players that I identified do you think will rise up to fill these important roles?