With the 2021-22 NHL season officially underway with Tuesday’s slate of two games, we are fully into ‘predict what will happen’ mode. For the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes, I think that is harder to do this year compared to the past couple. The past couple seasons saw a young Hurricanes team kept largely intact with minimal top half roster turnover and room for the young players to grow. That scenario twice made for a relatively high floor expecting the team to at least make the playoffs and a ceiling quite a bit higher. The 2020-21 season saw the Hurricanes moderately outperform median regular season expectations when the team was arguably the NHL’s best for some stretches and had a chance at the President’s Trophy entering the final week. But winning as a favorite and losing as an underdog in the playoffs could probably best be labeled as expected results.
Fast forward to today, and I think the range of possible outcomes for the 2021-22 season are much wider based on the volume of changeover in top half of the roster personnel. Dougie Hamilton is gone and though the team did add defensive depth, exactly zero of the players added are proven top four defensemen. Both goalies are new. And the team also parted ways with two capable third line forwards in McGinn and Foegele who rated high for consistent effort every game. Gone from the playoff roster are a whopping eight players, and with that comes some uncertainty.
The ceiling is still incredibly high. What is not to like about having back most of the core of a team that competed for the President’s Trophy and has a number of young players that still have significant room to grow? If even two of Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can take a sizable step up to become top of the NHL scoring wings, the Canes suddenly become one of those teams with not one but two high-end scoring lines and a ton of depth both at even strength and on the power play. Though goaltending has generally been a positive during the Canes rise, I still think that there could be upside in Andersen and Raanta if Andersen gains from getting out from under the Toronto microscope and Raanta can just stay healthy. On the blue line, the ceiling story would be Slavin and Pesce continuing to be anchors for the top two pairs combined with improved depth going seven deep with experienced NHL defensemen. As someone who is on record repeatedly saying that the next step up for this team will come from next steps from the young stars, this ceiling is definitely a possibility.
But at the same time, I think the potential floor for this team is significantly lower than it was the past couple years. That is not to say that it will certainly be realized but just that it is possible with changing out both goalies and losing a top four defenseman without adding a bona fide top four as a replacement. Per my Daily Cup of Joe yesterday, I think the transition risk with goalies is often greatly underestimated even for veterans. I like Andersen and especially the play that getting out of the Toronto spotlight and possibly playing in front of a better defensive team (if that proves to be true) could see him be an improvement. But as a goalie who had an up and down 2020-21 campaign and must adjust to a new team, there is downside risk in both Andersen and Raanta. Maybe even more significant is the blue line. I have taken to labeling the blue line as ‘could work.’ None of the options that could fill Dougie Hamilton’s slot is proven as a top four defenseman. Trying to hide a not quite capable defenseman in a slot that sees the other teams’ best forward lines most shifts can be fraught with peril. Say what you will about Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn’s modest ceilings scoring-wise, but both were part of the every shift pace, motor and intensity that is central to how Brind’Amour wants the team to play. If the engine drops a gear, what is the effect.
The floor scenario sees the new goalie tandem slow to adjust in front of a blue line that is no longer the strength it was when the team rose up into the playoffs at the same time that the forward group misses losing a couple players who regularly fueled the pace that makes the team go. The net could be a team that is suddenly ‘meh’ or worse defensively both on the ice and in the crease and cannot as consistently find the pace that has been the team’s identity since Brind’Amour became the head coach.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree that the range of possible outcomes for 2021-22 is wider than last year and probably also the prior year?
2) Do you see this team being closer to the ceiling, the floor or right in the middle?