The Hurricanes are 4-4-2 at ten games into the 2017-18 season. That treading water pace is neither good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to rule them out if the team can rise even modestly.
If one breaks the long NHL season down into 10-game segments, the Hurricanes’ season is officially at mile post one of eight which makes it an interesting time to do at least an early evaluation on Ron Francis’ and to a lesser degree Bill Peters’ (figuring he had some input) summer work.
An interesting question is asking whether the play of the team thus far reflects what one would expect given the moves that Ron Francis made. I think it does for the most part.
Room for improvement coming out of the 2016-17 season
Coming out of the 2016-17 season, I would have ranked the areas for potential improvement as follows:
3) The second pairing on defense
4) The third pairing on defense
5) Depth forwards
What Francis did in each area
What Francis did: Francis made arguably as strong of a move as possible to address his top priority – goaltending. Scott Darling was in the top tier of netminders thought to be available. Darling just needs to settle in and find a higher gear, ideally with the help of a defense that tightens up a little.
Evaluation through ten games: The addition of Scott Darling has not really paid dividends through ten games. He has been ‘meh’ at best thus far. Some patience is in order, but Darling must find a higher gear to provide the boost that was expected.
What Francis did: The Hurricanes did add forwards who could improve the team, but he did not add a true scoring catalyst. Instead, he added Justin Williams who is a very good player, is capable of providing higher-end depth scoring and is a great two-way player. But likely due to market prices, Francis did not add the scoring catalyst that the team needed to move up significantly from finishing 21st in the NHL in scoring for the 2016-17 season.
Evaluation through ten games: Maybe not surprisingly, the Hurricanes are 23rd in the NHL in scoring after not making a significant addition capable of serving as an offensive catalyst for a top-end scoring line. Until the team finds a higher gear, this will be a watch point both in terms of signs of internal improvement and speculation about external improvement via trade.
3) The second pairing on defense
What Francis did: Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin finished reasonably strong in top 4 roles down the stretch for the 2016-17 season. That forced Francis to make a tough decision. Should he trust not one but two players who had lackluster 2016-17 seasons in total defensively simply because they finished strong? Or with a tight budget, should he still try to add another top 4-capable player to the mix? Francis chose to bet on Faulk and Hanifin.
Evaluation through ten games: The bet has not worked thus far. After a strong preseason, Hanifin seems to have regressed again. He looks more assertive and confident with the puck on his stick, but his defensive play without the puck continues to leave a lot to be desired. Faulk has similarly been ‘meh’ at best defensively through ten games.
4) The third pairing and extra on defense
What Francis did: In not using Haydn Fleury as trade collateral to land a goalie or a scoring forward, Francis kept one good option for the third pairing, and he also added Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Evaluation through ten games: The addition of van Riemsdyk has thus far stabilized the third pairing on defense. Fleury/van Riemsdyk has not been perfect, but the pairing has been good enough in a third pairing role. Dahlbeck’s suspect play in the couple games that van Riemsdyk was out with an injury suggest that depth could be an issue if Dahlbeck must be called upon again.
5) Other depth forwards
What Francis did: Francis went above and beyond on this area for improvement when he added both Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger to the mix.
Evaluation through ten games: In terms of accomplishing the original goal to build a solid fourth/checking line, Francis hit the mark. Nordstrom/Kruger/Jooris or McGinn has been able to take more of the tough shifts than McClement’s line could, and they have even chipped in a few goals.
The bigger question is whether the initial goal made sense at all. With forward depth growing, might it have been possible to build a fourth line with a bit more scoring upside instead of an old NHL checking line?
Summing it up
I do not think the current state of the team is surprising given the 2016-17 season and the additions over the summer.
Until the Hurricanes can build a bona fide scoring line, goals will be hard to come by some nights.
And though upside existed (and still does) counting on Hanifin/Faulk to be a sure thing after a strong finish was counting chickens before they are hatched.
Roster slots spent solidifying the bottom portion of the roster (fourth forward line and third defense pairing) have yielded the dividends desired.
The only thing that maybe diverges from reasonably expected results is the fact that Scott Darling has not really hit stride yet. In making a transition to a new team, that situation is definitely one for which patience is required.
So getting back to the original question which read,”Is this the team that Ron Francis built?”, I would say yes, for the most part it is.
The burning question
The big question is how patient Francis will in allowing the 2017-18 season roll forward versus aggressively making a move or two to address weaknesses that are carry overs from the 2016-17 season.