With the Hurricanes sputtering a bit of late and looking more like a team that will need to scratch and claw for every possible point just to squeak into the playoffs, I have been thinking about what it takes for the Carolina Hurricanes to suddenly be good with “good” loosely defined as being a team highly likely to make the playoffs and with a chance to creep farther up the standings than that.
I think it takes one of three things for that to happen.
1) A couple more players must emerge as difference-making stars
The Hurricanes have not benefited from an NHL Draft Lottery win that yielded a can’t miss superstar. But the Hurricanes have had enough picks within shouting distance of those slots and easily high enough to yield a star or two.
While the depth of the Hurricanes roster is improving step-wise each season, the team is really light on the type of stars that tend to drive consistent winning in the NHL. For every ‘by committee’ team like Columbus there are five regularly successful teams that have a few top-end leaders. Pittsburgh has Crosby and Malkin. Chicago has Kane, Toews and Keith. Washington has Ovechkin and Backstron. And San Jose has Thornton, Pavelski and Burns. Of the teams more recently trending upward, Edmonton has McDavid and Draistaitl, and Toronto has Matthews, Nylander and Marner.
For the Hurricanes, I think Jeff Skinner is an underrated star at least in the department of goal scoring, but I am not sure I would categorize any other Hurricanes player as a star. Jordan Staal is maybe closest but lacks the scoring totals of other two-way top 6 forwards. Jaccob Slavin might be on the cusp. But I think that is about it.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have a collection of recent top 15 draft selections who are already experienced NHL players despite still being young and have significant upside, but in terms of evaluating play and putting potential to the side, none are truly more than serviceable NHL players who fit somewhere in the middle of an NHL roster not in the higher domain of superstars who drive wins.
The list includes Elias Lindholm (#5 in 2013), Haydn Fleury (#7 in 2014), Noah Hanifin (#5 in 2015) and Jake Bean (#13 in 2016). The run of four consecutive lottery picks has yet to yield a bona fide superstar. In addition, later picks Teuvo Teravainen (#18 in 2012) and Sebastian Aho (#35 in 2015) seem to also have the potential to become the type of players that drive wins.
The success of lower draft picks Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce has helped build a blue line from within, but the next step upward for the Hurricanes will require at least a couple more higher-end players. Without that, the playoffs are still possible, but it will be hard to create a ceiling much higher than ‘could make the playoffs.’ The most likely source for another star or two is the pool of recent high draft picks who were drafted with superstar pedigree but have not reached that level yet.
2) Chemistry and cohesion helps the collective group reach a much higher level
The hockey gods have a propensity to regularly demonstrate that anything can happen in the NHL. Pretty much each and every year, a team or two rise from the ashes of the draft lottery and are suddenly a very good hockey team. Only a couple years back, Colorado was just such a team as an up and comer lead by young forwards. Of course the hockey gods then reversed course and made Colorado the worst team in the NHL in 2016-17. The Columbus Blue Jackets were reverse story. During the 2015-16 season, the Blue Jackets lost Ryan Johansen to a power struggle and were then ridiculed by everyone under the sun for hiring John Tortorella as their coach. But then in 2016-17, the Jackets road a monstrous winning streak up the standings and never looked back on their way to the playoffs.
I honestly believe that each and every team in the entire NHL has some chance of being that team that finds a strange combination of chemistry, rhythm, momentum or whatever else and being a surprise team in the playoffs.
With a number of players who show the potential for reaching a higher level on an intermittent basis, the Hurricanes are very clearly a team that could be shined upon by the hockey gods and catch fire. Early 2017-18 signs are not promising in this regard, but such occurrences oftentimes seem to come out of nowhere.
3) Ron Francis pulls the trigger on a big trade to add a catalyst
On one hand, Francis does have a growing pool of futures that he could dip into to add a higher-end player or two to the mix from outside the organization. On the other hand, the complexity and king’s ransom required for Ottawa to net Matt Duchene earlier this week shows just how hard it is to pull off these deals and also how expensive they are.
While I do think Francis will dip modestly into his futures to improve the team via trade possibly at the trade deadline if the team is within range of the playoffs, I think the odds of Francis pulling of a non-rental blockbuster are fairly low. Francis has been steadfast in building for the future and spending futures only sparingly. The most likely path forward includes more of the same possibly with a modest amount of futures being spent wisely to make additions below the catalyst level.
Netting it out
When I net out the Carolina Hurricanes situation based on what I have seen through 13 games, I think the team is good enough to make the playoffs if it catches some breaks and/or hits a hot stretch or two. But at the same time, with the parity in the NHL I also think it is very possible that the team improves slightly but still misses the playoffs again.
This ‘could’ level of playoff hopes is an upgrade to recent years but still leaves something to be desired. As noted above, I do not think Francis is likely to pull off a blockbuster deal. As such, I think the next level higher depends on at least a couple young but established NHLers like Lindholm, Hanifin, Teravainen and soon Fleury to take a leap forward and become much more than serviceable NHL players.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree with my assessment that the current version of the Hurricanes is capable of being a playoff team but not really a team who can be assured of a playoff spot without something significant changing?
2) What path or combination of paths do you think is most likely to help the Hurricanes reach the next level?
3) What are the chances that Francis does a deal to add a high-end catalyst type player from outside?