With the Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 now almost three weeks in the rear-view mirror, Ron Francis and his team are certainly already in the process of the evaluating the 2016-17, the current roster and what needs to happen before the start of the 2017-18 season.
Evaluation of players specifically is always an imperfect process. Do you look at the season in total? Do you put extra weight on end of season trends, especially for young players who are still maturing? How do you account for role, line mates/defense partners and other situational factors that can impact a player’s performance?
Hit and miss at the end of the 2015-16 season
When one looks back at this same process for prior to the 2016-17 season, Francis’ evaluations, projections and decisions were a mixed bag.
Possibly enticed by Cam Ward’s strong second half play and Eddie Lack’s modest improvement after the start of the new year, Francis made the decision to go with the exact same trio of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack and David Marcoux for his two goalies and goalie coach. He did this despite having the option to swap two fairly easily. Ward’s previous contract ended opening up a place that could have been filled by a free agent or via trade. And with the relatively modest salary budget allocated to the goalie coach role, parting ways with David Marcoux and trying something different would have been a small cost in the big picture of things. Instead, seemingly overestimating the late season trend, Francis bet against the team’s sub-par full-season goaltending statistics and appeared to hope for a continuation of the late-season trend. It did not happen. The Hurricanes were again near the bottom of the entire league in 2016-17.
Francis also bet that the strong rookie campaigns of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce in 2015-16 would continue without a sophomore slump. After successful campaigns for both in 2016-17, this bet seems less than the failed goalie bet, but I actually think that at the time, it was more significant. In trading John-Michael Liles at the 2016 NHL trade deadline and not replacing him except for adding depth AHL/NHL defensemen, Francis counted heavily on both Slavin and Pesce matching or even exceeding their 2015-16 seasons. In a league where young defensemen often see fits and starts in their development this was actually a huge bet, but one that worked out well when Slavin and Pesce both took another step up and were paired to become the team’s top defense pairing and hold their own against the NHL’s elite in the process.
A lesser but still important evaluation point for Ron Francis was his depth forwards. The fourth line struggled mightily in 2015-16 except for its role in the Hurricanes’ strong penalty killing. Depth scoring was minimal and more significantly, the fourth line struggled in terms of any possession, shot or scoring metrics. Francis basically made the decision to clean house and start over. Jay McClement who was still under contract for the 2016-17 season stayed, but Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone, Chris Terry and Riley Nash were not re-signed.
When I net it out, Francis went two out of three on these evaluation/projection points, but in the process, he missed on the most significant one, and it played a large role in the Hurricanes 2016-17 playoff miss.
Ron Francis’ 2016-17 key player evaluation/projection points
Cam Ward and Eddie Lack
Interestingly, at the top of the list of trends that Francis must project for 2017-18 is the goalie position. The situation looks eerily similar to where Francis was last season. At the top level, the Hurricanes goaltending in total was below average. Based on simple and more advanced statistics, neither Cam Ward or Eddie Lack had a strong 2016-17 season. But just like last season, there were positive stretches that force Francis how much to consider the good stretches and how much to consider the season in total. Ward had a strong run of hockey from November through mid-January before falling a bit down the stretch. Is it possible that Ward just hit a wall physically from too many consecutive starts and could actually maintain his top level of play if rested more? Lack continued to struggle in a Hurricanes uniform before being chucked under the bus by Coach Bill Peters and responding with a short burst of strong starts in March. Is Lack capable of re-finding his late March level of play and bringing it for a full season? These are the questions that Francis must answer.
Early indications are that Francis will not risk making the same mistake two summers in a row. The need to improve the team’s goaltending was front and center in his postseason press conference. And he already announced that David Marcoux will not be re-signed.
I think second on the list of fairly complex judgments that Francis must make is what exactly he has and does not have in terms of building the blue line. By my account, the 2016-17 season was a tale of two seasons for both Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin.
Faulk entered training camp and started the season as the team’s top defenseman and as a veteran expected to anchor a young group. He did not fit well with Jaccob Slavin out of the gate and/or just started slow again and quickly found himself in the second pairing with Ron Hainsey. That pairing floundered, especially on the road, in the middle of the season, as opposing coaches exploited Hainsey/Faulk with their top scoring lines. Faulk seemed to right the ship mid-winter and finished the season much stronger than he started it.
As part of building his 2017-18 opening day lineup, Francis must decide what he has in Faulk. Is Faulk the stronger half of a second pairing who simply started slow and was maybe held either by a disjointed offseason due his injury or Ron Hainsey? Or was the first two-thirds of the 2016-17 an accurate representation of what to expect from Faulk in which case having a rock solid partner might be necessary to solidify the second pairing?
Noah Hanifin’s 2016-17 story is a bit different but his timeline is similar. Relegated to the bottom pairing Hanifin’s development seemed to stall through much of the season. I would go so far as to say that Hanifin did not show measurable signs of improvement through three-quarters of the 2016-17 season. My hope at the end of February would simply be that his accumulated ice time would pay off in the long run. Then with Ron Hainsey’s departure at the trade deadline, Hanifin was given a bigger challenge being bumped up into the top four. Especially initially, Hanifin responded to the challenge, escalated his level of play and suddenly looked capable as a top four defenseman. He faded a tiny bit down the stretch but still mostly looked capable.
That puts another significant question on Ron Francis. Is Noah Hanifin on the brink of becoming at least a serviceable top four defenseman in 2017-18 hopefully on the path to even better? Or is he still the young player whose game was full of learning experiences in the first three-fourths of the season? Where Francis lands on this decision will have a significant impact on his shopping list building his 2017-18 roster. And whether he is right in this assessment will likely have a huge impact on the 2017-18 season.
The full evaluation of the team’s blue line is yet to come, but I am on record as thinking that despite the bright future ahead for the Hurricanes young blue liners that Francis still needs to add a proven #4/#5 defenseman for 2017-18 to either solidify the second pairing or provide a stable situation and solid mentor for the potential of a rookie stepping into the third pairing.
At the forward position, I think it is clearer that the team needs a bit more help in the form of more scoring punch. So while my last evaluation/projection player will have a sizable role in the 2017-18 season, his evaluation probably does not as significantly impact impact Francis’ work list for the summer.
After fits and starts in his development through three NHL seasons and another nearly half of a season of similar in 2016-17, Elias Lindholm seemed to suddenly find a much higher gear about midway through the 2016-17 season. The increase in his level of play and then later his production was stark. More significant than the statistics was a decided change in how noticeable Lindholm was on a game by game, shift by shift basis. Suddenly, the pre-draft comparisons to bulldog Peter Forsberg were not so puzzling. Seemingly all of a sudden a switch flipped, and Lindholm took on a new air of rugged, determined, difficult to play against and many of the other intangible qualities that one would hope for in a power forward. Lindholm’s run extended fully to the of the season and included a late-season burst in scoring to boot.
Based on the extensive time period of Lindholm’s run, I think many consider it a foregone conclusion that he has officially arrived where Canes fans have long hoped he would. But with the fits and starts that often accompany young players’ development, I would at least like to see him come back from a summer away and get out of the gate in 2017-18 playing the same brand of hockey. To what degree Francis believes fully in Lindholm’s upward trajectory impacts somewhat how much additional help he needs to add at forward this summer.
Feel free, as always, to debate it here too, but also consider voting and chiming in on the Thursday Coffee Shop article that covers this same topic.