At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, words like “youth” and “future” were regularly bandied about. The team left open a couple roster places to be won by players in the system, and looking out a couple years even more of the roster core was expected to be youth. That plan was fastforwarded significantly over the course of the season. First, then 18-year old Noah Hanifin won a roster spot in training camp. Then James Wisniewski was injured in the first game and after a short stint of Michal Jordan, Brett Pesce stepped in and proved ready for the NHL. Then in a Ron Francis-led roster shake up in early December, the team called up Brock McGinn, Jaccob Slavin and Phil Di Giuseppe. (The first 2 had already seen 2015-16 NHL action.) Then 3 trade deadline deals cleared out 3 more 30+ players making room for a March full of youth try outs.
So to say that the Canes roster became younger in 2015-16 surprises exactly no one who followed the team even reasonably closely.
But the math illustrates just how significant and rapid the transformation has been:
The opening day roster had an average age of 27.0 which is actually not that young. Basically, there were 3 older veterans in Hainsey (34), Liles (34) and Wisniewski (31) who were balanced out by 3 young players in Faulk (23), Murphy (22) and Hanifin (18).
The group playing right now averages 23.9 years old and that is even with 5 players hitting another birthday during the season.
With James Wisniewski returning to the mix, the average age for the expected top 6 on defense next season would now be expected to be 25.5 years old. I think a better way to look at it is to note that 4 out of 6 defensemen will be 24 or younger, and it is easy to see a step-wise progression downward from there with Wisniewski and Hainsey both becoming unrestricted free agents after next season.
The opening day roster at forward averaged 25.8 years old. But from that group, 30-year old Eric Staal and 28-year old Kris Versteeg have been traded, and the group of Nathan Gerbe (28), Brad Malone (26), Chris Terry (26) and Riley Nash (26) are all scheduled to become free agents who might/might not return.
When you look at a core roster for 2016-17 of Jordan Staal, Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil, Elias Lindhom, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Jay McClement and Phil Di Giuseppe, the group of 8 will average only 25.0 years with a high likelihood that at least a couple of the remaining forwards will be younger players from within the system.
The goalie situation depends largely on what Francis does to fill the second goalie spot. Eddie Lack is 28 years old. If Francis does not re-sign Cam Ward, the team will almost certainly add someone who is younger than Ward who is 32 years old.
The most telling stat
The average age of the Hurricanes lineup is actually a bit inflated by the fact that the team does have a few gray beards who are nearing the mid-30s. I think perhaps the most telling stat is how many ‘young’ players the Canes have in the lineup. Of the 15 players (8 F, 6D, 1 G) who are reasonably certain to be part of the 2016-17 lineup, the team has 9 players (Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Phil Di Giuseppe, Victor Rask and Joakim Nordstrom) who will be 24 years old or younger on opening night. It is reasonable to expect that at least a couple more will be added to that list either from players in the system or a trade or 2 for a young forward.
The result will likely be a 2016-17 open night lineup with more than half of the roster 24 years old or young.
Even more significantly, the trend of younger is being matched with better play. The story of the Canes’ play in the second half of the 2015-16 season was that of a pretty good young team getting better quickly, not a mess of a rebuild that looked to be 3-4 years away from measurable progress.
The future continues to look very bright.