In my daily post yesterday, I recapped the 2015-16 season briefly and also looked forward to the 2016-17 season.
In that post, I said that the single biggest factor in the Canes future success will be how much and how quickly the young players improve. The early and impressive starting points of young blue liners Hanifin, Pesce and Slavin bodes well for the future but only if they continue to improve. And with the lack of near-term help at forward, growth from young forwards Lindholm, Di Giuseppe and even to some degree Skinner will also be important.
But specifically for the 2016-17 season, I think Ron Francis’ ability to fill a couple significant gaps will play a huge role in whether the Canes are still on the right track but not yet there versus taking the next step up and into the playoffs.
Specifically, I think the Canes have 2 vital needs for the 2016-17 roster:
1) The second goalie slot
The positive spin is that the Canes goaltending improved as the season wore on and was much better in the second half of the season when the team rose up. But when you look at the season in total, the Hurricanes goaltending was below average. Cam Ward’s .909 save percentage ranks 32nd and Eddie Lack’s .901 ranks 43rd out of 44 qualifying NHL goalies.
Eddie Lack: The trend was more positive than negative as the season wore on. Eddie Lack shook off an atrocious start potentially driven by too much tinkering with mechanics with a new team and new goalie coach in David Marcoux. After a rough October and November, he posted a 4-3-1 mark with a .924 save percentage when the Canes turned things around in December and a 2-1-3 mark with a .921 save percentage in March. But he never really seized and kept the starter’s role by stringing together more than a couple good starts.
Cam Ward: After an okay start but struggling in November and December, Ward righted the ship and was good once the calendar flipped to 2016. His save percentage was .925 in January, .914 in February, .914 in March and .925 in April. During that stretch he was 12-6-7 and had a stretch with a 10-game point streak (6-0-4). If you project that stretch over 82 games, you get a point total of 102 which is playoff-worthy.
The glass half full story could be that if the goalies just both did what they did when playing well for the full season the Canes would be fine in net with the same duo in 2016-17. But the rational mathematician knows that saying basically “if we only count the games when a player is pretty good and disregard when he is not, he is pretty good” is poor math and a recipe for disappointment.
When he extended Eddie Lack for 2 years at $2.75 million last summer before he even stepped on PNC Arena ice, he more or less committed 1 of the 2 2016-17 goalie slots to Lack. The burning question is what he does with the remaining slot. Cam Ward’s contract ended this season which means there is an opening to either re-sign Ward or consider other options. The market for available free agent goalies this summer is thin which will likely drive up prices for even potentially great goalies, but there are also a couple players who might be available via trade.
The burning questions
1) Cam Ward questions aplenty: What are reasonable expectations for 2016-17? Can he do what he did in January through April for a full season? Or is he just destined to be up and down like he has the past few years with flashes of good enough weighed down by the opposite? And if Francis likes this option, can the 2 sides figure out the term and $ amount that seemed to end Eric Staal’s in-season negotiations before they even started?
2) Of the free agent options, are any an upgrade over Ward? And can any be had for a reasonable term and $ amount that is not high risk, high reward and long-term commitment?
3) After settling in and possibly figuring out how to (or maybe how not to) work with goalie coach David Marcoux, does Eddie Lack have a higher gear such that he could be a better part of a 1A/1B tandem in 2016-17?
I do not think that the goalie position alone will be enough to boost the Canes into the playoffs, but I think that missing badly enough on this key decision could single-handedly assure another miss.
2) A key forward addition or 2 to boost the offense
More than anything else, the Canes surge starting in December was driven by the rise of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom. That line started by playing incredibly good shutdown defense against the other teams’ best to keep the Canes in games and then even started to produce more offense. With the Versteeg/EStaal/Lindholm or Di Giuseppe line also capable of eating up minutes and playing a solid puck possession game even if not scoring, the Canes were suddenly in more games with the ability to win or at least capitalize on the NHL scoring system that rewards losing late (overtime or shootout) with half as many points as a win.
But when you look at the season in total, the Carolina Hurricanes finished 27th out of 30 teams in goals scored and 24th in terms of power play scoring percentage.
It makes sense if you work through the pecking order of the Canes lines. Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg were generally solid in terms of shot and possession stats but never really figured out how to convert it to scoring. Both players were on target for 43 points (projected over 82 games) when traded and regular line mate Elias Lindholm finished with 39 points in 82 games. Jordan Staal’s line grew offensively over time but still would not qualify as an offensive juggernaut. In the 38 games from the start of December until Andrej Nestrasil’s injury in late February, Jordan Staal scored at an impressive 71-point pace projected over 82 games, but line mates Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom looked more like good checking line players and depth scoring with 43 and 41-point paces respectively. Below that Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask provided solid depth scoring especially if you consider them slotted as third-liners.
The issue is not that Jordan Staal’s line was not a good 1 or that it is not capable of being a key part of a successful team. The issue is that to score enough to win regularly, there really needs to be a scoring-first line that produces more offensively slotted with it in the top 6 and also depth scoring below to support it.
Therein lies Ron Francis’ second big challenge.
The need for the addition of scoring drivers at forward
My count of Canes forwards for 2016-17 is 8 – Jordan Staal, Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Phil Di Giuseppe and Jay McClement. With McClement as a fourth-liner, that means the Canes still need to add 2 top 9 forwards. But more significantly, Francis is not shopping for #8/#9ish forwards who can provide 30-40-point depth scoring. He is shopping for 1-2 players who could be a catalyst for a scoring line that does not exist yet. Without a huge budget or tremendous ability to lure premium free agents, I expect Francis will leverage his stockpile of draft picks and begrudgingly part with a prospect or 2 to land a forward or 2 via trade. Ideal would be to add a playmaker who is capable of not only scoring but also boosting the production of line mates to a higher level. Could a player like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins net 50-60 points but more importantly boost a player like Lindholm to 55 points and/or a player like Skinner to 65? In a perfect world, Francis would add 2 top 6-capable scoring-leaning forwards who can make up two-thirds of a scoring line to fit perfectly next to Jordan Staal’s checking line (that also scores). And if Francis adds 2 top 6 players, it would leave at least two-thirds of the third line intact to provide depth scoring.
The burning questions
1) Can Francis balance his desire to not leverage too much of his future (prospects and picks) with the need to get better and opportunistically swing a trade or 2 for young but proven forwards who might be available because of salary cap challenges or because a good player is currently out of favor?
2) Is it possible that a single good playmaker can find chemistry with a couple line mates and boost the scoring of a set of 3 players, not just himself?
If the Canes youth especially on defense can fulfill the prerequisite of taking another step forward and not hit a sophomore slump, then I think the moves Francis makes and the results from them for his second goalie slot and 1-2 forward additions will be the deciding factors for the 2016-17 season.