With the aim of clearing the deck a bit for training camp previews after Labor Day, anyone who checks in gets a special Saturday Daily Cup of Joe that continues my ‘last week of August’ series offering a few short comments on every player either under contract with the Hurricanes or still under draft rights. If you missed the beginning and want to catch up…
Part 5 today covers 11 more players in 3 different categories.
Addressing the biggest weakness
For a couple years now, the Carolina Hurricanes’ biggest weakness has been the team’s goaltending. With the chance to swap out at least one goalie last summer when Cam Ward came off his previous contract, Francis rolled the dice with the same duo (trio if you count the goalie coach) in net, and the team received mixed results at best. In my opinion, the starting goalie position represents the roster slot with the greatest potential for improvement. And with the departure of Eddie Lack and Goalie Coach David Marcoux and arrival of Scott Darling and Mike Bales, the Hurricanes will look to improve at that position.
The acquisition of Scott Darling is obviously the centerpiece of the path forward in net. Despite limited experience with only 75 games played at the NHL level, Darling was one of the top netminders available this summer by virtue of strong performances as a backup and fill in starter during both the 2015-16 and 2016-17. With a low bar set in recent seasons, Darling might not be spectacular; ‘pretty good’ might be enough for a Hurricanes team that is improving in other areas. Regardless, Darling parachutes right into a critical role for the team.
Lost in some of the Hurricanes’ goalie excitement this summer is the fact that Cam Ward still has an important role. Darling has not been full-time starter in the NHL, and as such he will likely need to be spelled regularly to stay at the top of his game. If things go well I could see Ward still playing 20 plus games. And importantly, it should be in a completely different role as a backup. That is unfamiliar territory for Ward and requires an adjustment on his part in terms of preparation and mindset.
Maybe unexciting but important forward depth
The top of the forward ranks will need to play well and produce offensively for the Hurricanes to boost their offense from the 2016-17 season. Most of the emphasis in this regard is placed on the top players and sometimes on rising prospects with high-end offensive potential. Less exciting but also incredibly important is the team’s improving depth that must also pull its weight offensively to provide needed balance.
Rask had a ‘meh’ 2016-17 season. He was not horrible, but he hit a fairly extended dry spell scoring-wise in the middle of the season and never really found a higher gear after that. No matter how one slices and dices the forward lines, Rask figures to be centering a line with at least one top-end scoring forward. As such, he needs to hold up his end of the bargain and be part of a formula that helps escalate the team’s scorers to peak levels.
Lee Stempniak is another forward who does not make anyone’s list of top exciting players. But as a veteran, he provides steady play and important depth scoring. Like Rask, he will find himself on a line with a scorer or two and the potential to elevate his game. With the Hurricanes finishing 20th in the NHL in scoring in 2016-17, every goal counts.
The vice presidents
In a profession with just over 600 jobs worldwide at the highest level, working up to the level below that is impressive and elite company. I once described AHL players to someone as people who aspired to be CEOs of medium or large companies and came up just short as a VP. That is still a high echelon just like the AHL is hockey-wise. But because the focus is on the NHL level, good AHL players are underappreciated for how good they are. In addition, they play a critical role in the development of the next generation of an organization’s NHL players. The 2016-17 season is a perfect example of how veteran AHL talent can help raise the level of play for the entire which benefits young prospects both in terms of playing at a high level themselves and also gaining playoff experience. With the number of young prospects for the Hurricanes growing, the number of slots available for good, veteran AHL players is shrinking which makes their roles even more important.
A significant part of the Checkers’ playoff push last season was the strong goaltending by Michael Leighton initially and then later Tom McCollum when Leighton was injured. For 2017-18, that role will be handed off to newly-acquired veteran netminder Jeremy Smith. He will look to pick up where Leighton and McCollum left off and be a steady force in the crease on a young team.
Samuelsson was acquired in the second half of the 2016-17 in a deal mostly just labeled as “acquiring the coach’s kid.” But on a blue line that was balanced across three pairings, Samuelsson played with rising prospect Haydn Fleury and the duo were good together. With a high number of young forwards in the Charlotte mix this season, the veteran AHL defensemen will be tasked with cleaning things up a bit and giving the team a steady next to last line of defense and a chance to win most nights.
He is another veteran AHL blue liner and will be one of four experienced players and known quantities on the back end while the Hurricanes wait for another wave of prospect defensemen to hit the AHL level.
Chelios is another AHL and also Charlotte Checkers veteran defenseman. Down the stretch in 2016-17, he played big minutes and was a vital part of the defense. He will be asked to fill the same role in 2017-18.
Kichton is similar to the trio above in that he is a defenseman of the older variety at 25 years old. He is a bit different in that he is a newcomer who spent the 2016-17 season with the Manitoba Moose. He runs the total of older defensemen slotted for Charlotte to four which is a good amount of experience at the AHL level.
For me personally, Patrick Brown would be the poster shot for underappreciating AHL players. From a couple runs at the NHL level in the past couple years, I have Brown pegged as an AHLer and deep injury fill in at something like 15th or 16th on the NHL depth chart. I just do not see him as being an NHL regular even at his ceiling. But in 2016-17, he was a very good AHL player and was also the captain of a team that surged and made the playoffs. Even if he gets bumped down the NHL depth chart, he has a role to play in terms of making Charlotte a good environment for the prospects developing there.
Miller is yet another example of a very good hockey player whose ceiling might just be at the VP, AHL, level. The 28-year old put up 41 points in only 55 games in Charlotte in 2016-17 and was one of the team’s best players in the playoffs. He will be asked to again be an offensive leader on a team with a bunch of youth at the forward position.
With that, I have covered 54 of the team’s 66 players leaving only an eclectic remaining group for part 6.