I mostly wrote this article in my mind during the losing streak during the second half of February. I am on record from awhile back as saying that the Hurricanes needed to make hay during the 12-game stretch with 11 at home in February if they were going to make the 2018 playoffs. So when that run went south with six straight losses (two in overtime), I think most of the nails were put into the coffin. But partly because other teams battling for the last wild card spot were also struggling and partly because of the volume of games left, it would have been premature to call the season finished at that point. It actually is still premature in the sense that the Hurricanes are still just one 8-9-game winning streak away from seizing a wild card slot. But with only 15 games remaining, time to find 8-9 straight wins is running short, and with the Hurricanes struggles (2-6-2 in their last 10) of late, nothing suggests that the team is building toward such a winning streak.
So today’s Daily Cup of Joe will skip unfounded optimism and instead settle in on the harsh reality of the 2017-18 season and the uncertain path forward.
The 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes are not better
A common refrain over the past couple years has been that despite missing the playoffs, the team improved. That was the case for the previous couple years and showed up in the record. That is not the case at the NHL level for the 2017-18 season. The struggles of other teams battling for the final playoff spot create the false impression that because the Hurricanes are still sort of in the hunt on March 7, that the team is improved. But in fact, the Hurricanes are now on pace for 84-85 points which would be 2-3 less than in 2016-17.
And it is because the team has the exact same set of problems as this time last year
What is more, the list of areas where the team needs to improve are nearly identical to the same time last year.
Goaltending continues to be a problem. Cam Ward had a strong season transitioning to backup, but at 34 years old, I do not think he is the answer as a starter. And Scott Darling has officially entered Eddie Lack territory as a hoped to be starter who has not been good enough to be even a solid backup so far.
The blue line continues to have a ton of promise for the future but at the same time being short for the present. In 2016-17, Hainsey/Faulk just was up to snuff as a second pairing. In 2017-18 Faulk/____ has also not been up to snuff. Only Jeff Skinner has a worse goal differential at even strength, and the team really has not found a reliable second defense pairing. The result is that Peters is forced to split Slavin and Pesce on the road to try to create balance via a spread out support system. To be clear, the potential is there for multiple players to rise up and fill the second defense pairing, but there just is not guarantee that this will happen nor is there a guarantee on schedule.
And the team still lacks the high-end offense necessary to score enough. After finishing 20th in the NHL in scoring in 2016-17, the team has actually taken a step back in falling to 26th. Just like last summer, the team will enter the offseason needing to add at least one offensive catalyst to build a true scoring line.
When one nets it out, the Hurricanes are short 4-5 critical top half of the roster players as already noted when I slotted the current roster in a two-part series with part 1 looking at the defensemen and goalies and part 2 looking at the forwards.
Shorter version: The Hurricanes right now are no better at the NHL level than they were a year ago, and they will enter the summer with a nearly identical list of issues/gaps to be addressed.
And what’s worse is that the team could still be another full year of rebuilding away
Misconceptions of playoffs being inevitable because of youth
Two lines of thought that I think are both misconceptions represent the greatest potential for justified optimism right now.
The first misconception (in my opinion) is that because the team is young, it will just automatically get better each year making a playoff berth inevitable at some point soon. While young players and teams do have greater potential to improve than older teams, it is far from a sure thing. One need look no further than the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes who are not better this year or the Edmonton Oilers who seemed to rising rapidly until all of a sudden they were not.
The second misconception (again in my opinion) is that players at the AHL level will fuel a level of improvement that boosts the team into the playoffs. I do think that the farm system has become a strength and will help to some degree. And I do think that the team should give the players who are excelling at the AHL level a chance. But counting on these players to be sure things when making the jump to the NHL is far from a sure thing. It might be that another star or two are found and do catapult the team up the standings. But equally likely is the possibility the AHLers are only capable of providing depth at least short-term.
Help from within at the center position
The Hurricanes actually have two incredibly promising options to add a playmaking center from within. Sebastian Aho is already a very good offensive player at the NHL level at the age of 20. Ideally with help from another proven finisher at wing (Max Pacioretty plug again), Aho could be the center that the team needs to build a pure scoring line to complement Staal’s line that always leans defense. In addition, despite being a year younger and with significantly less NHL experience, 2017 draftee Martin Necas has the potential to be a first line scoring center and quite possibly sooner rather than later.
But here’s the thing…Both Aho and Necas are likely to face a learning curve with some mistakes growing into this position. My assessment of both players is actually somewhat similar. They look pretty capable because of natural ability when playing the center position with the puck on their sticks and at least a little bit of room to navigate with the puck. That is the natural playmaking ability that each has. And both players get the basics of playing without the puck when they are first in on the forecheck and mostly just need to hound the puck and/or play passing lanes. But my estimation is that both players have a ways to go in terms of sorting out assignments, making decisions and playing angles in all three zones defensively. Both can be really ‘squishy’ in the regular role as a center behind the first wave of the forecheck such that they offer too much space and fail to take away options and angles in the neutral zone. The result is often a 2-on-2 or a 3-on-2 flying at the defensemen with speed. And both will invariably suffer some growing pains figuring out when to attack pucks/players and when to defend danger areas in the defensive zone. Both Aho and Necas are smart players who definitely have the ability to grow in this par of the game, but if that happens gradually with ice time in 2018-19, that sounds more like another round of rebuilding than thriving, especially if the learning is occurring in a top 6 role playing heavy minutes against other teams’ best lines.
Shorter version: I do think that Sebastian Aho and/or Martin Necas could be the answer for an offensive center, but I also think that there could be growing pains and not just instant magic in getting there.
Building a second defense pairing
Similarly, the Hurricanes need to be better in rounding out a top 4 on the blue line. I count all four of the team’s NHL regulars on the bottom two pairs as potentially capable. But until two of them do it consistently, the key word is “potential” unfortunately is not the same as reality.
Part of me thinks that it is time to just throw Hanifin into a top 4 role and not try to shield him from the really hard match ups. Rather, my hope is that the every shift challenge is actually what he needs to find a higher consistency level in terms of avoiding lapses. But every time, I am ready to forge down this road, Hanifin seems to have a game or two that suggest maybe he is just a good offensive #5 defenseman (which is not ideal but is not a horrible thing). Justin Faulk actually was a solid top 4 defensive defenseman before his offense blossomed. But after being early on the bus that suggested Faulk might not be all that defensively before the midway point of the 2016-17, the bus has filled up with others declaring the same thing. Not blinded by his strong start offensively, my chronology in an article on December 9, 2016 called out Faulk’s defensive struggles before they were really a topic of discussion. Those issues have carried over into the 2017-18 season.
Shorter version: The Hurricanes continue to have a ton of potential on the blue line, but until a consistent and solid ‘today’ second pairing emerges, the blue line will not become a strength and can even be a weakness.
A few people have said that the Hurricanes are right where they were this time last year. I actually think the situation is more like the summer of 2016 when Cam Ward was a free agent (which he is again this summer) and a struggling hopeful starter was locked up for multiple more years.
I will save the longer version for another day, but I think bringing back Cam Ward and Scott Darling is a huge dice roll just like it was two years ago when the team decided to give Lack another try and also re-sign Ward.
Shorter version: The goaltending needs to be better. With Darling under contract for 3 more years at a starter type salary, how Francis deals with this reality this summer will be critical the team’s success in 2018-19.
On the current course is the 2018-19 season another of rebuilding
So the Hurricanes have a need for more offense from the center position and also another top 6 scoring forward or two. The only potential options are a 20-year old who has yet to prove he can handle the defensive responsibilities of the center position at the NHL level and a 19-year old with virtually nothing for NHL or North American professional experience.
That sounds like rebuilding that could work instantly but also could very well see some growing pains that take some time to work through.
The blue line has a number of young players with a growing amount of NHL experience, but the rising young players (Hanifin and Fleury) have yet to really hold down a top 4 slot and excel in it. It might be time to throw one or both into the pool to see if they can learn to swim.
That sounds like rebuilding that also could yield success but could also fail or at least encounter a good volume of growing pains during a transition phase.
In net, the Hurricanes have Scott Darling who was hoped to be the starter for the 2017-18 season but was not even close to a success. Darling did play well at the NHL level before being traded to the Hurricanes, so it is not impossible that he re-finds his game after a summer to reset. But Eddie Lack’s continued struggles in his second season are a stark reminder that a rebound is not a certainty.
If Francis decides to go double or nothing on Darling as a starter in the second year of his four-year contract, that sounds more like a dice roll that could be a winner but also like rebuilding could equally well push team improvement back.
In total, the volume of huge question marks in key roles in the top half of the lineup scream ‘rebuilding still’ for the 2018-19 season.
Please save us Ron Francis (or Tom Dundon?)
The wild card is Francis’ goals for the summer and his actions to accomplish them. If Francis continues with a plan that prioritizes staying the course with regard to building from within and protecting the prospect pool above all else, then the potential exists for another summer of modest additions coupled with a heavy reliance on young players just suddenly being better. The potential that things suddenly click for a young lineup is there, but again, that sounds a lot like rebuilding and hoping for a favorable timeline for it.
If instead, Francis more aggressively seeks to address key weaknesses/room for improvement this summer, the potential could be there to spend some longer-term futures to expedite the process of returning to the playoffs.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Am I wrong to say that the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes are no better than the 2016-17 team?
2) Which of the gaps have the greatest potential to be filled internally? And which of the young players do you think is ready to take a big step forward and/or fill a new role in 2018-19?
3) Do you agree that the current course without fairly major changes has the potential to yield yet another rebuilding year in 2018-19 as the team tries to fill key roles from within?