Today’s Daily Cup of Joe kicks off a few season preview type articles looking at three different levels for taking another step forward in 2021-22.
Young stars taking the next step
Despite all of the other moving parts and fully acknowledging that hockey is a team sport that requires a solid roster from top to bottom, I am on record as say that the next step up for the Carolina Hurricanes must primarily come from the team’s young stars taking a next step. More than anything that needs to come in the second or third round of the NHL playoffs when the team again faces off against another Cup contender. Sebastian Aho who has generally been good in the playoffs needs to take his line with him such that his line is better than the other team’s best line. Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas need to find an every-game level of consistency and be going concerns offensively when scoring is hard. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce need to find a run of games where they shut down the other team’s best scorers. To be clear, we have already seen elements of what is needed and this is not to say that these players have been bad in the playoffs, but especially for the forwards, I think there is one more level that could be the difference between winning or losing series against other elite teams. While the final exam occurs in the playoffs, I do not think it is possible to look for signs of progress during the regular season especially in terms of being consistent and finding a way to be a difference-maker on tougher nights.
Filling the holes
With the volume of player changeover this off-season despite a successful 2020-21 campaign, the potential exists for the team to take a step. Whether or not they do could largely depend on how well the team is able to fill some key holes. First and foremost, I think filling the hole left by Dougie Hamilton’s departure will be critical. While I do think it is possible to replace his scoring by a committee that maybe just relies on increased forward scoring, there is still the need for a new defenseman to step into a top four slot and be capable or better. Ethan Bear figured to get the first try next to Jaccob Slavin, but in recent preseason games Tony DeAngelo has also seen ice time there. Regardless of who fills that slot, I see it as the greatest potential for the team to take a step backwards.
The other interesting changeover is in net. I would argue that the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes benefited from strong goaltending but maybe did not require it to do well. Especially early in the season, the team was just better than most opponents and/or had a crazy good ability to just outscore/outrun whatever volume of errors. But that is not to say that goaltending is not important. The team will need one or both of Frederik Andersen or Antti Raanta to play at the same level that goalies like Petr Mrazek, Alex Nedeljkovic and James Reimer have during the past couple seasons.
Seeking an outside boost
In addition to filling a few holes, the reinforcements added this past off-season also bring the potential to add something. Most significant in this regard could be Jesperi Kotkaniemi. By draft pedigree, potential and skill set, he has the potential to add another scoring wing to the mix without giving up another roster player to do so. That could make a 2021-22 Hurricanes team that was good offensively even better and also deeper.
The significant changeover at the bottom of the roster could also be significant. Derek Stepan has the potential to change the dynamic for the Canes fourth line that has had its ups, downs and ‘mehs’ over the past couple seasons. In addition to at least filling the holes left in the crease, Andersen and Raanta both also have potential upside. Andersen is especially intriguing as a goalie who maybe gets a boost playing in front of a team that is better defensively and also getting out from under the microscope that is the crease in Toronto.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of the three categories, which do you think is most significant for the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes improving and taking another step of two in the playoffs?
2) Of the holes left by departing players, which do you see as most risky/problematic?
3) In what specific area, if any, do you think the current team will be better than last year’s?