For a team that is young and rising, the Hurricanes had probably a busier off-season than one might expect with some middle and even top half of the roster players departing and being replaced or arguably not really replaced.
Will this prove to be similar to Tampa revamping the bottom half of its roster after a disappointing first-round playoff exit before winning consecutive Stanley Cups?
Or did the Hurricanes accidentally take a step backward in letting regulars go hoping for better?
Only time will tell.
Much will be made of the players who left and the players who replaced them, but I think more so this team is roughly where it was at this time last year which is needing top young players to take a next step for the team to do the same.
No doubt, whether a collection of players with different skill sets can replace Dougie Hamilton will factor into the team’s 2021-22 success. Though still unproven, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has the potential to add another higher-end scorer to the mix. And changing out the entire goalie group that has generally been a strength during the team’s resurgence has the potential to go either way.
But I think more significant than that will be seeing if Sebastian Aho can take one more step, whether young guns Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas can go from being players who have nights when they look like world-class offensive players to being players who do it nearly every night, especially in the playoffs.
Peak Hurricanes sees Sebastian Aho push up from a solid point per game pace to more like 100 points.
Peak Hurricanes sees Andrei Svechnikov establish himself as an elite NHL scoring power forward at a 2020-21 season that was not horrible, but really was ‘meh’ in terms of desired growth from a strong rookie season.
On the blue line, can Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce each anchor a defense pairing capable of holding its own against the NHL’s best maybe with a bit less help than in past years?
Peak Hurricanes sees some combination of players like Martin Necas, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and maybe a surprise or two from a good prospect pool go from being players who show flashes to players who are a handful every night. Can a skilled young player who is still just below the NHL radar like Jack Drury, Jamieson Rees or Seth Jarvis skip a development step and become a difference-maker at the NHL level ahead of schedule?
The real test does not come in the regular season but rather in the post-season. The team did notch a magnificent series win against the defending champion Washington Capitals to make its first statement (second if you want to count the playoff berth which is fair) in the Rod Brind’Amour era. But in consecutive tries against Cup contenders, the team has also come up short against the Bruins twice and then the Lightning last season. It is like playing king of the hill at this point. The next step for the Canes will be pushing someone off the hill by wining a second or third round series against a team that is a Cup contender and deemed to still be a notch above the Canes.
Though this next step cannot be accomplished during the regular season, I do think it is possible to get a decent read on how ready the team is to take a next step. Watching for a bit more every game consistency from young scoring stars and maybe more significantly seeing if they fade to invisible during slow stretches and/or difficult games against good teams or are still able to grind their way to productivity on the nights when their skill does not make it easy could be a sign. The blue line that in my opinion was the single greatest strength and driving factor in the return to the playoffs now has only two players remaining from that group. Seeing how the new group works minus Justin Faulk, Calvin de Haan and Trevor van Riemsdyk who departed two years ago and now minus Dougie Hamilton is worth watching closely as the season unfolds.
Certainly it takes a full roster of 20 or more with injuries to win be standing at the end of a long NHL season and playoffs, but it also takes stars rising up and being better than great players on other top teams. That is what the team is up to at this point and will be until they clear that hurdle.
Are the team’s young stars still ‘good an improving’ or are they ready to be better than the other team’s best when the other team is a Cup contender? Assuming the significant amount of turnover works out okay, that is the primary question to be answered in the 2021-22 season.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree with my assessment of where the Carolina Hurricanes are at this point?
2) What would you add or change from my assessment at the 50,000-foot level?