After a break from writing and also some time to digest and reflect upon the 2015-16 season, it’s time to get right back to our Carolina Hurricanes blog. I have already written drafts for a few 2015-16 individual player evaluations. My hope is to post those in an extended series to start in about a week after catching up on a few other things.
Before getting down to the level of individual players, I think a good starting point is both evaluating what the team in total accomplished in 2015-16 and assessing what the team must do to do even better in 2016-17.
A huge success
At the most basic level, the Carolina Hurricanes 2015-16 season was a huge success. Team improved from 71 points to 86 and though it never quite pushed into the playoff fray, it was within 4-5 points late in the season for a reasonably extended period of time. Especially with the volume of youth assuming significant roles in the lineup, I do not think you could really ask for much more.
More significant is the trajectory for the future
More significant, than improving short-term is the fact that the improvement was very much on the path to a better future. The team became much young and better at the same time.
But it does not happen automatically
While there is legitimate reason for Canes fans to be optimistic for the future, these things do not happen automatically. There are other personnel moves that will factor into the mix, but the single biggest deciding factor of the Canes future will be if and how quickly the Canes young players improve. In 2015-16, Brett Pesce grew to be a serviceable top 4 defenseman. Jaccob Slavin showed the potential to be a top 4 as well. And Noah Hanifin made tremendous progress in the offensive part of his game especially down the stretch. Justin Faulk was absolutely phenomenal as a power play trigger man. That is good enough for optimism a couple years out, but not good enough to make the playoffs. A playoff berth will require these players to continue to play, round out their games and reach an even higher level. The offense is obviously welcome, but playing under the pressure of being an every night top pairing defenseman, Justin Faulk needs to get back to his core as a defensive defenseman. Brett Pesce, who has already taken on a penalty kill role, needs to further his game as a solid penalty killer and the defensive half of a solid NHL pairing. Jaccob Slavin needs to continue his progression as a sound defensive defenseman, but ideally if he is going to play 22-25 minutes per night in all situations, more offense needs to come with it. And Noah Hanifin needs to continue his late-season trend of converting his offensive ability into scoring but also improve his play sorting things out when the other team has the puck.
I think the Canes rise to the next level and a return to playoff hockey will be driven by the blue line, but it is also important for young forwards like Elias Lindholm and Phil Di Giuseppe to continue to improve. With the lack of volume of NHL-ready players at forward, GM Ron Francis will need to add a few players from outside the organization, but it is also critical that the players in the lineup also improve.
How close are we?
The Canes’ 86 points despite another slow start and the swap out of a couple NHLers for AHLers at the trade deadline suggests that the team is really close to pushing for the playoffs. On the 1 hand, I think that is accurate, but I also think that a couple key moves by Francis’ this summer will be critical to pushing higher. What Francis does with the second goalie slot and his quest for the Canes to get above average goaltending for an entire season for the first time in awhile is in my opinion the single biggest thing to be sorted out this summer. Francis will also need to add a forward or 2 from outside the organization, and they cannot simply be #9ish depth forwards. He needs to add scoring help for the top half of the roster.
After 2 summers in which Francis was mostly constrained by existing contracts, the ball is on the tee for Ron Francis to finally put his stamp on the team and boost it into the playoffs in the process.