Continuing with theme of building up to the 2021 NHL Playoffs for the Carolina Hurricanes, today’s Daily Cup of Joe asks what it takes for the Hurricanes to take the next step in the playoffs.
The big disclaimer
One important disclaimer upfront is to say that teams do not necessarily build step by step always with progress. The Tampa Bay Lightning had a case as the best regular season team in the NHL for a couple years only to fall flat in the playoffs before breaking through in 2020. The Washington Capitals waited even longer with multiple disheartening game 7 losses before finally breaking through. In terms of winning the Stanley Cup, I think it is equal parts being good enough that you have a chance and just catching lightning in a bottle.
But disclaimer aside, there is definitely an element of being good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Sure there are upsets in the early rounds every year, but that has not really resulted in a true underdog winning it all. Rather, those upsets just clear the path for one of the other front runners to capitalize. Since the salary cap era in the NHL, there have been very few real surprises in terms of Stanley Cup Champions. The Hurricanes and Ducks won the first two after the salary cap was implemented while the league reset. But after that? Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Washington, St. Louis, Tampa Bay. Of that entire run of 13 seasons, only St. Louis could be considered an outsider from the 4-6 teams that one would have given a chance when the playoffs started.
So looking at both sides of the coin. On the negative side, even teams arguably favored to win the Stanley Cup can hit a wall that takes years to get over. But on the positive side, the Hurricanes have played their way up into the group of teams that have a chance, and seemingly without error, the Stanley Cup champion does come from that group of teams.
What does it take for the Hurricanes to quickly push past the wall and up to the top?
Very simply, I think the Hurricanes top players need to be better than the other teams’ top players in the series that feature match ups against the NHL’s best. When the 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy candidates included Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal, Cory Stillman and Cam Ward until near the very end. That entire group plus another player or two were outplaying other teams’ top players in each round. (As an aside, I still believe with not doubt that the voters messed that up badly not awarding the Conn Smythe to Rod Brind’Amour who did absolutely everything throughout the playoffs.) That is always the case. The teams that make the finals usually have multiple MVP candidates not randomly but because having the team’s best players outplay other teams’ best players is what it takes to beat the best teams.
So back where we started, I think a required ingredient in the Hurricanes next Stanley Cup will have to be rising young stars like Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and others reaching a higher level in the playoffs and not just be ‘good’ or ‘pretty good’ but being on par or ideally better than the best players on other teams. The end of the road in both of the last two playoff series has come when Patrice Bergeron’s line was the best in the series.
Teravainen/Aho/Svechnikov was the best trio by a wide margin against the New York Rangers in the preliminary round in the 2020 NHL Playoffs and the series results showed it. But without enough production across the forward ranks, Brind’Amour chose to move Svechnikov down to Trocheck’s line to try to generate secondary scoring.
The current trajectory is much more promising. Vincent Trocheck hit the ground running in 2020-21 and has made his line a going concern in addition to producing on the power play. And though he has been streaky, Martin Necas has also taken a step forward offensively. And finally, Jordan Staal his producing at almost double his pace from the prior year. If he stays with Warren Foegele and Jesper Fast, scoring expectations maybe need to be tempered a bit, but he is still up a notch from last year. The upshot is twofold. First, the Hurricanes are deeper offensively than at this time last year. And second, as a result of that, Brind’Amour has the option of building a top-heavy first line and hopefully sticking with it. I think that situation puts the ball on the tee for Aho and his line to reach the next level in the playoffs.
I think beating Tampa Bay and also a couple other teams outside the division in later rounds will require Aho and probably another player or two on his line to be a bona fide Conn Smythe candidate. In addition, having some combination of Slavin or Hamilton produce a bunch offensively in addition to being sound defensively would help too. Hamilton obviously has it in him, and Slavin quietly picked up a ton of assists during the 2019 playoff run.
Yes. Depth is required table stakes to go deep in the playoffs. The team will still need heroic contributions like Warren Foegele jump starting the team in game 3 against Washington or Brock McGinn scoring the game 7 game-winner or like Curtis McElhinney stepping in because of injury. But at the end of the day, the fuel that propels the team to the top must come from a few of the team’s top players.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree with my assertion first that the group of teams capable of winning the 2021 Stanley Cup will actually be a fairly short list of 4-7 teams? And if so, do you think the Hurricanes are on that list?
2) Do you agree with my assertion that the key to taking the next step(s) is the ability of the team’s top players to find another level? If not or in addition, what do you see as keys to a deeper playoff run?