Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers one opinion on what would be included in a ‘peak’ 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes that took yet another step forward and played its way up into the top echelon of the NHL.
Especially with a condensed schedule, I think the key for goaltending will be having two goalies who are regularly playing well enough to give the team a chance to win with decent efforts. At a basic level. I think the Hurricanes had that last season and do not really need to be significantly different or better in net. If I had to nitpick, Petr Mrazek has generally played his best hockey after rounding into form near the midway point of his two seasons with the Hurricanes. With a shorter 56-game season, ideal would be for him to find a higher gear a bit sooner. But in general, the 2019-20 netminding that was reasonably consistent and balanced with both Reimer and Mrazek taking turns is exactly what is need for peak 2020-21 Hurricanes hockey.
When the Hurricanes emerged and finally pushed up into the playoffs in 2018-19 obviously a number of things went well, but I think the single biggest factor was the top to bottom strength of the team’s blue line. From top to bottom the group defended well. With players like Faulk initially and de Haan later pushed down into the third pairing where van Riemsdyk was also having a solid season, the team really did not have a weak link defensively. In addition, the group skated well and was able to help the offense by advancing the puck with pace and joining play from behind.
The 2019-20 blue line was a mixed bag. Dougie Hamilton settled in from the get-go defensively and was elite offensively for a defenseman. Jaccob Slavin was his usual steady self and had a decent year offensively. The result was arguably the best top defense pairing in Hurricanes history. But the team was not as steady and solid from top to bottom. Jake Gardiner struggled mightily in his transition to a new team. Joel Edmundson filled the gap during the front part of the season. The blue line was not a weakness, but it did take a step down and was not as much of a strength as the 2018-19 season.
The peak version of the Hurricanes keeps Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin earning the right to be in the conversation for the NHL’s best but also with a return to the solid play from top to bottom. Then next is someone finding chemistry with Brett Pesce to build a second pairing that is good enough to stop the NHL’s best. Brady Skjei will be given every opportunity to fill this slot. Then behind that, some combination of Gardiner, Fleury and Bean must be able to replicate the solid third pairing play from a couple years back. Finally, the group must continue to produce play an above average role offensively. At the point where Brind’Amour is having to tinker a bunch to get solid play across all three pairings and/or is having to try to hide a couple players, the Hurricanes start to look like a slightly above average team defensively. That is not a catastrophe, but it is short of the team’s ceiling.
The name of the game at forward is scoring depth and balance. Aho/Teravainen/whoever figures to be a capable of better first scoring line. Morgan Geekie plus some combination of the Hurricanes’ depth forwards should be above average in terms of scoring production for a fourth line. The questions lie in the middle. If one counts Staal’s line as the third, the fact that playmaking is not his greatest strength could still be enough offensively. But that means that the second line centered by Trocheck must function as a second scoring line. How that middle of the lineup produces offensively will determine if the Canes are a bit of a one-headed monster that can be tamed or at least slowed on the road with opposing coach’s all-in focus on it matchup-wise or if instead the Hurricanes are capable of generating offense throughout the lineup.
If one looks at the same thing player by player, Aho Teravainen and Svechnikov figure to score at a high rate which makes for first line scoring (even if they are spread throughout the lineup. With the Hurricanes depth forwards being above average offensively for a fourth line, any two of them plus Geekie should be average or better for fourth line scoring. But in terms of trying to round out a middle 6 that ideally scores at a second line rate, Staal is light offensively. Jesper Fast is a great addition and hockey player, but also light offensively for the top half of the lineup. Trocheck was light, albeit in two oddly separated short stints in a Hurricanes uniform, but has produced at a second line pace in the past. The same is true for Dzingel and Niederreiter who have proven capable of scoring 25 goals at the NHL level but were nowhere close to that pace in 2019-20. McGinn and Foegele maybe have upside but are more complementary players on a scoring line. Necas easily has top 6 scoring upside at his young age, but was more of sporadic threat in his rookie campaign. When one nets it out, the positive side of the coin is that the Hurricanes do have eight forwards who could seemingly be part of a scoring-capable middle of the lineup. On the negative side, I am not sure any of these eight players are sure things to provide mid to higher-end second line scoring.
I think the path to peak Hurricanes at forward requires a couple dominoes falling that make everything else go. First, if Trocheck can find a higher gear and chemistry with another forward or two, suddenly the core of a second scoring line is there. Whether onhic that line or possibly on the top line with Aho and Teravainen, at least one of Dzingel or or Niederreiter needs to play much closer to his ceiling which figures to be 25-30 goals. If those two dominoes fall, the Hurricanes are suddenly two lines deep offensively which decreases the offensive production needed from the third line especially if a Geekie-centered fourth line produces offensively.
The team’s depth offensively likely determines whether the 2020-21 Hurricanes are a good team or instead able to climb a notch higher.
Netting it out
I think it comes down to a couple things…
To be great a team’s top players must excel. I think that group includes Teravainen/Aho/Svechnikov offensively (whether or not they form a line). On defense, that means a repeat from Slavin/Hamilton.
Great is nearly impossible without decent or better goaltending, and that will require being two deep in 2020-21.
Then (sounding like a broken record), I think the two keys for the middle of the lineup are Trocheck finding a higher gear such that he drives a second scoring line and Skjei or someone else meshing with Pesce to form an air tight second defense pairing.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is your version of peak Hurricanes hockey for 2020-21?
2) What are the 2-3 most critical elements?
3) Which players are most significant to taking the next step up for the Hurricanes?