The perfect storm that was the 2005-06 NHL season which had a wonderful ending for the Carolina Hurricanes was characterized by 2 key ingredients. First, the NHL itself changed radically. The implementation of a salary cap changed the player allocations significantly. And key changes on the ice revamped the game itself. Allowing 2-line passes and enforcing obstruction type penalties shifted the game more in favor of smaller, faster players. Second, the Carolina Hurricanes roster changed radically as well. Roughly ½ of the players on the team changed since the end of the 2003-04 season (with 2004-05 season being lost to the lockout).
The 2005-06 roster was full of wildcards both identified and not identified.
–Eric Staal had another full year to mature in the AHL since his rookie season.
–Veteran Ray Whitney was coming off a reduced role in Detroit and looking to regain his offensive form.
–The Canes planned to go with Martin Gerber in net who looked good but was inexperienced as a starter.
–2004 #4 overall pick Andrew Ladd was now in the mix.
–Fun playoff hero for Calgary, Mike Commodore, was added on defense.
In short, there was a large number of players whose performance was hard to predict in their new situation. When those players as a group largely put it all together, the Canes suddenly went from really bad to really good in a hurry.
I think one can make a strong argument that the number of wildcards for the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes is as many as it has been since that 2005-06 season. Consider that:
–Noah Hanifin is drafted to be an elite NHL defenseman, but it is a wild guess right now on exactly what the schedule for that will be. On the one hand, the 1st defenseman taken last summer (Aaron Ekblad) immediately jumped into the Panthers’ top 4 without a hitch. On the other hand, the norm for even good defensemen is a couple years to develop.
–Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal and Jordan Staal. All 3 had pretty light years scoring-wise in 2014-15, but seem to have significant upside offensively if they can refind their previous levels.
–Derek Ryan was a very good playmaker in Europe the past 2 years. Could he jump straight to the NHL and bring that same level of playmaking to the Canes? Or will he take time to mold his game to the NHL?
–Eddie Lack was good in the 2nd half of the year in Vancouver last season and is just entering his prime with NHL experience. Could be the answer in net that the Canes have mostly lacked in recent years?
–Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask have made progress growing into serviceable top 9 forwards at young ages. But now that they are comfortable at the NHL level, is it possible that 1 or both can find a completely different gear and become the kind of young player that lifts the whole team up?
–Chris Terry and Zach Boychuk both finally earned significant runs of NHL ice time last season. Both seemed to make strides defensively but were unable to bring their AHL scoring prowess. Is it possible that a year of experience helps them take the next step which is to bring more offense to the Canes lineup?
–James Wisniewski and the offensively-leaning blue line have the potential to create more offense. Is it possible that the Canes scoring struggles were not so much a lack of production from the forwards but rather a lack of opportunity because the of an offensively limited blue line? If so, can the removal of a few stay-home defensemen and replacement with more puck-moving defensemen be the scoring boost that the team needs?
As an example, what if Hanifin is the 2nd coming of Ekblad and quickly grows to be a solid #2/#3 defenseman and is playing solid hockey with Faulk by early December, Lack proves that he is ready to be an every-night starter and Derek Ryan proves to be an offensive catalyst for a scoring line and also the power play? It only takes 2-4 things to magically fall into place and the prospects of a team can change significantly.
And that is what makes the NHL so fun and makes training camp for the 2015-16 season son intriguing.