Now just a single day away from the start of the 2016-17 season for the Carolina Hurricanes, it is time to look forward to what the new season might bring. An important starting point for understanding the 2016-17 team is to take a look back at the 2015-16 season and its roster, its successes and failures and what it might mean for the new season.
I also encourage everyone to read Canes and Coffee’s 2016-17 coverage preview which includes some site changes, new writers and a few new coverage initiatives both started and still in process.
Comparison of opening day rosters
When one looks back to this exact point in 2015-16 season, the volume of changes are immense. The goalie position looks exactly the same but otherwise the teams are quite different at all levels of the lineup.
On defense, the opening day roster included John-Michael Liles and James Wisniewski as the second pairing, Noah Hanifin making his NHL debut and Michal Jordan as ready depth. When you fast forward to today, 3 of those players are gone completely, and I think one could make the case that Noah Hanifin could be a completely different player in year 2 after a sink or swim full immersion into the NHL at the age of 18.
At forward, the lineup has changed just as dramatically. The forward combinations were changed so frequently in October and November of 2015 that I am not sure it really even makes sense to compare details from opening day. Personnel-wise, gone are Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and a group of players including Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Brad Malone and Nathan Gerbe who took turns trying to play up into the top 9 and also to fill out the fourth line. In addition, Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil who were basically depth players trying to get into the lineup at all to start the 2015-16 season enter the 2016-17 with more central roles by virtue of their strong run of play book-ending Jordan Staal on a line that was the Hurricanes best when the team played its best hockey from December through February. If you count Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom as new entries into the top 9 relative to the start of the 2015-16 season, then fully 5 of the 9 players expected to start the season in the top 9 are different. (The others are veteran addition Lee Stempniak, rookie Sebastian Aho and young up-and-comer Teuvo Teravainen who was acquired from the Blackhawks via trade.) And of the other 4 players, namely Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner are returnees but step into a much bigger challenge as arguably the team’s first scoring line. In addition, the fourth line, at least to start the season, sees the return of Jay McClement as the center with a collection of entirely new players (Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Martin Frk and Phil Di Giuseppe who did not enter the mix in 2015-16 until December).
The goalie position is the only one that looks the same with the return of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.
Possibly more accurate roster comparison point
But I think a more accurate comparison point is to the team that was pretty stable and pretty good from early December through the end of February when the trade deadline saw 3 players (Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles) leave via trade and Andrej Nestrasil felled by injury.
That changeover is a little bit less massive.
Again, the goalies are the same.
And on defense, that squad still included Noah Hanifin but also added rookies Brett Pesce and then Jaccob Slavin to the mix. Brett Pesce was one of the best stories of a 2015-16 filled with many when he basically parachuted in from playing the 2014-15 in the NCAA to being not just an NHL defenseman but a top 4. Then his story was rivaled later by Jaccob Slavin who was part of the mid-season surge. He started as a competent third pairing defenseman and then quickly vaulted up into the top 4 and even the top pairing when Justin Faulk was injured. All along Noah Hanifin was accumulating professional experience, growing more comfortable and honing hs game. When you compare the 2016-17 opening game blue line to the group that played winning hockey from December through February, the changeover is much less dramatic. The 5 core players (Faulk, Hainsey, Pesce, Slavin, Hanifin) are back which leaves only the last defense spot and depth up in the air. Those roles could be filled by long-timer Ryan Murphy (who is out injured for 3-4 weeks) who played with Hanifin early in 2016-17 or 1 of a couple very recent newcomers in Jakub Nakladal and Klas Dahlbeck. The most significant change is the loss of John-Michael Liles who was quietly and unspectacularly solid, an incredibly good fit for a learning-on-the-job rookie in Brett Pesce and just a steady presence, leader and mentor for a very young group.
At forward, the team looks to lean heavily on a foundational piece of the 2015-16 mid-season surge with the Nestrasil/JStall/Nordstrom line intact for now. But beyond that things look incredibly different both in terms of personnel and role. The most familiar set is Skinner/Rask who have an extended history together and were two-thirds of a very good third line during the upswing in 2015-16. But there are 2 key differences. First, they have a new line mate in veteran journeyman Lee Stempniak. (Phil Di Giuseppe saw the most ice time with them in the middle to end of the 2015-16 before being lost to injury.) Second and significantly, that line goes from being a third line for which Bill Peters could cherry pick match ups a bit to being 1 of the top 2 lines and slated to play shift in and shift out against other teams’ best lines and defenders. The third line is also almost brand new. Holdover Elias Lindholm will center a line with 2 other talented and skilled players in Finnish rookie Sebastian Aho and another Finnish player Teuvo Teravainen who was acquired from the Blackhawks via trade. The group averages less than 21 years old, oozes speed and skill but is an unproven bunch with incredible upside but also uncertainty. Finally, the fourth line is centered by mainstay Jay McClement who was had a tough 2015-16 season and was seemingly challenged for his job in training camp when rookie Lucas Wallmark got a look in the C4 slot in the preseason finale. I would expect a short leash, but at least to start the season Bill Peters and Ron Francis seem to be going with the idea that McClement is good enough and just needs better/more complementary line mates. Those are completely different. Some combination of Bryan Bickell, Phil Di Giuseppe, Viktor Stalberg and Martin Frk who was claimed off waivers will battle for the final 2 roster spots early in the season. All had strong preseasons, so how it sorts out will be interesting to watch.
The longer view of the Carolina Hurricanes roster transition
I also encourage though who have not read it yet, to read Cory Fogg’s feature that details the Carolina Hurricanes roster transition over the past 4 years bridging from former general manager Jim Rutherford to current general manager Ron Francis.
At this time of year when more casual fans poke their head back into the hockey world after a summer away, Canes and Coffee would greatly appreciate extra help putting these more general season preview articles in front of your friends, family and acquaintances with a quick Twitter or Facebook share, an email or even the crazy “Hey have you seen this Canes web site?” personal contact.
Part 2 of this multi-part preview will appear later today as we build up to regular season pace over the next 2 days!