Part 2 briefly highlight the successes and failures over the course of the 2015-16 season as a lead in to what the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes must do to improve upon the 2015-16 season.
2015-16: A treading water type start followed by a collapse
The 2015-16 season featured the more normal routine of doing the North Carolina State Fair road trip after squeezing in a couple quick home games to start the season. The team actually went a respectable 4-3 on the 7-game road trip and returned with the season still alive at 4-6 (also lost first 3 games including 2 at home before departing for trip). The season actually died mostly at home in November. After winning an October finale at home to pull to 5-6, the Canes proceeded to go 3-6-4 in November despite playing 9 of the 13 games at home. The team hit its low point of the season with a miserable 5-1 home loss to New Jersey to start December.
2015-16: The youth-infused surge
On Friday December 5, Jaccob Slavin, Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe were called up from Charlotte. That day marked a bottom and a youth-infused path upward. From December 5 through February 28 (game in which Andrej Nestrasil was injured and just before trade deadline that saw Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles traded), the Hurricanes stormed to a 20-11-6 mark. Those 37 games represented nearly half of a full season at a playoff-worthy 102-point pace. The run also provided tangible on-ice proof that the team was headed in the right direction not just theoretically but also as measured by real production. The team fizzled a bit heading into the trade deadline and also in March with a roster suddenly heavy on AHL call ups because of the 3 trades and also injuries to Justin Faulk Andrej Nestrasil and Phil Di Giuseppe. The team showed that for an extended stretch of games it was capable of winning at a playoff berth type of rate, but then the draft lottery is chock full of teams that played well enough for stretch much shorter than the 82 games needed.
Ron Francis’ summer’s work
Per part 1 of this series, the summer found Ron Francis trying to fill some fairly sizable holes created primarily at the trade deadline. Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg were two-thirds of a top line that never fired on all cylinders scoring-wise, the line held its own defensively, drove possession to the offensive zone and played break even hockey. In addition, John-Michael Liles was steady and sound on the second defense pairing with rookie Brett Pesce. In terms of summer replacements, Ron Francis added veteran scoring in Lee Stempniak, promising young forwards in Sebastian Aho (rookie who played in Finland in 2015-16) and Teuvo Teravainen and a bunch of bottom of the roster depth players.
The path of the 2015-16 season and the modest amount of work that Ron Francis did over the summer are key components of my list of key items for the Carolina Hurricanes to improve in 2016-17.
1) Goaltending from wire to wire
Once Cam Ward found a rhythm that timed well with the team playing better, he played much better in the second half of the season. I would not rate his play as elite, but it was good enough to win. Again, the problem is taking only the good stretch and projecting that over 82 games rarely works. Both Ward and Lack struggled mightily out of the gate and had no answer in October and November when the team could have used help in net while it tried to find its footing. I do not think it is necessary for the Hurricanes netminding to carry the team in the way that Henrik Lundqvist can, but I do think it is imperative that the goalies get off to a much better start and can at least hold the average line throughout the season.
2) A better start
There have been extenuating circumstances (biggest was Jordan Staal’s loss to injury in 2014-15), but the Hurricanes have mostly failed to enter December still truly in the hunt for a playoff start. In an NHL with schedule and competitive parity it is incredibly difficult for a team to get hot enough to dig out of a hole from early in the season. The Hurricanes surge that lasted nearly 3 months but was still insufficient in 2015-16 is case and point. With the delayed start the the NHL season because of the World Cup, the Hurricanes long road trip comes straight out of the gate with 7 straight games before finally playing at home on October 28. It is not necessary for the Hurricanes to dominate in this early stretch, but the team needs to at least tread water on the road trip and equally importantly be ready to push up the standings in the usual home-heavy November. Canes fans who rightly lean positive on Coach Bill Peters usually either forget about or gloss over the degree to which Bill Peters was spinning his wheels with game by game line changes with seemingly no ability to either spark his club to play better or scratch and claw for enough points during the struggle. He did ultimately figure it all out in early December, but the NHL season does not allow for 25 games to figure things out and get the train on the tracks.
I view the first 2 points as prerequisites to have a chance.
From there I think it takes __ more things for the Hurricanes, who are gradually becoming a trendy dark horse pick, to push up into the playoff chase for early April.
3) The youth steps forward as a group and does not suffer significant setbacks
The rookies did incredibly well being thrown into a sink or swim situation in 2015-16. While they deserve high marks for their rapid adaptation to the NHL, there is a big difference between being capable of playing in the NHL either in a sheltered role on a good team or learning on the job in a higher role but on a bad team and growing into the kind of difference-maker that pushes games into the win column. The trajectory is incredibly positive, but the 2015-16 version featured kids who were good enough. I think more than any other factor, the group of promising young players that are central to the optimism for the future must be even better in 2016-17.
Players whose ceiling is theoretically higher than what they have shown very early in their careers includes Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho (rookie) and Phil Di Giuseppe. That is almost half of the roster that enters the 2016-17 season with the potential to make the hockey team better. To what degree this group of young players matures and improves instead of seeing development setbacks will have much to say about whether the Hurricanes are ready to push upward or if they are still a year or 2 away.
4) A sound and stable core
With the volume of young players and also players like Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask stepping into more challenging roles, I think it is inevitable that even if things trend upward that there will be minor setbacks along the way. I think it will be critical for the Hurricanes success especially early in the season for a core group of players to play the consistent, sound and solid brand of hockey required to stay in hockey games, collect points on a regular basis and take advantage of the NHL rules that often award a point even for losing.
At forward, I think the line of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom needs to pick up where it left off in February when Nestrasil was lost to injury. That line gives Bill Peters 20 minutes of at least break even hockey against the other teams’ good players and also a line that drives possession down into the offensive zone .
On defense, I think the top 4 needs to play to the top of its game. That means Justin Faulk finding a higher gear defensively and hopefully keeping his power play scoring from 2015-16. It means Ron Hainsey providing the same solid positional play, communication and heady puck support that Liles did next to Brett Pesce last season such that the second pairing does not miss a beat. And it requires Jaccob Slavin to launch into the 2016-17 season at the same level he was playing at after building momentum to work up to that level in 2015-16. I think hockey people often underestimate how much more difficult it can be to just jump right in at a high level to start a season versus gradually building a rhythm to get there later in the season. The most notable data point in Hurricanes history is Jamie McBain. McBain looked nothing short of phenomenal in the final stretch of the 2009-10 season, so much so that then Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford did not even add a plan B before penning McBain into the top 4 for the following season. McBain struggled and never really recovered. It is a significantly different task to hop into an NHL lineup with a good rhythm and just keep pushing forward versus trying to find that higher gear straight out of the gate to start the season.
Finally, the goalie position will also be important. Even the good version of the 2016-17 Hurricanes is unlikely to be so dominant that they can just give up a few points here and there because their goalie did not show up. The Hurricanes desperately need some combination of Ward and Lack to give them a chance on a nightly basis and to play through any growing pains for the kids without being knocked off kilter.
5) Stars emerge
While it is important for the collective group to play well in an NHL game in which every player is part of the action, there is also a need for leaders and stars who drive success. Great teams in the NHL are almost always led by a handful of great player who drive success. Sure those teams are deep, but in a league where many games end up tied and many more decided by a single goal, the importance of having a few great players who tip the 50/50 games to wins is vital. The Hurricanes roster includes a number of talented young players who are dark horses for this role, but the most likely candidates are ironically the same players who led the surge upward in 2015-16. During the winning run Jordan Staal was the team’s best player, and his line was the team’s best line and better than whomever they were lining up against almost on a nightly basis. Jeff Skinner’s scoring outburst seemed to spark the entire team when it really needed it in December. And Justin Faulk’s run was cut short with an injury, but he was the team’s best defensemen and leading power play weapon for much of the season. I think this trio needs to be great not just good for the Hurricanes to do more than match last season’s 86 points. The 3 veterans are the most likely candidates, but is it possible that 1 of the incredibly talented but still learning young players like Noah Hanifin, Sebastian Aho or Jaccob Slavin completely jumps the reasonable development schedule and becomes a franchise type of player in 2016-17? The NHL is a young man’s game, so it might be more possible than people realize.
If you had to name 2-4 keys for the Hurricanes 2016-17 success, what would they be?