This article is part 4 overall for my ongoing series of 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes season preview articles and also part 2 of 2 for player profiles:
Part 3A of my 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes season preview goes player by player through about half of opening day roster looking at roles and goals for players that I grouped as “the core foundation” and “the role players”.
The second set of players is heavy on youth but also and also includes a small set of players moving up to face a big challenge.
Last season, the good part of the Carolina Hurricanes season featured a top line led by Eric Staal that drove possession and played break even or better hockey despite never really finding a scoring groove. The second line was an elite checking line centered by Jordan Staal. And that left the duo of Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask, mostly with Phil Di Giuseppe but also with a smaller mix of Elias Lindholm, sitting in an important but maybe not focused upon third line. With the departure of Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg at the trade deadline, Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner packed up their stuff from the third line and basically jumped to first line responsibilities. (I actually see this line and Jordan Staal’s line as equal 1A and 1B of different styles, but I do think it is fair to call the line with Skinner and Rask the “first scoring line” at least to start the season. With that comes a big challenge and big responsibility. Lee Stempniak is not so much moving up (he has played on first and second lines in recent years) as moving in as a new player trying to help Skinner and Rask successfully make their jump.
First, let me start by saying that I think it would be reasonable to include Jeff Skinner as part of ‘the core’ in the first article, but I included him here more to group him with 2 other players who are in the same important boat as him.
Jeff Skinner had a solid 2015-16 season. Maybe most notable was his ability to make significant strides in terms of defense, decision-making and avoiding costly mistakes after choppy development that significantly lagged his natural ability to create offense and score goals. The positive strides defensively made his team high 28 goals and 51 points enough to call Skinner’s season a success despite the fairly modest scoring totals for a player labeled as a scorer. Entering the 2016-17 season, I think Jeff Skinner faces 2 challenges that are integral to the Hurricanes 2016-17 success. First, he needs to play at a level similar to last season both in terms of scoring production and also 2-way play despite taking a step up from the third line to the first or second line and facing tougher match ups because of it. Second, he needs to find a slightly higher gear offensively. His 2015-16 scoring totals were respectable but for a team looking for more scoring, he ideally needs to push up to 30/30 range or even a little bit higher to help boost scoring. To do so, I think the key is not so much about Jeff Skinner playing better but instead about Jeff Skinner finding chemistry with another offensively-minded player, working with that player to both receive and generate more scoring chances and see a reasonable scoring jump because of that. I like Rask and Skinner together and think Rask is a very good player, but at least at least so far he is not a pure playmaker. The hope is that the lone net that Ron Francis cast into the free agent market looking for scoring help in the form of Lee Stempniak netted a player who clicks with Jeff Skinner.
Though I think he is a higher caliber player of such variety, part of me was inclined to put Lee Stempniak in the category of role player. His “role” is a significant one in trying to be the missing piece that enables the Hurricanes to create a top scoring line without a big trade or a big free agent budget. At a general level, Stempniak needs to add more scoring punch, but at a more specific level, I think the greatest possible thing that Stempniak can do to help the Hurricanes in 2016-17 is to find chemistry and serve as an offensive catalyst for Jeff Skinner. Skinner’s skill set is enough that 40 goals is not out of the question but in recent years he has looked like a one man show at times trying to both create and finish everything himself. Can Lee Stempniak significantly increase the volume of high quality (not just whirling dervish shots from anywhere and everywhere) scoring chances that Skinner gets? If so, I think that is what enables Jeff Skinner to find a higher level of play and production more so than any improvements in his game, and the volume of offensive zone activity should also lift Victor Rask whose strong read/react and positional play should make him a secondary beneficiary of a strong offensive attack. It is a lot to put on a player new to the team, but in short, I am looking for Lee Stempniak to be a catalyst for the top scoring line and Jeff Skinner’s effort to find a higher gear scoring-wise.
With Jeff Skinner tasked with leading the team in scoring and Lee Stempniak assigned the task of generating offensive chances, at first glance Victor Rask looks like the complementary passenger. To some degree I think this is true in the sense that he is not likely to lead the line in scoring. But his role should not be underestimated. He reminds me a little bit of Jussi Jokinen when he played with Skinner (and Ruutu) during arguably Skinner’s best run as a scorer. Jokinen is a little bit more of a pure playmaker than Rask is (at least so far), but I think the similarity is both players’ uncanny ability to consistently read situations correctly and do exactly the right thing. The result is a bunch of small things that are not flashy and do not always make the score sheet but add up in the form of more offensive zone time, more scoring chances and ultimately more goals. It ranges from stepping into passing lanes when the wings create forechecking pressure, supporting the puck for a quick short pass when line mates are pressured with the puck on their stick and knowing when/where to step into a hole for a scoring chance. Significant about Victor Rask especially as relates to playing with Jeff Skinner and another playmaking type wing in Stempniak is that Rask does not need to have the puck on his stick to make plays or contribute. As the lineup is currently constructed Rask has the important role of centering what needs to be the top scoring line for the Hurricanes and also help assure that that line is sound defensively since it will be matching up against other teams’ best lines on regular basis.
The young guns
Parsing the remaining roster players into a couple categories could be handled in any number of ways. Much of what is left is a collection of young players with 1-3 years of experience. These players have all proven that they can be serviceable NHL players, but for most the hoped for peak of their playing level is much, much higher. The distinction is arbitrary and with the potential to rankle some feathers based on who I put where, but I am going to break them into one set of players who still have significant room to grow but are ahead of schedule and another set of players who more so are still trying to play their way up to their ceiling and are arguably behind schedule and/or at least on the clock.
He was the last to of the 3 rookie defenseman to arrive in Raleigh last season but arguably hit the highest level of play once there. He started at about the midway point of the season in a somewhat protected role next to Noah Hanifin on the third defense pairing. By virtue of a perfect mix of strong play and injuries and trades on the blue line, late February and early March saw Slavin as a fixture in the top 4, leading the team in minutes and staking a nearly undeniable claim to being the Hurricanes best defenseman during the final third of the season. His greatest strength is his mobility and subtle quickness in terms of reaction and first strides that gave him the ability to adjust to changing situations quickly and when necessary recover at record speed when caught out of position. I have written a couple times over the past few days about the difference between growing into a higher role over the course of a season when in a playing rhythm versus jumping straight into at NHL speed after a summer off and only preseason to shake the rust off. Set to start the season on the top pairing next to Justin Faulk, Slavin is in a critical role trying to hold down the elite scorers of the NHL on a nightly basis. If Slavin suffers a setback and cannot find his spring 2015 level of play, Peters is forced to scramble to make a defense work despite possibly being short at the top end of the roster. But if Slavin and Justin Faulk can form a solid top pairing, Coach Bill Peters gains defensive stability and has enough options to build out the rest of the blue line below them.
Brett Pesce was the second of 3 rookie defenseman to make NHL debuts for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2015-16. When James Wisniewski tore his ACL 47 seconds into his Hurricanes tenure Michal Jordan struggled to jump into the top 4 on his left side, Brett Pesce was given the call. I started clamoring for such a trial about as soon as Wisniewski hobbled off the ice. It started with me boosting his ranking among Hurricanes blue line prospects to below only Noah Hanifin after a strong preseason. Even before Wisniewski was declared out for the season, I put forward the idea of trying Pesce in the slot next to Liles based on his solid play there in the last preseason game. Pesce went on to have a solid season as a serviceable if not better top 4 defensemen under the mentorship of veteran partner John-Michael Liles. Pesce again finds himself starting the season in the top 4 and again paired with a wily veteran in Ron Hainsey. Pesce’s 2016-17 season sees him tasked with the challenge of adjusting to a new partner (Pesce and Liles’ instant chemistry was instrumental in Pesce’s instant success) and again being an every game top 4 despite his young age and stage of development. If the Hurricanes can go 4, if not more, deep in terms of sound play on the blue line, they should stay in hockey games, benefit for the OTL point rules of the NHL and also have a chance to win their share of games. Brett Pesce sits front and center for being part of being above average defensively despite being below average in terms of age.
Noah Hanifin was the first of the 3 rookie defensemen to see NHL action in 2015-16 both starting and finishing the season at the NHL level. He spent the vast majority of the season growing into the NHL in the third pairing but added more minutes and more responsibility via a regular role on the power play as the season wore on. Hanifin is currently slotted to again play in the third pairing with some combination of the 2 newcomers (Klas Dahlbeck and Jakub Nakladal) or possibly Ryan Murphy when he returns from injury. With his power play ice time and role as primary puck carrier for the third pairing, Hanifin has significant potential to contribute to increased scoring by creating offense from the back end. Sitting firmly in the #5 slot, there is a high probability that he will play minutes in the top 4 either because of an injury or if the lackluster play forces some shuffling on defense. With a ceiling arguably higher than any other player on the Canes young defense because of his elite skating and size, Hanifin is also a wild card whose range in 2016-17 could be anything from serviceable third pairing defenseman who is still learning up to a rising top 4 defenseman who can be a game changer. Where exactly he falls within that range at this still early stage of his development could have a big impact on the Hurricanes 2016-17 season.
On the one hand, I think it is important to temper expectations for Sebastian Aho who is a 19-year old rookie. On the other hand, I think people overestimate the development for elite players. More often than not elite players rise up ahead of any reasonable schedule. They more so seize opportunities when presented with them than work toward some schedule. So with Aho’s lights out 2015-16 season excelling in junior international tournament play then professional hockey in Finland and finally professional level international play in late spring, hopes are high for him. While it is fair to give him time to adapt to the NHL, watching anxiously to see if more is possible sooner is not out of the question. As the Hurricanes work gradually to build more roster and scoring depth especially at forward, Aho should help that math. The question is just how much of that comes in 2016-17 and how soon?
Players with something to prove
Also in the category of young players is a group of Hurricanes players who are still prospects and still fairly young but are quickly reaching the point where they need to step up to a higher level.
Perhaps rushed to the NHL ranks too early in his development, Elias Lindholm is suddenly entering his fourth NHL season still trying to find the higher gear that makes him the type of player who drives wins. He has established himself as a serviceable third line forward but has yet to become much more. As a #5 overall draft pick with a well-rounded skill set, expectations are higher for him, but despite a reasonably favorable situation in terms of volume of ice time, a decent helping of power play minutes and scoring-capable line mates, Lindholm has fallen just short of 40 points in each of the last 2 seasons. Nearing 22 years old, he is still trying to put it all together, ratchet up game to game consistency and intensity and find a higher gear. At a minimum, the Hurricanes need Lindholm to be a solid 2-way player that anchors a young line. But slotted to start the season back at his natural center position on a line that has the potential to be dynamic offensively, could he be ready to break out and do more?
Teuvo Teravainen’s situations is quite similar to Elias Lindholm’s. Teravainen was a first round draft pick by the Blackhawks in 2012 (so 1 year before Lindholm was drafted). Also like Lindholm, Teravainen is a player who entered the 2015-16 with high hopes from his organization but had a ‘meh’ season. Originally expected to seize and keep a spot in the top 6 on the Blackhawks to add more skill, Teravainen was leapfrogged by Artemi Panarin who went on the win the rookie of year award. Teravainen is still young and is very skilled, but in a young man’s game he is also on the clock for taking that next step up from being NHL-capable with higher potential to fulfilling more of that potential. At a minimum, the Hurricanes would hope for Teravainen to provide decent depth scoring, but on the higher end, the Hurricanes become a much better and deeper team if the currently configured young third line of Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen can challenge Skinner/Rask/Stempniak for a claim to being the team’s best scoring line.
Phil Di Giuseppe
After having a pretty solid second half of the 2015-16 season scoring at a 34-point pace for 41 games and playing a complementary role on Jeff Skinner’s line during his scoring run, Di Giuseppe found himself bumped down the depth chart over the summer. The additions of Stempniak, Aho and Teravainen pushed Di Giuseppe out of the top 9 and even out of the lineup. He spent the majority of the preseason playing on lines with players destined to start the season in AHL. Awhile back I coined the term ‘the forgotten man’ for Di Giuseppe. At only 23 years old and as a 2012 draftee (same year as Teravainen and only 1 year earlier than Lindholm) and with some skill, I think Di Giuseppe should be considered a prospect who needs consideration in the same category as Teravainen and Lindholm. His raw skill might be a notch lower than Teravainen, but I am not sure the gap is as great as some people make it out to be. In addition, Di Giuseppe has evolved to add a physical power forward forechecking element to his game such that he has gradually started to remind me of Tuomo Ruutu in some regards as a banger with a enough skill, skating and offensive ability to play on a scoring line. Di Giuseppe seems destined to start the season as a scratch, so I think his first contribution to the 2016-17 season is likely to be as an injury or lackluster play replacement looking to provide a spark to a line just like he did with Skinner/Rask in 2015-16. From there, the question is if he can find a higher gear and keep a role instead of just shuffling in and out of the lineup.
Eddie Lack is a bit different than the other players in the ‘something to prove’ category because of his age. At 28 years old, Lack is not a still-developing prospect like most in this category. Rather he is a reasonably experienced veteran who was acquired last summer and then extended contract-wise with the expectation that he would be at least a significant part of a goaltending tandem if not a starter. Lack struggled mightily out of the gate in 2015-16. He rebounded somewhat but never really excelled and never strung together enough consecutive good outings to seize the starter’s role. There are obviously many factors that go into Lack’s 2015-16 season, but early-season adjustments driven by Canes goalie coach David Marcoux might have played a significant role. He enters the 2016-17 season with more familiarity with the team and after a summer to reset mentally and possibly work out some physical kinks in his game. I have said since the beginning of the offseason that the Hurricanes had to get at least average-ish goaltending to have a chance in 2016-17. At a minimum Lack is expected to be 25-30 percent of that equation as a backup. But there is also a chance that Lack rises up and plays like Francis hoped when he acquired him, seizes the reins and plays an even bigger role. Shorter version is that Eddie Lack is 1 of only 2 players for what could be the Hurricanes most important slot in 2016-17.
Ryan Murphy who is suddenly 23 years old and entering his fourth season of professional hockey after 2 years in juniors is clearly on the clock for seizing a place in the Hurricanes present and future. I actually thought he showed improvement defensively in 2015-16 but was still surpassed on the depth chart by young up-and-comers Hanifin, Slavin and Pesce. Since then the Hurricanes added another top-end defense prospect in Jake Bean and also saw Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury push up against the bottom of the NHL depth chart with strong preseasons. The potential is there for Murphy to be surpassed by 2 more younger players and become expendable via trade. At the same time, his high-end skating ability and potential should get Murphy 1 last try in what I termed a make or break situation during the summer. Good for Murphy in 2016-17 would be Murphy settling into the #6 slot next to Noah Hanifin, showing a new NHL propensity to generate offense from the back end while at the same time looking reasonably sound defensively. Bad could see Murphy very briefly showcased and then quickly traded to collect a modest return and clear a roster spot for the next wave of young Canes defensemen.
Martin Frk was claimed off of waivers from the Detroit Red Wings last Sunday. His case is an interesting one. He has a fairly high pedigree as a second round draft pick in 2011 but progressed fairly slowly and actually had to play his way up from the ECHL to the AHL. He seemed to put it all together at the AHL level at least in 2015-16 when he scored 27 goals in 67 games. Queries to a couple of people who track the Red Wings closely seemed to peg Frk as having a sniper-like shot and scoring potential but also being a bit one-dimensional and below average in terms of skating, defensive acumen and all-around play. I do not see Frk as a great fit for a buttoned-down fourth line as currently configured. With the Hurricanes need to increase goal scoring from 2015-16, I think the potentially interesting scenario for Frk is if an injury opens up a slot on a scoring line and nets him a short try out to see if he can score at the NHL level. My hunch based much more on situation than evaluation of Frk is that Francis had a chance to get a free look at a player and took it but that Frk will ultimately be placed on waivers again and then likely be gone again.