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”.
After a bit of delay because of other obligations and also real hockey with the season underway, this final part of the preview will wrap up CandC’s Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 season preview with thoughts on what it takes to make the playoffs and a few predictions.
What does it take for the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes to make the playoffs?
I touched on this to some degree in part 2 that noted 5 keys to improving upon the 2015-16 campaign.
1) Youth must rise up
At the most basic level, for the Hurricanes to even contend for the playoffs, the young part of the roster (a BIG part of it) must continue its rise. Everyone is rightfully thrilled with the development of 3 young defensemen who stepped into the lineup last season and did incredibly well for rookies with no AHL seasoning. And everyone is rightfully optimistic about how talented the trio of Nordic kids Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen could be individually or as a line. In all cases, the potential is there, but that is not the same as saying they are great NHL players right now as in as good as or better than what playoff teams will post for lineups.
Jaccob Slavin’s tail end of 2015-16 was eye-opening, but calling him a proven top pairing defensemen as of right now is premature. Might he get there and even get there ahead of schedule? Sure. But would I take him over Duncan Keith if I needed to win a hockey game tomorrow. No, obviously.
Noah Hanifin’s ceiling is arguably the highest of any player on the Hurricanes roster, but as the end of the 2015-16, he was still (rightfully) a third pairing defenseman who had a ways to go in terms of defensive responsibilities.
Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Tervainen are similar in that both project to be good top 6 forwards, but neither is there yet. Lindholm is a serviceable and sound 2-way forward who has yet to show any dynamic ability on offense. Teravainen was a somewhat expendable third-liner in Chicago.
The point is not to belittle what the Hurricanes young players accomplished in 2015-16 nor is it to say that their potential is not sky high. Rather, the point is to say that it takes a good percentage of these players shifting from “will someday be great” to “is 1 of best players on the ice right now” on a consistent basis.
If too many of the Hurricanes young players either stall or take a step backward development-wise, the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes quickly become a promising young team…for 2017-18 and/or beyond.
2) Stars must emerge
While there is also need for depth (Pittsburgh proved that in recent years), in the NHL, great teams are almost led by a handful of elite players who are among the best in the league. The Blackhawks have arguably 3 Hart Trophy-capable players in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. The Lightning have Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Capitals have Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. While it is possible for teams to push into the playoffs riding a group effort, the task becomes much easier with just a small handful of players playing at an elite level and driving wins.
The 2015-16 Hurricanes were actually a decent example of that. After a tumultuous October and November, the team finally found its footing and surged for about 3 months on the back of Jordan Staal. During that time period, Jordan Staal and his line were pretty consistently skating against other teams’ first or second lines and winning the battle on a nightly basis. That foundation made it possible for a couple plays here and there to win hockey games or least claim an overtime loss point.
When I look at the Hurricanes roster, 3 players jump out all for different reasons.
First, Justin Faulk is the young gray beard of a young group. He will be tasked with anchoring the top defense pairing and playing a ton of minutes in all situations against other teams’ best players. If he can put it all together, he has elite potential. His power play blast gives him the potential to score 50+ points. If he can shore up the defensive side of the puck an be a shutdown defender especially late in close games, Justin Faulk could fully arrive in 2016-17 as 1 of the best defensemen in the entire NHL.
Second, Jordan Staal was exactly the star that the Hurricanes needed in the successful middle part of the 2015-16 season. During that stretch, Staal anchored an elite checking line, scored at mid-60s point pace and just generally made the team go. He needs to find that same level of play more quickly and maintain it throughout the 2016-17 season.
Third, Jeff Skinner had a solid 2015-16 campaign. His 28 goals led the team, but taking equal billing was the strides that he made in terms of 2-way play. Long the great scorer, Skinner’s game started to take on more of the look of a great player. One of the areas for improvement for the Hurricanes is scoring, and Jeff Skinner as much as any other player could have more to give here. His 51 points in 2015-16 were a positive especially given his improved 2-way play, but Skinner’s ceiling is at least 70 points if he can receive a scoring chance boost from chemistry with his line mates (Stempniak steps into spotlight). If Skinner can both find a higher gear offensively and maintain the upward path defensively, he could become 1 of the stars needed to drive success in 2016-17.
With so many young, talented players, I would not rule out a wild card stepping into the mix as a star. Any of Sebastian Aho, Noah Hanifin, Teuvo Teravainen, Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm have the potential.
3) Goalies must be at least NHL average
There are teams who are just so incredibly good at scoring and otherwise that they can survive whatever they get for goaltending. The Dallas Stars are the current poster child for that situation. And it is definitely possible to win with middle-ish quality goaltending. But especially for a team like the Hurricanes that must add about 10 points in the standings to make the playoffs, I just do not see how they can do so if the goaltending does not improve and at least be in the neighborhood of average over the course of the season. Last season, Cam Ward was able to do this but only for a stretch less than half the season. Eddie Lack never found a groove but is a wild card after a summer off to reset mentally and try to find the game he seemed to leave in Vancouver when traded.
For the Hurricanes to make the playoffs, I think it will require the Hurricanes to get adequate not necessarily great goaltending but importantly that this be over the vast majority of the 82-game season not just for short bursts or a 20-30-game stretch.
That’s it. I think the path upward in general for the Hurricanes will be on the backs of the youth. When they rise up; the team rises up. The big question on that story is when not if. If a large number of young players stall a bit, which is not out of the ordinary, the night-to-night play quickly becomes too much ‘learning’ and not enough ‘winning now’. Even with that, a couple players need to step up and be the set of players who match Malkin/Crosby, Toews/Kane, Backstrom/Ovechkin, Stamkos/Hedman, etc. If that does not happen, there just are too many games on the schedule where the other team’s best players dictate the result. Finally, the Hurricanes need to be at least average in net and need to do it over the course of the full season. Trying to win by 1 goal is hard enough. If that number becomes 2 or more on many nights because of a disadvantage in terms of goaltending, I think it quickly becomes too much to overcome.
Per season preview rules, at some point I am supposed to make predictions for exactly where the Hurricanes will finish in the standings, individual point projections and other measurable events. I have never been a big fan of these articles because the typical version is often nothing more than someone taking an easy path to tossing out numbers. But that said, I will play along to some degree and take my shot at looking into the crystal ball.
When Francis decided to go light on spending futures and roster spots to improve with proven veterans this summer, I think the over/under on when the Hurricanes will emerge from rebuilding and become a great hockey team stuck right at the 2017-18 marker that I would have pegged it at to start the summer. Francis chose not to upgrade at the goalie position which was below average in total for 2015-16 and added only Lee Stempniak in terms of top half of the roster veterans to add proven help. In keeping with the ‘building the right way’ theme, Francis almost unanimously chose to leave ice time and roster spots for the kids to use to learn and be evaluated. I am NOT writing off a playoff appearance. If the Hurricanes get league average goaltending and a decent start, I think the team will be in the mix come March. If that happens, it will be interesting to see to what degree Francis goes for it at the trade deadline.
I put the odds of making the playoffs at 40% (so just less than 50%) , but if Ward and/or Lack show signs of finding a rhythm that number increases.
Key player predictions
Jeff Skinner: It is based on a very limited view of the duo together in preseason, but I think Jeff Skinner will better his 51 points in 2015-16 by at least 10 and push north of 60 points again if he stays healthy. I think the driver will be Lee Stempniak and the continued maturation of Victor Rask. The difference between 50 and 60 or more points for Skinner is not so much about him doing more as him finding chemistry with line mates and receiving more in terms of quality scoring chances. Over the past few years, too often it felt like Jeff Skinner was a player who had to both create and then finish his own chances. My early read on Lee Stempniak is that he will bring an element of playmaking to Skinner’s line and that will be the catalyst for his step upward scoring-wise.
Noah Hanifin: I think his offensive production will also rise significantly. As he is becoming more comfortable, his offensive abilities are starting to shine through. He regularly looked to make head man passes (and did so successfully) in preseason and is gradually looking more Joni Pitkanen-like. In addition, his work on his shot during the summer was noticeable in training camp. To what degree Justin Faulk can continue his torrid power play goal scoring pace will dictate whether Hanifin can challenge him for the blue line scoring title. Less certain schedule-wise but definitely something to watch will be Hanifin’s ability to improve his game defensively. That piece of his game is likely to see more gradual development but is a must-have for him to reach his potential as a top-end NHL defenseman.
Jaccob Slavin: He will lead the Hurricanes in ice time. He showed an ability to handle heavy minutes last spring and will be asked to do so again as the season wears on in 2016-17. He will not match Faulk or Hanifin for scoring prowess, but he will be 1 of the players that Peters wants on the ice every other shift late in close games.
Goaltending: I am not as optimistic as the organization in this regard. I think best case, the Canes gain consistency and from it bump up to the NHL average for the season. Importantly, I think this could be good enough to claw into the playoffs, but it is important to note that I see that as a ceiling for best case. I would be pleasantly surprised to be wrong. 🙂
Justin Faulk: Long-term and even as early as 2016-17, I could see Faulk being passed in terms of being the team’s best defensive defenseman. But that is a function of other players getting better not because of him falling down. I think the key for Faulk is continuing to both be an attention grabber but still scorer on the power play, provide sound and solid play, play with a physical edge and a touch of nastiness and be a leader when the team really needs it. That last one is critical at this stage of the Hurricanes growth. At the points in time when the team really needs someone to step up, Faulk needs to be that player. If he does that, he could actually be surpassed on the Hurricanes blue line depth chart but be no less important to the team’s success.
Jordan Staal: Likely to again center some variety of top checking line, I think Jordan Staal’s scoring total will be similar but maybe slightly higher than the 48 points he talled in 2015-16. That is enough if he again leads a line capable of tamping down opponents’ scoring lines and driving possession into the offensive zone.
Surprises from the depth and system
Phil Di Giuseppe: I continue to like him as a dark horse to make a difference this season. If I search the Canes forward ranks for a player with enough skill to score like a top 6 forward and enough engagement, physical play, aggressive forechecking, etc. I think it might be fair to rank Di Giuseppe only below Jordan Staal. Most of the other players who bring some measure of physicality are limited offensively, and I think the gap in raw skill level between Di Giuseppe and players like Lindholm and Teravainen is smaller than most believe. He starts the season on the outside looking in. I think that could actually be a positive. At the tail end of a preseason as ‘the forgotten man’ playing with primarily AHL-level talent Di Giuseppe made a massive statement in the preseason finale being a physical presence on the forecheck all night, practically blowing a Caps player through boards on a clean hit and then answering the bell and winning a fight. After that performance but still not winning an spot in the opening night lineup, I picture Di Giuseppe as a caged and underfed animal who will be incredibly hungry when he gets into the lineup.
I think Di Giuseppe becomes a regular and scores 40+ points.
Michael Leighton: It makes complete sense to add a veteran netminder for Charlotte to mentor young Alex Nedeljkovic and also help the team win when he is in the lineup. That is very clearly plan A. But Leighton. And to say that Francis has NHL plans for Leighton who last played more than 20 games in the NHL back in the 2009-10 season would be ridiculous. But here’s the thing. Leighton is a savvy veteran who would not be phased mentally if he got a crack at the NHL level. And he has been a pretty good AHL goalie for the past 2 seasons with winning records sub-2.50 GAA and a save percentage just shy of .920 in total. If the Hurricanes encounter an injury at the goalie position and/or just are not getting what they need from the position, could Michael Leighton find his way into the net in a Hurricanes uniform? If he does, could the 35-year old find 1 last burst of energy to build a great swan song before riding off into the sunset for his playing career?
I put the odds at 50% that Leighton sees the net in Canes uniform (including just briefly because of injury), more significantly and surprisingly, I put the odds at 15% (pick a number and roll a single die) that Leighton plays a bigger role at the NHL level.
Lucas Wallmark or Derek Ryan: This summer, Ron Francis hunkered down, committed to Jay McClement and seemed to possibly write off the 2015-16 fourth line’s struggles to the players around him. Gone is pretty much everyone (Terry, Nash, Malone, Gerbe) who played win on McClement’s line last season. And the biggest depth addition was Viktor Stalberg who theoretically brings an element of sound 2-way play and skating that could complement McClement who gets it positionally but sometimes lacks the mobility needed to execute. I think the basic thought process for Ron Francis probably considered that the team just did not have enough depth to build a ‘new NHL’ attacking/skating/scoring fourth line yet and instead went the route of trying to go at least 1 more year with safe, sound and out of trouble in a limited role. But during the course of training camp, the Hurricanes forward ranks became deeper. Bryan Bickell had a solid preseason and looks capable of being more than a write off. Lucas Wallmark looked Victor Rask-like in his ability to play sound positional and decision-making hockey despite his young age and lack of experience. Patrick Brown looked solid defensively and tossed in a surprise dose of offense to boot. If the team can stay healthy, it starts to look possible to build a fourth line that can do more than stay out of trouble. And it increasingly looks possible that Jay McClement might not be among the Hurricanes best 12 forwards. It makes sense to start the season with a known quantity. Coach Bill Peters has enough sorting out to do in other areas. But I think in the long run that the potential is there for the Hurricanes to build a fourth line that gives up very little defensively but adds significantly in terms of ability to drive position into the offensive zone and even chip in some scoring.
I put the odds at 60% that someone else (likely from the AHL so Wallmark or Ryan) gets a decent run of games in the C4 slot at some point during the season. The only way this does not happen is if McClement and his line play really well and scoring is strong such that Peters sees less value in taking risk to add depth scoring.
What are your 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes predictions?
Are you blocking off your schedule for mid/late-April tailgating and Canes hockey?
What predictions do you have for the upcoming season (log them here so you can claim them at the end of the season)?