It will surprise no one when I say that goal scoring is important for winning hockey games. In 2014-15, 9 of the top 10 teams in goal scoring made the playoffs. 7 of the middle 10 teams in goal scoring. And exactly 0 of the bottom 10 teams in goal scoring made the playoffs. For the 2014-15 season, the Carolina Hurricanes finished 27th out of 30 in the NHL for goals scored with 183.
So to be better, the Carolina Hurricanes need to find a way to score more. There are two basic ways to do this. The first is to add players who can score more goals. The prospects for improvement here are minimal right now simply because the Canes have not added a single forward which is obviously the primary position for goal scoring. While there might be a couple wild cards in players like Brock McGinn and newly signed Derek Ryan, the Canes system does not appear to be stocked with NHL-ready goal scorers.
The second way to boost goal scoring is to get more goals from the same players. And while the Canes cut loose arguably the player with the greatest potential upside from 2014-15 in terms of goal scoring when they bought out Alexander Semin, there still seems to be a ton of untapped offense on the roster.
When you look at Canes forwards that you would hope to lead the team offensively, across the entire list, they underperformed (projected goals in 82-game season):
–Eric Staal (24.5): He improved as the season went on especially after being united with Jordan when he returned. His goal scoring is actually similar to his last few years, but ideally the Canes need 30 from him.
–Jeff Skinner (19.2): He had 33 last year and 31 in the other season he stayed healthy. For a player who leans offense, that is where he needs to be to help the team win.
–Jordan Staal (10.7): He is not a raw goal scorer which is fine, but he has scored in the 20-22 goal range in his better seasons and that is where the Canes need him to be.
–Jiri Tlusty (20.5): When compared to the other slumps, his 20ish goal pace actually looks respectable and in line with his history except for the wild 2012-13 season.
It is harder to compare apples to apples and get a reasonable expectation for the three newer players. All had somewhat unique situations.
–Chris Terry (15.9): Terry was trying to finally stick at the NHL level and realized that especially in Bill Peters’ system that required him to be sound defensively. He was better defensively which was a huge positive, and his goal scoring was at least decent to boot.
–Victor Rask (11.3): He made a huge jump to the NHL and played well. It was a good season for Rask, and I do not mean to take anything away from him. But 11 goals over 82 games is the equivalent of good 4th-line scoring. It is light for a good 3rd-line center. The next step for him is to bring more offensively, and his skill set and track record suggest that this is possible.
–Zach Boychuk (7.9): He was situationally limited by ice time, lack of power play time and line mates, but even still, Zach Boychuk is a skilled scorer at the AHL level in the 20-30 goal range. That is what he needs to bring to the NHL level to make the Canes better, especially with their scoring challenges.
When you net it out, the Canes key scorers underperformed in the 2014-15 season. From here, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that they either need to play better or be replaced. While I do think the group needs to step things up some in 2015-16, I think there is a bigger issue. When a set of forwards underperforms across the board, I start to look for a more systemic issue. And with the 2014-15 Hurricanes, I think that systemic issue which was a key contributor to the offensive struggles was a lack of offensive/puck moving ability on the back end especially in the 2nd pairing.
I think Ron Hainsey is a pretty sound and solid defensive second pairing defenseman. But his strength is not carrying and distributing the puck. It shows in his assist totals of 11 and 8 goals respectively in 2013-14 and 2014-15 with full slates of 82 and 81 games and a bunch of ice time. This is fine if you pair him with a more of a puck mover on defense, but the Canes have not. He spent much of 2013-14 with Brett Bellemore, he spent much of the beginning part of 2014-15 with some mix of Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Brett Bellemore. All three are similar stay-home defensemen who are below average in terms of moving the puck and generating offense. Tim Gleason had 6 assists in 55 games, Jay Harrison 3 assists in 20 games and Brett Bellemore 8 assists in 48 games. You can put an offensively limited defenseman in your top 4 if he has a complementary partner. And it is easier to hide one in the bottom pair especially if he sees more minutes with lower-scoring forwards anyway. But having an offensively limited 2nd pairing that is on the ice for 20-22 minutes for your game mostly with forwards you need to score drags the offense down. And I think that was an underestimated part of the Canes scoring woes in 2014-15.
So fast forward to 2015-16. Is there any hope for improvement? I think there is. James Wisniewski is a good veteran puck-carrying and puck-moving defenseman. Before the Canes traded for him, I had him at the top of my list of right shot puck-moving defensemen who could complement Hainsey. But whether Hainsey plays with Wisniewski or moves up to play with Faulk, his pairing should be better. And John-Michael Liles has steadily improved since recovering from Toronto. He brings another decent puck-moving defenseman. Then there is Ryan Murphy and a number of young defensemen in Carrick, Slavin, Fleury and Hanifin who all project to be average or better at distributing the puck. And all of these players are taking 2014-15 ice time from Harrison, Bellemore and Gleason who were arguably the Canes most challenged in terms of helping generate offense from the back end.
The big question could be how much of a hit the Canes take defensively with so many minutes for inexperienced players, but I think there is a good chance that the scoring will step up not because of improvement and new players at forward but rather because the defense helps more.
If you work through potential pairings with the players signed right now:
* Hainsey/Faulk – Faulk gives Hainsey the complement/help he has mostly not had the past few years.
* Liles/Wisniewski – The challenge could be defensively but this duo is easily above average offensively.
* Jordan/Murphy/Hanifin/Fleury/Carrick/Slavin – Regardless of which 2 you pick, at least projection-wise this is a good set of puck-moving offensive defensemen. The question is if/how many are NHL-ready as everyone except Murphy and Jordan enter the season with no NHL experience and only Carrick has AHL experience even.
So in summary, I think a significant portion of the Canes scoring woes were due to lack of help from the blue line. I think the defensive core should improve in this area if a couple of the kids can settle in and play their game at the NHL level. The key could be whether the team takes a step back defensively that offsets the scoring gains.