If you are just catching up this is part 4 of a series that preview the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes season.
Part 1 detailed the team’s changes since opening night last year. Read HERE.
Part 2 identified what needed to happen for the team to improve from the 2014-15 season. Read HERE.
Part 3 worked through the first half of the Canes opening night roster (A-M). Read HERE.
Part 4 covered the second half of the Cans opening night roster (N-Z). Read HERE.
So that all builds up to the grand finale when you go out on a limb and make a bunch of predictions for the season, most of which will turn out to be wildly wrong by April if not sooner.
But not shy about voicing an opinion, I will take my shot:
1) Eric Staal will re-sign for 3-5 years. I do not think this is a sure thing, but I continue to think the most likely ending is that the older Staal stays with the Canes.
What would change my opinion on this? The team’s start could have something to say about this. If the team is outright horrible out of the gate again and looks more like a long-term rebuilding project just maybe that pushes Francis to look farther out. But I doubt it.
2) Kris Versteeg is the biggest difference-maker at forward. The scoring might actually come as much or more from other players with Elias Lindholm continuing his rise and Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner having easy 2014-15 targets to beat, but Versteeg ends up being a key catalyst and sets a career high with assists and has Canes fans harkening bac to the days with Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman driving the offense with playmaking from the wing.
What would change my opinion on this? I think any/all of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindholm could have huge surges in offensive production, so maybe 1-2 of them bump Versteeg down a bit, but if Versteeg is on the line with the player(s) bursting out, it becomes more about spreading the credit than who did more anyway.
3) The Hurricanes will be much better in 2015-16. There are so many avenues for this team to improve. Just having Jordan Staal healthy for the first half of the season helps significantly. The Canes got averageish goaltending from Ward last season, and Anton Khudobin struggled. With Lack added and Ward trending better and in a contract year, I think the floor for goaltending is equal to last season with a ceiling that is much higher. Pretty much every Canes player of significance at forward has a recent scoring history that looks significantly better than what he did in 2014-15.
What would change my opinion on this? Very little. Injuries are always a wildcard and were a part of the problem last year, but otherwise I just do not see how this team is not better.
4) Offensive gains will be driven by the blue line. I wrote the complete transformation of the Canes blue line from being heavy on stay-home defensemen with limited ability to move the puck to having many more who can skate and generate offense.
What would change my opinion on this? The key is that you must often first defend before you get to do that offense from the blue line thing. Hanifin/Murphy is young, inexperienced and prone to some mistakes. Liles/Wisniewski is a pairing of 2 offense-oriented defensemen. Both duos must defend first to even have the chance to bring more offense.
5) Justin Faulk is the team’s best player. There is not much of a surprise here. He won the honor last season and still has room to grow as a 23-year old.
What would change my opinion on this? An injury is the obvious one. I think the other wildcard is Eric Staal. His contract adds some extra incentive, but I think at a more basic level that he will show up healthy and with a fire in his belly after a disappointing 2014-15 campaign. The key is finding a groove and line mate chemistry such that his rising has outside fuel and is not just a ‘man against the world’ type campaign.
Making a call on stuff that could go either way
6) Ryan Murphy grows into #5/#6 role. Ultimately, the hope is that Noah Hanifin will fairly soon vacate the third pairing defense role in which he will start. Same as any other player, Ryan Murphy would also like to move up, but I am not sure he must. I think there is a place for him as a skating/scoring/power play-capable #5/#6 who gets passed on the depth chart by some of the younger defensemen.
What is the other way? Interestingly, I think Murphy gets significant ice time time in the first half of the season whether he is progressing or not. I think Ron Francis needs to make a decision on if/where Murphy fits in the longer-term picture. If he looks like a #6 defenseman who does not bring enough offensively, then I think Francis could showcase him a bit and then try to trade him for a similar age/similar quality forward to clear space for the kids on the way.
7) Eddie Lack plays/wins more games. When he got the reins in Vancouver last season from Ryan Miller, he never gave them back. The Canes could really use a hot goalie, and I think as a rising young goalie that Lack might be the better candidate to do so.
What is the other way? Probability-wise, I actually think it is more likely that it stays a 1A/1B situation all season. Peters has shown a willingness to use his backup and also to reward wins/solid play with more starts, so I think the odds are that we see the duo trade the #1 job back and forth much of the season.
8) Eddie Lack and a looser locker room make it easy to ride a better start to a complete attitude transformation and surprise playoff berth not unlike the 2005-06.
9) Eric Staal hits 85 points. I think it is completely a matter of getting help to get more scoring chances and then finding a rhythm.
10) Noah Hanifin sees time in Charlotte early in the season and then time next to Faulk late in the season. He is not the common story of a young player who needs to mature physically before he has any chance at reaching his highest level. For him it is just a matter of how quickly he can adjust to the NHL speed/pace and tighten up the ‘looseness’ of his game.
Things that would not surprise me
–The Canes deal a blue line prospect or 2 for a similar age forward. After training camp, Francis should have a better apples to apples rating of the group of young defensemen. He should be able to coyly shop for prospect forwards that he likes and then fish for “which D do you want back?” The idea is keep his cards close to his vest on the rankings and then pounce if/when someone else likes whoever is #4/#5 in his ranking.
–Ryan Murphy gets traded. I am record above as thinking that he rises up and digs his feet in as a #5/#6 long-term, but if he still looks like he is a couple years away defensively, I think he gets showcased, hyped a bit and then moved to clear room for the kids below him.
–The Canes being at least within shouting distance of the playoffs at least until we flip the calendar. Again, I think this team is better than 2014-15. I am not sure if it is enough to push into the top 8, but I do not see this team as a #15 or #15 team in the Eastern Conference either.
–Noah Hanifin hits both ends of the spectrum. He will make enough plays to wow, but he will also make enough mistakes that he will still be learning on the job rather than instantly mastering it. This is okay and not a negative. As long as he continues to improve quickly, all is good.
–If the Liles/Wisniewski pairing drives the entire team. They are in the cross hairs defensively as a second pair comprised of 2 offense-leaning defensemen. If they are good defensively and do what they are capable of offensively, I think it boosts the entire team. If instead, they look like 2 offensive defensemen who do not play enough defense, there is nowhere to hide them enough with a rookie pair sitting below them.
–Blue line shuttle bus from Charlotte. Once injuries come into play, I think we see a mix of young defensemen get stints at the NHL level. This gets slowed if the Canes are healthy and if they are in playoff contention and accelerated with injuries or falling in the standings. If injuries open a spot, I would not be surprised to see Brett Pesce stick. I really think he was that good in preseason, and I also think his safe, sound, buttoned-down game transitions reasonably quickly/easily to the NHL.
Log your wild predictions in the comments below for official CandC certification for April bragging. 🙂