Part 1 of what will be a series of season previews mostly covers the roster changes since the start of last season and over the offseason. There is a little bit of new stuff, but it is also a great entry point for Canes fans who mostly check out from hockey when the season ends. Please help Canes and Coffee get in front of more fans as they return this week for the 2015-16 season. We are especially appreciative of help reaching people not on Twitter, so please consider zipping a quick email or 2 with a link to your Canes friends to help spread the word. Thanks!!! Matt
Yes. I realize it is not actually the night before hockey (first game is Thursday), but I am taking liberties and using this all week since we are so close. It has been a LONG summer.
In the 2014-15 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes suffered a big loss in preseason when Jordan Staal broke his leg, then stumbled out of the gate to start the season and never really got their feet under them until it was too late. The season also featured an adjustment to a new coach in Bill Peters. The end result was a 26th out of 30 finish.
Coming off that disappointing 2014-15 season, one would hope that changes would be made to improve the team. At least on the surface the changes are not that drastic, but I think there might be a little bit more than meets the eye once you understand the direction in which GM Ron Francis is headed.
The changes from year to year considering both opening day rosters and also the moves made at the trade deadline last season include:
Eddie Lack replaces Anton Khudobin who was traded to Anaheim. Lack arrived from Vancouver for the mere price of a couple draft picks. He is 27 years old with fairly limited NHL experience (82 games), but the feather in his cap is his strong play in the second half of the 2014-15 season when he stepped in for an injured Ryan Miller, never gave the job back and helped carry the Canucks to a playoff berth. He finished the season 18-13-4 with a 2.45 GAA and solid .921 save percentage. Could he again rise up and lead a team to the playoffs?
Despite the lack of goal scoring in 2014-15 (finished 27th overall), the Canes made very few changes at forward. Alexander Semin was bought out over the summer. Jiri Tlusty also departed at the trade deadline last season. Semin was replaced by skilled/playmaking Kris Versteeg who was obtained in a trade with Chicago that also netted checking line forward Joakim Nordstrom who also cracked the Canes lineup.
When you look at the modest changes, Ron Francis is making a significant bet that Kris Versteeg can help spark a line offensively, but more broadly Francis bet that the same forwards will rebound and are capable of much more scoring-wise. With Jeff Skinner at only 18 goals and Eric Staal in the mid-50s for points, it seems possible based on past production.
But how does Francis expect to significantly increase scoring with mostly the same set of forwards?
But the short version is that I think Hurricanes GM Ron Francis thinks that the team can boost scoring across the board with more offensive/puck-distributing defensemen. Francis has built a nice stockpile of exactly this type of player in the system with good young prospects with this skill set. He also made a more abrupt turn than might be realized at first glance in terms of the 2015-16 roster.
At the start of last season, Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Brett Bellemore all had significant roles on the Canes blue line. Harrison was traded early in the season. Tim Gleason was traded at the trade deadline. And Brett Bellemore was allowed to leave as a free agent. Andrej Sekera was also traded at the trade deadline when a deal could not be reached to re-sign him. When you look at the first 3, all would rate fairly significantly below average for NHL defensemen in terms of ability to move/carry the puck and generate offense. Sekera is the lone exception to that characterization.
The replacements lean strongly in the other direction as more offensive blue liners with at least potential to help boost offense. James Wisniewski who is a skating/puck-moving defenseman with a cannon of a shot was obtained from Anaheim in a trade for Anton Khudobin. The Hurricanes used their #5 overall pick to draft Noah Hanifin who is obviously still young but very much projects to be a skating, offensively-capable defenseman. Michal Jordan who split 2014-15 between the AHL and NHL also projects to receive more ice time as does Ryan Murphy. Both of these young players also lean offense.
The hope is that the revamped defense can bring more offensively and boost scoring across the entire forward ranks and that they can do it without taking a significant step back defensively from the Canes defense that was middle of the pack for the 2014-15 season.
The Hurricanes are currently on track to enter the 2015-16 NHL season with the following lineup:
Kris Versteeg – Eric Staal – Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe – Jordan Staal – Riley Nash
Jeff Skinner – Victor Rask – Chris Terry
Brad Malone – Jay McClement – Joakim Nordstrom
Ron Hainsey – Justin Faulk
John-Michael Liles – James Wisniewski
Noah Hanifin – Ryan Murphy or Michal Jordan
Cam Ward – Eddie Lack