Yes. I realize that it is still 2 days from Canes hockey and the picture is not exactly right. It has been a LONG summer, so I am cheating and using that all week to make opening night seem closer.
The first part of this season preview series entitled “While you were away…” detailed the changes to the roster over a couple stages starting with 2014-15’s opening night roster and then working through the trade deadline moves and also the offseason changes. You can read that HERE.
When a team starts a new NHL season, the regular season goal is always to make the playoffs, because if you do that you have a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup Championship in the mayhem that ensues from April through June. Coming out of the 2014-15 season, that looks like a tall task for the Carolina Hurricanes. To make the playoffs in 2015-16, the team will need to improve by approximately 27 points (margin of playoff miss in 2014-15) in the standings. In advanced stats lexicon that could best be defined as “a lot.”
Most experts are projecting the Hurricanes to finish somewhere between 20th and 30th overall in the 2015-16 season which would obviously mean another playoff miss. Based on last season’s results and the modest number of upgrades that the Hurricanes have made, I am not one to call these projections unfounded. They actually sound about right if you take last season’s results and then add some kind of adjustment for changes.
But here’s the thing. The NHL does not work that way. The hockey gods’ formula for arriving at 16 playoff teams by early April does include a heavy dose of teams that were expected to be good and projected to be playoff teams. But it also includes a crazy kind of mathematical soup brewed from chemistry, injuries, rising stars, random luck and who knows what else. And that recipe tends to offer a surprise or 2 each and every season.
Having witnessed the crazy soup making for a number of years, I ALWAYS hold out hope for a playoff berth this time of year, and it is not because I am overly optimistic. It is because we have regularly seen it happen both in general across the league each year and more close to home as well.
I offer 2 things to think about before writing off the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes season before it starts:
1) The 2014-15 Calgary Flames and the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche. Both teams were rebuilding for the future. Both teams were thought to be a few years away and projected to be in the bottom third in the league. And both teams rose up ahead of their scheduled riding a reasonable collection of veterans but more so great young players who out of nowhere reached high levels of play way ahead of schedule. There are no guarantees obviously, but the Hurricanes have the ingredients for this recipe in the kitchen. While the team might be light on depth, they have some good, proven NHL veterans who have been around the block, are still in their prime and have experienced what it takes to be successful in the NHL. And by virtue of playoff misses and high draft picks, the Hurricanes also have some young players with elite potential who are projected to be a couple years away. The situation looks quite similar to those that Calgary in 2014-15 and Colorado in 2013-14 rose up out of to make the playoffs.
2) The 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes. That team was projected to finish no higher that mid-20s out of 30 NHL teams from the experts in their preseason projections. If you can honestly tell me that you could foresee what would ultimately happen with that team in the first week of October, you are in a very small group of people. I get that it was a unique season with unique circumstances, but isn’t it always when an underdog wins a Stanley Cup. Again it is the soup. The crazy mix of things that go into an NHL season offer some ability to project things, but it also offers an every-year potential for wild and unexpected results.
With that long introduction aside, I could be bold and just outright predict a Canes playoff berth. Or I could take the probability path that probability puts them about where everyone else has them.
I instead always prefer to think and talk about the season ahead more from a “What does it take?” viewpoint.
So “What does it take for the Carolina Hurricanes to be the regular season Cinderella story of the 2015-16 NHL season?”
1) Great goaltending. Even if things go well, the team just dos not have the raw fire power, especially at forward, as some other teams in their division and league. Goaltending can be the great equalizer in the NHL. In 2014-15, I would rate the Canes goaltending as average to slightly below average. The advanced stats and the North American hockey media who are down on Cam Ward would rate it much lower. Cam Ward was better last season but not spectacular, and Anton Khudobin who was very good in 2013-14 never really got his feet under him in 2014-15. Cam Ward is only 30 years old, and I think there is still upside to his game, but the bigger factor here could prove to be Eddie Lack. He took over in Vancouver last season when Ryan Miller was injured and led a Canucks team to the playoffs.
=> Regardless of who is in net, below average or even average goaltending will not be enough to add 27 points in the standings. One or both of the Canes starters will need to find a groove and have a great season.
2) Scoring from scorers. When I work through the Hurricanes roster, the team continues to be light on depth and proven scoring at forward. I wrote a pretty negative article yesterday that showed how the waiver wire has offered a pretty harsh perspective on where players slot on the Hurricanes depth chart versus where they slot when testing the waters with the rest of the league. If you want to lean optimistic today, skip it, but if you can stomach a more dour perspective on the Canes roster, you can find that HERE. The Hurricanes finished 27th in the NHL in goal scoring last season. Roster moves at forward included only the addition of playmaker Kris Versteeg and checking line forward Joakim Nordstrom from Chicago and the subtraction of Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty (at the trade deadline). So if the team is going to score more, it will need to primarily come from players bettering 2014-15 production. The biggest potential for gains and in my opinion a necessary component of such improvement sits with the team’s best scorers. Jeff Skinner put up a meager 18 goals in 77 games, well short of the 30+ that he has notched twice. Eric Staal got better as the season wore on but still only finished with a modest 23 goals and 54 points, well below the 70-80 that one might have hoped for at the beginning of the season.
=>With a set of forward lines that is heavy on relatively inexperienced forwards and light on raw scoring fire power, I think it is nearly impossible for the Canes to make the goal scoring improvement needed to improve without Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal being an integral part of it.
3) Boost from the back end. With a pretty similar forward roster, many experts question how it is even remotely possible for the Canes to make enough gains offensively to be competitive. While there is room for the “key players just need to play better/score more” story, I actually think the biggest potential contributor is more subtle. In a series of small, step-by-step moves Ron Francis has fairly radically transformed the blue line since the beginning of last season. Out are 3 players (Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison, Brett Bellemore) who were good players but significantly below average in terms of carrying, moving and distributing the puck. The Canes also lost Andrej Sekera who had a more well-rounded skill set. In are James Wisniewski, Noah Hanifin and more ice time/games for other more skating offensive defensemen including Ryan Murphy, John-Michael Liles and Michal Jordan. I wrote this up in more detail HERE, but the short version is that I think Ron Francis is making a big bet that the issue with scoring drops almost across the board from key forwards is not completely their own doing. Rather, it is from a lack of good opportunities off the rush and from stronger playmaking in the offensive zone.
=>If the group of defensemen can generate more offense both in terms of scoring a bit more themselves but more importantly creating more high-end chances for the forwards without taking a step back defensively, it could provide an “across the roster” boost that makes the entire team better.
4) Some manufactured offense. Even if #2 and #3 go well, it does not instantly transform the Hurricanes roster such that it stacks up well against the elite teams in the NHL in terms of being stocked with sure thing, pure scorers. The Canes are going to need to manufacture some offense from a variety of sources including the power play, defensemen chipping in, lines doing a 1+1+1>3 when chemistry or a style of play results in more production than one would hope for from the players individually. For today’s Daily Cup of Joe, I suggested that Jordan Staal’s line that currently looks more like a checking line than a second line scoring juggernaut finding a high enough level offensively could be key to making the team’s forward lines work and scoring enough. If you did not catch it this morning, you can read that HERE.
=>Even if Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal rebound, the Hurricanes will need to find depth scoring from a variety of sources without luxury of just being stocked with a bunch of sure thing 20-30 goal scorers.
5) An early rising. The Canes roster features a number of young players in key roles. Even veterans Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner clock in at only 23 years old but there are players with even less experience with key roles. Elias Lindholm (20 years old) had a solid second season in 2014-15 and could be on the cusp of breaking out. Victor Rask (22 years old) was arguably the best surprise as a rookie in 2014-15 but still has significant upside offensively. Ryan Murphy (22 years old) and Noah Hanifin (18 years old) could actually be paired together on a third defense pairing. That is a ton of youth in pretty high slots for an NHL team.
=>If the kids look too much like kids, the level of play on the ice could take on a rebuilding/getting ready for the future level of results. If the kids mature quickly/early and become at least decent NHL Players, the ingredients start to look more like 2013-14 Colorado or 2014-15 Calgary and less like “Wait ’til next year.”