If you are just catching up this is part 3 of a series that previews 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.
Next in parts 3 and 4, we will provide some thoughts on each of the 22 players on the team’s opening night roster.
—Justin Faulk. Fresh off being named an alternate captain at lunchtime today, Justin Faulk more officially takes on the permanent leadership role that he had anyway. At age 23, he is potentially the team’s best player. The goal for him for the 2015-16 is to put it all together and do it for 82 games. He easily performed as a top pairing defenseman for large chunks of the 2014-15 season. His offensive surge to 14 goals and 49 points vaulted him up to the top of the defense scoring leaders which is where most elite defensemen live. I think the last step for him and one that could interject him into the Norris Trophy conversation is every game consistency. When the Hurricanes stumbled and fell coming out of the gate last season, Justin Faulk was a player in it, not a victim. He fairly quickly righted the ship and overall had a great season. His ceiling is plenty high enough. The last step for him is to boost how high his floor is when he inevitably hits a small slump or 2. In a long 82-game season, absolutely no player plays well in all of them, but a common trait of elite NHL defenseman is how unnoticeable/tiny the difference on in the bad games versus the good ones.
—Nathan Gerbe. In his current slot next to Jordan Staal, he takes on the thankless role vacated by Chad LaRose and more recently Patrick Dwyer as a great depth player who is overslotted on a Canes team. That role was often unkind to his predecessors when the fan base sometimes took out frustration on where they were slotted line-wise on them. Gerbe needs to bring his energy every night. He will. It is just what he does – every single night. But in his current role, he needs to claw his way close to second line scoring totals. He should do better than 10 goals 28 points simply from getting more ice time and some power play time, but for the Canes to make it scoring-wise, he is one of many players who must step up offensively to a level above what a mathematical model would project for him
—Ron Hainsey. He could prove to be the most unexciting but important part of the blue line. Justin Faulk is obviously the rising star, but going up against the other teams’ best night in and night out takes 2. Outsiders would argue that Hainsey is not a true top pairing defenseman. I do not completely disagree. But he skates well enough, can log the minutes and is the type of predictable/textbook veteran blue liner who can just eat minutes and make simple plays letting Faulk drive the play. With no other great options for a partner for Faulk, I think Hainsey’s play and abilty to stay healthy have a significant say in whether Justin Faulk can climb one more rung on the ladder to elite/Norris conversation-worthy.
—Noah Hanifin. Patience and understanding. I think those are the keys for Noah Hanifin from a fan perspective. Physically and skating-wise he is NHL ready and will only get better from his NHL starting point of 18 years old. But he is going to have his challenges adjusting to the NHL speed, pace and pressure. My assessment of him from training camp is that he is ready to play and benefit from playing at the NHL level at least to start the season but also that he is still a long way from ready in terms of tightening up his game. He likes to turn and backhand the puck across his blue line when a forechecker steps up but is not always 100% sure that this pass is there. He makes great stick to stick passes most of the time which shows he is capable but also is prone to an occasional turnover when he does not account for someone jumping a passing lane or misses by a little bit. As a pretend hockey analyst at CandC, I will watch his game in detail and break down the good and the bad. But as a fan, I really look forward to watching him grow this year loving the spectacular and accepting the bad. Physical talent aside, one of the most striking things about Noah Hanifin is that by all accounts he is coachable and gets that his path to greatness is not as simple as him heading down a path solo but rather requires him to accept help navigating it. Justin Faulk who broke into the league young and maybe in a bit over his head should be a fantastic resource. And Peters and Hanifin by all accounts have quickly built a good working relationship. This maturity and mindset will be as important as his physical skill in terms of gradually working up from having the “potential” to be elite to actually being elite.
—Michal Jordan. Jordan could prove to be a glue, tape and spare parts player on the roster. We will not know for sure until tomorrow, but my hunch is that he will be healthy-scratched for the opener in favor of a young dynamic duo of Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy for the third pairing. Interestingly, I think Jordan actually had a very good camp and do not so much see this as him being beat out for a spot as a nod toward the preference of where the Canes optimistically want to go. I think the Canes want Murphy in the lineup partly because he too has been pretty good in camp and brings a ton of offensive upside and partly because Ron Francis needs to figure out if/where/how Murphy fits into the picture now and also 2-3 years out. And the team is all in on getting Hanifin going at the big league level. I expect that Jordan will draw into the lineup reasonably soon to get Hanifin and/or Murphy a day off and keep him active. Also interesting was how he looked alongside Justin Faulk in the first pairing of the last preseason game. He is not an every night #2 NHL defenseman, but he did not look horrible either. With that single game, he might have made a case for being the injury fill in for any of the 6 slots. He could fill a slot on a higher line to continue shielding Hanifin/Murphy a big and avoiding the need to reshuffle everything. Jordan will have to fight for ice time, but I think he will get some.
—Eddie Lack. He could prove to be the biggest X factor for the 2015-16 season. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs by 27 points last season. That is a ton and not a total that can be made up by a few players playing a bit better. But goalie is the one position that can drive huge swings in success levels. While the Canes were average at best in net last season, Eddie Lack was taking over for an injured Ryan Miller, not giving his job back and leading the Canucks to the playoffs. His quirky and fun personality could also be a strange wild card. Could he at the same time push Cam Ward to be better to earn ice time and at the same time use his personality to crack Ward’s shell a bit and help him stay loose which tends to be good for his play?
—John-Michael Liles. Now a couple years removed and mostly recovered from the Toronto virus, Liles has quietly refound his game. I doubt many would rate his as a top 4 on most teams, but that is where he finds himself with the Hurricanes. And while I get the naysayers, I do not think he is as far off as some think. I think the key for Liles and his pairing with Wisniewski is for 2 defensemen who generally fill the role of having the puck on their stick to find chemistry and share it to the benefit of moving the puck quickly up the ice and to scoring chances in the offensive zone. And with 2 defensemen who maybe lean offense, they need to be sound defensively. That is a big challenge but maybe one that Liles has gradually worked his way up to in a Hurricanes uniform.
—Elias Lindholm. If you consider Faulk already there (which I think he mostly is), then Elias Lindholm is probably next in line on the Canes roster to hit another level. Lindholm was up and down in a 2013-14 rookie season. He showed flashes of why he was drafted so high, but also included times when one could legitimately question whether he would have been better served with a season in the AHL or in Sweden. But he took a step up in 2014-15 painting the first season as potentially positive and at least not destructive development-wise. He has all of the makings of a good all-around top half of the roster NHL forward, but his modest 39 points (despite a good amount of power play time and scoring-capable line mates) is indicative of a young player who disappeared at times before reappearing. The key for Lindholm is finding a way to be a significant part of every game, not just some. Part of that is scoring, but it also just includes exhibiting the bulldog tenacity that seems to come and go.
—Brad Malone. He slots as a #12/#13 and fills the decreasing policeman niche. He will see some action to spell dinged up or underperforming players. He will see a few games when Peters wants his kind in the lineup. Past that his ice time will be dictated by his ability to make a noticeable contribution in limited ice time by banging bodies and notching an occasional goal. Perhaps the biggest thing that Malone can do is find his way into a couple fights that might otherwise go to Justin Faulk. Justin Faulk is willing and able to clean things up himself when needed as demonstrated by his fight with Brooks Laich in the preseason. But the risk of punching a helmet or even worse a visor and hurting a hand or wrist or getting twisted and injuring a shoulder is not something that the team wants. Malone was on task as the player who grabbed Oshie after the hit but rightfully a Caps player was not going to let a Malone/Oshie fight happen, so I think Malone gets his role.
—Jay McClement. The 2014-15 season was a weird split for Jay McClement. With Jordan Staal out long-term and then other injuries, the first half of the season proved somewhat painfully that McClement just is not a top 9 forward. But the second half of the season proved that he was still fine when playing in the fourth line/penalty kill role for which he was signed. In the second half of the year, he hunkered down into fewer minutes and a key role on the penalty kill. The penalty kill ranked #1 in the entire league when it was partially dismantled at the trade deadline, and after the calendar flipped to 2016, the fourth line of Malone/McClement/Dwyer was 1 of the best Canes fourth lines at least in recent history. If he can repeat his second half of the 2014-15 season, McClement will fill a niche role but do it in a way that improves the team’s chances of winning.
—Ryan Murphy. He is on the clock, at a crossroads, in a do or die (maybe a bit exaggerated) season, insert your own catchy phrase for it is an important season. The Hurricanes entered the second half of summer with the addition of Noah Hanifin and optimism about a good pool of young defensemen. The team exited the summer with more basis for the original optimism and even reason to boost it up a couple notches. Pretty much across the board, the Canes next wave of defensemen between 18 and 21 years old lived up to expectations and more in prospect ice time and also in the NHL preseason. There is very little NHL or even AHL experience in the group, so the members will take some time to develop but it will not be long. Ryan Murphy is in the group ahead of them as a 22-year old with 2 years of split AHL/NHL experience. He still possesses the elite skating ability that made him a first round pick. He has a good tool bag of offensive skills. And though still not perfect by any means, I think he has made some progress rounding out his game without the puck on his stick. The burning questions for 2015-16 for Ryan Murphy are: 1-Has he made enough progress defensively to be an NHLer now or very soon, or is he stuck at “ton of offensive potential but still not able to figure it out enough defensively?” 2-As Francis collects more information on the kids behind him, where does Murphy fit in the big picture of the Canes blue line 2-3 years out? I am not sure Ryan Murphy ever becomes an every night top 4 defenseman, but I really like his potential to be a #5/#6 who is serviceable defensively and at or near elite level offensively. My wild guess is that the Canes can build out a top 4 above him from the kids on the way, but there is still value in having a real good #5 with an offensive/power play skill set. That kind of player is the trend in the new NHL that is “skating above all else.” And that is the spot that Ryan Murphy needs to try to seize over the course of the 2015-16 season.
Next up is the other 11 players on the opening night roster.