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.
And part 3 worked through the first half of the Canes opening night roster in alphabetical order. Read HERE.
This post will discuss the remaining 11 players.
–Riley Nash. In a couple years time, he has quietly improved his game. 2 years ago I would have described him as an adequate depth forward without enough scoring ability to be much more than a fill in on a good team. More significantly, he did not really have any kind of calling card in terms of playing a role. He was a center who was not good on faceoffs which is a problem for someone who maybe projects as a fourth line center. He did not play penalty kill. And his style was not that of a fourth line energy player/agitator/jam bringer. He was basically an adequate depth player with no calling card for a specific need/role of any kind. If you fast forward a couple years. Nash is now an above average faceoff center which makes it possible to put him on the ice for key defensive zone draws. Last season, he took on a penalty kill role on a team that was good at it. And along the way, he proved capable at least as a fill in on a higher line when Jordan Staal was sidelined long-term. The challenge roster-wise for the Canes is that Nash’s skill set might best fit as a fourth line center who plays penalty kill and could move up short-term in the event of injuries. But that role (except moving up) is filled by Jay McClement. That combined with the overstock at the center position sees Riley Nash at right wing on a second line with Jordan Staal. The challenge for Riley Nash is to bring the skills he has added over the past couple years and also make a jump offensively. The bigger challenge could be that he is likely to be a player tossed in the blender when Coach Bill Peters tries to build lines with a weird combination of pieces that need to fit in certain ways.
–Andrej Nestrasil. In terms of size and style of play Andrej Nestrasil has the potential to be the power forward that the Canes could use to balance out a small forward group. The question is whether Nestrasil can find chemistry on a higher line and bring enough offensively. He starts the season as the #13 forward looking for ice time and a shot to keep it. If the Canes go searching for a big, power forward to play on the wing, Nestrasil is the closest option that the current roster can offer.
–Joakim Nordstrom. The more I watch and listen to Coach Bill Peters talk about Nordstrom and the forward lines/roles in general, the more I think that Joakim was much more than an extra in the Versteeg deal. His skill set is quite similar to Patrick Dwyer’s as a speedy defensively sound wing who can kill penalties and is limited offensively. But Nordstrom is a mere 23 years old and still possibly with some upside offensively. What struck me most about his play in the preseason was his propensity to go the crease. He scored 1 goal on a rebound and also had another waived off when a puck went off his chest and into the net. He looks to be a safe and sound fourth line wing who will also play a role on the penalty kill. If he carves out a key role on the penalty kill or develops a newfound knack for goal scoring, he likely plays every night; otherwise he is the mix of players who could swap in and out of the lineup.
–Victor Rask. He was the rookie story of the 2014-15 season for the Carolina Hurricanes. He rode strong play at the Traverse City prospect tourney right into and through training camp to the opening night lineup. Then when forced immediately up the depth chart because of the Jordan Staal injury, he was unflappable. Awhile back I compared his rise to Josef Vasicek’s long ago. Both players matured ahead of schedule in terms of being sound defensively, decision making and play without the puck. That high level of defensive acumen makes it possible to put a young center in the lineup without it being a goals against disaster. Watching Rask closely is a lesson in how to play the center position without the puck. He just always gets it right in terms of defensive assignments off the rush, taking away angles on the forecheck, providing passing outlets for pressured defenders and about everything else. Not as a rookie but as NHLer, he has to rate at least 8 out of 10 in terms of playing the center position without the puck. That alone puts him on track to be a high-end/checking line center. But as a Canes fan the hope is that the offense is still coming just more gradually. He never projected to be a point per game offensive dynamo, but he demonstrated decent offensive ability at lower levels. It is reasonable to hope that he has upside from the modest 33 points in 80 games that he notched in during the 2014-15 season.
–Jeff Skinner. When he is going well, he is a dynamic NHL scorer with 40-goal potential. But he struggled offensively during the 2014-15 season with only 18 goals and low 31 points despite playing in 77 games. The Hurricanes who finished 27th out of 30 in goal scoring last season need much more from him in the 2015-16 season to rise in the standings. Like Eric Staal who has a similar plight, I think he would benefit from playing with someone who can allow him to play more without the puck on his stick and receive and finish more. With Kris Versteeg on his line in a preseason game, he burst out for 2 goals (plus another in the 3-on-3 exhibition) after scoring another in the previous game. The second of those games was with Versteeg on the opposite wing. Versteeg has since been moved to Eric Staal’s line leaving Skinner with Victor Rask who is still figuring it out offensively and Chris Terry who demonstrated playmaking ability at the AHL level but has yet to fully transition it to the NHL. I think Jeff Skinner has some amount of upside potential from a low floor on his own but also that he needs help to get anywhere close to his potential offensively.
–Eric Staal. In 2013-14, Eric Staal collected less than 70 points for the first time since his rookie season (not counting lockout-shortened season obviously) when he finished with 61. After being slowed by injury headed into training camp in 2014-15, Eric Staal took another step down with a modest 54 points. The trend is obviously not a good one, but at the age of 30 it is not unreasonable to think that he can return to at least a 70-point level. And the Hurricanes need that if the team is to improve upon 2014-15. One of my mantras all summer was the need to provide playmaking help for the Canes top scorers. In the current lineup Coach Bill Peters has provided as much of that as possible putting Ray Whitney-like Kris Versteeg on his left side and Elias Lindholm who also passes the puck well on his right side. That configuration could provide the fuel for a rebound. In the background of on ice performance is the looming contract situation that sees Eric Staal earn a big $9.5 million this season and then become a free agent this summer. I wrote about the contract situation in some detail HERE.
–Jordan Staal. His 2014-15 season was derailed before it even started when he broke his leg in a preseason game and went on to miss the first half of the season. The team missed him dearly. By the time he returned in late December, playoff hope had been lost. It was encouraging that the team was better once he returned. He was quickly his usual self defensively. Offensively he, like much of the team, struggled offensively especially when you consider that Coach Bill Peters went top heavy on his top line with Eric on 1 wing and most often Lindholm or Tlusty on the other. I am on record as saying that I do not get too bogged down in scoring totals for Jordan Staal as long as he is breaking even against the other teams’ best, but 6 goals in 46 games is not enough to make break even possible. His role is likely to shift throughout the 2015-16, but as it stands now, he is centering a checking line with Nathan Gerbe on the left side and Riley Nash on the right. I wrote about the importance of this line in some detail HERE. My first impression of that group is that it should be okay defensively but lacks real second line scoring fire power and maybe more importantly the playmaking that can boost scoring for players whose game is heavy on going to the net and finishing in close. I think Jordan Staal’s line could be the key to the Canes offense and the forward lines. If Jordan Staal can find chemistry with 2 other players without pure second line pedigree, hold down scoring line opponents and find a way to score enough themselves, it just might leave enough fire power and scoring to build a top line and a decent depth scoring third line.
–Chris Terry. He would be a top candidate if I was asked to name the player with the most untapped offensive potential. He fairly quickly developed his game offensively at the AHL level. In his second season at the AHL level, he climbed to 60+ points and has generally played at that level since. He has an NHL power play-worthy 1-timer and decent vision and playmaking ability. Yet as seemed to be the norm for his era of Canes prospect forwards, he hit the wall at the NHL level and failed in multiple tries to stick at the NHL level. He struggled to match the pace of the NHL game and also was below average without the puck which was not a great fit for playing on lower lines. Last season with a fresh start under a new coach, Terry impressed with better attention to details and simple plays, earned a full season in the NHL and then a 1-way contract for the 2015-16 season. But in making the transition rounding out his game, he seemed to leave his offensive upside in Charlotte. Part of it was definitely his role with fewer minutes, sometimes checking line line mates and only leftover scraps for power play ice time, but his skill still seems to project better than the 20 points that he tallied in 57 games last season. Right now, he finds himself across from Jeff Skinner on a line that could desperately use help generating offense both to decrease the focus/attention on Skinner and to get him a few more good scoring chances without needing to create them all by himself. With a full NHL season under his belt, could Chris Terry settle in, get comfortable and unpack a higher level of offensive contribution? On a team short on both goal scoring and playmaking, it would be welcome.
–Kris Versteeg. He is yet another X factor. Before the summer started, I was clamoring for the Canes to add more puck moving skill for the second defense pairing (done with Wisniewski) and also a playmaking forward or 2 to help get Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal more scoring chances without having to do it all themselves. As a player who likes to play with the puck on his stick and a slight leaning toward pass over shoot, Versteeg fits the bill skill-wise. In preseason, he was part of getting Jeff Skinner going with a couple goals. Then the next weekend, he played on an Eric Staal line that also scored. Versteeg’s career high in assists is 31 (twice). I could see him topping that total this season if he finds chemistry with 1 or both of the Canes scoring forwards in need of help.
–Cam Ward. He rebounded some in 2014-15 but still rates out at below average from the stats guys and experts. In Lack’s write up I noted that strong goaltending would be a required ingredient for the Canes to rebound from a rough 2014-15 season. Ward enters the season with pressure from Eddie Lack and staring at free agency and/or a new contract. Will this spur Ward to a higher level of play or serve to be a weight that drags him down?
–James Wisniewski. I think James Wisniewski could be the X factor on defense. Peters should know about what he will get from a top duo of Hainsey/Faulk. And the bottom pair will feature young defensemen who bring top end talent but also inevitably the inconsistency of young players learning on the job and might be used more/less situationally and matchup-wise. Sitting right in the middle of that is a Liles/Wisniewski pairing that will take second line minutes and their share of first/second line matchups. Wisniewski has experience in this role and despite coming off a strange 2014-15 season that saw him traded away from a Columbus team that needs defensemen and then healthy scratched in the playoffs by Anaheim.