For those still catching up for the start of the 2020-21 NHL season, part 2 of my season preview is HERE.
The 2020-21 will start (at least mostly) without fans in attendance, about three months late and with the schedule already shortened by 26 games and with COVID-19 still lurking to shorten even that.
But even with the setbacks and uncertainty, I consider it a blessing to have Canes hockey on my TV screen tonight.
The game sees the Hurricanes playing a Red Wings team that was the worst in the NHL in 2019-20 by a wide margin. The team made some changes during the off-season but still figures to be in rebuilding. If the Blackhawks continue to be without Jonathan Toews and yesterday’s thrashing at the hands of the Lightning was any indication, racking up points against Chicago and Detroit could be critical to success in the Discover Central Division for the 2020-21 season. And sure enough the Hurricanes get the first two cracks at capitalizing on the expectation that Detroit is still a year or more away.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Detroit Red Wings
1) The lines and their effectiveness
Without preseason games to experiment and try different combinations, I think line combinations and defense pairings are likely to be more fluid (not just for Canes; for entire NHL) early in the season as coaches try things and settle on what they like.
In his two years as a head coach, Rod Brind’Amour has shown a preference for balanced lines over purpose-built lines. Jordan Staal’s (theoretical) checking line has regularly featured young offensive players who are not as mature defensively like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas. Similarly, Brind’Amour is not against bumping players like Warren Foegele or Brock McGinn up to add a forechecking presence on Sebastian Aho’s line.
Early indications are that we will see more of the same to start the 2020-21 season with one or both of Necas and Svechnikov flanking Staal.
In this first game, I will be watching to see if Brind’Amour shows his normal preference for balance and also what the early results are with his combinations.
With a shortened training camp and no preseason games, today’s game will in some ways be like a first preseason game. Especially with the shorter 56-game season, getting off to a slow start could be damning for the entire season.
There is a randomness and unusualness to the start of the 2020-21 season that some teams will launch on time appreciating skipping the meaningless preseason and other teams will fail to find the ignition switch without the usual build up. I view this as random and not a function of players’ and coaches’ efforts to prepare, so hopefully the Hurricanes land on the right side of the coin flip.
On the one hand, Brind’Amour’s teams have always stormed out of the gate in the preseason which is cause for significant optimism. On the other hand, Hurricanes teams in recent years have made a habit of starting fairly slow and then only recently storming back after the midway point of the season. The problem is that for the abbreviated schedule, firing things up after 41 games would leave only 15 games remaining to rise in the standings.
In the first couple games, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes are ready to go with a special emphasis on the goaltenders who even more so could probably use a couple more game-like preseason contests to shake off any rust.
3) Early rebounds
2019-20 beginning of season newcomers Ryan Dzingel and Jake Gardiner failed to launch with the Hurricanes. Dzingel never really did find a goal scoring groove and mostly just bounced around the lineup. Gardiner did find a higher gear in the second half of the season after a really rough start, but raised enough questions that the Hurricanes essentially replaced him at the trade deadline with Brady Skjei and bumped Gardiner down to the third pairing. Nino Niederreiter also had a slow season scoring-wise.
All three players figure to get some opportunity to rebound and make the team deeper, but with the need to push for the playoffs the retrials will probably be both limited and short if unproductive.
If even one of Dzingel or Niederreiter could refind a mid-20s goal scoring pace, the team becomes much deeper offensively. If not, neither is particularly well-suited for other roles or significant contributions past finishing, so they then seem destined to become lineup nomads again. Gardiner is already in a lesser role on the third pairing, but being solid there and productive quarterbacking the second power play unit would be a good contribution.
I will be watching to see which, if any, of these three players can leverage a fresh start to find a higher gear out of the gate.
4) Solidifying the middle
Also from the newcomer file, Vincent Trocheck and Brady Skjei both arrived at the trade deadline and hopped right into key, middle of the lineup roles. I see Trocheck as the most likely centerpiece for building a second scoring line to make the team deeper and to take some pressure off of Aho’s line especially on the road. And I see Skjei as critical to the Hurricanes defense getting back to where it was in the latter half of the 2018-19 season. Slavin/Hamilton thrived in 2019-20, but the revolving door next to Brett Pesce on the second pairing and a third pairing that was not as consistent as the prior year led to a modest downgrade defensively last season. Skill set-wise Skjei’s skating, ability to carry the puck and willingness to jump into the play fit well with Pesce’s stay-home strengths. But from his limited audition during the regular season (thought he was better in the playoffs), Skjei reminded me a bit too much of Noah Hanifin as a gifted physical player who just made too many decision-making/positioning mistakes.
I am on record as saying that the slots occupied by Trocheck and Skjei are the two most important in the lineup for improving in 2020-21 via additional depth, so obviously I will be watching both players from the outset.
Aiming to avoid a slow start, I will be watching both netminders early to see how each navigates the unique build up without preseason games. If one or both start slow, I would not view that necessarily as a sign of long-term trouble. But at the same time, the short 56-game season makes it important to get on track pretty quickly so as not to dig a whole standings-wise.
Who is ready for Canes hockey!!!
The puck drops at 7:30pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with Tripp, Mike, Abby and Shane!