After a disappointing 2014-15 season, a long summer and the usual changes to try to improve, the Carolina Hurricanes take to the ice for their season opener in Nashville at 8pm. From a Canes standpoint, the player headline is the debut of 2015 #5 draft pick Noah Hanifin. The game also sees 3 other players (Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom, James Wisniewski) make their Hurricanes debuts. (Eddie Lack, another offseason addition, will back up Cam Ward.) With a healthy lineup and now a full season under Coach Bill Peters, the game represents a first read on if/how much better the 2015-16 team is.
Here is what I will be watching most closely to get that first read:
1) The blue line on 3 levels.
–First pair: Hainsey/Faulk. By all accounts Justin Faulk has risen to amongst the elite defensemen in the NHL. When he is good, he easily fits that category, but he has also been plagued by rough starts twice in his young career including last season. He looked ready to go coming out of training camp, but I will still be watching to see if he is in fact ready to fire on all cylinders out of the gate and hopefully for the vast majority of 82 games.
Second pair: Liles/Wisniewski. If you look at recent history, the Canes have struggled to fill the second pairing with enough or sometimes even any offensive/puck-moving capability. Regular stay-home types Gleason, Harrison and Bellemore are gone. Liles (who has slotted there some) moves up and is joined by another skating, offense-leaning defenseman. I think this group is the key to the team’s blue line. Can they boost the offense across the board by adding 20+ minutes of better offensive ability from the back end and at the same time not take a step back defensively? If they do, I think the Canes blue line works. If they do not, there is nowhere to hide them with a real young, also offense-oriented pair sitting below them.
Third pair: Hanifin/Murphy. Out of all of the things to watch in the season opener, this pair is the most exciting thing for me. The upside is 2 incredibly good young skaters who can both carry the puck. The downside is that both are green in terms of development and experience and the “work in progress” part of the game for both is tightening up their games defensively and in terms of miscues. Sounds like feast, famine and fun to watch which should have us all on the edge of their seat one way or another.
2) Jeff Skinner. He had a scoring outburst for a couple games in the middle of preseason. Then he was placed on a completely different line and has not scored since. I am on record as liking Victor Rask as a great 2-way center but saying that his ability to create offensively is not nearly as mature as his play without the puck. Chris Terry has quietly improved his play without the puck which is what has him at the NHL level, but he has yet to fully transition AHL scoring to the NHL. I will be counting how many good chances Jeff Skinner gets and maybe equally importantly how many of those are generated by his line mates. A game of a decent number of shots of the low quality variety mostly generated by Jeff Skinner doing it himself could be an early sign that he will not get enough chances to rebound from the current forward configuration. For a single game sample size it is not so much about if/how much he scores but whether he seems to be getting enough chances that he eventually will.
3) Gerbe/JStaal/Nash. This line looked good in preseason, generating scoring chances and goals with a hard hat/lunch pail approach creating chances off the forecheck and by winning puck battles in the offensive zone. This trio must continue to be great defensively (seems probable), but it must also score without much help from a pure playmaker (the bigger challenge).
4) The Versteeg effect. Kris Versteeg was there when Jeff Skinner surged offensively, and then he was there when Eric Staal was moved back to center and that line scored. Regardless of line mates, I think Versteeg’s ability to create scoring chances for the scorers will be a vital component of an offense light on this skill at the forward position.
Puck drops a little after 8pm with Tripp and John.