If you are catching up, it has been a fairly busy week at Canes and Coffee with nightly updates on the constantly changing roster situation early in the week. The detailed analysis of the final moves and roster is HERE.
In addition, the opener today bookends a series of 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes season preview articles started on Wednesday and to continue on Friday.
The final parts of the season preview will post on Friday to finish out a busy Canes hockey week.
Expected Hurricanes line combinations
For final lines, people will need to check in after the morning skate, as there are a couple question marks coming out of practice this week, but it should look something like:
Frk and Di Giuseppe are the extra forwards either of whom could slot onto the fourth line.
Nakladal is expected on Sunday. Dahlbeck is available, but my wild guess is that McKeown gets this first game before heading to Charlotte.
Seeking carry over from 2015-16
On the brink of game 1 of the 2016-17 season, my focus early in the season will be on important carry overs from the 2015-16. Casual outside observers might quickly classify the Hurricanes as just another draft lottery team with a very long way to go to be competitive. But those who watched more closely know that for about half of the season (37 games from early December through late February before the trade deadline), the Carolina Hurricanes were a good hockey team that played at a >100-point pace. The key drivers of that run were stellar play by Jordan Staal and his line, improved goalie play, a surge by Jeff Skinner, strong play and chemistry across 3 lines and fast maturation by the young defensemen.
With a bunch of moving parts in terms of new players and young players stepping up into new, bigger roles, my early season watch points will be heavy how much the core strengths of the December-February 2016 team can be pulled into the 2016-17 season and used as an early foundation.
‘What I’m watching’
1) Jordan Staal’s line
With a bunch of moving parts at forward, I think it is critical that Jordan Staal and his line play like they did during the good stretch in 2015-16. This gives Coach Bill Peters a steady and stable every third shift option, and importantly the Staal line’s ability to drive possession into the offensive zone can sometimes tilt the ice for multiple shifts. Jordan Staal needs to be 1 of the Hurricanes 2-3 best players all season, and it needs to happen right out of the gate for the Hurricanes to get their feet under them and get out of the gate with a good start on the road.
2) Cam Ward
Both Cam Ward and Eddie Lack had reasonably strong preseasons. As I said multiple times during the course of training camp, I think carry over from preseason regular season is almost nothing for goalies. One of the downfalls of the Hurricanes early in the 2015-16 was shoddy netminding. The team in total was not great, but neither goalie had any kind of answer to help. Ward started slow as he has in recent years, and Lack struggled mightily early on trying to transition to a new team and goaltending coach. Lack never really found an extended groove but did get his feet under him, and Ward provided steady and generally solid play during the strong winter run. Despite below average goaltending in total for 2015-16, Ron Francis decided to go back to the same duo despite having an open spot with Cam Ward’s contract expiration. That decision could prove to be the most significant decision that Francis made this past summer as far as impacting the 2016-17 season.
3) The top 4 on defense
The current trajectory suggests that the blue line should be a strength for the Hurricanes as it rises up over the next few years. The key question for 2016-17 is whether that can happen now or if it is still a year or 2 away. The top 4 finds a sophomore in Jaccob Slavin in the top pair and another in Brett Pesce in the second pair. Whether this group looks more like “growing to be good in the future” or “ready now” will have a huge impact on how good the Canes are defensively in 2016-17.
I will especially be watching the top pair of Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin. As a veteran in the group, Justin Faulk should be a leader, but he has historically been a slow starter at least defensively. My big but simple read on Faulk is simply where he releases most of his passes from in the defensive zone. When he does not have his skating legs, he has a tendency to make too many of his first passes from very deep in his own end even behind the end line. The result is longer passes with a higher degree of turnover danger in bad places and also forwards receiving pucks still just entering the neutral zone with a long way to go to reach the offensive zone with puck possession. When Faulk is skating, he starts up ice and makes passes on the go from farther up the ice. The result is shorter/easier passes and also the option to carry further if that is the better option. While the easiest measuring point is Faulk’s puck handling in his own end, the measure of how well he is skating tends to permeate other areas of Faulk’s game.
I will also be very closely watching Jaccob Slavin to see if he can launch into the March version of his game that was eye-opening for its maturity and steadiness. I wrote earlier this week about it being much easier for young defensemen to build a head of steam throughout the season and then gradually play their way up from the AHL to the NHL and then up the lineup in the NHL. I used Jamie McBain as a (horrifying) example of how good a young player could look for a short stretch at the end of a season after building up to a rhythm and then how badly it can go the next season. Importantly, I think Jaccob Slavin is a much better player, but I think the challenge is still there. I would rate Slavin’s preseason play as a bit rusty. The biggest flaw in his game is his tendency to get up a bit too far and lose track of what is or could very quickly be behind him in a fast transition from offense to defense on a turnover. For this part of his game, Slavin does not always have the ‘what’s next’ instincts that see him transition to defending a split second before the need arises. Playing on a top pair against first and second lines, this split second is sometimes all good NHL forwards need to quickly gain an odd man rush and exploit it for a goal. So my early read on Slavin is a basic check on if he looks like the March version of himself and also how well he can tidy up his pre-transition defensive reads for the regular season.
4) Signs of offense
When you net it out, I am looking for early leadership and stability for the top group at each of the 3 positions. On top of that, I will of course be looking for signs that the Hurricanes will be able to score more in 2016-17. In that category are the power play, Jeff Skinner now playing on a first scoring line with a new line mate and the exciting and skilled but young Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen line.
The puck drops at 8pm on Fox Sports South with John, Tripp and welcome addition Mike Maniscalco.