For Hurricanes fans, the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes will forever be linked by their battle in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. It is hard to believe that we are in the 10-year anniversary of that season. It is also hard to believe how much each team’s fortunes have changed since that magical season. The upstart Oilers parted ways with Chris Pronger after that season and soon thereafter began a rebuild that has had its ups and downs. The Oilers have not returned to the playoffs since that magical season. The Hurricanes did return to the playoffs in 2009 and mustered a fun run to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling, but that is their only playoff appearance since the 2005-06 season. And both teams finished 2014-15 near the bottom of the league and entered the 2015-16 season looking more like a rebuilding project than a playoff contender.
Be it by design or just how the draft chips fell, the teams are a contrast in styles in terms of building for the future. By virtue of 2 high picks spent on defensemen and a strong batch of recent mid-round draft picks who are playing above their draft slot, the Carolina Hurricanes rebuilding process will be built upon a foundation of promising young defensemen. Justin Faulk is only 23 years old and an established leader in a lineup that features 3 blue line rookies who are rising up before their time. On the other side of the ledger, the Edmonton Oilers have largely assembled a stockpile of talented young forwards. They did select Darnell Nurse recently, but the young talent is comprised primarily of forwards. The list includes Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, and Nail Yakupov in addition to phenom Connor McDavid who is out with an injury.
What I will be watching in Wednesday night’s match up includes:
1) The contrast in rebuilding personnel
The battle of a Edmonton’s batch of young forwards against Carolina’s young blue line sets up as the headline story in a battle of 2 teams trying to find their way back to the playoffs. Edmonton offers a benchmark and visual for what good young NHL forwards look like. The Oilers also offer an age comparable challenge to the Hurricanes young blue line. Who wins this battle and setting the bar for what level the Canes need to reach in terms of forward talent is worth watching.
2) Which start?
With some help from a tough night from Jonathan Quick, the Canes got out of the gate fairly quickly on Sunday night, built a lead and road it to a win. On Monday, the team struggled to get started, fell behind but managed to storm back in a great third period. Here is hoping that the Canes can find the ignition switch at the outset on Wednesday.
3) A forward rising
Sunday’s 4-goal outburst seemed to suggest that the Canes offense was on an upswing. But when you sort through the details, I am not sure that the underlying story is as strong as the headline. The blue line scored 3 of the goals. Jeff Skinner was the only forward to register a goal. On Monday, Victor Rask notched the only goal by a forward (Pesce had the other). The Canes are still in search of a hot line or 2 that can put up consistent offense for a run of more than a game or 2.
4) Growing comfort and levels of responsibility from the kids
Brett Pesce’s confidence has to be through the roof right now riding a 2-game goal scoring streak and some strong play overall. Is there yet another level for him, as he settles into the NHL and gains confidence? Also, Jaccob Slavin hopped right into the NHL with the guts and gumption to just play his game. He is comfortable and confident with the puck on his stick. Surely, there are going to be learning moments along the way, but I love the fact that he entered the NHL with a reputuation as an skating, offensive defenseman and is working to bring that exact game to the NHL. He is only on game 4 but is worth watching for continued development as he gets his feet under him. Finally, the gray beard of the trio is Noah Hanifin with his 18 games of NHL experience. I started yammering a few weeks back that the coaching staff needed to push him a bit to open things up and go for it for better or for worse. Just like with Jaccob Slavin, the goal is not to help him grow into a good buttoned down, stay home defenseman. The goal is to help him use his skating to play with pace and attack offensively. Recently, Hanifin has started to pick a few spots to skate, push forward and go for it. Here is hoping that more is on the way.
5) A bounce back for Justin Faulk
Camouflaged a bit by his phenomal scoring on the power play and offensively in general is the fact that Justin Faulk has struggled a bit recently. He had a bad non-skating turnover in each of the last 2 games and has been part of the story on a good number of goals against recently. He had 1 tough outing earlier in the season but bounced back quickly. I will be watching to see if the same happens again. For me, the telltale sign for Justin Faulk is when he starts trying to move the puck from deep in his own end (like the 2 recent turnovers) instead of moving his feet first to get going up the ice to make shorter passes, better passing lanes and more options.