Matt’s editorial note: With the buzz and optimism around Canes hockey this summer, Cory could not help but return from his summer break way early. There are no guarantees in professional sports (Canes fans know that too well lately), but I hope you share his optimism and energy. I do.
A storm is coming. Can you feel it?
Disclaimer: Author is 100% allowed to use cheesy clichés in his ridiculous excitement for the coming of hockey season
The Carolina Hurricanes have had one of the best offseasons in recent memory this summer. The problem is, the offseason means nothing and we all are just bouncing in our seats in anticipation of seeing if the 2017-18 Canes can deliver on the ice. But seeing as that’s two months off, let’s just keep distracting ourselves with the bright situation, shall we?
Yay, Our First Real Post-Cup Identity!
Let’s embrace the fact that, for the first time in years, the Carolina Hurricanes have an identity. For years, it seemed like the team had none, or at the very least, was something like “They Whom Are Beholden to Family Staal.” (There are worse identities.) The truth as we’ve all come to painfully know, is that we coasted on our Cup win for about 8 years. As names like Brind’Amour, Whitney, Cole, and Williams disappeared, so did the identity. For years it was just sitting there hoping Eric Staal and Cam Ward could turn it back to their Cup days and bring us a taste of the playoffs. Then for several more years, it was the painful process of rebuild, a gigantic twisted puzzle that Ron Francis and Bill Peters had to piece together. So many years.
But then, at points throughout and then at the very end of the 2016-17 season, we saw our first glimpses of a new identity. One of a faster, puck dominant team. The pain in the ass, that no team wants to play against. As a future At it’s best, we saw a team that could shut down anybody not named McDavid (8 Hurricanes finished among the Top 50 in the NHL in takeaways), while hoarding the puck for minutes on end, the other team frantically chasing us. At it’s worst, it was one that struggled to score and could be easily doomed by shaky goaltending. Still, for the last month of the regular season, Canes Nation was very intrigued. Then came summer.
All Five Acquisitions Upgrade the Hurricanes Identity
While many (this writer included) had visions of first-line forwards and epic trades racing through our minds, after Ron Francis promised an active offseason following the Canes elimination, the Hurricanes were actively committed to maintaining the current roster, and its burgeoning identity. Every single trade and signing of the offseason enhanced our puck dominant, defensive juggernaut identity:
Scott Darling was brought on to try his hand at solidifying the goalie position. If he plays even remotely close to how he did in Chicago, this is the single biggest upgrade for the team, done with a single 4th round pick.
Trevor van Riemsdyk will likely provide a huge boost to the blueline depth as a massive upgrade to Tennyson, Dahlbeck and Hainsey. Offensively, he outscored all three. Defensively, he was on par with Hainsey, but is far younger, with room to grow.
Justin Williams was the perfect free agent signing for the team identity. A Corsi juggernaut, known league-wide as one of the hardest players to play against, a veteran of multiple Stanley Cup champions…Oh, and he regularly scores around 20 goals a season.
Josh Jooris is overlooked as a signing, but could prove to be a very solid fourth-line player for the team. His value as a purely defensive forward who can score a couple goals is solid. Paired alongside Joakim Nordstrom, and the Hurricanes final offseason acquisition, could form a very potent shutdown fourth line.
Marcus Kruger has terrible scoring numbers. Everyone knows this. Except that he more than doubled Jay McClement’s offensive production last year, while playing far superior defensive hockey (Dude picks up Selke votes). He’s a crucial addition to this team.
So no, we did not get Matt Duchene, Alex Galchenyuk or any of the dozens of scoring forwards we all speculated about. We did get five players who fit perfectly into this new identity, while (on paper) serving as significant upgrades over the players they replaced. These additions (again, on paper) predict that we’ll see a slight increase in goal scoring as well. While many Caniacs may be concerned that we can’t score enough goals, very recent history has proven that this doesn’t matter as much if the other team doesn’t score either. Note to certain hockey fans: If the other team does not have the puck, they CAN NOT score. (Respect, Steve Smith) This is a perfectly valid strategy for winning games. And one that’s won many Cups.
Puck Possessing, Defensive Juggernauts Win in Today’s NHL
It’s no accident that the Columbus Blue Jackets had 108 points last year. They are a defensively focused team with a very solid goalie, and a relatively ho-hum offense. They had some bad luck, in the form of a twisted NHL playoff system that matched them up with eventual Cup champs and perpetual ‘Defense Wins Cups’ denier Pittsburgh, in Round 1. Columbus’ identity (and a brutally bad Bobrovsky) failed them. Pittsburgh scored four or more goals in all but one of their 4-1 series win. Still, it doesn’t mean the offensive identity beats the defensive every time. It just means Crosby and Malkin make their own rules.
Carolina Hurricanes fans need to ignore the Pittsburghs, Torontos and Edmontons of the NHL. They somehow lucked their way into multiple transcendent offensive talents. That’s not realistic for this team. The Columbus method is. Just last year, Columbus proved that such an identity can get a team to the playoffs. Here are three recent examples of how a defensive identity can win a team a Stanley Cup.*
*By Order of Completely Biased Opinions of Similarity to the 2017-18 Hurricanes
2013-14 Los Angeles Kings
The prime example of how shutdown teams can win a Cup, the Kings finished 25th in the NHL that season with 206 goals scored (For reference, the 2016-17 Hurricanes scored 210). They won because they led the league with only 174 goals against. FYI, that’s a team GAA of 2.12. They had just four 40-point scorers that season. They won led by an elite defensive forward (Anze Kopitar) and the gritty, veteran play of Justin Williams. Good role model to follow, I’d say.
2010-11 Boston Bruins
Coincidentally, this team was also led by an elite defensive center (Patrice Bergeron), and possessed no elite scorers. What this team had in abundance, was depth. The 2010-11 Bruins boasted eight 40-point scorers, and a dominant starting goalie who took a very long road to the NHL. Yes, it would take a couple years for our players and prospects to develop anywhere close to this level of offensive depth, and yes, it’s likely too much to ask that Scott Darling is the 2nd coming of Tim Thomas, but hey….it could happen.
2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks
So, they did have Toews and Kane, and the Hurricanes have no one near that caliber offensively. Still, their stars had a very down year offensively and the Blackhawks relied on their defensive foundation to drive to another Stanley Cup championship. Oh, and lest we forget this little fact: There are six members of the 2014-15 Hawks set to don the Hurricanes logo in 2017-18.
Counting Down to October in Carolina
Fellow Caniacs, there are rightfully many skeptics among you. It’s been a long time since the club played any meaningful May hockey. But this isn’t some fleeting rush of excitement, built over a single summer. We saw the first indicators last summer, with the arrival of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, following the rise of young defensive stalwarts Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. In 2016-17, we witnessed the resurgence of Jeff Skinner, the second-half breakout of Elias Lindholm, and the first glimpses of Aho’s magic, all of it built around the consistent puck-possessing force that was Jordan Staal. Couple these advances with the aforementioned five major roster upgrades from this summer, a ridiculously loaded prospect pool, and the best salary cap situation in the league, and you will realize that no, this isn’t some afternoon thunderstorm worth of excitement. This has been building; a darkening ominous force slowly forming together, just off the radar. As we count down to that first storm siren blast on October 7, we are excited because we Caniacs know what the rest of the league is about to find out. A storm is coming.