With the Hurricanes loss and the Flyers win on Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes were officially eliminated from playoff contention. That event makes a long 7 seasons since the Hurricanes last appeared in the playoffs all the way back in the previous decade. But with the team getting younger and better at the right time, things are trending in the right direction. It is obviously a bit premature to make predictions before even knowing what the roster will look like. Nonetheless, here are 5 reasons why the Hurricanes will make the 2016-17 playoffs.
1) The team is actually pretty good, as is, right now
Certainly, the team will need to add some help at forward to back fill holes left by the Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg trades and to boost scoring, but the team has actually been pretty good for a significant stretch now. Since the beginning of December, the Hurricanes are 26-17-12. That is not a 2-week hot streak but rather is almost exactly two-thirds of the season played at a 95-point pace which is roughly what it will take to make the playoffs. (The Flyers have 91 points with 4 games remaining.) In addition, the Canes have managed this after playing about a month after 3 significant trade deadline departures and only AHL reinforcements.
=> To make the playoffs next season, the Canes really just need to do what they have been doing for the past 55 games.
2) The team should naturally get better simply by virtue of its experience level
With so many key players, especially on defense, so early in their NHL careers, it is reasonable to think that the Canes will improve in 2016-17 simply from players natural growth at the early stage of their careers. Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Phil Di Giuseppe are all NHL rookies who should only get better with more NHL ice time.
=> Look for the rookies, especially the kids on D, to take a big step forward next season. Professional hockey is a young man’s game. Great players tend to rise up quickly at a young age just as often as they build toward it for multiple seasons. Look for the defense to transition quickly from figuring it out to leading it.
3) Ron Francis finally has some budget to put his stamp on the roster
After 2 summers with the bulk of the roster and the bulk of the budget already committed, Ron Francis will finally get a chance to put his stamp on the team this summer. I wrote up the financials in the second paragraph of this post recently. The short version is that that the team will free up about $22 million of salary relative to the start of the 2015-16 season. I do not expect Francis to reinvest all of that, but he will need to spend about $13 million just to reach the salary cap floor which should be about $55 million. That amount of money is enough to add a higher-end goalie if 1 becomes available and still have money left to add a couple mid-tier forwards.
=> First and foremost is to add another solid goalie, but that should still leave money to add the players needed to be both better and deeper at forward next season.
4) Coach Bill Peters has more things in place which should lead to a better start
A key to making the playoffs in 2016-17 will be getting out of the gate minus the dreadful starts that have marred both of the past 2 seasons. 2014-15 featured a transition to a new system with Bill Peters’ arrival and a Jordan Staal injury in preseason that caused him to miss the first half of the season. 2015-16 should seemingly have had some continuity, but the team again started slow and saw Peters shuffling lines and combinations constantly. But the start of the 2016-17 season should feature Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom as a core line and 5 of 6 defensemen back plus the addition of veteran James Wisniewski. It is reasonable to expect that the Canes can get off to a better start instead of digging a big hole early.
=> With a couple things figured out, the team should (and must) enter the regular season ready to go and avoid digging early holes like the past 2 seasons.
5) It is just time
It just is.