A huge part of improving is recognizing weaknesses that represent areas for improvement instead of candy-coating things and suggesting that a slightly improved version of the status quo will be enough next time.
Coming at the upcoming offseason, today’s Daily Cup of Joe which is not for the faint of heart offers a handful of harsh realities that must be considered as the 2018-19 roster is built.
1) The team currently does not have a starting goalie in either Cam Ward or Scott Darling who is capable of being even neutral in terms of winning in a starting role over a full 82-game season. Scott Darling was nothing close in 2017-18 and at this point is a very risky dice roll for 2018-19. Cam Ward performed admirably in a backup role, and I actually think he fits very well in that role for 2018-19. But when he was pressed into more regular duty, his game became worse not better suggesting that a backup role is the right one for him at age 34.
2) Though the potential is clearly still there, Noah Hanifin is not a top 4 defenseman right now, and there are no guarantees that he will get there. I rank a decision on Noah Hanifin second only to Jeff Skinner for potentially defining the new management regime’s ability to build a winner. If a bridge deal can be reached for Hanifin at a reasonable price for a couple years to give him more time to figure it out, I lean toward patience. But the decision becomes really difficult if his agent pushes hard for term and salary based on his All-Star appearance, improved point total or whatever else. The fact of the matter is that Noah Hanifin is currently #5/#6 defenseman with significant upside. I think signing a #5 defenseman to a pricey contract north of $4 million per year is incredibly risky and maybe enough to make me want to collect value and move on. I think some fans believe it is a foregone conclusion that Hanifin will eventually round out his game and be a legitimate top of the roster player, but high draftees very regularly just do not reach what is initially thought to be their potential ceiling. I think what to do with Noah Hanifin this summer is a make or break decision for management. And I think the 2018-19 season is also a critical one for Hanifin who was initial passed by fellow 2015 draftees Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov and more recently by 2016 draftees Charlie McAvoy, Jakob Chychrun and Mikhail Sergachev.
3) Justin Faulk has not been a solid defensive top 4 defenseman since Andrej Sekera departed. Faulk’s development path has been an odd one. As a rookie who arrived ahead of schedule, he projected to be a pretty good, physical stay-home defenseman who maybe would be light offensively. Then he suddenly reached that level early defensively playing with Sekera and even started to build the offensive part of his game. And then a couple huge years offensively overshadowed a gradul defensive decline with scoring headlines. But starting roughly with the departure of Sekera, Faulk’s defensive play has declined fairly steadily. More started chirping about Faulk’s intermittent lapses in 2017-18, but I think the issues arrived fully in 2016-17 when Hainsey/Faul was preyed on by opposing coaches in road games. I think the harsh reality for Faulk is that either because of the recurring lower body injury a few years back or from filling out his frame, I think he is now a step or two slow in terms of acceleration and winning short races in today’s NHL that gets faster by the year. He is not the case of a player who has yet to reach a high level defensively. But as time passes without a rebound, it is fair to wonder if the higher level will ever return.
4) The 2017-18 version of Jeff Skinner is not hard to replace and improve. No doubt, Jeff Skinner is either at or near the elite level in terms of raw goal scoring ability. Even a down year netted 24 goals in 2017-18. But many of the Caniac faithful take a leap from there to great scorer=great player. And the two simply are not one and the same. With debates about the long-term of Jeff Skinner raging right now and rumors running rampant, those who vote ‘stay’ on Skinner invariably want to pull up some statistics about his scoring and offense. But nowhere to be found is analysis on the other side of the ledger for Skinner. The team bled goals with him on the ice in 2017-18 as he regressed back to ‘score at any cost and regardless of if trying to do so is the right decision’ at times in 2017-18 after a 2016-17 season that showed marked improvement in this regard. The result was a team low in plus/minus that matched the eye test that saw him regularly gambling for goals at both blue lines and resorting to his sometimes successful ‘swipe and go’ play defensively instead of playing through a body. A common argument for the keeping Jeff Skinner is that the team will not be able to replace his scoring. Winning hockey games is not about scoring. Winning hockey games is about scoring more goals than you give up. In that regard, the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes would have been better off with a 15-18-goal scorer who was at least average defensively. The question is whether some combination of a rebound and a coaching change can help Skinner re-find the high end of his goal scoring that is rare but also re-lose the lack of sound hockey play that too often overtakes the offensive positives.
5) Icing four or more rookies in the 2018-19 opening day lineup will lead to a good amount of growing pains. I am a fan of going young in depth roles at forward. And I think the path to the next good or hopefully even great Carolina Hurricanes team includes at least a few more players from the next wave of young players. But that is not to say that it is a sure route to instant success. Lost in the potential upside is that for as accelerated as Sebastian Aho’s game is offensively, his defensive play especially at the center position is not nearly as advanced. Possibly harkening back to bigger rinks in Europe, his defensive play as the second or third forward back still sees him too much defending a general area versus identifying and marking a specific player. And his transition to center also showed room for improvement. Aho is a smart player who will learn quickly and get there, but I also think he will still be learning on the job a bit in 2018-19 on the defensive side of puck. Martin Necas is similar except even greener. Defensively in transition, he looked comfortable in the role of the first forechecker hounding the puck. But in a more typical center role, he played what I termed a ‘squishy’ game in the neutral zone generally being in the right general place but not being very crisp in terms of understanding how to play angles to limit an opposing rush and not always knowing when he needed to challenge the puck versus retreat to support the defensemen behind him. Similarly, Andrei Svechnikov will add yet another high ceiling player but also one who has not played at the NHL level. Warren Foegele is another who is likely to see NHL ice time in 2018-19 but also face some growing pains. I am fully on board with icing a young roster for the 2018-19 season. But I am also cautious in terms of what to expect out of the gate for what could be a very young group.
6) As good as Jordan Staal is, he really only fits well in a winning lineup that has a complementary scoring line play alongside his. I am on record as not being overly concerned about what Staal’s point totals are as long as he continues to perform in his shutdown role and hold opposing scoring lines in check. But this model only works if there is another top line that leans offense. Trying to grind out enough scoring without a real scoring first line is just too hard in today’s NHL. Canes fans should know after witnessing nearly a full decade of trying to score enough with balance alone. Fortunately in this regard, help might finally be arriving. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen’s mid-60s point totals for 2017-18 are right on the cusp of finally adding a complementary scoring line that makes the math worth. I continue to hope that the Hurricanes can somehow add a single higher-end veteran scorer to round Aho’s line and support Aho in his transition to center.
7) Elias Lindholm is a great depth forward, but unless he finds a higher gear scoring-wise, I think ‘depth forward’ is an apt description for his game right now. I do think Lindholm is capable of playing in the top 6 even as is without a scoring boost. And I also think he is a valuable player whose versatility and well-rounded play fit on a winner. But as long as his scoring ceiling is mid-40s, he is still a depth forward even if a good one. On a more positive note, I rate Lindholm at or near the top of the list of players that I think new head coach Rod Brind’Amour could impact. During his run of about 40 games in the second half of the 2016-17 season, Lindholm found and maintained a significantly higher gear in term of intensity and compete level. Most telling for me was how regularly opposing players wanted a piece of him after the whistle. He had become a pain in the butt to play against, finally finding some of the inner Peter Forsberg that was part of his description when he was drafted. So I do think there is room to grow if he can re-find that element of his game but more significantly if he can find a higher level offensively.
Some might think that these assessments are unduly harsh. But the fact of the matter is that the 2017-18 (and also other recent) version of the Carolina Hurricanes was not good enough. Sure, we can pin part of that on the coach which is convenient since he is gone and now officially a bad guy for many. And no doubt, we can pin part of the blame on the lack of production from depth forwards like Derek Ryan, Marcus Kruger, Josh Jooris, Joakim Nordstrom and others. There is room for improvement in this regard too. But at the end of the day, success and failure in the NHL is largely driven by the performance of the leaders of a team. So as convenient as it is to blame coaching, depth players and maybe management too, the fact of the matter is that a huge part of the Hurricanes’ lack of success in recent years is due to the top half of the roster not matching up to that of playoff-caliber teams.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which if any of these harsh realities is either unduly harsh or just plain wrong?
2) Do you have any other harsh realities that should be put on the table as the team begins the process to build a winner for the 2018-19 season?
3) Of the many situations above that seem to have an equally possible positive and negative next step, which ones do you see as most likely to be resolved positively?