With the NHL season finally about to start this Tuesday, PHR continues to finish up our in-depth looks at each team and the focus now turns to a team that people are greatly under-rating in 2016-17, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Last season: 35-31-16 (86 points), 6th in the Metropolitan Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference
Cap Space Remaining: $16.9MM according to Cap Friendly
Key Newcomers: LW Bryan Bickell (trade, Chicago Blackhawks), G Michael Leighton (free agency, Chicago Blackhawks), RW Viktor Stalberg (free agency, New York Rangers), LW Lee Stempniak (free agency, Boston Bruins), D Matt Tennyson (free agency, San Jose Sharks), LW Teuvo Teravainen (trade, Chicago Blackhawks
Key Departures: LW Nathan Gerbe (free agency, New York Rangers), D Michal Jordan (free agency, KHL), RW Brad Malone (free agency, Washington Capitals), RW Riley Nash (free agency, Boston Bruins), LW Chris Terry (free agency, Montreal Canadiens), D James Wisniewski (free agency, unsigned)
Player to Watch: Victor Rask – The 22-year-old Rask finished just three points behind Jeff Skinner for the team lead in points in 2015-16, and ended up tied with veteran center Jordan Staal. The Hurricanes rewarded him with a six-year, $24MM contract. If Rask continues to trend upward, then that deal will be one of the best bargains in hockey. If not, it could stymie a re-building franchise. All signs point to the former though, as Rask has played big minutes and put up solid numbers in each of his first two NHL seasons. Now expected to center the top line in Carolina, the pressure will be on for Rask to live up to role and lead his fellow young skill players. The Hurricanes have put together a great, young roster, and with Eric Staal gone, Victor Rask has the chance to be the young center that steps in to become the face of the franchise and lead the team to playoff success, just as Staal did over a decade ago.
Key Storylines: No one is expecting much of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2015-16. In fact, Las Vegas odds-maker Bovada has the ’Canes finishing last in the Eastern Conference, tied for the worst Stanley Cup odds in the league. So really, Carolina has nothing to lose. With few expectations, the pressure is off of the league’s youngest team. But should we really expect them to be bottom-dwellers?
In 2015-16, the Hurricanes finished tenth in the Eastern Conference, just seven points out of a playoff spot. They led the league in overtime losses with 16, meaning that if the goal had gone the other way in even half of those games, Carolina would have been a postseason team. They accomplished all of that while ditching veterans Eric Staal, John-Michael Liles, and Kris Versteeg along the way. Granted, those players helped them get to where they ended up, but the Hurricanes only lost five games in regulation out of the eighteen games following the NHL Trade Deadline. This goes to show that the young players in Carolina are willing and able to win.
Since the end of the season, it’s hard to find any way to say that the Hurricanes have gotten worse. Riley Nash was their only impact player lost in free agency, while they added consummate veteran Lee Stempniak on the open market and made a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to bring in the young, skilled Teuvo Teravainen, as well as Bryan Bickell, who could get back to his better ways with the change of scenery. Add those difference makers to a top nine that features proven scorers Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, great young centerpieces Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm and a potential Calder candidate in Sebastian Aho, and Carolina seems far from a team that will struggle to put up points. On the back end, Justin Faulk leads a young defensive core that features Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Ryan Murphy, and likely at least one of top prospects Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown, while the Hurricanes boast one of the strongest goalie duos in the league in Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.
So where does the doubt come from? The fact of the matter is that only six skaters on the roster are over the age of 25 (Staal, Stempniak, Stalberg, Bickell, Jay McClement, Ron Hainsey) and a lot is riding on players without much NHL experience. Without the same level of veteran leadership throughout the season, that responsibility may show more in the stats and standings. However, the point still stands that this young team has proven they can win. They seem much more capable than the likes of New Jersey and Columbus in the Metropolitan anyway. There is no disputing that the future is bright for the Hurricanes. The question in 2016-17 is simply how close can they get to that success this early in the re-building process. The answer may surprise many. Stay tuned.