Carolina have been perceived as ’winners’ of this off-season, despite accomplishing only minor upgrades on paper. Outside of signing their own RFAs, Carolina acquired Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk in trades. In the free agent market, they acquired the services of senior Justin Williams via UFA. Although solid acquisitions, Carolina was nowhere near a contender prior to these transactions. So to what do we attribute the grand sense of optimism in and around Raleigh?
Summarizing Adam Gretz of NBC Sports: Scott Darling. Darling was acquired back in April after the Blackhawks were eliminated from playoff contention. Subsequently, the team relieved itself of Eddie Lack’s services by offloading him to the Calgary Flames, while relegating long-time Cane Cam Ward to the backup role. Gretz rightfully spotlights Darling as a potential saviour to the team in the short-term. Darling certainly has the credentials to backstop an NHL team, as his career .924 save percentage is quite impressive. Last year, he tallied a 18-5-5 record – he seems ready to perform. Gretz also showcases the fact that Carolina allowed the second-least amount of shots against in the past three seasons (behind Los Angeles), while the goals-against-average was on the lower end of the middle pack. He points to the success of Carey Price on a middling Canadiens squad as rationale to hope for a resurgence in the standings.
Although Gretz is correct in assuming Carolina will likely improve, it doesn’t necessarily ensure a playoff berth. In the Metropolitan division, even the Islanders’ 94 points were insufficient to land the team Spring hockey. Four teams (Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, NY Rangers) all finished above 100 points. The Hurricanes finished with 87. Although Victor Rask and Sebastien Aho are nearly certain to have improved outputs, the competition remains fierce. The team will need to avoid multiple game losing streaks and start the season off on the correct foot. Although impressive down the season’s stretch, Carolina couldn’t clinch their first berth since 2009. If coach Bill Peters is to remain in his current position, he will need quick, inspiring success in 2017.
Although an 8-point improvement is certainly within the realm of possibility, Carolina will need to rely on health and the steady progression of its young players. Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen could both push for 20 goals, and Aho could easily become a star. If tides turn for the worse, however, expect GM Ron Francis to be proactive in his approach, despite the re-assuring words provided to Chip Alexander of the News & Observer. Francis certainly has room to be active on the trade market as well, with 8 upcoming free agents (4 UFA, 4 RFA) in 2018, and a wealth of space to maneuver. With an astounding $17.2 MM in space, it will nevertheless be difficult for Francis to successfully lobby for the acquisition of a large contract, considering the tenuous owner situation. Still, ownership should allow its GM marginal leeway in the hopes of catapulting the Canes into the the post-season. If Francis does go on the hunt for additional roster players, it would likely take the form of additional scoring or a veteran defender. Those first few months in Raleigh very well could determine the season’s trajectory, so those who are hungry for movement might look toward the tar heel state for early action.