Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes
In response to a lackluster 2014-15 season that saw the Hurricanes finish dead last in the Metropolitan Division, the management team looked to bounce back in 2015-16. Despite the 51-point performance from rising star Jeff Skinner, however, a combination of inconsistent goaltending and an offense that finished 27th in the NHL led the Hurricanes to yet another season without playoff hockey.
Defensively, the performances of Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and rookie Noah Hanifin allowed the defensive corps to finish as high as 18th in the league overall. Combined with the improvement of Ryan Murphy, and the development of Haydn Fleury this young, talented group of blueliners provided a glimmer of positivity within yet another mediocre season.
In terms of player personnel, the 2015-16 season also brought quite a few shakeups within the Hurricanes organization. Of this veritable whirlwind of trading activity, mostly comprised of bit players coming and going, the most notable was the trade of Hurricanes captain and first line center Eric Staal to the New York Rangers in return for Aleksi Saarela and two second-round draft picks. Though it created quite a stir among the Carolina faithful and sent away a fan favorite, this trade offered cap relief and capitalized on Staal’s value as a tradeable asset while still possible. In trading away their captain, Carolina’s management set the stage for a youth revolution in the coming years.
Following an active regular season, the Hurricanes continued this level of productivity into the off-season, re-signing recent acquisition Joakim Nordstrom to a two-year contract extension on April 22. June also proved to be a busy month for Carolina, as they signed 2015 draftee Sebastian Aho from Finland and re-signed both Saarela and goalie Cam Ward. On June 15, Carolina traded away a 2016 second-round and a 2017 third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in order to acquire talented young winger Teuvo Teravainen, as well as veteran Bryan Bickell.
Within the draft itself, the franchise began by adding yet another talented young defenseman, Jake Bean, to a pool of defenders which has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Following this selection, the Hurricanes turned their focus further up ice, using five of their remaining eight picks on forwards. This emphasis on attacking power included drafting Julien Gauthier of the QMJHL, an explosive right winger who stands all of 6’4″ and uses his 225-pound frame with aggression and intelligence.
Between June 30 and July 20, seven players, including James Wisniewski, Brad Malone, Chris Terry, Riley Nash, and Nathan Gerbe found themselves either released or bought out, clearing cap room and paving the way for the rebuilding process to continue. In this same period of time, management either signed or re-signed a total of 12 players, including extensions for Ryan Murphy and Victor Rask, entry level contracts for Gauthier and Bean, the addition of wingers Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg, as well as defenseman Matt Tennyson from free agency.
Jeff Skinner – Victor Rask – Lee Stempniak
Sebastian Aho – Elias Lindholm – Teuvo Teravainen
Bryan Bickell – Jay McClement – Viktor Stalberg
Without Eric Staal for the second half of last season, the top five scorers on the team were Skinner (51 points), Jordan Staal (48), Rask (48), Elias Lindholm (39), and Faulk (37). Without a standout elite scorer, the team relied on scoring by committee, and this coming season should continue that trend. The addition of Stempniak and Teravainen, responsible for 51 and 35 points, respectively, in 2015-16, should complement that philosophy well. Although Stempniak’s 2016-17 totals will likely fall well short of those from last year, Teravainen is still maturing as a scorer and should top last season’s tallies.
The main offensive question marks will be Bickell and Aho, both new to the system. Aho, who can play at any forward position, was the top scorer for Karpat of Finland’s SM-Liiga and often centered a line with Jesse Puljujarvi. His flexibility will allow him to rotate with his likely linemates Teravainen and Lindholm as needed, and if he performs well, he may climb lines as needed.
Bickell is at the other end of his career’s trajectory and is coming off of a lackluster season with the Blackhawks. According to reports from training camp, however, Bickell is said to be in the best shape of his life and may have more to offer than previously thought. Even if he fails to live up to expectations, paying him $4.5 million this year to sit on the bench doesn’t make much sense and may prevent him from being dropped to accommodate for a younger player.
Jaccob Slavin – Justin Faulk
Noah Hanifin – Brett Pesce
Matt Tennyson – Ron Hainsey
The major strength of this Hurricanes team lies on the blueline, an area that looks to get even stronger in the immediate future. Faulk has the talent to become one of the elite defensemen in the NHL, if he hasn’t already crossed that line, and last season demonstrated the abilities of Slavin to join him on the first pairing. While Faulk’s offensive potential has resulted in his top-five in team scoring, Slavin has proven himself essential to the team’s puck movement on the ice. In terms of defensemen, he trails only Faulk for shots on goal per 60 and points per 60 minutes. What’s more, the team creates more high-danger chances with him on the ice than any other defenseman on the team.
Opportunities below the first pairing may be a bit more up for grabs, as the remaining four spots will look to be shared by at least five defensemen. Both Hanifin and Pesce earned their place in the lineup last season and should only continue to improve throughout the year. The real questions come with the third pairing, and it’s almost certain that the pair will be different at the end of the season from the one that starts it.
Hainsey is aging and his aggressive play may lead to serious injury. Tennyson, though serviceable with the San Jose Sharks, will certainly feel the young talent in Charlotte nipping at his heels. With the likes of Fleury, Murphy, and Trevor Carrick improving markedly, they will all likely get a shot at the senior team and may find a permanent home in Raleigh.
With the scoring drought hopefully being addressed, the other major question mark remaining for the Hurricanes comes in between the sticks. As with the 2015-16 season, Carolina will look to a 1A/1B combination of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack in net, a combination that proved to be inconsistent at best and ineffective at its worst last year. In the first half of the season, both goalies let in soft goals, and this undoubtedly cost the team many points.
As the season progressed, both Ward and Lack improved, but neither stuck out as definitely superior to the other. Even behind such a strong defense, they both finished the season with save percentages below .910 and goals against averages of 2.81 for Lack and 2.41 for Ward. Neither player has impressed or managed to steal games, yet few realistic alternatives exist. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, good goaltending is hard to find, and even harder to afford. If they can replicate their improved form from the second half of last season, however, the pair may give the Hurricanes the ability to push for a playoff spot after all.
Players To Watch
How well Aho transitions to the pace and power of the NHL game is yet to be seen, but reports indicate a strong likelihood of him making the starting roster at the onset of the season. His intelligence, vision, and strong two-way game make him a perfect candidate for an impressive year with the senior squad. If he can avoid burning out from the pressure of life in the NHL, look for him to be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy.
In his first full season with the Blackhawks, Teravainen tallied 35 total points and quickly became one of the young players to watch on the shortlists of both fans and pundits alike. If he can improve upon his previous work, which is possible next to the likes of Aho and Lindholm, he may become one of the most important offensive players on the team. Staying healthy, both mentally and physically, will go a long way toward his confidence, and he could quite possibly put up Skinner-like numbers in the 2016-17 season.
Phillip Di Giuseppe
Continuing the trend of young offensive potential, Di Giuseppe could prove to be a name that turns heads in the seasons to come. When given the chance to earn a spot last season, he played hard to ensure that he kept that spot for longer than expected. No matter where he starts the season, Di Giuseppe will almost certainly finish it as a top nine forward. If he picks up where he left off, a contribution of 30-40 points is not out of the question.
Players on the Rise
Though he was only recently drafted and given an entry-level contract, Gauthier’s play during summer prospect camp caught the eye of anyone watching and served as a statement of intent. It is clear from his confident demeanor that he feels as if he belongs, and his play reflected that belief. He possesses speed, vision, and a neat shot that should serve him well, even in the NHL. The senior team will almost certainly call him up for at least nine games this year, but that may be the extent of his stay. Gauthier will likely find himself back in junior, but the odds are good that he won’t stay there for long.
Among the bevy of defensive talents in the Carolina organization, Carrick is a name that tends to fly under the radar for anyone outside the fanbase. Although his ceiling doesn’t appear to be as high as that of Fleury or Hanifin, Carrick has proven himself at the AHL level and could be one of the first names up in the case of a blueline shuffle. As it stands now, Carrick’s shot and quarterbacking abilities are superior to the other defensive prospects, and it would not be unrealistic to see him earn a spot on the senior squad, even if only temporarily.
Players on the Decline
Although he fits the mold of the prototypical fourth line center, McClement’s mediocre performances with Carolina have left fans wondering when he will be replaced by someone younger with more to offer. At 33 years old and with point production barely in the double digits, it seems that management is merely holding on to him for faceoffs and not much else. After finishing last season with just 11 points, somebody younger and hungrier will likely replace McClement soon.
2016-17 Season Predictions
After jettisoning the dead weight of the previous season, the new-look Hurricanes will likely be the very definition of a playoff bubble team in the coming season. How well they perform will depend heavily upon the performance of their young offensive players as well as the consistency of their goaltending.
This team’s youth can either serve as a benefit or a hindrance, depending on which way the season turns. Fans will be expecting Nordstrom, Skinner, Rask, Lindholm, Aho, and Teravainen to offer something better than 27th in league scoring, and they should provide just that. Instead of one forward over fifty points, the 2016-17 Hurricanes could legitimately have three or four, depending on how well the lines form chemistry and an understanding of each other’s tendencies.
The rapid maturation of Hanifin, coupled with the emergence of Pesce and Slavin as legitimate top-four defensemen, will solidify the Hurricanes’ blueline even further. This should accelerate them well into the top half of defensive units in terms of points allowed and points scored.
Ultimately, the playoff hopes of the franchise rest on the shoulders of the goaltending combination of Lack and Ward. If these two can forget the slow start of the 2015-16 season and instead recreate their form in the latter half, the chances of playoff hockey in Raleigh increase dramatically.
All told, this team has the ingredients for a wildcard run, but it will be tough to leapfrog any of the Metropolitan division rivals ahead of them in the standings. A realistic prediction would be just missing out on the playoffs in 2016-17, but making them the following year. On the other hand, pundits expected Carolina to finish dead last in 2006, and look how that went.