It’s been a long time since the Carolina Hurricanes were relevant. In fact, they have never been consistently so since 2001, making the playoffs just three times in that span. They have only made the playoffs twice after the 2004-05 lockout. Each time they’ve broken through however, they’ve left a lasting impression.
The Carolina Hurricanes Will Make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs
In 2009, lead by Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, and Rod Brind’Amour up front along with Anton Babchuk and Joni Pitkanen on defense, they finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and earned a sixth seed under the old playoff format. It was one of Cam Ward‘s more well-received seasons as well, posting a .916 save percentage and 2.44 goals against average, posting 39 wins and six shutouts. These efforts helped Carolina triumph over two top-five teams. This included a seven game win over the second-ranked Boston Bruins en route to a Conference Finals appearance. They would lose to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Winning It All
In 2006, Staal, 21 at the time, exploded for 45 goals and 100 points. Justin Williams, returning this season after signing a two-year contract, was right behind with 31 goals and 76 points. The team finished with 52 wins and were two points from capturing a regular season Eastern Conference crown. Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, and Frantisek Kaberle lead the charge from the back-end. Martin Gerber played in 60 games and won 31 posting a deceptively modest .906 save percentage. In a season coming out of the lockout that saw a tremendous scoring boom, he finished ninth in the league in that category among 19 goaltenders that played more than 50 games. However, as we all know, Ward stole the show in the playoffs with a .920 save percentage en route to a Stanley Cup Championship, the only banner in franchise history.
A Finals Appearance
In 2002, winning the Southeast Division with just 91 points and earning an automatic third spot despite four other teams finishing higher, the team upset their way to a Stanley Cup Final appearance against the Detroit Red Wings. Though they lost in five games, their journey shouldn’t be understated. While goaltender Arturs Irbe wasn’t particularly solid in the regular season posting a .902 save percentage and 2.54 goals against average, he turned it on in the postseason increasing and decreasing those marks dramatically to .938 and 1.67 respectively. Ron Francis, now the team’s general manager, was the backbone then posting 27 goals and 77 points at age 38. Sami Kapanen, Jeff O’Neill, Brind’Amour and Bates Battaglia formed a solid foundation up front and the team’s defense saw Sandis Ozolinsh, Hedican and Sean Hill all lead the team defensively.
Now, Coming up on the ninth year of the current playoff drought, the team is primed for a return to relevance after a lengthy hiatus with the job Francis has done from the net out this off-season and in off-seasons past. Here is why the team will see a return to the Playoffs this season.
Acquisition of Scott Darling
At some point in their past journeys to the playoffs whether it was the regular season or playoffs, the Hurricanes had a reliable tender. The last few seasons, that has definitely not been the case. Since 2013-14, they’ve allowed 2.73 goals per game to rank 18th, yet they’ve allowed 28.5 shots per game to rank fifth-best. Ward has not been up to par between the pipes in that span, posting a .906 save percentage and 2.64 goals against average in 189 starts. Eddie Lack, criticized by head coach Bill Peters, has been worse since he was acquired in 2015, as in 49 starts he’s posted a .902 save percentage and 2.73 goals against. Combined last season, they averaged a -9.68 goals saved above average and .912 even-strength save percentage.
Solidifying the back
Enter Darling. Extremely small sample size alert here, but it looks like this is a perfect fit. Coming from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third round pick, the 28-year old signed a four-year extension that will pay him $4.15 million per season to be Carolina’s number one net minder going forward. He’s only started 64 games over three seasons for the Hawks, but in that stretch he’s posted a .923 save percentage and 2.37 goals against average. Over the past three seasons, his high-danger save percentage (.847) ranks second only to Carey Price minimum 3000 minutes played.
This past season was the biggest workload he’s gotten in a single season thus far. Darling started 27 games, achieving a career-high of +8.90 goals saved above average while posting a .924 save percentage. It’s a young career thus far. It just seems like the system is perfect for him to excel playing behind a solid defense. For more on why the investment in the Newport News native will pay off, here is a previous analysis on Darling himself.
Another Year of Growth Up Front
The ‘Canes have a very solid group of young forwards either ready to come into their own or have shown themselves already. Sebastian Aho in any other year would have been a dark horse for rookie of the year with his 24-goal, 49-point season. He ranked third amongst first-year players in goals behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, and fifth in points. The 19-year old also lead the team in power play points with 17 showing his creativity on a team starving for some. Aho wasn’t the only bright spot, however.
Jeff Skinner regained his status as an elite NHL sniper with 37 goals, including 17 in the final 19 games. His 63 points were the most since his 2010-11 Calder season. He was able to fire a career-high 281 shots on net. Skinner generated 10.75 scoring chances for per 60 to rank 11th among all forwards. He’s logged 497 games played and still is just 25.
Elias Lindholm had his best offensive season last year with 45 points and is still only 22. Teuvo Teravainen set career highs across the board in goals (15), points (42), power play points (15), and shots (169) taking advantage with 37.5% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone. Victor Rask, though regressing last season from his 21-goal, 48-point campaign in 2015-16, is still just 24 and will have better wingers this season. All of these players will be looked at to produce. They will be asked to continue last season’s hot stretch with another year under their belts.
Extremely Underrated Defense
When one thinks of the Hurricanes blueline, two names immediately jump out like the offensively-minded Justin Faulk or top pick Noah Hanifin. Rightfully so, as the former is one of the more elite goal-scoring defensemen in the league. He has tallied 48 goals since 2014-15 to rank sixth amongst defenders. This includes 23 power play goals ranking third. The latter just turned 20. There is plenty of room to grow into the all-around defenseman he was projected as in 2015 when he was taken fifth overall. However, the pairing that has been more valuable includes the names of Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.
Pesce and Slavin have been one of the best and definitely one of the more overlooked tandems in the league. They’ve carried a combined Corsi-against per 60 minutes of 50.64 since both broke into the league in 2015-16. However, they took things to new heights this past season.
Big Roles at Young Ages
Among defensemen that played at least 1000 minutes last year, Pesce ranked eighth (49.34) and Slavin ninth (49.75) in Corsi-against per 60. P.K. Subban and Josh Manson are not far ahead in that regard. Their offensive contributions won’t be that strong. Slavin had a career offensive season with five goals and 34 points in 2016-17. Pesce contributed with 20 points. The incredible fact of the matter is that former is 23, the latter, 22. They’re still quite far from their primes. Francis made sure to get Slavin under contract until then. It is an uber-friendly seven-year deal worth $5.3 million per season.
Soon-to-be 26-year old Trevor van Riemsdyk, acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights after being selected in the expansion draft from the Chicago Blackhawks, is another one to watch. He too, can bring some offense from the back end projecting out as a 20-25-point scorer. His defensive tendencies can be worked out in Peters’s system. He has many young partners to learn from in that regard playing a bottom-pairing role. Van Riemsdyk also has the ability to move up to the top-four if needed.
Newly Acquired Veteran Presence
Carolina needed some veteran faces that have been to the mountaintop and have played in many a big game, and that’s exactly what they brought in with Marcus Kruger and Williams. Combined, each has 227 games of playoff experience under their belt including five Stanley Cup rings. The 2016-17 Hurricanes roster had a combined 343 games of experience. Before they acquired Teravainen and Bryan Bickell heading into 2016-17, it was 243. Not only will the experience benefit the young Hurricanes, each has a defined role that will upgrade the ‘Canes.
Williams is coming off of a 24-goal season with the Washington Capitals slotting in on the wing with either Evgeny Kuznetsov and Niklas Backstrom at center. He did play on the Presidents Trophy squad, but over his career has been a productive top-six winger. Williams has scored at least 20 goals four times. He has also scored at least 45 points four times since 2010. Since 2012, he’s played 80+ games in every season since including all 48 games in the 2013 lockout-shortened year. He’ll fit right into Peters’s philosophy. In his career he’s averaged a 57% Corsi-for percentage including a +5.1 Corsi relative. He rounds out a top six that has the chance to be potent.
Kruger may be overpaid for the pure role that he fills at $3.1 million for the next two years. However, he will immediately make the fourth line better. Another Chicago transplant, since 2013 he ranks 14th in short-handed ice time among forwards at 640:09 over 273 games. The last four years the Canes rank sixth in the penalty kill at 84.2%. They will happy to add him to that unit. His 50.88% Corsi-for percentage over the last three years, though near average, is much more appetizing over the performance Jay McClement gave in that span that came out to a 45.10% Corsi-for percentage.
This is a prime opportunity for the Hurricanes to make a splash and get back to the postseason. The New York Rangers dealt their number one center in Derek Stepan despite acquiring Anthony DeAngelo along with signing Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith to bolster their defense. The Washington Capitals will not be as strong with the amount of losses they’ve suffered up front and on defense. The Philadelphia Flyers are always a wild card and it remains to be seen if Jordan Eberle will bring the New York Islanders over the top. The Ottawa Senators are unlikely to repeat their run losing a key piece in Marc Methot.
Teams come into relevance quickly with the power shifting seemingly year-by-year. The Hurricanes are familiar with that unfortunately, coming in and out of the blue. They are usually irrelevant with ownership taking the spotlight from the on-ice product; which has been mediocre or below-average in recent years.
Francis has them set up to surprise many like they have three different times in the past,. They also look to stay here for a while, for a change.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Corsica.hockey and Puckalytics.