Canes hoping youth will be served
If experience is truly necessary to athletic success, the Carolina Hurricanes are probably in a bit of trouble. Then again, 20 years of Ryder Cup matches didn’t help Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson lead the Americans to victory in Paris. So, what to make of the value of having been there and done that?
The Carolina Hurricanes are starting the season with five rookies, four other players with two years or less of experience, five new veteran faces and a roster with as many teenagers (2) as players in their 30s. The median age of these Canes is 25. And, they’ll be guided by a rookie head coach under the watchful eye of a first-year NHL owner who has emersed himself in the ways of the sport and is not afraid (nor should he be) to offer his opinion on team matters.
His impact has already been felt in personnel matters. He pushed for the blockbuster trade with Calgary that sent Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to the Flames. Dundon also was the impetus behind the dealing of fan-favorite Jeff Skinner to Buffalo in the summer.
The Canes lost three first-round picks, one of whom won a Calder Trophy but all emblematic of a playoff drought because the level of excellence could never be sustained. All three are excellent players, individually. And, to be fair, it might have been the culture here that stunted their growth as players. But, with no emotional attachment to any of them, Dundon was able to see through the forest and determine that the franchise might be better off moving on from them in the long run.
It’s been nine seasons since the Canes have played into the middle of April. After a summer shake up – one that Dundon promised and delivered upon at his postseason press conference – this is the assembled roster that will be charged with ending this playoff drought and (hopefully) reignite the flame long-since extinguished among Carolina’s fans. To avoid causing a 16-car, Caniac pileup, they’ll be listed alphabetically.
Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas, Victor Rask, Jordan Staal, Lucas Wallmark.
This is a vastly different group than that of a year ago. Two are rookies, another is making the move to the middle for the first time and one will spend the first three or so months staying away from his kitchen. It’s been a decade since the Canes were really strong down the middle. And, this team may prove to be better than advertised in the long run. But, Staal has more career shorthanded goals than Aho, Necas and Wallmark have NHL starts at center.
Aho, has already established himself as a lethal weapon on the left wing. With 53 goals and 114 points in two seasons, the third year Finnish star is a known commodity. Now, he slides over to where he’s had enormous international success, helping lead Finland to gold and silver medals in the World Junior and World Championships of Hockey, respectively. The trick will be whether or not the move to center, and the vast responsibilities that are attached to the shift, have a negative impact on his ability to produce offense. Let’s not kid ourselves here, even though it appears that the Hurricanes have a wider array of offensive weapons, we’ll stop short of comparing them to the 1983 New York Islanders, so anything that cuts into Aho’s output is counterproductive.
Necas made the team out of training camp a year ago, but was supplanted in the opening night line up by Janne Kuokkanen and who ultimately played nine minutes before being shipped back to his team in the Czech Republic. In the future, it’s not hard to see Marty – and NOT Sebastian – as the team’s top center, but in the present, Necas is going to play further down the line up. Staal is the rock of the forward group, a strong, space-eating, face off-winning, penalty-killing, defensive ace who will still chip in his 40-odd points. Wallmark will have a few months to prove his NHL mettle while Rask recovers from a severe sweet potato slicing incident.
Right Wing (4)
Phil DiGiuseppe, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, Justin Williams
Teravainen busted out a year ago with 23 goals and 61 points — each a career mark. It’s unclear whether that’s due to his obvious chemistry with Aho, or just the natural progression of a highly-skilled offensive player. But, before the Hurricanes back up an armored truck for Turbo, he’s got to stack another productive season on top of 2018. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if he was a little more defensively attentive. Especially since his buddy (Aho) is transitioning to a new position.
Williams will be 37 on Opening Night. He’s as smart a player as there is in the league, and one of the best passers – maybe the best – on the team. A year ago, he was passed over for an official leadership role, but if you asked anyone in the room who was the leader of the team they wouldn’t hesitate for a second before saying “Williams.” He’s a special player, a better teammate and the consummate professional. He’s going to be a great captain.
DiGiuseppe ended last season with three goals and six assists in his last nine games and was among the most noticeable and impactful players during the preseason. He clearly has earned a spot and if the former second round pick can continue to build upon his finish to last year he can factor into the top nine forward mix. Svechnikov is probably going to be great. He isn’t yet. Remember, he’s just 18 years old and the learning curve is going to be steep. There are going to be nights when he is going to be overmatched. But, he’s an elite talent with a physical presence.
Left Wing (5)
Michael Ferland, Warren Foegele, Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn, Valentin Zykov.
I remember when Erik Cole made the Hurricanes coming out of training camp in the summer of 2001. He was a fast, physical presence on the wing and eventually became an important cog in the BBC line with (now head coach) Rod Brind’Amour and Bates Batagglia. Foegele plays a similar style to the former Canes legend and could even start the year with Aho and Teravainen. The added bonus: the second-year pro who scored 28 AHL goals a year ago, is a natural penalty killer, and you can’t have too many players adept at that skill.
Michael Ferland is a freight train. He hits EVERYTHING with a heartbeat. He’s an element the Hurricanes have been desperately seeking for years. A player who can contribute offensively, but is a physical presence who will stand up for his teammates and keep other teams honest. Brock McGinn is a fast, smart, strong defender with a physical edge and has developed into an elite, fearless, penalty killer.
Martinook is another great player for shorthanded situations. He’s paired with Foegele often during the preseason and have been incredibly disruptive to opposing power plays. Jordan can also play the middle and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him there on October 4. Zykov is a net-front dynamo, great on the power play, but he’s more than just a human screen. He can dig pucks out of the corner and he’s got great hands. He’s also another big, physical body that the Hurricanes have at their disposal, something they haven’t had much of over the last decade.
Calvin de Haan, Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Trevor van Riemsdyk.
The Hurricanes came into last season with a young, talented defensive corps that most around the league referred to as one of the game’s best. This year’s group is significantly better.
Slavin is one of the best young blue liners in the game and whether he’s paired with Hamilton, an elite offensive player, or his shutdown partner Pesce, he’s going to be on the ice for 23-25 minutes a night. For what it’s worth, Pesce has looked a lot like his old self in the preseason. And, if that’s the case, Carolina is as good one through six as any team in the league.
Faulk had a dreadful season a year ago. In fact, the last two have not been good for the three-time all star. But, if Faulk bounces back, the Canes will have a pair of top-flight right shot defenders to man the power play and they’ll be dangerous all the time at 5-on-5. de Haan adds another solid, stay-at-home defenseman who can block shots and play smart. van Riemsdyk was as solid as you get as a third pairing rearguard. He finished plus-9 on a severely minus team and was as reliable as they come. Barring injury, he’s going to have to play his off side as the Canes have an excess of right shot defenders, but he’s done it before and he’s more than capable. Fleury came into camp in great shape, played well and deserves a chance to play. It just doesn’t appear he’s going to crack this group.
Scott Darling, Petr Mrazek
The single determining factor as to whether or not the Hurricanes are a playoff-caliber club is between the proverbial pipes. Scott Darling was dead last a year ago among qualified NHL goaltenders. He signed a 4-year contract worth a shade more than $16 million in the summer of 2017 based on a body of work as an exceptional back up to Corey Crawford in Chicago. However, there’s a huge difference between being the star and the understudy, and Scott struggled to adjust. He showed up to training camp out of shape, he labored at times in just catching the puck, and was never better than Cam Ward.
That, my friends, was a problem.
To his credit, Darling owned it and committed himself to being in shape. What impact it will ultimately have remains to be seen, but it was certainly a good start and appeared to be working through training camp.
NOTE: Darling was placed on injured reserve with a lower body injury and is likely out for the first two weeks of the season. The Canes claimed former Toronto goalie Curtis McElhinney off waivers as a replacement. McElhinney posted an 11-5-1 record with a 2.15 GAA and a .934 SV% in 18 appearances for the Maple Leafs a year ago.
Mrazek was brought in to compete for the crease, which is exactly what this team needed. At one time, Petr was a top flight number one goalie. In the 2015-16 season Mrazek was excellent, posting a 2.33 goals against average (GAA) and a .921 save percentage (SV%). The issue is that those numbers proved fleeting. Since then, and after receiving a sizable contract I should point out, Mrazek’s play fell off in a big way. The next two years, his GAA skied to 3.04 and 3.03 while his SV% also dropped to pedestrian levels. Now, the 26 year old from the Czech Republic is in a position where he has to prove himself all over again, and the fact that he could use Carolina to rebuild his career can only benefit the Hurricanes.
The Carolina Hurricanes have reason to think optimistically about their prospects for the 2018-19 season. The leadership of head coach Rod Brind’Amour and newly minted team captain Williams is perfect for a squad loaded with talent, but short on experience. They think alike. There won’t be any issue with messages not getting across, which was not always the case over the last four years. Also, there will be nothing given until it’s earned. There were times last year when Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindhom or Noah Hanifin should have been scratched the following game. But, for whatever reason, it never happened.
There will no doubt be growing pains with rookies like Necas, Svechnikov and Foegele. It’s going to take a little time for Aho to become the dynamic player at center that he’d already displayed on the wing. But, when it shows, it will be that much more impactful. And, speaking of impactful, the presence of Ferland, Foegele, Martinook, McGinn and DiGiuseppe are going to give the Hurricanes another dimension this year. For the first time in years, Carolina will ACTUALLY be harder to play against.
Now, if the goaltending can just meet the rest of the team halfway.