Will the Carolina Hurricanes be a playoff team this year? Many would say probably not. Still, if the stars align, players step up, and the system clicks, well, who knows?
We know the recent history. Last year the Canes were 27th in the league in goals scored with a mere 188. That was 36 goals below the league average. Despite a somewhat competitive goals against statistic (226, good for 19th in the league), scoring at that pace will doom a team to a bottom quarter of the league finish...at best. What we also know is that coaches and players hope for much better than a bottom of the pack outcome.
To achieve something better than a "meh" season, the key will be a significant increase in goal scoring. Where will that scoring come from? What type of performances will need to happen for the Hurricanes to be more competitive than they were last season? Getting that production will require a lot of things going "right". Most already have an idea of what it will take. It will require that top players play up to their capabilities. It will require that "up and comers" continue their progression. It will require an increase in production from the back end. And it will require one or more sources of unexpected offense. Let's look at the scenarios where the right things just might happen.
None of this is really rocket science and has been discussed ad nauseum. Guys underperformed last year, important guys, and to have a more competitive year this year, those same guys can't do that again. We know who they are. Eric Staal, a career .88 PPG player, translates to about 71 points per season over his career. Jeff Skinner, he of the up and down and up and down again seasons, is still about a .34 goals per game guy. That translates to about 28 goals over the course of an 82 game season. Then there's the curious story of Jordan Staal. Even with his injury marred seasons he remains a .56 PPG player. Given a full 82 game season, he's a 46 point player. But if you look at Jordan's last 5 seasons, he's actually a .625 PPG player who should pot 21 goals in a full season.
Last year Eric Staal ended up 17 points below his 82 game average. Jeff Skinner produced 10 goals less that what should be his 82 game pace. Jordan Staal shot 5 percentage points below his career shooting average. These are the Hurricanes that, if they return to something close to their career averages, could dramatically impact game outcomes. What does a rebound look like for these guys? Eric needs to pot at or close to 30 goals. Jeff needs to be at least a 25 goal scorer. Jordan needs to put in 20 markers too. That's an adjusted 23 goal increase over last year's numbers (using an 11 goal pace for Jordan's shortened season).
Why might this happen? Eric's rebound could come at the hands of Kris Versteeg who provides puck distribution to the Captain while also providing another "creator" on his line. Jeff Skinner is beginning to show signs that he's not always inclined to "go it all alone". Yet with unselfish players like Chris Terry and Victor Rask (an underrated passer) on his line, he'll receive the puck in prime scoring position more often. Jordan Staal is healthy, has an improving Riley Nash on his wing, and Nathan Gerbe's speed and overall peskiness leads to lots of shots on net with Jordan always parked in the vicinity. If these things prove to be true, then a rebound could be in the cards.
The Next Steps
Everybody collectively inhaled sharply when Coach Bill Peters said this summer that Elias Lindholm could post a 30 goal season. While nobody wanted to use the word "jinx", that thought certainly escaped into the universe. Still, we all realize that is the next progression for Lindy. The praise from pundits and fans alike for Victor Rask's unexpected positive showing last year also dotted this summer's hockey blogs. Like Lindholm, he too will be expected to continue to grow his game. This year the pressure is really on for these young Swedes. Guess what...it should be.
Lindholm was easily a top 5 to top 10 pick in his draft year with whispers of Peter Forsberg comparisons. Rask was purported to be a 1st round pick early in his draft eligible year when over-done questions about his skating surfaced. He has continued to work on this area and has markedly improved. The point is both of these young players are on the right development trajectory. Lindy's 38 points, his solid two-way play, and overall heady game were major steps forward. Rask produced a respectable 33 points, demonstrated solid hockey sense, and even won 51% of his face offs. Both will need to maintain this growth path for the Canes to be competitive. At a minimum they will need to produce 90 points between them. In both cases their assist totals will be almost as critical as the number of goals they achieve.
Somewhat surprisingly, the other offensive player who took a significant step forward last season was Chris Terry. As Peters said, he proved that he could not only score in this league, but that he could play a responsible game as well. After nearly every stint in the press box (he made the team right out of camp, didn't he?), Terry continued to get better without the puck. That impressed his coaches. His team leading 15.5% shooting percentage reinforced his status as a goal scorer with a sweet shot (he's established offensive credentials at every level at which he's played).
However 11 goals and 20 points in 57 games are numbers on which he can and should improve. He bounced around from line assignment to line assignment, mostly serving on the 3rd and 4th lines. Hopefully his sporadic power play time should increase as will his overall time on ice. Averaging about 12:30 minutes of total ice time last season, it should be expected to increase by a minute or two per game. All of that should lead to higher scoring numbers. It is not out of the question that Terry could put up 30 to 35 points, especially if he gets the additional powerplay time. If he gets minutes with the 2nd line, 40 or even 45 points aren't out of the realm of possibility.
The team will need more from these three if it is to take the next step competitiveness-wise. The duo of Lindholm and Rask will need to put the puck in the net, but, more importantly, will have to make the players around them better. Given that the team has given these young players the chance, the team is also quite right to expect these next steps to be taken.
Justin Faulk had the break out year some may have anticipated but most did not expect to happen so soon. His pure defensive skills were showcased most nights. However, it was his shooting that took the big leap forward. He was more inclined to take shots, those shots were hard, and much more accurate too. As we all know this led to his 49 points and 2nd on the team in overall scoring. While Faulk may not quite repeat those numbers, Caniacs should expect 40 to 45 points as a matter of course going forward. Those point totals could go higher if he continues to hone his already solid passing skills.
The addition of James Wisniewski seems to be overlooked in some circles. This move has the potential for the single biggest offensive impact for the Canes' upcoming season. Defensively, Wiz might not be as adept as Sekera was, but offensively he's a clear upgrade. Over the last 5 years Wisniewski boasts a .596 PPG ratio, posting point totals of 51, 27 (injury shortened year), 14 (strike shortened year), 51, and 34. Over that same 5 year period he outscored Sekera by over 50 points. That's not a knock on Reggie, it's a complement to Wiz while showing the offensive impact of this move. At the low end James could score 35 points. More optimistically the Canes should expect at least a 45 point season from him.
The best of the rest includes the group of John-Michael Liles, Ryan Murphy, and the rookie, Noah Hanifin. Liles' 22 points placed him as the 10th leading scorer for the Canes last year...in 57 games. Nearly all who honestly watched JML had to admit that his game got significantly better as the year wore on. Expect 25 or even 30 points from him this year, especially given the anticipated powerplay time he'll garner.
Ryan Murphy started off slowly, was sent down to Charlotte for 2 months early in the season, and came back a better player. In fact 12 of Murphy's 13 points and all of his goals were scored in his last 30 games of the season following his recall. Ryan has mostly looked good in pre-season (often paired with Hanifin) with his offensive instincts helping him move the puck more effectively out of his own end. At the low end Murph could put up 20 points, but that could also grow to close to 30. What should be expected of Noah Hanifin offensively? Currently he is not getting any powerplay time and finds himself projected as part of the third pairing. Conservatively he should easily put up 15 points and probably closer to 20, which is about what Bellemore, Gleason, and Harrison combined to score last year. While his game is entirely different, those are the minutes he's probably gobbling up. Increased TOI for Noah will translate into increased point totals, but none of that is guaranteed at this time.
If one of Murphy or Hanifin replaces somebody on either power play unit, their scoring could exceed the high end of these projections. Regardless, the trio of Liles, Murphy, and Hanifin could easily account for 65 or more points. Add in the 15 or so points that can be expected from Hainsey/Jordan/random Checker call-up and that potentially projects to over 170 points from the back end - an increase of almost 30 points.
The 4th line is going to do what the 4th line does. Right now it appears that two of Nordstrom, Nestrasil, and Malone will be centered by Jay McClement. Barring a Nestrasil/Terry or Nestrasil/Gerbe flip-flop, scoring on that line will probably look similar to last year's levels. Nathan Gerbe could have a breakout year, but if he even matches his career average shooting %, takes the same number of shots as last year, and syncs with his linemates better, he likely meets or slightly beats his career high scoring total of 31 points. Maybe he gets to 35. None of this dramatically impacts the broader scoring totals of this team.
However, the guy who is projected to start the season on the 2nd line with Jordan Staal and Nathan Gerbe is Riley Nash. He's one of the two guys who could provide some small upside scoring surprise. Last year Nash was 7th on the team in scoring with 25 points in 68 games. Anybody who watched him saw that he basically ran out of gas or was nursing a nagging injury (he was basically shut down for the last 8 or so games of the season). Could Nash take that next step and get to the 35 or even 40 point plateau? During preseason he made some nice feeds to both Skinner and Eric Staal, so he's got some skill in that regard. He also just looks more comfortable playing wing in Peters' system this year. If both Gerbe and Jordan take advantage of Nash's newly surfaced passing ability, that line could put up more points than expected. Those would translate primarily to assists for Riley Nash, hence his potential increased point totals. Even a 10 point increase could be the difference in 2 or 3 additional wins.
The other guy is the new but experienced guy, Kris Versteeg. On this Hurricanes team he'll remain in the top 6 all year long, likely staying on Eric Staal's wing. His passing skills have already been on display so attaining his 47 point average is an easy projection. He'll be feeding both Lindy and Eric (if the lines stay the same) or alternatively perhaps Jeff Skinner or Chris Terry if they are juggled. Either way he'll get his fair share of helpers while taking advantage of juicy rebounds and potting a few goals of his own. In the end his scoring is a bit like found money, easily replacing and exceeding Semin's production from the previous year.
What Could Happen
If the guys who should rebound, do rebound, if the kids who should continue to progress, do continue to progress, if the offensively talented blueline performs offensively, and if the wildcards win a few hands, then the 2015 Carolina Hurricanes will have enough offensive firepower to make things interesting with nearly any team that they play. They might even compete for a final playoff spot.
In practical terms that means that two of Eric, Jeff, and Jordan need to play up to their historic averages and the other guy has to come close. It also means that two of Rask, Lindholm, and Terry need to get to their next level of ability especially in terms of increased goals and assists. The defense needs to play fast, adhering to the motto, "...the best defense is a well-oiled offense". This too needs to translate into increased point totals. And one or both of the mystery men has to step up and bring additional scoring where it didn't exist before.
Couple all of this with solid goal tending and an ever improving defense and presto, you've got the makings of a potential bubble team. A little luck here and catch a break there.....well, again who knows.
What Will Happen
There is where the "gut" comes in and this pretty likely scenario plays out. First, our defense will be "a work in progress" as the pairings shake out and the youth goes through its inevitable growing pains. Our goaltenders will be streaky, but inconsistent, mostly a function of an improving but inconsistent defense. Because we will want to showcase Cam, he may get more games than he should when he's not having as effective of a night. All of this will pressure the offense to try and do too much and that too will manifest itself as inconsistencies.
The end result probably is that only one of the 3 guys who need to rebound will do so at the magnitude necessary to win more than a few extra games. My gut tells me that Jeff Skinner has rediscovered the fire in his belly and he'll get back to where we think he should be. Jordan Staal has a bit of a better year but is saddled with less skilled line-mates than he could have leaving him with lower goals and assist totals (somewhere around 40 points). Meanwhile Eric starts out slow and struggles early (yes that same old tune) as he presses in his contract year. He comes out of his swoon earlier than most years, but still ends up with fewer than 30 goals and 70 points (25 goals and 37 assists maybe?).
Lindy reaps some of the rewards of Versteeg's passing ability, but his line-mates convert fewer of his feeds and he finishes with less than 50 points. Terry is the primary beneficiary of Skinner's rebound season gaining a goodly number of assists on Jeff's goals, while snapping a number of Skinner rebounds into the net. He finishes with 35 to 38 points. However Victor Rask suffers from a bit of a sophomore slump, improving on his point totals only marginally, but solidly progressing even more on defense. He too ends up with around 35 points.
Meanwhile the blueline does up its overall scoring totals, but Faulk takes a step back as more teams key on him and he finishes closer to 40 points than 50. Both Liles and Wisniewski perform well, both with nice improvements on their prior year's scoring totals. However, Michal Jordan proves to be more responsible in his own end than Murphy who therefore spends time in both the press box and in Charlotte. Hanifin plays well but displays typical young defender growing pains and never gets on track scoring-wise. He ends up remaining on the 3rd pairing, scoring less than 20 points.
Finally, Nash proves to be Riley Nash, more of a solid 3rd liner than a 2nd liner. His scoring totals only improve marginally, but he continues to be pretty tough to play against. Kris Versteeg has a solid year but his increased assist totals are offset by lower overall goal scoring. Still, the line of Versteeg/Eric Staal/Lindholm performs like a true 1st line.
The End Game
All of this adds up to a team that finishes about 4 - 6 points out of the wild card. But the brand of hockey is exciting to watch and the team is in and out of the playoff picture most of the year. As a streaky team there are times when they win and lose games 6-4 and 5-3. Other times they slump to 1-0 and 2-1 losses. In this semi-analysis and semi-fable, there's no way to predict if anybody gets hurt significantly or who that might be. We do know that at some point in time, it will happen. That means another piece of this picture will be a call up or two from Charlotte. How they perform is a story yet to be written.