The major strength for the 2015-2016 Carolina Hurricanes was the young talented defensemen that took the league by storm. Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin, and Brett Pesce received overwhelming praise for their breakout rookie seasons last year, and the Canes will need the same production from them this season if playoff hopes exist. The major weakness to the team was the goaltending. Cam Ward and Eddie Lack both return to man the net for the boys in red and black, which could be good or bad depending on how you look at last season.
We take a look at both vital positions and what we expect to see from them come opening night. Also, we will explore who is new this season and who has moved on from last year on the back end and in net. Lastly, you will see a very wild guess on those you may see come opening night but are more likely to be a call up throughout the season.
2015-2016 was arguably the best season for the Hurricanes on defense in the past decade. The days of having sub-par defensemen such as Tomas Kaberle, Jamie McBain, and Derek Joslin on the roster are finally over in Raleigh. Three breakout rookies (along with grizzled old veteran Justin Faulk) took the league by storm and helped lead the Hurricanes to a new expectation on the back end. There is always the possibility that any of the three players have a rough sophomore slump year, but none of them showed signs of slowing down at the end of last year.,
- Matt Tennyson – Signed as a free agent on July 16th on a one-year, two-way contract for $675,000. Tennyson played within the San Jose organization last season.
- Jake Bean – Drafted 13th overall in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. Bean is likely to get sent back to juniors during camp, but does have a shot at making the opening night roster if the Canes want a longer look before sending him back.
- James Wisniewski – ‘The Wiz’ was brought in before last season with high hopes that he could revitalize a very stale Hurricanes power play. However, that all ended in his first shift, during the first game of the season, when he tore his ACL. He rehabbed and even practiced with the team by season’s end, thinking he would enter this season better than ever. On June 30th, Ron Francis shocked all Caniacs when he announced Wisniewksi had been bought out, presumably to make way for the younger guys waiting in the wings. After floating in free agency he finally signed a PTO with Tampa but was released from that tryout on Sunday.
Projected Opening Night Roster
- Justin Faulk – The All-Star defenseman looks to continue to lead Carolina’s defensive core by example. Faulk went on an early-season tear, scoring 12 power play goals by December of last season, only to cool off offensively in the second half. Faulk is the number one guy every night, and nobody would have been truly shocked if the Canes had decided to name him captain this season. Look for Faulk to possibly have his best offensive season yet and truly step up even more in the leadership department as the face of the franchise. If he does it could be a Faulk’ing good year for the Canes.
- Noah Hanifin – One of the three impact rookies from last season, the 2015 5th overall pick played in 79 games last year scoring 22 points. The 19-year-old’s defensive game was sound and will only get better with time. He has reportedly gained some muscle over the offseason and will certainly be looking to avoid any sophomore slump. Expect Hanifin’s defensive game to stay strong and his offensive numbers to increase slightly this season.
- Jaccob Slavin – Likely the strongest of the three breakout rookies, Slavin joined the Canes in mid-November and never looked back. Posting 20 points in just 63 NHL games, Slavin has the defensive skills to become a fantastic stay-at-home defenseman on the squad while still contributing offensively. You won’t see him play extremely physical but he showed last year a sound position game along with quick thinking is all you need to be a successful 21-year-old rookie. Slavin will see a lot of time on the top defensive pairing this year and could easily become Carolina’s number-two defenseman by the end of the season - if he isn’t already.
- Brett Pesce – Filling out the trifecta of rookies, Pesce also joined the Canes after the season had already started. At just 21 years old, Pesce scored 16 points in 69 games. Pescehas the most room to grow of the three rookies and is in most danger of a sophomore slump. He will likely play a lot with Ron Hainsey throughout this season and should be a staple on the PK. Look for Pesce to improve his offensive numbers slightly this year. (Note: Pesce will wear #22 this season, dropping down from the #54 he wore last year.)
- Ron Hainsey – Being the old man in the locker room has its advantages and disadvantages. Hainsey sported an ‘A’ many times throughout last season and is likely to have it again this season. He has to work extra hard to keep up with all the young defensemen on the Canes, but Hainsey’s veteran presence is needed and well-respected in the locker room. Hainsey will not blow you away offensively or defensively but he is willing to drop the gloves when needed and is an all-around solid defenseman. Don’t expect any big changes in his game from the last few seasons.
- Ryan Murphy – This is probably Murphy’s last chance to make it in a Canes uniform. The once highly touted 1st round pick has never truly found his game in red and black. An offensive phenom in juniors and even the AHL, Murphy’s size and lack of production in his own end has plagued him throughout the past few seasons. Look for the Canes to get Murphy in the lineup at least 40 games to ensure he is eligible for the expansion draft next offseason.
- Haydn Fleury – The wild card in the defensive training camp battle is Haydn Fleury. After being selected 7th overall in 2014, Fleury has been in junior hockey since then. Slavin, Pesce, and Hanifin all leapfrogged him last season while he was dominating juniors last season. The seventh spot on the roster is going to be up for grabs and it will be no surprise if Fleury takes it. It would also be no surprise if he jumps over Ryan Murphy in the depth chart by mid-season. Fleury scored 41 points for Red Deer last season and will likely see action during the season in both Charlotte and Raleigh.
- Matt Tennyson – Expect Tennyson to compete with Fleury for the 7th spot in Raleigh but ultimately fall short. After splitting time between the AHL and NHL with San Jose last year Ron Francis signed him as a free agent to shore up the depth on the back end. He will see time in Raleigh on a recall when someone gets hurt, but will likely spend most of his winter in Charlotte.
- Trevor Carrick – After making his NHL debut last season and playing in two games, many believe Carrick is the best prospect in the wings on defense behind Fluery. A strong performance throughout the preseason could yield Carrick an opportunity to hang around Raleigh as the 7th defenseman, but he will likely end up in Charlotte again. The numbers game in Raleigh on defense doesn’t bode well for Carrick to crack the lineup, so don’t be surprised if he becomes the go-to guy for injury recalls this year and ends up with the Canes further down the line like Michal Jordan did. Otherwise, he could become good trade bait come mid-season if the Canes are in need of some offense.
- Keegan Lowe – Lowe has had a slow start to his professional career after being a 3rd round pick in 2011. He seems to be a quality defenseman, but again, with the amount of talent in Raleigh don’t expect to see much of Lowe unless something goes really haywire on the injury front.
- Roland McKeown – Acquired in the trade which shipped Andrej Sekera to the Los Angeles Kings in 2015, McKeown has shown much offensive promise in juniors. Scoring 42 points in 59 games, McKeown looks to be a vital player in Charlotte this season and has the opportunity to become an injury recall if he plays well for the Checkers.
Eddie Lack and Cam Ward held down the net for Carolina last season and neither performed very well. From the All-Star break on, Ward’s numbers did improve drastically, which helped earn him a new contract extension when many believed he was on his way out following Eric Staal’s departure.
If the Canes plan on making the playoffs this year both Ward and Lack must step up their game and lock down the net. Should the Canes get good goaltending this year they should be in solid contention for a postseason spot, but this has been a weak spot in the team for years. Fortunately, the depth at goalie is the strongest it has been in a long time.
New (recycled?) Faces
- Michael Leighton – Once upon a time Michael Leighton was biting at Cam Ward’s heels to take over the starting spot in net for the Canes. That was seven years ago. Now Leighton is a quality veteran depth goaltender who Ron Francis brought in on a one-year, two-way deal to replace Drew Maclntyre and help mentor the young goalies of the future.
- Drew Maclntyre – Having spent the last two years in Charlotte, the Hurricanes moved on and chose not to resign Maclntyre this offseason. He is currently on a PTO with the Washington Capitals.
Potential Opening Night Roster
- Cam Ward – The last remaining member of the 2006 Cup winning team was given another chance this offseason when the Canes decided to proceed with the goaltending tandem that got them nowhere last year. Ward has been the center of much heat over the past few years for failing to produce and lead the team back to the promised land. As with Eric Staal, many thought last year would be the year the team finally said goodbye to both of them. Ward’s numbers after Christmas were actually very good, despite not getting the W’s the team needed. If the Canes can get to the playoffs, one would have to imagine it would be because Cam Ward finally found his game on a consistent basis.
- Eddie Lack – The popular taco aficionado burst onto the Carolina scene filming commercials and quickly becoming the class clown (if you don’t count Stormy). Unfortunately, Eddie played well below subpar on the season. Far removed from his playoff runs with Vancouver, Lack needs to find his game and help Ward repair the goaltending situation this season. If he fails to do this, Lack may be on his way out in favor of Alex Nedeljkovic or Michael Leighton.
- Alex Nedeljkovic – Considered one of the better goalie prospects the Canes have had since Ward, Nedeljkovic turns pro this year and will spend most of the season in Charlotte and possibly some with the Florida Everblades. If he finds success he could also be the injury recall if/when Cam Ward gets hurt.
- Daniel Altshuller – Altshuller performed alright in his time with the Checkers last season and was even recalled to the NHL on an emergency basis at one point (he never saw any action). He will split time with Nedeljkovic between the Everblades and Checkers throughout the season as he seems to have dropped a spot on the depth chart with the addition of Michael Leighton.
- Michael Leighton – When Leighton was with the Canes, he could never reel the reigns away from Cam Ward for the starting nod, but he did go on to have a successful stint in Philadelphia before being buried in the AHL for the past few seasons. He provides veteran leadership and a quality backup if either Ward or Lack goes down for a long period of time. Expect him to be the number one guy in Charlotte.
Who do you think will grab the 7th spot on defense? Do you think Eddie Lack could be on his way out if he performs horrendously again this season? Let us know what you think in the comments!