No season preview of the Carolina Hurricanes is complete without asking the “playoffs” question. Most people who follow hockey will know it’s been a while since the boys from Raleigh have been invited to the postseason dance, and fans of Carolina’s team can specifically remember every agonizing playoff hockey-less spring since 2009. So what will it take for the Canes to get back in the picture?
The first thing on the Canes’ to-do list is to start strong and fast. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, they have ended October with a winning record just twice. In one of those seasons, the Canes played into May, falling to the Penguins in the 2009 Eastern Conference Final. The team desperately needs to avoid falling behind early, in order to make their inevitable late-season surge count for something.
This year, however, that may be easier said than done. The combination of a late start to the season forced by the World Cup of Hockey and the annual NC State Fair is throwing a wrench into things earlier than usual, putting the Canes on the road for six tough match-ups before kicking off their home schedule in PNC Arena on October 28th.
First, they take on the Winnipeg Jets in Manitoba. The Jets finished with 78 points last season, eight points behind the Hurricanes’ tally. They lost their captain, Andrew Ladd, to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline, but retained Dustin Byfuglien, who complements Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele as a strong leader on the team. This game, like the season, comes down to starting on time. Going down early to a team like Winnipeg in their own building spells disaster for visiting teams, and the Hurricanes are decidedly not at their best when playing from behind. Prediction: OTL
Three days later, they head out west to meet Vancouver, who ended up with 75 points last year. Vancouver’s squad looks similar to what it did in 2015-16, with the Sedins heading up the attack and former Cane Brandon Sutter playing a supporting role. Playing the Canucks always feels like a trap; everyone knows they were a win away from the Cup just five years ago, but they have shown few signs of life since then. Teams can sometimes go into a game against them with expectations of an easy win, but fall victim to Vancouver’s very momentum-reliant style of play. If they start rolling, the Canes need to find a way to survive the surges and stick to Bill Peters’ tactics. Prediction: W
Next on the schedule is a meeting with the Oilers in their new building two days later, and this shapes up to actually be quite an exciting game. Obviously, Connor McDavid is a captivating player to watch, and I have to imagine Justin Faulk will be sharing the ice with McDavid on almost every shift. The stud defenseman squaring off against arguably the league’s brightest rising star is sure to be a narrative to keep an eye on, but pay attention to the other players on each team as well. Players like Eberle, Yakupov, and Nugent-Hopkins will be the responsibility of the still-young Hanifin, Slavin, and Pesce. The Oilers will by no means be the toughest test of the season, or even the road trip, but they do pose a threat that could be easily overlooked in their forward depth. They may not have managed to quite hit their potential, but the slew of 1st overall draft picks that the Oilers have stockpiled are always dangerous. Prediction: W
The Canes round out the Canadian adventure in Calgary, taking on Johnny Hockey (Gaudreau) and the Flames, who ended last season with 77 points. The Flames are a young team similar to the Hurricanes, but tasted playoff success in 2014-15 by defeating the Canucks in the 1st round of the playoffs. This game features two sneakily good defensive cores, with Faulk and Dougie Hamilton leading both teams. Special teams will be crucial in this game, as it may be the only way for either team to have clear chances on goal. Prediction: OTL
Returning to the States, Carolina ends up in Philadelphia followed by Detroit. Both of these teams made the playoffs ahead of the Hurricanes last year, but both were eliminated in the 1st round. The Canes suffered a couple of heartbreaking OT losses to the Flyers last year, and will look to turn those close losses into wins in 2016-17. As for Detroit, Carolina got the better of them in the season series, dropping their game at home but winning both games in Detroit. They will look to remain as the thorn in the Red Wings’ side this year. Prediction (PHI): L Prediction (DET): W
Though this road trip is a daunting task to begin the season with, the Hurricanes have a massive opportunity in front of them. There are 12 points on the table, eight of which are available against the four worst teams in the Western Conference last year, and the other four of which are to be battled for against two teams who made 1st round playoff exits last season. Coming out of this road trip with anything less than six points would be disappointing, but the Canes are set up to come out with at least eight in my eyes.