Today SB Nation kicks off its NHL season preview (update: you can find it here], and in conjunction, Canes Country has been given three questions to answer regarding the upcoming season for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Question One: Have the Canes sufficiently addressed their scoring woes?
Maybe... if everything falls the right way.
The Canes struggle to score goals. This is not a new phenomenon. Bill Peters has improved the team’s ability to maintain possession and generate opportunities, but way too many times fans have said “Wow, what a great shift/power play/overtime period, the team did everything BUT score!” Heaven forbid if overtime doesn't settle things and a shootout is required.
Why will this season be any different? Well, it's year three of Bill Peters hockey and more players are comfortable in his system, including those who come up from Charlotte. There isn't an abundance of top-end elite talent, but the overall skill level is more balanced from top to bottom and the talent pool is deeper. Players fit in the roles they’re slotted, and if they don’t perform, there’s viable competition for their spot. Last year's rookies have a year of experience, and more players are in their prime years or trending up on their way there.
But those changes are incremental and not revolutionary, which means everything has to click in order for this season to be better than the last one was. Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, and Jordan Staal can't regress from last season's production. Justin Faulk and sophomores Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin will be counted on to drive offense from the defense. Lee Stempniak needs to bring a similar scoring touch to match accomplishments last season. It's time for Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen to validate why they were first round draft picks. Complementary players (Patrick Brown, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Sebastian Aho should probably be classified here for now) need to chip in solid contributions when called upon.
That's a tall order and with little margin for error but if it all can come together they might be able to make it happen.
Question Two: Is the goaltending really 'good enough' to keep the Canes competitive?
Yes... because life will be easier for both Cam Ward and Eddie Lack this season.
As bad as the Canes were at putting pucks in the opposing net last season, they were just as challenged keeping pucks out of their own net. Cam Ward and Eddie Lack split all 82 games, and while they both struggled early, as the defense in front of them improved, their netminding did as well. They were steady down the stretch and show signs of a better start this season.
Cam Ward is a known entity. He's not going to put up a great save percentage over the long haul, but he can keep the team in a game, he's good at transitioning the puck, and he's a calming influence on the ice and in the locker room. In the offseason he accepted a short term contract and reduced paycheck in order to stay with the team that he believes in. He'll likely crack the top 40 in all-time goalie wins this season, and in his last 30 games played his record was 14-9-7 with a .920 save percentage.
This season is primed for Eddie Lack to take the reins. To say last season was difficult for the affable Swede is an understatement. He had pressure from being signed to a two-year extension before he ever played a game in a Hurricanes jersey. He struggled out of the gate to adjust to a new team, new system, and new playing style that didn't complement the skills that made him successful. He improved as the season progressed and began to return to his natural style, deeper in the crease and able to use his size to his advantage. With the learning curve behind him, along with a successful preseason, and renewed confidence, he's now in position to battle Ward for the starting role.
Question Three: Who is going to lead this team into the future?
A committee... at least for now. And while that's unusual, especially for this club, it's okay.
Both the general manager and assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour are former Hurricanes captains, and it's a departure for the organization to enter the season without naming someone to replace Eric Staal.
Ron Francis and Bill Peters have viable candidates that they're considering, but they are in no rush to make a decision. Here's what Francis had to say when recently asked about filling the captaincy (from State of the Canes on Sept. 25):
We've explored both things, do we put the 'C' on somebody or do we just go with a group of guys wearing 'A's.
I think it's a little bit different in today's game than the older days. I think it's no longer one guy that is kind of your 'go to' guy. You need a group of guys that are all leaning on each other in the locker room. You can ask Rod Brind'Amour, you can ask myself when I played. It wasn't me just because I wore the 'C', I had a group of guys in that room that were really critical to the leadership of that team. And those are the guys that help you. And I think we have that.
It was really interesting for me, I've said this before, we got post the trade deadline last year and I was sitting in the lobby one night and the guys were going out for dinner the night before a game. We had 16 guys go together for dinner. In all my years in the game, I've never seen that. I've played on Stanley Cup championship teams, I've never seen 16 players on their own get together and go for dinner.
So, that's a tight group in that locker room. They like each other. They like playing hard for each other. So I don't know if necessarily putting a 'C' on somebody right out of the gate is necessary.
Alternate captains Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk have plenty of leadership grooming on their resumes. Staal has worn a letter for two teams and has a Stanley Cup on his resume. Faulk is an All-Star and an Olympian. Both are signed to long-term contracts and demonstrate leadership and work ethic. Either would make a fine captain and are the two most obvious choices, but there are other players whose veteran presence is known on and off the ice and would serve well in an expanded leadership role.
That said, the failure to reach the playoffs for the last seven years is a burden that weighs on this organization, and that burden put extra pressure on the former captain personally and professionally. Perhaps what Ron Francis and Bill Peters are really trying to do is avoid a situation that puts extra responsibility on any one player's shoulders, especially if pressure to perform and improve is already there, and if the group dynamic is healthy the way it exists today. Once the season is underway, dynamics may change, but for now, sharing the leadership role seems like a good fit for this group.