Let's get this out of the way...August is the worst month for hockey fans. With Ron Francis manning the helm on Edwards Mill Road, the historic trickle of information has become barely a drip, drip, drip. This in a month where there is almost no news anyway. So we are ultimately left with lots of speculation surrounded by lots of dead space. Yet this is the perfect time to look at what could be and what will be...at least in the sense of what might happen if the stars align and what might happen if cold-hearted reality smacks us in the face.
Examining what has to go right along side of what could go wrong is a true exercise in emotional roller coaster riding. Oh yes, the youngsters could surpass expectations, the under-performers could live up to their billing, and the guys who should step up actually do. Or, sophomore slumps become a thing, youngsters perform like inexperienced kids, and what we saw from certain players last year is all we're going to get. Rainbows, lollipops, and unicorns or "we're all gonna die". As we all know, the reality will probably be some blend of the in between.
The definition of success for this Hurricanes' season is simple: this team must make the playoffs. For some, just taking the next step and being even more competitive than last season, players continuing to progress, and better play all around leading to a "close but no cigar" finish, might be adequate. Personally speaking, that's not a good enough definition of success. The team is slightly more talented this year, has another year of comfort with the Bill Peters system, and should arguably be even hungrier for the prize. The new rookies and new faces have higher promise too. It is not hard to argue that this team should just be better than last year's team. Don't fool yourselves, not having players like Eric Staal, or Kris Versteeg, or John-Michael Liles will leave holes that need to be filled. Eric was an immensely talented player who seemed to have lost some of his mojo, whatever it was. Versteeg is one of those fairly skilled "glue" guys who can make those around him better players. JML was a great mentor to the young defenders, Brett Pesce especially. There's the potential for them to all be missed.
Still, the eternally springing hope that new players, young players, and enthusiastic players bring to the table could and should fill that void. Scoring has the potential to be very, very good or pretty scarce. The defense could pick up right where it left off last season, or the proverbial second year slump could rear its ugly head. Goaltending might be of the pre-December sort or it might just be the impressive run that last January through March brought us. All of this begs the big questions. What do the Canes have to do to make the post-season? Or, what would cause the Canes to miss the playoffs yet again?
What Has to Happen to Keep the Hurricanes Out of the Playoffs
Two Bad Months
Last season it wasn't the "slow start" that damned this team, it was November. While October's record of 5-6 wasn't anything to write home about, it was November's 3-6-4 disaster that put the team in the hole. Interestingly enough, they followed November with their winningest month of the season, going 8-5-1 in December. It was also their highest scoring month potting 41 goals in 14 games. A pretty stellar January followed where the boys went 7-3-3 but more importantly held their opponents to 27 total goals. During that two month stretch the team went 15-8-4, outscoring their opponents 73-65. Those were the only two months where the Hurricanes had a positive Goals For/Goals Against ratio (2.70-2.41).
The second "bad month", while not the train wreck that was November, was February. It all started okay with a 3-1-2 record through the first six games. Then on February 18, in Ottawa, the season seemed to slip away. That 4-2 loss launched a string where the good guys lost 5 of the next 7 games. It became apparent after the Toronto loss, seven days later, the team would not be "putting the band back together" and Carolina would be big time sellers at the trade deadline. The aggregate record of those two months was 8-12-6. We scored 59 goals and the bad guys scored 78 goals. March's 6-2-6 record wasn't going to get it done.
The lesson appears to be that being a little bad can allow a season to be salvaged. Being very bad, even for relatively short periods sinks the ship. We were 23-20-8 going into February and we needed a repeat of one of the previous 2 months to keep the momentum (and the points) going. It didn't happen. A couple of bad months during the 2016-17 season will most assuredly push the team out of the playoff picture as it likely means there's a lack of scoring, poor defensive play, or even worse goalie play. The upshot is that if the Carolina Hurricanes have more than one month with any type of significant losing record, their playoff hopes are likely dashed.
Key Players Disappear
We know all about what happens when your superstars aren't so super. Eric Staal's 10 goals and 33 points was a clear indicator. Kris Versteeg, interestingly enough, was probably being counted on for 7-10 more points himself (he of the slick passing skills). Who among us hasn't spoken to the underwhelming 39 point season from Elias Lindholm? He was the one who looked poised for the proverbial break out season. Interestingly enough, his 39 point campaign during the 2014-15 season seemed to portend a bright future and great things to come. How can two 39 point seasons look so very different?
Now would also be an easy time to speak to those 3rd and 4th line tweeners who were also supposed to continue their improvement. Riley Nash, Chris Terry, and Nathan Gerbe were each supposed to pot a few more goals and post better point totals. Alas, they, too, screwed the proverbial pooch with 20 goals and 40 points between them. However, there was significant speculation that those guys weren't true NHL talents anyway. Still, they didn't sniff the difference-maker category. They didn't even play that well when in any of the 4th line roles.
Even more importantly, the guys who are playing well have to keep on playing well. Sure there are hot and cold streaks, but if a big gun like Justin Faulk goes through a month-long or longer goal-scoring drought, it matters to this team. Last season through December 27, Faulk scored 14 goals. He then went on a 16 game goal-less streak, putting up only 3 points in that span...THEN he got hurt a couple of games (practices actually, thank you Brad Malone) later. Even Jeff Skinner, our most dangerous scoring threat, went on a 12 game, 1 goal, 5 point streak from mid December through the 1st third of January. Jordan Staal didn't get a point until the 10th game of the season. Elias Lindhom had 3 lengthy goal-less streaks of 12, 13, and 15 games. Even everybody's darling, Victor Rask had a nine game streak where he didn't put the puck in the net. Producers have to produce and when they are not scoring goals they need to be setting up goals or doing anything to help their team win.
If Skinner, Rask, Staal, Lindholm, and, the new guy, Stempniak aren't consistent scoring threats....and just plain more consistent scorers, the team simply won't see the post-season. More than that, these guys need to be the ones putting the puck in the back on the net. Less than 100 goals between them and there's a good chance of April golf once again.
It's the Scoring, Stupid!
Cry as we may and lament the goal-tending, which wasn't stellar to say the least, the reason the Hurricanes didn't do better last year is that they just didn't score enough goals. Their 198 goals slotted them firmly in 27th place in Goals For (GF). While four of last year's playoff teams scored below the 222 GF league average, only two of those teams, the Flyers and the Red Wings gave up more goals than they scored. So, yes, you do need to keep the puck out of your net and the combination of good defensive play and solid goaltending will do just that. However, when you're 24 goals below league average, which translates to about 8 or 9 games worth of goals for the Hurricanes, you're not going to make the playoffs.
Too many times guys missed open nets. Too many times guys took ill-advised shots. Too many times the boys weren't in good scoring position to begin with. Coming in at 28th in the league in shooting percentage is an indicator of all of these. Outside of Skinner, Rask, and Di Giuseppe's chemistry and the Jordan Staal line's monster cycle game yielding prime scoring opportunities, there was little cohesive line play where guys would execute on the passing and shooting game. Simply put, the team lacked dangerous distributors on a consistent basis. Sometimes Versteeg stepped up and into that role. For a while that Skinner, Rask, PDG line took turns giving good feeds. Andrej Nestrasil showed flashes of great passing skills. Even Elias Lindholm had his moments (with two 3 assist games). But with no Backstrom-esque player on the roster, there was a distinct lack of creativity in that department.
If the newly constructed and youthful Carolina Hurricanes have a repeat season filled with similar scoring woes, they won't experience the post-season. Moreover, they really need to at least meet the league average in goals scored. If Skinner, Rask, and Staal take a step back in the goal scoring department, if Lindholm doesn't take the next step, if Lee Stempniak doesn't score at or above his career average, and if the young Finns don't produce, then it doesn't matter if we get a scoring boost from the back end. The team won't make the playoffs.
Pervasive Sophomore Slumps
This is a pretty simple equation. One of those 3 young defensemen could probably stagnate or even take a step back and the team might be able to work around it. It might even be okay if increased scoring from the blueline didn't materialize. However, if two or more of Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, and/or Noah Hanifin takes a step back defensively, then "Katie bar the door". Given that the team was slightly above league average in Goals Against (13th) and the next to league worst in Save %, shot suppression and overall team defensive play consistently kept the team in games.
Reduce or even take away that blueline performance and the Canes likely would have had a lottery pick this past June. If the youngsters don't mesh on the back end or the "new look" forwards don't buy back into playing responsibly, this team will lose more than it wins. Slavin and Pesce have to play at least as well as they did last season. Hanifin, frankly, needs to be even better. The league won't be surprised by these guys. Hopefully, they will have added to their repertoire; it is the only way they will continue to be competitive.
There may be other ways in which the team could sail the fail boat into the non-playoff sea. The netminders could be even worse than last year. Injuries can and will happen. Slumps and streaks can and will happen. Any combination of these factors could lead to an April 10 locker clean out.
What Has to Happen for the Hurricanes to Make the Playoffs
Play .500 or Better Through November
Duh, you say. Of course the team has to do this. Yet, if the Canes played right around .500 and then followed that up with one of their patented late season surges, that likely would be all they needed. Recall that when November 2015 came to a close, the Hurricanes were sitting at 8-12-4 and were an odds on favorite to win the Austin Matthews sweepstakes. By the end of January 2016, the team was 23-20-8.
The point is, finish November right around .500 and lots of things change. The emotion is higher. The feeling in the locker room is more positive. The coaches have got some stuff going that's clearly working. Best of all, you're probably either much closer to the playoffs or are actually a playoff team. Nobody is really looking over their shoulder wondering if they are "trade deadline bait". In fact, there may even be discussions about what missing piece needs to be added.
This year the big challenge is the season starting road trip. Six games are played before the team comes back to the friendly confines of the PNC Arena. When one looks critically at those game, it really doesn't look that intimidating. The Jets, the Oilers, the Canucks, and the Flames are all teams that the Hurricanes, on paper, should have a fair chance of beating. We played the Flyers and the Red Wings very well last year despite losing three in overtime to Philly before beating them in February (on my birthday to boot) while sweeping Detroit. A mere ten of Carolina's first 22 games are against playoff teams from last season. All in all, it is a pretty favorable Fall schedule. Beating the teams we should beat will give this team a big boost in their post-season quest.
The Youngsters Step Up
People often forget just how young this team was last season and will be this season. Carolina was the 5th youngest team in the league last year. They're not getting much if any older this season. They might even be younger. More impressively, the talent on the team is very young too. Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk are both only 24. Elias Lindholm starts the season as a 21 year old. Teuvo Teravainen turns 22 in September. Sebastian Aho is a shiny-faced 19 year old. If that group pots 100 goals or more, the team will be well on its way to its first playoff appearance in since 2008-09.
If the trio of young defenders pick up where they left off and continue to develop, then goals are going to be even harder to come by for the opposition. Assuming that two of the three of those guys puts up a few more points, then you begin to have a formula that cracks open the playoff door as well. If Pesce, Hanifin, and Slavin can net 20-25 goals between them and put up 75 points or more, that means a significant piece of offense is being generated by our defenders. That is just the juice that the Canes' scoring needs to have for a solid run.
However, if young Ryan Murphy can find his offensive game at the NHL level, then all bets are off. Murphy has 65 points in 85 games in the AHL. If he can somehow translate that type of play to NHL scoring, we'd be discussing moves that we'd have to make to protect him from the expansion draft. So if Ryan Murphy can put up 25 to 35 points, that really gases the scoring from the back end. Last season the starting 6 put up 129 points. If this group could somehow put up 150 points, then the Hurricanes will be earning even more frequent flyer miles in April.
League Average or Better Goaltending
You knew it was coming sooner or later. Is it really too much to ask for these two guys to just be average? That's really all they need to do. Fourteen of the sixteen playoff teams had save percentages above league average (.915). As for the two teams that made the playoffs with lower than average save percentages, the Dallas Stars were the leading goal scoring team in the league and the Nashville Predators are known for their vaunted defense (which led to a top half of the league finish in Goals Against).
Even with the 2nd worst SV%, Carolina finished a respectable 19th in Goals Against. As the 4th best team in shot suppression, think about how a few more timely saves would have treated us. If one assumes that both Cam and Eddie are a little more comfortable this year and are either used to Marcoux's coaching, or just plain ignoring it from the get go, then it isn't a stretch to see a few more timely saves happening. To get to "average" the tandem has to have a .009 improvement in their save percentage. That comes out to about 20 more saves over the course of the season (assuming similar shots against numbers). To put an even finer point on that, it's 1 more save every 4 games. That's more than doable, and if it gets done, we're tailgating in late April.
Come What May
There are other factors that can and will play into things. As previously stated, injuries are a big part of the equation. Outside of Faulk's and Nestrasil's injuries, the team was mostly healthy. One could argue though, that those two injuries might have been the major factor in keeping the Canes from the post season last year. But probably not. If there's no real improvement in scoring and the defensive side of the puck only stays constant, the team will be hard pressed. Still, there's always the possibility that something crazy happens, like Julien Gauthier winning his way onto the team. That's a potential offensive wildcard that could net more points for the good guys.
It's late August and time for rampant speculation is upon us. Only after camp begins, the dust and rust falls off the players, and Bill Peters and company see what they've got, will the fanbase begin to get a true inkling of this year's Carolina Hurricanes team. As of today, there is indeed a Santa Claus for hockey fans in the Carolinas and there's nothing but presents under the tree. The skeptics among us know that coal and sticks are just a stocking away.