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Has the Carolina Hurricanes’ Defense Improved Enough To Cover A Subpar Offense?

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The Canes didn’t acquire a top center, but they have improved the defense ten-fold. Will that be enough for their first playoff appearance in nine years?

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In the eyes of most fans, the Carolina Hurricanes had a well-defined wish list heading into this offseason: pick up a starting goalie, a top center, and bottom six depth to shore up the third and fourth lines. Ron Francis checked all the boxes except for obtaining an elite center, which has left many Canes fans wanting more.

But they shouldn’t let that one issue get in the way of being optimistic. Though the Canes did not get an elite scoring center, they did upgrade scoring by adding Justin Williams and have drastically upgraded the bottom six. Realistically speaking, this is the best roster the Canes have had going into a season in quite a long time.

While the scoring output has marginally improved, defensively the Hurricanes are unquestionably stronger than they have been in recent years. Could the key to a playoff spot this season be not scoring more goals, but preventing more goals?


Offense

Let’s start by looking at the obvious need: scoring more goals. The Hurricanes really have only made one move to boost the offense so far this offseason, and that was signing Justin Williams, back for a second tour of duty after stops with the Kings and Capitals since leaving Carolina in 2009. Since then he has won two Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

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Williams has registered at least 40 points in each of his last four seasons, including back to back 20-goal seasons in Washington. He will add scoring depth and top end talent that the Canes have needed for the past couple of seasons. Williams’ 60.5 goals-for percentage would have ranked first on the Hurricanes last season (although second behind another offseason addition, discussed below). Additionally, his 2.24 points per 60 minutes were better than Alex Ovechkin last season and .03 points higher than Jeff Skinner.

Williams will bring much-needed scoring talent and leadership to the young team. Offensively, he fills a need for the Hurricanes in every sense - but he can’t carry the offensive load by himself.


The Defense

The Canes didn’t just upgrade the blue line. They have upgraded every facet of the game defensively including forwards and between the pipes.

The additions of Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris, as well as re-signing Brock McGinn and Derek Ryan, shore up the bottom six and provide depth in case of injuries. The Canes’ fourth line will likely be much harder to play against, and will give Bill Peters much more flexibility in balancing ice time.

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Kruger and Jooris replace Jay McClement and the as-yet unsigned Phil Di Giuseppe, as well as likely demoting either Joakim Nordstrom or McGinn to a healthy scratch. This is a huge upgrade over last season.

Out of the 12 Hurricanes forwards that logged over 200 minutes of ice time last season, McClement (36.1%), Di Giuseppe (27.6%) and Nordstrom (36.4%) ranked 11th, 12th, and 10th respectively in goals-for percentage. McClement and Nordstrom were also in the bottom two in possession with a 45.2% and 49.3% Corsi for percentage respectively.

Kruger had a 56.6% goals-for last season - which would have ranked third on the Canes - and Jooris’s 44.7% would have checked in at ninth. Possession numbers aren’t as impressive, with Jooris’s 43.2% hypothetically ranking last and Kruger's 50.7% tying for ninth.

By bringing in Trevor van Riemsdyk the Canes have an anchor for the third pairing, a consistent problem last season. Matt Tennyson and Ryan Murphy were bottom of the barrel in possession and relative scoring, and Klas Dahlbeck wasn’t much better. Van Riemsdyk and literally anyone else - Dahlbeck, Haydn Fleury, Trevor Carrick - will be an improvement.

Murphy was dead last with an abysmal 26.3 gf% and third to last in possession, Tennyson was third to last in scoring with a 36.5 gf% and second to last in possession. Replacing them is TVR’s 60.6 gf% which ranks higher than any other player on the Hurricanes’ roster last season, and a positive possession rate.

The important part of these numbers is that proportionally they produce far more goals than they let up compared to the players that occupied these positions last season - and it’s not because of a significant offensive output: Kruger and van Riemsdyk scored five goals apiece, and Jooris checked in with four.

Bottom line: the Canes won’t need as much scoring to win games.

Last season the defense broke down multiple times at the end of games costing the Canes countless points. These types of acquisitions prevent that kind of thing from happening.


Goaltending

Perhaps the most important acquisition this offseason was the trade and subsequent signing of goaltender Scott Darling. The Canes’ 98.6 PDO was bottom five in the league, due in large part to goaltending. The Canes’ even strength save percentage of .913 was second to last in the league, in front of only the woeful Colorado Avalanche.

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Neither Eddie Lack nor Cam Ward ranked in the top 30 of goalies who played more than 10 games in one of the two major goaltending categories. This means that every starter and some backups had better save percentages and goals against averages than the Canes best goalie - whoever that was on any given night.

Meanwhile, Darling was proving himself as a more than capable backup, starting 27 games and winning 18 of them. He had a better save percentage (.924) and a better GAA (2.38) than starter Corey Crawford who earned a .918 sv% and a 2.55 GAA. If Darling plays in a fashion similar to last season, the Canes will be in great shape.


Playoff Bound?

With the additions of better defense, goaltending, and depth, it’s easy to see a way that the Canes will make the playoffs out of the Metropolitan Division. It may not be pretty most nights - expect a lot of 2-1 grind-it-out games - but if the players acquired maintain their current levels, it will be effective.

Francis did just enough to increase scoring to balance lines better which will lead to more goals for the Canes. But success for the Canes shouldn’t be measured solely by how many goals go into the net. Last season, the Canes scored 215 goals and allowed 236. That second number will almost certainly go down, and even an incremental increase in the first should do the trick.

Canes fans have plenty to be excited about. Now, proving the wise sage Tom Petty correct once again, the waiting really is the hardest part.