The second half starts tonight for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Well, the last 32 games of the 82-game regular season starts tonight, or whatever.
In the middle of a tight Eastern Conference playoff picture, the Hurricanes have no time to waste. These games will be playoff games for them. They all matter.
Here are some predictions for the Hurricanes in the second half of the season, all of which will be correct because I’m a very smart person who has never been wrong before about anything.
The predictions will be accompanied by a “level of confidence” rating - on a scale of one Skol clap (least confident) to five Skol claps (most confident).
Justin Williams Makes a Big Impact
Let’s start with an easy one.
It took all of one game for Williams to inject life back into a team that had been sputtering a bit in the few games before his debut.
He scored the game-deciding shootout goal against the New York Islanders in game one. His encore performance was even better. He scored two goals in a win over the Winnipeg Jets in the final game before the break.
He’s on a goal-per-game pace right now. The world is his oyster. You know what they say, 38 is the new 24.
No, but really, he looked good in his first two games, and while I don’t expect him to be a huge factor on the scoresheet every night, his impact goes well beyond that.
He will continue to breathe life into this team, as he did in his very shift of the season. His return couldn’t have been timed better, both for him and the team. He’ll have a noticeable impact on the Hurricanes down the stretch.
Level of Confidence: 5/5 Skol Claps
Jake Gardiner Gets Hot
The first 50 games for Gardiner as a Hurricane were a rollercoaster, but I think things will look be much better for him in the second half.
His best stretch this season came in the final ten games before the break. Seeing more consistent minutes with Brett Pesce did a lot for him, both before and after Dougie Hamilton’s season-ending injury.
His career track record suggests that he is a second-half player. Since breaking into the NHL, he has produced .39 points per game in games before the All-Star break. He’s a .52 point-per-game player after the All-Star break.
Breaking it down by month, Gardiner has produced .46 points per game in February, .56 points per game in March, and .54 points per game in April.
Gardiner has caught a lot of fair and unfair criticism through the infancy stages of his Hurricanes tenure, but his career track record and his recent play has me optimistic that he will turn things around and be a valuable, dynamic player.
Level of Confidence: 4/5 Skol Claps
Jaccob Slavin Enters the Norris Conversation
The hole Hamilton leaves is big, and it will take a group effort to try to replicate what he does. I think Gardiner will see his play get to where it needs to be, and I think Slavin will take his game to a level we’ve never seen from him before.
This prediction stems from my belief in the player. Fresh off of his first All-Star weekend, his confidence should be at an all-time high, and he is going to get every opportunity to make an even larger impact than he has to this point. He’ll get huge minutes - 5-on-5, power play, penalty kill, and every other possible situation that a hockey game can feature.
I think he will go into a mode that we saw from him in last year’s postseason, where he set franchise records for point production from a defenseman. Slavin will see his minutes rise dramatically as the second half progresses, turning into the workhorse of the Carolina blue line. In the process, more and more Norris voters will take notice and he will be among the shortlist of defensemen in the run for a top-three finish for the award.
Level of Confidence: 3/5 Skol Claps
Issues with the Blue Line
I just talked about how I think Gardiner and Slavin will both have a great stretch run, but my belief in the blue line, as a whole, drops off quickly.
Once you get past Slavin, Gardiner, and Brett Pesce (who is excellent), I start to worry.
Joel Edmundson had a great (and probably very lucky) point streak earlier this season, but he has since come back down to Earth. His physicality and protection of teammates doesn’t slump, but his overall play late in the first half offered some cause for concern. If he can bounce back a bit and be a steady number five defenseman (which I think is totally within the realm of possibility), he’ll be fine.
Then, you have the bottom pairing.
Trevor van Riemsdyk has had a very iffy season. He started the year late due to the shoulder injury, but since returning a few weeks into the season, he just hasn’t been consistent or reliable enough at even strength.
Haydn Fleury has shown me a lot this year. I think he has gotten better, but he hasn’t gotten a chance to prove it on a game-to-game basis. He will get that chance, and he needs to take advantage of it. If he starts to struggle, I don’t foresee him sticking around in the lineup too long.
In Charlotte, guys like Jake Bean and Gustav Forsling could get looks. Bean has had an excellent season and I think he’s just about as close to NHL-ready as a 21-year-old offensive defenseman can be. I think he’ll see some NHL games, but still, he is a young player and this Canes team wants to be a contender.
I’m not sure how much of a chance he’ll get from Rod Brind’Amour and Dean Chynoweth. I wouldn’t blame them if they felt uncomfortable about giving Bean a significant role in the middle of a playoff push.
Forsling has more track record at the NHL level and is more defense-oriented, so maybe he factors in if the Canes don’t make a trade to bolster the blue line.
After Slavin, Pesce, and Gardiner, I think the Hurricanes will run into some issues - issues that will need to be addressed by the front office at some point via roster moves or trades.
Level of Confidence: 4/5 Skol Claps
2020 First-Round Pick Gets Traded
Before the Hamilton injury, I probably wouldn’t have made this prediction (or I wouldn’t have been as confident about it).
The Hurricanes were already rumored to have interest in adding a defenseman before the injury. Fleury will likely get a chance to earn his keep on the defensive depth chart, but if he or anyone else falters, I think Don Waddell and company will be quick to pull the trigger on a guy they like.
I also think that it’s entirely possible they look into adding a forward. While they did pick up a few wins before the break, they did so with an offense that suddenly went dry. Adding another offensive weapon to the mix would make a real impact, especially on the second power play unit.
I think the player has to be controllable beyond this season for the Canes to throw a first-rounder out there, though. Regardless of the player’s position, I just cannot see them giving up a first-round pick for a pure rental at this point in time.
They do have an additional first-round pick via the Patrick Marleau trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That pick is conditional, though, so it’s a bit of a wild card at this point - if the Leafs miss the playoffs and wind up with a top-ten pick, the Canes get their 2021 first-round pick instead.
Level of Confidence: 3.5/5 Skol Claps
Hurricanes Make the Playoffs
When the clock strikes midnight on the NHL regular season, the Hurricanes will be in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
They’ll have to endure an all-out war to get there. The Metropolitan Division is an unbelievably challenging division, and it would be a tough task for the Hurricanes to make the postseason even if they hadn’t gone 0-for-700 against Metro teams in the first half of the season.
Their issues in the division have put them in a precarious spot, meaning their remaining games within the division must be treated as must-win games. I do think this team is capable of turning things around down the stretch, though, even without Hamilton.
The goaltending will hold up, they’ll generate enough offense, and their best players will play like their best players. The Canes will make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 18 years.