It’s been a relatively quiet offseason for the Carolina Hurricanes so far. Other than the signing of free agent forward Jesper Fast, the team hasn’t made any other additions likely to be up with the big club this year.
While it’s still possible the Canes could make a trade for a goalie or sign a free agent forward like Mike Hoffman (the two biggest needs were arguably a goalie and a top-six forward), the team’s dwindling cap space (roughly $3 million with RFA forward Warren Foegele still to sign) makes that unlikely.
So, the team probably won’t improve from last season then, right? Not necessarily. While the upgrades will largely have to come from within, there are several plausible ways that could happen.
In a two-part series, I’m going to take a look at four avenues for internal improvement the Hurricanes have.
Here’s how the first two could shake out:
The blue line
What’s that you say? The Canes already had one of the deepest blue lines in the NHL? How could it possibly get any better? Well, I think it could, for a few reasons.
The first of those is health. Through 47 games last season, Dougie Hamilton was playing at a Norris caliber level, piling up 14 goals and 46 points before a broken fibula cost him the rest of the regular season.
The Canes also lost defensive stalwart Brett Pesce in late February to a shoulder injury that kept him out for the rest of the regular season and didn’t allow him to participate in the bubble.
So, knock on wood, but it’s unlikely the Canes lose two of their top three defensemen to season-ending injuries again. That allows Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin to reunite as one of the best top pairings in the NHL, and Pesce to anchor the second pairing.
So, who plays with Pesce to round out the top four? A great option would seem to be Brady Skjei, whom the Canes acquired from the Rangers for a first-round pick at last year’s trade deadline. Skjei played in just seven games with the Canes after the trade before the league’s COVID pause, and then every playoff game.
Of course, he never got to play with Pesce. Skjei is a strong skating, puck-moving defenseman capable of jumping into the play and creating offense, but prone to some defensive lapses. His offensive ability combined with Pesce’s defensive prowess seems like a match made in heaven, no?
So that sets up a stellar top four of Slavin, Hamilton, Skjei and Pesce. So, who plays on the third pair?
First we have newly-signed Haydn Fleury. Fleury did not really get into the lineup consistently until Hamilton was injured, but played some of the best hockey of his career down the stretch. And then, in the bubble, he stepped up big time and was arguably the Canes’ best player in the Boston series, leading Rod Brind’Amour to say he was playing like the top-10 pick the team envisioned when they drafted him.
Getting that kind of play from the third pairing should be great value. After signing as a free agent last summer, Gardiner had a terrible start to his Hurricanes tenure but greatly improved down the stretch and in the playoffs. His offensive abilities combined with Fleury’s steady play and physicality should be another good match.
So, you’ve got three pairings that are well-balanced with an offensive-minded and defensive-minded defenseman, and arguably six top-four level players. That’s even better than what the team iced last year, and should be arguably the best D corps in the league.
This one is relatively simple. Necas had a solid rookie season last year, putting up 16 goals and 36 points in 64 games despite playing just 14:10 per game. That’s remarkably similar to Andrei Svechnikov’s 20 goals and 37 points in 14:39 per game his rookie year, as young forwards need to earn Rod Brind’Amour’s trust.
In year two, Svechnikov’s ice time increased to 16:44 per game, and his production ballooned to 24 goals and 61 points in just 68 games. Now, Necas isn’t on quite the same level as Svechnikov, and is unlikely to be playing with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, but a similar increase in ice time should lead him to 20-25 goals and 50ish points, at least.
Getting to play a full season with Vincent Trocheck (more on him in the next part of this series) could also help Necas.
That kind of increased production from Necas as he grows more comfortable and earns more trust from Brind’Amour should make the Hurricanes a more balanced team, and should add even more pop to the top six.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this series, and the other two ways the Canes can improve internally for the 2020-21 season.