The 2021 season will be a season unlike any other.
The Carolina Hurricanes will be in a new division, facing different teams and playing a unique schedule while having the reality of a COVID-19 world knocking at the door at all times.
For this team to be a real Stanley Cup player, many players will have to make a statement with their play. Here, we’ll take a look at some of those players and why the 2021 season is so important for them.
Niederreiter’s heroic arrival and immediate, game-changing impact on the Hurricanes in January of 2019 was a hard act to follow over the course of a full season, and the ups and downs of his 2019-20 season were a testament to that.
After compiling 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games in Carolina down the stretch of the 2018-19 season, Niederreiter scored just 11 goals in 67 games this past season. He saw his ice time drop, his role on the team brought into question and his future with the organization become a question mark entering the final two seasons of a deal that sees him count $5.25 million against an increasingly tight salary cap situation.
Despite his severe downtick in production, Nino will be presented with a genuine opportunity to claim a spot on the second line and be relied upon as a scorer. That has more to do with the roster's current state and less to do about confidence in him regaining the form he was in upon his acquisition, though.
On paper, there is a clear spot alongside Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas. Trocheck struggled early after getting dealt at the deadline, but his playoff performance was promising despite the lack of real production. Necas had an underrated rookie season wherein he was a strong secondary offensive weapon in limited minutes.
Niederreiter will be at the front of the line of players aiming to fill that final slot. If he reclaims his scoring touch and manages to score at a 20-25 goal rate (over an 82-game season), he would be resolving a big issue for the Hurricanes and helping the rest of the team’s forward core fall into place.
With Andrei Svechnikov’s contract extension looming on the horizon and the team continuing to operate at the cap ceiling, Nino’s $5.25 million cap hit has to be warranted, and how he performs in 2021 will likely decide how long he is for this team.
Jake Gardiner and Brady Skjei
It wouldn’t be a real Hurricanes season if we weren’t still a bit puzzled by the pieces that make up the club’s blue line.
Gardiner’s first season in Carolina was every bit as rocky and unstable as it could have possibly been. You can chalk it up to bad luck or poor play, but the most reasonable analysis would be to say that it’s a mixture of both.
He never fit in on the roster or in Rod Brind’Amour’s scheme, and his leash was extremely short. He went from a top-four defenseman to a bottom-pairing specialty player who was sheltered in all areas in no time at all.
He has three years left on the deal he signed late in the 2019 offseason, which pays him $4.05 million per season. His status with the team was spelled out even further when the Canes splurged and brought in Skjei, whose $5.25 million cap hit is the third-highest among Carolina defensemen and doesn’t expire until the end of the 2023-24 season.
One of Gardiner or Skjei isn’t going to be around when their deals expire. It’s also entirely possible, if not likely, that neither of them will be.
So... where does that leave us?
It’s a big season for both of them. The Hurricanes shelled out a first-round draft pick to get Skjei, and the results were very mixed. He’s a big, mobile defenseman who loves carrying the puck. The problem is that he constantly gets himself into trouble in the defensive zone, and I’m not sure if he is good enough offensively to outweigh those problems.
The redeeming part of his game is that I could envision a world where he pairs well with Brett Pesce. That, however, was also the plan with Gardiner. Skjei is a much better skater than Gardiner, which might make him a better fit with Pesce. We don’t know yet. Undoubtedly, the team will pair Skjei with Pesce at the start of the season and see what happens.
There has to be something that the Hurricanes saw in Skjei for them to give up an asset that they are very rarely willing to give up. They’re betting on themselves and their system to make him a bonafide top-four defenseman. He’s a tantalizing talent, but it still feels like a real roll of the dice. He was inconsistent in the postseason, but he showed signs that he could be that player. He’s probably the team’s biggest wildcard entering the 2021 season.
And, of course, Jake Bean is waiting in the wings.
The Hurricanes signed Foegele to a one-year extension over the offseason, which means he is again playing for a contract in 2021.
He is a good player in the right role, but his ceiling is a bit of a question mark. I truly think he can score 20 goals in an NHL season, but consistency is probably the biggest concern for him.
To this point, he has been a pretty good third-line player with a lot of valuable intangibles. He’s always going at 100%, kills penalties, is very physical, draws penalties and consistently finds himself with great scoring chances.
The reality, though, is that the Hurricanes have a number of those players. Brock McGinn and Jordan Martinook are guys who fit that kind of description, but I don’t think there is any way to justify having all three of them on your roster on real NHL contracts. That means that one of them probably has to go after 2021.
Foegele is an RFA after this season, which gives him a pretty big leg up on the other two players, but having a strong season wherein he builds on 2019-20 and proves he can be a real offensive weapon would go a long way in establishing himself as a step above the rest in that “depth forward” category.
It may be surprising to see that name on this list, but the 2021 season is a big season for a player who has long been one of the most valuable pieces on Carolina’s roster.
Coming off of what was perhaps his best season in the NHL in 2018-19 wherein he logged a franchise record +30 plus/minus (no, plus/minus isn’t a great statistic, but that number is outrageous), Pesce struggled mightily at times in 2019-20.
For the first time in his NHL career, Pesce was a negative defensive impact in terms of isolated 5v5 shot impact. That number backs up what was pretty apparent when watching him play - he was making uncommon mistakes in the defensive zone and found himself out of position more often than at any point in his career to that point.
There could be a number of reasons for this. He saw most of his ice time with new players in a new system in Gardiner and Joel Edmundson. It would stand to reason that seeing almost an even split between those defensive partners would contribute to a sudden drop in his numbers.
Some more credence is lent to that theory when you look at his performance alongside Jaccob Slavin last season. When those two were on the ice together, they were excellent, just like they’d been for years. Their minutes together saw a serious decline, though, with Dougie Hamilton emerging as a Norris Trophy caliber defender and making up one of the best pairings in hockey with Slavin.
The Hurricanes really need Skjei to be a good fit next to Pesce. They’ve clearly pulled the plug on the Gardiner experiment, so it’s either Skjei or Haydn Fleury alongside Pesce in the short term (barring a huge step in Bean’s development). If Skjei doesn’t work, that trade looks even sillier, and the thought of a backup option of a Skjei-Gardiner pairing is the stuff nightmares are made of.
Most of all, Pesce needs to stay healthy. One down season with many variables isn’t a cause for concern given just how great he has been throughout his career, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his shoulder injuries are troubling. He had another serious operation that ended his 2019-20 campaign, and with how important he is to this team, the Hurricanes can’t afford to have this turn into a lingering long-term issue.
Ryan Dzingel is entering the final year of his two-year contract and is slated to hit the UFA market again in 2021. After a strong start, his first season was a mess. He dropped down and occasionally out of the lineup as he never got a strong foothold on a particular role on the team. If he isn’t scoring goals, his value plummets.
Petr Mrazek, like every goalie in the organization, is entering the final year of his contract. At this point, it’s fair to say that he isn’t a bonafide starting goalie. The best version of himself is capable of flat-out stealing games, but he’s too inconsistent, and his reckless playstyle really hurts when he isn’t totally locked in. Is he a long-term option for the team? If he is, what does his role look like?
Does Jake Bean exist? Will he play? Will he be good? So many questions.