The 2021 NHL season will truly be one like no other. The Hurricanes will play 56 games from Jan. 14 through the second weekend in May, when they hope they’ll start a deep playoff run. They’ll play in a new division, and no doubt face some new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As training camp begins, the Hurricanes find themselves faced with some key questions, the answers to which will determine whether or not the team can achieve its ultimate goal of competing for, and winning, the Stanley Cup. Some are familiar, some are brought on by the unique circumstances.
Let’s dive in and take a look:
1. Is the goaltending good enough? We might as well start with the question that seemingly is there at the start of every season, and will until it’s emphatically answered. For years, the refrain was that if the Hurricanes could just get league-average goaltending, they’d be a playoff team. They’ve gotten that from Petr Mrazek, James Reimer and Curtis McElhinney over the last two seasons, and, lo and behold, the Hurricanes made back-to-back playoffs for the first time since 2001 and 2002.
But the goal has changed. It’s not just to make the playoffs, but to make a deep run and compete for the Cup. The consensus seems to be that Mrazek and Reimer, who are both entering contract seasons, are good, but not great goalies, who lack the higher gear needed for a deep run. Whether or not that’s true will determine how far the Hurricanes go.
Mrazek has been erratic, at times showing the ability to flat out dominate and steal games, and at others looking very beatable. Reimer was steady and dependable for the Hurricanes last year, but the question of whether or not he can hit that higher gear remains. Carolina’s team save percentage of .903 last season ranked tied for 16th in the league, and the team would probably like to see that number climb.
It was rumored the Hurricanes looked at the goalie market this offseason but opted to stand pat, sticking with Mrazek and Reimer over change for change’s sake. If they don’t like what they see to start the season, might they look at the trade market and the possibility of adding someone like Darcy Kuemper? Regardless, what the team gets from its goalies will go a long way in determining the fate of this season.
2. Is there enough depth scoring behind Aho, Svechinkov and Teravainen? The Canes’ top trio of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen was flat-out dominant last season, combining for 77 goals and 190 points. The problem was that there often wasn’t enough behind them.
The Hurricanes could have used another top-six forward this offseason, but simply didn’t have the cap space. The good news is there are plenty of options for depth behind the big three. Martin Necas is coming off a solid rookie season, and could be primed to take another step forward with more ice time, similar to Svechnikov from year one to year two.
The Canes added Vincent Trocheck as a solution for the No. 2 center spot at the trade deadline, and will hope to see that kind of production from him in his first “full” regular season with the team. Trocheck recapturing his form from the 2017-18 season would be a big development for the Hurricanes, but even if he can score at a 20-goal, 50-point pace, it’ll add plenty.
Wingers Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Dzingel are both coming off disappointing seasons, and the Canes will hope one can bounce back to earn a top-six role. They’ve both certainly shown the ability in the past.
The penciled-in checking line of Jordan Staal, Warren Foegele and Jesper Fast is likely to be light on offense, but if the Canes can build a second line, a bottom six of those three, either Dzingel or Niederreiter and some combination of Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn and Morgan Geekie could provide enough secondary scoring.
There’s plenty of potential for scoring depth past the top line, but little in the way of sure things. The Hurricanes can be pretty confident in getting production from the blue line. Jaccob Slavin is coming off a career season, Jake Gardiner should be in line for a bounce back and Brady Skjei has something to offer in that area as well.
And, of course, No. 1 blueliner Dougie Hamilton was sitting at 14 goals and 40 points in just 47 games when he suffered his leg injury last season, and should once again be a primary source of offense.
Speaking of which…
3. How will the contract negotiations factor in? As mentioned above, both goalies are entering the last year of their contracts. So are Svechnikov, who will be an RFA after this season, and Hamilton, who will be a UFA. It won’t be cheap to retain both, but, as we’ve explored here and here, it will be doable.
The question is, if the Hurricanes enter the regular season (and they’re running out of run way there) without contract extensions for one or both, will it be a distraction? The team likely has too strong of leadership starting with head coach Rod Brind’Amour for that to happen, but the questions will certainly be there.
Svechnikov will be back. The team has plenty of leverage with him as a restricted free agent, and both general manager Don Waddell and owner Tom Dundon have made it clear he’s not going anywhere.
Hamilton is the bigger question. The Canes have made it clear they want to sign him, but as a pending unrestricted top tier defenseman, he’ll command a pretty penny. If he remains unsigned as the April trade deadline draws near, do the Hurricanes do the unthinkable and explore the market for him? The idea of trading Hamilton during a good season for the team is almost unthinkable, but the idea of risking losing him for nothing is also unpleasant.
The longer Hamilton remains unsigned, the stronger the possibility of a difficult situation becomes.
4. How will the Hurricanes fare in the new division? With Candian teams forced to remain north of the border for this season, the NHL realigned its divisions. The Hurricanes will leave behind the old Metropolitan Division for a new Central made up of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs.
On paper, while the Hurricanes do join both of last season’s finalists (though Tampa will be without Nikita Kucherov for the regular season), this is a significantly easier road to travel. The Red Wings and Blackhawks figure to be among the league’s bottom feeders, and the Canes leave behind contenders like the Penguins, Flyers and Capitals, as well as teams like the Rangers and Devils that they’ve historically struggled against.
Can the Canes take advantage? There’s no reason not to expect the team to finish at least third among this group, but how they adjust to this new slate, as well as playing the same seven teams over 56 games, will go a long way to determining this season’s outcome.
5. Who has another gear? For a team looking to take the next step, the Canes had a very quiet offseason, with Jesper Fast being the only notable addition. Most improvements will have to be internal barring trades.
The good news is a young team like the Hurricanes presents plenty of opportunities for internal improvement with players continuing to grow. Martin Necas stands out as an obvious example of a player that should be ready to take another step in his sophomore season, similar to Andrei Svechnikov last year. Speaking of Svechnikov, there’s a good chance that, entering year three, he also has another level to reach.
It’s not even unfathomable to expect Sebastian Aho, who was two tallies shy of joining the 40-goal club last year, to take another step in his third year as a full-time center.
Getting these kinds of improvements from their young stars could go a long way in helping the Hurricanes become a bona fide Stanley Cup Contender.