Coming off a season that saw the team win its first division title since 2006 but fall short in the postseason, the Carolina Hurricanes made a number of changes this offseason with the hopes of taking the next step.
As training camp begins, the team is looking to find roles and fits for as many as nine new faces on the opening night roster. There a number of key questions that need to be answered in training camp, let’s take a look at five of them:
1. How will the goaltending shake out?
The crease is the area that saw the biggest change for the Hurricanes from last year - because it’s entirely different. Gone are Petr Mrazek, James Reimer and Calder Trophy Finalist Alex Nedeljkovic. In are Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, both signed to two-year deals on the first day of free agency.
The Hurricanes are banking on getting at least as good or better goaltending than they got last year from Nedeljkovic and Mrazek from a pair of players who bring the promise of past performances, but have struggled with injuries and inconsistent play in recent years.
Both players enter camp with a clean slate as the Hurricanes look to sort out their crease picture - will one emerge as the clear number one or will it be more of a tandem? And what kind of performance can the team get out of each netminder?
The answer to this question will be the most important in determining what this team can accomplish this year.
2. How will they sort out the defensive pairs?
The blue line also saw a major makeover. Dougie Hamilton, who finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting, left for a big free agency deal in New Jersey. Jani Hakanpaa also left as a UFA, and Jake Bean was traded to Columbus. Jake Gardiner will have hip and back surgery and won’t be in the picture as he goes on long-term injured reserve.
The Hurricanes brought in Ethan Bear via trade and signed Tony DeAngelo, Ian Cole and Brendan Smith in free agency.
On day one of camp, the Hurricanes had Bear, who brings plenty of promise as a 24-year-old defenseman with Jaccob Slavin on the top pairing, with last year’s pairing of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei reunited and Cole and DeAngelo making up the third pair. In theory, that brings good balance with an offensive and defensive-minded player on each pairing.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Canes stick to those pairings, and finding good chemistry on the blue line ahead of the season opener on Oct. 14 will be important.
3. Who’s quarterbacking the power play?
A huge part of the Hurricanes’ success last season was a power play that finished second in the league in the regular season. Hamilton was a huge part of that, with 18 power-play points on the season. With him and Bean gone and Gardiner out of the picture, the team needs two power-play quarterbacks.
The favorite to quarterback the first unit is DeAngelo - that’s likely the primary reason the Hurricanes signed him. He’s certainly capable, as he had 53 points in 68 games, 19 of which came on the power play, for the New York Rangers during the 2019-20 season. He’s coming off a season in which he played just six games before being waived following an altercation with a teammate, however, so the Hurricanes are banking a lot on a player who’s essentially coming off a year of not playing.
DeAngelo has the ability to do it, but that ability panning out will be very important to the Hurricanes’ season.
As far as the second unit goes, there’s not really a proven option. It could be Bear, who has offensive upside, but never played much on the power play in Edmonton. Slavin and Pesce both have underrated offensive games, but they don’t really have the skillset to quarterback a power play. Skjei could also be an option.
The second power play QB is one of the more interesting subplots of camp, as it’s a question without much in the way of a clear answer.
4. Where does Jesperi Kotkaniemi fit?
One of the most interesting moves the Canes made came shortly before camp, as they executed the second successful offer sheet of the NHL’s salary cap era by bringing in RFA forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi from the Montreal Canadiens on a one-year, $6.1 million cap hit.
The Hurricanes are banking on him displaying the promise he showed before he was drafted third overall after things didn’t go as he’d hoped in Montreal. He came into the league as a center, but the Hurricanes will start him on the wing - likely left wing. On the first day of camp, he skated with Vincent Trocheck and Teuvo Teravainen.
Finding the right fit and getting the most out of Kotkaniemi will be very important if the Hurricanes want this to be a long-term relationship. If they can turn the 21-year-old Finn into a quality top-six forward, it could raise the ceiling of this forward group considerably.
5. Will a rookie emerge?
The answer to this question is most likely “no” with so much NHL depth in camp, but it’s possible. Seth Jarvis, the 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft, is coming off a great performance in the team’s prospects showcase, and will have to make the team if he wants to avoid going back to junior for another year.
Jack Drury, Ryan Suzuki and Jamieson Rees could all also be possibilities. This is unlikely with so many jobs already spoken for, and a player would have to really blow the doors off in camp to make the team.
But it’s happened before, and it’s possible. And Brind’Amour has said they’ll have the opportunity.
“Anybody has a chance,” Brind’Amour said. “If they are better than the players that we have here, then they’re going to be here. That’s just how it is.”
At the end of the day, “anybody has a chance” is what training camp is all about. If the Hurricanes can answer at least the first four questions on this list satisfactorily, they should be set up for another strong season.