Hurricanes GM Ron Francis wheeled and dealed to net a starting goaltender and add depth to his offense and defense, and now Carolina looks prepared to fight for a playoff spot.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Stanley Cup odds: 27-1
Key additions: Justin Williams, RW; Scott Darling, G; Marcus Kruger, C; Trevor van Riemsdyk, D
Key departures: Eddie Lack, G; Ryan Murphy, D; Andrej Nestrasil, LW
Will Ron Francis trade for a No. 1 center?
We know what the Hurricanes’ strength is: defense at every skater position. Their blueline is arguably the deepest and most talented in the Eastern Conference, and many of their forwards possess great two-way skills, especially centers Jordan Staal and Marcus Kruger. On paper, at least, they’ve improved their goaltending with the Scott Darling signing. But will this team score enough to make the playoffs? The Canes finished 20th in goals last season and count Justin Williams, who turns 36 before the season starts, as their only major offensive upgrade. The Canes could jumpstart their offense with an upgrade at center. They lack a true No. 1 puck distributor. We also know Carolina has a major surplus on defense, not just in its starting lineup, but also in its prospect pipeline, as first-rounders Haydn Fleury project as impact NHLers. General manager Ron Francis thus has the assets necessary to pursue a trade. The obvious fit is Matt Duchene. We know he’s done with the Avalanche and that Colorado needs young defensemen. The two teams couldn’t be matched any better for a deal.
If the rising top-four defense corps of Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin keep their pace, they’ll be Nashville East and help Carolina beguile opponents with a transition game that moves the puck up the ice cleanly while also defending with vigor and contributing on the scoresheet. Should the Hurricanes get that, they’ll be well on their way to the post-season, a place they haven’t ventured since 2009.
If Victor Rask can continue to progress, Carolina’s void in the No. 1 center slot would be mitigated enough. The arrival of Justin Williams and the maturation of Elias Lindholm and Sebastian Aho will push the offense forward, while Jordan Staal and newcomer Marcus Kruger can provide excellent shutdown play and loads of experience at center. Assuming Jeff Skinner stays healthy, the Canes lifer will shoot for his first 40-goal season. Scott Darling brings consistency to the crease for the first time in years. Cam Ward takes a back seat but remains an important part of the team as a leader and someone who can spell Darling enough to keep him comfortable as a first-year starter.
Darling has never played more than 32 games in an NHL season, and if he’s not good for twice that amount, the Canes are sunk, since Ward can’t be expected to handle anything more than spot duty at this point. Darling was great with Chicago last year, but if teams have a bigger book on the giant goalie, will they be able to find the holes? He’s not the fastest-moving netminder, after all.
If Rask can’t handle more responsibility, Carolina will get beat up by teams up the middle. As good as Aho is, his famous turn at center at the world juniors only came about because show-stopping wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi needed someone responsible with them. Consider him a winger in the NHL until proven otherwise. Skinner hasn’t missed much time due to injury in several years, but the offense would really suffer if the bug bites him again (and since he had concussions earlier on, this is a concern). If the Canes can’t score and their goaltending is subpar, it won’t matter how good the defense is – they’ll be the same team they were last year. And that means no playoffs again in Raleigh.
THN’s PREDICTION: 5th in Metropolitan. We have Carolina swiping the last wild-card berth, giving the Metro five playoff teams. The Canes should play steel-trap defense, and even if Darling doesn’t pan out as an above-average No. 1 in net, he’s still an upgrade if he’s merely average. Here come the Hurricanes.
Previously: Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Colorado Avalanche | Detroit Red Wings | Florida Panthers | Los Angeles Kings | New Jersey Devils | New York Islanders | Ottawa Senators | Philadelphia Flyers | San Jose Sharks | Vancouver Canucks | Vegas Golden Knights | Winnipeg Jets