The Hurricanes won’t have big expectations in 2015-16, but they could surprise some people. Carolina is one of the youngest teams in the league with a stable of promising blueliners. The goaltending battle will be one to watch, as Eddie Lack will challenge longtime starter Cam Ward for No. 1 duty.
2014-15 Record: 30-41-11 (71 Pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 8th, Metropolitan Division
What To Expect: As players changed hands in a busy off-season, Carolina GM Ron Francis mostly stood pat, making minimal changes to a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2009. But the decisions he did make were shrewd. The $14-million buyout of underachieving winger
Alexander Semin was addition by subtraction. In trading for goaltender
Eddie Lack, Francis bolstered the team’s subpar goaltending. The most important move of the summer, though, was selecting
Noah Hanifin fifth overall in the draft. Hanifin, a well-rounded 6-foot-3 defenseman with a silky stride, is a franchise player.
Cam Ward and
Jeff Skinner stayed put, as Francis continues to preach patience. The same leadership core that earned 30 wins and 71 points is tasked with leading the turnaround. Last season’s 27th-ranked offense was a symptom of top players underperforming and having a secondary cast with little talent. Eric Staal hasn’t scored 30 goals since 2010-11, while Skinner scored just 18.
Jordan Staal netted only six in his injury-shortened half season. Youngsters
Victor Rask and
Elias Lindholm chipped in and will continue to progress. Carolina needs a giant leap from one of them if the vets continue sputtering. If Hanifin makes the team, he won’t be an immediate savior. Behind the steady
Justin Faulk are
Ron Hainsey, new addition
James Wisniewski, and an underwhelming group of depth defenders. The Canes gave up lots of goals last season, but shot suppression was above average, and they were a positive possession team. The power play was 13th and will improve with the right-handed shot of Wisniewski. The penalty kill, fourth overall last season, is the team’s most impressive strength. Francis believes possession stats and a high number of one-goal losses are indicators of the potential for a quick turnaround. While that possibility exists, the Canes will need dramatic improvement on too many fronts to stay out of the Metro’s storm cellar.
Best-Case Scenario: The Hurricanes aren’t a team that has been built to win this season. At best, they’re two to three years away from competing and that might even be a stretch. However, Carolina does have some young players with big potential. The best the Hurricanes can hope for is to finish in the middle of the division, but good seasons from youngsters could expedite the rebuild.
Worst-Case Scenario: If the Hurricanes finish last in the Eastern Conference — a real possibility — the worst thing that happens is they finish with a top-five draft pick. That’s not so bad for a team that could use bluechip prospects to get back into the playoff hunt. Building up their prospect pool will help them compete down the road, which is exactly what they need.
Who To Watch: Hanifin could be an outside contender for the Calder Trophy. He doesn’t have the immediate star power of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, but just last season, Aaron Ekblad burst onto the scene with an incredible Calder-winning campaign. Ekblad got big minutes on a decent Florida team and maybe Hanifin can show early that he deserves top-four time in Carolina. What’s realistic from Hanifin? As a 17-year-old, he scored five goals and 23 points in 37 games with Boston College. In a full season in the NHL, he could be a 30-point blueliner. In three pre-season games, he’s already shown he is at home offensively, notching two assists. Considering he could see power play minutes in his first season, Hanifin’s totals could be surprising.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The Hurricanes had a terrible season last year so it’s no surprise they’re a popular pick to finish in the Metro division basement. But there’s reason to believe they’ll be much better this season, even if the additions they made seem marginal. They’re still projected to be the seventh best team in their division, but they’re a lot closer to the pack than most would think. First off, the team finished 13th last season in score-adjusted shot attempt percentage despite finishing 26th in points. That’s a huge disconnect that points to a likely market correction this season. Much of the difference between their above-average possession and abysmal results can be attributed to poor goaltending, something that the team may have fixed this off-season in their acquisition of Lack. If he can steal a significant share of starts, Carolina might be able to push themselves into the playoff mix.
Goaltending wasn’t the only trouble spot though as most of the forwards had off-years way below their career norms. That’s usually something that regresses to the mean from year-to-year so there might be some bounce-back campaigns in store for key cogs like Skinner and the Staal brothers. Once Jordan Staal came back from injury last year, the Hurricanes were a completely different team. Team defense was the biggest strength last season and that should continue this season, especially with the addition of the unheralded Wisniewski. There’s very few standouts amidst the group, but together they’re likely an above average D-corps. So while the additions may seem small, they could be difference makers in Carolina, especially in net. The Hurricanes were an okay team once they got healthy and with some better luck this season they could surprise a lot of people.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.