The gnashing of teeth began shortly after rumors of Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk surfaced as trade candidates. Where, oh where, will we get scoring? It was a viable concern before the Skinner trade and now has moved front and center as a key issue for the upcoming season (cough, cough, goaltending, cough, cough). Sure, Andrei Svechnikov has the potential to replace both player’s goals. But there’s a name for NHL organizations that rely heavily on rookie potential: lottery team.
As easy as it is to jump on the early criticism bandwagon, it’s valuable to consider just how the team’s offensive output will shake out. The way the team is constructed today could very well be the look of the squad on October 4. Add to this the comments by new head coach, Rod Brind’Amour, related to systems and it would be easy to assume that an increase in goals isn’t necessarily in the offing. Or could it be….?
They Are Who We Thought They Were
Despite having endured through last season’s disappointment(s), there is an identifiable core group of talented players. Wunderkind Sebastian Aho and his side-kick, Teuvo Teravainen (who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves), dependable Jordan Staal, the enigmatic and unsmiling Victor Rask, the fan favorite spark plug, Brock McGinn, and the boomerang, team Dad, Justin Williams make up half of the forward squad. Fast rising, young defensive stars, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, are the heartbeat of a capable defense. What kind of goal scoring can we realistically expect from this crew?
Last season Sea Bass and Turbo combined for 52 goals. It didn’t matter who was on their line. It didn’t matter whether they were slotted in as wing or as center (admittedly, a rare occurrence for Teravainen). Those two put the puck in the back of the net. Perhaps the only blemishes on their performances were Aho’s goal-less stretch to start the season (first 15 games) and Teuvo’s erratic goal scoring throughout the season (a 16 game, a 10 game, and two 8 game goal-less stretches). Another year playing together, another year knowing each other’s tendencies, and another year against NHL competition probably means these two take another step forward.
One absolutely knows what one gets with Jordan Staal. There’s no real mystery. He’s going to put up 16-18 goals and 45-47 points, year in and year out. Could he score a few more goals and get back to the 20 goal plateau (which he’s reached 5 times in his 12 year career)? Sure. Given that he netted 19 last season, he’s a lucky bounce here or a non-stone hands play there from getting back there. Still, everybody would trade that last goal or two for the near Selke level performance Staal consistently demonstrates. What about Victor? What happened to him last season….or for that matter the back half of the season before (a mid-season, 14 game pointless streak AND a 14 game goal-less streak to end the season). Three seasons ago, Victor was the 21 goal, 48 point youngster who might even evolve into a #1 center. With this season cut short due to a shoulder injury that most think was an issue throughout the season, his star has been tarnished. Still, he’s averages about 16 goals and 41 points across his brief career. Maybe most interesting of this core group is Brock McGinn. He’s a guy who lays it all out on the ice, every shift of every game. Sure, he has the occasional brain cramp or missed assignment. All things considered, however, he’s improved each and every season, essentially doubling his output over the last two. His 16 goals and 47 million hit posts this past season attest to that. Finally, there’s gramps, Justin Williams, who just keeps on chugging along. While you’ve got to take the bone-headed pass with the leadership, he contributes offense consistently. Since the lockout, he’s averaging over 19 goals and 47 points a season. All in all, there’s a solid bit of scoring there. Nothing spectacular, but nothing to sneeze at either.
They’re Called Defense For A Reason
1st, 12th, 2nd, 9th, and 23rd. That is how the Carolina Hurricanes have ranked in fewest shots against over the last 5 seasons. This averages out to be top third in the league over the same period. Meanwhile, how do these numbers sound: 24th, 18th, 18th, 19th, and 17th? That’s how that same team finished in the goals against category. There are lots of reasons for the disparity, including bad goaltending and an overabundance of high danger shots. Yet, a team that regularly suppresses a high amount of shots needs to be better than bottom half of the league in giving up goals. Regardless, most can see the glimmer of potential with this group as far as defensive capabilities are concerned.
In today’s NHL outstanding defensemen are defined as much by their scoring as they are by their ability to keep others from scoring. Erik Karlsson is okay in his own end, but really shines once he crosses the red line. Again, since the lockout, the Norris winners have averaged over 62 points a season. The expectation for any NHL defense is to contribute to the offense. For the Canes over the last few seasons, that contribution has primarily been via one Justin Faulk. At times, fans might have seen what Noah Hanifin could become (10 goals, 32 points last season), but not only was his progression erratic, his offense came in fits and starts (3 goals, 7 points from the beginning of February through the end of the season. As one can guess, when your scoring leader from the blueline (averaging 16 goals from 2014-15 season through the 2016-17 season) sees his goal scoring production drop by 50%, it impacts game outcomes. After Faulk and Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin’s 8 goal and 30 point season represented the “best of the rest” with no other defender notching more than 3 goals. Over the last 3 seasons, the goals from the back end have made up an ever decreasing contribution to overall offensive output. For the team to effectively compete in the 2018-19 season, this output must markedly increase.
The Youth Movement
Any serious discussion of offense and goal-scoring for the upcoming season is thought to start and end with, “What will Svechnikov and Necas contribute”. As the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL entry draft, Andrei Svechnikov is considered a can’t miss talent, a guy with all the tools and great hockey sense so they won’t go to waste. Meanwhile, Martin Necas, the 12th pick in the 2017 draft elevated his stock with his play in the Czech league and, more impressively, his play in international competition. Svechnikov entered the picture an impressive physical specimen, likely ready for the rough and tumble competition he’ll face. Necas started off much more slight, much lighter, and with little obvious “man strength”. By all reports he’s now added between 10-20 pounds of muscle while standing about 6’2″. Along with Sebastian Aho, these youngsters represent the very bright future of the forward corps for the franchise.
The question then becomes, who will actually contribute goal scoring? Throughout his career, Jeff Skinner averaged 29 goals per 82 games played. He tickled the twines for 30 or more goals three times. Those goals are now gone. Justin Faulk averages almost 13 goals per 82 games played. If he gets traded, the loss of those two represents more than 40 goals that would need to be replaced. Even with those two firing on all cylinders, since the last lockout the Canes have averaged around 24th in the league in goal scoring. That’s squarely in the bottom third of the league. If the team wasn’t getting it done offensively before the Skinner trade (and anticipated Faulk trade), how do they expect to generate the required scoring?
Enter, the youth movement.
Allegedly, the Canes are entering the 5th year of a five-year rebuild plan (with the architect of that plan now gone, who knows). That lucky ping pong ball sealed the deal in most fans’ minds. Playoffs are going to be a thing this year. With Necas’s progression and Svechnikov’s talent, does it really matter that Skinner’s and likely Faulk’s production is subtracted from the offensive equation? Could those guys produce 40 or more goals between them? Maybe, but a more realistic projection would be closer to 30-35 with Andrei getting around 20 markers and Necas putting up near 10 to 15. Frankly, that type of production should be more that adequate. As was recently written, with free agent departures and trades, the team lost 75 goals. The new guys that were brought in represent 45 goals. As of right now Justin Faulk is still a Hurricane, so any estimates still need to factor in his scoring, but fully accepting the likelihood that he ends up traded. All things considered, should the pair of rookie “phenoms” live up to the low end of expectations, net goal scoring shouldn’t be affected. Even if Faulk ends up getting moved, the expectation is that his goals would be replaced by the trade’s return.
The story, however, doesn’t end with Martin and Andrei. The Hurricanes signed Valentin Zykov to a two year, 1-way contract, fully expecting him to make the big club. Warren Foegele has been mentioned as another rookie who might make the NHL roster. His end of season “cup of coffee” was more like a tiny espresso, but he did impress nonetheless. Other Checkers made statements last season as well. Janne Kuokkanen, following a slow start, ended up with 40 points for Charlotte. Aleksi Saarela was a 25 goal scorer and Lucas Wallmark led this offensively talented team in scoring. Does the talented offensive blueliner, Jake Bean, force his way into the conversation? Expect one or more of these guys to see some time in Raleigh. However, given his showing in his brief audition for Carolina and that recently signed contract, Zykov is expected to be a notable contributor. He put up 3 goals and 7 points in 10 games last season. He’s a “broad” body with deft hands and he likes to park his rump directly in front of the goalie. Foegele impressed with his hustle, his physicality, and his scoring touch as well. Many expected Warren to be something of an AHL journeyman, making his bones as a 4th liner and on the PK. That’s exactly where he started, but with a quick flurry of short-handed goals. By the end of the season, he played up and down the line up, much of it in the top 6.
Any calculation of projected goal scoring has to take the potential of Zykov and Foegele into account. In fact, should Zykov reprise his role on Aho’s and Teravainen’s line, he could very well lead all rookies in scoring for the Hurricanes. Foegele could equally force his way into a role. Between the two, they could very well approach 30 goals. Should this happen, the 4 rookies could potentially account for 60 to 65 goals between them. Tempering such optimism is probably smart. Even so, assuming 50-55 goals from this 4-some is entirely reasonable. None of this takes into account any of the other Checkers who might show up in Raleigh throughout the season.
There’s Always Room For Improvement
Every season some players take big steps forward. The proverbial flip side of that coin is the disappointing step back that others experience. Of course, there’s always the “rebound”. Following Faulk’s, Rask’s, and to a lesser extent Phil Di Giuseppe’s less than stellar season’s, the smart money just might be betting on a rebound from one or two of those guys. It is also entirely reasonable, perhaps even expected, to see improvement from a few others. Foremost on this list, and everybody’s darling for a step forward offensively, is Brock McGinn. Okay, 47,000,000 posts was an exaggeration for effect….it was only 10. After a 16 goal season with so many near misses, it is entirely reasonable to expect a lift in his goal-scoring, perhaps even hitting 20. A lot will depend on line construction and his line mates. However, don’t bet against him hitting that mark. Brock McGinn has literally improved his offensive output every single season from the OHL to the AHL to the NHL. Justin Faulk suffered through a pretty significant down season. The two things that stand out are his shots per game totals and his shooting percentage. Over the three seasons prior to last year, Justin averaged 2.93 shots per game. Last season he was down to 2.77. He recorded the second lowest shooting percentage of his career, 3.8% vs. a career average of 6.2%. Assuming he remains with Carolina, he’s currently the projected RHD on the 3rd pairing. He’ll be out there against lesser competition while almost assuredly still playing a role on the powerplay.
Victor Rask remains something of a mystery. Three seasons ago he burst on the scene as a viable 2nd line center. Maybe he could even play up if necessary. His 21 goals and 48 points were the catalyst for Ron Francis giving him his 6 year deal. Can he get back to that level? Will he even have the opportunity given that he’s often penciled in for 4th line duties (but likely with powerplay time)? This biggest difference in his game, much like Faulk’s, was his declining shot rates. It may be a confidence thing or it may have been the balky shoulder. He went under the knife, apparently, even before last season ended. This could certainly explain a lot with Rask’s game. One thing is clear, he wasn’t the same player last season. While never an overly physical guy, he was strong and strong on the puck. He won his fair share of board battles. Clearly he wasn’t that guy in the second half of last season. Projections for Rask will depend on whether or not Coach Brind’Amour reconstitutes the TSA line, Sebastian Aho takes over the 1st line center duties, or Martin Necas proves that he’s not ready for prime time. Should the TSA materialize or Necas looks overmatched, Rask almost certainly becomes a top 9 center.
Not that Phil Di Giuseppe is an after thought, but his resigning was something of a head scratcher. By all appearances he’ll be fighting for a spot on the 4th line and looks more like a 13th forward. Guys like the aforementioned Foegele, Jordan Martinook, and the mystery Finn, Saku Maenalanen will all be battling for that position as well, each with something that might recommend them more highly. Regardless, he did finish the season strong (3 goals and 9 points in the last 10 games). This is especially impactful when so many other guys apparently had given up on the season by that point. Still, it does feel as if Di Giuseppe is a bit of a “man without a country” and nobody should be surprised if he’s a throw in on a Justin Faulk deal or some other trade.
I Know A Guy (or two)
At the draft there are always rumors flying. Few if anybody foresaw the Saturday blockbuster trade that sent Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to the Calgary Flames for Dougie Hamilton, Michael Ferland, and Adam Fox. It was clear the new sheriff in town, Don Waddell, wasn’t going to sit on his hands this season. All hand wringing aside, this is the type of trade that leaves the impression this is a team serious about the playoffs. As the two main pieces coming back, Hamilton and Ferland both bring offense with them. Dougie (a name this writer still has trouble taking seriously) provides proven offensive punch from the back end. He’s scored more that 10 goals and put up over 42 points in each of his last four seasons. The gritty Micheal Ferland brings much more skill that many may be aware, a very good shot, and a history of improving his scoring in each of his NHL seasons. The other “guy” brought in early in the process via what, at the time, felt like a meaningless trade, is Jordan Martinook. While not flashy, he also plays a physical game, is responsible defensively, and has enough skill to chip in a few goals (he averages almost 9 goals per 82 games). He’s another guy who appears to have been snake-bitten, having taken more shots last season than previously only to see his shooting percentage nearly cut in half.
The thing about these newcomers is that they all are on similar trajectories. Hamilton scored the most goals he’s ever potted in a season last year. Ferland’s 21 goals last season equaled the total number he’s scored in his entire career in the NHL. Martinook didn’t do anything offensively spectacular, but he did more than double his number of hits and guys like him are valued across the NHL. Arizona got rid of him while taking on the Kruger cap dump not because he wasn’t effective at what he did, but because he wasn’t in their future youth movement plans. The Ferland/Martinook acquisitions represent the “new look” Hurricanes with guys who want to be play every night, guys who play hard every shift, and who don’t mind playing the body. Ferland would have been 2nd on Carolina in hits. Martinook would have been tied for 3rd.
The point isn’t just that the powers that be want to be harder to play against (they do), it’s also that these types of players open up space for the scorers. All one has to do is remember Jeff Skinner’s rookie season where he spent a good deal of time with Tuomo Ruutu or Eric Cole as line mates. The skill guy potted 31 goals and the space makers both had 50 point+ seasons. While there are lots of potential line constructions, it isn’t hard to imagine a line that has Ferland on one wing, Necas in the middle, and Svechnikov on the other side. That would be one hard 3rd line to contain.
So Tell Me Something Good
While even Rufus and Chaka Khan would have a difficult time being optimistic about the Hurricanes’ offense this upcoming season, there does appear to be that old glimmer of hope. But everything up to this point has been something of a preamble, an attempt at an explanation of how things might just go right with this roster. It includes some pretty significant assumptions. And it also includes some realistic projections. Let’s break this thing down line by line, or player by player.
There’s probably at least a 50/50 chance that this line starts out as the putative 1st line for the Canes. The big assumption here is whether on not Sebastian Aho is ready for the full time center role. It’s not going out on a limb to say that all evidence points in that direction. The key question is whether Valentin Zykov can hold his own on the defensive side of the puck as this line will be getting some pretty difficult match ups. Should that gamble pan out, then 75 to 80 goals (with something near 20 from Zykov) from this group wouldn’t be a stretch.
Responsible would be the nice, but understated, way to describe this line. A bitch to play against might be more accurate. Staal remains one of the premier shut down centers in the league. Despite losing a step or two and the occasional propensity to turn the puck over at inopportune times, Justin Williams remains very sound in his own end. Young McGinn, as demonstrated by his role on the penalty kill, is also a very solid defensive forward. From a scoring standpoint, this group would need to be very opportunistic. They’ll have to take advantage of having pinned opponents in their own zone and/or leverage breakaways as they present themselves. If McGinn takes that next step, then 50 to 55 goals would be a doable target for these guys.
Describing this line as fun to watch is a gamble most Carolina fans would be willing to take. To be fair, one would probably have to describe it as “sheltered” as well. While Micheal Ferland will lend an air of veteran presence and of responsibility, he is only coming into his 4th full year in the NHL. Still, having this kind of speed and skill on a third line should be quite dangerous…and a nightmare match up for the opposition. The youngsters could also benefit from powerplay time, but that might translate more into assists that into goals. No, this group is going to make its bones with speed and strength and 5v5. Ferland will open up space and Necas should have a lot of fun dishing to Svechnikov. If this line puts up 45 to 50 goals, it would easily replicate Carolina 3rd lines of old that were essentially Jeff Skinner and some random coat-tail riders.
Di Giuseppe – Foegele/Rask/Martinook
The biggest difference this 4th line brings is significantly more grit than Hurricanes’s 4th lines of old. Best guess is, if effective, these guys get something like 8-9 minutes a night, except for Rask who likely sees closer to 10-12 minutes depending on powerplay time. The proposed wings in this group are guys who have no problem laying the body. While PDG and Martinook both have okay wheels, Foegele is a thoroughbred with speed to burn. One could imagine the two wings pushing the play through the neutral zone with Rask as the trailer, mopping up rebounds and/or restarting the play. Depending on the defensive pairings lining up with these guys, this group could provide decent contributions. Realistically, however, these guys aren’t going to blow the doors off with 20-25 goals being a realistic outcome. That number is enhanced by an expectation that Rask will see some powerplay scoring.
Things start to get really interesting if Faulk remains with the team throughout the season. As was mentioned, he probably gets some favorable match ups as well as retaining significant powerplay time. In fact, over his 477 game career, Justin has scored 34 powerplay goals. While many are assuming that Dougie Hamilton will step in and take that trigger man position on the 1st PP unit, he’s actually only scored 22 powerplay goals in 423 games. The team could easily see these two RHDs as equals, maybe even giving Faulk 1st unit duties. For our purposes here, we’re going to assume that Hamilton does get 1st unit powerplay minutes, but that perhaps the minutes across the 1st and 2nd units are a bit more balanced. Regardless, these two players should combine for 25 to 30 goals between them.
Jaccob Slavin has scored exactly 1 powerplay goal his entire brief NHL career. That likely doesn’t change much this season. What has a better chance of changing is Slavin’s approach to his 5v5 offensive game. With 12 points in his last 20 games last season, he became significantly more aggressive in the opponents end of the ice. He looked for his shot, he drove the play down low often dishing at the last moment. This was a young man beginning to look to score. Pair that with his partner, Brett Pesce, who reportedly has a nice shot, just not one that seems to find the target during actual games. The coaches know he’s got more offense in him as they caught glimpses of that during his NCAA days (his 2nd year was a 7 goal, 21 point affair across 41 games). Don’t take this wrong, he’s not going to light up the score sheet, but he should easily be able to double his 3 goal output from last season. In fact, don’t be surprised if this duo ends up with 18-20 goals between them.
The remaining trio, Calvin de Haan, Haydn Fleury, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk have never been known as offensive juggernauts. These guys are supposed to be responsible defenders who are seen more as compliments to their more offensive partners. While they don’t necessarily have to bail out their teammate, they are supposed to allow them to be more free-wheeling. As such, the occasional marker from any of them will be mostly a rare thing. If they end up with 10 goals between them, everybody on the team would be satisfied with that output.
So where does that leave the team, goal scoring-wise? Realistically, should all of the above come to pass, the team wouldn’t need to have a 35-40 goal sniper. Assuming that Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov all eclipse the 20 goal mark and Staal, McGinn, and Zykov come close, the team ends up with a pretty balanced scoring attack. Should that be the case, even at the low end, the Hurricanes would come in at the 240-245 goal mark. As was mentioned in a previous article, the bottom 4 playoff teams from last season scored between 235 and 248 goals. Over the last 5 seasons the lowest scoring team that qualified for the playoffs averaged around 219 goals. So if the sun continues to come up in the east, the injury bug doesn’t bite us too hard, the youth don’t totally soil the bed, and the players who should improve actually do improve over last season, then, in the immortal words of Lloyd Christmas, “….so you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance”.
The Mandatory Word To The Wise
There are so many other factors that come into play when considering a team’s opportunity to have a successful season. Injuries, conditioning, depth, mental toughness, and, yes, luck, all play a significant part. While this effort primarily looked at offense as defined by goals scored, responsible defense is critical to that same success. And then there’s that little thing called goaltending that often comes into play. That’s probably another whole article…
Experiencing optimism for Carolina fans has been a decade-long fool’s errand. Recent seasons, especially, have this fanbase justifiably hungry for a taste of the post-season. We are the NHL’s version of Charlie Brown dashing willy nilly with absolute surety that, this time, we’ll kick the hell out of that football. Reality has repeatedly Lucy Van Pelt-ed us, pulling away the pigskin as we stumble and tumble through end of season collapse after end of season collapse. There are probably odds in Vegas on which particular date the Carolina Hurricanes will begin their inextricable descent into crash and burn mode.
One must wonder if it hadn’t come to the “do something, even if it’s wrong” stage. However, for this eternal optimist, the bright light that is “the future is now” seems to cleanse the memories of past season’s debacles. Our good young players, drafted and developed here within this organization, are fighting for realistic spots on this year’s team. Player for player trades have brought in resources that filled clear weaknesses. Best of all, while there’s an overriding sense that there’s at least one more move needed to be made, the excitement of having a young team with this level of talent drives both the ability to overlook weaknesses and the hope it all translates. Now say a prayer that one of those goalie reclamation projects pans out…