What Was That and What Will It Be – The Hurricanes Off-Season So Far and What It Might Mean

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Woe be it to the die-hard Carolina Hurricanes’ fan. The phrase “whip-sawed” doesn’t quite do justice. After a long hiatus, it’s time to weigh in on all the happenings leading up to the Carolina Hurricanes 5th and, hopefully, final season of their long rebuild. Confusing as things have become, it begs the question, is this team poised to get back on track, or have they fallen back a few steps?

Winter is Coming….Winter is Here

When last we spoke, coach Bill Peters was exercising his “opt out” contract clause shuffling off back home to Western Canada, and stepping behind the bench for the Calgary Flames. The reasons and the explanations have been discussed. This was a parting that was mostly amicable and an absolute necessity. So the Francis era ends, the Bill Peters era ends, and what comes next? Welcome to the age of Don Waddell/Rod Brind’Amour.

For many fans, the ascension of Brind’Amour to head coach and the quiet announcement of Waddell as General Manager was a combination of “more of the same” and outright idiocy. How could a team that claimed it wanted change name yet another franchise icon to a position of power? How could an owner who wanted to shake things up and “do things differently” name a GM who was a 30+ year hockey veteran best known for shepherding the Atlanta Thrashers out of town? To say that confusion reigned within the fanbase is a masterful understatement.

Tom Dundon’s unorthodox approach – summarily demoting (essentially firing) Ron Francis, concurrently praising while not really supporting Bill Peters position as head coach, hiring of Brind’Amour (he of the “no head coaching experience” mantle), and choosing franchise insider Waddell as the new GM – all seem, how shall we say, unusual. With everything seemingly in flux, was the team going to live up to its goal of getting back into the playoff picture?

Shortly after the season ending exit interviews, the rumors started surfacing. The team was clear; it only wanted players who wanted to be here. Being here meant being “all in” on winning, playing the right way, giving everything you’ve got on every shift….there was a reason that Rod Brind’Amour surfaced as the leading candidate for head coach. He embodied what the team (and new owner) wanted in its players. “Culture change” became a thing in the local press. Names started popping up as guys whose departure would be reflective of said culture change. Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask all had their day in the speculation sunshine. Rumors of an overhaul were rampant.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to Dallas…

Am I Dreaming

Nobody, and I mean nobody, would have guessed that the ping pong balls in the draft lottery mystery box would have bounced the way they did. After all, Carolina is one of those non-traditional hockey markets, an afterthought, mind you. Sure enough, however, the Hurricanes, who moved up from 11th to the 2nd pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, got the very best possible outcome. This outcome, one could argue, was even better than had they gotten the 1st pick. There was no drama, no question about whom they would select, no speculation of the required trades that a team laden with top-notch defensive prospects might have to undertake should that #1 pick drop in their lap.

Andrei Svechnikov isn’t quite a franchise savior, but he is exactly what the proverbial doctor ordered. As Bob Wage indicated in his article, he’s a young hockey craftsman who comes with all the tools and a complete toolbox. When Dundon’s daughter only marginally mangled the young Russian’s name on the draft podium, the franchise’s optimistic future seemed assured and the draft was a success. Never mind the fact that in the later rounds they passed on Raleigh product Tyler Weiss and what could have been the local media coup of a lifetime. Never mind the fact that in the 6th round they selected a smallish, overage Swedish defenseman while the outstanding Finnish goalie prospect Veini Vehvilainen (from our very own Karpat “pipeline”) remained on the board. No, this draft was now an immense success because the franchise drafted the Russian phenom.

The second day of the draft brought the single biggest indication to Carolina Hurricanes’ fans that “we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto”. The trade that brought Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and prospect Adam Fox to the Canes for Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin wasn’t just shocking, it was the type of move that teams do when they think they are good enough to make post-season noise. This was a trade of highly touted, albeit somewhat underperforming 1st round draft picks for players that are ready now and already contributors to a team’s potential success. As many have said, Hamilton is the kind of player we’d hope Hanifin eventually becomes. Ferland brings the type of physicality with a solid bit of skill (21 goals last season) that this team has sorely missed. Were all the snarky Don Waddell comments beginning to taste a bit like crow. Ok, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Pundits looked at the Carolina blueline and there was a sense that not only had it been improved, but that another shoe would need to drop. Both Hamilton and Faulk had big right-handed shots. Both were significant drivers on their team’s respective powerplays. How could two such similar players co-exist? The rumors about Faulk potentially being moved only grew in volume. Then, that same Don Waddell who was derided as a GM selection, did something nobody expected. He signed free agent Calvin de Haan to a competitive 4 year contract. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the rich got even richer and the Canes brought in one of the best LHDs available on the free agent market. It felt like Carolina was beginning to shed some of its reputation as an undesirable landing spot. What in the heck was going on? More importantly, it seemed like the coach, the front office, and the new ownership were keeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the news throughout the doldrums of the off season.

Still, the bi-polar nature of the organization continued to occasionally rear its head. Glen Wesley was replaced by Tim Gleason as head of defenseman development. One good old boy essentially replaced another, although the former has his number in the PNC Arena rafters. Jeff Daniels, former player, former assistant coach, former head coach of the Charlotte Checkers, and former head of pro scouting, returned as assistant coach on Brind’Amour’s staff. However, other front office decisions seemed to belie the “country club” atmosphere that had plagued the organization. Rick Dudley, a seasoned hockey mind, was brought in. Eric Tulksy, the highly respected analytics guru was promoted to Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy, a nod to his growing importance to the organization. One time super agent, Paul Krepelka, was brought in as a VP of Hockey Operations, his primary focus would be player contracts and contract negotiations.

Fans cautiously began wondering if the promised change, if the new way was actually having the intended effect…

Nightmares Are Dreams Too

With the Hurricanes riding a wave of marginally positive popular opinion, there was the underlying trepidation about the additional fan favorites that were on the block. Jeff Skinner would find his name repeatedly tied to multiple trade rumors. Similar rumors surfaced around Justin Faulk as well. Waddell was very frank in his interviews – Skinner was clearly being shopped. It seemed the same for Faulk. Add to this that despite being something of under performers, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin both had ardent followings. Lindy always felt like he was getting ready to take the next step to realize his immense potential. Young Hanifin would demonstrate flashes of undeniable skill. Heck, he was the team’s representative at this year’s All Star game. So there was still some uneasiness that should these two eventually live up to their awesome potential, the highly touted trade might not look quite so good.

How about the big pachyderm still in the room? What in the world was this team going to do about its goaltending? It soon became clear that Cam Ward was not getting re-signed. This was confirmed early on in free agency when he accepted a 1-year deal with the Blackhawks. It was the end of an era in Raleigh. That left everybody’s whipping boy, Scott Darling and a bunch of unprepared minor league goalies, as the solution….which was, in the eyes of most, no solution at all. The net minder free agent market wasn’t very pretty either. So would the Hurricanes, riding a wave of positive mojo, make some sort of move for a veteran? Not so much….after losing out on Philipp Grubauer (despite making a better offer asset-wise), the narrative spiraled downward. In the end, reclamation project Petr Mrazek was signed to a 1-year “show me” contract, leaving the unimpressive duo of Scott Darling and the aforementioned Mrazek manning the crease for the Canes. The cry of “Lord Help Us” was heard up and down Interstate 40. This felt like an easy financial decision at the expense of team performance. Fans collectively threw up a bit in their mouths feeling that one of the major issues facing last year’s team wasn’t adequately addressed.

As trade rumors circulated, the duo of Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas were trotted out as rookies likely to make their NHL debuts this upcoming season. Moreover, it became clear that the team would be relying heavily on these youngsters (and others) for a level of offensive production that would be difficult to guarantee. Even if Skinner and Faulk were not moved, the team would be in desperate need of goals, given that the Canes were in the bottom third of the league offensively in 2017-18. Clearly if offense departed, whether from the forward corps or from the blueline, something would need to come back in the way of NHL-level scoring to make up for that loss.

Of course, the vast traditional hockey-loving market got their wish. In their eyes, Don Waddell, Tom Dundon, and the Hurricanes lived up to their billing as buffoons from a hockey backwater as the “Jeff Skinner for futures” trade finally happened. The return: a very good but unspectacular prospect, Cliff Pu, a 2nd round draft pick in 2019, a 3rd round draft pick in 2020, and a 6th round draft pick in 2020. Here was the infamous quantity over quality trade that everybody bemoans yet happens more often than most like to admit. It would be kind to describe the assets returned, at least in the mind of the hockey cognoscenti, as disappointing. “The Hurricanes got robbed”. “Don Waddell gets hosed again”. And so on…..the headlines wrote themselves. It didn’t matter that unclear explanations of a “change of culture” or “no trade clauses” or whatever were bandied about as excuses. Moreover, the “experts” all wondered why the organization didn’t wait until closer to the trade deadline where the return surely would have been greater. The goodwill from the draft and the de Haan deal quickly slipped away. Oh sure, the team remained in the news, but at what cost.

The Facts, Some Analysis, and a Look Forward

All of a sudden, some very smart people began questioning whether the Hurricanes were slipping back into rebuild mode. To make sense out of the Hurricanes and these off-season moves, one needs to take a quick look back and then make some assumptions, some leaps, to see where the team just might be going. The team finished the 2017-18 season 6th in the Metropolitan division with 83 points. That’s 4 points less than the previous season but one spot higher in the division standings. It was also 6 points farther out of a playoff spot. There’s no way to sugar coat things, the Hurricanes did worse this past season than the season before, despite vague promises of a better team and a spot in the playoffs. While they scored 13 more goals, they gave up 20 more goals against. In aggregate things not only didn’t appear to be moving forward, they appeared to be backsliding. Doing more of the same wouldn’t be an acceptable strategy.

Still, key players took significant steps forward. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Brock McGinn clearly advanced offensively. But other players the team needed to step up just didn’t do so. Guys like Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, and Victor Rask moved in the wrong direction. Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin seemed to stagnate. In Lindy’s case it was an underwhelming offensive production. In Hanifin’s case it was simply not living up to his potential as well as remaining unreliable defensively. Many point to the home game in January against the Capitals as this season’s Waterloo, where the team simply collapsed, first seeing the game tied late and then ultimately losing the game in the closing seconds. It seemed broadly metaphorical for what the team was. However, there were ample missed opportunities, plenty of important games lost, significant contests where the team couldn’t find a way to take advantage. Simply put, that team didn’t have the confidence of a winner.

It is that attitude that undoubtedly must have surfaced during the end of season interviews. Shortly after Dundon’s end of season presser, culture change became the phrase of the day. There were “guys” who either didn’t know how to win or just didn’t want to win enough to put in the consistent and necessary effort. This wasn’t a “locker room cancer” type of thing. It was more about being either “okay with losing” or a lack of a pervasive feeling of “doing whatever it takes to win”. There was a perception that a few of the players basically mailed in the last two months of the season. The difficult thing to understand is that a guy like Jeff Skinner, who clearly hated to lose, could also be guilty of inconsistent effort and not doing everything it took to try and win. But that’s where he was and that’s where the team was. In the final analysis, that single factor played a much greater role in the Skinner trade, the timing, and the perceived return. Whether fans like it or not, there is a pattern, a blueprint that Waddell/Brind’Amour/Dundon are following as they remake the Hurricanes into a different, hopefully winning, organization.

Digging a little deeper, a pattern does emerge, lending interesting logic to the off season activity. Jeff Skinner, Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, and Justin Faulk were all among the team leaders in goals against per 60 minutes. Four out of five of those players are no longer with the team. Skinner, Faulk, Hanifin, and Ryan had the dubious distinction of leading the team as minus players (fully accepting that +/- is an incomplete measure). The point is that it feels like the team is making a marked effort at addressing the glaring hole that is “two way play”, at least from the team’s most egregious offenders. Taking this from a more qualitative perspective, who among us didn’t scream at Skinner, Faulk, and/or Hanifin as they made either lazy or bone-headed defensive plays.

The assets returned in the Jeff Skinner trade, therefore, weren’t the only consideration. Sure, the NTC might have affected the return and the fact that Skinner was in the last year of his contract was also a likely contributor. However, the team’s desire to “get a deal done” wasn’t about making a move just to make a move. It was about moving a guy with tons of talent who didn’t commit to playing a complete game consistently. It was about sending a message to the locker room that nobody is immune. It was about clearly communicating to the team, the youth in particular, that there is a level of expectation, a level of play, and a level of accountability that is the way we play here in Carolina. If you don’t want to play that way, then we probably don’t want you on this team. That’s the attitude you could see in Justin Williams’ late season interviews. While it’s a blunt assessment, it is the attitude most often only found among champions.

With all of that said, what about offensive production in the upcoming season? As the team is currently constructed, players representing 75 goals last season have either been traded or have left via free agency. The players brought in represent 45 goals. The Hurricanes scored 228 goals last season while the bottom 4 playoff teams scored 235, 239, 242, and 248 goals. Every team that made the playoffs last season also scored more goals in aggregate than they gave up. So assuming that 240 goals is the magic number (and assuming the new defensive make up suppresses goals at a higher level), where do the Hurricanes get that scoring? To be pessimistically realistic, let’s assume that the team needs to make up about a 45 goal deficit over last season’s output while also accounting for the above referenced goals lost. We know it’s not a sure thing, but it is pretty likely that Svechnikov and Necas will combine for at least 25-28 goals and likely a few more. Last season Aho and Teravainen combined for 52 goals. Again, it isn’t inconceivable that one of those guys might take a step back, it is, however, far more likely that they will combine for an incremental improvement, likely 4 or 5 more goals. Brock McGinn hit something like 10 posts/crossbars last season. Could 3 or 4 more of those shots find the twine? What about Victor Rask and his rebuilt shoulder? Could he add 2 or 3 more as well?

This brings us to Valentin Zykov. The team clearly thinks he’s got a role on the NHL squad (2 year, one way contract) and it’s doubtful it is as an NHL 4th line grinder. Zykov scored 33 goals in the AHL last season. While there’s no predictable translation of AHL goals to NHL goals, there is some research that indicates a 33% to 40% correlation. So it isn’t beyond belief that Zykov could pot 10 to 12 goals, perhaps even a few more. Given his 10 game “cup of coffee” last season where he scored 3 goals and 7 points in 10 games, it seems that’s more than a possibility. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that the team views him as the “x” factor, as the replacement for Skinner’s production. As was demonstrated late last season, he seemed to be quite effective on Aho’s and Teravainen’s line. While that’s asking a lot of a rookie, he’s built for the role of “net front presence”. He’s got excellent hands, especially in close and his wrist shot is hard, quick, and accurate.

The other potential wildcard in all of this is Petr Mrazek. Goaltending proved to be a significant contributor to the undoing of last season. Many, if not most, Carolina fans feel that less than nothing was done to address that issue. However, if one digs a bit deeper into his statistical history, of the two Canes goalies, Mrazek actually has the potential for a real bounce-back season. Here’s a guy who a few seasons back posted .918 and .921 save percentages respectively…and that in front of less than impressive Red Wings defenses. In 2015-16, he put up those numbers as a 54 game starter. Sure he took a couple of steps back in 2016-17 and last season (although he posted better numbers that Ward and Darling in the 17-18 regular season with Detroit). And if those previous Wings defenses were bad, those squads over the last two years were even more abysmal. More impressively was his post-season work 2014-15 and 2015-16. Simply put, he’s got it in him. The Canes just need to find the potion to bring it back out. Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, the Mrazek signing was a solid, calculated roll of the dice on a distressed asset that has just as good of a chance at improving as it does at regressing.

In the final analysis with Zykov’s potential goals added, the team probably sees close to the offensive output they are looking for. It’s a significant roll of the dice that depends on at least 3 rookies stepping up and adding notable offense to the mix. It assumes that nobody takes a significant step back while expecting improvement from much of the team (will Rask play 4C and, if so, how much does that suppress his offensive output?). For the last few years, the Hurricanes have been fortunate on the injury front. Do they have the depth to cover for those inevitable games lost to injury? With the Bill Peters/Steve Smith era at an end and Rod Brind’Amour running the team (and whatever system that indicates), will the defense be effective or at least as effective? Most importantly, can one or both of Darling and Mrazek get back to, at least, average goalie status. These are the uncertainties that plague the team today in early August.

So what does it all boil down to? There are three different paths the team could take. They could struggle with mediocrity again, being neither good nor bad, and end up missing the playoffs for a record 10th straight season only garnering a mid-1st round draft pick in the process. They could be horrendous with injuries, rookie inconsistency, poor goaltending, and key player ineffectiveness. At least a top 5 draft pick would likely be in the offing. Or, they could surprise the league with all the “needs to happen” actually happening. It’s easy to be an optimist in the off season, even with the ups and downs the team endured. It’s also easy to see the team taking another step back given youth, coaching inexperience, and bad goaltending. At any rate, strap in for what will likely be a wild ride.

Yet, if I had to make a prediction…

Outrageous Prediction Time – Predicting Failure

Three predictions that lead to a miserable season for the Carolina Hurricanes:

  1. The goaltending is as advertised. Neither Darling nor Mrazek improves on who they proved to be last season.
  2. One or more of Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, or Jordan Staal suffers a serious injury and misses significant time.
  3. Justin Faulk remains with the team and ongoing trade rumors become a distraction. He does not recapture his goal scoring form and he ultimately gets traded for futures representing a lesser return than the Skinner trade.

Outrageous Prediction Time – Predicting Success

Three predictions that lead to a magical season for the Carolina Hurricanes:

  1. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen team up for 60+ goals between them. Both sign long term contract extensions for reasonable rates.
  2. Petr Mrazek regains his form from a couple of years ago and grabs the starting goalie’s job. Scott Darling takes to the back up role well and nearly regains his level of play from his days in Chicago.
  3. Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, and Valentin Zykov score in excess of 50 goals between them. All three are in the Calder running throughout the season, but eventually lose out to Rasmus Dahlin who proves to be as advertised.

Bonus Prediction: Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce regain their form as one of the premier defensive pairings. By the end of the season they are viewed as one of the top 2 or 3 blueline duos in the league.

 

 

 

 

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