I know I’m a few days late here, but being that this is my first post of 2022, allow me to begin with a hearty Happy New Year to all.
2021 was a trying year, to be sure, not unlike its predecessor. Strides were seemingly made in returning to normalcy, only for the last month to really throw us all for a loop, as the good ol’ Omicron seemingly ravaged every sport, and every level of said sports, from children’s recreational leagues, all the way to the pros. But still, surely we can find plenty of good moments, even if we have to squint a little harder than we did in the years pre-COVID. And, hey, if you’re a fan of the team with the NHL’s best points percentage, the Carolina Hurricanes, I know for a fact you can come up with at least a few.
For the Hurricanes, the past year was a continuation of a rapid ascension to becoming one of the very best teams in the league, and according to many outlets, one that currently may be the best as the calendar flips. The future remains bright with an extensive list of prospects either knocking on the door or soon to do so, the young talent already on the roster continues to get better seemingly by the day, and Rod Brind’Amour has effectively solidified himself as possibly the best young coach in the sport. There simply doesn’t seem to be a hole in the lineup, or organization at all, really.
Yet, at times it still feels like the team doesn’t really get the attention one would think they earned as Stanley Cup contenders. The Colorado Avalanche still probably have the best roster in hockey, when they’re healthy. The Washington Capitals are still a force, and Alexander Ovechkin doesn’t look a day over 25 (when he’s on the ice, anyway, but the grey hair perhaps gives it away when he’s not). The Vegas Golden Knights will be getting a fresh Jack Eichel at some point. Oh, and I would expect the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning will have something to say at some point.
Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, a national NHL writer and analytic savant, updates his projected standings and postseason odds weekly (from “NHL 2021-22 Stanley Cup playoff chances and projected standings”, The Athletic, January 4, 2022). And, despite the Hurricanes’ incredible early-season results – the team is currently on a 124-point pace, which would be the sixth-most points a team ever compiled in one season – the Hurricanes have just the sixth-highest odds of winning the Stanley Cup, according to Luszczyszyn’s model.
But the Hurricanes are finally healthy, with the exception of Jordan Martinook, who has recently returned to practice. They’re incredibly deep throughout the roster, and the stars at the top of that roster are blossoming. So, it’s time to legitimately see what this team has, and how they match up across the league with those other contenders. There are lots of possibilities for this team moving forward – as is always the case when a new year comes. So call them resolutions if you want, but these are three areas that the Hurricanes could realistically strive for improvement as the calendar flips to 2022. And if they do, I think we could end up partying like it’s 2006.
Svech’s Points Start to Match His Play
Forgive me if it kind of feels like I’ve written something along these lines before, but I feel like this is honestly the single-most important thing on this list. I said in my preseason bold predictions that Andrei Svechnikov would improve his discipline and lead the team in points. The discipline aspect has been a resounding success of late – would you believe that his minor penalty against Columbus was the first time he’d been in the box since November 24? And while the level Sebastian Aho is playing at may make the latter part of that prediction difficult, man does he look like an absolute supernova just waiting to explode.
In the Hurricanes’ rousing, come-from-behind, seven-straight-goal comeback against Columbus on New Years’ Day, Svechnikov was, hands down, the best player on the ice. Dominant. Physical. Impossible to knock off the puck. Honestly, he looked like prime Peter Forsberg, and not just because of the reverse hits he’s mastered. Svechnikov was an absolute load to deal with below the goal line, his playmaking has taken a huge step forward and become one of the most underrated aspects of his game, and we know how dangerous he is in Wayne Gretzky’s office. The clip where he twisted Jake Bean into oblivion, banked a self-pass off the back of the net, and centered a pass to Jesper Fast would have been a highlight reel for the ages – if only Fast’s one-timer had found twine, and not the crossbar.
But therein lies the “issue” (if you can even call it that, perhaps shortcoming is more fitting): what does the kid have to do to earn the payoff after all these incredible plays he’s making, all over the ice? Sure, he put the finishing touches on the game with an empty netter, his fourth such tally of the year, just one behind Alexander Ovechkin for the league lead. Ovi has 24 goals this year. Meanwhile, in 28 games, Svechnikov has actually beaten a goaltender just six times. Despite his hands, despite his elite shot, despite his immense toolkit as a power forward, that’s a pace of 17 goals over 82 games.
Still, that so-so production doesn’t really align with the play we’ve seen from the 21-year-old, and it really just feels like a “matter of time” type of ordeal. Eventually, Svechnikov is going to explode, drop a hat trick, five point game, who knows; but after that, the points are simply going to pour in. Right? The kid looks nigh-unstoppable already, and he doesn’t seem to be letting the lack of production hurt his confidence like in the 2020-21 season. The levee has to break eventually if the Russian winger continues dominating in this fashion. It just has to.
There are plenty of positives to take away from Svechnikov’s start to the year, and therefore plenty of reason to expect his ascent towards superstardom to continue. I still maintain he’s the most singularly talented player the organization has ever rostered, and it’s just a matter of “when” and not “if” that he is talked about right alongside the Nathan MacKinnons, the Leon Draisatls, the whoever-else-you’d-put-in-that-next-tier-under-Connor-McDavid’s of the world. If his points take off and start to match the fantastic play he’s produced over the 31 games of the season, I’m not sure anyone will be able to stop the ‘Canes.
A Top Six, or at Least Nine, Scorer
Two things can be true: number one, the Hurricanes have one of the absolute deepest rosters in the entire league, and two, the Hurricanes could use juuuust a little more punch to really round out the lineup. And also to prepare for the inevitability and uncertainty that injuries – and, not to mention, that whole “COVID” thing – represent.
Just look at last year. The Hurricanes were a team with lofty aspirations – definitely not quite as high as this year, but still lofty. Then Vincent Trocheck went down in the postseason. Nino Niederreiter, too. Suddenly Martinook and McGinn were top-six forwards and the offense was much, much harder to come by. Even when that pair came back and didn’t quite look 100%, the Tampa Bay Lightning proved far too much to handle. Now, the additions of Seth Jarvis and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (who almost was a section himself in this post – if he keeps playing at this recent level… boy oh boy, talk about depth) have given the Hurricanes a decent amount of rope in this area, but let’s just consider what the roster could look like if the team added just one more meaningful, needle-moving piece at the trade deadline.
Back in 2006, the Hurricanes already had quite the lineup with Brind’Amour, two budding young stars in Eric Staal and Justin Williams, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, and Matt Cullen. Still, at the deadline, and after the neck injury to Erik Cole (side note, my stomach still turns every time I hear the name Brooks Orpik), they added Doug Weight and Mark Recchi. That considerable depth led to four strong lines and, of course, a Stanley Cup. Don Waddell and company know this team’s window is wide open for the present, and the prospect pipeline is stacked enough to lose a couple players and still be formidable. And… well, let’s play “what-if” with some options that exist; this post is meant so be hypothetical anyway, so let’s have some fun.
The Philadelphia Flyers seem to be stuck in purgatory, a hellish place the Hurricanes knew all too well for far too long. There’s too much talent on the roster to climb in the lottery, but not nearly enough to be contenders in the present. Their captain, Claude Giroux, makes for an extremely enticing rental candidate as an unrestricted free agent. He does have a full no-movement clause, but perhaps the idea of making another run is enough to get the 33-year-old to waive it.
Or, if you want to get really crazy, a certain winger in Calgary is having a monstrous season, but alongside the team’s hot start to the year, it seems less and less likely the Flames are willing to move on from “Johnny Hockey”. Gaudreau is also set for unrestricted free agency, but the rumors around his availability have dwindled. If the Flames stay in contention, they likely will completely die out. On that note, the obvious candidate to call would be Montreal, perhaps about Tyler Toffoli or Jonathan Drouin. We could float names all day long, but surely plenty of names will pop up as the trade deadline approaches. As their interest in Eichel leading up to his move to Vegas indicated, the Hurricanes will be active and alert in seeing what’s out there that could make them a better hockey team.
Ultimately there’s no way of knowing exactly who it could be, but let’s say, for instance, while knowing the front office targets players that aren’t pure rentals, they call the San Jose Sharks about Timo Meier (one more year on current contract, though an RFA upon completion). The Sharks are nowhere close to contention, and while trading a 25-year-old power forward with Meier’s talent doesn’t seem particularly prudent, the Hurricanes could perhaps entice them with enough futures to expedite their rebuild.
Ultimately that price may be too much for the Hurricane’ comfort, not to mention the salary complications adding another player sure to make some big dollars moving forward, but bear with me for argument’s sake. The ‘Canes could use a bit more physicality up front, as beyond Niederreiter and Svechnikov, there isn’t much “skilled heaviness”, as I like to call it. Here’s how this hypothetical could make the forward lines play out:
Those lines are pretty interchangeable, and likely would be mixed and matched with how Brind’Amour likes to switch things up. No matter how you slice it, though, good grief. That makes for a big, strong, power forward and a high-end, skilled playmaker on all three lines, alongside an elite, number one center, a solid number two center who has had his struggles this year, but is still a known commodity, and, well… spoiler alert, we’ll talk about the third in a second. Good luck matching up with that team in a seven-game series.
Or feel free to throw Gaudreau, or Giroux, or whoever into that mix – if the Hurricanes were to reel in one more big fish, this lineup would go from scary to outright ridiculous.
Get the Captain Going
I don’t think anyone really could have realistically expected Jordan Staal to repeat his unbelievable 2020-21 season. I think he was hands down the Hurricanes’ MVP, with his continued defensive dominance and sudden offensive explosion. However, this year has been a real struggle for the captain, and it’s really been noticeable in both ends of the ice. I don’t even really care about the eyesore of a stat line – just two goals and eight points in 29 games – it’s the how that’s most concerning.
Per Natural Stat Trick, Staal’s numbers are down essentially across the board. The Hurricanes have gotten outscored 18-17 in all situations when he’s been on the ice, and his expected goals for (xGF) is 48.57, down from a whopping 61.46 in 2020-21. Furthermore, his Corsi For percentage (CF%) of 51.7 would be his worst mark since 2009-10, his third year in the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Taken a step further, when you consider how dominant the Hurricanes have been in shot department in 2021-22 that moderately even number looks even worse – even taking into account that Staal’s defensive starts are way, way up.
These metrics back up what the eye test says, and that is that Staal looks – gulp – slow.
Father time is undefeated. Staal is 33-years-old, and the extensive physical, grinding minutes he’s played over his 15-year NHL career would certainly make it understandable, if not expected, that his game is going to wear down rapidly. But to happen like this? Going from one of the best seasons of his fantastic career to what’s tracking towards potentially his worst, in one year? Surely there’s more in the tank for the big man, and he didn’t use it all up in 2020-21.
The Hurricanes need Staal to get back to being himself – and that’s to say, a defensive stalwart. He’s had his moments where he’s still been highly useful in that end, but he’s also had moments where he just looks a step behind and can’t keep up. He could fail to score another goal the rest of the season and still be a net-positive player for this team, but if he gets back to matching up with the other teams best line, and forcing them to spend a majority of the game defending rather than attacking, the Hurricanes will be at a huge advantage.
But even more, if the Hurricanes do go out and make an addition, this will only help Staal’s case – as I alluded to above. If he ended up with Jarvis and Niederreiter on his line, he’d almost have to start producing. That would probably come simply by handing those two the puck, as good as they’ve both been this season. The Hurricanes don’t need the unbelievable, age-32 Staal we saw last year to take another step towards a Stanley Cup. They just need their captain to start looking like something resembling himself again.
A Tough, but Promising Path Awaits
Of course, we have no idea how the rest of the year is going to shake out. Unpredictability is still the name of the game, and hockey is a funny sport – we never know who is going to jump up and play hero. Jack Drury could come in and put his name on the map. Or Ethan Bear could turn into a key offensive contributor, perhaps quarterbacking the second power play unit, although the job Jaccob Slavin has done on the man advantage recently has made that seem less likely. Regardless, who knows? That’s part of the fun of seeing how it shakes out, after all.
However, if these three things happen, the Carolina Hurricanes have to be on the very short list of favorites to take home the Stanley Cup for the second time in the franchise’s history. The team checks every box you want, with elite special teams play, a talented, deep roster, and excellent goaltending with Frederik Andersen playing at an elite level. They’re battle tested from the last three years of postseason shortcomings. The center depth is a little more questionable with both Staal and Vincent Trocheck failing to match their levels of play from last season, but even there the team has options with Kotkaniemi and Drury proving themselves viable options in December.
Carolina is so close they can taste it. They’ve been building up to this since Rod Brind’Amour took over and completely changed the culture throughout the organization. The window is wide open, and in fairness, by no means is that window small. The front office can feel comfortable staying patient and playing the long game. They could wait for Svechnikov to finish his maturation if it never comes this year, and save their prospects if the potential trades don’t line up with their valuations, simply choosing to see how things shake out with the group they have. But make no mistake – this team is a real threat in 2022, and if these highly reasonable hopes become realities, don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes are the last team standing.
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Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played hockey in NC for about 15 years. Many of those in the Carolina Junior Canes program, and hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!