Storylines, storylines, storylines.
The Carolina Hurricanes have an entirely new goaltending tandem, four-sevenths of a new defense corps, and a 19-year-old first-round draft pick on the roster for opening night. Their offseason of tremendous turnover is well-documented at this point, and only time will tell if the assortment of moves will pay off.
Questions surround many returnees, as well. How is Andrei Svechnikov going to respond to his year-three struggles, and shiny, new, eight-year contract? Can Martin Necas take another step towards stardom, and, more importantly, prove he can bring more in the postseason when the lights shine brighter, too? Will Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin step up to replace some of the offense Dougie Hamilton took to New Jersey?
Hockey has finally arrived, so we will begin to get answers to these questions very soon. But, first, let’s play prediction time – bold predictions. There were plenty of options to choose from, but these are my favorites that will lead to some entertaining discourse. Let’s have some fun. And don’t let it stop here – all are strongly encouraged to leave your own hottest take down in the comments.
Bold Prediction One: Jesperi Kotkaniemi Will Score 60 Points
Let’s start off with a bang, shall we?
Yes, Kotkaniemi is coming off a middling five-goal, 20-point season with Montreal last season. However, the Hurricanes seem ready to hand the 21-year-old a significant role right off the bat, both in the regular forward lines as well as on the power play, where he got many looks as a quarterback along the half-wall in training camp and preseason.
Now, it’s hard to read too much into line combinations this time of year or really ever with a coach who switches things up as liberally as Rod Brind’Amour. However, it is still notable that Kotkaniemi has seen a lot of playing time come alongside Sebastian Aho in recent practices or on the second line with Necas and Vincent Trocheck when not paired with his countryman on the top line.
With these potential lineup configurations, plus everything outlined in last month’s offer sheet breakdown, Kotkaniemi is going to have a breakout year, eclipsing 20 goals and 60 points to blow by his career-high numbers. The former third-overall pick, outside the pressure of one of hockey’s most devoted markets, will get to settle in as another Jerk in Carolina and one of the most fun teams in the league, and it’ll pay off big time for both him and the team.
Bold Prediction Two: Antti Raanta Leads the Team in Starts and Wins
The Hurricanes are no strangers to the unpredictability of the goalie position. Last year’s initial number one, Petr Mrazek, ended up playing in just 12 games due to an early-season collision with teammate Max McCormick. Alex Nedeljkovic rose from third-string to the starter by about the midway point of the season. In 2018-19, Curtis McElhinney ended up playing 33 games for the team. And, in 2019-20, well… David Ayres will forever be a household name amongst hockey fans everywhere.
This year, the tandem of Raanta and Frederik Andersen comes in as two veteran netminders that have both proven very capable in their impressive respective careers. Combined with the Hurricanes defense group, they have a lot of upside in Carolina and could combine to form one of the stingier units in the league. However, real questions exist about both goalies; Raanta has been injury-prone, while Andersen, currently penciled in as the starter, has been very heavily used behind a Toronto defense that tended to give up a lot of shots the last half-decade. He started 66, 66, 60, and 52 games the last four full seasons, and only posted an .895 save percentage (SV%) for the Leafs during the shortened campaign of 2020-21.
Now, a bounceback from Andersen is entirely plausible and perhaps even pretty likely. Last year was a small sample size, and, again, the defense he’ll be behind this year is quite good. However, Raanta has been fantastic a majority of his career when he’s been able to stay healthy, most of this coming in a backup role behind former Arizona Coyotes starter Darcy Kuemper. Not including his 12-game sample from last season, Raanta has posted a save percentage of at least .918 in all but one season since 2014-15, his second year in the league. And the one year he didn’t was a small, 12-game sample, too.
Andersen has his own injury history, though not quite as considerable as his Finnish counterpart, and that, along with his inconsistencies, are going to earn Raanta a lot of starts this season. We’re going to say he ends up running with them and looks like a legit number one goaltender when we look back on the season. We’re going to see right around 40 starts and 25 wins for Raanta in 2021-22 compared to about 35 starts from Andersen.
Oh, and as a bonus? Those other seven starts are going to Finn Eetu Makiniemi.
Bold Prediction Three: Andrei Svechnikov Improves His Discipline and Leads the Team in Points
Going back to a prompt I outlined in the intro, I think the young Russian is going to answer those questions in a resounding fashion. This designation has been reserved for Aho, and usually without too much competition, for each of the last four years, but now it’s Svechnikov’s time. This year, we’re going to see the player who started the 2020-21 season on an absolute tear, scoring at over a point-per-game pace through the first 15 games of the season; only this time, that player is going to stick around for the entire season.
Sometimes not enough is made about the mental aspect of hockey. Last year, things really just snowballed on Svechnikov; he caught a few bad breaks, he seemed to get a very unfriendly whistle at times, and then the puck simply stopped going in for him. With how hard he is on himself, how badly he yearns to be great, all these things wore on him and he never truly righted the ship. But, along with his immeasurable talent on the ice, that drive and work ethic are going to bring him back with a vengeance.
Now, look, Svechnikov is never going to be a Lady Byng winner. He’s fiery-competitive, and his physical, power forward-style is simply going to lend itself to penalties on occasion. However, as many issues as the penalties (and, more specifically, the really dumb penalties) have caused for him in his young career, I think he’s going to make it a point to improve in this facet this season.
Considering how much he already gets under the opposition’s skin, I expect him to regularly draw penalties himself and then really feed off that energy and ability to get in his opponent’s heads. So, yes, this is the year. Svechnikov is going to prove why so many who watch him regularly think he’s a future top-five player in the league. He’s going to put up a season comparable to Eric Staal’s in 2005-06 (foreshadowing alert!) and flirt with 100 points for the first of many times in his future-Hall-of-Fame career (my goodness, this is like six bold predictions wrapped in one).
Bold Prediction Four: Ethan Bear Finishes in the Top-20 of the Norris Trophy Voting
The Hurricanes’ defense looks much different than the last time they hit the ice. One of the biggest early-season storylines is going to be how the team looks on the power play, which ranked third in the NHL last season, without Dougie Hamilton to quarterback and draw attention from the defense. Tony DeAngelo is going to play an important role here, but after the training camp Bear has had, it feels like a foregone conclusion that this pickup in the deal for Warren Foegele is going to pay dividends for Carolina.
Pesce had some nice moments and scored some big goals early in the season with the second power-play unit in 2020-21, but his lack of playmaking ability and offensive instincts hampered the unit in the second half. Meanwhile, Bear’s first impression suggests he can be very helpful on the man advantage, as he scored in the preseason finale in Nashville, then added a hat trick in the annual Red-White intrasquad game the Hurricanes held at PNC Arena. The 24-year-old has a cannon of a shot and has been firing it at will, and with the talent surrounding him throughout the Carolina lineup, the opportunities should be myriad in his first season in Raleigh.
Bear not only is going to push his way onto the second power-play unit and become a Justin-Faulk-lite, bombing huge one-timers with great frequency, but he is also going to end up playing next to Slavin at some point this year. He’s going to score double-digit goals, post over 35 points, all the while being very steady in his own end with his hockey IQ and skating ability. That’s going to lead to Norris votes, and Hurricanes fans are going to re-brand “The Trade was One for One!”
Bold Prediction Five: The Hurricanes Make the Stanley Cup Final…But Lose to Colorado
The Hurricanes are set to take the next step. The team has enough depth throughout the lineup that injuries should be less damaging than in years past. Aho is entering his prime and is a new (permanent, anyway) member of the leadership group as an alternate captain, Teuvo Teravainen is healthy, and youngsters like Svechnikov, Necas, and the aforementioned Bear are primed to take leaps forward and turn an already-dangerous group into one of the best in the league. For the season, I think they are the favorite to come out of the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders and Capitals, as always, will have a say, and perhaps Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company in Pittsburgh could make some noise (if they can stay healthy, depth is an issue there), but I think this young, hungry group will come out of the pack at season’s end.
However, regular-season accolades are not what the Hurricanes are after at this juncture. It’s all about what happens after. They’ve been there, this core has had three trips to the postseason under Brind’Amour, the experience to know what to expect, and this is the year they make it out of the East…only to run into their Western Conference counterpart, the buzzsaw that is the Colorado Avalanche. Like the Hurricanes, Colorado has had their struggles in the postseason even when many had them pegged as favorites, but their group of young, high-end talent is perhaps the most impressive in the entire league. They’ll have a chip on their shoulders this year, and led by Nathan MacKinnon, the re-signed Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar, the Avs will win the Stanley Cup in seven games over the ‘Canes.
When Seth Jarvis makes the team and sticks on the roster and wins the Calder or Necas jumps up for 90 points, I’ll feel like I missed an opportunity, but I could have made hot takes all day long. Perhaps that’s just the adrenaline of hockey season finally being here; the possibilities of a new season and a young roster rife with exciting, growing talent.
Predictions like these tend to be taken too seriously, but these exercises are merely meant to be fun and an opportunity to give a little insight into a handful of guys as we did here. So, with that said, what are your bold predictions? Which of these do you find the most or least likely? Leave a comment below, give me a holler on Twitter @bwstanley26, and be sure to check back to The Hockey Writers regularly as we can now give real, live analysis to meaningful hockey. It’s the best time of the year, folks.
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 in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; 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!