It’s finally here, folks — less than a week from now the puck will drop on the 2021-22 NHL season.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, the team has seen a ton of turnover over during the offseason. From an entirely new goalie tandem to a plethora of depth moves, and the loss of one of the best offensive defensemen in hockey, the team that hits the ice at PNC Arena on Oct. 14 will look significantly different than the one that bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Rod Brind’Amour, the reigning Jack Adams Award winner as the coach of the year, will have his work cut out for him trying to slot in nearly half a roster’s worth of new players, including four of the top seven defensemen, into the correct position in which they can best succeed.
On top of that, a trio of potential rookies have made a real case for NHL duty in Jamieson Rees (age 20), Jack Drury (21), and top prospect Seth Jarvis (19). All three have looked far from out of place in the preseason games, and, in fact, have probably outplayed a lot of the veteran locks for the roster. This isn’t entirely surprising, though — many veterans take some time to settle in early in the season, and these games are meaningless for them, after all. Meanwhile this is almost like the Stanley Cup Final for these kids who are trying to make their dream come true right now, and push onto a contender-level roster with very few holes in it.
So, let’s play general manager, and try to deduce what the opening night lineup will look like. The team is down to 32 players in camp as of this writing (with the cutdowns soon to come after this will go up), so we’ll separate them into three categories: locks, on the bubble, and depth. The “bubble” will be the only real decisions on whether or not they’ll make the roster, as the locks obviously will be and the “depth” will likely mean they are Chicago-bound to the American Hockey League (AHL). As a bonus, I’ll even try to take a stab at the exact lineup that will be dressed on opening night against the New York Islanders. Let’s get to it.
Roster Locks (21)
Sebastian Aho, Frederik Andersen, Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, Tony DeAngelo, Jesper Fast, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Steven Lorentz, Jordan Martinook, Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter, Brett Pesce, Antti Raanta, Brady Skjei, Jaccob Slavin, Brendan Smith, Jordan Staal, Derek Stepan, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravinen, Vincent Trocheck
It has been mentioned time and again that this is going to be an extremely tough roster to crack, and one peek at this subsection will explain why. The team has 21 established NHL veterans, all of whom I am quite confident will be on the opening night roster. Otherwise known as… one over the number of players a team can dress for any given game. In one of the forwards’ case, perhaps Fast, Martinook, or Lorentz, it is entirely possible they are healthy extras for a game or two early in the season while a prospect such as Jarvis gets a look, but they will be on the 23-man roster nonetheless.
Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot to break down here. The defense is even tighter than the forward group, with the top six written in sharpie and Brendan Smith pretty much the perfect No. 7 option: versatile, can step in in a pinch (on forward or defense), gritty, and willing to stand up for teammates.
It was always going to take someone absolutely blowing the doors off in camp to displace any of these players, but that doesn’t mean there has not been legitimate, fierce battles for roster spots in camp. In fact, the competition has been as good as I can remember for the franchise. So, let’s get to the fun part…
On The Bubble (6)
Drury, Jarvis, Josh Leivo, Stefan Noesen, Rees, C.J. Smith
So, if the team can carry 23 players and 21 of the spots are pretty much filled, that leaves two potential slots available for these six forwards.
We’ll start with the kids. Drury, Rees, and Jarvis have all looked excellent through the first three games. Rees has shown off his impressive compete level, hounding every puck while also showing high-end skill and vision, Drury looks to be nearly ready as a mature, two-way center that can help the team in all three zones while excelling in the faceoff dot, and Jarvis looks every bit the offensive force the Hurricanes hoped he would be when selecting him 13th overall in 2020. His speed, hockey sense, and puck skill has stood out even while facing true NHL-level rosters in Tampa Bay and Nashville.
An important consideration here is Jarvis’ status as a Western Hockey League (WHL) eligible player. He cannot yet go to the AHL, and therefore his contract will slide so long as he doesn’t play in 10 NHL games this season. At this point, it seems like there’s a great chance he has forced the team’s hand and will be given the early-season tryout at least, but it might be best for all involved if he heads back to juniors, has a list from the team of things to improve on, and hits the gym very hard for one more year. He still gets knocked off the puck a bit too easily at times, and can occasionally make the type of blind passes to the middle in the offensive zone that occasionally work in juniors, but almost never do in the NHL. Breaking that habit, being more patient and diligent of puck possession in the offensive zone, will go a long way.
Verdict: Leivo makes team, Jarvis make opening night roster and gets a handful of games (fewer than nine, per NHL contract slide rules) before heading back to Portland of the WHL; Drury, Noesen, Rees, C.J. Smith to AHL Chicago.
Leivo was a solid addition as a depth player, and could fit well as the 13th forward that can slide in if an injury arises in the bottom six, but it’s a toss up to whether he makes the team initially. Both Noesen and C.J. Smith have flashed multiple times this preseason as well, and may also be getting strong consideration off the bat in a fourth line or the aforementioned 13th forward role, but the logjam down there likely has them ticketed for Chicago initially. Same goes for Rees and Drury; there’s no reason to keep them around if they’re not getting significant ice time, and both will surely be given featured roles in Chicago. As the season progresses, I fully expect to see both make their NHL debuts during the 2021-22 season, especially if a top-nine injury pops up.
Related: Seth Jarvis Turning Heads
Eric Gelinas, Joey Keane, Maxime Lajoie, Alex Lyon, Ryan Suzuki
Update: Leivo, Noesen, Gelinas, CJ Smith, Lajoie waived on October 10; Suzuki, Keane, Lyon sent to AHL
For the defensemen, their placement here is more about the complete non-existence of room for them to play than it is their ability or competitiveness in camp. Keane has been excellent, Lajoie has had his moments and proved himself capable of filling in last season, and even the already-cut Jesper Sellgren turned some heads. But there is obviously no point in having them sit in the press box when they can play 18-20 minutes a night (or more) in Chicago, as the Hurricanes’ blue line remains stacked.
Gelinas has had ups and downs as he attempts to return stateside from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), but it feels like he’s a good ways down the depth chart as things currently stand. I’m not entirely sure he ever gets a shot in Carolina considering how many capable defensemen are on the cusp, especially the aforementioned Keane, Lajoie, and Sellgren. I would expect all three of those players would get a shot before Gelinas, if a need arises.
Suzuki has been good in the preseason, and continues to show his growth as a well-rounded, competitive player that isn’t afraid to initiate contact and work the dirty areas. For a player that was drafted as a skilled, perimeter-oriented playmaker, this is a promising development. He still has the skill and vision to play in a top nine, or potentially even top six someday, and it isn’t a red flag that the 20-year-old is just a touch behind developmentally of the trio of rookies mentioned above in the “bubble” section. I expect he’ll get some valuable experience in big minutes in Chicago this year, then, in 2022-23, will make a legitimate push for the roster.
Final Thoughts and Lineup Guess
The depth and position battles Carolina has raging right now speak to the depth within the organization; the amount of legitimate NHL-level players the team has to choose from. This is obviously something Hurricanes fans can greatly appreciate — it wasn’t too long ago that Carolina had AHL players thrown into roles they were ill-equipped to handle, or prospects that needed more time in the minors or juniors forced onto the roster out of desperation.
Now, the Hurricanes have prospects that probably are NHL-ready, and could surely make the opening night roster for many NHL teams, but won’t for Carolina due to a lack of open spots. Suffice to say, though, this situation thoroughly beats out the other, as there is certainly nothing wrong with over-ripening a young player rather than potentially hampering their development.
It’s a really fun time in Carolina. The team is obviously very good already with a young, still-improving nucleus, but seeing top prospects start to progress towards the NHL roster and further add to the depth on the team provides more hope and excitement for everyone both inside and outside the organization. Lots of big debuts are on the horizon, and the team remains poised to be a contender for the foreseeable future.
So, finally, let’s take a guess on how the team lines up on Oct. 14 against the Islanders.
Svechnikov – Aho – Teravainen
Kotkaniemi – Trocheck – Necas
Niederreiter – Staal – Jarvis
Martinook – Stepan – Fast
Slavin – Bear
Skjei – Pesce
Cole – DeAngelo
(Leivo, Lorentz, B. Smith extras)
Update: Trocheck suffered a minor injury in the Hurricanes annual Red-White scrimmage, and has been placed on injured reserve (IR). The team reportedly is hopeful he will be available on opening night, but if not, Drury’s chances of being in the opening night lineup increase substantially. In that scenario, expect to see him slot in at third-line center and Staal to bump into the top six.
Lorentz has had a very nice camp, looking much more confident carrying the puck through the middle of the ice and making moves in years prior. He’ll likely be in the lineup more often than not over the course of the season, but I have him as the odd man out if Jarvis gets an early season look. It looks as though Kotkaniemi will be given a top-six role initially; he has had some nice moments in camp and a good start to his Hurricanes career could be a nice launching point for getting his career back on track. Otherwise, not too many surprises, but, again, the Hurricanes have myriad options and should feel comfortable even once injuries inevitably begin to creep up.
On defense, there is a good chance DeAngelo gets the first crack at RD1 alongside Slavin to attempt to re-create the dynamic Dougie Hamilton-Slavin pair, but Bear has looked like a stellar pickup so far and is simply a more complete player better equipped to handle a first-pairing workload. If I were Brind’Amour, I would start DeAngelo with the steady veteran in Cole that will allow DeAngelo to roam and hunt for offense. Slavin affords the same ability, but I just think the upside of Bear alongside the alternate captain is too tremendous to pass up. That could be one of the best, most versatile pairings in hockey.
We made it, friends — hockey is less than a week away. Be sure to check back here at The Hockey Writers for all the news and analysis as the greatest sport on the planet ramps up.
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!