On Jan. 14, 2021, the Carolina Hurricanes will begin their next campaign for the Stanley Cup against the Detroit Red Wings. It will begin a brutal 56-game schedule that will require solid play from every player on the roster as the season progresses.
Carolina will be in the restructured Central Division with the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning. The divisions were realigned to correlate with the travel issues regarding the United States-Canadian border.
Every game played will be within the division, meaning each team will play the other division members eight times each. The top four teams will make the playoffs, playing in a first versus fourth, second versus third inter-divisional tournament with the winner moving onto the final four against remaining teams from each division.
To compensate for the grueling schedule, the NHL has allocated extra roster sports in the form of a four- to six-man taxi squad. Each player on the squad is allowed to travel and practice with their NHL team and can be recalled any day to play in a game as long as it’s before 5 p.m. Eastern Time.
This is a season that will reward depth play and outside-the-box thinking from front offices to maneuver lineups in a way that maximizes its potential. The Hurricanes have struggled with depth play in recent seasons, but if they can work around the issues that have pestered them in the past, they stand a good chance at making some noise in the new season. Let’s take a look at some possible candidates for the taxi squad who could most benefit the team when called upon.
Carolina’s 2019 first-round pick is an obvious choice for the taxi squad should he miss the active roster after camp. Ryan Suzuki is one of the organization’s top prospects with his excellent vision on the ice and exceptional passing skills. He is currently representing his home country of Canada at the 2021 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Edmonton. He notched a goal in his first game played in Canada’s rout of Team Germany on Sunday.
Suzuki has good junior experience to go along with his international exposure, scoring 177 points in 173 games in his first three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). The Hurricanes will obviously need all hands on deck to be competitive, but getting the 19-year-old some much needed NHL experience is a nice added benefit.
Another player still residing in juniors, Russian forward Vasili Ponomaryov is also impressing in the World Juniors for his home country. In his first game in Edmonton, Ponomaryov scored two goals in just 8:05 of ice time.
Ponomaryov has shown a unique motor on the ice with impressive experience at the international level, winning the gold medal with Russia at the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. He also tallied a career-high 49 points in 57 games with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in the 2019-20 season. Carolina has been looking for a reason to get him into the lineup sooner rather than later, and the newly added taxi squad might be just the perfect solution.
Now is the time to get Jake Bean into the NHL. The 22-year-old defenseman has toiled in the minors and junior leagues for too many years and has just two NHL games under his belt.
In the 2019-20 season with the Charlotte Checkers, Bean had 48 points in 59 games, improving on his 44-point season the year before. He’s considered one of the best prospects in Carolina’s touted farm system and is expected to again compete for an active roster spot in the NHL for the 2020-21 season. However, if he again misses out, he should still be given valuable experience on the taxi squad.
Like Bean, Joey Keane has labored in the minors and other leagues for years. In the OHL, the defenseman registered 102 points over four years with the Barrie Colts and the London Knights before moving to the AHL, where he’s resided the last year, recording 37 total points in 58 games.
The Hurricanes acquired him from the New York Rangers in February in exchange for prospect Julien Gauthier. If the Hurricanes dip deep into their defenseman pool, Keane could be a solid choice.
Another prospect that could make noise next season, Morgan Geekie is expected to crack a spot on the active roster but may end up on the taxi squad should he be passed over again. Like Bean, Geekie has just two regular-season games played in the NHL.
He scored two goals in his NHL debut against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 8 and was given some playing time in the playoff bubble.
Dominik Bokk makes an excellent candidate for the taxi squad this season. The 20-year-old forward was drafted 25th overall in 2018 by the St. Louis Blues before being traded, along with Joel Edmundson and a 2021 seventh-round pick in 2019 to Carolina in exchange for Justin Faulk and a 2020 fifth-round pick.
Bokk has some solid professional experience in the Swedish Hockey League. In his third season last year, the winger scored 17 points in 47 games and has scored twice in 14 games this season so far. Bokk could be brought in on the taxi squad to get him his first NHL exposure with solid talent around him to best make use of his passing ability.
The oldest of Carolina’s non-roster players, according to CapFriendly, McCormick possesses the most NHL experience of any candidate. The 28-year-old winger has logged 10 points in his 71 NHL games played. The Hurricanes could look to add him to the taxi squad for a reliable player with some exposure at the next level.
The Hurricanes are expected to roll with the 1A-1B tandem of James Reimer and Petr Mrázek again for the 2020-21 season, but the NHL will require a third goalie to be either on the active roster or the taxi squad. Competing with Jeremy Helvig and Antoine Bibeau, Alex Nedeljkovic is the most likely candidate to fill the spot. He has good NHL experience, playing in four games last season and logging a win.
Nedeljkovic is thought to be the goalie of the future, and the Hurricanes have an excellent opportunity to begin the transition from Reimer-Mrázek, especially with both the starting goalies’ contracts expiring at the end of the season and the expansion draft looming on the horizon. Allowing him to practice and travel with the team could prove invaluable when the young goalie is finally given his shot as the permanent starter.
The 2020-21 NHL season will assuredly be one to remember, hopefully for the best of reasons. The NHL will undoubtedly run into problems regarding COVID-19 protocols and other unforeseen issues. But for the Hurricanes, all they can do is focus on the ice, where young and upcoming players may be needed more than ever to make a run for the Stanley Cup.