We’ve effectively reached the midway point of the 2021-22 season, and the Carolina Hurricanes have plenty to be proud of from the first half of games. With the best points percentage in the NHL, the team is looking like one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league at this juncture. Just about everything has gone right, and the front office should have nothing short of going all-in for a championship on their minds.
Before the season got underway, I laid out five bold predictions for the 2021-22 season. Exercises like that are meant to more or less be for fun, as hockey is an incredibly unpredictable game. Who could have predicted Seth Jarvis would make the team as a 19-year-old, or that Troy Terry of the Anaheim Ducks would be nearly a point-per-game player, or that Frederik Andersen would go from losing his starting job to one of the best goalies in the league (actually, one of my bold predictions effectively said the opposite).
So, today, we’ll take a look back at those bold predictions and see just how wrong I am looking at the halfway point. Plus, we’ll take a stab at three predictions for the second half. I am going to switch that latter part up, though; instead of “bold” predictions that fall more into the category of “the chance is small, but it could happen,” I’m going to make more realistic guesses that I truly expect to happen. Let’s get to it.
Prediction 1: Kotkaniemi Will Hit 60 Points
I know we’re starting off with one that looks like “wow, that’s a lot of pressure to put on the kid,” but even in retrospect, especially with how well he’s played lately, it was a potential outcome if things really clicked right. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was initially slated to play wing and was even getting looks alongside his countrymen Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen on the first line. However, he just never seemed comfortable on the wing, and with Aho, Vincent Trocheck, and Jordan Staal down the middle, there was really nowhere for him to play in a featured role at center.
To outside observers, many will (and have) cracked jokes about a $6.1 million fourth liner, but as I’ve said for weeks now, the kid has been fantastic and is beginning to fit into the system quite nicely. He’s using his size extremely well in the dirty areas and been a bull in front of the net, he’s been a menace on the forecheck, and he’s creating offense regularly, all while not playing with top offensive linemates or in an offense-centric role. If Staal ever gets it going, the Hurricanes might have the best center depth in the entire league. Overall, it’s been a promising Carolina debut for the 21-year-old.
Prediction 2: Raanta Will Lead Hurricanes in Starts and Wins
I take full responsibility for my silly words. I apologize and I will try to be better. Frederik Andersen, though, eh? Antti Raanta has largely been quite good for the Hurricanes in the backup role. He’s given the team a chance to win every time he’s been in the net, but his unfortunate injury history is rearing it’s ugly head once again with his new team. However, he was only out a relatively short period of time, and Andersen carried the flag quite well. He is now healthy again, and will be a key player down the stretch. Carolina will need him to give their No. 1 consistent nights off, so that both can be fresh for the postseason.
Prediction 3: Svechnikov Improves His Discipline and Leads the Team in Points
This one is probably the closest of my bold predictions, even though Sebastian Aho looks like he’s going to comfortably take home the Hurricanes’ points title for the fifth consecutive year. However, Andrei Svechnikov has absolutely cleaned up the discipline, especially since late November. Penalties will always be a part of his game — as they arguably almost should be for a power forward in his mold; you certainly don’t want him removing that edge completely. However, he’s taken far fewer penalties of the “lazy” variety (hooks, trips, basically any bad stick penalty that comes from not moving your feet) and instead is getting mixed up physically and taking penalties mostly borne out of aggressiveness or even hard work. He even took zero penalties in one nine-game stretch from Nov. 26 to Dec. 30.
Oh, and after a run of bad puck luck, he’s registered multi-point games in seven of the last nine games (including five in a row), and is up to a point-per-game on the season with 14 goals and 36 points in 36 games. It’s beginning to look like a true breakout year for the Russian winger, and, hot take, but he’s going to be very, very good for a very, very long time.
Prediction 4: Bear Finishes in the Top-20 of the Norris Trophy Voting
Following up the one I came closest on is the one I was… probably the most wrong on. In fairness, Ethan Bear looked great for the first month or so of the season. He was playing on the top pair alongside superstar defenseman Jaccob Slavin, and generally looked well-suited to continue growing in the role for the rest of the season and beyond. However, his bout with COVID-19 really seemed to hamstring him, and he hasn’t been the same player since, culminating in his recent stretch of press box duty as a healthy scratch. It’s been an unfortunate regression, because he looked like such a promising piece early in the season. It looks like he’s returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Ottawa Senators, so hopefully he starts to look like himself again, stays in the lineup, and builds up some momentum down the stretch.
Prediction 5: The Hurricanes Make the Stanley Cup Final… But Lose to Colorado
At least my shame is resigned to the first four predictions, as this one is still up in the air. However, this looks like a very real possibility at this juncture. The Colorado Avalanche got off to a tough start and suffered through a multitude of injuries, but have positively regressed as the season has gone along and still look like quite possibly the best and most complete team in the league. If they’re healthy, they’re a gigantic threat. The same goes for the Hurricanes, and boy, oh boy, would I love to see a series between these two supremely fast and talented teams. As I said before the season, who wouldn’t want to watch Nathan MacKinnon against Slavin, Mikko Rantanen against his countryman Aho, Nazem Kadri and Svechnikov going at it, all in a Stanley Cup Final series? My goodness. Oh, I hear that Cale Makar kid isn’t bad, either.
Setting Myself Up to Look Silly Again: 3 More (Less-Bold?) Second-Half Predictions
Hey, they could be worse! Some of the bold predictions are still up in the air, and others are a little more certain already. But I’m a glutton for punishment, so why not set myself up to look silly again in a few months? Let’s take another stab at a few predictions for the second half.
Prediction 1: Jarvis Forces His Way Into the Calder Conversation
Now, this one is going to be pretty tough. Not only is the rookie class pretty stacked, but a majority of the players on the rookie scoring leaderboard have between a nine- and 15-game lead on Jarvis. This gave them additional time not only to stack up more points, but to get a bit ahead of the curve and acclimate to the speed of the NHL, that the lightning-quick Carolina rookie didn’t. He’s also at a bit of a disadvantage in that a lot of the top scorers are featured on their teams’ power plays, with the top three having between seven and 12 points on the man advantage. Jarvis is on the Hurricanes’ second unit, which doesn’t have nearly the same punch as the first; he has just three power-play points on the year.
But, you can call this a hunch — similar to the one about Svechnikov getting closer, and closer, before finally snapping off — Jarvis is going to start piling up points in the very near future. He’s now playing alongside Teravainen and Aho on the team’s top line, and, especially in conjunction with the next prediction I’m about to make, I think there’s enough talent on the second power-play unit that eventually they’re going to start pushing the first. His compete level and hockey sense, combined with his obvious speed and skill, make him seem like the type of player who may not hit the typical rookie wall. Rather, I expect him to continue to improve as he gains comfort and the trust of head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
I think the way the trio complements each other means he stays on the top line for a while, so I don’t think it’s out of the question that Jarvis pushes for 50 points this season. That would mean his point totals nearly double what they were in the first half, from 17 to a little over 30 (but in 40-ish games, instead of 30). Still, will that be enough to catch Trevor Zegras, Moritz Seider, and Lucas Raymond? That’s an extremely tall task, but I expect the 19-year-old winger is at least going to make it interesting by the end the year.
Prediction 2: The Hurricanes Make a Big Splash Before the Trade Deadline
Call this a hunch, and it is at least marginally based on context clues (being involved in seemingly every big name that comes available this season from Jack Eichel to John Klingberg), but I think the time is right and the front office is about to trade in some chips to go all-in now. Now, when I say this I don’t mean “mortgage the entire future all-in” like Columbus inexplicably did a few years ago, but all-in enough that they’re going to trade some high-value players that are going to sting a bit — especially to some of the hardcore prospect followers out there such as myself. My good friend Matthew Somma, who runs the @CanesProspects account on Twitter, thinks there’s a good chance they’re going to move Jack Drury. Yeah, stung just to consider, didn’t it?
Related: Klingberg Trade Would Make Hurricanes’ Blue Line Lethal
But that’s the thing: the Hurricanes have players who, like Drury, are ready for the NHL right now, controllable for a half-decade-plus, and are on cheap contracts. Hell, that’s how you win more often than not in the NHL, as having young, controlled, Drury or even Jarvis-type talent to supplement your stars on the big contracts is where high-end depth comes from. So, prepare yourselves: the front office is going to pull the trigger on a splashy acquisition. I don’t know who — heck, I don’t even know what position, as I originally expected an upgrade at forward, but changed my tune a bit of late when considering the ripple effect a Klingberg addition would create on the blue line. I just expect it to be meaningful, and to give another spark to the top half of the Hurricanes lineup, be it top-six offensively or top-four defensively.
Prediction 3: Hurricanes Win the Metro Comfortably
I hope you folks enjoyed last season. The Central Division felt oh-so-nice and cushy, despite a vicious top three in Carolina, the Florida Panthers, and Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Lots of winnable games, despite it obviously getting a bit tougher playing the same team over and over until they can get used to your style of play. In fairness, four teams instead of three that are that big of a threat in the standings isn’t too big of a difference, but it just seems so much tougher this year — New Jersey, Columbus, and even Philadelphia early in the season (really, what happened to them?) — aren’t exactly cupcakes. The Blue Jackets throttled the Hurricanes 6-0 recently, after all.
That top three is extremely tough, though. The Hurricanes have the best points percentage in the NHL… but sit in third place by points overall just in their own division because everyone else keeps winning, too. They do have four games in hand on the first-place New York Rangers, and three games on the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins, while trailing them by just two points and one point, respectively. And while Carolina has the leg up because of the games played, this race is very much going to be decided from here on out. They’ve seen the Rangers just once, and have yet to meet the Penguins — a lot of hockey between these teams is yet to come.
I think, though, that the Hurricanes will win by a solid margin when all is said and done. In fact, the team that scares me the most is not mentioned here — the Washington Capitals. If Pittsburgh is healthy they’re always a threat, but I still have doubts about Tristan Jarry, despite his phenomenal year to this point. The Rangers are effectively the inverse; goalie Igor Shesterkin, who the Hurricanes didn’t see in their meeting last week, is unbelievable, but I don’t think the roster matches up with the Hurricanes otherwise. They have a lot of punch in their top six and Adam Fox is unreal, but their depth isn’t anywhere close to Carolina’s. So, at the end of the day, the Hurricanes take care of business against these challengers, and win their division for the second straight year by a five- or six-point margin.
Buckle Up, Because the Games Are About to Start Flying
Starting Thursday night, the Hurricanes are about to play three games in 72 hours. And I don’t mean the 72nd hour is when the third game will start — it will actually be wrapping up, as their final game of the extended weekend (which is also a back-to-back) is a 5:00 EST matinee start as well. They do get a brief, six-day break to begin the month of February, but then things will really ramp up — especially in March, when the team will then play a whopping 16 games in one calendar month.
Such is life during another pandemic season, a phrase you’re probably tired of me saying in this space and, frankly, one I’m tired of writing myself. Anyway, the games are definitely about to start flying by, and it’s going to start feeling like postseason hockey real soon — just like the Vegas Golden Knights game did Tuesday night. As I mentioned in the last section, lots of highly-important games are still on the docket against the other top teams in the Metro, and the Hurricanes will have to prove their mettle in order to maintain (or retake, depending on how you look at it) their perch atop the division.
It’s a really fun time to be a Hurricanes fan (shoutout to my podcast, if you know you know, and if you don’t you should check it out), and things are going to ramp up in February. The stretch run is almost upon us, the team is really clicking with young stars like Martin Necas, Svechnikov, and others stepping up and playing potentially the best hockey of their careers, and the depth of this squad continues to shine. Wear your masks, get your boosters, and let’s try to get everyone healthy, so arenas are filled up and we get the real environment postseason hockey deserves. Buckle up, folks.