Carolina Hurricanes’ Burning Questions Ahead of Training Camp

There’s a crisp chill in the North Carolina air after yet another sweltering summer. College football has been underway for a couple of weeks now, soaking up much of the attention in the college sports-crazed Triangle area (hey, Duke football is 2-0! How ’bout that?). The cherry on top, though, is the ice being put down at PNC Arena. After a long, arduous offseason with the stench of a disappointing second-round exit surrounding the team, a brand new hockey season full of hope and excitement around the Carolina Hurricanes is right around the corner.

Entering Rod Brind’Amour’s fifth season at the helm, it (once again) feels like an important year for the Hurricanes to break through and make some noise in the playoffs. Some real noise, because, let’s be frank, they’ve accomplished nothing since this run of contention began under their head coach. Four years of very good hockey, three, or at least two, years of legitimate expectations, culminating in last year’s franchise-record 116 points in the standings; yet, when the playoffs came around, it continued to be more of the same.

Much like last season, this year’s squad has every opportunity to be the one that finally breaks through, to be this year’s version of the Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche, shaking off a few years of underachievement and finally carrying hockey’s holy grail. The team has the pieces to do just that. There is a boatload of talent, including a multitude of rising forwards that have only gotten better with each passing season. They have an excellent goaltending tandem backstopping them, and in front of the netminders, unquestionably, one of the best blue lines in the league. The expectations are well-deserved.

However, we’ll reserve judgment on long-term aspirations for a few months from now, as there will be 82 games after which to discuss if the ‘Canes are a true Stanley Cup contender. Instead, today, let’s start at the beginning: training camp. There are some highly intriguing position battles to be sorted, as a handful of legitimate NHL players aren’t even going to be in the lineup on opening night. This year’s camp will be an important time to get their feet back under them, as always, but also to answer some important questions that could set the tone for the entire season. Let’s break down some of the biggest ones surrounding the Hurricanes as camp prepares to open.

Is Kotkaniemi Ready for the 2C Role?

We’ll start off with a big one, and a multifaceted one at that. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has a lot of pressure on him this season to perform after the eight-year, $4.82 million average annual value (AAV) extension he signed towards the end of last season. The offer sheet acquisition was always a long-term play, as the Hurricanes knew his last couple of seasons of development had been stunted after a couple of down years in Montreal. He is likely penciled into the second-line center role to start the season after Vincent Trocheck’s departure, where he’ll have two very talented wingers flanking him (although exactly who is anyone’s guess at this point, but it’s assured to be two highly-talented players).

Jesperi Kotkaniemi Carolina Hurricanes
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kotkaniemi had an up-and-down first season in Carolina, although his surface numbers of 12 goals and 29 points in 66 games don’t tell the whole story. Those numbers are actually well above-average for the fourth-line role he was relegated to in the presence of Trocheck, Sebastian Aho, and Jordan Staal, after the failed attempt at moving him to the wing. However, when he was moved up the lineup in December after the Hurricanes lost seven players due to COVID, he played decidedly his best hockey of the season.

His rate stats were impressive, with his total points per-60 ranking sixth amongst Hurricanes forwards last season, per Natural Stat Trick. Only Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Seth Jarvis, and the since-departed Nino Niederreiter scored at a higher rate. That’s the upside, the part that gives legitimate hope that he can have a breakout season and seamlessly slip into Trocheck’s old role. But what if he falters?

The Hurricanes had some of the best center depth in the league the last few years, including last season when a player of Kotkaniemi’s caliber and pedigree was relegated to that aforementioned fourth-line role. Luckily, they are covered there too. While Staal has lost a step and isn’t the same force he once was, he’s still a perfectly suitable third-line center. However, you can’t expect him to provide more than that, as he had been asked to do at times in the past. He’s just not that guy anymore that can move up and be relied upon for offense. That is one reason (of many) the late-summer Paul Stastny signing was savvy – as Kotkaniemi insurance. Even though he is 36 years old, Stastny can still play – and produce – especially with as much talent around him as he will have in Raleigh.

Beyond that, I’m as big of a Jack Drury believer as you’ll find. Once drafted as a two-way center that was, by many, expected to have the ceiling of a bottom-six player, his offensive game has truly blossomed. The 22-year-old has taken impressive strides in that end on a yearly basis. I’ve seen a few hot takes that Kotkaniemi loses his 2C role based on Drury’s play as much as the former’s, but don’t expect that to happen – especially considering Brind’Amour’s tendency to handle rookies with kid gloves. However, the New York native is the exact type of player that should win over his coach in short order, and his two-goals-in-two-games cameo last season has plenty of fans dreaming of what he could do in his rookie year. He’s not currently a candidate for the role, but he is certainly an option to move up in a pinch when injuries strike.

Jack Drury Carolina Hurricanes
Jack Drury, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Overall, with Father Time beginning to catch up to Staal a bit and some uncertainty with Kotkaniemi (and Drury, if we’re being honest; impressive as it was, his two-game sample last season does not a career make), the team’s center depth may not quite be what it recently was. Nevertheless, the overall talent in the lineup should put all these players in a position to succeed, with viable backup candidates if and when injuries or ineffectiveness plague the team. Not to mention players like Jamieson Rees and Vasili Ponomarev with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League (AHL), who also could be due to break out and prove ready for NHL action (although certainly in depth roles early on, if so).

Plus, I got all this way without even mentioning Derek Stepan, signed to a professional tryout (PTO) in August, after proving he was a rock-solid contributor last year, who arguably should have played more than he did down the stretch. All this is to say, the Hurricanes should be in a decent position to succeed down the middle regardless. Still, the best version of the team includes a breakout season from Kotkaniemi. Training camp will be the place for him to start this journey, as getting off to a good start and becoming comfortable with two talented linemates could set him up to prove his many doubters wrong.

What To Do With Hurricanes’ Defense?

The Hurricanes’ defensive top four isn’t just written in ink, it’s tattooed and shaded so darkly that a hundred appointments couldn’t cover it up. Jaccob Slavin and trade acquisition Brent Burns will begin the season as the top pairing, and the trusty second pair of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei will return after a fantastic 2021-22 season together. This isn’t breaking news to anyone who follows the team. Beyond that, however, is where the fun and intrigue begin in training camp.

The team has a trio of young righties that looked liable to begin the season on the bottom pair, with one of them potentially giving their off-side a go, and the other starting in Chicago or as the seventh defenseman. That could still be in the cards, but with the arrival of old friend Calvin de Haan, there’s a very good chance the former three will be competing for one slot. After spending last year on a struggling Chicago Blackhawks squad, the veteran shutdown defenseman returns to Carolina on a PTO of his own (these PTOs are due to the Hurricanes’ lack of cap space; relief from moving a contract such as Jake Gardiner‘s will open space for these players if they can find a suitor).

de Haan is the exact type of player you want alongside a young, offensively-capable third-pairing defenseman. He is a one-trick pony, but he does that one trick extremely well: blocking shots, moving opposing forwards out of the dirty areas, and grinding away tough minutes. Health has been a concern over the course of his career, but if he stays on the ice there is a somewhat-significant role for him on this team killing penalties and shutting down the opposition.

Calvin de Haan Warren Foegele Justin Faulk Curtis McElhinney Carolina Hurricanes
Hurricanes defenseman Calvin de Haan watches as Curtis McElhinney makes a save. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

So, if de Haan does crack the roster and locks down the LD3 slot, who will his partner be? Early on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dylan Coghlan get the first crack. He and Ethan Bear both have a decent amount of NHL experience, but his playing style fits well next to de Haan. As mentioned in our profile covering him following the trade, Coghlan is a player who has produced monster offensive numbers in every league in which he’s played – except the NHL. That doesn’t make him a lock to do so at the sport’s highest level, but he clearly has some skill he’s yet to truly show off in his young career. Winning the role could potentially allow him to rove next to de Haan and showcase his high-end shot, which could lead to a breakout season of his own.

For the other options, Bear would make a lot of sense as well, as he played some really good hockey at times last season, but was extremely unlucky when it came to health. After starting the year with Slavin at times and looking like a legitimate piece of the Hurricanes’ future, his bout with COVID was perhaps the toughest of any Carolina player, and he clearly wasn’t himself upon his return. About the time he started to get his legs back under him, he got hurt, and that was more or less the last we heard from him in 2021-22. With a full offseason to train and get back to his game, he certainly shouldn’t be written off, especially since he has a leg up in terms of comfort within the system.

Lastly, Jalen Chatfield became a fan favorite in pretty short order last season. He plays with pace, is not afraid to do the dirty work and play with a bit of an edge, and even chipped in offensively a handful of times during his 16-game NHL stint last season. Still, he’s likely best suited for a seventh defenseman role who can fill in in a pinch due to his lack of any distinctly NHL-quality attributes. All of these players will have a chance to make the team and be in the opening night lineup, but if I had to handicap it, his odds would likely be the lowest.

This all sets up for a good, old-fashioned position battle, and those are healthy to have in camp because it demands the best out of the contestants. At times veteran players can go through the motions this time of year, and get off to a slow start once the season begins. Those battling for the third pairing role will have no such “luxury”. Whoever of these four players begins the year on the third pairing will have definitely earned it.

Which Young Gun Will Break Through?

With the injury to Max Pacioretty shaking up the Hurricanes’ early-season outlook, the biggest source of potential improvement on the 2022-23 roster now becomes internal. Adding a goal-scorer of his caliber immediately made the Hurricanes a significantly more dangerous hockey team, but now, they’ll instead look to their aforementioned rising stars to make as much of a leap as possible. The opportunity is certainly present.

The most obvious candidate to take a big step forward is Jarvis. Having a teenager come up and immediately contribute the way he did last season is a rare feat, as he even outproduced rookie-year Svechnikov (in fairness, Svechnikov immediately came to the NHL at 18, and Jarvis did have one extra season, so the comparison is imperfect). The skill level was always abundantly obvious, but the speed, elite compete level, and even defensive improvement as the year went on spoke to his internal drive and desire to be a great NHL player. He hit his slogs at times, as any rookie would, still, considering he often was the Hurricanes’ best player in the postseason, he seems an obvious choice to be one of their best players in 2022-23. With a likely top-six role right away, hitting 55-60 points isn’t out of the question for him.

Seth Jarvis Carolina Hurricanes
Seth Jarvis, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Speaking of Svechnikov, most who have followed the Hurricanes continue to have the gut feeling that there’s a lot more to give in the tank. At some point, things are simply going to click for the supremely-talented power forward, and with four years of experience now under his belt, coming off a 30-goal season, and with perhaps his first fully “normal” offseason since his rookie season, we could easily see another big step forward from the 22-year-old (jeez, he’s still only 22!). Although these are still technically pre-prime-years, players do tend to peak earlier than ever in today’s NHL. I fully believe that Svechnikov has what it takes to break the point-per-game barrier he threatened to last season, and turn into a full-blown, top-tier superstar starting this season. Even if it doesn’t happen now… it’s only a matter of time.

Related: Hurricanes Players to Watch at 2022 Prospect Showcase

Then you have the bigger question marks, who honestly could perhaps be even more impactful if their breakouts come. Not that Jarvis and Svechnikov’s steps forward won’t be impactful of course; but they’re already relied upon to be legitimate contributors, so the step from there to stardom doesn’t feel quite as intense as, say, Necas becoming a reliable contributor and point producer. The Necas saga resulted in a two-year bridge deal this summer, and the Hurricanes would be significantly better for it if he were to rediscover his playmaker’s touch. When on his game he’s one of the most game-breaking talents the Hurricanes have, and one they dearly missed down the stretch and into the postseason last year.

We’ve discussed Kotkaniemi and Drury already, but they fall into this category too – especially the former. If Kotkaniemi does lock down that 2C role, then obviously a big question mark is off the table. The Hurricanes bet on his talent with the future in mind, expecting him to eventually make the offer sheet and eight-year commitment worth it. There’s no time like the present, especially with nearly the entire roster up for new deals in the next three seasons.

Drury, on the other hand, is the type of player who simply keeps getting better. He has success everywhere he goes, and that is not a coincidence. So, sure, the smart bet is on him being in the bottom-six and easing his way into the NHL, but could he show up to camp, put on a show, and blow his projections out of the water too? He’s not a kid to bet against. Heck, even Aho and Teravainen aren’t “old” by any stretch of the imagination, and Aho seems to get better every time he’s on the ice. Who says 83 points is his peak? Could 90, or 100 even be in the cards as he enters his age-25 season?

The Hurricanes aren’t some young, up-and-coming team anymore, but they still have a multitude of young players who are presumably not at their peak levels. If two, or three, or more of these players take significant steps forward, even sans-Pacioretty this team has a chance to be even better than last season despite losing Niederreiter and Trocheck. Not to mention when he does eventually return; that’s going to be one hell of a pickup if these youngsters take advantage of the opportunities in his stead, only to add an elite goalscorer to the fray late in the year.

The Countdown to Hurricanes Hockey is On

It’s been hard, but we made it, my friends: there is under a month until the NHL will be back on our televisions, before we’ll be back in the building, or just tailgating in the parking lot with fellow fans, preparing to watch the greatest sport on the planet.

Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was a tough offseason to stomach, with the Hurricanes bowing out in the second round against a team they had more or less dominated in the last couple of years. That matchup with the New York Rangers will be must-see TV for the next few seasons, as the two squads seem destined to duke it out for Metropolitan Division supremacy for the foreseeable future. It will be a long march, as all 82-game schedules are, but this has the makings of another exciting year of Hurricanes hockey – the 25th anniversary of hockey in Carolina – and it is sure to be a memorable one.

Training camp is where championship squads first begin to take inventory, to institute the systems, roles, and situational preparation that lay the groundwork for their upcoming season. The Hurricanes are at the point in their trajectory where that’s what their preparation should be – to win a Stanley Cup. Just like last year, anything else will be a failure. If they can come out of camp with clear answers to these three questions, they’ll feel awfully good about their chances that they can truly be the last ones standing this time around.

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