The Carolina Hurricanes have blossomed into one of the best teams in the NHL over the last two seasons, making back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons. Despite this success, the Hurricanes haven’t returned to the Stanley Cup Final, falling short to the Boston Bruins in the playoffs both of the last two seasons. Entering the season the Hurricanes are looking to jump from playoff contender to Stanley Cup Final contender.
While the Hurricanes will enter 2020-21 as an expected playoff team, they have questions surrounding the team’s ability to make the leap to Stanley Cup contender. With training camp quickly approaching, here are three of the biggest questions surrounding the Hurricanes entering the 2020-21 season.
The biggest question many have for the Hurricanes entering the season is at the goaltending position. Last season, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek split the majority of the games in net, but neither were able to separate themselves as the superior option. Mrazek and Reimer are both serviceable options, but their shortcomings were quickly exposed in the Hurricanes playoff series against the Bruins, where an elite goaltender could have given Carolina a better chance.
Some were surprised when the Canes decided to stand pat with the same goaltending duo for the 2020-21 season, opting to pass on a strong free agency class of goaltenders that featured names like Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford. With Reimer entering the season at 31 years old and Mrazek at 28, and both having logged over 250 NHL games, there isn’t an expectation that either will improve to an elite level goaltender.
With the Canes not making a move, the assumption is either that they believe their defense is good enough that they don’t need an elite goaltender or that they will acquire one in the near future. There is some truth to the idea that Carolina’s defense is good enough to cover for a weakness in the net. They allowed the second-fewest shots against per game last season, allowing 29.32 per game, trailing only the Flyers mark of 28.65.
The Canes also had the fourth-best penalty kill in the NHL, killing 83.95% of penalties. Against the NHL’s best teams though, the Canes defense struggled, and the lack of an elite goaltender began to be a problem. In the playoffs, the Canes allowed 32.75 shots per game, good for the seventh-highest mark in the bubble. That number jumped even higher when they went up against the Bruins, allowing 34.8 shots per game and killing only 73.7% of the Bruins power plays.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Canes might be gearing up to make a change in net as well. Both Reimer and Mrazek only have one year remaining on their deals before they become unrestricted free agents, and it wouldn’t come as a shock if they decided not to bring back either of them.
There’s a chance the Canes could give Alex Nedeljkovic a chance to prove himself. The 24-year-old American has shown flashes of potential with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL, his four-game stint in the NHL last season didn’t inspire much confidence. Nedeljkovic went 1-2 with a .887 save percentage (SV%) with a 3.05 goals-against average.
If Carolina decides to look outside the organization for a goaltender, then they could potentially look to the 2021 free agency market. If they aren’t signed to extensions, both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington are set to be unrestricted free agents and either would be a massive improvement on either Reimer or Mrazek. The Canes could also hit the trade market and make a move for someone like the Vegas Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been rumored to be on the trade market all offseason.
Offensive Production From Outside the Top Line
Carolina’s top line of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen was dominant last season, combining for 77 goals and 113 assists throughout the season. Outside of that top line, Carolina struggled to get offensive production at times. Every other forward not on Carolina’s first line last year combined to score just 100 goals, with the group’s highest goal scorer being rookie center Martin Necas with 16.
The Canes were quiet this offseason for the most part and will enter 2021 with mostly the same roster as last year. They lost Justin Williams to retirement but didn’t lose any other forwards that contributed significant minutes. They will look to replace Williams with their only major free agent signing Jesper Fast. The 28-year-old Swedish right winger signed a three-year deal with the Canes this offseason and will be a nice, consistent, depth piece in 2021.
In seven years with the Rangers, Fast put up 147 total points and has had at least 20 points for five consecutive seasons. The signing of Fast will be an excellent addition to the bottom six forwards, but his presence won’t push the Canes depth forwards over the top.
So with minimal changes to the offense, the Hurricanes will have to look for improvement from within, and the first place to look for improved production in 2020-21 would be rookie center Necas. He scored 16 goals and 20 assists in 64 games, and if he can avoid a sophomore slump, the Canes should be looking for more from Necas in 2021.
Outside of the rookie, the Canes will need bounce-back seasons from veteran forwards Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Dzingel. The 28-year-old winger Niederreiter had 53 points in 2018-19 and had 57 points in 2016-17, but in 67 games this past season, he had 29 points and 42 penalty minutes, his most since the 2016-17 season where he played a full 82 games.
Dzingel is another player coming off a solid 2018-19 season, scoring 56 points, that struggled last season. He had the lowest point total in a season since 2016-17 with 29 points, and also produced just eight goals, which is the lowest mark of his career since his 30-game rookie season. The Canes will need better seasons from the pair of them in 2021 if they want to be a true cup contender.
Can Aho and Svechnikov Continue to Improve?
Carolina has two of the best young forwards in the NHL in the 23-year-old Fin Aho and 20-year-old Russian Svechnikov. The duo combined for 62 goals and 65 assists last season making them one of the most dangerous duos in the NHL. The Canes will need both Aho and Svechnikov to continue their success and improve for the Canes to be a threat for the Stanley Cup.
There’s no doubt that the Aho can score. Since his rookie season in 2016, Aho has improved his goal total every year, but he broke out as one of the NHL’s best goal scorers last season, netting 38 goals in 68 regular-season games. His 38 goals is a high benchmark, but he has the capability to top that number in 2020-21 and even surpass it.
He could stand to improve in his playmaking ability, snagging just 28 assists last season, but he had 58 assists in 2018-19, so he is more than capable of creating for others. If Aho can put together his skills as a scorer and a playmaker in 2020-21, Carolina will again have one of the most dangerous first lines in all of hockey.
Svechnikov has been a sensation for the Canes the last two years, lighting up the league with his highlight goals. Over two seasons, he has racked up 44 goals and 54 assists, scoring 24 of those goals last season in just 68 games. It’s been an electric two seasons for Svechnikov, but if he can improve his scoring total to become a 30 or even 40 goal scorer, that could put Carolina into the Stanley Cup discussion.
Suppose Svechnikov can take the next step to become one of the NHL’s elite goal scorers, and Aho can continue his year over year improvement as one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers. In that case, Carolina could have the best young duo for not just next season, but for many seasons to come. Such a dynamic combination of forwards is hard to come by, and Carolina’s chances to raise the Stanley Cup again lay heavily on the duo of Svechnikov and Aho.
With one of the most exciting young cores in the NHL, Hurricanes fans have reason to be excited about the 2020-21 season. But if the Canes can address their situation in net, their forward depth and potentially see improvement from their elite young talent, the Hurricanes could find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final.
Zach Dupont is a freelance journalist currently covering the Hurricanes for The Hockey Writers. Zach has previously had his work published with outlets such as The Boston Globe, Boston.com, Ameritime Sports and The Basketball Tournament.