There is understandable optimism coming out of Raleigh as the Carolina Hurricanes prepare for the 2018-19 NHL season. Justin Williams was named team captain, ending an odd multi-captain situation between Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk. Rod Brind’Amour has transitioned from assistant to head coach, which helps to explain why Williams is now captain and assures that the team will play with the intensity that once got Rod banned from the Michigan State weight room for going too hard. Dougie Hamilton is new in town. Sebastian Aho is another year older, and should improve upon his impressive sophomore season.
Okay, you get it. The Hurricanes had a good offseason, and preseason preparations have been equally inspiring.
First day of @NHLCanes camp in the books. A few observations:
No wasted time.
Drills were executed with a lot of pace
Plenty of hard skating and some teachable moments.
The players were excited to be back on the ice as was head coach Rod Brind’Amour. #Canes
— Mike Maniscalco (@mikemaniscalco) September 13, 2018
The Hurricanes does have one particular issue that they need to solve after this run of rosy news. That issue is what they should do this season with Andrei Svechnikov.
The Russian was drafted second overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, led the Hurricanes with four points at the 2018 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, and has both a big frame and an impressive all-around skill set. But he is not an automatic guarantee to spend the entire season on the roster.
Here are the two options the Hurricanes possess in regards to Svechnikov, followed by a look at what route the organization should be expected to follow.
Path #1: Brief Showcase and a Return to OHL
There is no doubt that Svechnikov will suit up in at least nine regular-season games at the NHL level, but a tenth time suiting up would trigger his three-year entry-level contract. Svechnikov may be physically superior to the competition in the Ontario Hockey League, but it also might make sound financial sense to have him spend an extra year with the Barrie Colts regardless. Let’s take a look back at the Hurricanes results in their first nine matches over the last four seasons to see why.
You can’t win the Stanley Cup in October, but you can certainly play your way out of the playoff picture. The Hurricanes have been experts in doing this, and it is no secret why. The organization is locked out of its home for a minimum of ten days in mid-October every year due to the North Carolina State Fair, and the organization will see a run of four away matches in nine days from Oct. 13 to 22.
Carolina had a combined away record of 58-79-27 over the last four years. You may scream out that was during the Bill Peters era, and Brind’Amour is now in charge! There is genuine reason to be happy with the direction that the organization is heading in under Brind’Amour, but he is not a magic healer. There are multiple other reasons that lead one to think that the Hurricanes will struggle early in the season.
Victor Rask is out indefinitely after tearing tendons while slicing food in his kitchen, and reports are that he could be out for multiple months. That leaves Jordan Staal as the Hurricanes top center, and leaves little to salivate at behind him.
There is the prospect of moving Sebastian Aho from the wing to center, which Brind’Amour initially put the quash on after watching Peters try it out in 2017-18. Others want to throw in Lucas Wallmark or Martin Necas, but genuine Stanley Cup contenders typically have centers that are worth roughly 2.0 WAR. Neither player is going to be a well-above-average player in 2018, and the Canes depth up the middle should hurt them immediately.
There are also still massive doubts about what Scott Darling is going to provide this year, given that he was the worst starting goaltender in the NHL last season. Questions remain as to whether he can overcome the mental and physical barriers that Darling acknowledged held him back last year. To his credit, Darling has vowed to overcome his poor season and put in a lot of work over the summer, but workout warriors are not always stars on the ice. We should know very early whether or not Darling is going to be a liability for the Hurricanes again.
Why, you may ask, would it make any sense to deprive the Hurricanes of yet another talented player by sending Svchnikov to the OHL? Well, the NHL is a business, and the biggest assets in that business are superstar players. Svechnikov will likely not be one in the 2018-19 season, and the Hurricanes are not going to be a competitor for the Stanley Cup.
So it may be most prudent to let him continue to play a full slate of games in the OHL, and to work on the nuances of the game that the win-now nature and lack of practice time in the NHL do not allow. Then, he can come back one year smarter, stronger, and more polished while contributing to a team that is ready to compete for a playoff spot.
Path #2: A Full Season in Raleigh
This is the path that fans would most like to see. Svechnikov is in camp with the big boys, and he just lit up the OHL with 40 goals and 32 assists in 44 games with the Barrie Colts. Both the goals and assists tallies led all rookies in the OHL, and one gets the impression that Svechnikov would learn most from practicing with and playing against grown men every day.
A deeper dive into his statistics proves that Svechnikov really was in a class of his own in the OHL. Among all players who participated in at least 10 OHL games, Svechnikov ranked tenth in the OHL in first-assists per 60 minutes, sixth in shot-percentage and points per game, and led the league in goals per game and primary points per game.
As I noted before, Svechnikov just lit up the 2018 Traverse City Prospect Tournament. As THW’s Stephen Ground wrote, “Svechnikov showed some of the skills that made him the second pick in the draft: size, speed, hockey IQ, and a tremendous shot.”
If Aho does indeed make the switch to center, Svechnikov may very well end up as the Hurricanes top right-winger. Although he may not be there yet, Svechnikov has the potential to be a 40-goal per season contributor. NHL.com projected that he would tally 28 goals and 24 assists before Jeff Skinner was sent out of town, and the youngster has the talent to put up 30 goals this year.
Players who contribute 30 goals per season do not grow on trees. In fact, there were only 32 players who put that many pucks in the net in 2017-18, and none of them played for the Hurricanes. Brind’Amour specialized in the power play unit as an Assistant Coach, and it can be assured that he is going to utilize his newest asset well. If Svechnikov is not overwhelmed physically by the demands of the NHL, he will put up goals, and that is going to make him a hard player to ship out of Raleigh.
Why Not Ship Svechnikov Out to Charlotte?
You may be wondering what would happen if the Hurricanes decide that they want to send Svechnikov to the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League.
After all, there are many benefits of playing in the AHL as opposed to the OHL. Svechnikov would be working under the Hurricanes’ coaches, allowing him to become immersed in the hockey philosophy that Brind’Amour is bringing to Carolina. He would also be under the direct supervision of the Hurricanes’ strength and conditioning team, and playing a full schedule against grown men has proven to be good for the development of many young players.
Unfortunately, there is an agreement between Canadian Hockey League organizations and NHL teams that age 18 and 19 players that do not make the big club will be sent to their CHL clubs rather than to the AHL.
That agreement does not apply to players who were taken in the CHL Import Draft from an organization in Europe. This loophole has allowed European-born players such as the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ William Nylander, and the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen to split time between the AHL and NHL as 18-year-olds.
Unfortunately, again for the Hurricanes, Svechnikov was with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League when he was taken number one in the 2017 CHL Import Draft. Therefore, he will not be allowed to play in the AHL until the age of 20.
The Hurricanes will almost surely allow Svechnikov to play in the nine games that are allowed before they have to make a decision on whether or not to send him to the OHL. If Carolina does not decide after the ten game mark that they want to send Svechnikov back north, they will need to be cognizant of the 40-game mark.
Upon playing in a 40th game, prospects accrue a year of service and are thus one year closer to the seven years that must be accrued before a player can enter unrestricted free agent.
Based on all that we have seen thus far, the benchmarks that I have mentioned will be irrelevant because Svechnikov will be staying in Carolina for the full 82-game schedule. The Hurricanes need to win now in order to get fans back in the stands, give owner Tom Dundon a boost of confidence in the Carolina market, and allow Brind’Amour to fulfill his potential as a head coach. Having Svechnikov in the lineup gives the organization its best chance to accomplish these goals.