Hurricanes With the Most to Prove in 2021-22

In an off-season of turnover and uncertainty — even more so than what’s become the norm during this pandemic era — the Carolina Hurricanes look to puck-drop in October with cautious optimism. The team lost Dougie Hamilton, they lost their beloved starting goalie of the past three seasons in Petr Mrazek, as well as their Calder finalist goaltender in Alex Nedeljkovic, who had stepped in and soared when Mrazek went down, and even key, heart-and-soul type members of the bottom six in Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele. The team still has a chance to be quite good, but it’s definitely going to have a very different look and feel.

In many cases, the Hurricanes are banking on increased opportunity leading to success, and that’s an understandable gamble with such a young, talented team rife with upside throughout. However, you never really know how a certain player will react to that sort of pressure; not all players, even pros, are always built to be “the guy.” Nonetheless, the Hurricanes will ask many new players to be, and it will be fascinating to see how their seasons play out.

So, with the Hurricanes turning the page and re-vamping their group a bit, let’s take a look at four players who have a lot on the line during this upcoming season and why.

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One quick disclaimer: If Jesperi Kotkaniemi were to end up in Carolina, I think it would pretty easily qualify him for the list. Obviously we do not yet know how that situation will play out, but offering a $6.1 million contract to a forward with a career-high of 34 points clearly suggests your expectations are much higher than what he’s produced thus far — a completely fair assumption for a 21-year-old former third overall pick. I’m sure plenty will be written about that if/when the time comes, but I still found it worth mentioning.

Andrei Svechnikov

It’s unlikely that anyone puts more pressure on the rising Russian star than he does on himself. The kid wants to be great, works extremely hard behind the scenes, and you can clearly see his passion and competitiveness whenever he’s on the ice (i.e., fighting Alexander Ovechkin, of all people, in the playoffs as a 19-year-old). It’s also likely a big reason his struggles were so profound last season; it’s easy to forget he started off the year playing at an incredible level, but between disagreements with officials not calling things on the opponents that they regularly called on him, then fighting the puck and not being able to buy a goal, things just snowballed on Svechnikov in a hurry. By season’s end, it felt like a year to forget.

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

But, if he had any doubts about the Hurricanes’ faith in him borne out of those struggles in a contract year, they ought to be erased now. He officially signed on with a max, eight-year extension, worth $62 million — the largest contract (in terms of total money) ever handed out by the franchise. Svechnikov differs from the other players below because his future isn’t really up for debate with the organization, but the season is still important for the 21-year-old.

It is now on Svechnikov to prove he’s worth the eight-year deal the team has invested in him. Everyone in the front office has said time and again that they believe in him, that they want him to be a lifelong Hurricane, because they know he legitimately has the upside to be a top-ten, maybe even top-five player in the league. However, players have gotten paid at young ages — Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner come to mind — before plateauing and not really making good on the deal. I don’t really categorize those two players with the supremely talented Svechnikov, but his play last season probably wasn’t worth the $7.75 million he’s getting paid this season, either.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Svechnikov still struggles a bit in 2021-22. He’s still very young, after all, and this league is simply hard. If things begin to go down that path again, he could begin to let some doubts creep in, and smaller things than self-confidence have broken many a career before.

I’m optimistic things won’t go that way and that Svechnikov will correct his trajectory in short order. His work ethic and immense talent level make it feel like a pretty sure thing. However, this is the NHL — sure things are few and far between. He should be aiming to come out with a big bounce-back season, validating his superstar upside and proving that this contract is not only worth it — it’s going to look like a massive steal in a couple of years.

Brady Skjei

Despite what I would consider a very solid season, Skjei still has a lot of naysayers amongst Hurricanes fans. It’s probably a bit unfair, but after all, he did cost the team a first-round pick. Furthermore, as a big fan of Braden Schneider (selected with the aforementioned pick, he’s going to be really tough to play against), I have a feeling those fans will have a decent amount of ammo down the road when they want to throw stones.

Even if you believe in Skjei after last season, he does have to take another step forward if he wants to prove himself a piece of the Hurricanes’ future. One way the 6-foot-3 defenseman should look to improve this season is in the offensive zone. No, he isn’t an offensive defenseman, and the 39 points he produced as a rookie in 2016-17 seem unlikely to be threatened as his career-high. But he does have the skating ability and hockey sense to get more involved. As far as defensemen scoring goes, oftentimes, it’s as much about puck luck as anything, outside of the truly elite ones who you can expect to consistently pop 15-20 goals each season.

Brady Skjei Carolina Hurricanes
Brady Skjei, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If Skjei could work on producing more legitimate offense when he jumps into the play (far too often, his rushes last season led to nothing but a turnover or dump-in) and bump his scoring totals up to around eight goals and 25 points, it would go a long way towards helping fill the gap left behind by Hamilton. That shouldn’t be asking too much, as he scored eight goals each of his last two seasons in New York. That, alongside continued solid play in his own end, would likely keep the Hurricanes happy and his place in the top-four secure. He’s proven a solid partner for Pesce, fits the system pretty well with his skating, and he occasionally plays the body — not a ton, but more than most of the Carolina defense corps. These qualities give him real upside to be a key piece of the Hurricanes blue line in the present AND future.

However, if he can’t continue to progress his game, and with the Hurricanes crunched for cap space, don’t be surprised if the team looks to find an option that can provide the same production for a lot less than his $5.25 million cap hit.

Steven Lorentz

This one hurts because I’ve always been a believer in Lorentz’s game. He plays hard, he does so many little things that go unnoticed, and he always has a smile on his face. It’s tough not to root for a kid like that. However, when you read between the lines a little bit, it’s questionable whether or not he will have a role in Carolina for much longer and if his upside is worth continuing to roster him over younger options that are on the way.

In his last season in the American Hockey League, Lorentz really broke out and became an absolute two-way force. He scored 23 goals for the then-affiliated Charlotte Checkers, second-most on the team behind Julien Gauthier, and finished second in points with 46 in just 61 games. And he looked good doing it, too, showing much more offensively than he had previously. He began to use his speed, 6-foot-4 frame, and long reach to create havoc in front of the opposing net, very much in the same ways that had made him a defensive stud before that.

Lorentz has a little bit of sneaky skill, and I expected him to be a solid offensive contributor because of that; not anything crazy, but a handful of points in a depth role to supplement the top guys. However, he really struggled to find the twine last season, scoring just twice despite myriad opportunities, to go along with eight assists. Like many Hurricanes’ depth forwards before him, he consistently did everything right except score.

Then, the Hurricanes turned around and signed Derek Stepan, likely to take on the fourth line center role the team penciled in for Lorentz. He’s played on the wing before, so his roster spot is unlikely to be in jeopardy as things stand, but between not giving him that role to see how he can do, and the stacked center pipeline coming up with names like Jack Drury, Ryan Suzuki, and Jamieson Rees soon to be pushing for time, it’s fair to wonder how Lorentz is going to factor in down the line.

I believe Lorentz is a useful NHL player. I think he can even be more than a fourth line, defensive guy too — perhaps a third liner that can contribute 10-15 goals and 30 points while killing penalties and continuing to do those little things I mentioned above, being frustrating to play against with his speed and reach, turning over pucks in the defensive zone, and finishing shifts in the offensive zone after starting them in his own end. However, if he can’t begin to show at least a little bit more offensively, it’s plausible that the Hurricanes look to younger, higher-upside options next season.

Tony DeAngelo

Well, you couldn’t really write this post without this one, could you?

Look, we all know the situation with DeAngelo. I’m not going to beat that horse any longer, nor am I going to give an opinion on the Hurricanes signing of him (beyond what I already have on social media and whatnot). It doesn’t matter if you, me, your friends, or a different general manager would have done things differently because this is how they decided to move forward. You can either choose to move on and stop supporting the team, or you can trust they have a plan and see how it plays out. I think most people will understand if you make either choice.

While it’s debatable if he deserved this opportunity, what’s not really debatable is that this is a monstrous opportunity for the defenseman. Many people, myself included, didn’t expect to see DeAngelo this soon. It was naive to think a player with his ability would never get another chance — I’ve followed professional sports for too long to expect that — to prove that he could be an asset in the room and on the ice again. Alas, here we are, and the Hurricanes are the ones who provided the opportunity less than a year after his falling out in New York.

Tony DeAngelo New York Rangers
Tony DeAngelo, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The big concern is obviously that he will have learned nothing from what turned out to be very, very minor consequences. If similar issues begin to creep back up, it’s going to be an absolute PR nightmare. The Hurricanes will have to hope that the culture built here by head coach Rod Brind’Amour, Justin Williams, and others will prevail. That beneath Jordan Staal, Jordan Martinook, and the other leaders of the team, DeAngelo can immerse himself, not cause any issues in the locker room, and contribute the way he is capable of.

It’s a risk, undoubtedly, but this could turn out to be a steal for the Hurricanes if he does those things. Young defensemen with 50-point seasons on their resume don’t come available often, and certainly not for just $1 million. It’s on DeAngelo to prove not just that he is ready to grow up but that the Hurricanes were right to take that gamble, too.

Final Thoughts

This is shaping up to be one of the more fascinating seasons in Carolina Hurricanes history, and these are just four of the myriad storylines worth following. There’s also an entirely new goalie tandem, replacing two fan favorites, including a Calder candidate, Teuvo Teravainen trying to bounce back from an injury-riddled season, Martin Necas trying to find consistency and truly enter the realm of NHL stardom over a full season, the list goes on.

But, for these players, the next year (or at least a couple of years in Svechnikov’s case) could make or break their futures, at least with the Carolina organization. Part of what makes sports so enjoyable is seeing the battles players must take part in and overcome to achieve success. It makes it relatable to the common fan in some way, and it shows that they are similar to us and the adversity we deal with in our everyday lives. We obviously don’t have the same stage or the same paycheck, but it makes them feel just a little more familiar.

With the return to the stacked Metropolitan Division and a large chunk of the core from last year’s Discover Central Division champions back, the Hurricanes will attempt to take the next step towards Stanley Cup contention. For these four players, making good on their ability and proving themselves during the 2021-22 season will go a long way towards helping the team achieve that goal.