The Carolina Hurricanes are reaching the climax of their trajectory. A young, talented team on the rise for half a decade now, it’s just about getting to be “put up or shut up” time. With a massive list of free-agents-to-be coming up the next three offseasons, the team could realistically look a whole lot different in just a few short years. It’s time for this core to prove they can be the ones to bring a championship back to Raleigh, and there’s no better time than the present to make good on all that talent that’s been accumulated over the years.
We know all about the Andrei Svechnikovs, Sebastian Ahos, Jaccob Slavins, and so on. However, there’s an argument to be made that it’s not them, but rather the rest of the roster that will make the biggest difference in whether or not the Hurricanes can break through and win a Stanley Cup. The idea that these players will be more important than those aforementioned core pieces may seem silly on the surface, but you know just about what you’re getting from the ‘Canes stars. Instead, today we’ll focus on players who, if things break right, will go a very long way towards giving the team the firepower to be the last one standing come year’s end.
After a turbulent third season in the league, the questions as to whether or not the former first-round pick’s time in the organization had come to an end were answered with a two-year bridge deal over the summer. Now, it is up to Martin Necas to prove that he is not only an important piece of the Hurricanes’ future but also one that can show up when the lights are brightest in the postseason. It won’t be easy to shake his progressing reputation as a player who cannot consistently produce in key moments, especially when the pressure and physicality are ratcheted up, but anyone who has watched him knows the skill and upside he possesses.
Obviously, the postseason performance is a long way off, and for now, the Hurricanes will be content with seeing the slick playmaker get back to being the dynamic offensive force he was once thought to be on a fast track to becoming. In his first two years in the league, Necas proved he has the speed, hands, and vision to produce at a top-six level, and before last season his trajectory seemed that of a player who would be a key piece of the team’s resurgence into relevancy. The hope is that with a contract in hand (and one quite a few dollars short than many likely expected before his ill-timed down year came to be), a motivated, “prove-it” season will be in the cards for the 23-year-old.
The Hurricanes have a very deep lineup with a lot of potential options for how they’re going to round out their top six. Necas may not even start the year in one of those roles, although the chances are higher with the injury to Max Pacioretty. If he can take advantage of the ice time opened up by the veteran sniper’s absence, it would go a long way towards further lengthening their lineup once the former does return around the All-Star break. For a team whose biggest concern late last season and into the playoffs was putting the puck in the net, a breakout year from Necas could play a huge role in their quest for a second Stanley Cup.
For a player who has played 26 games the last two years – all in 2020-21 – and also one who carries a $4 million cap hit, you’d be forgiven for being surprised veteran defenseman Jake Gardiner even survived the buyout windows that quietly passed this summer for the Hurricanes. Alas, at least for now, the 32-year-old blueliner is still a part of the team and could be a sneaky-important addition to the Hurricanes’ roster this upcoming season.
Things obviously haven’t gone according to plan since he signed his four-year deal late in the offseason of 2019. Gardiner was brought in to play a key offensive role, with his smooth skating and high-end vision pairing quite well on paper with their high-flying offensive weaponry. However, it has turned into yet another cautionary tale about betting on injury-prone players.
While banking on that to suddenly change after missing a year and a half probably isn’t the smartest thing in the world, it doesn’t mean Gardiner doesn’t possess legitimate potential to be a real difference-maker on the Hurricanes’ roster. Odds are that he is going to be given every opportunity to earn a third-pair gig at the outset of the season. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour has always favored left-right balance on the back end, and all three of the perceived top candidates for the bottom pair are right-handed. On the other hand, it is entirely plausible the coach eschews that template, and two of those righties (Jalen Chatfield, Ethan Bear, and Dylan Coghlan) are slotted into the two spots, while Gardiner’s contract is buried in the minors. Still, if he can prove he can return to form, there is a legitimate – and important – role for the taking.
In a perfect world, the now-cleared Gardiner comes into camp, proves he’s fully healthy and can get back to being the 30- to 40-point producer he had been during the four years preceding his Carolina tenure. Not only would that establish the aforementioned left-right balance and give the Hurricanes another puck mover that can initiate the offense and stretch the ice from the back end, but it will also provide an obvious answer to the question of who quarterbacks the second power play unit. The latter point should be a key storyline for the Hurricanes in camp and early in the year, as the team must find a way to be more consistently productive with the man advantage; special teams are as important as ever in today’s NHL.
Brind’Amour has shown an aversion to using Slavin on the power play considering how many minutes he eats in other phases of the game. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei, while valuable secondary offensive contributors, aren’t great in the play-driving role required to run a unit effectively. The same could likely be said for the trio of fellow third pairing candidates, too, although Coghlan’s shooting ability at least makes him an intriguing option there. That basically leaves Brent Burns, and that’s about it as far as a dynamic offensive element from the Hurricanes’ defense corps. So, on a blue line with so much defensive excellence, the perfect, sheltered role for Gardiner as an offensive-minded defenseman could be there for the taking, and it could be an underrated boon to the 2022-23 Hurricanes attack.
One of the surest routes to success in the NHL is having big-time performers on rookie contracts. This is why players like Jarvis will be so valuable; a legitimate threat to score 25-30 goals, all while making less than $1 million in the second year of his entry-level deal. While Jack Drury probably isn’t going to match the second-year forward’s offensive output, it’s not outside the realm of possibility he could have a similarly swift and important impact in his first full year at the sport’s highest level.
As much as hockey is a team sport, it seems like no matter where Drury goes, his team just wins. It’s probably not a coincidence; he is simply a “winning” hockey player. Mature beyond his 22 years, and hailing from a hockey family that has instilled in him what it means to be a professional and get the job done on a nightly basis, he makes plays in all three zones and in all situations that are conducive to success. Be it winning a faceoff, blocking a shot, scoring a big goal, breaking up a play on the backcheck, or simply chipping a puck out of his own end in a big spot, he always seems to make the right play at the right time. So, even if he doesn’t come through with 20 goals or a bunch of counting stats that put him at the forefront of the Calder Trophy race, he seems a good bet to quickly earn the trust of Brind’Amour, and could feasibly see time in any situation very quickly.
Drury’s calling card has long been his mature, two-way style of play, but his offensive development has been abrupt and highly impressive. With the way his trajectory has gone to this point, would it really be that shocking if he burst onto the scene and outperformed even those of us with higher expectations? At this point, we shouldn’t put it past him. The 22-year-old is likely to start the year on the “fourth line”, but with the depth additions the Hurricanes have made this year, there’s a real chance Brind’Amour doesn’t have a typical fourth line that only plays a handful of minutes a night or mostly handles defensive roles. Odds are there is some real talent on this line, be it newcomers Ondrej Kase or Paul Stastny, or even potentially Necas.
After scoring in both of his first two NHL games last December, Drury has set the bar high for himself. I’m pretty confident that 82-goal pace is going to fall off a bit, but for a player who continues to exceed expectations, a 15-goal, 35-point rookie year certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility. If the Hurricanes get that kind of production from a bottom-six rookie, the lineup will only be that much more formidable. And, you know, there’s the whole “champion” thing of it all; Drury won a Swedish Hockey League (SHL) championship in 2020. He was dominant on his way to a Calder Cup in the American Hockey League (AHL) last year as well. Now, to cap it off… well, I’ll let you fill in the blank on what it would take to complete a highly-impressive hockey trifecta this year.
Honorable Mention: Max Pacioretty
This one felt a little cop-outty, hence the honorable mention misnomer. Had the fated torn achilles not happened, there’s no way he would have been usable in a list like this, because he would have been one of the most important players on the team. Instead, he’ll be a pseudo-trade deadline acquisition. Still, he could make an overwhelming impact if he can quickly shake off the rust, and provide the kind of pure goalscoring ability the Hurricanes have not otherwise had in recent memory.
Pacioretty has the potential to rapidly change the complexion of the roster once he’s back in the lineup. The Hurricanes do not otherwise have a finisher of his caliber to flank some of their elite playmakers like Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, and assuming he’s fresh and healthy, will give a massive lift to a team that already figures to be quite good. If young players like Necas, Jarvis, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can take advantage of bigger roles in his absence and solidify themselves as key pieces ahead of his return, the team will only be that much better for it. From that perspective, there could feasibly be some good to come from a disappointing injury.
Even with those qualifiers, it is quite the luxury when a player of Pacioretty’s caliber can fall into the category of “X-factor”, but a team as deep and talented as the Hurricanes is one of the few built to withstand such a tough loss. With so many young pieces vying for key roles, it is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing years in the history of the franchise – especially with so many expiring contracts looming over the next few years and a real need to make good on this talent before some likely tough decisions may need to be made.
Hockey season is finally almost here, and I’m sure the Hurricanes are champing at the bit to get things going after the sour ending of their playoff run is still surely fresh on their minds. This will be yet another fun, high-flying team with a lot of expectations around them, and hopefully, the experience now to step up to that challenge. There will be many questions to answer and roles to be won as camp opens this month. Regardless, with all the talent on the roster and Brind’Amour at the helm to put them in place, if the team can find their stride before adding an elite sniper (along with whatever else they may do at the trade deadline), this very well could be the year the Hurricanes finally break through and get to the Final. From there, anything can happen.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!