Across the Metropolitan Division this off-season, the overwhelming theme among top teams was consistency and complacency in roster moves. The division sent five clubs to the 2018 NHL playoffs (Capitals, Penguins, Flyers, Blue Jackets, Devils) and aside from Philadelphia signing winger James van Riemsdyk, all the top teams had a steady summer of treading water without any major upgrades or additions.
And then you get to a team desperate to make it back to the playoff stage in Carolina Hurricanes, who very much went out of their way to shake up as much of their roster as possible in one off-season.
A summer of major change
Gone from Raleigh is the GM (Ron Francis) and head coach (Bill Peters). The franchise’s top all-time goalie in Cam Ward is finally out after 12 years. Defensively Noah Hanifin was shipped out to Calgary, along with forward Elias Lindholm in the league’s biggest summer blockbuster trade. Other forward moves led to the exits of Jeff Skinner, Derek Ryan and Marcus Kruger.
With those debits, there have also been significant credits. Dougie Hamilton, he of 17 goals last season and a gifted, young right-handed shot on defense is on the scene. Winger Micheal Ferland also came over in the big trade with the Flames. Defenseman Calvin de Haan was signed in free agency, as was goalie Petr Mrazek. Carolina had the second overall pick in the 2018 entry draft and they nabbed explosive offensive winger Andrei Svechnikov to add high-end skill.
These all add up to the seismic, team-altering changes that new owner Tom Dundon has sought as he tries to jolt a stagnant franchise back into relevancy. In a way, one has to feel a bit bad for Carolina - a budget team who isn’t very flashy in the hockey world. The “Metropolitan” division is aptly named with behemoth markets in New York City, Philly, Pittsburgh and Washington as franchises that have the means and motivation to routinely spend right up to the top of the salary cap. It’s tough to compete as the “little guy” in a division with such heavy hitters.
If nothing else, Carolina has taken a new perspective and shown willingness to re-approach how they want to try and compete with the big boys of the division. Whether their moves fail or succeed, one at least has to tip their cap for a willingness to make so many major changes in such a short time to try something new.
But the same question remains....goalie play
The usual narrative on Carolina has been waiting on the young upstarts with a great process in terms of shot possession to take the next step and translate it into winning games. By most advanced metrics in almost all of the last few seasons Carolina has been a top 5-10 team in the league, yet they’ve been crippled by a very important Achilles’ heel: bad goaltending.
The problem has been easy to identify, but seemingly impossible to solve. Ward didn’t post a save percentage above .910% in the last 6 years, dating back to 2011-12. 2017 free agent signing Scott Darling (boasting a .923 save% in 2016-17 with Chicago) was paid like a starter with a four year deal worth $4.15 million per season to be the answer in net for the Hurricanes. Unfortunately, he was the worst goalie in the league with a .888% in 43 games in 2017-18, sinking Carolina’s chances to go anywhere due to totally substandard goalie play yet again.
Darling will be back for another year, because he basically had to be. With the contract he has remaining, there’s no other choice but to give him a chance to rebound. But Darling’s expectations are still a mystery. He’s never had a starter’s share of the workload (the 29-year old’s previous career high in games was 32 prior to last season), so he really has nothing in his past to indicate that he will be successful or take them where they want to go, yet here they are for one more go round.
With Ward finally gone, Darling’s battery mate will be the 26-year old Mrazek, signed for just one year and a $1.5 million salary. Mrazek himself is coming off a very disappointing 2017-18 season with a .902 save% in 39 games split between Detroit and Philadelphia. The Canes are no doubt hoping Mrazek can get back to the level he showed from 2014-16 with the Red Wings where he went a combined 43-25-8 with a .920 save% in 75 total starts in those two seasons.
At their combined best, both Darling and Mrazek in a tandem would push the Canes to new heights. At their worst, it will be another very frustrating year in North Carolina. If they can split the difference and just be average, that may be good enough to contend for a playoff spot....But after all this time of bad goaltending and a couple of goalies with major question marks that will have to be proven to be believed.
The sky is the limit
Outside of that major (and majorly important) question mark in net, there’s a lot to be excited about in Carolina. Svechnikov is expected to make the NHL as an 18-year old, and while he may not be a transcendent star immediately he has a very bright future. 2017 first round pick Martin Necas is also in the picture. A pair of young Finns in 24-year old Teuvo Teravainen and 21-year old Sebastian Aho are already big stars and both coming off 64 and 65 point seasons last year, respectively. 23-year old winger Valentin Zykov (3 goals, 4 assists in 10 NHL games last year, 33g+21a in 63 games in the AHL) might quietly be the best young player no one is really talking about.
Add those five exciting youngsters (and Ferland) to the veteran experience of past Cup winners in newly-named captain Justin Williams and Jordan Staal and that’s the making of a very balanced and exciting top-9 group of forwards.
Defensively, Carolina’s as deep and balanced as they come with Hamilton and de Haan joining Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin and Haydn Fleury in a group of blueliners that should be able to match with anyone from top to bottom.
In many ways there are signs of another trainwreck coming- they have a first time head coach in Rod Brind’Amour who has no head coaching experience at any level. That has traditionally ended in disaster in the NHL. Their goaltending could fold again and prove woefully unreliable. Their young, rising stars at forward might not all start shining right away. If that comes to pass, it’s going to be another long year.
However, there’s a lot of promise on the horizon too. Carolina has skill up front and plenty of defensive depth. There’s a lot of fresh blood and they should be a young team hungry for success in a division where most the “top dogs” didn’t make many external moves to improve. And if they just find a way to get league-average goaltending, they could finally make a major, tangible step forward.
Perhaps no team in the division has as much variability for best case scenario to worst case scenario as the Hurricanes. They’re definitely worth paying attention to this year, because win or lose they won’t be a boring team.