Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each conference, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue the series with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Puck Drop Preview: 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes
The 2014-2015 Carolina Hurricanes were a team doomed from the very outset of the season. Ravaged by injuries throughout the first month, the ‘Canes managed to go the entire month of October without earning a single victory.
Chief among the team’s injury concerns was the broken leg sustained by Jordan Staal, but among the others who missed time were Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Andrej Sekera. In terms of possession, Carolina was slightly better than league average, but when Jordan Staal came back in late December, things changed a bit. The team saw much more success in terms of win-loss record from Staal’s return date on through the trade deadline when key pieces like Sekera and Jiri Tlusty were moved, but the improved possession that came with Staal’s return never wavered.
Carolina finished the season with a corsi for percentage at even strength of 52.5%, good for 9th in the league. If the Hurricanes can find a way to replicate that from last season to this one, there is some reason for optimism in Raleigh heading into the new campaign.
The team finished with a rather poor record of 30-41-11 overall, claiming 71 points, but there’s no denying that there were quite a few bright spots for the team in the form of Victor Rask, Chris Terry, Justin Faulk, and Elias Lindholm.
To this point, it has been a rather quiet offseason in Raleigh. No acquisitions were made through the process of unrestricted free agency, but that’s not to say that the team won’t have a few new faces in the lineup when the season rolls around.
Goaltender Eddie Lack was acquired in a deal with the Vancouver Canucks during the draft. On that same day, the team sent goaltender Anton Khudobin to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for defenseman James Wisniewski.
Khudobin struggled mightily last season after a strong year with the Hurricanes in 2013-2014. Based upon last season, the move to get Lack represents a huge upgrade. Wisniewski should serve to greatly improve the back end as well. He’ll slot in nicely on the right side of Carolina’s second pairing, as budding superstar Faulk holds down the same position on the top pairing.
Perhaps the most high-profile addition that the Hurricanes made this offseason was that of fifth overall pick Noah Hanifin. Hanifin had long been a slam dunk as the top defensive prospect available in this season’s draft, so when he was available at Carolina’s slot, the team practically sprinted to the podium to ensure he’d be theirs. While he projects wonderfully as a long-term partner for Faulk, that’s not likely where he’ll be this year. Look for him to slot in alongside Wisniewski in an effort to have the veteran mentor the rookie in what could actually be a very solid second pairing.
On the opposite side of things, Carolina made the tough decision to buy out the remainder of Alex Semin’s long-term contract with the club. He had three years remaining at $7 million per year, so now the Hurricanes will be paying Semin a little more than $2 million over the next six seasons to play elsewhere.
With Semin being such a strong candidate to have a bounce back campaign next year, I’m still unconvinced of the reasoning behind this move. Had they held on to him, and even if they still wanted to buy him out after next season, doing so would mean that they’d only have to pay him four years of not playing for the team as opposed to six. For a budget team, as Carolina may still be when they get better, that’s not a productive use of over $2 million that could be spent to improve the team elsewhere.
2015-2016 Opening Night Lineup
Eric Staal – Jordan Staal – Andrej Nestrasil
Jeff Skinner – Victor Rask – Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe – Riley Nash – Chris Terry
Brock McGinn – Jay McClement – Brad Malone
John Michael Liles – Justin Faulk
Noah Hanifin – James Wisniewski
Ron Hainsey – Ryan Murphy
Player to Watch
Carolina’s 2nd round pick from 2010 has exceeded all expectations that came along with his draft slot. Faulk was named to the US Olympic team in 2014, and hasn’t looked back since. His 49 points last season were second on the team only to captain Eric Staal. Faulk is also outstanding with regards to driving play, and he only continues to improve in his own end. I’m expecting Faulk to move further into the territory of being a perennial name in the Norris Trophy discussion sometime very soon.
On the Rise
After being selected 5th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Lindholm’s development path has likely exactly matched what his team was hoping for and expecting out of him. During his rookie season in 2013-2014, he was good for 21 points in 58 games. He took the next step to being a solid top-six forward this past season, compiling 39 points in 81 games. Look for the Swede to take another large incremental step this season. I expect him to check in somewhere in between the range of 45 and 55 points.
On the Decline
It’s been an extremely rough go for the former Conn Smythe winner in recent years. After four straight seasons in which Ward posted save percentages above the .915 mark from 2008-2012, Ward hasn’t even been able to top the .910 mark in three seasons since. Last season, he was able to keep his starting job due to Khudobin’s inability to properly challenge him with strong play. This season, Lack will be right there to ensure that Ward’s starting job is never safe. Ward will enter training camp as the starter, but I don’t expect that to necessarily hold true throughout the entire year.
On the surface, it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot for Hurricanes fans to be hopeful about heading into the season. It was the team’s third consecutive year finishing in the bottom seven of the league, after all. But Carolina’s underlying numbers suggest that there’s a whole lot of room for improvement in the team’s expected outcomes.
Carolina ranked 15th on the powerplay last season, 4th on the penalty kill, 10th in even strength shot generation, and 5th in even strength shot suppression. You’ll note that that’s above league average in all four categories. There were only three other teams in the league who pulled off that feat last season, and they were Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. That’s not bad all-around company for Carolina to find themselves in.
So Carolina may just be a sizable uptick in save percentage and shooting percentage away from being a very real playoff team, but I’m not sure that that’s coming this year. If Lack runs with the starting job, that could be enough to push Carolina’s goaltending into playoff caliber, but this group of forwards is still going to have gobs of trouble in the goalscoring department. That was a clear need heading into the offseason, and the only thing done to tinker with the forward group was the aforementioned buyout of Semin. I’m not buying that as being enough to make this forward group a playoff worthy one in any way, shape or form. The year is soon coming when the 2002 and 2006 Eastern Conference champions will one day have a chance to reclaim that title, but for my money, it won’t be this year.