Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes.
2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes
Long-removed from their spectacular Stanley Cup run back in 2006, the Hurricanes have diligently worked towards building and bringing back that winning culture to the city of Raleigh. Queue the 2020-2021 season, where the Hurricanes outperformed the predictions of many pundits and put together, statistically, one of their best seasons in team history. Carolina boasted one of the deepest rosters in the league. That translated into finishing the season with a division title, an achievement they hadn’t reached since that Cup-winning season. Statistically, the ‘Canes paced the way for the league, finishing top five or better in all major categories. Unfortunately, all that statistical success did not lead to the most important of all team successes: winning the Stanley Cup.
The Hurricanes’ demise came at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs. Had they been able to navigate a more favourable route through the playoffs, the Hurricanes had every chance to make a deep run towards the Cup Final. So although they didn’t achieve their ultimate goal of hoisting Lord Stanley, the Carolina fan base can be assured their team is built for long-term success and has a good chance to lift sports’ greatest trophy soon. Just as long as their general manager decides to only tweak their roster and not, you know, completely blow it up by doing something like getting rid of all their goalies and half their defence…
So if you’ve been scratching your head at the off-season moves of general manager Don Waddell, perhaps wondering if he bonked his head while leaving PNC Arena after his team’s second-round playoff exit, you aren’t alone. At the start of last season, the Hurricanes knew they had some big decisions to make. Star defenceman Dougie Hamilton had an expiring contract, all three of their goalies were becoming UFA’s or an RFA, and the Seattle Kraken were waiting in the midst to snatch up one of the Hurricane’s unprotected prospects.
It was a lot to take on but decisions seemed to be made easier with the emergence of rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. Petr Mrazek was having a career year, but after injuries sidelined him, Nedeljkovic was given the crease and he ran with it. ‘Ned’ started 23 games in the shortened 2020-21 season and amassed 15 wins plus an incredible 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. These numbers were good enough for a Calder nomination and must have provided a sigh of relief for Waddell as he looked toward the future of the Carolina net.
In a move that caught most pundits by surprise, on July 22, Nedeljkovic was traded to Detroit. What followed was a mass exodus that saw all their goalies and half their blue line move on from the City of Oaks. Mrazek signed a three-year deal in Toronto, James Reimer signed for two in San Jose, prospect Jake Bean was surprisingly dealt to Columbus, defenceman Jani Hakanpaa took his talents to Dallas and Dougie Hamilton signed his big ticket in New Jersey on a seven-year deal worth a staggering $63 million.
To make matters worse, it is believed that the Hurricanes have lost veteran defenceman Jake Gardiner for the season due to injury. It’s not uncommon for a team to see a big changeup in their roster during the offseason. What isn’t common is for a team to do this when it looks poised to finally make that run for the Stanley Cup.
Waddell did some patchwork on his goalie problem by signing veteran goalie Frederik Anderson and journeyman backup Antti Raanta, both to two-year deals. A trade with Edmonton to acquire defenceman Ethan Bear was followed up by rolling the dice on signing troubled d-man Tony DeAngelo. Nothing against these players, but this is an obvious step backward. A team with incredible depth on their backend is now average at best. In a move of desperation, Waddell sent the Montreal Canadiens an offer sheet of $6.1 million over one year for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
The deal wasn’t matched and Waddell is once again gambling on an unproven Kotkaniemi that cost him a first-round draft pick and valuable cap space. Now, not everything has been a blunder. Waddell was able to salvage this offseason by locking up one of his stars, Andrei Svechnikov, to an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit of $7.75 million. This is a fantastic signing that now solidifies their lethal top line of Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov for at least the next three seasons.
Carolina’s forward group remains relatively the same as last year’s team. That will bode well for coach Rod Brind’Amour. He’ll rely on the chemistry of his veteran forwards to provide plenty of scoring relief to help bail out a porous defence.
If Carolina wants to remain from falling behind in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division, they will need to lean on their top two lines night in and night out. Don Waddell managed to keep his top six together. Brind’Amour will surely start the season with what’s tried and true and roll out the same first two lines as he used last year. What will be worth keeping an eye on is to see if newcomer Jesperi Kotkaniemi finds himself pushing for a spot on that left side on the second line.
There were a few key bottom-six guys who have moved on from the Hurricanes during the offseason, most notably left-wingers Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn. They were replaced with the aforementioned Jesperi Kotkaniemi, veteran center Derek Stepan, and winger Josh Leivo. These additions make for a very interesting bottom six that give Brind’Amour a whole new look. Bottom-six guys typically bring a more gritty, straight-up-and-down game to your lineup. Here, there’s actually a lot of offensive skill at hand with this group.
The third line of Kotkaniemi, Staal, and Fast has the speed and offensive upside to operate as a second line. They’ll provide much-needed scoring depth and line-matching nightmares for opposing coaches. With the downgrade on the back end, Carolina will be looking to have an approach of rolling three scoring lines. The addition of Derek Stepan and placing him on the fourth line gives Carolina arguably one of the deepest rosters at center in the NHL. A reliable veteran with a finishing touch around the net, the Hurricanes will flank him with Leivo and Martinook. He should be able to pick up some extra scoring and strong defensive play out of this line.
Jacob Slavin – Brett Pesce
Brady Skjei – Tony DeAngelo
Ian Cole – Ethan Bear
The loss of Dougie Hamilton on the right side of the Hurricanes defence is glaring. Fans are split on the effectiveness of his game and whether he’s worth a big-money contract. Whichever way you want to cut it, 82 points over the last 102 games played with the club is a massive loss. Brett Pesce will get the promotion up to the top pairing alongside Jacob Slavin. Yet, he’s not a perfect replacement for Hamilton.
The signing of Tony Deangelo brings about some scrutiny and perhaps some unwanted media attention. Needing a right-handed shot on the second pairing, Waddell figured a one-year, $1 million signing for the Ranger stalwart was worth the gamble for the former 53 point defenceman.
The bottom pairing will be anchored by newcomers Ian Cole and Ethan Bear. Cole is among the league’s top shot blockers, placing in the top 10 in that department over the last three seasons. Cole will continue to frustrate opponents by consistently getting in their shooting lanes. Ethan Bear gets himself a fresh start after an unfortunate and unfair end to his final season in Edmonton. He spent the last three years developing with the Oilers. Bear received a mix of bottom pair and top four minutes with the club.
Bear plays with great maturity for a player his age and has excellent poise with the puck in his own end. He also has good offensive awareness and can jump into the play and be an offensive threat. He has a high ceiling. He’ll most undoubtedly be given every opportunity by Brind’Amour to showcase his talents for the club.
Carolina boasted one of the best goalie tandems in the NHL last season. Goaltending is so important and having a solid 1A-1B tandem is hard to find. So it was a wonder why Waddell didn’t bring back both goaltenders, or even at least one of them. Frederik Andersen comes in as the new starting goalie for the Hurricanes. A proven veteran, Freddy will bring experience as a starter for the Carolina crease. Often the scapegoat in Toronto, Andersen gets a fresh start. He’ll hopefully get that monkey off his back. He could get this Canes team through the first round of the playoffs and more. Antti Raanta will slot in behind Anderson and be expected to get a fairly even split, something around a 52/30.
Players to Watch
The obvious answer here is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Kotkaniemi becomes the first player in 15 years to sign with another team via offer sheet. The last one being Dustin Penner in 2007 when the Anaheim Ducks didn’t match the five-year, $21.5 million offer made by Edmonton. All eyes will be on the young Finnish forward as he looks to finally reach his potential with the Hurricanes.
The third-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft has struggled to find his offensive game with the Canadiens. It’s believed a change of scenery and an offensively-focused Carolina team will be the perfect cocktail to get him buzzing around the ice and bump up those offensive numbers. He will definitely be under the microscope. But the added pressure shouldn’t be an issue for the young 21-year-old. He’s coming off a very respectable five-goal, three-assist, playoff campaign.
From one end of the bench to the other, the eyes will shift towards the new starting goalie, Frederik Andersen. Andersen finds himself in a crease that fans thought would be protected by Nedeljkovic for the foreseeable future. Canes fans have shown their frustration in discussion boards around the internet for their general manager letting the young netminder go. They’ll likely be overanalyzing every start by the new netminder. Andersen is no stranger to pressure though, having played in what is regarded as the most media-crazed hockey market, Toronto.
Predictions for the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes
The 2021-22 season will see the Hurricanes move back into the stacked Metropolitan Division. They avoid playing the Bolts and Panthers nine times apiece. But now, they have an equally hard task in facing perennial cup contenders, Pittsburgh and Washington, the mightily defensive Islanders, a retooled Flyers squad, and an upstart Rangers team, on a regular basis.
Their road to the playoffs has not gotten any easier. Yet still, the Hurricanes forward group is among the deepest and most efficient in the league. They are guided by Jack Adams-winning coach, Rod Brind’Amour, and will be spurred on by a fanbase expecting nothing less than a Stanley Cup. I predict this division to be battled out between the Islanders and Hurricanes. I’ll give the edge to the ‘Canes. Whether they will win the Cup is anyone’s guess, there’s plenty of Stanley Cup calibre teams this year. But if they don’t win hockeys ultimate prize, perhaps they can get one of those snazzy “Regular Season Winner” banners. I hear the Predators know a guy.
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