Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Carolina Hurricanes.
2023-24 Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes 2022-23 regular season was largely a success. They had great attendance, a very successful Stadium Series game, and won the Metropolitan Division with 113 points. Had it not been for the Boston Bruins historic season, they would have won the President’s Trophy. The defence led the league in goals scored by defencemen, largely thanks to Brent Burns’ great season. But sights were set on the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, the playoffs ended in the Eastern Conference Finals after a sweep at the hands of the Florida Panthers. Expectations were, and still are, high and this finish was ultimately a disappointment. It’s honestly a great place to be for the team, but the pressure is on.
There were various questions surrounding the Hurricanes this offseason. What are their plans in net? Do they make any big moves? Will they get a proven goal scorer? Will they trade certain players or sign them to extensions? Some were answered, others remain to be decided. But they certainly made moves.
They opted to re-sign both Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen in net. That tandem with the much younger Pyotr Kochetkov make up a great goalie three-headed monster that has shown success over the last few years. In major news, the Hurricanes signed star centre Sebastian Aho to an eight-year extension. Meanwhile, captain Jordan Staal and his linemate Jesper Fast were both re-signed as well to keep together the team’s effective third line.
As far as new faces, the Hurricanes signed Michael Bunting and Brendan Lemieux up front. Both players provide some grit and nastiness that the Hurricanes may need come playoff time. Bunting, however, also provides a potential decent scoring forward. In more interesting moves, the Hurricanes signed one of the biggest free agents in defenceman Dmitry Orlov and former Hurricane Anthony DeAngelo following the Philadelphia Flyers buying him out. With neither Brett Pesce nor Brady Skjei traded (yet) even though they both have one year left on their contracts, these moves add strength to a place of the Hurricanes strength. That is defence. They also added Caleb Jones and re-signed RFA Dylan Coghlan for additional defensive depth. The signs point to at least one defenceman being moved, but that simply may not happen.
Teravainen/Bunting – Aho – Jarvis
Necas – Kotkaniemi – Svechnikov
Martinook – Staal – Fast
Teravainen/Bunting – Drury – Noesen
Without too many changes up front, the Hurricanes forward lines will largely remain similar to what worked last season. A mix of a few new faces and potential up-and-coming players also gives the Hurricanes depth and options for how the forward lines should look. In the top six, the first line will be centred by Aho with Seth Jarvis on his wing. The two have developed good chemistry and Jarvis will look to take another step forward in a scoring role.
On the other wing, the Hurricanes have options. If they want more of a goal-scoring forward with an edge, they go with Michael Bunting. Bunting had experience playing in a top-six role in Toronto last season and would fit in well. However, they also could opt to go with the playmaker in Teuvo Teravainen who has built some chemistry with Aho. It might depend on what’s working at the time and matchups, but there are options.
Meanwhile, the second line will look at a healthy Andrei Svechnikov with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Martin Necas. All three have something to prove but also have shown that they can be a very effective second line. If Kotkaniemi builds on the second half of last season, Necas builds on his career season, and Svechnikov stays healthy while progressing forward, this could be a deadly second line.
As mentioned above, with a lot of depth comes a lot of options for line combinations so don’t be surprised to see these lines blended from time to time. For the third line, you go with a line that was one of the most effective forechecking and chance-generating lines in the NHL in Staal, Fast and Jordan Martinook. That line led all forward lines in the NHL in the regular season in expected goals with 41.5. While maybe not converting on those chances as much as other lines, this line was exactly what you want for a third line. They played 76 games together so why not keep together something that worked?
The fourth line is where there are the most questions for the team. Jack Drury has shown that he can compete in the NHL and plays a very responsible two-way game to centre that line. Stefan Noesen is a very effective depth-scoring option who also plays with some grit. He could be used in a top-six role if needed as well. (Or if there wasn’t as much depth.) The same goes for the other wing. Putting Bunting or Teravainen in a fourth-line role seems kind of wild, but here we are.
Bunting fits more of a prototypical fourth-liner role by playing with an edge, but either could work here. For a team with Cup aspirations and depth, maybe it’s better to not think of this as a “fourth line” but more of a 2C or something. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great problem to have effective point producers in the bottom six. This also doesn’t include using Lemieux if they want some nastiness or calling up someone such as Vasili Ponomaryov who has performed well at the AHL level.
Slavin – Burns
Skjei/Orlov – Pesce
Skjei/Orlov – Chatfield/DeAngelo
Options, options and more options. For as many different combination possibilities as the forward group had, the defence arguably has more. Barring a trade, there are nine NHL-capable defencemen. This also doesn’t include Nathan Beaulieu brought in on a PTO. We discussed the possibilities in depth in a previous article here. But the most likely to start is to go with the top pairing of Slavin and Burns. As the Hurricanes defence led the league in goals by defencemen, this pairing was a lot of the reason. Burns broke a franchise record in points and Slavin played as effectively in a shutdown role as he always does with some underrated transitional game as well. That pair led the league in shots and expected goals and wreaked havoc on opposing teams by driving offence from the back.
The second pair has more up in the air. For starters, one of Skjei or Pesce may still be traded. But let’s not play the what-if game on that and look at the team as is. There are three very likely candidates for the second pairing. Pesce and Skjei worked very well together last year. Splitting them up seems like a crazy idea. Skjei hit his career-high in goals with 18. Meanwhile, the pair was second in the league in shots and expected goals.
But it’s also crazy to play Orlov on the third pairing. The team is so deep defensively that third-pairing Orlov (or Pesce or Skjei) is a very real possibility. But all this means is that the pairs can be deployed more evenly while the team has options for matchups. If Pesce and Skjei start this season on the second pairing picking up where they left off last year, don’t be surprised to see Orlov take some rotations there as well. Based on handedness and stylistic comparisons, it seems to make more sense for Skjei and Orlov to rotate with each other as Pesce provides a stabilizing defensive defenceman to balance the pairing.
This leaves the bottom pairing again with an array of options. One of Pesce, Skjei or Orlov will be here. Based on the above analysis, let’s say it’s Orlov. This leaves most likely either DeAngelo or Jalen Chatfield as the other bottom pairing defenceman. Chatfield has more than proven himself as a reliable NHL defenceman and played very well last season. He is a fast skater and is not afraid to play physical. Last season he became a counted-on defenceman, taking a place in the lineup over veteran Calvin de Haan. A pairing of Orlov and Chatfield could be fun to watch.
But DeAngelo also should have a place in the lineup. While he is not very physical and isn’t the best defensively, he is outstanding offensively. Orlov and DeAngelo would provide a lot of offence from a third pairing. But more importantly, the Hurricanes could use DeAngelo on the power play, meaning he needs a spot in the lineup. Not to mention two years ago he spent much time effectively on the top pairing with Slavin. And then there’s Caleb Jones who could provide more of a defensive game on the third pairing as well as Dylan Coghlan. As the theme continues, there are options. And just as important, there is depth when injuries occur.
The Hurricanes goalie rotation will largely look the same as the last two years. With both Andersen and Raanta returning and Kochetkov under contract as well, the three will be utilized in that order. In more of a 1A, 1B (and 1C) situation, Andersen and Raanta will split most of the time in net. Re-signing Andersen and Raanta was a good route for Carolina to take in the offseason.
While both are very capable goalies, both also have had injury troubles over the years. Enter Pyotr Kochetkov. Kochetkov is still a fairly young goalie but has shown at times he can hang with the best. He will certainly get a shot in the rotation this season. Last year he posted four shutouts and at times looked like the clear-cut starter. He is likely the goalie of the future, but if he can show consistency this year, he may spend more time between the pipes. Barring such an occurrence, Andersen and Raanta will continue where they left off. Both had solid regular seasons while Andersen played extremely well in the playoffs. Overall, the Hurricanes are pretty set in net this year.
Players to Watch
Carolina’s top points producer from the 2022-23 season, Martin Necas will be another big component of the Hurricanes offence. The speedy Czech winger is entering the final year of his two-year, $6 million contract. This could mean a few things. If he keeps up his production, he could be in for a big pay raise. Additionally, being in a final contract year, Necas has even more incentive to produce. While that may create a higher price tag, the Hurricanes would absolutely love to see it.
The Hurricanes have been looking for someone to count on to put the puck in the net at a high rate. Necas’ 28 goals and 43 assists last season were really impressive. But with another year of experience and familiarity with linemates, Necas is primed to take it to another level. His nine power play goals and 26 power play points were pretty big as well on a power play that was otherwise mediocre overall. Necas can fly down the ice with arguably one of the fastest straight-away speeds in the league. He also has an accurate shot and likes to set up on the dots for one-timers on the power play. Sometimes he tries to do too much but has gotten better. With another year of maturity, watch for Necas to create a storm this season (no pun intended).
A new face in Carolina, Dmitry Orlov is a very exciting defenceman. As one of, if not the, top free agents this offseason, his arrival in Carolina is met with expectations. As mentioned above, how he is utilized will be interesting to see. And as crazy as it sounds, he may not see much power play time over the likes of Burns and DeAngelo. Watching how he fits in this group and meshes with the teams in your face, high tempo style should be a sight to see.
Orlov is the type of defenceman who likes to use crafty skating and high-level thinking to create options offensively. The longtime Washington Capital made his way to the Boston Bruins last year at the trade deadline and played very well. In 23 games for Boston Orlov scored four goals and 13 assists. Then, in the playoffs, he had eight assists in seven games. He has consistently scored around 30 points each season since 2015-16. But can he do even more on a team that favours getting pucks to the defencemen to drive offence? It will be exciting to see him work in this system. And on the defensive side, Orlov is not afraid to play physical and is very effective at takeaways. He is a very effective two-way defenceman. Orlov’s arrival brings a lot of strength to the team’s existing place of strength.
Prediction for the 2023-24 Hurricanes
This is the year for Carolina. With all of the building and work they have done the last few years, the core is another year more experienced. The last few years have felt like they were just one or two pieces away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. Maybe some injury luck would have helped as well, but that’s hockey and is where the depth has to show. By keeping the core of the team together but adding some key pieces in Bunting and Orlov, this is the year to see Carolina raise the Cup for the first time since 2006.
But it won’t be easy. There are many teams in the Metropolitan Division alone that could be a thorn in the Hurricanes side. And this doesn’t include other powerhouse teams like Vegas, Colorado and Edmonton out west. But Carolina can do it. After another year of disappointment, the fire is there. The pieces are there. The coaching is there. It’s time to take it.
Prediction: Second in Metropolitan Division. Stanley Cup Champions.
Main Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports