Friday, May 30, 2014

Pool Outlook for Carolina

I don't think it would have been unfair to think that the Carolina Hurricanes had higher expectations for the 2014 season, then where they finished in the end, 13th in the Eastern Conference and 7th in the Metropolitan Division.

Injuries played a huge part in the 2014 failures for the Hurricanes, as only three players managed to play more than 80 games in the season and some inconsistent goaltending didn't help either, as three goalies were up with the team for much of the year.  The Hurricanes have the framework to do some positive things, like battle for a playoff spot near the end of the year, but they do lack in depth and maybe a little bit of luck as well.

The Hurricanes are also under new management, like a few other basement dwelling teams in the league, as Ron Francis takes over the big chair, making all the main roster moves going forward.  Francis will have to sort out a new coach as well, as Kirk Muller was sacked in the off-season, leaving another vacant position in the Eastern Conference.  Francis has a good team to start from, so it will be interesting to see what he does with it to improve their standing.

It wasn't a great year for Eric Staal, who indeed led the Hurricanes with 61 points in 79 games played, but he finished ranked 57th in pool scoring overall, his worst ranking since the 2004 season, when he emerged into the league.  With only 21 goals on the year, he wasn't able to make a difference in more games.  The Hurricanes finished 24th in the league in goals for (207) and they were 21st in goal differential at a -23 on the year.  Staal may not be the most natural goal scorer on the team, but a team's success starts at the top of the heap.

Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin had 55 goals between the two most talented goal scorers in the 2014 season, a total that each of them possibly could have had.  Of course, injuries didn't help their cause either, missing games here and there and hampered their consistent play through the year.  Skinner finished with 54 points in 71 games, while Semin had 42 points in 65 games, each could have made more of a difference.  Younger brother, Jordan Staal, played in all 82 games, but only managed 40 points in a two-way role, but he needs to find some way to be better offensively in Carolina.

On defense, the Hurricanes received a huge boost from Andrej Sekera, who had never seen the top 250 in pool scoring before, but came out on fire, finishing 143rd overall with 44 points in 74 games, finally emerging as a defender worth some pool stock.  The only other pool-worthy defender for the Hurricanes was Justin Faulk, who finished with 32 points in 76 games, improving on his rookie season ranking by about 50 spots.  Faulk showed some positives and could be one to watch next season.

Then we get to the goaltending, which had its share of troubles and mistrust.  Anton Khudobin was the best goalie for Carolina, finishing with 19 wins and a shutout for 40 points, eventually earning the number one designation on the team, but found himself injured fairly often in the year.  This left an inconsistent Cam Ward and a slighted Justin Peters to carry some of the load.  Ward ended up being the back-up for when Khudobin was in net, but they couldn't demote Peters, for fear of losing him on waivers.  That fear likely didn't help that situation in the crease much through the year.

2015 Pool Outlook

The core group of Hurricanes is nothing to sneeze at, especially if some of their new bright spots can continue to shine.  I would be keen on taking some of those Hurricanes players that have been fairly consistent in staying within the first three or four rounds of the hockey pool draft and then likely bumping a few players that have shown some real promise, possibly looking for a bargain or two.  Goaltending, on the other hand, will have to work itself out before too long, especially if the Hurricanes want to do some winning of their own.  They won't be able to run with three goaltenders any longer.

The Hurricanes saw a couple of young players really step up to take some minutes and start their NHL maturation process with the big boys.  Forward Elias Lindholm had 21 points in 58 games with the club and should be poised for much more, while defenseman Ryan Murphy only played in 48 games, but had 12 points and showed some poise as 20-21 year old blueliner.  Both players may be real bargains in the 2015 season, if you're looking for some complimentary youth near the end of your draft.

Free Agency and the Salary Cap

Free agency may be one of the real benefits for Ron Francis in his new role with the Hurricanes, as it will likely clean out the cupboards a bit and leave some space to make his mark.  Between the unrestricted and restricted free agents, there are 27 players poised to be ready for new deals and it will be Francis' job to determine who goes and who stays.  Justin Peters, Nathan Gerbe, Jiri Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov, Manny Malhotra and Radek Dvorak all lead the list of players that will need decisions made upon, which should be rather interesting.

I currently have the Hurricanes sitting with $18.4 million in cap space with 14 players signed on and taking spots on the projected roster.  Seven forwards, five defensemen and two goalies make up this roster at the moment and it has plenty of open spaces to fit in some quality players to help make this team achieve greater things.  It is an enviable position, especially with some of their top players already locked in for the long-term.

I wouldn't say that the Hurricanes are rich in young player assets, waiting in the wings to push for an NHL job, as the two better prospects did play in the 2014 season and are likely expected to play a bigger role with the team in 2015.  It would be in the team's best interest to start filling up the cupboards again this Summer, but when you're only going with one pick at a time, it could be difficult.  Here, taking the best player available wouldn't be an unwise decision, even if that player is a year or two away from playing in the league.  I could see the Hurricanes looking to a bit more size and a power game, something to compliment the speed of some of their smaller players, being a point of concern for the team, which makes me believe that a kid like Nicholas Ritchie could be in their sights.  Ritchie, who plays for Peterborough of the OHL, has been touted as a potential power forward with very good hands.  Sounds like a good fit for Staal and the Canes.

I like where the Hurricanes are, despite their 2014 finish, and I like where they could end up, with proper management.  I don't think there is much doubt that a guy like Ron Francis could do well building a hockey club, especially one with the framework already in place from former GM, Jim Rutherford.  Yes, there are some questions to be answered and I think there are some spots in this organization that needs some improvement, but with a little bit of patience, this team will get there and contend again.

As for the 2015 season, the Hurricanes will see some improvement on their 83-point season the year before and I think they will be active in the off-season markets, which could very well give a hand to the Staal's, Skinner and Semin up front and hopefully solidify their goaltending situation in the back.  With that being said, they will still be in tough on a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, as the Eastern Conference remains pretty tight and teams above them still seem to be improving, so it will have to take a monster off-season for them to really make that push.  If Francis and company can make that push, sign a big name or two in the free agent frenzy, we will see the Hurricanes push.

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