The Florida Panthers will get one more pre-playoff tune up in against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night to finish off the regular season slate. Carolina won't be in the postseason mix, but they have been highly competitive this season. Canes Country's Jamie Kellner fills us in on how they've done it and what the future holds in store for the Hurricanes.
Todd: I know the Hurricanes aren't going to the playoffs, but I don't think many predicted they'd finish with a better than .500 points percentage. How did the team manage to stay so competitive this season?
Jamie: There are foundational reasons why the 2015-16 Canes performed ahead of expectations. It goes back to the hire of Ron Francis as GM in summer 2014, restructuring hockey operations, and focusing on development from within for the long haul instead of trading the future for that "one missing piece" to squeak into the playoffs (prevalent with the former regime). But the short answer is that Francis has begun building a young team that fits his coaching system, and two years into that system the players have begun to "learn it, know it, live it."
Bill Peters and staff (including our AHL affiliate in Charlotte) run a high-paced system based on driving puck possession and working cohesively as a five-man unit with responsibility in all three zones. Forwards have to be defensively responsible and defensemen have to be good puck movers and are expected to help drive offense. 2014-15 was about teaching the system and identifying players that did and didn't fit and identifying gaps. This season has been about building the defensive core of the future, which exceeded expectations (more on that in question #2). Up front, even a forward like Jeff Skinner, presumed to be a defensive liability, is playing solid two-way hockey and finding success at both ends of the ice. Bottom line, when the Canes are playing within the system, they're in every game no matter the opponent, despite some talent deficiencies (more on that in question #3).
Todd: Rookie blueliner Noah Hanifin has gotten his fair share of press this year, now how about filling us in on the play of the more under the radar Jaccob Slavin, a fourth-rounder in the 2012 draft who is looking like a downright steal.
Jamie: Holy cow! I don't think anyone predicted how impressive Jaccob Slavin would be in his first professional season. The Canes signed him last summer after he completed his sophomore year at Colorado College, and he impressed at training camp, sent to Charlotte a bit begrudgingly with the final cuts, recalled in November and built up his stock from there. He is incredibly solid in all aspects of his game, does everything well. He's a strong skater, positionally sound, moves the puck well, big body, smart decision-making. He's been unbelievably reliable, coaches keep throwing more responsibility at him and he just takes off with it. He averaged over 20 minutes TOI/game and even more when Justin Faulk was out for 18 games with an injury. Since Faulk's return they've been the top pairing line, matched up against the league's top scorers. He's used on the penalty kill and the power play, and is a stalwart in 3-on-3 overtime. Even has a game winner in the shootout!
I think it comes down to a combination of a few things. First, Slavin has all the necessary skills and executes them well. There's nothing that suggests his success is a fluke. Second, he's a mature, poised, grounded 21-year-old. Third, he plays in a mobile puck possession system that exploits his talent. Bill Peters and assistant Steve Smith have done an excellent job putting our young defensemen in a position to succeed (in addition to Noah Hanifin, who will be a superstar, we have another first year pro, Brett Pesce, impressive in his own right). They've been paired with veteran mentors, and given a chance to grow and make mistakes and learn in a non-punitive manner, and their responsibilities have grown and they've met them all head-on and flourished. The future of our blueline is going to be bright for a very long time.
Todd: What needs to improve in Raleigh next season for the Hurricanes to pick up those, say, 12 to 15 extra points that would guarantee a playoff berth?
Jamie: The Canes possession numbers have been near the top of the league all season, and as previously mentioned, the system they play has kept them in games. They just don't have the talent to close them out. They're ranked 27th in goals/game. They've taken 26 games to overtime/shootout this season and won 10. And if they go down early in a game, they aren't often able to mount enough of a comeback. PDO has been dead last for most of the season, not skilled enough to put points on the board and on the back end, not stopping enough pucks to overcome scoring deficiencies and steal games.
Off-season job one for Ron Francis is improving forward talent. There are a few prospects like Sebastian Aho, last year's second rounder tearing it up in Finland's Liiga, who will be given opportunities to make the team. But I expect Francis to use assets (we've stockpiled tons of draft picks and have lots of cap space) to make upgrades, possibly one or more young forwards in need of a change of scenery or in a cap-constrained situation. I don't see him making a big splash in free agency, at least not for an older forward on a long-term contract (otherwise he might as well bring back Eric Staal, which remains a possibility).
What happens in net will be a bit of a conundrum. Roberto Luongo's buddy Eddie Lack (side note, I hope the two former Canucks get to face each other Saturday night) was brought in last summer via trade and signed to a two-year extension before the season began, with the expectation he would surpass Cam Ward as the starter. That didn't happen, though Lack showed good improvement after a shaky start. With Ward a pending UFA, and no one ready from the prospect pool, the Canes either have to make a play to pull in an upgrade in net or consider re-signing Ward, and hope that Eddie can take over the reins this season and the tandem can improve enough to be more competitive.
We'd like to thank Jamie for stopping by the Litter Box and delivering some insightful answers to the questions poised. Check out Canes Country for more on the Hurricanes and give her a follow on twitter at @jbkellner.