Carolina Hurricanes: Sizing Up the New-Look Central Division

Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes training camp is set to begin on January 3, 2021, with on-ice training starting on January 4.

A Different Kind of Season for the Carolina Hurricanes

Due to ongoing COVID-19 precautions, the NHL is set to begin a 56-game season on January 13 (not a Friday, thankfully). Temporary realignment has created four new divisions and teams will play within their division exclusively during the regular season.

For the Hurricanes, that means eight games against each of the divisional rivals. If familiarity truly does breed contempt, this season could get very interesting.

What we’re going to do is take a look—in alphabetical order—of each team in the new-look Central Division that the Carolina Hurricanes are a part of.

We’ll take a look at Carolina’s record against each team last season (for whatever little that’s worth) as well as any notable moves made by the team.

First off…

Chicago Blackhawks

Hurricanes’ 2019-20:

  • 2-0
  • Goals For: 8
  • Goals Against: 2
  • Power Play: 2-for-4 (50%)
  • Penalty Kill: 6-for-6 (100%)

While the Blackhawks have been paying the price for their three-Cup dynasty for a few years—including losing Teuvo Teravainen to the Canes as a sweetener for taking on Bryan Bickell‘s contract—things have gotten substantially worse.

For the short-term, at least.

Management has officially stated that they are entering a rebuild, a statement met with grumbling from some of Chicago’s longer-tenured players.

Corey Crawford, a staple in net for over a decade, left for New Jersey. As it stands, the Blackhawks will enter the season with a goaltending tandem of Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. The duo has combined for 84 NHL appearances and neither has proven themselves as viable options as a starter.

Up front, the news doesn’t get any better.

Longtime captain Jonathan Toews, experiencing an undisclosed medical issue, will be out indefinitely. While he’s not the offensive leader of the team, there’s little question as to how much Toews means to the Blackhawks.

This announcement came hot on the heels of Kirby Dach‘s wrist surgery. The promising 19-year-old injured his wrist during the World Juniors and underwent surgery on December 28. He’s expected to be out for 4-5 months.

All of this followed the October 10 trade that saw Chicago send winger Brandon Saad to the Colorado Avalanche. While not an offense force, Saad put up 21 goals last season, something that the goal-starved Blackhawks will miss.

While the Blackhawks will undoubtedly return to contention, it won’t be this season. If the Hurricanes stick to playing their game, they may well pull off a season sweep.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Hurricanes’ 2019-20:

  • 0-2-1
  • Goals For: 7
  • Goals Against: 10
  • Power Play: 0-for-8 (0%)
  • Penalty Kill: 8-for-8 (100%)

If the 2019-20 season taught us anything, it’s that you can never count the Blue Jackets out. Despite going all-in at the 2019 Trade Deadline and subsequently losing the likes of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus managed to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ultimately bowing out to the eventual-champion Tampa Bay Lightning in five games.

The goaltending tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins held the fort impressively while the departed Bobrovsky had a trying season in Florida.

While offense isn’t Columbus’ forté, their team defense was phenomenal, ranking 3rd in the NHL. With a blue line featuring Seth Jones, that’s no surprise. Zach Werenski put up 20 goals from the back end.

The biggest move that the Blue Jackets made was shipping Josh Anderson to Montreal in exchange for Max Domi. Anderson had a forgettable season, picking up just four points in 26 games before shoulder surgery put him on the sidelines.

Domi had a bit of a down season himself though, if he can get back to his 72 point pace from 2018-19, this could be a lucrative move for Columbus.

On paper, team defense is just about a wash between these clubs. The offensive edge goes to the Hurricanes, while the advantage in goal belongs to Columbus. These games should be close and very entertaining.

Dallas Stars

Hurricanes 2019-20:

  • 0-2
  • Goals For: 2
  • Goals Against: 8
  • Power Play: 0-for-5 (0%)
  • Penalty Kill: 4-for-7 (57%)

The reining Western Conference champs had a strong showing against the Hurricanes this past season. Dallas didn’t boast a particularly potent offense—26th in the league—but managed to notch four goals in each of their games against Carolina.

Their offense will need additional help as Tyler Seguin—Dallas’ leading scorer last season—will be out of action until March following offseason hip surgery.

Losing veteran winger Corey Perry takes some bite out of their lineup but his five goals won’t be hard to replace. 

Team captain Jamie Benn will be looked to for increased production up front as will young stars Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov.

The Stars can also rely on offense from the blue line thanks to Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg. Speaking of defense, Dallas should again be a stingy team, though goaltending could be an issue.

Ben Bishop, coming off of knee surgery, is expected to be out until March. Former Hurricane Anton Khudobin—who was phenomenal for Dallas in the playoffs—will be leaned on during Bishop’s absence. Twenty-two-year-old Jake Oettinger will likely see a fair amount of action as well.

The Hurricanes will have to find their offensive game, as their depth up front exceeds that of the Stars. Carolina certainly has the defensive talent to keep Dallas in check, so I would give the Hurricanes a slight advantage.

In the end, it will come down to goaltending. While Khudobin has been streaky throughout his career, the same can be said for Carolina’s tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.

Detroit Red Wings

Hurricanes 2019-20:

  • 3-0
  • Goals For: 14
  • Goals Against: 5
  • Power Play: 4-for-13 (31%)
  • Penalty Kill: 14-for-15 (93%)

 

It’s no secret that the Red Wings are smack in the middle of a rebuild. With Steve Yzerman back in Motown, there’s little doubt that the team will improve.

That said, the upcoming season will likely bring more growing pains.

Yzerman has brought in a number of NHL veterans to bolster his lineup, bringing more leadership to his young team. Forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan add depth but won’t take significant ice time away from Detroit’s young core.

On defense, Yzerman added a trio of vets in John Merrill, Troy Stecher, and Marc Staal.

In goal, longtime Wing Jimmy Howard is out; veteran backup Thomas Greiss is in. The German goaltender should provide an upgrade over Howard’s 2019-20 performance, giving Detroit a solid tandem along with Jonathan Bernier.

Detroit’s fortunes ultimately rest with their core. The trio of Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Anthony Mantha drive the offense up front while Filip Hronek has developed into a solid puck moving defenseman.

I’ll give the advantage on offense and defense to the Hurricanes. Again, goaltending could go either way, though Carolina should be able to take control in their matchups against Detroit this season.

 

Florida Panthers

Hurricanes 2019-20:

  • 2-1
  • Goals For: 12
  • Goals Against: 9
  • Power Play: 2-for-12 (17%)
  • Penalty Kill: 11-for-15 (73%)

If there is one team that continually frustrates prognosticators, it’s the Florida Panthers.

Prior to last season, Florida signed goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a huge contract only to see the Russian netminder post the worst goals-against average of his career (and 2nd worth save percentage).

This offseason saw the Panthers make smaller moves to improve their team. Winger Patric Hornqvist was brought in via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The veteran notched 17 goals and 32 points last season and also brings the pedigree of being a two-time Stanley Cup champion.

GM Bill Zito also brought in Alexander Wennberg, who had fallen out of favor in Columbus. If the Swedish center can return to the 50+ point potential that he showed earlier in his career it will be a big boost for the Panthers.

Florida also added winger Anthony Duclair who put up 23 goals and 40 points with the Ottawa Senators last season. Rugged defender Radko Gudas was brought in to add some grit.

Unfortunately, the Panthers will be without the services of Mike Hoffman (unsigned free agent) and Evgenii Dadonov (signed with Ottawa). The pair combined for 54 goals with Florida last season.

The core of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov up front along with Aaron Ekblad on the blue line will largely determine the fortunes of the Panthers.

The biggest area of concern—outside of offense—will be the performance of Bobrovsky in the net. If he has another subpar season, Florida will find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture again.

Nashville Predators

Hurricanes 2019-20:

  • 1-1
  • Goals For: 4
  • Goals Against: 4
  • Power Play: 1-for-5 (20%)
  • Penalty Kill: 8-for-8 (100%)

 

The Nashville Predators come into the 2020-21 season with something to prove.

After being a contender for several years—capped with a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2017—the Predators found themselves ousted by the Arizona Coyotes in the play-in round of the 2020 playoffs.

The offseason saw the team cut ties with Kyle Turris after 182 underwhelming games. GM David Poile went out and added Nick Cousins,  Luke Kunin, and former Hurricane Erik Haula.

They’ll complement a forward group led by Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, and Ryan Johansen

The Predator’s biggest strength has been their defense and nothing has changed that. Led by Roman Josi (who put up 16 goals and 65 points in 69 games last season), Nashville’s blue line is as strong as ever.

Despite this, the Predator’s finished 17th in the league in goals against. 

The main culprit?

Pekka Rinne.

The longtime starter posted the worst save percentage (and second-worst goals-against) of his career. Juuse Saros played better, though still below the level he’s shown in previous seasons. Despite the shortened season, both goalies will need to perform better in order for Nashville to excel.

 

 

Tampa Bay Lightning

Hurricanes 2019-20:

  • 2-1
  • Goals For: 8
  • Goals Against: 8
  • Power Play: 3-for-13 (23%)
  • Penalty Kill: 10-for-12 (83%)

 

Yep.

Not only will the Hurricanes share a division with the reining Western Conference champs, but the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup champions as well.

Despite this, the Hurricanes played well against the Lightning last season. That bodes well for Carolina since Tampa Bay will have a significant loss to overcome.

Nikita Kucherov—who has led the Lightning in scoring in each of the past five seasons—will be out for the season following hip surgery.

Yes, this is a huge blow but let us not forget how much talent this team has: Stamkos, Point, Hedman, Cirelli, Palat, Sergachev.

No, that’s not all. In net, the Lightning have—arguably—the best goalie in the NHL in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

While that is all impressive on its own, the Hurricanes played strong against Tampa Bay last season. If they can go at least .500 against the Kucherov-less version this season, that’s not too shabby.

These games, more than any others, will rely on a complete team game from Carolina.

 

What Should We Expect?

I really hate making predictions with stuff like this but I’ll do it anyway. That said, I’m going to do it my way, which means I’m only focusing on wins and losses, not on goals scored or anything else.

If the Hurricanes win against the teams that they should and consistently bring their best game, I have no doubt they’ll return to the playoffs.

My biggest concerns stem from not adding another top-six winger or bolstering the goaltending. I do, however, see the talent that this team has and I’m a big fan of the Jesper Fast signing.

My Prediction:

31-19-6

How do you think the Carolina Hurricanes will fare in their new division this season?

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