RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes general manager finally made his move this offseason. Better stated, he made his moves.
An upgrade in goal? Done with the acquisition and signing of former Blackhawks backup (and the closest thing the NHL has to Game of Thrones’ Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane) Scott Darling.
Veteran leadership? Check! It doesn’t get much better than Justin Williams, who knows the market, knows what it’s like to win in Raleigh, and has the rings to demand respect in the Hurricanes locker room.
Need an influx of talent at the bottom of the lineup? Enter Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who come to Carolina from Chicago via Las Vegas and should stabilize the bottom six forwards and bottom D pairing, respectively. Josh Jooris will also add speed and competition to the fourth line.
All those additions have made the Hurricanes — already a, ahem, darling of the analytics community — a frequent choice among prognosticators to snap their eight-season postseason drought. But Carolina returning to the playoffs is anything but an iron-clad guarantee, and there are still concerns.
1. Is Darling the answer?
We’ve been here before, most recently with Eddie Lack being the guy who was going to unseat Cam Ward. Yet this feels different — Darling is more proven than Lack even if both had similar experience upon arriving in Raleigh. But that doesn’t make the 6’6 Darling a sure thing. If the 28-year-old struggles or can’t handle the increased workload (he hasn’t played more than 40 games in season since 2007-08 before he went to college), Carolina could be back to Ward — and right back to where they were before.
2. Depth is a concern.
There’s better depth at the bottom of the roster, whether it’s on defense where veteran Klas Dahlbeck will likely lose his No. 6 spot to Haydn Fleury or one of the other young blueliners in camp, or at forward where the competition for a fourth line job should be fierce. But if Carolina suffers a key injury to one of it top six forwards, there’s no one that screams “deserves an opportunity.” A rookie could emerge — I’m on the record as a big Janne Kuokkanen believer — but the Hurricanes can’t afford any key injuries.
3. Slow starts.
I’m a Bill Peters fan, but if Carolina gets off to another slow start this season his seat will get very warm. Unless things go very south, Peters’ job isn’t at risk in-season. However, a bad opening month will bring out the critics, and it could become a distraction for a young team still trying to find its way. The Hurricanes get two games at home to start the season, then play four away from PNC Arena for the annual State Fair road trip. If the team can’t get at least six points in those half dozen games, it’s time to start wondering if it’s not the annual roadie that’s the problem.
4. Is 2016-17 Jeff Skinner the real Jeff Skinner?
Skinner set a high in goals (37) and matched his rookie season point total (63) last year, and for the first time in his career he has strung together back-to-back very good seasons. Part of that is health — Skinner’s missed just eight games the last three years — but Carolina is hoping No. 53 is a 35-goal (or more) guy going forward. If he’s not, Carolina’s goal-scoring woes are even more of a problem than perceived.
5. Navigating the NHL’s toughest division.
The Metropolitan Division is arguably the best division in hockey. All four of its playoff teams (Washington, 118 points; Pittsburgh, 111; Columbus, 108; New York Rangers, 102) cracked the 100-point barrier last season, while no other division had more than two. The Hurricanes finished seventh out of eight teams in the Metro last year, and the Islanders, Flyers and Devils could all be improved. Expectations are high for the Hurricanes, but that’s a lot of teams to climb over. Couple it with the fact Tampa Bay and Florida each missed the playoffs last season and could enter the playoff mix, and it’s an imposing task.