RALEIGH — The doldrums of the NHL offseason are officially here. Most (looking at you, Justin Williams) of the available free agents are signed, rosters are coming into focus, and there are fewer and fewer questions to be answered heading into the season.
The biggest question for the Carolina Hurricanes is simple: Did the team’s offseason moves make them better?
Here’s a look at each of the position groups and whether the changes made will result in a team that can improve on last year’s regular season and perhaps even advance further in the playoffs than the 2018-19 squad’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
In: Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula
Out: Micheal Ferland, Greg McKegg
Regardless of Williams’ decision (the team still thinks the captain will come back), the Hurricanes forward corps looks stronger with the addition of Dzingel and Haula. Dzingel scored 26 goals and totaled 56 points in a season split between Ottawa and Columbus, while Haula scored 29 times two years ago but had his 2018-19 season derailed after just 15 games by a knee injury.
Neither brings the physical style and intimidation factor of Ferland, but the Hurricanes had soured on Ferland (17 goals, 40 points last season) and added more speed and finishing ability to the lineup.
McKegg proved to be a valuable depth forward, but the addition of Haula moves Lucas Wallmark into his fourth-line center role a year after he was the No. 3 pivot.
The Hurricanes should also see more out of Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 20 goals in his rookie season but didn’t register a power play goal in his first season. Throw in that Martin Necas — the team’s first round pick in 2017 who scored 16 goals and had 52 points for the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in his first season in North America — is expected to make the team, and Carolina has more talent up front than a year ago.
Verdict: It’s better
In: Gustav Forsling
Out: Calvin de Haan
The Hurricanes won’t be able to send Haydn Fleury to the AHL without waivers this season, so something had to give on the Carolina blue line. It ended up being de Haan, who had a solid first season with the team after signing a four-year, $18.2 million contract last summer but was traded to Chicago in late June.
The move — which sent de Haan and prospect Aleksi Saarela to the Blackhawks for goalie Anton Forsberg and depth defenseman Gustav Forsling — cleared cap space that Carolina needed to add Dzingel while getting a high-priced player off the team’s third pairing.
But will the defense be better? Fleury is still unproven — he’s bounced between the AHL and NHL the past two seasons and is still looking for his first NHL goal after 87 games — and Trevor van Riemsdyk is recovering from shoulder surgery and will add responsibility in the No. 5 spot.
The wild card is Jake Bean, who made huge strides in his first pro season. The 2016 first round pick had 13 goals and 31 assists with the Checkers last season, adding five more points in the team’s run to the Calder Cup. While Fleury brings size and some physicality to go along with the ability to kill penalties, Bean is an offense-first defenseman who could fill in on the power play.
Verdict: It’s weaker
In: Anton Forsberg, James Reimer
Out: Scott Darling, Curtis McElhinney
If the Hurricanes can get the same level of goaltending they got last season, they’ll take it. The only returning candidates for the tandem are Petr Mrazek and AHL Goaltender of the Year Alex Nedeljkovic. Carolina traded Darling — who never won consecutive games with the Hurricanes — for Reimer, while adding Forsberg to the mix in the de Haan trade.
Reimer was the heir apparent to Roberto Luongo in Florida, but his struggles in Sunrise — and the Panthers’ opportunity to sign Sergei Bobrovsky this offseason — led to his departure from Florida.
Like the departed McElhinney — a perfect foil last season to the emotional Mrazek — Reimer is a good locker room guy who will be comfortable in a backup role, while Nedejkovic has nothing left to prove in the AHL but could still find himself in Charlotte since he doesn’t require waivers. Forsberg is a solid insurance policy — he has NHL experience and can fill in if needed.
Verdict: It’s complicated
The Hurricanes defense in a strong point, even without de Haan, and consistent scoring was still a concern heading into the offseason despite the deep playoff run. So Carolina is banking on even more from its top-end defenders with added responsibility for van Riemsdyk and Fleury, plus opportunity for Bean.
As always, the goaltending will be key. If Mrazek can play as he did the second half of last season and either Reimer or Nedeljkovic offers enough support to make the tandem work, Carolina will be better than they were last regular season. If the goalies falter, the Hurricanes will be hard-pressed to match last spring’s success — especially if they don’t have Williams to steady the ship as captain.