RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes have just two preseason games remaining, including an exhibition-closing home game Friday against the Capitals at PNC Arena, and there are still some ongoing roster battles.
Most notable is the third pairing slot alongside defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, where four left-handed blueliners (Haydn Fleury, Klas Dahlbeck, Trevor Carrick and Jake Chelios) are competing for two roster spots and a place in the starting lineup.
For the most part it’s clear who will make the team and where they fit in, so looking ahead to the Oct. 7 opener against the Wild in Raleigh it’s more about how they will perform once the 2017-18 campaign is underway.
Carolina thinks it solved its goaltending issues with the addition of Scott Darling. The other need was scoring more goals across the board. Here’s how they can get them.
Points from the back end
Justin Faulk is going to put up his share of goals — he’s had 15, 16 and 17 goals the last three seasons — but will Carolina will get enough production out of the rest of its defense?
The Hurricanes’ best bet for improved production from the defense is probably a combination of Jaccob Slavin becoming a more reliable point producer and Noah Hanifin upping his contribution on the power play and even strength.
Slavin, the team’s No. 1 defenseman, came on the end of the season with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in the final 23 games. That’s nearly a 50-point pace, which would certainly do the trick. Slavin needs to show he’s closer to the player who had 13 points in 17 games in March than the one who has had more than five points in a month just twice in his two-year NHL career.
Hanifin definitely has the most top-end offensive skill after Faulk, and he should benefit from moving into the top four to start the season. His 29 points last year are encouraging, but just 18 came at even strength and the other 11 aren’t nearly enough for a player who logged almost 165 minutes on the power play.
Jeff Skinner’s minutes
It looks like newcomer Marcus Kruger will center the fourth line, but it will look more like a second third line than a traditional fourth. Kruger played nearly 12 minutes at even strength for Chicago last season — that’s almost three minutes more than the man he replaced (Jay McClement, 9:05), and Kruger wasn’t brought to Carolina to play significantly less than he played on a Cup contender.
Those minutes have to come from somewhere. It won’t be from Jordan Staal, who should benefit most from Kruger’s arrival by drawing fewer defense-first assignments and having more offensive zone draws.
Victor Rask will be paired with offensive wingers and be expected to produce points. Cutting his line’s minutes won’t lead to that.
That leaves the current Derek Ryan-led third line, with Skinner on the wing. Skinner ranked first among forwards on the Hurricanes in even-strength minutes last season (15:27) and totaled a career-high 1,401 minutes last year, leading to 37 goals. If Skinner is going to match that output or reach 40 goals, he needs more minutes.
Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Toronto’s Auston Matthews each reached 40 goals last year while playing only 1,438 and 1,446 minutes, respectively. But the past six seasons only one player has logged fewer minutes than Skinner last year and hit the 40-goal mark — Rick Nash’s 42 goals with the Rangers in 2014-15, done in 1,379 minutes.
Peters has every reason to keep Skinner on Ryan’s wing to start the season — the duo clicked last spring when Skinner was at his best — however Kruger’s addition could take away minutes from that third line.
In order for Skinner to have a shot at reaching 40 goals (or even match his 37 from 2016-17), he’ll either need to up his power play goals or play more minutes.
Skinner’s never been a prolific power play weapon (he had double digits just once, when he scored 11 in 2013-14), so the growth has to come at even strength. With Kruger earning key shutdown minutes, that’s not going to happen on the third line. Peters will need to revisit Skinner playing on Rask’s wing in order to get them both the minutes they need — and see No. 53 match last season’s output or break the 40-goal mark.