With the amount of available free agents dwindling and the off season moving along, every team in the NHL is pretty close to having their respective opening day rosters (barring late free agent signings and trades). According to Ron Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes are satisfied with their current roster and won’t look to make any more significant changes.
As of right now, here is a good guess of what the 2014-2015 Carolina Hurricanes team will look like come opening night-
When I look at this roster, there are three under the radar players that specifically stand out to me when I think about who could really affect the success of the Canes season. Obviously the Eric Staals and Alexander Semins need to perform, but I would argue that the play of some depth players will be as important as the play of the star players this upcoming season.
First off, I believe Zach Boychuk could tremendously affect whether or not the Carolina Hurricanes are a playoff team come April. We all know the Boychuk saga; after being taken 14th overall in the 2008 NHL Draft (one pick before Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson), Boychuk has not produced at the NHL level despite great AHL success. He has arguably been the biggest bust of what was a very deep draft. However, Boychuk looked as though he took some strides last season with the Charlotte Checkers as he led the AHL in goals with 36 and put up 74 points in 69 games. Personally, as disappointing as he has been, I believe the Carolina Hurricanes greatly hindered his development early on in his career; it seemed like every time he was called up, he would play 4th line minutes. Boychuk was given very few opportunities to show his skill set in the top 6. With a new one-year deal, Ron Francis is giving Boychuk one last shot to make the team and make his mark. I think he will be a huge factor during the season. The Hurricanes do not have a very good 3rd line that is capable of providing consistent offense. If Boychuk is able to play at a high level and produce, his production would be invaluable to an already good top 6. In today’s league, you need your top 9 to score goals to be successful and in my opinion, the fate of the team’s third line success relies on Boychuk’s performance. If he does have a good year, I am confident the Hurricanes will make the playoffs.
On the defensive side, I think John-Michael Liles could have the biggest impact on whether or not the Hurricanes are a playoff team. Aside from Faulk and Sekera, the Hurricanes have a very weak bottom 4 defense. Ron Hainsey has proved to be reliable, but the team does not have another top 4 guy to go to. If Liles can be better in his own end and play decent on the second defensive pairing, the Hurricanes would become a whole lot better. Aside from that, Liles will be a huge part of the Hurricanes power play come next season. If he can prove to be a good power play quarterback and help the Canes fix their horrid special teams, Liles will be a key asset. He has shown in his career that he is more than capable of putting up good offensive numbers; with Ryan Murphy still developing, the Hurricanes need a good power play defenseman who is also somewhat responsible in his own end. When you look up and down the list of Hurricane defenseman, Liles is the only one who can fill that role.
Lastly, Cam Ward will greatly influence the Hurricanes season. With Anton Khudobin’s great play last year, the top goaltending spot looks to be a real competition this year. Although Khudobin has shown he can be the guy between the pipes, the Hurricanes really need Cam Ward to return to old form. I am not a Cam Ward fan, but I must admit that there are few goalies better than him when he is on his game. If healthy, Cam Ward could re-establish himself as the Canes number one. Aside from this fact, better play from Ward could open up trade possibilities as well. With Khudobin as a reliable starter, the Canes would be more than happy to trade away Ward and his 6.3 million salary for a decent return. Although no team in the NHL wants Ward’s salary now, better play from the goaltender could get a few teams calling.
If these three players can play to their potential, the Hurricanes are in for a successful year. However, if they continue to underperform, the Canes will more than likely find themselves near the bottom of the league when the season ends. The team’s best players need to play at the level their contracts demand, but the bottom 6 forwards and bottom 4 defenseman need to step it up as well.
On a side note, I would like to make one quick free agency comment. I think the Canes should consider signing Devin Setoguchi to a one or two year deal. At just 27 years old, Setoguchi still has speed and good scoring potential to go along with his decent size. He would be a very good third line player who could jump into the top 6 if needed. I think a one year deal for around 2-2.5 million would be a decent signing for the Hurricanes.
Let’s hope for a good remainder of the off season. Go Canes.