The Hurricanes have made some big offseason additions. Are they a contender to come out on top in the East? Have they finally fixed what’s ailing them in net? Editor Brian LeBlanc of SB Nation’s Canes Country is here to help us put it all together in our 5 Questions segment.
Copper and Blue: Western conference fans might not be familiar with Jaccob Slavin. Slavin signed a big deal with the Hurricanes this offseason. How important is he to Carolina's success?
Canes Country: He’s a gigantic part, and not just because of the contract he signed. Bill Peters has experimented with breaking up Slavin and Brett Pesce this season, putting Slavin with Justin Faulk and Pesce with Noah Hanifin, yet every time he does so he ends up coming back to the Slavin/Pesce combo because they’re just that dominant. I don’t remember a time when the Canes have had a shutdown defenseman of Slavin’s caliber. He plays big minutes against top competition every night and not only does he rarely allow goals, he barely takes penalties. The Canes’ whole defensive structure is based around having defensemen that don’t allow anything past them. Slavin is the key component of that. Without him, the Canes would be a much different - and worse - team.
Copper and Blue: After years of Cam Ward, the club looks to be (finally) moving in another direction in goal with Scott Darling. Is this the right direction? Why or why not?
Canes Country: Well, at some point the Canes are bound to strike oil (pun fully intended) in net because they’ve been wandering in the goaltending wilderness for an eternity, so if Darling isn’t the right direction then it’s just another entry in the never-ending chronicles. But so far Darling has been as advertised. He’s as composed and unflappable as they come, and while it helps to be 6’6”, his movement and positioning are extraordinary. The next time he dives across the crease to make a stop will be the first time. I think it’s taking some time for the skaters in front of him, especially the forwards, to adjust to the fact that they may not need to play down below the circles all the time anymore, because Darling can give them the defensive cover that they’ve lacked for a long time. He doesn’t need to win the Vezina Trophy to be a success here; what he’s done so far is right on the money and exactly what the Canes are expecting of him.
Copper and Blue: It's a fair bet that Brad Malone will dress for the Oilers tonight. His last NHL game during the regular season was two seasons ago with Carolina. What can the Oilers expect from him?
Canes Country: To be fair: not much. He’s a journeyman, fourth-line filler at most, and probably one of those AAAA types that’s too good for the AHL but not nearly the quality of an NHL regular. He plays a physical game, but gets caught out of position and flat-footed quite a bit, and if he’s on the ice against a top line you’re asking for trouble. Honestly I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t gone over to the KHL yet, because he’d be right in their wheelhouse, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative; he plays a rough-and-tumble game that slots somewhere between the AHL and NHL levels.
Copper and Blue: Tell us about a Cane who is ready for a breakout season.
Canes Country: We asked this question as part of our season preview, and half the writing staff took Darling while the other half took Noah Hanifin, so since we just spent a few lines on Darling I’ll go with Hanifin here. The first three-quarters of last season Hanifin was a big disappointment, but playing mostly on the third pairing with the likes of Klas Dahlbeck and Ryan Murphy had a lot to do with that.
The Canes need him to become a two-way guy now, and he’s shown flashes of it, although for whatever reason he and Pesce just don’t click. When he’s with Faulk he’s quite skilled, but I have my doubts as to whether he’s going to be the real offensive force that he was touted as in his draft year. Which is fine; the Canes don’t necessarily need that, but what they do need is a power-play pivot, and ideally they’d like Hanifin to fill the role. He’s not quite there yet, but he still has enough promise that Ron Francis has reportedly turned down deals that involve flipping Hanifin for Matt Duchene. As much as the Canes need scoring, that says a lot about how the Canes value Hanifin.
Copper and Blue: Carolina is a dark horse candidate to emerge from the Eastern conference this year. What does a satisfactory season for the Hurricanes look like?
Canes Country: It’s got to finish with a playoff berth. This is the season the rebuild has been pointing to. Bill Peters got a mulligan his first season, and his seat isn’t hot necessarily (at least, in the Alain Vigneault sense), but the fans and the front office expect results this season. They’ve been patient, and it’s time for their patience to pay off. The Canes don’t have to advance far in the playoffs, but not getting there at all would be a profound disappointment and would lead to some real questions next summer.