Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.
A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.
Carolina is our 28th-ranked team.
2013-14 finish: 36-35-11, 83 points, 24th overall; failed to make playoffs
Leading scorer: Eric Staal (61 points)
General manager: Ron Francis
Head coach: Bill Peters
Captain: Eric Staal
Opening night starter: Cam Ward or Anton Khudobin
Key acquisitions: Coach Peters, Haydn Fleury, Tim Gleason, Ben Holmstrom, Jay McClement
Key departures: GM Jim Rutherford, coach Kirk Muller, Manny Malholtra, Justin Peters
Off-season grade: D. Simply put, the arrival of fresh faces across the front office—starting with new GM Ron Francis and continuing on down to the bench—just wasn’t enough. As a result, a club that has spent the last couple of seasons stuck in neutral look like it’s heading in reverse, and soon. Despite having a little less than $10 million in cap space to play with, the club couldn’t acquire a meaningful free agent and is returning essentially the same roster we saw last season. What’s more, you have to believe there were options on the trade front with players like Eric Staal and Alex Semin holding value for contending clubs, potentially freeing cap space for flexibility down the line while infusing Carolina with more young talent to surround the likes of Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner. Instead, they did, well, nothing.
Greatest strengths: While there is a decent chance their heydays are behind them, there is still legitimate talent on offense. Because of his size and deft touch around the net, Eric Staal will continue to be a valuable producer. Inconsistent as they are, we’ve seen strong scoring seasons from the likes of Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty in the not-too-distant past. Winger Jeff Skinner, 22, is seemingly always between injuries, but so long as he’s healthy (in fairness, he did suit up for 71 games last season) you can count on him for 30 goals, at least. Should everything come to fruition like Francis would hope, the talent is there for this to be a respectable offensive unit.
Greatest weaknesses: So while this team isn’t totally bereft of talent, it is decidedly top-heavy. Depth is and will continue to be a major concern for Carolina, with a considerable gap between the top-line defensive pairing and the mixed bag of young players and journeymen vying for their spot. What that means is, like last season, if the ‘Canes stars don’t step up, there isn’t anybody apparent to help keep the team afloat.
Biggest story line to watch: Look, the window has closed on this team. All the signs are there. It’s been five years since they’ve seen the playoffs, and, frankly, the PNC Arena soil is ripe for a rebuild. Yet with Cam Ward’s practically untradeable contract ($6.3 million for two more years) and a new regime that, so far, appears hesitant to move its captain and start over (something you’d have to sell hard to a fan base that’s taken Staal under its wing), it will take one of Carolina’s young guns to force management’s hand and commit to a youth movement. So… which kid will step up and assert himself as a potential future face of the franchise, somebody who can help ease the pain of what will surely be a rough transition patch? The options aren’t exactly plentiful, but could, say, Justin Faulk be that guy?
2014-15 prediction: A strong contender… for the NHL’s basement, a reality that should but probably won’t be helped by a full-blown rebuild.