Pandemic Punts: Will patient Hurricanes finally get in a hurry in 2020-21?

Pandemic Punts: Will patient Hurricanes finally get in a hurry in 2020-21?
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

Hurry, Hurricanes

Following some truly lean years when their former playoff drought began in 2009-10, the Carolina Hurricanes then became a fashionable dark horse pick, year after year. For a while, the Hurricanes couldn’t quite convert those fancy stats into playoff berths. Then, they took another step with two straight playoff appearances, but fell well short against the Boston Bruins each time.

That “close, but no cigar” feeling hangs over these Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe it gnaws.

Consider that, during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, things were skin-tight between the Hurricanes and Bruins early on. A tight 2-1 series that easily could’ve been locked up 2-2 spiraled out of control starting with a groaner of a Jake DeBrusk goal against James Reimer:

From there, the Bruins turned that Game 4 around, and ultimately punted the Hurricanes out of the playoffs in five games.

If the Hurricanes eventually go on to big and better things, then these setbacks can be part of the “learning process” medley for their championship DVD(s).* That if lingers like a toothache, though.

Sometimes good teams do incrementally improve to great ones. Put together enough baby steps, and maybe you take a leap. But there are also sports teams that seem like they’re going to knock on the door, only to miss their window for bigger things altogether.

For the patient Hurricanes, one must ask: how much longer must fans wait for this team to break through? If the 2020-21 Hurricanes end up having to punt on their season, who gets flushed out?

* – Do sports teams still make those? Save me the Google search.

With key decisions looming, Hurricanes were very quiet in offseason

With less than $1 million in cap space according to Cap Friendly, you could argue that the Hurricanes were boxed into a corner when it came to trying to improve during the offseason.

Besides, supporters would argue that the Hurricanes have been aggressive with recent and semi-recent moves. They brought in Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, and Brady Skjei via trades during the past couple seasons. That trio accounts for more than $15M in AAV. Not exactly “standing pat.”

Still, we’ve seen seemingly cap-strapped teams get creative to improve. Look at the Vegas Golden Knights, a franchise that’s made bold move after bold move to take that next step.

Granted, not every Golden Knights move seems perfectly wise. Then again, you can say the same for the Hurricanes adding Brady Skjei, the type of defenseman who doesn’t exactly fit their analytics-friendly reputation. (Did Don Waddell squeeze that one in during a retreat when Eric Tulsky wasn’t in attendance, like when Paul Fenton wiggled the ill-fated Niederreiter trade into existence for Minnesota?)

Fair or not, it’s frustrating to see the Hurricanes ask for the check instead of indulging in the goalie buffet in free agency. Yes, Reimer (32, $3.4M cap hit) and Petr Mrazek (28, $3.125M) are under contract through 2021-22. But what if you could’ve bribed a team to take one of them off of your hands, then pursued, say, Corey Crawford?

Amid the Hurricanes’ many successes as a team-builder, their shaky goaltending frequently dilutes such advantages. And at about $6.5M AAV, it’s not as though the Hurricanes are killing it in value in that category, either.

It all sets the stage for a crucial 2020-21 season for Hurricanes

Generally, smart teams take a zen approach to improvement. Wait until those seams open. Take what the defense gives you; don’t throw into double coverage.

Maybe that’s how the Hurricanes view seeking out goaltending upgrades? Or the next big move? Going bolder could’ve meant forcing it.

Either way, the 2020-21 season may dictate key aspects of this Hurricanes team.

There’s still plenty of time to hash out both situations. When it comes to RFA extensions, there have been successes in being proactive, but also waiting until the last minute. Sebastian Aho, for example, is on a pretty Hurricanes-friendly deal despite being the target of an ultra-rare offer sheet. So the Hurricanes don’t need to extend Svechnikov, necessarily.

(I’d still do it ASAP if I were in their shoes, though.)

With Hamilton, it’s fair to realize that teams can sometimes regret extending the contract of an older defenseman. While Hamilton is leaps and bounds better than former Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk (in my opinion), the Hurricanes may note how bad the Faulk extension looks for the Blues.

The biggest potential Hurricanes punts for 2020-21 are those goalies, Reimer and Mrazek. Theoretically, the Hurricanes could move things around at the trade deadline. Maybe they could swap one of those two out for a goalie on an expiring contract, like Antti Raanta, Tuukka Rask, or Marc-Andre Fleury?

Being that several mid-level forwards are also on expiring contracts (Ryan Dzingel, Jordan Martinook, etc.), there’s also room to punt if the Hurricanes’ 2020-21 season goes sideways.

Rather than taking a step back, big strides forward would be the ideal for the Hurricanes in 2020-21. Whether the Hurricanes get in a hurry or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.