It's a shame that this season ended as poorly as it did for the Hurricanes because things are going to get much more difficult next season. While I do believe that the Hurricanes will be a better team, they will no longer be in the cozy confides of the Southeast Division and will be moving to "Division D" as part of the NHL's new realignment plan. The only team from the Southeast joining them will be the Washington Capitals, who have been the division champs for five out of the last six years, and their other new divisional foes will include the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Also with realignment comes a new playoff format where the top three teams from each of the four divisions will automatically qualify for the playoffs along with the next two highest ranked teams from each conference based on points. Four teams in Carolina's new division made the playoffs this past season and at least half of them are perennial playoff contenders, so the Hurricanes have their work cut out for them if they want to find their way back to the post-season.
The general consensus seems to be that the Hurricanes will likely be the "doormat" of this division since they were one of the worst teams in the league this year while most of their new divisional foes are either on the rise, or already playoff contenders. I'm a little more optimistic, though. I agree that the Hurricanes have their work cut out for them, but my hope is that this causes the Hurricanes management to up their game a little bit so that they can be competitive with the likes of New York, New Jersey and possibly Pittsburgh. They opened up their wallets last off-season so that they could be in a more "win-now" mode and while it didn't bring the results everyone was hoping for, there is reason to believe that this team improved in a lot of ways compared to last season.
There are a lot of fans worried about Carolina never making the playoffs again because of how difficult this new division is, but I see is as an exciting opportunity. If the Hurricanes can build a good team and be competitive in this new division, it's going to lead some very exciting hockey in the later months of the season. That will no doubt help attendance and overall revenue for the team. However, should the Hurricanes continue to struggle and end up being the "punching bag" of this new division, then it's going to be bad for both fan morale and the team's overall funds.
The Hurricanes haven't been awful in most of their recent seasons, but there still hasn't been a lot to brag about since the team's last playoff appearance going by overall win percentage.
Carolina has been in the bottom fifth of the league in overall winning percentage over the last four seasons and could be in for some more painful seasons if they can not be competitive in this new division. This chart is a tad misleading though because a few of these teams are in a different state now compared to how they were over the last four years. Take the Islanders for example, they have been perennial losers for awhile but made the playoffs this year and have a nice young nucleus to build around. Same goes for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have been a mess for most of the last four years and are now rebuilding under new GM Jarmo Kekalainen and president John Davidson. The Hurricanes themselves should also be on the upswing even if last season didn't go as planned, so we could be in for some exciting times in this new division.
After the jump, we'll take a look at each of Carolina's new divisional bretherin, where they are now and how the Canes can stay competitive with them.
|Team||FenTied||FenClose||GF/60||GA/60||5v5 Sh%||5v5 Sv%|
Going by even strength play from this past season, Carolina's in the middle of the pack here and even then, their territorial play was only slightly better than Philadephia and Pittsburgh. That being said, Carolina might not be totally out of their league in this new division if you go by these numbers. They don't match up terribly at even strength against most of these clubs and actually gained a few wins over the Devils, Islanders and Penguins last season. The only area where Carolina was significantly worse than the rest of the competition was in goals against, which can be attributed to bad goaltending and defensive play, both of which should be improved next season.
Although, I'm still not sure how much weight to put into the underlying numbers from last year because it's basically only a half season worth of data and I expect most of these teams to have a different make-up come September. The Blue Jackets are already a pretty different team than they were for most of the year. Going by the numbers above, it looks like their march towards the playoffs was led completely by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and his .932 save percentage. However, the Jackets underwent some pretty big changes at the trade deadline by adding Marian Gaborik and I'm sure Kekalainen has plenty of other moves up his sleeve ot get the Jackets to the post-season.
Another team I expect to be better is the Penguins, which might sound ridiculous because they were the best team in the Eastern Conference and went all the way to the semi-finals, but their even strength play wasn't stellar this year. Part of that was due to them adding older players like Douglas Murray and Brenden Morrow, who are possession sinkholes at this point in their careers. Shero will likely replace them with younger, more skilled players and Pittsburgh's play at even strength could pick up. The Devils should also win more games because they were a terrific possession club last year that couldn't score. I don't know how they plan to fix it, but a team controlling the play that much at even strength isn't going to score fewer than 2.5 goals per game in a full year. Their goaltending situation might derail things, though if they stick with Brodeur and Hedberg.
Regardless, I don't think Carolina is that overmatched in this new environment, especially if they make some wise moves this off-season, but the head-to-head play against many of these teams is something that has to improve. Carolina may have swept the Islanders and picked up two wins over the Devils, but they were swept by both the Rangers & Flyers and won only one out of five games against the Caps. To make matters worse, they have won a combined one out of eight games against the Rangers & Flyers over the past two year. The Flyers are a team that has given the Hurricanes trouble ever since the team moved to North Carolina, as the Canes have won only 30 of 118 total meetings against Philadelphia. I'm not sure what the issue is, but the Flyers have had the Canes number for awhile and it's why the head-to-head play concerns me the most in this new division.
Part of the reason why the Hurricanes sunk to the bottom of the Eastern Conference is because they had an awful record in Southeast Division games and they can't let that trend continue. Playing in this new division is an exciting opportunity for Carolina, but it can also turn out very poorly if they continue to let teams like the Rangers & Flyers have their number in the coming seasons. Here's to hoping that management takes the steps to make Carolina a tougher matchup for those teams.
Stats courtesy of Behind the Net