The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.
For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Carolina Hurricanes.
Let’s start with last year’s Cinderella story. The Carolina Hurricanes always seem to go big when they make the Stanley Cup playoffs. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does their history is spectacular.
Last year was no exception. They rallied to knock out the defending champion Capitals in the first round with a double-overtime Game 7 road victory and followed that with a sweep of the New York Islanders.
If Carolina lost its way in the Eastern Conference Final against Boston in a four-game sweep, it’s hard to be too down. The Hurricanes have emerging young talent all over the place and should be right back in the mix for a playoff spot, if not the division title.
Carolina (46-29-7, 99 points) had a dream season. Their Storm Surge celebrations became a true NHL phenomenon. You had to watch their games just to see how they would entertain the swelling crowds in Raleigh after wins. That momentum carried over to the playoffs, a place they hadn’t been for a decade as the fanbase eroded waiting for something, anything to bring them back.
The patience paid off. Analytics darlings for years with high shot totals and promising prospects, it all came together finally when they finally got above-average goaltending to go with the good stuff already in place.
Think they were a fluke? You’re wrong. Carolina smirked as the Montreal Canadiens tried to poach star center Sebastian Aho with an offer sheet this summer. The 21-year-old Finn might have some catching up to do in the locker room for signing with another team. But the Hurricanes quickly matched the five-year, $42.27-million deal and owner Tom Dundon basically mocked Montreal in his press conference afterward for the attempt.
So Aho, one of the game’s bright young stars with 30 goals and 83 points last year, is locked in place. He centers a top line that is formidable with Teuvo Teravainen and trade acquisition Nino Niederreiter. That January deal with the Minnesota Wild was highway robbery. He had 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) in 36 games with Carolina and 23 overall.
Add in the wildly talented Andrei Svechnikov, who showed no fear, though few smarts in challenging Alexander Ovechkin to a fight in the playoffs, should find a home on the second line at age 19. He scored 20 goals as a rookie. That could be one of the biggest differences for Carolina, which used its vast amount of cap space to trade for Vegas’ Erik Haula, who could play center. That’s a great buy-low gamble. Haula missed most of last season with an injury but had 29 goals for the Golden Knights in 2018 when they went to the Stanley Cup Final.
That would push veteran center Jordan Staal and – if he ever signs – right wing Justin Williams to the third line. Staal had a fine season as the two-way conscience of Carolina and Williams scored 23 goals at age 37. The former Capital is beloved in Raleigh. He was a key part of the 2006 Cup-winning team in his early years. Hard to imagine they don’t work something out for one more year. That third line is savvy and scary no matter who you put on the left-wing. If Williams chooses to retire, that would be a blow.
Jaccob Slavin, 24, proved to be one of the best young defensemen in the NHL last year and Dougie Hamilton, 25, fit in well after a trade with Calgary last summer. Brett Pesce, also 24, anchors the second pair with Justin Faulk, the old man at 26. That’s a good, versatile group and their skating ability played a big part in the Hurricanes getting shots on goal from everywhere. At times it was hard for the Capitals to even get the puck during the road games in that playoff series. They couldn’t win any of them.
Petr Mrazek had a nice season in goal (.914 save percentage), but he’s never been able to put together long stretches of top-level play. If there is a question here, it remains in goal. It’s been Carolina’s undoing before. Mrazek will share the net with James Reimer this year after Curtis McElhinney (.912 save percentage) departed. He played 33 games to Mrazek’s 40 so Reimer will likely have to give them a decent workload.
One thing to note: Carolina’s farm system remains excellent. The Charlotte Checkers won the AHL’s Calder Cup last season so there are pieces to bring up if injuries strike or players don’t perform – even in goal.
Don’t be surprised again. If the Hurricanes struggle to match last year’s feel-good vibes, they remain a quality team with young talent that could take another leap forward. Depth on the back end might be an issue, the second line must gel and the goalies must shake their inconsistent history. But Carolina should be in the playoff mix all season and there are legitimate reasons to think they could win the division, too.
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