Luke DeCock

Hurricanes wrap up home schedule hoping for better next year – DeCock

Canes' Bryan Bickell reflects on his final home game

Video: The Carolina Hurricanes Bryan Bickel reflects on his last home game after playing against the St. Louis Blues in an NHL hockey game at PNC Arena in Raleigh Saturday night. Bickell recently announced his retirement; he was diagnosed with M
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Video: The Carolina Hurricanes Bryan Bickel reflects on his last home game after playing against the St. Louis Blues in an NHL hockey game at PNC Arena in Raleigh Saturday night. Bickell recently announced his retirement; he was diagnosed with M

Jeff Skinner scored again, his 36th and 37th goals in a remarkable season, all the more impressive considering it looked like concussions may have sidelined his career only two years ago. Skinner has been great, which is equally great news for the Carolina Hurricanes, because they’re not built to win without 30-something goals from him.

Now the Hurricanes need a few more players at Skinner’s level. It’s nice having a 37-goal scorer – no small achievement in today’s dying-puck NHL – but the Hurricanes are almost certain to end the season Sunday night with one other 20-goal scorer and at most one other 50-point player.

That’s not going to cut it no matter who’s in net, which is a big reason why Saturday’s final home game, a 5-4 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues, was a meaningless affair with the Hurricanes already eliminated from playoff contention for an eighth year in a row and 10th time in 11 seasons since winning the Stanley Cup.

There is plenty of reason for optimism going into next season, but the Hurricanes need more offense from somewhere, someone, who they can count on for 82 games, night in, night out.

So who’s it going to be? It’s easy to see Sebastian Aho making that kind of jump next season, given his age and experience. Aho has the potential to be a 30-goal, 60-point forward with the right linemates. It’s probably less a question of if than when.

Beyond that, it gets tricky. It’s not going to be Jordan Staal, even though that was the thought when he was acquired. Turns out, he is what he was in Pittsburgh, which is a solid, versatile checking center who chips in offensively.

It also doesn’t look like it’s going to be Teuvo Teravainen, based on his first year here. Too flighty, too perimeter-oriented. He has the skill to be a great player but would need a substantial upgrade in mentality.

But if Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask are ever going to step forward and be anything other than what they’ve been over the course of their careers so far – second-line forwards on a bad team, third-liners on a good one – now is the time to be called to account. Lindholm has been much better in the second half (with the pressure off), but if they’re sitting on a total of 27 goals at this point next year, it’ll be another long summer.

The blue line is in solid shape going forward, with Jaccob Slavin perhaps the most underrated player in the NHL and Brett Pesce not far behind. Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin could be a dangerous offense-minded second pairing – spotted against lesser lines at even strength and used heavily on the power play – if general manager Ron Francis can conjure up a gritty (preferably veteran) third pairing that can absorb some of the checking duties from Slavin and Pesce. (Presumably, the Ryan Murphy Era is at a merciful end.)

And the goaltending will be addressed, one way or another. The suspicion here is the Hurricanes will use one of their stockpiled second- and third-round draft picks to bribe Las Vegas into taking Eddie Lack. Surely Francis has considered, perhaps even already negotiated, such a gambit.

He could maybe use another to pry a goalie loose – Marc-Andre Fleury, or someone stuck behind a star like Antti Raanta from the Rangers – or try to sign Chicago’s Scott Darling. Cam Ward would be a much better option in a 25-game backup role, and at this point in his career, he should be in the right frame of mind to handle that.

So with the talent on the back end and a different look in net next season, all the Hurricanes have to do is push their minus-15 goal differential (the actual number, removing the phony shootout “goals” from the standings) into positive numbers. It’ll take another dozen goals, assuming some improvement in goal.

Where will those goals come from? Assuming all else goes well, that’s what it will take to end a playoff drought that’s now the longest in the NHL, and make the last home game of next season mean somehting.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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