There’s no question the Hurricanes got better this summer. On paper, and presumably on the ice, this is a better team than it was at the end of the season, or this time last year. They attempted to address their biggest issues – goaltending and leadership – while locking down some of their best young players for the long term.
Better, on this day in September? Absolutely.
Better enough to compete in the brutal Metropolitan Division? We’ll see. Better enough to weather any catastrophic injuries or unexpected dips in form? Who knows.
That remains the essential question, because despite the considerable offseason improvement and the yearning hope of a new owner on the horizon with training camp less than two weeks away, there’s no guarantee it was enough. Eight points is a chasm in a league that hands out loser points left and right. Justifiable optimism needs to be tempered with unavoidable pragmatism.
Even if the Hurricanes had checked every box on their offseason shopping list, and the inability to bring in a top-six center is as understandable as it is disappointing, they still have a big gap to close. That’s not a criticism of the work done, but a statement of the unavoidable and difficult reality of being in a division with the NHL equivalent of Clemson and Florida State. It’s hard work just staying in place. It’s easier to do what Columbus or Edmonton did last season in a different division, although certainly not impossible in this one.
This team can make the playoffs, absolutely. (Last year’s team could have made the playoffs, for that matter.) But the Hurricanes still need everything, or almost everything, to go right.
They need Darling to be an above-average NHL starter at the least; they need Justin Williams not only to lead but continue to score 20-plus goals on a team that plays at a faster pace than the Capitals; they need Sebastian Aho and the young defensemen to continue to develop into elite players; they need Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm to be the contributors they can be not once in a while but every single night; they need Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner in particular to stay healthy; they need Bill Peters to find a way to run the bench that disguises the weakness down the middle, where great teams are strongest.
All doable, possible, capable, reasonable – but far from guaranteed.
Of all that, Darling’s performance is most pivotal. The former Blackhawks backup can post worse numbers than he did in Chicago (and some decline is inevitable with the change in teams and roles) and still get the Hurricanes’ goal differential to even by himself. And numbers aside, getting out of the first period without giving up a soft goal when the Hurricanes are outshooting the opposition 14-3 would represent epochal progress. The play of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack over the past two years is a low bar to clear.
But as always, when you’re projecting and asking someone to do something they’ve never done before, anything can happen. After all, the Hurricanes hoped for the same thing when they traded for Lack, although there’s a lot more on Darling’s record to recommend him than there was on Lack’s. It’s still no sure thing.
And that’s just one area where the Hurricanes are counting on considerable improvement, albeit the most important. There are a lot of them.
The Hurricanes got better this summer, but better enough? That’s the real question, and there’s only one way to find out.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock