The New York Islanders kick off the 2021-22 regular season with a 13-game road trip, the longest ever in NHL history to start. The first stop on that voyage is a meeting with the Carolina Hurricanes, a club that is expected to fight the Islanders for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Last season, the Islanders and the Hurricanes did not meet, given the adjusted divisions due to COVID-19. But now, with a full 82-game schedule, these two teams will meet three times in what should be an exciting season series.
Since the Islanders last saw the Hurricanes, back on March 7th of 2020, Carolina has grown to become a powerhouse in the NHL.
After winning the central division during the shortened 56-game season, the Hurricanes saw their postseason run end at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning after five games. Tampa, who finished third in the Central, got into their groove in the postseason and capped off their run by raising the Stanley Cup for a second consecutive year.
The 2020-21 season saw the Hurricanes perform well on the defensive side of the puck, which was the main reason for how high they finished in the standings. The Hurricanes finished fifth in the NHL, only allowing 2.39 goals-against per game. For reference, the Islanders finished second at 2.23.
A primary reason for the strong defensive numbers for Carolina was the play of rookie netminder Alex Nedeljkovich, who posted a 1.90 goals-against average with a .932 save percentage. Those numbers led the NHL amongst goaltenders who played in 17 or more games, with the rookie playing in 23. Due to contract disagreements, general manager Don Waddell elected to ship the Calder Finalist to Detroit.
There was a goalie swap, as veteran goaltender Petr Mrazek left Carolina to join Toronto and Frederik Andersen left Toronto and signed with Carolina. To solidify the goaltending tandem, Carolina signed veteran netminder Antti Raanta.
Both Andersen and Raanta have a history of injuries, and staying healthy will be the top priority.
Andersen is coming off a down year, having posted a .895 SV% with a GAA of 2.61 in 24 games. The play of 29-year old Jack Campbell made Andersen a non-necessity moving forward, hence his departure. He is expected to get the start against the Islanders on Thursday.
Other significant signings by Carolina were former Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo and forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi (offer-sheet not matched by Montreal). Top-pairing defenseman Dougie Hamilton was not brought back, as he signed in New Jersey.
Defenseman Ethan Bear’s talents were acquired from Edmonton. Bear is a 24-year old who has shown great potential thus far over his three-year NHL career.
Did the Hurricanes get better?
Despite still being coached by one of the best in the business in Rod BrindA’mor, the defense is without their number one defenseman in Hamilton.
Yes, there is depth on the backend, but we are talking about losing a talented player without bringing in anyone that can fill the void he leaves behind. Even with Bear being brought in, Jake Gardiner will be missing from the backend after undergoing surgery on his hip and back in early September.
Andersen and Raanta could be a rather strong tandem, but health is a major concern along with consistency.
The offense did add weapons as Kotkaniemi is a rising star but has a lot of pressure to produce, given the $6.1 million he is making this year.
Dom Luszczyszyn, a national NHL reporter for The Athletic, believes that the Carolina Hurricanes will take a step back this season. His model projects the Hurricanes to finish fourth in the Metro, with the loss of Hamilton and the question mark in goal heavily weighing the result.
“Last season they made due on that with a season where they paced for 117 points, but the model is forecasting a fierce market correction for 2021-22.” writes Lusczczyszyn. “Just 95-to-96 points, 13th best in the league, and not nearly a playoff lock at 62 percent. In a tough division, the Hurricanes will have to earn their place again.”
Luszcyszyn’s model projects the Islanders to finish atop the Metropolitan Division.
“None of those are guarantees due to how stacked the East and the Metropolitan Division are, but the Islanders appear to be firmly in the driver’s seat near the top. Their 100.8 point projection is essentially right in line with how the team has performed on average over the last three seasons, so it’s nice for the model to align with reality finally.”
Despite projections and the stat sheets, this season is a brand new season where anything can happen. The Islanders and the Hurricanes both will look to get off to a strong start.
The puck drops in Raleigh on Thursday at 7 PM ET.