Well, let’s see…we’re 22 games into the season, 14th in the conference, and 3 points out of a wild card spot…with a mere 6 teams to leapfrog. Seems about right. It is probably still too early to sing the “all is lost” chorus, but the band might be tuning up. With Jordan Staal out with a concussion and latest bad game from Cam Ward, the pessimists are likely storming the proverbial gates.
Drilling Into Some Team Numbers
So let’s take a look at some facts and figures and see if they tell us anything.
Twenty-five percent of the season is in the books and the Carolina Hurricanes are exactly 2 points better than where they were this time last season….let that sink in. For all the hype, including a 5 game winning streak, the team has one more victory and one less loss. 9-9-4 vs. 8-10-4. Scoring is up and goals against are down.
Currently (11/30/2016) we have 54 goals for and 59 goals against. This time last season those numbers were something like 46 GF and 61 GA. Scoring is up markedly but goal prevention is only slightly better. We should have better results, even if only marginally.
To the naked eye some things seem to have changed. Despite the recent goal scoring swoon, we’re putting more pucks in the net. Even with some early season challenges where the defense took a while to get their collective skates under them, the team is posting some gaudy advanced possession statistics. Still the more things change the more they stay the same with regard to goaltending. Yes, Cam has had a very nice November run (until the latest Rangers effort) and Michael Leighton is both a breath of fresh air and a great one-game story of redemption. Yet the net minding situation remains painfully inconsistent and unsettled.
While Cam Ward’s overall numbers are respectable – .915 SV% and 2.29 GAA – he’s only slightly above league average in quality start percentage. This is reinforced by his “goals saved above average” numbers, a mere 0.03. Basically Cam’s performing at a league average level. Those occasional (more so early in the season) softies or “pucks I should have had” goals are still morale killers and back-breakers for this young team. The early season losses where 3 goal leads were surrendered proved to be particularly telling for a team leaning on a bunch of guys younger than 25 years old.
Other numbers help tell the tale of the current state of affairs. With the league leading penalty kill and a respectable 11th place power play, special teams continue to develop positive momentum. One would think that with our improved scoring, our offensive metrics would have dramatically improved. Not so fast buddy boy. The Hurricanes are currently 22nd in the league in shooting %, a nice improvement on last year’s 28th place finish. However are we really that much better? Last year we ended with an 8% shooting percentage. As of today we’re at 8.1%. It is something of the same story. There are players that are excelling. Guys like Victor Rask (16%), Teuvo Teravainen (14.3%), and that goal-scoring machine Viktor Stalberg (17.1%) are all well ahead of their career averages. Others are coming up short, such as Elias Lindhom (4.5%), young Sebastian Aho (6%) and both of last season’s surprises, Andrej Nestrasil (4.8%) and Joakim Nordstrom (3%). With Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal at or slightly above their historic averages, there’s nothing in this recipe that feels offensively dangerous.
There are bright spots which might be a reason for hope. Every current, regular starter with the exception of Jay McClement and Derek Ryan has a CF% above 50%. This passes the eye test as well. For many, if not most games, we clearly took the game to our opponents. Sure Montreal outplayed us in our win against them, but we seemed to return the favor in our recent loss. Similarly, our play against the Rangers represented 5 pretty good periods of hockey and one where we ended up on our heels. Aho and Teravainen’s relative Corsi for are 4.3% and 5.2% respectively. Nordstrom and Aho again, both have impressive Thru% numbers. That means that a significant number of shots taken are shots on net. All of this should be a clear indicator of offense yet to come.
What is the Eye Test Telling Us (Okay, and Maybe Some More Numbers)
For those of us that have consistently watched the Canes this season, the highs and lows can be very confusing. October was a nightmare in a goalie mask. November was hero’s tale, again, in a goalie mask. Who were these guys potting 3 and 4 goals a game in October? Oh, that’s right, they’re the same guys who lost 3 of the last 4 while netting only 4 goals total in those losses. Here’s a team that was outshot in 4 of it’s 9 victories, yet that same team outshot its opponent in all 9 losses. We watched these games, 14 of which were decided by a single goal (or in overtime/shoot out). We watch this team, the #4 shot suppression club. It is also the same club has only outshot its opponents by a mere total of 58 shots. Given our possession numbers and those same shot suppression numbers, it just feels underwhelming.
It looks like Carolina is more adept offensively, but that’s still a work in progress. Many expected Nordstrom to take the next step. It hasn’t really happened. What about Rask and Skinner; would they build off of last year? Absolutely. Both are on pace to improve their scoring production over last year and both are latching on to leadership roles on the team. Victor is clearly going to be leaned on more defensively in Staal’s absence and Jeff’s consistency (no more that 2 games in a row without a point) is critical to the team’s success. As much as this duo is a bright spot for this year’s team, with nearly a third of the goal scoring attributable to them, it does point out the dearth across the rest of the team.
Elias Lindholm, called out by Rod Brind’Amour for his lack of off season training, came into camp stronger and promptly got off to another slow start. Something happened to Lindy on the way to November however. His complete game took over. The offense is slowly turning around, 6 points in his last 9 games. His penalty kill work is flat out superb. While many may still be disappointed in the 5th selection of the 2013 draft, Elias will only be 22 in a couple of days. He’s young and could very well prove to be more of an point producer….even this year….or he may stagnate where he is currently. In either case he is showing a very good 2-way game and increased confidence. Both were lacking last season.
Just watching games informs us that the defense continues to be mostly outstanding, maybe even improving. Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are now the default shut-down pairing for the Hurricanes. Moreover, they are doing a fine job in that role. Sure, we’d like to see a bit more offense, but Slavin’s contributions in that regard are clearly improving. Add in Pesce’s tenacity where he rarely loses puck battles, and it becomes evident “there’s a new sheriff in town”. Justin Faulk’s play, clearly on the weak side early, has picked up as of late. His offense seems to be MIA, but his last 4 or 5 tilts have shown more pure defensive prowess. Additional physicality has surfaced as well. While many dismiss him saying “Ron Hainsey is Ron Hainsey”, the wily veteran has played at a near remarkable level this season. He clearly is a voice in the locker room and, if one subtracts his untimely outburst in the latest Rangers game, he’s been a rock of consistency.
It is easy to focus on young Noah Hanifin’s skating and quick-thinking moves as he pushes the puck up the ice. Still, there’s a reason he’s a 3rd pairing player right now. He still makes those 19 year old mistakes. With that said, the team is leaning on his skill level more and over the last half-dozen games or so, Hanifin’s taken additional steps forward. The blind passes to the center of the ice are rarer. His off season work to add more strength is evident and his offense continues to mature. Add in a steady Matt Tennyson who has recently proven to be an NHL player, even if only a 3rd pairing guy. It is unlikely that it goes unnoticed that the Tennyson/Hanifin pairing has as many points as the Slavin/Pesce duo. If Carolina Hurricanes fans want grounded optimism, it can rest on the blueline.
There’s Always A Wild Card….or Three
Our two Finns are, well, maddeningly inconsistent. Teuvo Teravainen drips with talent. As Tripp Tracy often references, when he looks for his shot, he’s exceptionally dangerous. Most can also see that same talent level in his passing ability. With 5 goals and 10 points he’s tied for 4th on the team in scoring. Yet, you can’t overlook the whiffs, the muffed handles, and the occasional missed assignments. Then there’s our own golden child, Sebastian Aho. Blessed with a great shot, he often waits a beat too long to get it off. Despite a quick release, it is almost as if he’s looking for a more perfect opportunity. This the NHL, that pause spells failure, leading to defenders closing in and goalies squaring up. Also, no other player has had as many frustrating whiffs or mishits as young Aho. All of this pales, however, in the light of his near brilliant hockey mind. The kid makes plays and passes that few can match, often even fooling his teammates with the “how did he do that” feed. Both of these guys play a responsible defensive game despite their size. Teravainen and Aho represent important cogs in the wheel of the future of this franchise. Their game will continue to round into shape. Patience here is well placed.
Something Bill Peters has preached since arriving in Carolina is the need for a 4th line with a true identity, one that isn’t a liability. He’s got one now. Even though Jay McClement’s possession numbers are in the crapper, he remains a steadying force and is the glue that holds that group together. Nordstrom has rediscovered his game on that line and the surprising Viktor Stalberg is proving to be a true force. All three see significant time on the penalty kill and are key contributors to Carolina’s status as the best in the league when a man down. Stalberg plays a heavy game to go along with his quick first steps. Nordstrom’s speed is hard to handle to most of the opposition. One would like to see more scoring consistency, but if he matches last year’s output, especially from the 4th line, the team should be happy. If only JayMac could rediscover his game from two years ago. While playing better than last season, his lack of speed is no longer overcome by his smarts. Something may have to give. But for now, there’s nothing to complain about with this group.
Until the third line solidifies and some semblance point production surfaces, it will continue to be something of a weighty anchor on this team. When he was playing, Brock McGinn showed much better decision-making than last season, but the offense isn’t there. Now injured, the jury remains out on whether he’ll really be an NHL’er. Derek Ryan has some hockey sense and a nice shot, but his overall skill level has yet to prove itself totally NHL caliber. The return of Phil Di Giuseppe is a bright spot, however. His energy and skill set are perfect for this group. While still “O’fer” the season, he’s too good offensively to not put up points. After sitting for a couple of weeks, Nestrasil has drawn back into the line up. His last two games have shown glimmer’s of last year’s player, but the jury remains firmly out. And what to do with poor Lee Stempniak? Do you stash him on the 3rd line hoping that his savviness forcefully pulls this line along? Or do you elevate him back to a 1st or 2nd line role where his physicality and distribution skills can shine? With Jordan Staal on the shelf, Stempniak will unfortunately continue to bounce up and down the line up. This means the 3rd line will continue to be something of an uninspiring parking lot of mediocrity….unless and until somebody breaks out and becomes a scoring threat.
The Case for Optimism….or Is that Pessimism
At the quarter pole the team seems mired in inconsistent averageness. Demonstrating flashes of what they could be while failing other basic tests. If Lindholm’s scoring doesn’t surface, the current 1st line won’t be a significant enough scoring threat. Opposing teams will likely load up defensively against that group regardless. Potential 60 point scorers, Skinner and Rask could be held to 50 point levels or even lower. Without Jordan Staal the 2nd line loses its identity as both a shut down trio and a dangerous offensive threat off of the cycle. The young Finns could easily crumble under the pressure and markedly underperform. Without secondary scoring from the third line, they will see less and less ice time and the centerman spot could become a revolving door. This would lead to leaning on the 4th line as if it had true 3rd line talent. With Nordstrom and Stalberg best described as 3rd/4th line tweeners, the over-slotting probably wouldn’t end well. Add in the potential of a declining Jay McClement, and the overall picture is one of a bottom 5 team with lots of future potential that’s still missing a couple of pieces.
What the team has produced to date portends even more good things to come. Lindholm and Stempniak both solidify their roles in the top 6, building a truly dangerous top line and, perhaps, redefining the 2nd line in a more purely offensive capacity. Even more importantly, the third line builds an identity that includes equal amounts of offense and “difficult to play against”. If Derek Ryan can elevate his game to merely adequate and if PDG rediscovers his scoring touch, these guys could prove to be a challenging 3rd line match up for the opposition. A 4th line that included a rejuvenated Jay McClement and two fairly dangerous Swedes would also be difficult to play against for most teams. Reentering Jordan Staal into the lineup then becomes a catalyst. The skill level of the bottom 9 immediately improves, no matter the combinations. The potential is increased scoring with even more stabilized defensive forward play.
We know the goal tending is either the October version or the November version. Just a little consistent play of the November kind would go a long way. We also know the 6 defenders are the real deal. If the forward group can make optimists out of us all, then there’s always a chance. That chance can and will mean many different things to many different people.