The Big 3 – Who or What Will Lead the Hurricanes to a Playoff Berth?

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Simple answers rarely surface…especially for gnarly questions. This is especially true for this year’s Carolina Hurricanes. How often does a fan have to experience “…so close but still so far” before disillusionment sets in? This team is painfully close to having the right pieces, to playing the right way, and exuding the right mindset. Yet, the Canes remain the Charlie Brown to the NHL’s Lucy. That playoff football seems to be pulled away at the last second sometime during every season.

However, miracles do happen. Good things happen to good people. Deserving teams have extended winning streaks. Most have forgotten that the last time Carolina made the playoffs it was on the back of a fairy tale, late season surge. In their last 20 games, they went 14-4-2, including a 9 game winning streak near the end of the season. Of course that team had more offense than the faithful were used to. Two 70 point guys, two 50 point guys, but perhaps most importantly, 4 defencemen who accounted for 42 goals and 136 points. Still, with 20-25 games left to play the Hurricanes were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Runs do happen.

Key events and performances happened. Cam Ward won 17 of the last 25 games in 2008-09. That team lost by 2 or more goals only twice in those same 25 games. That team scored 4 or more goals in 12 of the last 25 games, including 9 goals twice, 6 goals twice, and 5 goals 3 times in the same span. Anton Babchuk and Joe Corvo combined for 30 goals and 73 points. And a veteran leader, Ray Whitney, and a young stud, Eric Staal, combined for 64 goals and 152 points. Others had career years at the same time. All of this combined for an epic end of the season dash to the playoffs.

For history to repeat itself, similar types of things need to happen. This year’s team doesn’t need to follow the exact same blueprint. It couldn’t if it wanted to. But it will need to have a similar end of the season run. At the same point in that season, the ’08-’09 Hurricanes played their final 45 games going 28-15-2, good enough for 2nd in the conference and 97 points. Interestingly enough if the Canes finished with the exact same record, they too, would end up with 97 points. It is hard to conceive of a scenario where one or more of the hot Metro conference teams don’t fall off their current torrid pace. One would have to think that 97 points would be good enough for the final wild card berth. Still, that means this young roster has to essentially win 2 out of every 3 games remaining…and it’s still not a playoff lock.

With the challenge understood, what has to happen tactically for this team to meet that goal? What follows are the three key components that should give this team its best shot.

Skinner and Rask Need to Show the Way

At the beginning of the season, not many hockey people thought of a line led by Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask as an NHL #1 line. Very quickly, the pundits were proven wrong. Skinner is on pace to match his 30 goal years and Rask is continuing his ascension as a significant scoring threat. Apparently, the third wheel on this line doesn’t really matter. First it was Lee Stempniak and he put up points. Both Elias Lindholm and Derek Ryan have cameo’d with this duo and they put up points (albeit Lindy took a few games longer). Best of all, while Rask and Skinner seem to feed off of each other, neither is really carrying the other. For example, Rask has 5 assists on Skinner’s goals and Jeff has 4 assists on Victor’s goals.

The issue today is that inconsistency has crept back into their games. Neither player has posted a point in the last 5 games. Jeff Skinner has 6 multi-point games and Victor Rask has 5. Both have gone 8 games without a multi-point outing. Skinner, until this 5 game drought, had not gone more than 2 games without scoring. While Rask had a 4 game pointless streak earlier in the season, after that, he too, hadn’t gone more than 2 games without scoring until these last 5 contests. In fact, he started the season scoring at least a point in the first 8 games. Skinner and Rask need to return to the earlier season form that saw them contributing more regularly.

The good news is that if they maintain the scoring pace that they’ve established this season so far, they will likely lead the team in scoring. Skinner is currently on pace for about 32 goals and 61 points. Rask is looking at potential career highs in goals (22) and points (57). The key, however, will be maintaining or even improving on their current pace. Multiple game scoreless streaks will drive those paces down, leaving both players wanting in the point production category. As 2/3 of the top line, they simple need to score and do so regularly.

Measuring the impact of these two players isn’t an exact science. There are a number of factors that come into play. Two very important statistics when considering a player’s offensive impact are game winning goals and power play goals. Potting the game winner is a demonstration of performance in the most pressure packed situations. Power play markers can pull a team right back into the thick of a contest or prove to be a dagger in the heart of a trailing team. In Jeff Skinner’s case, he has done well on the power play with 4 goals and 7 assists, a significant percentage of his 27 total points. However, he does not have a single game-winning goal. Last season Jeff had 7 game winners and in his last 30 goal season nearly 20% of his goals were game winners. Rask has notched 2 game winners so far, pretty much in line with last season’s results where he put up 5 game winners. While he’s chalked up 3 power play goals (nearly 1/3 of his goal total), he’s been less successful with helpers on the man advantage (only 3). Both players simply need to be major contributors when the game is on the line and when given power play opportunities. It felt like there was more of that earlier in the season. That needs to resurface…and fast!

UPDATE: Of course, Skinner gets power play marker that is also the game winning goal against the Blues last night. Perhaps it is the rekindling of his scoring mojo. Rask also picks up an assist. Same comment pertains to him regarding scoring.

The Finns Have to Finish

It is hard to complain about a 19 year old and a 22 year old who are 3rd and 4th in scoring for the Hurricanes. Both Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho are on pace for 40-45 points each. Each player, however, has his professional challenges. If they can complete their respective transitions, their contributions to this team’s season and future could be huge.

Teuvo Teravainen, acquired with Brian Bickell in an off-season trade, came to the Hurricanes with a reputation as a highly skilled player who only needed a consistent chance. And it looked like he was taking advantage of what the Hurricanes offered right out of the shoot, putting up 2 goals and an assist in his first 5 games. This was immediately followed by seven games of goose eggs. Then it was 3 more goals and 7 points in his next 5 games. Then came another extended drought, 8 games without a point. However, from December 7th on, he’s not gone more than 2 games without scoring and is currently on a 5 game point streak. This roughly coincides with him move to center, a position that compliments his vision and creativity. Still, Teuvo needs to prove that he has discovered a consistency with his offense and minimize any future scoring droughts.

UPDATE: Despite playing well in St. Louis, Teravainen’s consecutive game point streak came to an end last night. Time to start another one against the Hawks.

Sebastian Aho, after leading his Liiga team in scoring and centering Finland’s top line to a WJC gold medal, came to Carolina with lots of hype and even higher expectations. As most experts predicted, the smaller ice surface proved to be a bit of a challenge. Even though he wasn’t a liability by any means, he wasn’t as impactful as many expected…at least right out of the gate. The key issue was the half second extra his moves, passes, and shots seemed to take. His decision-making, while quite good, wasn’t up to NHL speed. Sure he was putting up points, but it was apparent the kid had skills and it was equally obvious how sophisticated his hockey sense could be. As the season progressed and Aho continued to progress, he too was plagued with a couple of longish scoring droughts. More recently, however, he’s taken on a greater offensive load, with 4 goals and 10 points in the last twelve games. Now ranking 3rd on the team in shots on goal, a slight uptick in his shooting percentage would make up for some early season muffs and misses. Like his fellow countryman, young Sebastian must maintain a consistency with his scoring. This team is delicately constructed in such a manner that an offensive slowdown from a top scorer would have a dramatic effect on potential playoff hopes.

In the end, it is both exciting and easy to see the potential that Teravainen and Aho bring to the team. Their creativity is especially evident and their possession metrics portend ongoing and future scoring success. Both will need to find offensive consistency to not only reach their individual potential, but to be the significant contributors that could elevate the Canes into contention.

The Next Man Up

Only 4 Hurricanes have 20 or more points and that’s just not going to get it done. This team is an enigma with possession metrics that should reflect a significantly higher powered offense. Couple this with the Canes position as the league’s #2 shot suppression team and the record should just be better. That isn’t the case, however. Suspect goal tending early and a periodic lack of scoring throughout the season to date and Carolina hasn’t gotten the results needed to be in the thick of the playoff hunt.

While the goaltending picture has basically stabilized with Cam Ward playing some of his best hockey in years, he’s recently given up a few untimely markers. Those occasional softies have more of a psychological impact on this young team than on the scoreboard. It is hard to minimize the deflating impact that some of these goals have had. Even with Cam’s generally solid play, one can see how the work could be wearing on him. With no viable back up, it’s hard to minimize the potential for a late season collapse in net. Regardless, consistency again is the issue that has to be resolved. Cam, or whomever else gets to see some rare net time, need to make the saves on the shots they can see. The defense needs to continue taking away the easy shot to help their tenders out.

Even if the Carolina Hurricanes get the bare minimum of league average goaltending, without more consistent scoring they will continue to tread water in the standings. There is really no true secondary scoring. Even with Jordan Staal’s missed games, he’s not delivered the offense that was surely expected of him. He’s nearly the biggest body, has very good wheels, and a good hard shot. Yet he’s averaging under .50 points per game and, most disturbingly, he’s barely averaging 2 shots per game. One recurring complaint with Jordan is that even with his bulk, he isn’t really a true net front presence. What if he spent more time with his butt in the goalie’s face? He’s tailor-made for tips and rebound bang-ins. He’ll need to spend more time in the dirty areas if his scoring is to pick up. And the team needs more points from Jordan Staal.

UPDATE: And quick as a wink, Jordan picks up two assists in last night’s contest against the Blues. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Brought in as a secondary scoring option from the right side, Lee Stempniak is at least on pace to card about 40 points. While not the 51 he put up last season, it is close to matching his 44 point per season career average. As the RW on Skinner and Rask’s line or the RW on the Aho/Teravainen line, he could certainly be adding to his totals. Frankly, he’s just not shooting the puck enough and even with his excellent distribution skills, averaging less than 2 shots per game isn’t generating the needed offense to be a secondary threat. The puzzling thing is that he’s had good years with higher shot volumes and he’s had good years with lower shot volumes. It would seem, given his line mates, that one of either his goals or his assists would be somewhat higher. Something has to give in that regard. The Canes need more production from this veteran.

Enough has been written and reported on Elias Lindholm’s offensive struggles. Never producing in October, Lindy doesn’t typically heat up until mid-December. Even though his defensive play and his penalty killing have been stellar, as a #5 draft pick, he’s got to produce more offense. Just before his most recent injury, Lindy was showing some flashes with 10 points in his last 15 games. More over he was all over the ice, darn effective on the PK, and generally making things happen with and without the puck. Still, with his wicked wrist shot and a release that has been characterized as the best on the team, Lindholm missed too many opportunities early in the season. Not only does he need to start the season on time, he needs to be serious about working on his craft. A 6.5% shooting percentage doesn’t bode well. Still, once he comes back and gets into the flow, look for Elias Lindholm to shoulder a greater offensive load. This is another case of something that HAS to happen if the Canes want to force their way into the playoff picture.

While there may be other potential scorers missing in action (I’m looking at you Justin Faulk), it is the lack of offense from the top 9 that is the most significant. Remedy that situation and the Hurricanes at least have a chance to string some wins together.Any additional scoring from the back-end would be gravy. Keeping Cam Ward fresh or just having him maintain his current level of play, at least temporarily, addresses the net minder issue. It is only a fragile compromise, however.

While the playoffs are likely a long shot given where the Canes are in the standings today, dreamers remember 2008-2009. The team make up is different. The coaching is different. But the feeling that these guys can come together and win is exactly the same. If Skinner and Rask can get back to and maintain the scoring pace of a true 1st line, if Aho and Teravainen continue to find consistency with their offensive game, if the goaltending situation maintains at current levels, and if key secondary scoring options actually provide secondary scoring, this Carolina Hurricanes team has the chance to make another epic 2nd half of the season run. That’s what keeps the die-hard fans coming back and that’s what will start to fill the arena going forward.

1 COMMENT

  1. Well two things are happening – The Finns continue to finish and Rask and Skinner appear to be picking up their scoring.

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