Hurricanes’ Kochetkov Making Case For Starter Job

As a somewhat tumultuous month of November comes to a close, the Carolina Hurricanes are hoping their recent win over the Calgary Flames was a righting of a ship that had been in free-fall for weeks beforehand. The goals dried up, the power play looked dysfunctional, a handful of multi-goal leads turned into gut-wrenching losses, and injuries to key players were mounting. There were not many positives to take from the stretch, during which the team went 2-4-4 between Nov. 6 and Nov. 25.

However, “not many” positives does not equal “none”. For one, if you’re going to lose eight of 10, banking a point in four of those losses not only means the team is right on the verge, a bounce away from getting back in the win column, but also that the points are continuing to accumulate. That could prove important in a few months once the playoff picture becomes clearer; if and when the Hurricanes inevitably rediscover their identity and get back on track, having those four points could perhaps make a difference in the standings down the road. That, along with the pending return of key players and continued excellence from forwards like Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, and Sebastian Aho, shows there are still reasons for optimism despite the slide.

Perhaps the biggest emergence hasn’t come from a skater at all, though. As the title of this piece suggests, they have another young player that is proving he may be ready to play a big role in the success of the franchise. That player is Pyotr Kochetkov, who realistically can be accredited with at least two or three of those overtime loss points. Despite what were lackluster efforts on many occasions from the 18 men skating in front of him, the 23-year-old Russian goaltender has kept the team in most of his starts on sheer will. With his recent four-year extension, the team clearly has belief in him to be a big piece of the future. Perhaps, though, he’s also going to play a key role in the present.

Kochetkov Taking Advantage of Opportunity

For the entirety of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta’s tenure, there’s been a bit of uncertainty surrounding the Hurricanes’ prospects both in the short and long term. Both have a lengthy history of injury concerns, and in the tandem’s year-and-change in Raleigh, the trend has continued.

Kochetkov was impressive last season when called upon despite having barely arrived in North America, especially at the end of the regular season in key wins against the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. However, through his first six starts of the 2022-23 season, he’s taken it up another notch, despite the fact that his impressive unbeaten-in-regulation streak to begin his career ended at seven games (during which he went 5-0-2).

Pyotr Kochetkov Carolina Hurricanes
Pyotr Kochetkov, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The season is young, but Kochetkov has easily been the best of the Hurricanes’ three goalies so far. Andersen is obviously working with a small sample, but he struggled at the outset, letting in far more soft goals than ‘Canes fans were accustomed to seeing (Toronto Maple Leafs fans were less surprised). After allowing just one goal in each of his first two starts this season, the big Dane allowed three or more goals in four of the six starts before going down with an injury in early November. That includes two games where he allowed five goals.

Related: Hurricanes’ Kochetkov Extension Adds Piece to Goaltending Puzzle

Raanta, meanwhile, has been better, but proved last season (and throughout his career, really), that he isn’t capable of handing a number-one, starter workload. He’s a highly-capable veteran goalie that is as good as any starter in the league when he’s on, but, as with many 1B types, gets inconsistent when consecutive starts pile up. Even he has a low-light reel of poorly-timed, soft goals to his name; it seemed like his first few starts he was good for one puzzling goal allowed that put the Hurricanes in a bind. He’s been much better of late, but he’s still not a goalie the Hurricanes want to lean heavily on for 30 to 40 more starts this season.

That leaves us with Kochetkov, whose recent stretch of games ought to have provided confidence that he may just be ready to be the guy, right now. Despite the aforementioned struggles of the team in front of him, both in terms of producing offense and preventing dangerous chances, Kochetkov seems to get better with each passing game. From the dazzling saves to his athleticism, moxie, contagious energy, and ability to make unconventional desperation stops, he not only has proven himself a quality NHL goaltender at a young age, but also the type of goalie that can sway momentum in his team’s favor with game-changing plays.

Of course, the Hurricanes ended up losing the game above where he made what may just be the save of the year, but the point still stands. Another great example was his highlight-reel, old-school poke check against Zach Hyman of the Edmonton Oilers a couple of weeks ago, a do-or-die diving swat that took a whole lotta guts to even attempt in the first place. The kid simply has a swagger that makes him beloved by fans and teammates alike, and the potential is there for him to be a big-time star between the pipes.

Goalie Battle Lies Ahead; is 3 Too Many, Though?

The biggest question that remains is how the coaching staff will decide to let this play out once Andersen returns. He’s earned the right to get back in the starter’s crease, at least for a time. However, between the fact that he doesn’t seem particularly close to returning as of this writing, and considering how shaky he looked to start the season, it feels only logical that Kochetkov is given a chance to stick even when the veteran is back from injury.

So, what happens then? Do they split time, as a 1A/1B scenario? If so, what happens to Raanta, who the Hurricanes also need to be ready down the stretch in case someone gets hurt again or falters? There is zero chance that he would clear waivers, so it’s not like they can stash him in the minors to get starts for a while, but leaving him in the press box doesn’t seem a prudent path either. So, perhaps Kochetkov ends up getting sent back down since he can move freely between the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL). But that seems detrimental, too, being as he’s most consistently given the Hurricanes the best chance to win so far on the young season.

In many ways, this season already looks like Rod Brind’Amour’s toughest task as a young head coach. The special teams had been in a bad rut, but both units seem to be turning things around recently. The goalscoring has dried up, with some of the younger players struggling to find their footing early on. The lines have been constantly getting tweaked, with many combinations failing to find chemistry. Now, as the cherry on top, a little bit of a goalie controversy just might be formulating, and certainly, the cries for a chance will grow louder if Andersen returns and continues to struggle or Kochetkov continues to steal the show each time he’s in the net.

Frederik Andersen Carolina Hurricanes
Frederik Andersen, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because, on one hand, it’s an envious position to be in to have three goaltenders as talented and capable as the trio the Hurricanes have. However, they can’t expect to rotate that many players and the only one with roster flexibility is the one who’s been playing like the high-end, homegrown starter the franchise has been searching for since Cam Ward. If nothing else, that’s a very exciting prospect for the Hurricanes thinking ahead to the future, but for the now, it certainly presents a bit of a question mark in how the next few months will unfold. In hockey, you ride the hot hand. Things are always subject to change in the blink of an eye in the NHL, but, for now, Kochetkov is making his claim that he’s ready to take the throne as the de facto starter.

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