Christmas came early for the Carolina Hurricanes in the form of a red-hot December, plus a return to action from superstar center Sebastian Aho. The team has gone 10-0-1 so far this month, and that includes their current eight-game win streak and 13 straight games overall without a regulation loss. They’ve risen to the top of the Metropolitan Division, and have the second-best record by points percentage in the NHL. Things are obviously going well in Raleigh, and with the return of Max Pacioretty inching closer and closer, they legitimately have a chance to be even better moving forward.
The lineup returning to health is just part of what we’ll cover in this week’s mailbag, which also included questions about Pyotr Kochetkov and the goalie situation, potential trade targets, and more. Thanks to those of you who submitted questions this week. If you didn’t get a chance to get yours in, just be on the lookout in a few weeks – we’ve begun to do these monthly, so be sure to follow us on Twitter @bwstanley26 and @jacobbilingt10 for updates. But, without further adieu, let’s jump into this week’s questions.
Question #1: The Goalie Situation
From James MacLane (@maclane_james): What’s the goalie situation going to look like with both [Frederik] Andersen and Antti Raanta back (and Kochetkov playing strong and recently signing an extension)? Could they move one of them at the trade deadline?
Jacob Billington (JB): For the rest of the season, it is impossible to think that Kochetkov isn’t part of a split tandem with whoever the Hurricanes decide to keep with him. I don’t picture the team opting to go with three goalies, so the conversation becomes about how they narrow it down to two. The easy answer is, as the question suggests, trading Raanta at the deadline to acquire assets. The Hurricanes are looking to win this year, so they won’t be looking to move their number one goalie in Andersen, and Kochetkov has already taken the lead from Raanta with Andersen injured.
My guess would be that once Andersen is healthy, it will be him and Kochetkov taking the team into the playoffs. Now, I could understand the argument that Kochetkov is already the guy, and the Hurricanes will not need Andersen, and could get a lot more value for him at the deadline, but I think they would rather play it safe, trade Raanta, and re-evaluate in the offseason.
Brandon Stanley (BS): I agree with the beginning of what Jacob said here about Kochetkov clearly being at least 50 percent of the solution. Other than that, though, I’m going to disagree that a trade of Raanta is imminent. This franchise’s last two seasons have proven just how important goaltending depth is in the NHL, and with Andersen’s struggles to stay healthy since last April, I’m not sure the Hurricanes will risk being one injury away from an American Hockey League (AHL) goaltender being thrown into the fire.
And make no mistake – if something were to happen to Kochetkov while Andersen continued to battle the injury bug, it will be a pure AHL goaltender taking the reins. Zach Sawchenko and Cale Morris have both struggled mightily with the Chicago Wolves (in fairness, their defense is pretty abysmal), and the Hurricanes would be in a very bad spot if either were to be pressed into duty for an extended period. So, while it’s not impossible, I would keep Raanta as insurance. As for playing time, with his struggles, I think it would have to be pretty much an evenly split Andersen and Kochetkov, 1A/1B scenario, but I wouldn’t be that surprised to see Rod Brind’Amour work Raanta in occasionally, considering his modus operandi. Perhaps an AHL conditioning stint could help, as recently seen with Dylan Coghlan.
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Still, the upside of a tandem of those two is too good to pass up, as the Hurricanes will surely hope Andersen can re-discover his Vezina-candidate form of yesteryear, and pair that Kochetkov, who can hopefully carry on his… well… Vezina-candidate form of this year.
Question #2: The Healthy Top-Six
From Louie (@GoldenCaniac): When Aho and Pacioretty come back, how would you put together the lines?
JB: With Aho returning, he was always headed right back into the first-line center spot alongside his regular linemates, Seth Jarvis and Teuvo Teravainen. This leaves Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Martin Necas together on the second line again. This should be the lineup when everyone is healthy.
Now, adding Pacioretty to the mix? That is where things get difficult. It would be really easy if he played center and could bump Kotkaniemi down, but the top-six winger is arguably the strongest group on this team. Plus, you have the line of Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast and Jordan Staal that has been the Hurricanes’ best this season. Having to figure out how to fit an elite, scoring winger into an already-deep lineup is a good problem to have, though. I think Pacioretty starts off on that third line, moving Martinook down. He will certainly get some looks in the top six, eventually, perhaps swapping spots with Teravainen. It will come down to who is playing the best hockey and how chemistry develops with Pacioretty and the team.
BS: I would be surprised if Brind’Amour broke up the Staal, Fast, and Martinook trio with the way they’ve played the last month or so. I know the head coach doesn’t really number his lines, but that has been the team’s first one. The captain’s line has always been elite defensively, but now they’re also scoring regularly, they’re absolutely dominant on the forecheck, constantly hemming in other teams’ top lines, and they’ve simply made a habit of wearing their matchup down to the point they’re totally ineffective by the third period. So, Pacioretty will either start in the top six, or he’ll get eased in on the fourth line – which, while possible considering the injury he’s coming off of, seems like a somewhat detrimental use of an elite asset.
Would Brind’Amour pull the trigger on trying Necas out at center, a desire the Czech playmaker expressed in the past? It seems unlikely, considering his breakout year, as messing with his current mojo seems risky. This would mean Kotkaniemi gets bumped down, and leave a top-six of Necas centering Svechnikov and Pacioretty, with Jarvis, Aho, and Teravainen staying intact. That configuration would be pretty deadly. If not, Jarvis may end up getting the short end of the stick. His elite compete level would make him a usable bottom-sixer, if not a flat-out high-end one, thanks to his skill. He’s driving and creating a lot of offense right now, and having that on the fourth line alongside some players proving quite capable in their own right in Stefan Noesen, Derek Stepan, and Paul Stastny could be pretty interesting.
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Not to mention, if Ondrej Kase comes back, a “fourth” line with some combination of Kase, Stastny, Noesen, and Jarvis just might be the very best in the entire NHL. Not to mention it pushes both Stepan – also playing very well lately after a slow start – and one more of those aforementioned players to the press box. As Jacob said above, “too many good players” is quite the problem to have. When you put it down this way, it appears the Hurricanes have an embarrassment of riches up front.
Question #3: A Potential Trade Target
From Zach R. (@zroeps91): If you could choose one realistic trade target for the Hurricanes to acquire, who would it be?
JB: There are a lot of names floating around the trade market right now. Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrick Kane, Vladislav Gavrikov, almost the entire Vancouver Canucks team, and the list goes on. Talking about trades is hard with this team. They don’t have any glaring holes in the lineup, the depth is performing well, and they have stayed relatively healthy.
One name I will throw out there is Sean Monahan. He is having a resurgent year in Montreal and could add some really good center depth. A healthy Hurricanes group runs with Aho, Kotkaniemi, Staal, and a few other players slotting into that last spot. Adding Monahan as a pure rental would give the team four fully capable centers, with lots to give at both ends of the ice on any given night. I am not sure what the asking price would be, but he is a pending unrestricted free agent, and with the productive year he is having, could slot in anywhere in the lineup and help the team.
BS: I initially didn’t want to go with a player that’s being mentioned in rumours already, but if we’re going for “realistic”, I’m going to piggyback off what Jacob said about the Canucks and a potential fire sale. How good would Bo Horvat look in red and black? The Canucks captain is on pace for nearly 60 goals, currently tied for third in the NHL with 24, and scoring over a point-per-game. He’s a leader, plays a complete, 200-foot game, and has a power forward style that can score greasy goals on the interior or flashy ones outside of it. Plus, he’s a center that could slot into the 2C role and thrive alongside Necas and Svechnikov. He is an unrestricted free agent (UFA) after the season, something general manager Don Waddell has shown an aversion to targeting, but this would be a great time to make an exception.
The Hurricanes could use both a little more power and a little more goalscoring (even if their early-season struggles in the latter department have largely been reversed of late). You can never have enough talent and finishing, and adding both Pacioretty and Horvat to an already-surging team? Sheesh. The league would be fully on notice. Injuries will happen and putting together that kind of firepower would be some kind of insurance policy if a top player or even two goes down. Suddenly this looks like a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite, not just a contender. If the Hurricanes can put together an enticing-enough package, perhaps centered around a couple of their top prospects (perhaps Jamieson Rees and Scott Morrow?) and picks, then maybe a roster player or two for money purposes, you do that any day that ends in “y”.
Question #4: A Pregame Meal
From Erich (@Erich_K8): In a surprise visit, you have to make the pregame meal for the Hurricanes. What are you guys gonna make before they play?
JB: I like to tell myself I am a good cook, but I don’t know how many people would say the same. Steak and asparagus are my go-to, but that might be a bit too boring of an answer for you. I have holiday dinner on my mind. Obviously portioned much less than I will be eating this week, but some turkey breast, mashed sweet potato, and some green beans or brussels sprouts would be ideal in my opinion.
BS: I hope they like cereal. I’m sort of kidding, but unlike Jacob, I know for a fact I’m not exactly the best cook in the world. I guess I could keep it simple and throw some steaks on the grill, but that would be time-consuming; if we’re going with a “surprise”… that seems like something I’d have to plan out a little more. I do make one pretty awesome meal that I stole from my step-brother, it’s a Korean barbecue dish with beef – it’s absolute gas – made with some rice and veggies, so perhaps that would appease Brind’Amour. Whatever I ended up making, it would be chosen with avoiding the wrath of the head coach in mind, I can tell you that much for certain.
Thanks again to everyone who asked questions this week. From everyone here at The Hockey Writers, we hope you all had a fantastic holiday season, whether spent with friends, family or even simply on vacation as an opportunity to get away from everyday stressors. The holidays provide a time to look around and consider what’s important, and it always makes me appreciate the opportunity I have here just to talk about hockey and watch the games while considering it a job. As the saying goes, do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
As for the hockey, the Hurricanes will be back in action Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, before wrapping up the 2022 portion of the schedule against the Florida Panthers. With the New Year coming up, some of the most exciting dates on the calendar are fast approaching. Before you know it, the outdoor game then the trade deadline will be upon us, which means the push for the playoffs is very much underway. The ‘Canes, at 21-6-6, obviously look like a serious factor in the Cup conversation, and with Pacioretty returning relatively soon, it will be all the more fascinating to watch how the next couple of months unfold.
With games returning following the short Christmas break, and the 2022 World Juniors about to kick off, too, there will be plenty of action to talk about in the coming days. Be sure to check back as we’ll have all the breakdowns, analysis, and more here at THW, and here’s to a great 2023!