Carolina Hurricanes News & Rumors: The Defense, Olympics, & More

As the Carolina Hurricanes continue their second western road trip in a three-week span, at times it feels like this is a team still searching for it’s identity. Most of that is due to injuries and absences, which has led to the team’s consistency and game-to-game flow not really being there yet. The positive side of this is that the team continues to show it can win in different ways, be it a 6-3 win where their offense simply outlasts its opponent, or an ugly one where the defense and goaltending prove stout.

The Hurricanes’ stars have stepped up when they are needed most, and the call-ups for the COVID-ravaged defense are making their marks, too. As the team continues to battle through a tough stretch of schedule, let’s look at those storylines as well as the latest on the NHL’s attendance at the Olympics in this week’s News & Rumors.

What to Do on Defense

The team will be without Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo for at least the next two games, as both players tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 29 (shoutout to Hurricanes official reporter, Walt Ruff, on helping me pin down the exact dates here). In Canada, a 14-day quarantine is required before someone can enter the country, and therefore the defenders would not be eligible until Dec. 14, by which time the team will be gone. Therefore, Minnesota has become something of a de facto target return date, but nothing is official yet.

Jalen Chatfield Carolina Hurricanes
Jalen Chatfield, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jalen Chatfield and Max Lajoie have stepped in admirably during those absences, and at this point a real question exists as to who gets sent down when the defense gets back to full strength.

Especially when it comes to Chatfield, the Hurricanes have shown no hesitancy in using him, and he has delivered with physicality, sound defensive play, and a willingness to jump in the rush and help create offense. He had a big assist during the Winnipeg Jets game for his first point with the team, getting a shot through traffic that Sebastian Aho would eventually bang in.

In a recent interview, head coach Rod Brind’Amour said Chatfield had clearly earned his ice time and has looked great from the start. (from “Category 5: Lindholm, Flames next stop on Hurricanes’ road trip”, The North State Journal, Dec. 10, 2021) It seems highly unlikely that he stays in the lineup once the Hurricanes are healthy on the back end again over their normal top-six, but that leaves the question: what do you do with a player that’s played a large role in setting the tone of games for your team lately?

The 25-year-old is not waiver exempt, and — especially considering how he’s looked this season — it seems highly unlikely the other 31 teams would let a young, right-shot defender with his ability clear. So, does he take the No. 7 role and rotate into the lineup occasionally, or simply stay in the press box awaiting to fill in when another injury or illness strikes? Brendan Smith has largely struggled this season, and since Chatfield’s elevation to the big club, he has played more minutes than Smith in four of the five games.

It has been proven — especially in a pandemic world — that a team can never have enough depth on defense, so the Hurricanes will surely be searching for a way to keep theirs intact. Chatfield, despite humble beginnings as a signing with little fanfare or coverage, has shown the potential to be a real piece of the puzzle in Raleigh moving forward.

Aho Deserves More Love

Can we just gush about the Finnish centerman for a minute? At times, it almost feels like the league doesn’t understand how good the 24-year-old is. It seems like each passing game he gets better, and he has truly become an elite, No. 1 center over the last couple of seasons. In a time when the Hurricanes have dealt with a wide-range of adversity, it is Aho keeping the ship afloat.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the last four games, Aho has recorded multiple points in each, including both Carolina goals during the 2-1 overtime win in Calgary. He’s tied for ninth in the league in scoring with 29 points in 25 games, he continues to excel in his own end, and he’s even winning faceoffs at a career-best 53.8 percent clip. Over the last month, he has registered 17 points in 14 games — nearly double what anyone else on the team has in that span, over Nino Niederreiter’s nine.

Related: Hurricanes Face Tough Contract Decision With Vincent Trocheck

It sort of reminds me of how Aho’s countryman Aleksander Barkov was viewed a couple years ago. Many talked about how good he was, but it still felt like nobody outside of Florida really understood it. That comes with the territory of playing in a smaller market that doesn’t get the exposure of a Toronto, Montreal, or Boston.

Now, like Barkov, Aho deserves to be in the conversation as one of the very best, most complete players in hockey.

Olympics Going to Be NHL-Free?

Fans of the Hurricanes have many reasons to be excited about the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are locks for Finland’s roster, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are good choices for the US (Slavin especially seems like a shoo-in), Andrei Svechnikov will be a key player for Russia, and others will have a chance to represent their respective countries as well.

However, with under two months remaining before the games are set to open, many questions are beginning to arise, ranging from the isolation of the bubble, the possibility of the NHL pulling out, and how the players themselves are feeling about the risks. Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner has even declined his Team Sweden invite already. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan broke all this down extensively.

The NHL did not participate in the Pyeongchang games, marking the first time in five Olympics that players from the best league in the world were absent. Players see the opportunity as a great honor, being able to represent their homelands and competing for the honor of the world’s top hockey country. However, with the instability of a still-COVID-ridden world, and the headache the event is shaping up to be, we may have to wait another four years before the Hurricanes, and the rest of the NHL, return to the games.

Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes
Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That will be a huge disappointment, as the event will feel a little hollow with the best players in the world not in attendance.

Intriguing Road Ahead

Coming off an impressive, 2-1 road win over a very good Calgary Flames squad, the Hurricanes are off to a 2-0-0 start on a road swing once again, with trips to Edmonton, Vancouver, and Minnesota awaiting. They should have plenty of confidence right now with how they’ve implemented new players and barely missed a beat, but the biggest challenge yet awaits in the form of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, and the unrelenting Edmonton Oilers offensive attack. The defense has proven capable, but nobody in the the league has really done anything to slow down the most dominant one-two punch in hockey this season. Brind’Amour might ask Slavin to play 40 minutes in that game.

The Hurricanes, with their excellent 18-6-1 record, still feel like they’re trying to find the consistency in bringing their A-games to the rink, not only on a nightly basis, but from a period-to-period one as well. But banking this many wins, and knowing they’re not playing their best brand of hockey, ought to make them feel pretty good moving forward.

The defensive absences are sorely missed, but they keep finding ways to bank points. That’s what good teams do, and continuing to overcome this adversity is going to build this team up as one nobody wants to face come April.

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