Time really seems to fly by quickly during hockey season, doesn’t it? It feels like just a few weeks ago we were discussing training camp battles, trying to predict what teams would succeed or falter, which young players would break out, what rookies would make their debuts, and so on. Now, here we are, the last day of March, meaning the best time of the year is on the horizon: the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs are just a few short weeks away.
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Before we dive into the playoff matchups and dissect potential paths, it feels like a good time to look back and reflect on how we got here. All the way back in September, I posted a few questions the Carolina Hurricanes needed to answer ahead of training camp. Going back through that post, it seemed it would make for a fun recap; a good chance to remember where this season started, and see where it went.
Some of these questions proved pretty pertinent, and others went in a very different direction than expected. That’s a good example of why preseason expectation-type posts are, while fun, often a fool’s errand. So, with that said, we’ll look back at where my questions on the team were in the preseason, and see how the answers played out over (almost) a full regular season.
Question 1: Is Kotkaniemi Ready for the 2C Role?
We’ll start with an interesting one that is actually somewhat difficult to answer. The most accurate response is probably… not really. There have been plenty of positives to take away, to be sure, but 14 goals and 36 points don’t exactly scream “top-six forward”.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has certainly dealt with some struggles at times this season. Still, with his growth in his own end into one of the most reliable defensive centers in the entire league, along with some big offensive spurts, the 22-year-old Finn has provided glimpses of what the Hurricanes saw in him that preceded the offer sheet. Unfortunately, they have really missed having a player of Vincent Trocheck’s offensive caliber on the second line – and on one of their power play units – and that’s the side of the equation that Kotkaniemi hasn’t been able to consistently fill.
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This position was one of the bigger questions even as recently as the March trade deadline – the Hurricanes have had their issues with putting the puck in the net, and that 2C role was identified as a potential spot to be upgraded for the stretch run. The team was reportedly in on Bo Horvat, and with that being the case, one has to assume the organization saw that need, too. Still, there have been multiple stretches where Kotkaniemi’s play has been effective enough that playing in the top-six – based entirely on merit, not just a dearth of options – doesn’t seem out of the question down the road. He’s always been skilled and seen the ice well, and the way his physicality (97 hits, third on the team) and two-way play have grown, he’s going to earn plenty of chances under his head coach, Rod Brind’Amour.
So, despite the fact that the dropoff in offensive production from the position has been a real issue for the team, there are still a lot of positives to take away from Kotkaniemi’s season. He looks like he’s going to be an important piece of the team for years to come, even though the jury is still out over whether or not he’ll be able to fill that spot in the top-six. Worst case, though, it looks like the Hurricanes already have a rock-solid replacement in-house for Jordan Staal, whenever the captain’s time with the organization comes to an end.
Question 2: What to do on Defense?
This is where things get interesting, and I’ll have to provide a little backstory on what exactly this question meant at the time. I’m telling on myself here, and feel free to roast me in the comments for this one. I promise I can take it.
Back in training camp, it was Dylan Coghlan that had the flashy performance, was producing offense, and was the new addition, once thought of as a throw-in in the deal for Max Pacioretty, that was turning heads. Another article I published at the time spoke of his potential offensive impact. It looked like he was going to get a big opportunity with his new team, alongside veteran free agent acquisition Calvin de Haan. There was an afterthought that I mentioned in this situation, and, well… I’ll just paste it here:
“Still, he’s likely best suited for a seventh defenseman role who can fill in in a pinch due to his lack of any distinctly NHL-quality attributes. All of these players [de Haan, Coghlan, and the player I’m referring to here] will have a chance to make the team and be in the opening night lineup, but if I had to handicap it, his odds would likely be the lowest”.
Using context clues, you can probably assume the player I was talking about in that quote was Jalen Chatfield. We all miss the mark sometimes.
The 26-year-old defenseman’s first full NHL season has been an absolute revelation for the Hurricanes, the one constant on the revolving door that the Hurricanes’ third pairing was for a large chunk of the year. Chatfield has consistently produced in every situation he’s been put in – which includes an impressive stint on the top pair, on his off side when Jaccob Slavin missed time to injury. He’s an elite skater, he’s got an absolutely relentless motor, and his offensive play has developed more and more as the season has gone along. Meanwhile, neither de Haan nor Coghlan ended up being reliable enough pieces to stick in the lineup for any consistent amount of time, and have both been relegated to the press box since the trade deadline acquisition of Shayne Gostisbehere.
While the Hurricanes have their issues both offensively and also between the pipes, their top-six on the blue line is unequivocally one of the best in the entire league. A big reason that’s come to pass is that Chatfield has teamed up with Gostisbehere to form what may well be the best third pairing in the league. It’s an absolute luxury for Brind’Amour to have three pairings as reliable as he does.
If the Hurricanes are going to make a run this spring, it’s going to come on the backs of these blueliners. And if that does happen, don’t be surprised if Chatfield’s name becomes a very familiar one as those around the league begin to get familiar with his game.
Question 3: Which Young Gun Will Break Through?
That post was wrapped up by taking a look at an ever-exciting topic that any hockey fan wants to know when the season begins; which young player will have that breakthrough year, entering a new tier in their NHL journeys, going from depth piece to centerpiece, from star to superstar? The Hurricanes did see that happen this year, and, once again, it was the player that I brought up last when originally discussing the topic.
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To touch on the first two players mentioned in the original post, their seasons sort of took opposite paths. Seth Jarvis, for starters, has dealt with the two dreaded words no second-year player wants to hear: sophomore slump. The 21-year-old is on pace to regress on his point totals this season despite already having played in more games than 2021-22, and he’s especially struggled late in the year. In addition to his offensive struggles, he’s begun missing defensive assignments, too.
The bright side is he’s still on pace for nearly 40 points, and sophomore slump is a term for a reason; a player isn’t sneaking up on anyone in year two, with some tape on how to defend them available to opponents, and to be frank, the NHL is just hard. He’s young enough, talented enough, and hard-working enough to believe his future is still bright.
Secondly, Andrei Svechnikov was putting together yet another great year, with an All-Star selection to his name, improved defensive play, and another 30-goal season not totally out of the question if he finished the season hot. Then, of course, he tore his ACL in early March, just a couple of weeks before his 23rd birthday, ending his season and stalling an impressive ascent to stardom. The Russian power forward’s absence has put a big damper on the Hurricanes’ postseason hopes, as the team has really struggled to find its footing without him.
But, despite the two unfortunate years for those two youngsters, another has stepped up his game in a big way, setting a career-high in points and proving his struggles of yesteryear a fluke. Martin Necas shook off his own one-year-delayed sophomore slump in a big way, and sits five points clear of Sebastian Aho for the team lead with eight games to play. There were many questions about his future in Carolina after last season, albeit questions that the organization always shot down, and this year their faith has been rewarded as he’s been just under a point-per-game player (27 goals, 68 points in 74 games).
Confidence is a funny thing in hockey, and Necas has gotten his back. On the flip side, Jarvis’ has slipped as his poor puck luck continued throughout the season, and at this point, he’s struggling to even produce some of the chances he simply couldn’t bury early in the season when his overall play looked much better. If he can get going down the stretch it would be huge for a team fighting it offensively right now.
Questions Still Can Be Answered Late in the Year
Despite the clock running out on the 2022-23 regular season, the answers to these questions aren’t necessarily set in stone and complete. There will be time to change the narrative until the Hurricanes are eliminated from the postseason. That means Jarvis, despite his struggles, can still put it together and help the team make a run; he was, after all, one of their best players in the 2022 Playoffs.
On the flip side, a lot of Necas’ improvements will be overshadowed a bit if he continues to be a non-factor once the playoffs begin. He had just five points, all assists, in the team’s 14 playoff games last spring, and in total has scored just three times in 33 career playoff appearances. With Pacioretty and Svechnikov’s absence, it is absolutely imperative that he continues to be the game-breaker he has been a majority of this season.
With the team on a three-game losing streak, including a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings coming on a game-winning goal with three seconds left in regulation on Thursday, the vibes aren’t exactly in the best place right now for the Hurricanes. Between the injuries, slumps, and tight playoff race, it’ll be up to Brind’Amour and the leaders in the locker room like Staal and Aho to right the ship before the playoffs start in a couple of weeks. But as this piece portends, things are always changing in the NHL, and it doesn’t always take 70-plus games for that to be the case. The Hurricanes didn’t cross the 100-point mark in their 71st game by accident, and it didn’t happen because of just a couple now-injured players. This is a deep group with a chance to make some noise this spring.
It is dig-deep time for the Hurricanes. They have to buckle down, find a new gear, and push through to a new level with the playoffs fast approaching – and a hellacious path ahead through the meat grinder that is the Eastern Conference. But that’s what this time of year is all about, and their head coach is as good a leader as any to lead them through it.