Hurricanes Still Searching for a Leader

On January 14, the Carolina Hurricanes took down the New York Islanders for their fourth straight win, and they sat firmly in the middle of the playoff hunt. In the last month and a half, the Canes have only won five of 20 games, and they are now on the outside looking in.

This ill-timed downturn for Carolina has more to do with their schedule than their play. In the 43 games the Canes played through Jan. 14, they only faced the four powerhouses of the Metropolitan (Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus and the New York Rangers) seven times. In their 20 since, the Hurricanes have seen those four teams a total of six times, losing in regulation in all of them.

Carolina’s 3-9-1 record against the best teams in the Metro makes it very clear that the Canes are still missing what they need to compete with the best the NHL has to offer on a consistent basis. Most importantly, the Hurricanes need leadership in the locker room and on the stat sheet.

Oh Captain, My Captain?

Eric Staal captained the Hurricanes from 2011 to 2016.(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canes have a lot of youth on their roster. With an average age of approximately 25.8 years, Carolina is the third youngest team in the NHL. Oddly enough, they are one of just two squads playing without a captain. Since trading Eric Staal to the New York Rangers last February, the Hurricanes have played with four alternate captains, Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner and Viktor Rask.

At the beginning of the 2016-17, season Ron Francis made it clear that the organization would not put the captain’s patch on anyone they felt wasn’t ready, and with less than 20 games to play, the Canes’ general manager is still waiting for a leader to emerge.

Filling the role of captain on any NHL team comes with a lot of pressure, and since moving to North Carolina the Hurricanes have had two great leaders in Rod Brind’Amour and the general manager himself. The two combined to captain the team to three Eastern Conference Finals, two Stanley Cup Finals and a Stanley Cup Championship over the course of seven seasons. While Eric Staal wasn’t the same leader as Brind’Amour or Francis, he was, and still is, a great hockey player who has proven that with an excellent rebirth in Minnesota.

Looking at Carolina’s current roster, it is hard to pick a guy who has the resume to match any of the team’s previous three captains. The top choices are obviously the current alternates, but at age 24, Skinner and Rask are a little young. Faulk and Jordan Staal are unquestioned leaders on defense and offense, respectively. However, Francis still hasn’t seen what he needs to in order to name a captain.

Whether it is someone on the current roster, or a player the Hurricanes need to bring in, Francis must have a captain in place at the start of next season. Francis, Brind’Amour and Eric Staal all took command at crucial points of games. Losses against the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, in which the game-winning goals each came with less than 10 minutes to play, show that the Hurricanes are continuing to search for the right player to anchor them, especially in tight contests.

The Balancing Act

Jeff Skinner leads the Canes with 20 goals and 22 assists as of March 9. (Hammersmith Studios- Greg Thompson)

If you look down the Hurricanes’ stat sheet, you will see a very healthy balance of scoring. Skinner leads all Carolina skaters by five points with 42, and 10 players have tallied 20 points or more over the course of this season.  Balanced production is usually something that a team is happy to have, but the Hurricanes may be a little too balanced.

Two of the most successful teams in the Eastern Conference are the Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and the Capitals, who are looking for their second consecutive President’s Trophy, and both rely on a more concentrated group of scorers for the majority of their production.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have each totaled more than 50 points this season, and Crosby and Malkin both have over 60. No other Penguin has more than 40 points.

On the Caps’ side, only Nicklas Backstrom has more than 60 points on the year, but Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Kuznetsov have eclipsed the 50 point mark.

Late Game Leaders

Having big time scorers and playmakers is incredibly important, and the Hurricanes don’t have anyone who sticks out the way Pittsburgh and Washington’s best players do. Guys like Crosby and Ovechkin not only give you someone to rely on when you need a goal, but they also draw more attention from opponents, leaving players like former Hurricane Justin Williams, who plays more of a supportive role on the stat sheet, the opportunity slip past the defense and make a play.

Sebastian Aho could be Carolina’s future. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canes are still lacking that standout player that requires the opposition’s attention every second he is on the ice. Of course, players of Crosby and Ovechkin’s caliber aren’t sitting around waiting to be picked up off of waivers or in the draft every year, and Sebastian Aho has shown that he could be Carolina’s go-to guy in the future.

Aho, though, needs more time to develop before he can become a game changer on a nightly basis, and there is no guarantee that he will be what the Hurricanes need.

Skinner found early success with the Canes, finishing his Calder-winning rookie campaign with 31 goals and 32 assists, and while he has been one of Carolina’s key contributors for his entire career, the closest he has come to his rookie numbers was a 54-point season in 2013-14.

The bottom line is the Hurricanes need to find leadership. As a young team, they need a captain to reel them in emotionally at times and keep the focus on getting better. The Canes also need more consistent sources of offensive production. Balanced scoring is great, but in the Hurricanes’ case, they are missing someone that can be looked to for a goal when it’s needed the most.

Carolina has shown flashes of talent this season that prove they have the ability to play up with the top teams in the NHL, but they need a leader, or leaders, that can elevate the team’s play to that level all of the time.