May as well throw in the towel on this season – the Carolina Hurricanes have lost a game.
I’m kidding, obviously. The Hurricanes still look like one of the very best teams in the league, and have a three-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over the New York Rangers, who have played an additional two games. However, as is often the case at the end of a long winning streak, some poor habits began to creep up. The team overcame them for a few games, mostly thanks to their star power, goaltending, and special teams play. Honestly, the Hurricanes may not have truly deserved the last two wins of that impressive nine-game, season-opening streak.
Alas, along came the Florida Panthers, and the undefeated season was no more. Some of these very issues that had begun surfacing directly tied into the outcome of the game, and are surely things head coach Rod Brind’Amour is heavily focusing on ahead of the team’s matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
So let’s take a look at these concerning trends that have been ailing the team, and deduce how they can work to overcome it, therefore avoiding a letdown of a losing streak as this challenging stretch of games carries on.
My good friend Andrew Schnittker of The Wilson Times and SB Nation’s Canes Country came on our podcast last week after the Hurricanes’ win over the Chicago Blackhawks. The team started pretty poorly on that night too, and really only turned their game on in the third period. Against a struggling Blackhawks team, that one period of good hockey was enough to earn the team a win. However, Schnittker said, and I quote, “If the Hurricanes continue to start this slowly against Tampa Bay or Florida in the next two games, they’re probably going to be down 4-0”. Well, where did things stand after one period of pkay against the Panthers? Smart guy.
Dating back for at least three games now, the Hurricanes have not “started on time”, as Brind’Amour often says. Continuously allowing the opponent to grab early momentum, take the lead, and then trying to battle back is going to work on occasion (see: Chicago), but against quality opponents is usually going to present too tough a task to overcome (see: Florida). Really isn’t too complicated to see the difference between those two teams.
So, the next game against Tampa Bay comes into focus. Can the Hurricanes start on time, or are they going to allow Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and company to carry the early momentum and jump out to a lead again, before trying to battle back against a stingy defense and one of the best goalies on the planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy?
One thing I do want to add on this subject – and this nearly made the cut as a subsection all on it’s own – is the lineup configurations Brind’Amour has utilized the last few games. And, look, far be it from me to criticize one of the best coaches in the game, but I think this question is valid – how much longer is the team going to neutralize two of their best weapons by playing a fourth liner on the top line? Jordan Martinook is a key piece of this team and has been great this season – when he has been on the fourth line, which is the appropriate role for him. But forcing Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho to play with a non-threat is not helping them be at their best.
I said in my last piece Martinook has had some success alongside the two in the past, creating space with his energy and physicality. Right now, it is not working. Aho has just one point in the last three games since the injury to Nino Niederreiter and subsequent promotion of Martinook, after having 10 points in the first seven games. Teravainen also has just one point in that stretch after scoring eight in the first seven games. Those guys have to be part of your tone-setting, early-game success, and it is time to either put Andrei Svechnikov on that line or move impressive rookie Seth Jarvis into more of a featured role. That second part may be important anyway, as the deadline will quickly approach as to whether he will stay in the NHL this year or head back to Portland of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
Frederik Andersen has been absolutely stellar to begin his Hurricanes career, however, expecting him to maintain his obnoxious .950 save percentage (SV%) for the entire season would have been nothing short of foolhardy. I don’t put too much blame on him for his struggles in the Florida game. Three power-play goals, mostly with screens and heavy shots marked for the corner of the net aren’t really easy to put on the goaltender’s shoulders. However, his play has been a tad less spectacular then during that early-season run he had.
The bigger concern is the loss of Antti Raanta. This is pretty much the worst case scenario, considering Andersen was starting to show signs of needing a night or two off, and I get the feeling we were about to see a bit more even of a split over the coming weeks after Andersen got the starting nod in all but one of the first 10 games. Now, Alex Lyon has been recalled from Chicago, and the net will likely be Andersen’s as often as is possible over the coming weeks until Raanta’s return. Lyon is a solid AHL veteran, but his NHL numbers leave a lot to be desired. His career SV% is just .893, and he’s averaging 3.21 goals allowed per game (GAA) over his 22 games with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Perhaps you hope that your defense can cover for a goalie you’re a little less confident in, but that idea is made much tougher with the loss of Brett Pesce, one of the best shutdown defensemen in hockey (whom we’ll talk more about in a minute), after his vicious collision into the boards against Chicago. The ripple effect caused by his injury has thrown the defensive pairings a bit out of whack, pairing a defensively-challenged Tony DeAngelo alongside an off-to-a-slow-start Brady Skjei. That pairing was predictably bad against Florida.
The Hurricanes desperately need Andersen to carry the load over the next couple weeks. The big veteran goalie has played a huge role in the Hurricanes early-season success, and hopefully for the ‘Canes, his rough start against Florida was just a blip on the radar, and not the beginning of a hard crash back down to Earth. The Hurricanes will have to hope this heavy workload, which has been oft-discussed as a main cause in his numbers slipping while in Toronto, is not going to become an issue again.
The Pesce-less Penalty Kill… Which is Being Overused
Fellas, have you considered… staying out of the box just a little bit?
Pesce is one of the most irreplaceable players in the Hurricanes lineup. He plays over 20 minutes almost every night, he has stepped up in the offensive zone with five points in his eight-and-a-half games played while quarterbacking the second power-play unit, and his work on the penalty kill is nothing short of fantastic. In short, he does literally everything for this team. His absence has been felt in every situation during the four periods he’s been out – but especially on the kill, where DeAngelo has now been asked to step in to a role he isn’t well-suited for.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes’ discipline has been pretty abysmal in the last few games. This was obviously under a microscope in the Florida game, where the Hurricanes took four penalties in the opening 20 minutes, spearheading the Panthers’ race to an insurmountable 4-0 lead. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just a random one-off, as the Hurricanes took three penalties, including a double-minor, in the third period the previous game against Chicago. They had jumped in front with two early period goals in that game, and then essentially spent the remainder of the game playing down a man between the eight minutes of penalty kill time and pulled goaltender from the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes were lucky to come out of that unscathed.
The Hurricanes penalty kill has been a strength of the team for years now. Even after losing one of their best killers, Brock McGinn, to free agency this offseason, the unit didn’t seem to miss a beat to begin the year. They put on a clinic in the aforementioned Chicago win, holding Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and company at bay while clinging to the one-goal lead. However, this is certainly not a recipe for success long-term. That unit is starting to look a bit overused, and, hell, there’s probably so much tape on them at this point that opposing coaches may be able to figure out a formula. Florida interim head coach Andrew Brunette and the Panthers sure seemed to be able to.
Special teams are critical in today’s NHL, so the Hurricanes have got to figure out a way to stop using their penalty kill unit so much. They’re relying on Jaccob Slavin and Ethan Bear too much early in Pesce’s absence, and hindering your two best defenseman when you’re already missing a key piece from the group is sinking the unit as a whole. Svechnikov continues to be one of the biggest culprits here, too, as the Russian phenom, despite his 115-point pace through 10 games, is also on pace for nearly 150 penalty minutes. The kid is such an asset on the ice, he has to figure out how to stay on it, and not continue to put his team down at least once seemingly every game.
As previously mentioned, the Hurricanes are in the midst of a tough stretch, as their next three games are against the Lightning, 6-2-2 Philadelphia Flyers, and 7-2-1 St. Louis Blues. After that, a three-game West Coast swing, where the Hurricanes have historically not been great. We were always going to learn a lot about the team over this stretch, and, despite the dud the other night, that still rings true. Florida was certainly a “burn the tape” kind of game, as the Hurricanes simply didn’t have it on that night – this happens in the NHL. It’s a long season.
Still, the team remains in a fantastic position moving forward. They probably won’t continue to win 90% of their games, especially so if they continue to battle these three issues over the next couple weeks. But, it is easy to have faith in Brind’Amour, one of the best leaders and teachers in the sport. With their early success it was easy to forget how many new faces were on the roster. Growing pains should have always been expected as the players got used to their new system and teammates.
For now, the Hurricanes must re-group and overcome their first bout with adversity this season. None of these issues truly seem like season-definers, and the team will surely be fine in the long run – and, honestly, may end up better off down the road with other players being forced to step up during the absence of Pesce and Niederreiter. If the Hurricanes can get going early in games and can fix their discipline issues, another winning streak could very well be just around the corner.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!