Hurricanes Need Gardiner, Traffic & the SAT Line to Get Back in the Series

With back-to-back 2-1 losses on home ice to start their series against the Tampa Bay Lightning – leaving the Carolina Hurricanes in a tough spot – Caniacs everywhere are speculating what can be done to get the team back on the right track. Dramatic changes seem unnecessary, as the team has been competitive in both games and has been victims of some unfortunate bounces not going their way. That said, a couple of tweaks could provide a spark that the team is desperately searching for.

One potential switch I’ll eliminate right away is goaltending. A portion of the fanbase has called for Petr Mrazek to start Game 3 – not because of ineffective play from Alex Nedeljkovic, but because of the spark it could provide the team. Personally, while I do understand the potential upside in that, I don’t love the thought of benching one of your top performers, especially as the root of their problems in this series hasn’t involved him. Benching Ned could send the wrong message, and it’s hard to reasonably expect much from Mrazek, who hasn’t played in nearly one month.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

There are definitely some other opportunities the Hurricanes could explore to try and swing things in their favor. Still, it’ll be a daunting task without the services of Nino Niederreiter and likely Vincent Trocheck. Regardless, the ‘Canes have some intriguing options that could help alleviate the problems plaguing them right now and tip the scales towards them in this series.

Establishing Net-Front Presence

It goes without saying, but the loss of Niederreiter has really hurt the Canes in multiple areas. Beyond his absence weakening their PP2 unit, a lot of the things Nino excels at doing away from the puck are irreplaceable on this roster. His forechecking ability and puck-retrieval skills along the wall are matched only by Jordan Staal, and his ability to go to the net for screens, rebounds and deflections is severely missed when he’s not playing. He also scored more goals this season than any Hurricane not named Sebastian Aho, so he’s an immense loss.

The Canes do have a player who’s shown a similar willingness to do many of the same things Niederreiter does, and it’s puzzling they haven’t gotten said player involved in the postseason thus far. That player is Morgan Geekie, and he had a lot of success towards the end of the regular season and did so with this net-front and below-the-goal-line presence in the offensive zone. He had seven points in 14 games towards the end of the year for the team – playing less than 10 minutes a night – and did a lot of that damage from the areas that the Hurricanes have been unable to penetrate throughout the first two games.

Nobody would expect Geekie to come in and save the day, but his presence would be a welcomed addition to this group in various ways. He would definitely add a dynamic to the struggling PP2 unit, either by parking himself in front of the net or using his underrated vision to distribute the puck from below the goal line. Things really seemed to be trending in the right way for him, and the confidence he built could be a difference-maker for this group.

Morgan Geekie Carolina Hurricanes
Morgan Geekie, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

For a bit of a different perspective on things, I had the pleasure of picking Andrew Schnittker’s (@aschnitt53) brain a little bit. Andrew, the managing editor of Canes Country, was in attendance at Game 2, and I thought an in-person viewpoint on things would add a great element to this piece. I asked him what his biggest key was to swinging this series back into the Hurricanes’ favor, and his analysis was very similar to my own:

“They just have to find a way to capitalize on the chances they do get, and generate more quality chances. I think Vasilevskiy was good, not great tonight.” Andrew said. “I honestly can’t remember a “wow” save he made. In the first period especially, the Canes seemed to be looking for the perfect play, passing out of good shooting opportunities and ending up with poor shooting angles. So, to put it simply, they’ve got to make it tougher on Vasilevskiy. Get traffic in front of him, take good shots when they have them, etc. If they can’t find a way to do that, this series probably isn’t coming back to Raleigh again.”

– Andrew Schnittker, Canes Country.

Andrew also said that “a shake-up couldn’t hurt” when I suggested that Geekie could be a difference-maker in those regards. Another guy we discussed was Max McCormick, who obviously doesn’t have much offensive skill, but he’s another guy who isn’t afraid to crash the paint and could provide a pest-like impact on the Canes’ fourth line. I went to bat for Cedric Paquette in my series preview, but through two games, it’s pretty apparent that he’s just not up to it.

Regardless, sticking to the current status quo isn’t going to work for the team. They’re not challenging Andrei Vasilevskiy enough, and even when they are generating rebounds, there’s nobody around to cash in on them. Whether Geekie or potentially even McCormick can make a difference in that regard remains to be seen, but it’s hard to believe they could do a worse job than what we’ve been seeing.

The Power Play Needs to Click

Throughout the regular season, the Canes’ power-play unit converted 25.6% of their opportunities, which was the second-best rate in the NHL. The success of that unit was a major part of their first-place finish in the Central Division. The playoffs have been a bit of a different story for the group, however, as they’ve converted on just 5 of their 26 opportunities, which is below 20 percent.

Games get tighter in the playoffs and there’s less open space out there on the ice, so it’s understandable why the power play hasn’t seen the same success. But on the flip side, for a team that’s currently struggling to create offense at 5-on-5, they really need to be cashing in their chances on the man advantage. But in the Tampa series, the unit has gone just 1-for-7, and their lone goal was a Jake Bean shot deflected in off a leg.

All in all, the group just hasn’t been good enough. The top unit hasn’t scored, and the PP2, in general, has struggled even to enter the zone with possession. The vision and offensive creativity of Geekie could be a difference-maker for that unit, and I think an insertion of Jake Gardiner could do wonders for that group as well. If he’s healthy (which he seemingly is), he could provide a veteran puck-moving presence and has done a good job quarterbacking that unit over the past two seasons.

Carolina Hurricanes Jake Gardiner
Carolina Hurricanes Defenceman Jake Gardiner (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It just seems like a worthy switch. While Bean scored the lone goal for the group, he’s struggled to move the puck through the neutral zone and has looked really passive overall. He always prefers to defer to others, and the Canes just need a guy to come in and take control. Gardiner has the ability and should be given a chance to make a difference.

The Canes’ power play as a whole is under-manned without Trocheck and Niederreiter, who’re obviously both vital contributors to each grouping. It’ll take a team effort and some depth guys stepping up to get them back on the right track, but it’s absolutely essential to the team’s hopes. If this power play can’t start making the most of their chances, it’ll be nearly impossible to emerge from this series.

The SAT Line

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I think it’s safe to say that the Canes’ season has now reached that point of the programming. Just two losses away from elimination, the team scored just one goal in 118 minutes of hockey in the first two games of the series, before a late Andrei Svechnikov goal saved them from being shut out in Game 2. Scoring two goals in two games isn’t good enough against any team in the NHL – much less the defending Stanley Cup Champions…. so, what to do?

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

The most logical solution to attempt is to re-unite the dangerous trio of Svechnikov, Aho and Teravainen – the SAT line – and hope that they can generate consistent offense as they’ve done over the years. Of course, by playing these three guys together, you’re really limiting the offensive capabilities throughout the rest of your lineup, but I’m not sure that matters at this point. The team is already struggling to score as it is, and the “balanced” lines they’ve used over the first two games just haven’t yielded good results. Sometimes you just have to put your faith in the hands of your star players. Andrew was in total agreement:

“[With SAT], there are pros and cons. You have to get those three going, and reuniting them could be the way to do it,” he said. “But without Trocheck and Niederreiter, it’s tough to build much depth scoring behind them. However, that’s going to be the case, at least somewhat, no matter what you’d do. … I’d do it. Reunite your top three – the top line that you know can be dominant when it’s clicking and hope it can carry you. As much as this team is struggling to score, it’s probably time to throw your fastball.”

Andrew Schnittker, Canes Country.

The stats suggest that we’ve reached the point now where the reunion needs to happen. Warren Foegele has scored just one goal in the playoffs (with less than 30 seconds left to make it 3-0 against Nashville in Game 2), while Jordan Martinook, Steven Lorentz and Jesper Fast have been held goalless. You’re not relying on those guys to be scoring threats, but you’re getting virtually nothing from them offensively, and, aside from Lorentz, all of that bunch has had stints either in the top-six or on the power play. 

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The depth scorers just aren’t providing depth scoring, and in turn, the star players haven’t produced as such. Teravainen has just a goal and two assists in eight games, while Svechnikov’s struggles have been well documented. At this point, the best solution for everyone involved seems to be reuniting this trio, which has proven to be one of the most potent scoring lines in the NHL when they’re clicking. And if it doesn’t work, at least you go down swinging with your destiny in the hands of your top players.

Recap

There’s no question that the Canes envisioned the first two games of this series going much differently, but the series is far from over and they’re a strong enough team to overcome this deficit. They’ve gained crucial experience from times of adversity over the past couple of seasons, and there’s no doubt that Rod Brind’Amour will have the group ready to go into Tampa and try to steal a win (and hopefully two!). The Canes’ biggest focus right now is getting this series back to Raleigh for Game 5 and, if they can, anything can happen from there.


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