After going down 4-0 barely two minutes into the second period of Saturday night’s showdown between two of the NHL’s top teams, many around the Carolina Hurricanes were surely thinking “this can’t get much worse”. Briefly, the team did make a push against the league-leading Colorado Avalanche for a glimmer of hope in the game, but, by the time the final horn sounded, it did get worse. Much, much worse.
With just over a week remaining in the regular season, the Hurricanes saw captain Jordan Staal and starting goaltender Frederik Andersen lost to injuries in Colorado. The severity remains unknown for the time being, but either way, these are two crushing losses to contend with at this time of the year. Carolina had enough problems as things already stood. The team is 3-5-0 in the last eight games, and 11-10-4 since March 1, a far cry from the fantastic pace they were at for the first five months of the season.
Today, we’re not only going to consider the team’s outlook with six games to go and how the issues surrounding them are now compounded with these losses, but also how it presents something of an opportunity for others to step up. The many questions and red flags that have popped up in recent weeks still remain to be answered, but now there are even more as the team looks to ensure that one of the best seasons in the history of the Carolina/Hartford franchise wasn’t completely flushed down the drain in one period. For some players, though, this could be their chance to step up and take their games to new levels, and really make their marks on the franchise.
What Happened & What it Means for Hurricanes in the Short-Term
Late in the third period, Jordan Staal chipped a puck deep into the Colorado end. Superstar defenseman and Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar put his shoulder into the big guy for a clean, heavy hit. I’d wager the number of times the 6-foot-4, 220-pound center has gotten laid out like that is countable on one hand. Staal went straight down the tunnel, and, obviously, did not return. While we have no updates as of yet, the upper-body injury looks like a major issue for the Hurricanes this close to the postseason.
On a basic level, if Staal’s injury forces him to miss even the first playoff series, or if he struggles upon his return, the road for Carolina in the Eastern Conference playoffs will be much more difficult. They will be playing a dangerous team capable of beating them in the first round no matter what. Maybe you can argue for Sebastian Aho or Jaccob Slavin, but – especially when he’s playing as he has recently – there probably isn’t a more irreplaceable player on this team. “Hot” is an understatement of a descriptor for the level he’s played at recently, as the defensively-oriented center has eight goals and 10 points in the last seven games (this after scoring eight goals in the first 67 games of the season). We’ll get further into what potential options exist below, but there isn’t a player on this roster that can simply step into his shoes.
Of course, as you likely know, the misery didn’t end there. After a bit of an awkward play involving a weird-looking collision with an Avalanche player earlier in the game, Andersen crumpled over after making a seemingly routine save with under five minutes to play. The Danish goaltender was already having his worst outing of the season, but the Hurricanes are going to miss him dearly nonetheless if the lower-body injury, best guesses as of now is something with his leg or groin, keeps him out into the postseason. Andersen is set to have an MRI, so we should learn more about his status during the coming week.
This is really a “just get/stay healthy” portion of the season, which makes these outcomes sting all the more. The Eastern Conference playoffs – as outlined in a recent post – are going to be an absolute gauntlet no matter how you slice it. I doubt the Hurricanes, who have Stanley Cup aspirations, are going to care who they meet in the first round because to achieve their goal, they’re going to have to go through three excellent hockey teams to make the Final. I can guarantee head coach Rod Brind’Amour would have rather lost out in the regular season, even if it meant falling to third in the Metropolitan Division, than lose either one of these two. Even if they return within the next week-and-a-half, there will be concerns about rust or not being 100 percent – and these are two players the Hurricanes absolutely need at full capacity.
Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, this is just part of what makes hockey so fickle – this time of year is often about who catches the breaks, who is healthiest, and who gets hot. In that regard, this game was an extremely tough blow. The team is surely in a somber place right now, waiting on news that these two key pieces to the puzzle are going to be back sooner rather than later. Until they are, it’ll simply be about the players on the roster stepping up and keeping the ship afloat.
What if the Staal, Andersen Injuries Are Long-Term?
The Hurricanes have struggled to score consistently lately. With Staal’s aforementioned hot streak, the pressure will be on the other forwards all the more to create offense and try to climb out of that rut. On the flip side, there have been too many defensive breakdowns, too – and that’s definitely a place one of the best defensive forwards in hockey will be missed. If they were struggling to prevent high-danger chances with him, how will they look without him? My best guess is that Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who only recently got back from injury himself, will step into a more prominent role, and Vincent Trocheck could very well see more checking minutes against opposing top lines. Still, these probably aren’t the roles the Hurricanes want these two filling in an ideal world.
Derek Stepan (who probably shouldn’t have been out of the lineup as often as he has been recently) is probably a lock to draw back into the lineup, but the fourth line is going to lose a lot of its intrigue without Kotkaniemi as a legitimately skilled threat. Stepan somewhat fills that role, too, but he was most effective with the 2018 third-overall pick next to him. It’s also worth mentioning that it is unlikely Jack Drury gets a call-up, but it’s a reasonable question if his style of play might actually be the best option if Staal does miss time into the postseason. He’s tough to play against, responsible defensively, offensively capable, and great in the faceoff dot. Can the Hurricanes reasonably expect a 22-year-old with two games of NHL experience to replace the Hurricanes’ captain, especially in the toughest time of the year, though?
The situation in net is a little clearer, but perhaps even more intriguing. After an incredible beginning to his North American career with the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Chicago Wolves’ 22-year-old Russian netminder Pyotr Kochetkov has been called up to Carolina on an emergency basis. The reigning AHL rookie of the month has a record of 13-1-1 in Chicago with a .921 save percentage (SV%). He has the size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), elite athleticism, and track record – including success in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), widely seen as the second-best league in the world – that you want in a prototypical goalie prospect in today’s NHL. He’s widely looked at as the potential future in net for the Hurricanes, with perhaps an even higher ceiling than he who formerly held that moniker, Alex Nedeljkovic, who now plays for the Detroit Red Wings.
However, it still remains to be seen how much the young goalie will actually see the crease, which will come down to how much time Andersen misses. If he’s only out a few games, the likely path is to ride with Antti Raanta, although the April 23-24 back-to-back against the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils could very well bring us to Kochetkov’s debut. Still, Raanta’s sharpness will be crucial for the Hurricanes now. The Finn would surely be the guy going into the playoffs if Andersen isn’t good to go, unless something unforeseen like Kochetkov coming up, getting a chance, and setting the league absolutely ablaze happens (he’s got enough talent and swagger to do it). The veteran has shown all year he’s a highly-capable goalie, and the team should have confidence in him behind them.
We’ve spoken a lot about the Hurricanes’ depth over the course of the season, but it is really going to be put to the test now. The team lost two of the toughest-to-replace players on the roster, and are stuck with fill-ins who are either unproven or aren’t a perfect fit trying to replicate the roles they would be asked to. In Staal’s case especially, this is why it’s going to be highly important for players already on the roster to step up even further than they already are – and when I say this, the players I have in mind already have a heck of a lot on their plate. They’ll still need to do more though, as this task isn’t going to be a light one.
Hurricanes Must Move on Quickly, and the Youth Must Lead the Way
Ultimately, the question now becomes, how will this team react? Do they feel sorry for themselves and come out disheartened, with confidence shaken and allowing this unfortunate period of hockey to define the season? Or, does the ultra-competitive nature of guys like Aho and Andrei Svechnikov (among others) allow, nay, demand them to step up to show the way to a largely-young team as their captain does on a nightly basis, thus proving they can be the emotional, on- and off-ice leaders of this organization’s future? It’s a highly unfortunate situation, but no one will feel sorry for them – and there’s every opportunity for this to be a launching point for the Hurricanes’ franchise players and signature moments in two rising superstars’ careers that are looked back upon after the end of their careers, hopefully well over a decade from now.
Aho already has a ton on his plate, as the first-line center who often draws top lines a significant amount, plays in all situations and is counted on to be Carolina’s offensive leader with consistent, high-end production. He’s done all of those things at an elite level all year, but now is the time for him to start willing the Hurricanes to victories. At times, especially recently, Staal himself has been the one to go into domination mode, and simply out-will the opponent with heavy forechecking and relentless pressure. This is part of what leads to Svechnikov’s mention, as the powerful 22-year-old has shown flashes of this in his career at times; now is his chance to make a statement that he is a leader within the Carolina organization, bringing his otherworldly skill on a nightly basis and finishing the season strong.
The Hurricanes have had their fair share of struggles the last couple of months. Time is ticking away, and the team is much closer to limping into the postseason than it is to peaking at the right time; especially after these two significant injuries. However, this is the time for the players I mentioned, and anyone else who wants to prove themselves as the catalysts and leaders of this team, perhaps a Seth Jarvis, Martin Necas, or even a veteran like Nino Niederreiter or Trocheck, to show their value to this organization. The last three players listed there would be well-served financially to do that anyway, being that all three have expiring contracts this summer.
So, yes, the Colorado game was an utter nightmare. While the score was bad enough, the roster losses were worse, and present potential absences that could easily be used as an excuse for a slog through the end of the season and an early, first-round playoff exit. We shouldn’t expect that, not from this team, led by this head coach. There is more than enough skill, desire, and structure in that locker room to overcome a hellish couple of weeks. Staal has been the quintessential Carolina Hurricane for a decade. Now, it’s Aho and Svechnikov’s time to prove the next decade will be theirs.
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!