Hurricanes News & Rumors: Stars of the Week, Illness, and World Juniors

As the Carolina Hurricanes head to Minnesota for the last stop on another road trip, they’ve gained six of a possible eight points on their trek through western Canada. A disappointing, but hard-fought 2-1 loss at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks — a place the team is probably glad they only have to play in once a year, being that they have only won once in 15 years there — shouldn’t put much of a damper on what has overall been a successful road trip.

There are certainly concerns continuing to haunt the team, but positive news arrived today as two players were named “Stars of the Week” in two different leagues — arguably the two best leagues in the world in the NHL and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The team should be getting at least two key pieces back Tuesday evening, too.

All that and more in today’s News & Rumors; let’s get to it.

Illness Still Running Rampant Through Hurricanes Locker Room

As the Hurricanes return to the United States, Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo, each of whom has missed the last seven games due to COVID-19 protocol, should be cleared to rejoin the team against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday night. However, star center Sebastian Aho was held out of the team’s 2-1 loss in Vancouver, causing concern that he may be unavailable for some time. The issue was initially ruled to be non-COVID-related, but this seems to be a bit more up in the air after the game, per Cory Lavalette of The North State Journal.

This is obviously a huge loss, especially considering the tear Aho had been on of late. This illness has been circulating the locker room for a couple weeks now, and defenseman Ethan Bear also missed a game immediately after returning from his bout with COVID due to the “bug.” Bear played just 9:30 in Vancouver and 10:56 in Edmonton in his first two games back, but it’s hard to know whether that’s due to his recovery from COVID-19 draining him, or still being under the weather with whatever this new issue is.

UPDATE: Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis have both been placed into COVID-19 protocol, as well as a member of the training staff, per the Hurricanes PR. Not much to say other than this is undoubtedly a massive blow to the team. With the guidelines in Canada, they are likely out of commission for 14 days, too. It will be interesting to see who the team moves to replace these players; perhaps Jack Drury makes his NHL debut? CJ Smith, Andrew Poturalski, and Josh Leivo are all off to strong starts as well, but unless the team wants to move someone to center (which seems unlikely), a pure center like Drury makes a lot of sense.

It’s also fair to wonder, not only if more players will go out due to said bug (or COVID with today’s news, unfortunately), but also if it is affecting players still currently in the lineup. A few players seem to be struggling to get their legs going like they normally do, and, without calling out names, even getting knocked off the puck a little more easily than normal in recent games. Perhaps this fatigue is simply from being on another long road trip, but the situation is worth monitoring nonetheless.

Brett Pesce
RALEIGH, NC – MARCH 20: Brett Pesce #22 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates with the puck during an NHL game game against the Edmonton Oilers on March 20, 2018 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

The return of Pesce and DeAngelo will help freshen everybody on the blue line, as those guys can eat a lot of minutes between them. Still, perhaps nobody on the roster will be more pleased to have his teammates back than Jaccob Slavin, whom I simply have to mention here. The alternate captain has been utterly ridiculous over this road trip, playing around 30 minutes every night (including a regular season career-high 32:28 against Calgary) and, quite simply, carrying the defense. Despite the fact that his endurance is probably up there with any other player in the league, at some point he’s going to need a little weight off his shoulders.

The Hurricanes are currently 3-1-0 on this tough trip, as the team continues to prove it has the depth to overcome the rash of injuries and illnesses that continue to pop up. This is invaluable this year, as we’ve seen teams continue to get decimated by COVID-19; most recently the Calgary Flames, who the Hurricanes saw less than a week ago. Regardless, head coach Rod Brind’Amour is undoubtedly yearning for some semblance of a healthy roster, so that he can actually begin to get a read on what he has with his group, and what they need to improve upon as they gear up for a potential Stanley Cup run.

Kochetkov, Aho Named Stars of the Week

Carolina’s No. 1 center has been on an absolute tear of late, as Aho has produced multi-point efforts in five consecutive games. After three of those games came last week, which included five goals and seven points, he was named the NHL’s second star of the week on Monday.

The only thing that could stop him was the aforementioned illness sweeping the locker room, which turned out to be COVID; even with his absence from the last game, Aho will sit tied for fifth in the NHL with 32 points in 26 games for at least another day. There is a bit of a logjam at that fifth spot, as Kyle Connor, Artemi Panarin, Steven Stamkos, and a player the Hurricanes are set to see next, the Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov, have all matched that production.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

That’s a 100-point pace, a number no Hurricane has hit since Eric Staal during the team’s Cup-winning run of 2005-06. The way Aho has played lately, and as long as this illness doesn’t cause a setback in his play upon his return in addition to the time he’s going to miss, it’s entirely possible he still contends for that elite benchmark despite his unfortunate COVID-protocol stint.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have a goalie turning a lot of heads overseas, as 2019 second-round pick Pyotr Kochetkov has been absolutely on fire for Torpedo of the KHL. Monday, he was named the league’s Goalie of the Week, after he won all three of his games, posted a .945 save percentage, (SV%) and 1.34 goals-against average (GAA). For the season, the 6-foot-3 Russian netminder has a 9-5-2 record, 2.06 GAA, and .930 SV%, all while playing behind a far-from-spectacular Torpedo team.

Related: Hurricanes Prospects: Kochetkov, Nystrom, Seeley & Others

With his struggles to consistently get ice time — and, at times, keep the puck out of the net when he did — early in the season, alongside the impressive emergence of Eetu Makiniemi in his stateside debut with the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, it seemed like Kochetkov was fading into the background ever so slightly. However, with his play of late in one of the toughest leagues in the world, he is providing a sparkling reminder of his immense upside. He still has the best chance of any goalie in the Carolina system to be a franchise goaltender.

The supremely-athletic 22-year-old’s KHL deal is up in 2023, the same year Frederik Andersen will be an unrestricted free agent, so expect the Hurricanes to try to bring Kochetkov stateside by then.

Hurricanes Well-Represented at World Juniors

More rosters have been finalized over the last few days, and with defenseman Ronan Seeley making Canada’s final roster, the Hurricanes now sit with nine prospects headed to the 2022 World Junior Championships (WJC). That number is already the most in the NHL, and can even grow to 10 if 2021 second-rounder Scott Morrow survives Team USA’s final cuts. Each of the last two years, the Los Angeles Kings, regarded by many pundits as the team with the best prospect pool in the league, sent the most prospects to the tournament (nine). It will be quite the feat if the Hurricanes hit double digits.

Scott Morrow, Shattuck-St. Mary's
Hurricanes prospect Scott Morrow, with Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Photo Credit: Shattuck-St. Mary’s)

The Carolina prospect pipeline remains extremely well-stocked, if it isn’t obvious by this output. They will be spread amongst five countries (or six, depending on Morrow), with one German, two Finnish, three Russian, one Canadian, and one Swedish prospect making their country’s roster for the tournament. Incidentally, a breakdown of all of the Hurricanes WJC-bound prospects will be up here at The Hockey Writers within the next few days, so be on the lookout for that.

The WJC is one of the best events of the year. It’s a competitive, exciting tournament, and a great chance to see teams’ top prospects battle it out in their respective countries’ sweaters on a massive stage. This will be an especially exciting one for the Hurricanes, as a large part of the team’s potential future will be on display. The tournament, originally scheduled to be hosted by Sweden (who will instead host in 2024), will run from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Alberta.

Home Cookin’

After the pause in Minnesota Tuesday evening, the Hurricanes will finally get to enjoy the friendly confines of PNC Arena for a while again. Five of the next seven, including each of the next three, will be on home ice, as the team will face Los Angeles, the Detroit Red Wings, and Nashville Predators over the extended weekend. It marks a great time for some healthy faces to check back in, as the fans are surely eager to see what a mostly-intact Carolina lineup looks like.

The Hurricanes remain in the hunt for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, even despite their long road trips and massive man-games lost due to injury. The team is just one point back of the Washington Capitals, with a game in hand, and, despite being even with the New York Rangers in games played and points, owns the tiebreaker over their counterparts from their rivals from Broadway. Not that any of that truly matters in December, but the Hurricanes have to love their chances as the season moves along, as they continue banking points despite having been far from full strength the majority of the season.

Jaccob Slavin Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Things are really going to start ramping up over the next few months, with the WJC, followed by the Olympic break (if the NHL ends up participating, of course), and shortly after that we’ll be getting into trade deadline season and the real home stretch ahead of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Considering how active the Hurricanes will be both in the prospect portion of that schedule, and how big of a factor they ought to be in the contention for the Stanley Cup, it’s a truly great time to follow the team; very rarely do organizations with Stanley Cup aspirations have futures as bright as this team does. Kudos to Don Waddell, Eric Tulsky, and the rest of the Hurricanes’ front office for getting the team into such a sweet spot. A task that has already been extremely trying will be even greater now without two top forwards for the next couple weeks, but it is easy to envision Brind’Amour having his team ready to face that challenge nonetheless.

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