Hurricanes News & Rumors: Kochetkov, Blue Line Health, & More

As the Carolina Hurricanes resume their American Hockey League (AHL)-like schedule – games on the weekends, none during the week – things almost feel a bit out of rhythm. Especially when the team has a tendency to struggle to immediately play to their normal intensity after long layoffs, along with the common struggles virtually every team endures during three-games-in-four-days stretches. Alas, this is the hand Carolina has been dealt in this compressed schedule covering the last quarter of the season.

Sitting at 41-13-5 with a six-point lead in the Metropolitan Division standings, the Hurricanes have continued to grind out wins consistently even with a banged-up blue line, in addition to while having their Vezina Trophy candidate #1 goalie missing over a short stretch. March Madness may be a basketball term, but it’s perfectly suitable to use while describing this stretch of hockey for Carolina, too.

Despite the uneventful last few days as far as the schedule is concerned, there have still been developments over these game-less days that will reverberate through the franchise. In today’s News & Rumors, we’ll talk about a goalie making a fantastic impression in his first taste of hockey in North America, where the trade chips are falling and how it may affect the Hurricanes, and the team starting to get back to full strength as the trade deadline nears.

Kochetkov off to a Scorching Start

Selected with the 36th overall selection back in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Russian goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov has been seen for a few years now as potentially the highest-upside goaltender in the system – a sentiment many maintained even when Alex Nedeljkovic was making his run at a Calder Trophy in 2020-21. After his Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) season ended, the 22-year-old headed stateside and has immediately made a tremendous impact for the second-best team in the AHL, the Hurricanes’ affiliate Chicago Wolves.

Pyotr Kochetkov Carolina Hurricanes Draft
Pyotr Kochetkov, Carolina Hurricanes, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I welcomed Andrew Rinaldi, who covers the Wolves for Field Pass Hockey, onto my podcast shortly before Kochetkov stopped 27 of 29 shots to earn his fifth win in six starts on Wednesday. When I asked what has impressed him most about the young goalie, he said it was “the way Kochetkov has come into a crowded crease, with another highly touted prospect next to him (Eetu Makiniemi), and another who has plenty of experience both in the AHL and NHL (Alex Lyon), and simply said, ‘ok, this is my crease now.”

That swagger Kochetkov plays with defines him. It was visible in his first start against the Iowa Wild, when he got ran over and immediately got up and began barking at the opponents, then didn’t allow another goal the rest of the way to earn the win. He’s fiery, he’s got the measurables, he’s highly athletic and talented, and he’s posted a .932 save percentage (SV%) and 1.99 goals-against-average (GAA) in his six starts. I would call that a halfway decent first impression.

It’ll be interesting how the Hurricanes handle their minor league goalies over the next year or so. Makiniemi was playing at a very high level himself before going down with a long-term injury back in mid-December. Lyon is a solid third goalie who can fill in at the NHL level in a pinch. Plus, the Hurricanes clearly have some level of intrigue with Jack LaFontaine, being that they pulled him away from the University of Minnesota mid-season (and his last two starts have shown a good bit of progress after a rocky start). Make no mistake, though – Kochetkov is the future of the Carolina Hurricanes’ crease. The AHL sample size may still be small, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make his NHL debut at some point next year at this rate.

Trade Market Dominoes Continue to Fall

While the trades haven’t really started flowing consistently yet, with just a handful of notable deals to speak of thus far, the rumor mill has remained lively. A number of players the Hurricanes have been rumored “in” on have already been moved, including Josh Manson and Ben Chiarot as of Thursday. As the days go by and the names get crossed off the board, it looks more and more likely that the deadline will be very quiet in Raleigh. One reason for this is the prices. While Chiarot was potentially an option for the Carolina blue line, he would not have displaced Brady Skjei or Jaccob Slavin in the top four; ergo, he would have been a third-pairing defenseman on this team. The price the Florida Panthers paid was pretty steep for a third-pairing defenseman.

I don’t believe the Hurricanes will be losing sleep over missing out on those players, and many potential options still remain on the market. General manager Don Waddell has said all along he would like to add a little more depth on the blue line, but even there I’m not sure the need is as big as initially thought, the way the team has played over the last few weeks down two of their top seven defensemen (we’ll talk about this more in the next section).

Related: Hurricanes Have Trade Deadline Options Despite Being Cap-Crunched

As the season has gone along, I’ve honestly flipped back and forth on where I think the Hurricanes could use a little help. While, yes, the team as constructed could absolutely make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, is a team playing Jordan Martinook in it’s top six truly well-prepared for the postseason? With rookie Seth Jarvis getting banged up – after already being demoted to the fourth line alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi – this has been the Hurricanes’ reality the last few games. The pendulum, for me, has swung back to the forward group.

Seth Jarvis Carolina Hurricanes
Seth Jarvis, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

This could be one of those trade deadlines that come down to the final hour, and perhaps the Hurricanes have something up their sleeve to navigate their low cap space. As I said in my deadline piece, I’d be pretty aggressive on Brandon Hagel of the Chicago Blackhawks, with his modest cap hit that could be worked in relatively easily (though they’d still have to come up with about $1 million), high-motor playing style that would fit like a glove in Carolina, and youth at age 23 that would allow him to grow alongside the rest of the Hurricanes’ core. With two years remaining on his deal, Chicago doesn’t have to trade him, meaning they’ll need a relatively large haul going back their way to entice them. Still, I think he’s the player on the market that makes the most sense, and his production makes him one potentially worth ponying up for.

Blue Line Getting Healthy

Hurricanes defenseman Brendan Smith got off to a rough start with his new team but has adapted well to the system and given them some solid minutes as the year has gone along. His presence has allowed some of the other players in the top-six on the blue line to get a breather from time to time, and he brings a physical edge not seen much throughout the rest of the roster. When he tried to block a shot and took the force behind his left ear against Pittsburgh on Feb. 20, a scary scene ensued, including temporary paralysis that put a big scare into the veteran defenseman (from ‘Hurricanes’ Brendan Smith details the puck to the head that fractured his skull,’ The News & Observer, March 16, 2022).

Luckily, Smith has recovered from the fractured mastoid bone he suffered that day relatively quickly and appears set to return to action Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. However he may not be the only one, as Tony DeAngelo, out since late February himself, is reportedly a game-time decision as well. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, sent solid fill-in Jalen Chatfield down to the Wolves on Monday.

The interesting part, though, is that this stretch has proven what kind of depth the Hurricanes have on the blue line. In fact, at one point I considered a piece about the team’s blue line potentially being better with Chatfield in the lineup. I eventually scrapped it, because it’s hard to quantify the net effect of his defensive play against DeAngelo’s offense, but having Ethan Bear on the top pair with Slavin made the top four really tough for opposing forwards.

That’s always been my qualm with the slick-skating, offensive-minded defenseman playing on the top pairing – his defensive struggles end up hurting Slavin’s game, as the alternate captain basically has to cover for him in that end. Thus, Slavin cannot roam as much offensively, something he’s been doing quite well this year. Opposing coaches have no problem playing their top lines against Slavin while DeAngelo is paired with him.

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

Perhaps Bear’s solid play and DeAngelo’s long absence have given head coach Rod Brind’Amour reason to basically keep the status quo, leaving the top four intact and easing DeAngelo back in on the third pairing where Chatfield has been playing. I like the idea of him alongside Ian Cole, anyway, as they’ll likely get easier matchups and the veteran blueliner is a nice match as a defender that thinks about his own end first, second, and third. This will allow his offensive-minded would-be partner to focus on joining the rush and creating offense.

We’ll see how the coach plays things out on the blue line, and it may be moot for a couple more days, anyway, if DeAngelo isn’t deemed ready to play. However, I like where things stand right now on the Hurricanes’ blue line, so perhaps they need to add on the trade market isn’t as pressing for the front office as it once was.

The Rest of March Is Going to Be a Murderer’s Row

The Hurricanes are in the midst of what has to be one of the toughest stretches any team will face all year long. Having already played Colorado and Pittsburgh in the last week (with a bit of a “reprieve” against the Philadelphia Flyers mixed in), the team will play at Toronto, fly home to see the Washington Capitals the next day, then see the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Dallas Stars next week at home. Then comes a three-game road trip to see the St. Louis Blues, and another back-to-back against the Capitals and Lightning again, on the road this time. Yikes. They’ll then wrap up the hellacious month with a sneaky-tough game against Martin St. Louis’ rejuvenated Montreal Canadiens.

It’s nice to have part of that stretch leading up to the trade deadline because it provides a good chance to take inventory on exactly where the team is against other contenders, then perhaps make any moves the front office deems necessary. The Hurricanes are more than capable of banking wins even against these high-end, cup-contending teams, but they’ll need to re-acclimate their defensemen and get back to their team game quickly.

Tony DeAngelo Carolina Hurricanes
Tony DeAngelo, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Carolina maintains a nice cushion in the Metropolitan Division, with six-point leads over both the Rangers and Penguins, with one and two games in hand, respectively. A win over the Rangers this coming week would really put the pressure on the Broadway Blueshirts.

Things are likely to start heating up on the trade market over the next few days, and it’ll be fascinating to see what, if any, moves the Hurricanes make to solidify their lineup. They’ll look to get this tough stretch started on the right foot in the return of Frederik Andersen to Toronto, where he’ll face off with rookie Erik Källgren on Thursday night. Look for the Hurricanes to come out and set the tone early after a three-day break – their last of the kind of the season. 23 games in 42 days await, so strap in and get ready for the real marathon. Stanley Cup playoff hockey is just around the corner, folks.

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