The Carolina Hurricanes finally returned home following the conclusion of their four-game road trip, as the team hit their own ice at PNC Arena on Monday to practice for the first time since before the All-Star Break. Perhaps the return to their friendly confines is just what the doctor ordered, as a few concerning trends have begun to pop up, even predating that aforementioned break.
Following a tough road trip and some up-and-down performances, a lot of attention has been placed on the trade market over the last few days, especially with the news that the Montreal Canadiens are sending coveted goal scorer Tyler Toffoli to the Calgary Flames. However, even though I expect the Hurricanes to look pretty intensely for an upgrade (especially on the blue line), we still have plenty of time to discuss possibilities on the trade front ahead of the late-March trade deadline. Instead, today’s News & Rumors is going to look back a bit on the last week, as well as at a potential boost the team’s minor league system could be getting in the near future.
Kochetkov’s KHL Contract Terminated; North America a Strong Possibility
Carolina prospect Pyotr Kochetkov’s season is over with his Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, as Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod’s season is over after they failed to qualify for the playoffs. With the talented goaltender’s contract up at the end of the year, the team went ahead and terminated his contract, meaning he is now free to head stateside and begin his North American professional career.
Kochetkov, a second-round pick in 2019, is seen as one of the top goaltender prospects outside the NHL. Despite playing for a less-than-stellar team this season, he was still able to put up a 2.23 goals-against average (GAA), and a .926 save percentage (SV%) in 23 games. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-2 goalie has the reflexes, athleticism, and positioning to potentially be a high-end starter in the NHL someday, so it’s an exciting day for Hurricanes fans as they could possibly get their eyes on him in the near future.
With that said, the Hurricanes are looking like they’ll have a bit of a logjam at the position, as the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, already has Jack LaFontaine and Alex Lyon currently on the roster, as well as Beck Warm and Eetu Makiniemi, who are both currently injured but should be set to return at some point before season’s end. Adding a fifth goalie to that mix sounds like a bit of a headache.
Perhaps Lyon ends up on the taxi squad as a veteran netminder who may not need the starts as bad as the other guys. Warm’s season has been largely unimpressive, so it’s entirely feasible he doesn’t see much ice time, even if he returns from injury. Kochetkov’s development should certainly be prioritized, as he has the most potential out of the group, even though Makiniemi also looks like a highly intriguing piece too. Those two should be placed in positions to get as much ice time and development as possible.
Regardless, with Kochetkov already under contract, it is great to see that Torpedo went ahead and allowed him the option to move stateside before the May 1 deadline, when his contract would have expired. With the lack of a transfer agreement between the KHL and NHL, this is the only way outside of an expiring contract that a player can make the move. Additionally, Torpedo will retain his rights, in case he ever decides to head back to Russia.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the Hurricanes handle workloads over the last few months of the season if he does come to North America. Still, considering it feels like only yesterday that the team had to sign LaFontaine away from the University of Minnesota because of their complete lack of depth at the position, it looks like we may be headed the complete opposite direction real soon. Kochetkov will have a great chance to play a big role for the Wolves during their upcoming Calder Cup Playoff run, and our first glimpse at the goalie who could be Frederik Andersen’s heir in the starter’s crease could be right around the corner.
Hurricanes’ Road Trip Was a Struggle, But How Concerning Should it Be?
There was nothing simple about this post-All-Star-break road trip. The Hurricanes played an excellent Toronto Maple Leafs team, a sneaky-tough Ottawa Senators squad who just got a 4-1 win in Washington, and two more good, almost-assuredly-playoff-bound teams in the Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild, all in a six-day span. That’s a lot of hockey and a lot of distance traveled less than a week – especially immediately upon coming back from a break.
Taken on its own, there is certainly no reason to overreact to a road trip that saw them utterly dominate the Bruins (again), and lose close games that really could have gone either way to the other three. In fact, despite the 1-2-1 record, they actually out-scored their three opponents 14-11. If you want to call it slightly unlucky, I won’t argue with you too much. However, in a post leading into the All-Star break, I wrote that it may be coming at the perfect time for the Hurricanes. They had continued to get the results leading up to the break, but the process they were doing it was largely unimpressive; getting outplayed by non-playoff teams and having to rely on huge games from their goalie to steal wins.
Unfortunately, things haven’t seemed to improve coming out of the time off. Two issues are glaring to me, and both are fixable. First off, the discipline. At this point, I’m not sure what to say about it. The parade to the penalty box is not only giving the opponent golden opportunity after golden opportunity to score (even despite the elite penalty kill – at some point, opponents are going to adjust and make you pay), but it’s also completely wreaking havoc on the Hurricanes’ ability to grab and maintain any semblance of momentum.
Think about how often Andrei Svechnikov – who is playing at an absolute superstar level lately – is glued to the bench because he doesn’t kill penalties. This may be a hot take, but not having your second-best forward consistently on the ice doesn’t seem conducive to success. The Hurricanes – and in fairness, Svechnikov himself is a significant part of the penalty problem – have to stop taking so many penalties if they want to survive come postseason play. Ideally, they patch the issue up well before then.
Secondly, and I’ve said this before, but top pairing Tony DeAngelo just isn’t doing it for me. He continues to be excellent offensively, but a check of his Natural Stat Trick page painted a pretty ghastly picture after the Minnesota game. He was on the ice for 18 shot attempts against and just eight for. He still managed two helpers in the game, but he’s bleeding high danger chances basically on a nightly basis.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is that this also meant Jaccob Slavin‘s numbers were an eyesore, as he, too, was on the ice for a whopping ten more shots against than for (23 and 13). This is obviously an issue because Slavin is arguably the team’s best player (I know it’s tough to compare offense vs. defense, but you can choose for yourself if Slavin or Sebastian Aho is better at what they do). Carolina needs him playing at that elite, shutdown level to be at their best as a team. The alternate captain can cover for many defensive issues, but the relative downturn in his play next to DeAngelo has been evident. As I’ve said before, a trade deadline (or before) acquisition that gets DeAngelo further down the lineup and in more suitable matchups that play to his strengths would go a long way for the Hurricanes.
A Measuring Stick
One final note I found interesting from the final game of that four-game swing was the postgame comments made by Minnesota forward Kevin Fiala. The winger stated, bluntly, “If (the Hurricanes) are contenders, so are we.” At first, I chuckled, thinking… you have to beat a team in February on home ice at the end of that other team’s well-traveled-in-a-short-period road trip to consider yourself a contender? He probably could have worded it a bit better. But, nonetheless, the Hurricanes should honestly take this as a complement and realize what it means.
The Hurricanes have a target on their back now. Remember when the Florida Panthers jumped all over them in their first meeting back in November, as well as how amped up, and emotional they seemed in the process? It handed the Hurricanes their first loss of the season following a 9-0-0 start. The Panthers have been nearly unstoppable since, and you have to wonder if that self-validation they got was a real part of spring-boarding them toward that success. Well, on Saturday, Minnesota definitely seemed to come out hungry and eager to beat a team with so much hype around them, and those postgame comments clearly show the Wild’s players felt a bit confident and empowered postgame.
It’s not going to get any easier the rest of the way. The Hurricanes still have a multitude of games on the docket against the top of the Metropolitan Division, and, despite their games in hand, by points, they have fallen behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in the standings. They’ve yet to face off against one another, but you can bet Sidney Crosby and company will be eager to prove themselves against a media darling that’s been at or near the top of the power rankings since that red-hot start to the season.
The Hurricanes are a measuring stick game now. Since they’re in a college basketball town, let’s use this analogy: Duke suffers a handful of losses to less-talented teams in their conference every year because, well, they’re Duke, and everyone wants to beat the best. And I’m certainly not trying to make the comparison that the Hurricanes are the NHL’s equivalent of arguably the best program in college basketball, especially since they haven’t proven anything yet. They don’t have a handful of Stanley Cups to point to or a long, consistent history of winning their league/division. But, still, when you’re on top, everyone else is reaching for that spot, and the only way to go is down. The Hurricanes must start bringing it every night, even against “easy wins” like Ottawa looked to be on paper.
The team has proven that they can battle back against anyone all season. We saw it twice on this road trip, as 4-0 and 3-0 deficits were nearly overcome to at least force overtime and grab a point (as well as a 2-1, third-period deficit to Toronto in the overtime loss). Still, this can be seen as both a positive and a negative, as they keep finding themselves in these holes because they’re failing to play a full 60 minutes. In fact, they really only got to their game for around 20 minutes in both of those games. I’ll be watching Wednesday night to see if the Hurricanes can come out and show a bit more urgency out of the gate when the outcome still hangs in the balance, and they do not have to try to mount a massive comeback.
Hurricanes’ Panic Button Remains Off… For Now
So, there you have it, I told you how to fix it. More complete efforts, better discipline, and a better first pairing defenseman. That’s light work, right?
I’m obviously kidding, it’s clearly far more easily said than done. But every team goes through tough stretches of hockey, even elite teams, which the Hurricanes still absolutely are. There’s no reason to panic, despite the fact that the last few weeks have not been up to the standard the Hurricanes have set over the course of the year, even when they’ve gotten positive results. The team is currently getting one of their few multi-day breaks of the year, but they have two big upcoming games on home ice that feel somewhat big after this recent slide.
The Panthers await Wednesday night, and the Hurricanes should feel hungry to take them down and re-assert themselves as a top team after this recent slide. After that, another good squad is in town in the Nashville Predators, who are sure to have some juice that game after their postseason elimination at Carolina’s hands last season. If the sloppy play and lack of discipline from the Canes continues, those are going to be two very tough teams to overcome.
Sometimes, it takes a high-end team to snap you out of a rut. The Hurricanes have had more than their share of struggles against non-playoff teams, so perhaps this tough stretch of hockey against these two very good, playoff-bound teams – oh, followed after that by a showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins that could potentially see first place in the Metro on the line – could be a great preview of good, hard, postseason hockey, and be just what the Hurricanes need to relocate their identity. We’ll see if this set of days off gave the Hurricanes a chance to actually re-calibrate. If not, maybe that panic button starts to sound off a bit.
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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 hockey in NC for about 15 years. Many of those in the Carolina Junior Canes program, and 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!