Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the third edition of our weekly Carolina Hurricanes roundtable!
The ‘Canes are currently in a bit of a lull in their schedule, with just two games played in the last eight days. Hopefully, they’ve rested up, because a tough stretch lies ahead (or, continues, I should probably say, as the two previous games against Tampa Bay and Florida certainly count as difficult ones). The team has a tough back-to-back on home ice over the weekend against Philadelphia and St. Louis, then heads on a western conference swing next week.
So let’s talk about last week’s roundtable-style, and take a stab at how a few of the outcomes may affect the team moving forward as well.
Topic #1: Unsung Heroes
Question: Who is your “unsung hero” through the first 11 games, a player who perhaps isn’t getting the attention they deserve even though they’ve been vital to the team’s terrific start?
Alex Ohari: For me, it’s Jordan Staal. Considering how long he’s been here, it’s just kind of expected that he plays the way he does. But he’s grown into a legitimate leader, a true all-situations player and he’s producing on the scoresheet. He’s exceeded all expectations and more since Rod Brind’Amour took over as coach.
Caleb Shaw: I think Jesper Fast is the obvious choice here with his (compared to last year) torrid start on the scoresheet. I don’t necessarily agree with Brind’Amour’s decision to play Fast in the top six as often as he does, but he has certainly earned every minute of his ice time so far this season. Six points in 11 contests doesn’t jump out at first glance, but a season with a point every other night would make Fast one of the more dangerous middle/depth forwards in the Metropolitan Division.
Brandon Stanley: Can’t argue with either of those answers – Fast has been stellar and Staal continues to be the perfect buffer between coach and team. He’s been stellar once again this year even though he hasn’t lit up the score sheet quite as much as he did last season so far. For me, the answer is Ian Cole. The veteran, two-time Stanley Cup winner has been unbelievable in his own end, blocking shots and killing penalties at an extremely high level. He’s also brought a noticeable, no-nonsense mindset to the locker room, which we saw with his comments before the Tampa Bay game.
Cole, in his 12th year in the NHL, has been a steady presence and leader for this team all year long, and his addition has turned the Hurricanes’ third pairing into one of the most, for lack of a better term, usable in the league. Last year, Jake Bean and Jani Hakanpää really had to be sheltered, as Brind’Amour often showed a hesitancy to use them. Now, the Hurricanes are able to play Cole and whoever his partner is in basically any scenario, which, in turn, keeps the top two pairings fresher. That’s going to pay off immensely in the long run. Depth is such an important part of the ‘Canes 10-1-0 start, and Cole is a huge part of that.
Topic #2: Goaltending
Ohari: I’m ready to see Eetu Mäkiniemi, but it’s quite obvious that the Hurricanes won’t go that route. I expect Alex Lyon to handle the backup role, and likely not play much — only on back-to-backs — if absolutely necessary. Regardless, it seems like Raanta’s injury won’t be a long-term concern, so we likely don’t need to worry too much about backup goaltending concerns.
Shaw: Regarding the goaltending, health was always the worry going into this season. Raanta has shown throughout his career that he’s capable of some fantastic stretches of play; right now I can only hope that he returns to form with as little complications as possible. Thankfully, Andersen has been a wall between the pipes in his work so far this season. The team has a nice group of goaltending prospects in the pipeline, along with the journeyman depth goalie, Lyon. Lyon’s time in the crease during his Philadelphia tenure was never consistent, but, hopefully, with some solid time to practice and play at the NHL level, we’ll see an increase from his career save percentage (SV%) of .893. In the meantime, expect the team to lean on Andersen even more as they start to reach the meat of the November schedule.
Stanley: I briefly got excited for the 22-year-old Finn, Makiniemi, as well considering how stellar he has been with Chicago in the AHL; but, yes, Lyon was always the obvious choice. I think you guys covered most of the bases here, but I’m honestly not even sure Lyon will get the back-to-back this weekend, seeing how Rod has used Andersen to begin the year along with how much off time the Hurricanes have had as of late with just three games in the last 12 days. Andersen could very well be deemed ready to play both halves of a tough weekend set on home ice, especially depending on how the Philadelphia game goes Friday. If he isn’t tested a ton, or just looks sharp as he has all year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he went again on Saturday, and, either way, I’m sure he will get as many starts as he can handle until Raanta’s return.
Topic #3: Who Do the Hurricanes Need More From?
Shaw: To stay in the win column, I think the player to look towards is whoever fills in for Nino Niederreiter while he recovers from injury. He’s been reported to be doing better, but until then, whichever forward is moved into his spot will have all eyes on them. Seth Jarvis is an obvious candidate, but Hurricanes reporter Walt Ruff reported Monday that, “Brind’Amour has openly stated that he’s not committing to any forward in any certain spot amongst the group – Jarvis included.”
Ohari: I think the team could use more consistent offensive contributions from both Martin Necas and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who’ve both been up and down throughout the season thus far. While it’s hard to complain about either guy’s overall game (they’re both performing well), it hasn’t quite translated to the stats column yet, and the group would really benefit from the two of them getting going. The PP2 unit has also been rather pedestrian and could use some Ethan Bear action.
Stanley: This may seem silly considering the guy has scored at a point-per-game pace, but Vincent Trocheck has been hit or miss for me this season. It seems like every time he has a flash it ends up in the net, so you can’t complain too much, but he’s been invisible for long stretches and has made a few boneheaded plays along the way. Sebastian Aho is another one – and, hey, even when Aho isn’t dominating games he’s still elite. I think he’s just due for a two-goal, one assist game where he simply takes over from start to finish and almost single-handedly wins the Hurricanes a game. We’ve seen it many times in his career, and perhaps Philadelphia presents a good opportunity as a team he has had great success against in the past. Aho has 18 points in 17 career games against Philadelphia, including his first hat trick in 2017.
Light week this week, and apologies for being a couple of days later on this segment than usual – sometimes it is just tricky to get all three of us together to discuss these topics with our conflicting schedules.
As previously mentioned, the Hurricanes have a tough stretch moving forward and being without three key pieces in Raanta, Niederreiter, and Pesce will certainly continue to put the incredible depth that has been vital to the team’s early success to the test.
The Hurricanes have the best record in the league and are being recognized by many national outlets as possibly the team to beat early in the NHL’s 2021-22 season. This means little in the grand scheme of things, as things tend to change quickly in this league, and definitely will over the next five months. Nonetheless, there are much worse ways to start the year, and Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes have to feel great about where they are through the season’s five weeks. This looks like a team to be feared as a true contender this year, health permitting.
We’ll see you next week as the games start to ramp up again and the Hurricanes continue this tough stretch, back at PNC Arena for two matchups before heading out to Vegas, to visit the three California teams, and then to see old friends Ron Francis, Haydn Fleury, and Morgan Geekie in Seattle. Should be a fun month with teams Carolina doesn’t see a lot, so we’ll have much to discuss in the coming weeks.
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!