It’s a long season, and sometimes things just don’t go your way. Right now, they’re not for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Three of your top four defensemen out with COVID is bad enough, but adding that into a stretch where the Hurricanes are just simply in a dry spell offensively makes things very difficult. The team has now lost four of their last five.
In suffering a 4-1 loss at the hands of the surging Dallas Stars, a lot of the same issues that have plagued the Hurricanes over the last few weeks… well, they continued to be issues. The offense is stagnant, the defense, while they rarely give up a large quantity of chances, always seem to give up extremely high-quality ones, and the stellar saves from their goaltenders (ones you can’t always count on, but that tend to lead to wins when you get them) have more or less dissipated.
The team is facing adversity for the first time all year and must get back on track soon, with another road trip forthcoming. These are my key takeaways from this frustrating loss to the Stars.
Too Many Hurricanes are Underperforming
I’m going to try not to be too harsh here, but I’m going to be honest, too. For an offense that can’t score right now with any consistency, this is an easy place to look at to understand where they’re falling short.
Jordan Staal has been mostly himself defensively, which is where he makes his money anyway now that he’s appropriately slotted as a third-liner. However, after the second-best offensive season of the big center’s career in 2020-21, he’s given the Hurricanes almost nothing in that end during the 2021-22 season. So many times in games, the Hurricanes didn’t have much going in, he’d just have a “grown man” shift where he’d will the Hurricanes to a goal, or at least a great chance or grinding shift that tired out the opponent, putting the team on his back in the process and gaining them needed momentum. The team needs him now.
Meanwhile, the team’s second-line center, Vincent Trocheck, isn’t even visible right now. I think a lot of it is in his head at this point. He had a play against the Stars where he was carrying the puck with room through the neutral zone and just… lost it. No pressure, just can’t control the puck right now. I expected much more in a contract year, and, granted, there is plenty of season left to turn it around and make himself some money. But the dynamic player that won the hearts of the Caniacs last season is yet to appear.
Even Jaccob Slavin, one of the most consistent and, simply, best defenders in hockey, just looks off. It almost looks like someone has replaced all his sticks with one that is two inches shorter than he’s used to the way he continues to fan on clears and turn the puck over. He had an unforced icing one of the times he did get a puck out. He also had a golden opportunity off a beautiful cross-seam pass that he took too long to get rid of; the Dallas forward recovered and blocked the shot into the stands. About a minute afterward, Dallas scored to make it 2-0.
And this isn’t even mentioning Andrei Svechnikov, whose struggles I mentioned after the Philadelphia win. That dynamic player that started this year looking like a top 10 player on the planet hasn’t shown up in weeks. At this point, I’m a bit worried about him (not long-term, but the lack of consistency is a killer for a team trying to win a Stanley Cup now).
Call-Ups Fill In Admirably
The Hurricanes didn’t, per se, play a bad game. They out-shot the Stars 40-17, and they out-high-danger-chanced them 17-6, according to Natural Stat Trick (I was a little surprised by that number when I saw it, but I trust them). The “new” guys filling in admirably was a big reason the Hurricanes didn’t miss a beat as far as playing their style and dominating possession.
As previously mentioned, the Hurricanes are now down three top-four defensemen – Tony DeAngelo, who is scoring at a 78-point pace and quarterbacks the power play, Brett Pesce, who plays in all three phases and eats a ton of minutes and tough matchups, and Ethan Bear, who is on the first pairing and been excellent for the team. We already talked about Slavin’s uncharacteristic struggles – the former Edmonton Oiler’s absence as his partner may well be the reason why.
So, Carolina turned to Chicago of the American Hockey League (AHL), where Jalen Chatfield and Max Lajoie were given the call. They answered the bell in their first NHL games of the season, with the underlying numbers painting an impressive picture, too.
Carolina is already familiar with what Lajoie brings, as he got into two playoff games last season. He’s a slick-skating, smooth defenseman who moves the puck well and won’t hurt you in the defensive end. He didn’t play a ton, just 13:36, but did a fine job; he was mostly unnoticeable in a good way, as that’s largely a good sign for a bottom pairing defenseman. Again looking at Natural Stat Trick, a whopping 80% of the shot attempts taken while he was on the ice (Corsi For percentage, or CF%) were by the Hurricanes and by a 20-5 margin.
On the other hand, Chatfield was quite noticeable, and his CF% was better (these two call-ups were second and third on the team in the stat) than Lajoie’s, at 81.8%. Just as impressive was his physicality; Carolina doesn’t have a ton of it on the back end except for Ian Cole and Brendan Smith when he’s in the lineup. The 25-year-old former Vancouver Canuck, making his Hurricanes debut, was noticeably physical on multiple occasions and nearly chipped in offensively on a few occasions as well, showing the willingness to jump in the play and ability to get shots through from the point.
A handful of times, Chatfield got a little over-aggressive, and it nearly got him into trouble when he got caught out of position, but those are teachable moments for a young defenseman playing his first game in a new system. Luckily he came out unscathed.
With the COVID protocol situation and the unpredictability of the virus’ timeline, the Hurricanes will need these two, as well as their formerly-seventh-but-now-like-fourth defenseman, Smith, to continue being efficient and effective for the foreseeable future. They got off to a nice start down in Dallas, having games they both can build off of moving forward.
Hurricanes’ Offense is a Problem
I know this kind of goes along with the first point I made here, but this deserves its own section – just hear me out. That first section was more individual-driven, this is about what the Hurricanes are doing as a team, system-wise.
If you take out the Philadelphia game, which I think is fair because even in that game, it felt more like Carter Hart having a bad day, but was less about a good offensive process, the Hurricanes have scored five goals in their last four games. That, uh, isn’t going to cut it.
I know the Hurricanes have some incredible young talent. We’ve seen Svechnikov’s lacrosse goals, Sebastian Aho’s snipes, or his beautiful tic-tac-toe passing plays with Teuvo Teravainen. We’ve seen Martin Necas beat half a team with his speed and deke the goalie out of his skates. The problem is, those goals are on the highlight reel for a reason. Nobody wins consistently by making skill plays that all the time. Except maybe Edmonton, I guess.
The Hurricanes, simply put, are not doing what an NHL team has to do to score consistently. I don’t know if Braden Holtby had any problem whatsoever tracking a puck tonight because nobody was ever there to bother him – except at the end, where Jesperi Kotkaniemi turned the battle level up to 100 and got the team’s only goal of the night. Otherwise, nobody was screening him, and the rebounds were easily collected by Dallas defenders and cleared. This isn’t the time for some ridiculous individual effort for a beautiful goal – it’s time for greasy ones. And other than the one occasion, nobody paid the price to get it.
The Hurricanes are a team with scrappy, hard-working players, but in the dirty areas, they’re simply the second heaviest team right now. That goes for both ends because the beat-up defense isn’t giving up a ton of chances, but it seems like so many of them are extremely high-danger or a result of a lost battle at the front of the net, and those usually end poorly.
Until somebody is willing to take away a goalie’s eyes, get a rebound, get a deflection, get an ugly one somehow, this dry spell might go on for a while.
And, oh, by the way, the power play is legitimately unwatchable right now. I’m not going to dive into it too much because I’m currently watching video and working on an in-depth breakdown on the matter, but… I can’t just not mention it. And, simply put, yikes.
The Hurricanes have to get back to their early-season ways, and, luckily, the schedule sets up some opportunities in the immediate future.
The next two teams on the schedule, the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres, are last and second-to-last, respectively, in goals-allowed per game in the entire league. And after that, two high-flying offenses in Winnipeg and Edmonton will make the Hurricanes pay if they still haven’t snapped out of this rut. Neither of those teams are defensive powerhouses (basically both middle-of-the-pack), either.
The team still sits at 15-5-1 on the season, an excellent record. It’s certainly not time to panic, especially if the call-up defensemen are going to continue to fill in nicely (a puck-moving defenseman would help, though, because DeAngelo’s absence was pretty obvious).
However, the incredible start to the year is starting to feel like a pretty distant memory, and head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s coaching staff needs to get the team to start solving some of these issues pretty quickly before they waste all that early cushion.
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!