The offer sheet showdown finally commenced, as the unlikely rivalry between the pesky, new-market Carolina Hurricanes and arguably hockey’s most storied franchise in the Montreal Canadiens took on a new chapter. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was greeted with loud boos whenever he hit the ice and touched the puck, and Canadiens legend Sebastian Aho continued to be a total thorn in the side of his “former” team.
The Hurricanes emerged victorious with a relatively easy 4-1 victory, and through three games, they look like one of the deadliest teams in the league. Meanwhile, the struggling, injury-riddled Canadiens still sit looking for their first win, or even point, with an ugly 0-5-0 start to the year. From the Hurricanes’ perspective, the game was extremely satisfying as all the young talent on their roster seemed to make its mark and left Montreal fans gritting their teeth and undoubtedly cursing general manager Marc Bergevin.
There’s lots to talk about here, but here are three things that stuck out through three games for the undefeated Carolina Hurricanes.
1. Hurricanes’ Goalie Gamble Seems to be Paying Off
In the opening game against the New York Islanders, the Hurricanes poured it on and showcased just how high the upside is in their deep lineup, winning 6-3. I wouldn’t say any of the three goals allowed by free-agent signee Frederik Andersen in that game were necessarily on him – one goal was nearly a fantastic save sliding side-to-side that just barely crossed the line, one was banked off him off a rebound after he made a solid initial save, and the other was simply a bad bounce where he attempted to kick the rebound to the corner, but it hit Brady Skjei and sat in the slot for an easy rebound goal. However, he still looked to be fighting the puck a bit with overall poor rebound control and just generally seemed a tad “off” in that game.
Well, in the two following games, we’ve seen what the Hurricanes envisioned when they signed the Danish goaltender – Andersen carried the Canes to a win in Nashville, stopping 38 of 40 shots, then followed it up with another stellar showing Thursday evening in Montreal. The Canadiens didn’t test him much early, which can sometimes be more curse than a blessing if a goaltender is a bit out of rhythm when the shots inevitably begin to rain down.
And rain down they did – the Hurricanes continued a trend of sloppy second periods, even though they started this particular middle frame with a big-time bang – scoring twice in the first three minutes to jump out to a 2-0 lead. After that, though, a barrage of shots came firing in on Andersen, and the 6-foot-4 netminder proved equal to the task on nearly all of them, the one exception being a tap-in goal from just outside the blue paint after Brett Pesce lost a net-front battle to Tyler Toffoli.
Andersen clamped down other than that, including a series of diving, desperation saves where he seemed down and out, and the puck seemed destined for the back of the net. He would register 27 saves on the night, with Toffoli’s marker being the only goal allowed. Per Natural Stat Trick, Andersen’s last two games have been fantastic: a 1.73 goals-saved above average (GSAA) against Nashville and a 1.56 GSAA in Montreal. That mark of 3.29 GSAA in two games is an elite figure, folks – Jack Campbell currently leads the league in the stat at 3.21 over four games, but, unfortunately, Andersen’s negative mark in the opener brought him down. Furthermore, the traditional stats look excellent as well: a .938 save percentage (SV%), 2.00 goals-against average (GAA), and a clean, 3-0-0 record.
After a few middling years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hurricanes were hoping for a bounce-back season from Andersen behind their steady defense. Incidentally, many onlookers pointed to his heavy workload there, which will make it interesting to see how the Hurricanes handle his starts as the season moves along. Fellow free-agent signee Antti Raanta proved an extremely viable backup during his time with the Arizona Coyotes, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Blackhawks, so they should have confidence in giving Andersen frequent nights off over the course of the year. On the flip side, it’ll be tough to sit him too much if he continues to play at this current level, especially with only one back-to-back from now until December 18.
Three games do not make a season, things change in a hurry in this league, but it’s hard to be anything but pleased with the early results from the Hurricanes’ new starting goaltender.
2. Kotkaniemi On Track
A few comments and tweets were made after Kotkaniemi averaged just 11:58 of ice time (TOI) through the first two games, pointing out that this was less than he played in Montreal last season. My immediate reaction to these comments was, simply, “why are you pulling anything from a two-game sample” but, alas, in today’s world of instant reaction via social media, it may have been a silly question.
Kotkaniemi’s apparent development plan, in many ways, seems similar to the ones the team employed with Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas. Maybe this seems strange at first glance when you consider that Kotkaniemi is already a veteran of 175 NHL games, but if the Hurricanes feel his development got off track during his time in Montreal, it makes sense to simply re-set the entire thing. Let’s remember, Svechnikov played with fourth-liners Jordan Martinook and Lucas Wallmark during his rookie year. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour made it a point to give him time to ease in and learn instead of immediately throwing the immensely talented Russian sniper into the fire. And if you’ve watched “Svech” the first three games of 2021-22, it seems this move has paid off quite nicely (more on that in a bit).
Back to Thursday evening, Kotkaniemi was on the first line alongside Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Perhaps it was simply the adrenaline of playing against his former team and desperately wanting to beat the team that let him go, but Kotkaniemi easily had the best game of his short Hurricanes career. He was aggressive in the corners, initiating contact, and showed real confidence in dancing around a defender before dropping a slick pass to Teravainen for a scoring chance in the second period. And, of course, much to the chagrin of the Montreal faithful, he scored on a beautiful deflection to give Carolina an insurance marker in the third period, his first goal and point with the team.
The TOI jabs will still be applicable, as Kotkaniemi still played just 12:58. In fairness, six Hurricanes penalty kills didn’t help his case here. Still, Brind’Amour is balancing setting the former third overall pick up with success by placing him on the first line with sheltering him enough to focus on learning the system and playing the brand of hockey his new head coach wants out of him. It will be a patient game with Kotkaniemi, but the Hurricanes continue to think the payoff is well worth the $6.1M they shelled out over the offseason. The early returns have really only been flashes, but the flashes have still been enough to dream on the future for Kotkaniemi with the Hurricanes.
3. Svechnikov Has Arrived…?
I’m on record both on my podcast (Tracking The Storm, check it out if you haven’t already) and in these spaces as thinking Svechnikov has the talent to be one of the five best players in the NHL. We’ve seen plenty of flashes of his ability to completely take games over with his size, speed, unbelievable shot, and power forward game. As Brind’Amour once said, the Hurricanes simply want him to realize just how good he really is. That’s a minor paraphrase, and perhaps it is mildly obscure, but I think, in a way, it alludes to his need to mature on the mental side of the game to reach his true potential. And last year, we saw a prime example of him not being there yet, with the penalties and poor puck luck snowballing into a much rougher year than many of us expected before the season began.
Incidentally, last year should probably serve as a bit of a cautionary tale. The first 15 games or so, we were sort of asking the same question: “Is this the year? Is Svechnikov ready to take over and dominate the league? Can anyone stop him?” It turns out the answers were no, no, and, well, only himself, really.
I say all this as a precursor to explain that it’s not outside the realm of possibility these confidence issues creep back up, and he has already taken four minor penalties in the three games this season – some of which have been a little tacky.
But boy, oh, boy, has the 21-year-old, 62-million-dollar man looked like all the Hurricanes dreamed of, and more, in the first three contests. Every time Svechnikov has been on the ice, and even though they have already done some line shuffling, giving him a handful of different linemates, he seems to be relentlessly attacking and putting the opposition on their heels. Having scored in each of the first three games and four times total, he looks even more explosive than in years past, with a powerful skating stride that is causing massive problems for defenders. He’s an absolute magician behind the net (even when he isn’t making lacrosse moves), incredibly difficult to knock off the puck, and his hands and shooting ability in tight spaces is rivaled by few, if any, across the league.
Lest we forget, he can beat one of the best goalies in the league from a distance with his ultra-quick release, too.
Now, again, the same disclaimer from above applies. Three games have been played, which means there are only… [checks notes]… 79 left. But with Svechnikov, it has always felt like a matter of when, not if, and with his talent and work ethic, it certainly feels like a safe bet he won’t let last year’s fall-off happen twice in a row. The NHL should be very afraid of the Hurricanes’ #37.
They certainly haven’t been perfect, but the Hurricanes have earned all six available points in their first three games. With so many new faces in the lineup, it was fair to wonder if the Hurricanes would struggle early in the year as the newcomers got acclimated. However, the new guys have fit like a glove, and the Hurricanes are hot right off the bat.
Seasons are filled with ups and downs; slides and losing streaks are bound to happen eventually, but the beatdown of Montreal affirms what the Hurricanes were already beginning to suggest with their play: this team has immense upside, and it truly feels like the year the Hurricanes could burst through as true Stanley Cup contenders. Part of the reason for that is the multitude of other “takeaway” options I had for this – the power play has been extremely dangerous, the blue line looks fantastic on all three pairings, and Ethan Bear has shown up and looked like a legitimate top-pairing defenseman. It’s not often you grab a right-shot, number-one-caliber defenseman for the cost of a solid but unspectacular third-line winger.
Small sample size warnings aside, this is shaping up to be a very, very fun year in Carolina. Early looks make it seem as though the Metropolitan Division looks well within their grasp, the team will be aiming much, much higher after that.
It felt somewhat strange for the Hurricanes to have had so many off days right after the season got underway, playing just two games before getting a pretty long, four-day break. But, never fear, the team is about to run their first gauntlet with five games in eight days beginning Saturday in Columbus. We’re going to learn a lot about the team over that stretch, so make sure to check back right here at The Hockey Writers regularly to get all the news, breakdowns, and analysis. Happy hockey season!
What’s goin’ on folks, my name is Brandon Stanley. I cover the Carolina Hurricanes here at THW. I was born and raised here in Raleigh, NC and have played hockey since about the time I could stand up. I traveled all over North America with the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes organization in my youth days, and the game has simply always been my biggest passion. I also have 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. I’m always available to chat anything hockey related, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!