Special Teams Mask Hurricanes Real Issues

The Carolina Hurricanes have had an issue with their special teams in years past. Most of the time, it had to do with their powerplay, which often finished near the bottom of the league. Two years ago, their penalty kill also took a hit, finishing that year at 77.6%, good for 28th in the league.

I wrote about the Hurricanes’ struggles on the powerplay back in November, indicating that, if the team was able to turn that aspect around, an 0-6-2 start to the season didn’t have to be the end of their playoff chances. At the press conference shortly after his hiring, one of the first things that head coach Bill Peters claimed he was going to address was the struggling powerplay that had plagued Carolina for so many years. To their credit, Peters and his coaching staff have done the seemingly impossible and put the Hurricanes in the Top 10 in both the penalty kill and the powerplay.

However, ultimately, it came too late to save the season, and may mask the real issue the Hurricanes faced this year.

Clicking on All Aspects

Last year, the Hurricanes had the 28th ranked powerplay at 14.6% and the 17th ranked penalty kill at 81.7%. Those numbers, combined with a 5-on-5 goals for/goals against (5-5 F/A) ratio that ranked 24th in the league, and it’s no wonder that Carolina finished near the bottom of the league. In the final year under the guidance of Kirk Muller, the Hurricanes failed in just about every aspect of the game of hockey. They couldn’t score at even-strength, they couldn’t score on the powerplay, and they couldn’t keep the puck out of their net.

This year is different. Carolina has a powerplay that’s clicking at 19.6%, and a PK unit that’s killing off penalties at an 85.3% rate. That’s #9 and #5 in the league, respectively. Yet, the team remains in the hunt for McDavid as the end of the season approaches. The reason lies with their 5-5 F/A ratio, which is actually worse than it was last year. The Hurricanes have scored only 106 goals during 5-on-5 play, while allowing 134.

Unsurprisingly, that kind of production during 5-on-5 play will quickly move a team to the bottom of the league. The stats back this up as well. The bottom 6 teams in 5-on-5 play this year are also the bottom 6 teams in the standings: Arizona, Buffalo, Edmonton, Carolina, Columbus and Toronto. The reverse is true as well, as the Rangers, Nashville, Montreal, Tampa Bay and St. Louis are also near the top of the league in the standings and in 5-on-5 play.

The Times are Changing

There’s an unfortunate, but undeniable, trend in the NHL of late. It’s getting more and more difficult to score goals in today’s NHL. League-wide, scoring has dropped almost every year since the 05-06 season due to a number of reasons: Bigger and more agile goaltenders are entering the league, the talent level between a “good” and a “bad” team has lessened, and the officials are more likely to “let teams play” rather than call every trip, hook, and hold.

The last part is especially important for the Hurricanes. Good special teams don’t mean as much now as they did in the past. In the 05-06 season, 15,683 minors were called that year. The Washington Capitals led the league with 619 minors called against them, while the New Jersey Devils had the least with 386. The league average was about 8 penalties per game. This year, only 7,404 minors have been called. The Winnipeg Jets lead the league in minors with 328, less than the minimum amount in 05-06. Carolina actually leads the league in penalty minutes against, averaging less than four penalties per game.

What this means in the long run is that, while it’s important to maintain a good powerplay and penalty kill, the Hurricanes need to figure out how to produce at even-strength if they want to begin to think about a trip to the playoffs. With the decreased amount of powerplays being awarded, the most goals that aspect of the game will produce for a team is around the 85-90 range (assuming the PP clicks at around 20%), well below any expected production at even-strength. Productive special teams will turn a good team into a great team, but special teams alone can’t turn a bad team into a good one.

Post-Deadline Problems

Another concern For Canes fans should be the noticeable decline in special teams play post-deadline.

Obviously, losing veteran defensemen like Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason and replacing them with AHL call-ups will cause some struggles. But given the budget that the Hurricanes typically run with, and the amount of money tied up in forwards, the defense will not likely get much better in the near future. What you see in Carolina is likely what you’re going to get for quite a while. So while losing those players does give an excuse, it cannot be used as an excuse. Not if the Hurricanes want to compete any time soon.

Luckily, Peters seems to realize that. After a recent 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, in which the Hurricanes allowed 3 powerplay goals, the coach commented on the state of the penalty kill.

“What was once a strength is now a weakness,” Peters said after the game.

Much like he did when he first arrived in Carolina, Peters will need to identify the problem that’s plaguing the Hurricanes. It’s not the special teams, though their post-deadline play in that regard may change that, but rather their play at even-strength that needs to be addressed. If the Hurricanes can get all three aspects of their game on the same page, the playoffs may not be too far behind.