With eight games under their belt the Carolina Hurricanes are, well, about where the pundits said they would be. A record of 2 - 6 brings to mind the necessary Dennis Green paraphrase, "They are who we thought they were" (sure, out of context maybe, but still appropriate). Most agreed that this team's scoring was going to have to come from a variety of "iffy" sources. So far those wells have proven to be mostly dry holes. The defense, also mostly considered a work in progress, had to switch gears beginning at the outset of Game 1, with James Wisniewski's season-ending injury. This is a critical, overlooked issue playing into the Canes' lack of early season success.
What follows is a look at the season to date from the perspective of what's working and what isn't, from the perspective of what's surprising in a good way, what's just down right unusual, and where there's hope on the horizon. Hopefully this will become a regular "milestone" recap spawning discussion, disagreement, counterpoints, and reinforcement. The format will be to look at 3 or 4 players or situations in each category. Considering this writer's mostly eternal optimism (something getting more difficult with each passing game), there will be a recognition of the positives so far. There will also be a critical eye cast toward some of the problems. Yet, on an uplifting note reports from the farm feel pretty good.
What's Been Going Right
Victor Rask - The 23 year old Swede appears to be continuing his solid progression. Yes, he could stand to be a bit more accurate with his shot. However, he plays hard every shift of every game, gets in proper position, and is clearly using his improved strength to his advantage. The shot effectiveness will come. Victor isn't afraid to go to the net, but he's at his best working down low or coming off of the boards creating opportunities. Once the entire team begins scoring even a little more, he will likely be a significant beneficiary. He has also continued his solid faceoff performance with a faceoff win percentage of 50% or more in 5 of the 8 games. He's a solid 54% for the season.
Cam Ward - Clearly set to be everybody's whipping boy at the season's outset, Ward has mostly risen to the occasion with very solid outings. Sure his save percentage is a shade below .900 but he stole a game in Colorado, played better than his numbers indicated in the Detroit win, stood on his head in Washington, and even had a very solid season opener in Nashville. Cam is already collecting some highlight reel saves. His stick use is one of the noticeable improvements. He's clearly worked on handling the puck, but the poke checks in particular have been effective. He's also learned to slap the puck out of trouble and usually in the direction of an open Hurricane often starting a break out of the zone. Best of all Cam Ward appears to be growing in confidence and that can only bode well for the team.
Justin Faulk - No list of season positives would be complete without mentioning young Justin. He's really not had a single game that could be characterized as a struggle. Sure, as with all defenders, he's had his gaffe's and moments, but his overall game continues to improve. His decision-making seems nearly flawless. And but for his shot the Canes would be "0-fer" the powerplay. His task gets even more difficult as Coach Peters has begun juggling his defensive pairings meaning that Faulk will not only have to get used to playing with different partners, he'll likely have to cover for them too. The area of his game that continues to impress is his passing game. Crisp and accurate, he makes the tough look easy and is critical to leading many of the team's breakouts. With his newly granted "A" one can only hope that Noah Hanifin takes Faulk's advice to heart and focuses on "playing your game".
Eric Staal - The haters may disagree, but the Captain is actually demonstrating more grit and energy, clearly making an attempt to lead by example. Don't look now but he's tied for 3rd on the team with 11 hits in the young season. He has had more jump in his game, continues to try and power down low, and seems to not take many if any shifts off. Eric's defensive game has picked up a notch as well. Despite some of Trip Tracy's protestations to the contrary, he's been going to the "dirty areas" more and often trying to screen goalies on the Hurricanes' anemic powerplay. He still flubs too many plays with the puck on his stick and he's clearly "squeezing the stick" as he's had a few too many whifs and mis-hits on relatively open shots. But the fans should be happy with his effort and, like Rask, as the team picks up its output so should Eric.
John-Michael Liles - Many would say that they don't notice him much. In the pantheon of compliments paid to blueliners in the NHL, that's a pretty good thing to say about performance. Often only noticed when they make mistakes, defensemen like Liles who don't get talked about, especially during broadcasts, are probably being effective. Liles has been making good decisions, effective passes, and despite his +/- ratio, mostly keeping to his defensive responsibilities. Plus he's had a yeoman's task covering for Michal Jordan who is really struggling with playing on his offside. Consider this performance especially in the context of the loss of Wisniewski.
What's Going Wrong
Bad JEL-ly - That would be short-hand for the players who are most disappointing through these first 8 games. Jordan Staal is perhaps the most surprising of the bunch. He came back from his broken-leg last year and had an immediate impact for the 1st 6 weeks of his return. This is the same Jordan Staal that most expected to "pick up where he left off" this season. His biggest challenge last year was that he couldn't hit the proverbial broad side of a barn with his shot. While he's never been as skilled as his brother Eric, he is a pretty adept shooter historically. That seems to have abandoned him. Add to that the first three or four games seemed to take him by surprise as his hockey sense, defensive acumen, and overall game were absent.
Elias Lindholm's start to this season is truly a mystery. Unlike a defenseman, when a star forward goes unnoticed, it isn't a good thing. It reflects ineffectiveness. Lindy appears to be "off" or "uncomfortable" or something. Frankly it is difficult to put a finger on. He's typically at his best when he's more physical, playing from the circles in. He's been missing in action from that perspective. This is likely a case, similar to Eric Staal, where he's over-thinking the pressure to perform. Peters didn't do him any favors by pegging him as a 30 goal scorer this year. Elias plays much better when he's playing loose and with a bit of controlled reckless abandon. When that surfaces again, the high first rounder will likely pick up his game.
Eddie Lack has been such a disappointment, more so because of the very high hopes the organization and especially the fanbase had for him. What a character! What a joy! What bad goalie play! Simply put he's been horrible. Most of his goals have been the epitome of softies. Or as Trip put it after the San Jose game, "...they've been of the leaky variety". Again, Peters didn't do him any favors with his usage but the situation rightly dictated the playing time given Cam's mostly good play. Also, Eddie Lack has been and, until he takes the throne, remains a back-up goalie, the #2. He's always got to be ready to come in and perform at the highest level. He wasn't and he didn't. Hopefully with a few more games he gets back to the guy the Canes traded for. But until then the name Justin Peters comes to mind....and that's not a compliment.
Michal Jordan - He's not really lost the team any games, but over-slotted on the second pairing AND playing on his offside have exposed him as the #6/#7 that he is. He often gets more grief than he should and is rarely complimented on his play when it is solid. Still he has struggled mightily playing on his off side. That truly is the major factor in his perceived poor play. He settled down in his first game and played pretty well. He was somewhat unnoticeable in his next game or two. But against LA he was often exposed culminating in several unforced errors. Unfortunately for him, Brett Pesce didn't look out of place at all and was pretty darn good for his first NHL game experience.
Skill - Skilled players are something the Carolina Hurricanes have always seemed to lack. One might argue that this year's team has a sprinkling of more skill than in the past. Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg, Elias Lindholm, and even Chris Terry are all skilled guys who can and have put the puck pretty much where they wanted. That skill has gone missing. Jeff Skinner is a great example of this disappearance. He's playing as hard as ever. He's getting into the types of shooting positions that were prevalent during his 30 goal seasons. But he's shooting the puck wide, over the goal, just missing his spot, or outright whiffing on the puck. Could this be a case of trying too hard? Of over-thinking things? Eric is facing similar challenges, although most of his missed opportunities have come from mis-hits. He's just not shooting the puck cleanly when he has open opportunities. Versteeg has been both up and down on the skill meter. His biggest issue is controlling the puck on his stick. When he does he's dangerous, especially feeding other open shooters. Lindy's struggles have been discussed, but suffice it to say he's just "off". Chis Terry has come on pretty well these last two or three games, but as stated previously, he's on this team only as a secondary scorer. If he's not sniping he needs to be sitting.
Tentativeness - Perhaps best embodied by young Noah Hanifin (and as a rookie not unexpectedly), there is a general aura of tentativeness throughout the lineup. Hanifin has been playing mostly to not make mistakes which, of course, magnifies the two or three major gaffes from the LA and San Jose games. Who doesn't remember the couple of speed rushes followed by pinpoint passes? That's the Noah that was drafted by the Canes. That's the Noah that needs to resurface. The fans would rather see errors of commission rather than "playing not to screw up" from the 18-year old. Hanifin isn't the only tentative guy on the team either. Jordan Staal's play qualifies. Early season Riley Nash qualified. It is also part of Lindholm's current play. Note to Carolina coaching staff: Take these guys aside and let them know it's okay to "go for it".
Noah Hanifin's Performance - This kid is a gem and, for the most part, has shown flashes of why he was the best blueline prospect in this past year's draft. What's unexpected is the aforementioned tentativeness. He didn't really exhibit this during the pre-season. What's also unexpected is just how solid he actually is. He rarely makes mental errors. He's got an active and effective stick. And then there's the skating; the flashes that he's displayed when he puts his mind to taking the puck up ice on a rush are incredible. What's unexpected isn't that he's human and therefore capable of the average performance, it's that he shows he can be both brilliant and pedestrian in the same game. This kid will be a top pairing guy, just not this year.
Effort - With the exception of the Florida game, this team came to play every night. While last year's team gave pretty consistent effort, there were a number of nights and/or players where that wasn't always the case. This year things seem to be ratcheted up a notch. Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner aren't getting the results they want because of a lack of effort. Elias Lindholm is trying hard, albeit with some over-thinking. Victor Rask is bringing it every night. By and large this team is working hard every game. This type of effort can get impacted by frustration. Hopefully, the compete level is soon rewarded with results.
Ryan Murphy's Growth - Other than Cam Ward, one of the lightning rods in the room is Ryan Murphy. Frankly, he shouldn't be. He does still make his fair share of defensive zone mistakes. His size can be exploited (see the Murphy/Lucic play leading to a goal in the LA game). But even with the mental error now and again, Murph is making strides. His confidence is growing. He's using his stick more effectively. He's even fighting along the boards for possession. He's the clear leader of the Hanifin/Murphy pairing and seems to be asking for and getting more responsibility. Make no mistake, he continues to progress and develop....at the pace defenseman have historically followed.
Brock McGinn's First NHL Game - Yup, it was like a fairy tale, a few seconds in and McGinn's effort pays off with his first NHL goal...in front of mom and dad to boot. That has set the tone for what has been a very positive audition. Even with Peters' line-juggling, McGinn has found his place, his role, and played his gritty, but skilled game. Arguably he's more skilled than many thought with likely even more upside. Hopefully he'll get another game or two before being returned to Charlotte which one would expect once Nordstrom and Nestrasil both get healthy. Still, objective observers would have to question whether on not it would be better to send Nordy down. McGinn has been the better player of the two.
The Downright Weird
Bill Peters' Line Shuffling - Okay, most everybody knew that in Bill Peters' mind line construction was mostly a fluid thing. Still, the amount of "jimmying" with the lines feels arbitrary at best and counter-productive at worst. One can argue that few lines outside of the Skinner/Nash/Versteeg line have developed any chemistry. But is that a function of guys not fitting well together or of not getting a chance to get comfortable with tendencies. That aside, the make up of the lines just seems, well, weird. The team's best games and certainly the 1st line's best games happened with Eric at center. So he gets moved to wing (although the EStaal/Rask/Lindholm line has played well - Lindy is the missing link there). The 2nd/3rd line of Gerbe/JStaal/plug in random player is just a mess. Gerbe is playing pretty darn well but that line cries out for somebody with passing skills, even if it is going to be tasked as a shut down line. Prior to getting hurt, Nestrasil seemed to fit well the few shifts he played on that line. Against San Jose, McGinn and Chris Terry flip flopped for most of the game and the Gerbe/JStaal/Terry line actually felt dangerous....but will it stay together for any length of time. This has got to be especially hard on young guys and snipers like Terry. They necessarily have to find a groove.
Shots vs. Results - It could be chalked up to low quality. Or it could be bad luck. Maybe it is just a lack of overall skill. Still, the Hurricanes are putting plenty of shots on net (and plenty off net too). Yes, there needs to be more crashing of the net, more net front presence. A review of the shots taken show enough "near misses" that better results should have been realized in two or more of Carolina's games. This may truly be one of those things where "staying the course" will prove to be the most effective strategy. Eric Staal isn't going to continue to miss open shots. Elias Lindhom is going to figure things out. Skinner and Terry are snipers that can't continue to be denied. This truly is the single thing outside of the effort demonstrated that should lead to optimism.
The I85 Merry Go Round - Many of the decisions to bring up the players from Charlotte make sense. Less so, however, are the decisions to sit these promising youngsters in the press box. Biega's physicality could have been used against a "body on" team like Florida but he was sent back to Charlotte. Pesce sat and watched while Jordan continued to struggle. Rasmus Rissanen's call up was at least understandable as he was strictly an "emergency" waiting to happen. He stayed in the press box and was promptly send back down. The coaches surely know better than this writer, but these decisions seemed "curious".
The Curious Case of Joakim Nordstrom - When one polls Blackhawks' fans, reviews on Nordy were mixed. Some felt he had untapped potential and at the very least was a solid 4th liner/penalty killer, maybe even with some 3rd line offensive upside. Other's literally characterized him as a waste of space on the pine. In his 3 games he has truly exhibited solid defensive skills. His PK work seemed excellent. But his shot, which has been characterized as "heavy", leaves something to be desired. Accuracy isn't his thing. One hopes that he gets a conditioning stint down in Charlotte before returning to the big club post injury.
The Return of Drayson Bowman - Perhaps the most Cane thing of all. Enough said...
Window on the Future
Phil Di Giuseppe - Seven points in six games. Playing well in front of the net. He's beginning to show on his promise. Don't forget, this is only his second year of professional hockey
Brett Pesce - The future may be now if the San Jose game was any indication. He played a very solid game and (in a hat tip to Matt Karash) when he made an error he chose small mistakes over larger ones. He will continue to grow his offensive game too as his skating is much better than advertised.
Sergey Tolchinsky - He's already gravitated to the top line in Charlotte. With 5 points in 6 games, perhaps the most impressive thing is his assist total (4). That top line in Charlotte of Di Giuseppe/Ryan/Tolchinsky is going to put up some serious points.
Daniel Altshuller - Maybe, just maybe the goalie depth is coming to fruition. Sporting a gaudy 1.65 GAA and a SV% of .938, the Everblades goalie has started the season 3-0 and only given up a total of 5 goals. It's early, but that's better than the alternative.
Nicolas Roy - The hulking Chicoutimi Sagueneens' centerman is off to a roaring start with 15 points (7g/8a) in 10 games. One could even see his progression during prospect camp seemingly soaking up the coaching in buckets. He looks like he's living up to his early projected promise. This kid is likely a steal in the 4th round.
Roland McKeown - Don't overlook this young blueliner. As the Captain of his Kingston team he's adding to his leadership resume. Oh, and his point per game pace through 12 contests is nothing to sneeze at.
David Cotton - Another kid with size and skill, Cotton leads his USHL team in scoring with 8 points through 8 games. He recently posted a 3 point night (2g/1a).
All in all things could be better, but they could also be much worse. Watching this team is fun and painful at the same time. Fans knew that this year was going to be a challenge. Many of those same fans likely hoped for a bit of an upside miracle. That doesn't appear to be likely at the moment. However, if the boys can loosen up a bit and find their way past the frustration, then one never knows. After all, hope does spring eternal.