After a rough showing against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, the Hurricanes jetted west to take on three very unique and very differently positioned Pacific division teams. First came the 34-12-7 Anaheim Ducks. Clearly, the Hurricanes would have their hands full against the team who has more points in the standings than any other. After this test would be a swing to the polar opposite type of team, as a contest with the 19-27-7 Arizona Coyotes awaited the 'Canes in the desert. Like the Hurricanes, the Coyotes had seen their play improve gradually of late, and this game would serve as somewhat of a measuring stick for each team. Following this game on the schedule, the Hurricanes would travel to the Bay Area of California to take on the 28-19-7 San Jose Sharks. San Jose has been a team against which the Hurricanes have found recent success. Though they have had an up and down season to this point, the Sharks are still a very good team who would offer yet another challenge for the Hurricanes to face and use to see where exactly they stand. That is basically all that's left to play for at this point in the season. One gets the feeling that pretty much every player on the current roster is auditioning for their future roles on the squad. Fair or not, that is probably the reality they are each facing. This week the team had the look of players who were desperate to prove their worth and value or overcome their recent struggles, and with that the team results quickly followed suit.
The Hurricanes turned in a great performance on the road against an elite team in the Anaheim Ducks, but ultimately fell short in overtime 5-4. The game against Arizona was very sloppy, but Elias Lindholm pulled out a nice move in the shootout to grab the team a 2-1 victory. Another strong showing came last night in San Jose, as the Hurricanes jumped on the Sharks early and withstood their late rally to win the game 5-4. That is the very short version of what the team did this week. Normally I don't do this, but I want to dedicate the majority of this article to a related but different topic. I want to look at the players on this team, analyze their production, and compare it to players who play similar roles on good teams or players who have reputations for being very good in their specific roles.
This past week saw encouraging performances from a number of the players on the team who will be key figures in its future. Alexander Semin buried a wrist shot in vintage form against Anaheim, and he contributed an impressive assist against San Jose with a gorgeous dish to Andrej Nestrasil to give the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead in the second period. Elias Lindholm put up a goal and an assist last night. The Staal brothers combined for a goal against Anaheim, and then they did it again against San Jose. Justin Faulk posted three assists against San Jose, running his point total on the season to 32. That mark places him ahead of defensemen like Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Andrei Markov, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklass Kronwall, and TJ Brodie. That is the type of company that Faulk is on the verge of matching and/or overtaking in terms of point production from the blue line. I think that's a pretty good thing.
No one would deny that this edition of the Carolina Hurricanes is one that has struggled mightily in the offensive department. They've been amongst the league's worst teams in terms of producing goals from the get-go. Fortunately though, the news isn't all bad. When you look at it at the individual level as I just did with Faulk, this team has some players who are performing very well in comparison to some of the league's best and more useful players from other teams. For some more context, and hopefully to further the idea that the sky isn't really falling in Carolina, here are some more stats that show what some of the better individuals on this roster have been doing relative to their peers this year.
While it is a small sample size on Jordan's part, the brothers Staal currently have point per game averages of .69 (Jordan) and .68 (Eric). Who are some players that that mark is superior to on the year, you ask? Marian Hossa, Jordan Eberle, James Neal, Alex Galchenyuk, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mikael Backlund, Thomas Vanek, Matt Duchene, Nazem Kadri, Nathan MacKinnon, and Justin Williams just to name a few. Eric himself has done a good job of improving his goal scoring rate this year. His .36 goals per game mark ranks 35th amongst NHL forwards, and puts him ahead of some rather impressive names. Some of those names include Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Filip Forsberg, Alex Steen, Claude Giroux, Jamie Benn, Kyle Okposo, and Jonathan Toews.
What about the younger players? Riley Nash and Victor Rask have both put up some respectable production, haven't they? They certainly have. Victor Rask's .35 point per game mark to this point as a rookie puts him ahead of some prospects who were much more highly touted around the league than he was. In points per game, he tops Chicago's Teuvo Teravainen, Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl, Vancouver's Bo Horvat, and Ottawa's Curtis Lazar. All of those guys were first round picks. None of them possess the defensive ability that Rask does, though Horvat and Lazar are no slouches in that department either. None of them have been able to produce points at a rate as quickly as Rask has. That is not at all to say that Rask is a better prospect than any of those guys, or even that he should be considered an elite prospect. It's just very encouraging to see a Carolina draft pick developed well and holding his own in comparison with kids who are considered to be blue chip prospects around the league.
In Nash's case, he's been a very solid depth forward for the 'Canes this year. His mark of .40 points per game puts him in absolutely fantastic company when you look at guys who you can firmly consider to be lower end second liners and higher end third liners. His points per game mark quietly tops guys like Nikolai Kulemin, Artem Anisimov, Travis Zajac, Tanner Pearson, PA Parenteau, and Mikhail Grabovski.
On a different end of the spectrum, you have players who are expected to be solid top six contributors on a second line. For the Hurricanes, those guys are Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, and Jiri Tlusty. There is no sugarcoating the struggles that Semin and Skinner have each had this year. As Semin's play and production have gotten significantly better of late, Skinner's have gotten significantly worse. I don't think those are things that you could expect to continue over the long haul. Hopefully both Semin and Skinner will find their games and their roles in Coach Peters' system, and I expect that they will. In the cases of Lindholm and Tlusty, they have done a better job of matching production of what you would expect from guys on your second line. With scoring going down across the league, the days of pretty much every team having 60+ point producers on their second line are over. The norm now lies in the 35-55 point range being "disappointing" to "highly satisfactory" out of second liners. Lindholm and Tlusty are on pace to find the lower end of that scale, but so are a lot of other names that may surprise you. Lindholm and Tlusty are on better point production paces than Derek Roy, Matt Moulson, Ales Hemsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tomas Hertl, and Beau Bennett. All of those guys have pretty well established their reputations as second line caliber players, and Lindholm and Tlusty are on pace to outscore each of them this year.
What about Ryan Murphy? At 21, shouldn't he be producing a little bit more than 7 points in 21 games? Murphy's point per game mark is being heavily slowed by his absurdly low shooting percentage of 2.3%. No player with Murphy's level of talent could possibly do anything to sustain that. Murphy WILL start scoring more goals and his production WILL increase as a result. Even WITH his unsustainably low shooting percentage Murphy STILL has a higher points per game average than Morgan Rielly. Ask a Toronto fan about Morgan Rielly. They will tell you that he is the future of their blue line and is a lock to be a 50 point defenseman in the future. And honestly, he pretty much is. They wouldn't be very wrong at all to assert that. But he's still being outproduced by our very own Ryan Murphy. Other young offensive defenseman who get constant attention and raved about at every turn, who are still being outproduced by a luck-hampered Ryan Murphy? Calvin de Haan, Eric Gelinas, Simon Despres, Cody Ceci, Tyler Myers, Jon Merrill, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Patrick Wiercioch. I could go on, but I won't.
In goal, we've seen expectations of Cam Ward be met and exceeded. Anton Khudobin's season has been slightly disappointing, but he's been much better of late. Would you believe me if I told you that Cam Ward has a better save percentage than Jonathan Quick, Ben Bishop, and Jaroslav Halak? Because he does. And he's even with Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonas Hiller. Khudobin's save percentage this season is better than those of James Reimer and Kari Lehtonen.
So maybe the sky isn't really falling in Carolina. Maybe this team (okay, they definitely are) is better than their record and their place in the standings suggest. Maybe the franchise has a lot of the pieces it needs to be successful already in place. Maybe we don't need a Connor McDavid or a Jack Eichel (though they would certainly be nice and helpful) in this June's draft to elevate us to playoff status. Maybe adding a Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner level prospect could do that just as well. Maybe bounce back seasons over the next few years from Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner elevate this team even higher than just being a playoff team. To get to that level there is a lot of work to be done. I am not denying that. Ron Francis and his management team have a lot of work to do. The defense needs to be improved. The forward depth needs to be better than it has been at any point since 2006. It's easier said than done. But maybe, just maybe, this team isn't really that far from competing and ultimately contending again, and that is a nice thought to have.