It was three days into 2017, but the Carolina Hurricanes looked like they were still nursing a New Year’s Eve hangover Tuesday night in a 3-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Facing a tough back-to-back to end the week at the Blues and Blackhawks, last night’s loss stings, and shows the need for some changes to be made: some on the ice, and some on the roster.
Let’s Make A Deal
A few years ago, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff earned a reputation as cautious to a fault in the trade market. He went three-plus years on the job without making an NHL-player-for-NHL-player trade, and his first in-season deal that involved major league players took another six months.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Ron Francis is moving dangerously close to the same territory. Know how many deals Francis has made that involved swapping an NHL player for an NHL player while in season?
The Tim Gleason for Jack Hillen trade at the 2015 trade deadline is the only in-season deal Francis has made that involved major-league players on both sides of the deal. And given that Hillen’s Hurricanes career lasted three games before being sidelined with a concussion and eventually retiring in the following offseason, that almost deserves an asterisk.
All of this is to say, it’s time for Francis to step up to the plate. The Hurricanes need some blood infused into their 21st-ranked and largely stagnant offense. The line shuffling seems to be constant but it doesn’t seem to be working.
One thing is apparent: they are in desperate need of a forward, preferably a center. Victor Rask has hit a wall, with just one point in his past seven games. Teuvo Teravainen has played center for less than a month. Elias Lindholm can’t stay healthy.
What’s more, that help is likely only going to come via trade. There’s not an obvious forward in the minors ready to make the jump. The Canes don’t have time to wait for Julien Gauthier or Nicolas Roy to develop to fix the problem; they’ll be along eventually, but waiting them out is going to be an exercise in more patience than most fans can muster.
The Canes have the assets to make a deal. It’s time to do so.
Faulk’s Injury Also Hurting Hanifin
Noah Hanifin has hit the sophomore wall hard in the last month. He has three points in his last fourteen games, only one of which was on the power play, and he’s been on the ice for three of the last four even-strength goals the Canes have conceded.
Two goals stand out. First, from last night, the opening goal for the Devils was created by the Canes massively overloading one side of the ice.
Take a look at how both Hanifin and Teravainen wind up defending Kyle Palmieri at the top of the crease. Hanifin is on the wrong side of the net, and it leaves Mike Cammalleri with all sorts of real estate to make a play. Matt Tennyson does what he can, but Cammalleri’s pass to Adam Henrique was right on the money and Cam Ward had no chance.
Then, there’s Alex Killorn’s goal from New Year’s Eve. Remember the Alex Ovechkin “controller disconnected” meme from a few years ago?
This isn’t quite at that level, although it’s in the ballpark.
Hanifin takes a grand total of two strides in from the red line all the way to the goal. Most of this can be blamed on Tennyson totally losing track of Killorn once the puck goes along the wall, but Hanifin has to pick up on the fact that his partner has misplayed this. He had the chance to cut off the angle, but a half-hearted attempt at a poke check was as good as it got.
Now, this isn’t to say that Hanifin is beyond fixing. This is something that can be adjusted through video study; it’s not a structural problem. But with Faulk on the shelf, Bill Peters’ options are limited. Hanifin is going to be paired with either Tennyson or maybe Ron Hainsey, because we learned last year how dangerous a Hanifin/Ryan Murphy pairing is. Either of those partners is going to limit Hanifin’s offensive effectiveness, so Faulk’s injury has ripple effects down the lineup.
But Hanifin, who is fully capable of solid defense, needs to step up in his own end. That can be done independent of who he’s partnered with, and with the Canes necessarily playing him 18-19 minutes every night while Faulk is out, they can’t afford to have a defensive liability eating up that much ice time.
The Mountain Keeps Tilting Up
Andrew will have a piece later this week looking at what needs to happen for the Canes to claim a playoff spot, both what they need to do and how other teams need to help them, and while this column won’t steal his thunder, it’s worth making a point about what has happened up to now to put the Canes in the predicament they’re currently in.
Coaches sometimes like to divide the season up into ten-game mini-seasons. The Canes are nearing the end of the fourth of those ten-game subdivisions, and they’re barely treading water. The home point streak was great, but the Canes cannot afford to be 4-4-2 and 4-3-1 in their last two ten-game stretches, not when the rest of the Metro is running away with things.
.500 hockey does them no favors, and now they face a scenario where they have to win in either St. Louis or Chicago to reach even that point in this ten-game segment. Those two teams are a combined 28-7-8 on home ice this year. Good luck.
Call it an overreaction, but this loss feels like one in which you look back at the schedule in March when the Hurricanes are a few points out and wonder what could have been. With a little more than half the season to go, there is still plenty of hockey to be played, but the formula for the Canes to make a move is to win the games they should win (last night, for example) and steal points in games they shouldn’t (eg. the one that got away in Pittsburgh).
It’s not a lost cause by any means, but with every game like last night, the mountain becomes a little steeper to climb and the margin for error decreases.