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Quick Whistles: Final Cuts Looming, Goalie Absurdity, and the Value of Justin Williams

Winter is coming, and with it comes Hurricanes hockey and frustration with goalie management.

Jamie Kellner

The Carolina Hurricanes have completed their trek through seven preseason games, and they came out of it with plenty of positives, namely a 5-2-0 record and no big injuries outside of the lingering mystery ailment to Lee Stempniak.

With their eyes set on Saturday’s opener against the Minnesota Wild, head coach Bill Peters and his staff are hard at work as they try to iron out the issues that plagued the club over the past few weeks.

Meaningful hockey is quickly approaching, as are this week’s Quick Whistles.

Note: Long Whistles would be a more fitting title this week.

Here we go! Final roster cuts are due on Tuesday and Bill Peters and Ron Francis either have met or will meet on Monday to talk things over.

Of course, Martin Necas is the most talked about bubble player. He has played in Lee Stempniak’s place for the past week and lined up next to Derek Ryan and Jeff Skinner in Friday’s preseason finale. Now, the question is if the team gives him a chance in that role on October 7.

Peters, per usual, was asked about Necas after Sunday’s practice, and he gave an insightful answer, but it still didn't clear things up very much.

"He’s done well, but now it’s going to go to another level,” Peters said about the Czech forward. “Ronnie has an opinion of what we’re going to do there. We’re going to talk Monday after practice and come up with a plan of what we’re going to do.”

When prompted, Peters added: “I think he can play now (in the NHL). The question is can he play now and get enough quality minutes to justify him staying here. His skill set and his ability to play at this level is there, but in the long-term, is that the best thing to do? That I don’t know.”

So, we get a little clarity and some more murkiness. The issue with Necas isn’t his ability to play hockey, as Peters said, it’s whether or not he can get minutes that justify him playing in Raleigh. He found himself seeing between 13:30 and 14:15 of ice time in his five exhibition games, except for Carolina’s 4-1 in Washington, in which he had 15:46.

The fact that Necas didn’t see time with either powerplay unit in Sunday’s practice could be an indication that he might not be in for sufficient minutes. There’s really no room for him on those units unless he kicks out Derek Ryan, but based on how he has gelled with Skinner on the man advantage in the past, even that seems unlikely.

Here’s how the powerplay units lined up on Sunday:

With no special teams time, Necas would probably stay in the 13:00-15:00 range on an even-strength line with Jeff Skinner, but is that enough time to justify him being there? That’s for Peters and Francis to decide.

The other bubble player is Janne Kuokkanen, who might be gaining some ground on Necas for an opening night spot. The Finnish forward lined up with Derek Ryan and Jeff Skinner for the first time on Monday.

“It was just a look,” Peters said. “He’s looked good in preseason and he likes to play that off-wing as most Europeans do. We might change them (lines) up tomorrow and go from there.” He went on to say that the young players are making it tough on the organization as there are more players that are capable of playing in the NHL than there are spots available.

It’s anyone’s guess as to which player, if either, will make the club out of camp. Thankfully, we only have to wait one more day to find out.

Speaking of Carolina’s fearless leader behind the bench, he’s found himself in an interesting situation with regards to his goalies.

Ron Francis gave a draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for negotiating rights to Scott Darling in April and then gave him $16.6 million over four years with a modified NTC in order to solve the team’s long-standing starting goalie issue. Well, at least we hope that will be the case.

A 2-0-0 preseason record with a .925 save percentage, coupled with three years of big success as Corey Crawford’s backup, didn’t inspire Peters too much based off of his postgame comments on Friday following Darling’s 18-save outing in a 3-1 win over Washington.

When asked if Darling will get the crease on opening night, Peters responded: “We have to clean up tonight and do a little bit of work and we’ll go from there. I like our depth. I like our depth at all three positions. We have a good team.” In layman’s terms, he dodged the question entirely. He was also lukewarm with his response when asked about Darling’s impressive performance. “Well he gave up one (goal),” Peters said. “If we can hold teams to one on twenty-ish shots, I think that’ll give us a chance.”

These comments are both irritating and troubling. We’ve been down this road before. New goalie comes in, expectations are high, and Peters goes with Cam Ward because he is comfortable with him.

With Eddie Lack, Peters wasn’t entirely in the wrong. Stories of goalie coach David Marcoux’s lack of competence with the former Canuck didn’t paint a pretty picture and when Lack did play, he gave the team no reason to put trust in him, excluding his late-season performance in 2017, but by that time the writing was already on the wall and it was very clear how the coach felt about the goalie.

This is different. Scott Darling was among the best backups in hockey for several years and Francis risked a lot in order to get him here and keep him here. He came in and had a fabulous preseason and has given the coaching staff no reason to not trust him.

One mistake is excusable, making that mistake again now creates a pattern, a pattern which severely hurts the team. No one will win a debate saying that Ward is better than Darling or that he gives the team a better chance to win. Looking at any statistic and comparing the two goalies should take care of any argument in short order.

If Peters can’t see that and make the best decision for his team, he could lose a lot of trust and confidence from the fans. The fact that he hasn’t given much of any praise to Darling and has dodged all questions with regards to the starting goalie, instead opting to praise the team’s “depth” or the strength of the “goalie tandem”, is just ludicrous.

Name Scott Darling the starting goalie and be done with all of the nonsense. There’s a list of NHL teams that would salivate at the prospect of Darling being their starting goalie, and many of them didn’t finish 27th in team save percentage last season. It’s hard to fathom how we are even in this situation unless there’s something going on behind the scenes that changes things entirely.

It’s a delicate situation with Ward still in the fold, but I think we all know what the right decision is here. As long as Peters also does, there won’t be any issues.

Update: Peters said on Tuesday (10/3) that he expects Darling to get the start on opening night.

Still reading? Great, let’s talk about things that don’t make my head explode.

Justin Williams has come in and has made a huge impact on the team, earning rave reviews from coaches and players alike.

When the veteran was brought in, there were whispers that he could be the next captain of this team, but those whispers have quickly turned into... well... louder whispers?

It was always assumed, by myself included, that Jeff Skinner would be the captain, but that’s definitely not a sure thing. Williams was seen having a lengthy talk with Peters during practice last week and he was right at the end of the tunnel to fist-bump all of his teammates before Carolina’s final preseason game. In addition, there is a Canes Corner, a live radio show hosted by Mike Maniscalco in which he interviews different players, coaches, or team executives, scheduled for Tuesday at 7:00 pm, just a few hours after the final roster cuts will be announced, featuring Justin Williams.

Maybe he will be announced as the captain right there in that Backyard Bistro while dining on a perfectly prepared ribeye steak shaped in a C with Bill Peters and Ron Francis looking on and nodding in approval as the crowd cheers Williams’ name. Or maybe not.

Am I looking too far into this? Absolutely, but it’s an interesting story to follow. Bill Peters has said time and time again that they will name a captain before opening night, and the timing of all of this is interesting, to say the least.

Regardless of if he is named the captain, his value on and off the ice is astronomical. We know how good he is as a player - he’s an annual 20-goal man and a difference-making player whether it’s game one of the preseason or game seven of the Stanley Cup final. Off the ice, he is vocal and confident. He is a guy that expects to win and he has no problem telling you with a voice that is both loud and impactful.

There are several legitimate options for the captaincy, and Williams certainly is not a bad one.

One pleasant development from the final preseason game was the performance of the fourth line. Marcus Kruger centered Brock McGinn and Joakim Nordstrom on Friday and they were fantastic.

A defensive zone faceoff win led to cycling in the offensive zone and a goal from Justin Faulk through a great screen by Brock McGinn.

Kruger’s value as a defensive center has been well documented and his name was written in ink in the middle of the fourth line the day he was acquired. The question has just been who would fill in around him.

McGinn and Nordstrom were with the team last season and they’re both under one-way contracts, which gives them a pretty big advantage. Josh Jooris and Lucas Wallmark have both made pushes in camp, but Wallmark’s waiver exemption makes him easier to cut (Update: they did cut him on Monday) and Jooris hasn’t outplayed the other two contenders, at least not to an extent that warrants him being an everyday player.

Phil Di Giuseppe got a couple of looks in preseason but was ultimately put on waivers on Monday with the intent of sending him to Charlotte.

So as it stands now, the 10-13 forward slots heading into the season will likely be McGinn, Kruger, Nordstrom, and Jooris in that order. With how the group performed in the preseason, that’s not bad at all.

And hey, if things go south, Jay McClement is available after getting cut from his PTO in Pittsburgh on Sunday... I’ll just see myself out.