Welcome back to Quick Whistles, a weekly* piece in which I wax poetic and complain endlessly about various things related to the Carolina Hurricanes.
* - there was no Quick Whistles last week.
This will be a slightly more expansive (longer) column since we will be digging through two weeks of Hurricanes hockey things.
The Canes are now 3-2-1 on the year after finishing their Western Conference road trip with a 2-2-0 record. There’s a whole lot of good to talk about, but there’s also some not-so-good.
Here are this week’s Quick Whistles.
Let’s start off with something
The elite thing (there’s no way that he’s not some kind of advanced hockey robot) to which I am referring is Jaccob Slavin, who displayed yet again why he is a top-tier NHL defenseman at the ripe age of 23.
Against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, Slavin played, in my estimation, his best game as a NHLer, which is pretty impressive considering I thought his opening night game against the Minnesota Wild was one of his best games as well.
Slavin had one assignment - keep Connor McDavid at bay. The pride of Colorado College not only kept the league’s most dynamic offensive talent at bay, he also packed up Captain Connor’s ship and sent him sailing back to the land from which he came.
My nautical analogies aside, Slavin made a number of key defensive plays against McDavid, who finished with a lone secondary assist which came on a powerplay after Cam Ward couldn’t cover a puck in the crease.
Want proof of #74’s excellence against #97? You got it.
If Slavin doesn’t break up this cross-slot pass, Patrick Maroon would be celebrating three seconds later and the Canadian media would be praising McDavid for his wonderful assist, but not before noting that the Hurricanes have low attendance.
Perhaps more impressively, Slavin made the following play on the best skater in the league.
Stride for stride, Slavin stayed with McDavid, who was nearly at full speed, eliminated a scoring threat, finished a hit, and separated his man from the puck. The Canes would clear the zone just a few seconds later.
To go with his incredible shutdown effort against last year’s Ted Lindsay and Hart Memorial Trophy winner, Slavin finished the game with... (wait for it)... one goal, one assist, five blocked shots, two takeaways and a +3 plus/minus in a game-high 27:34 of ice time, 7:57 of which came shorthanded.
It was an out of this world game for the young blueliner, and a lot of people took notice as NHL writers and fans alike flocked to Twitter to make it clear that they are, and always have been, big fans of the defenseman whose name they didn’t recognize when he signed his big extension over the summer.
Let’s keep the
good elite times rolling.
Jeff Skinner has picked up right where he left off at the end of last season, scoring five goals in six October games, two of which sparked a near comeback against the Dallas Stars on Saturday which otherwise would have likely ended in a miserable blowout loss.
In Skinner’s last 25 games, dating back to the tail end of last season, he has 21 goals. That is the most in the league over that stretch. Second place on that list is Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov who has 20 goals in his last 25 games, including 10 goals in nine games this season.
Carolina’s golden boy has been among the league’s best scorers over the past calendar year and he, once again, has shown early in the season that he is a game changer and a leader. He got the Canes a point in the standings with his late heroics against the Blue Jackets in game two, played an integral role in both of Carolina’s goals in Calgary, and salvaged what would have been an embarrassing loss in Dallas.
Before his goals on Saturday, the Hurricanes were being outmatched and shut down by a Stars team that is far from a defensive powerhouse. Skinner gave the team a spark and the effort he displayed was world class. One could debate that it was even captainly, but that’s beside the point.
Jeffrey Scott Skinner (yes, that’s his middle name, look it up) is an elite goal scorer, and he’s continuing his hot streak despite lining up with players who don’t necessarily scream “offensive talent”.
Martin Necas’ 6:54 of time in the spotlight has come to an end as the Canes sent him back to HC Brno of the Czech league on Sunday.
The move was pretty unsurprising, though it would have been neat to see him get a game at PNC Arena or even play more than seven minutes in a game. Now, the only remaining question mark is Janne Kuokkanen.
Kuokkanen has played in three games, and though he has yet to find the scoresheet, his overall game is leaps and bounds more developed than Necas and he certainly earned the right to stick around a bit longer.
I am, however, a bit puzzled with the Hurricanes’ usage, or lack thereof, of the rookie.
The 19-year-old drew into the opening night lineup on October 7 and the two games immediately following it, but he has been in the press box in each of Carolina’s past three games. This confuses me because Bill Peters raved about Kuokkanen and his smarts, saying that they were going to find more ice time for him and get him involved on the penalty kill... and he hasn’t played ever since.
Maybe Peters wants to wait for Kuokkanen to have quality practice time in order to get some PK reps, or maybe the organization wants him to watch a few games and gather some insight from being a spectator, but regardless, it would make sense to play him considering that he has been hyped up and he has done nothing to suggest that he can’t handle playing in the NHL.
The team is holding onto Kuokkanen for a reason, so clearly there is a plan in place that likely involves him cracking the lineup at least a couple more times.
The Checkers don’t play again until Saturday and the Hurricanes have three games in the meantime, so maybe Kuokkanen gets into two or maybe even all three of this week’s games and then the team will make a decision. If that’s the case, then the rookie will have to make a statement against three of the NHL’s best teams in Tampa, Toronto, and St. Louis.
After Carolina’s horrific first two periods in Dallas, I’d wager a guess that he will bump someone out of the lineup on Tuesday against the Lightning.
Ah yes, it was quite a horrific start for the Hurricanes against the Stars.
In some ways, it felt like the Winnipeg game in that the Canes could not penetrate a defense that had experienced their fair share of issues in the first couple of games and weeks of the season.
To expand on that point, the Dallas and Winnipeg games both featured a Hurricanes team that did not have the drive or compete-level that their opponent had. The only redeemable part of Saturday’s game was how Carolina battled back in the third period, but even that was aided by Dallas taking their foot off the gas and letting score effects take place.
As I was watching the game, I felt like I was slowly losing my mind. The same four forward lines were being used and no changes were being made outside of Noah Hanifin getting glued to the bench for most of the second period. I thought I was just seeing things, but no, Bill Peters opted to keep going with what hadn’t been working, which was a bold strategy that... kinda worked?
They scored three times in the last 21 minutes, but two of them were from Skinner and the other featured Ben Bishop seemingly trying to form a conga line with Sebastian Aho around the back of the net, which left the cage wide open for a Jordan Staal tap-in. Granted, the intensity level was up and it looked like they started trying. Skinner very nearly tied the game late in the third period but Bishop stood tall.
Get it? Because he’s 6’7”. He literally stood tall and stands tall every time he stands, at least relative to the height of most NHL players. Okay, moving on.
It was one of the more frustrating Canes games in recent memory because we all know that this team is way better than what they showed and they followed up their best game of the young season in Calgary with their worst game and there were no lineup changes.
When it’s all said and done, a 2-2-0 Western Conference road trip is something that everyone should be pretty content with given how often this team has seen their seasons slip away in Octobers of years past. The Hurricanes have the 13th-best point percentage in the league, and none of their games have been freebies. They also rank 11th in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, just two points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders, and they’ve played two or more games fewer than every team ahead of them in the standings.
I’m going to end this week’s Quick Whistles on a positive note.
How ‘bout them Checkers?
Charlotte is off to a 5-2-0 start, good for sixth in the AHL, and they are *THIRD* in the league in scoring, thanks in part to hot starts from Lucas Wallmark (11 points) and Valentin Zykov (five goals, eight points). Warren Foegele has cooled off after netting four goals in the first two games of his rookie campaign, but he still exited their weekend series with the Toronto Marlies with five goals and six points in seven games.
In net, 2014 second-round pick Alex Nedeljkovic has been unspectacular, but he has shown promising flashes while splitting starts with veteran Jeremy Smith, as was the plan entering the season. Ned stopped 28 of 30 shots in a win against Bridgeport on October 14, and after allowing two goals on five first period shots against Rochester on Friday night, he was perfect the rest of the way, stopping 17 of 17 over the final two periods, including 12 in the third, en route to a win. The Checkers are undefeated in his four starts this season and he is really taking a step forward after an ugly rookie season spent primarily with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.
There is a whole lot to like with this team, but given the current state of the Hurricanes at the NHL level, the offense that the Checkers have put together is the most exciting development. With Necas out of the fold, guys like Wallmark, who I felt should have gotten an NHL roster spot out of training camp, and Zykov could easily force their way into Raleigh sooner rather than later.
Wallmark, in particular, is my player to watch. Charlotte’s 22-year-old center is tied with Teemu Pulkkinen for first in the AHL in points. He’s a mature two-way player for his age and his offensive confidence seems to be growing, and rightfully so after he set a franchise record in rookie goal scoring with 24 last season.
The Swede skated in eight games for the Hurricanes down the stretch in March and April, picking up two assists in a minimal role while Jay McClement was injured. In his last NHL game on April 2, he saw 15:41 of ice time, won 54.5% of his faceoffs, put four shots on net, and picked up an assist on the road against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For more on the red-hot Charlotte Checkers, check out Justin’s coverage, and check back next week for more Quick Whistles.