When is it too late for it to be too early?
If a team, especially one that is expected to do well, starts the season poorly, an argument that tends to be made is that it’s just a bad start and it’s too early to assume the worst.
At what point should panic start to set in? 15 games in? 25 games? The half-way point?
The end of November is a huge point in the NHL season. If you’re on the outside looking in during the opening days of December, you’ve put yourself in a hole that could be too deep to climb out of.
The NHL’s 16 playoffs teams on December 1, 2016, were the exact same teams that were playing in the first round of the postseason four and a half months later, with just one exception in each conference.
In the West, the Calgary Flames stayed healthy and rallied late as the Los Angeles Kings, whose impressive stretch without Jonathan Quick couldn’t last the entirety of the season, fell off. It also didn’t help that L.A. had a plethora of old, highly paid, oft-injured, underperforming players.
In the East, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had an egregious start to the year, ultimately beat out the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that was brutalized by injuries throughout the year.
The Leafs were the second-least injury-influenced team in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Bolts were the most injury-laden team since the 2013-14 Detroit Red Wings, whose top-three centermen and Henrik Zetterberg, who was still a point-per-game player, all missed nearly half of the season.
With eight games to go in November, the Canes need to stay above .500 and add cushion between their wins and regulation losses. From there, you have to hope this team’s annual second-half surge will finally be enough and that being prospective buyers at the trade deadline could make a difference.
When the Hurricanes get into the swing of December, they would benefit from having one of the East’s eight playoff positions, unless they expect a rookie of their own to imitate 2016-17 Auston Matthews.
No pressure, Haydn Fleury.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been very fortunate to date with the health of their team. Trevor van Riemsdyk is the only player in the opening night lineup that has missed time due to injury - three games with a concussion.
Of course, Lee Stempniak is a different story.
It felt like things were moving in the right direction after a month and a half of questions surrounding the veteran forward’s status as he was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers for a conditioning stint.
‘Twas a short stint.
Stempniak played all of two shifts before getting pulled from the game, again due to injury, and heading back to Raleigh for further treatment and evaluation.
Stempniak injury, suffered on first shift with Charlotte in Utica, is a different injury (upper body) and he’s out a while, Peters said.— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) November 13, 2017
Bill Peters said it’s a new injury. If that is the case, that’s a horrible stroke of bad luck for Stempniak and the club as that forward group could use all the help they can get at this point.
It’s just a very odd situation, and it could force Ron Francis’ hand here.
There was always a hope that Stempniak could come back and fit into the top-nine like he did a season ago. Losing a 40-point player is no small matter, and I find it hard to envision those points being replaced within the organization.
Phil di Giuseppe was called up from Charlotte during the weekend, and while he won’t play on Monday, Peters said he would play moving forward. Outside of an incredible run with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner two seasons ago, he hasn’t been an overly productive NHL player. His value is found more in his skating and aggression, which can lead to goals and points, but not at the level of Stempniak.
Other AHL options do exist. Lucas Wallmark has been phenomenal early on, though he is a center which would likely mean Derek Ryan slots over to the wing more often. Valentin Zykov is ripping holes through the net in Charlotte and had a goal in his only full NHL game last season, so perhaps he is a fit.
The Hurricanes can’t afford to wait and see. Giving all three of them a proper trial run instead of making a deal to bring in a proven commodity would be a waste of valuable time that this team just does not have.
Does a trade make sense here? I feel like I have been clamoring for one on these columns for weeks, but it’s just hard to think that the Hurricanes just stand pat with what they have if they expect to be a playoff team.
The more I watch this team, the more I feel like they are just one goal scorer away from being a legitimate threat every night. They have struggled at times to get prime scoring chances, but even when they have, the consistent finishing ability isn’t there outside of Jeff Skinner.
While the five-on-five offense just needs to be put in rice overnight, the powerplay needs to be thrown out.
Early in the season, the man advantage somehow found themselves in the top half of the league in efficiency despite it looking totally dysfunctional. Broken plays led to opportunities and they (mostly Jeff Skinner) were able to find twine.
As expected, that luck didn’t last long.
The first unit has been watchable. Noah Hanifin and Victor Rask, in particular, have been very good and Jeff Skinner’s ability to finish has made them a threat. The second unit, however, is an absolute trainwreck.
Sebastian Aho can’t score and Justin Faulk’s production has been woefully disappointing in all areas as he has seemingly turned into a quarterback on the unit instead of the trigger man from the point. If those two aren’t scoring, Elias Lindholm, Teuvo Teravainen, and Jordan Staal won’t bail them out. They aren’t goal scorers.
Lindholm is an elite passer down near the goal line but he stays down low far too often, Staal is a good net front presence and faceoff taker and has the ability to bang pucks home but he keeps finding himself nowhere near where he should be, and Tervainen has wired some beautiful shots into the net during his time with the team but he’s taking less than two shots per game. That doesn’t add up to a great powerplay unit, and that’s not even the worst part here.
For some reason, be it the personnel or Rod Brind’Amour’s system, no one is on the same page. Both units are largely unorganized moving the puck up ice. Getting zone time on the man advantage has been a struggle for this team, and they don’t usually score when they do get the chance.
Something’s got to give here. Horrid powerplays are costing this team games, and seven of their nine losses have been by one goal. If the powerplay had looked relatively close to decent so far, this team could be closer to ten wins than five wins.
A 12.2% conversion rate on the powerplay (29th in the league) is simply unacceptable, and Bill Peters said he is aware of that. Here are the “new” powerplay units:
PP units at skate: Staal, Lindholm, Aho, Teravainen, Pesce. PP2: Williams, McGinn, Skinner, Ryan, Slavin.— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) November 13, 2017
Brock McGinn is getting rewarded for his great play as of late and Jaccob Slavin appears to be getting reps there as he should have been weeks ago.
Justin Faulk did leave practice early but is expected to play against the Stars, so he may slot into Brett Pesce’s spot, which wouldn’t make any damn sense given how unsatisfied Peters was with the power play and having Faulk there means that unit, which has been unwatchable, would stay the same.
Or maybe Pesce is replacing Faulk on the powerplay. That would likely send a message to the co-captain, but trotting out a defense-first blueliner in place of an annual double-digit goal-scoring defenseman is interesting.
Also, if Noah Hanifin is taken off the powerplay, I am not quite sure what this coaching staff is doing. Hanifin has been, far and away, the best powerplay puck mover on this team since the start of the year and he has only gotten better. He leads all Hurricanes skaters in relative corsi share and expected goals for at 5-on-4.
He has excelled on the powerplay and made things happen, so removing him seems totally asinine and mind-boggling. Again, that’s just how they lined up in morning skate, so maybe it isn’t a finished product. Though, if these are the new units, they look significantly worse as the coaching staff has removed some of their best weapons and kept the same bad pieces in place.
Regardless of who we see on Monday and beyond, this section of special teams needs to be far better than what it has been. It has been the most unorganized that Carolina’s powerplay has looked in a very long time.
Maybe Brock McGinn is the answer, but
if when it isn’t, this team has to be ready to actually make a change and not just sit back and allow them to fail for the sake of being patient. If that means Francis needs to explore trade options, members of Charlotte’s very good powerplay need to come up to Raleigh, or hard decisions have to be made within the coaching staff, then so be it. The players are not being used properly and it’s killing momentum every time they step on the ice.
Even with all the issues this team has had, be it a lack of finish at even strength, an unwatchable powerplay, the inability to play a full sixty minutes of solid three-zone hockey, or not being able to close out games in the third period, the Hurricanes are still in good shape.
They have games in hand, and doing well in those games gets them in or just outside the top eight in the East.
Ron Francis and Bill Peters now face the toughest tasks of their tenure - exploring all avenues so that this team can be as good as it can be and getting the most out of players who, up to this point, have not played to the level of which they are capable of.
The next two weeks are crucial for this hockey team. Let’s see how they respond.