It’s November 8, and the Carolina Hurricanes find themselves at 5-5-3, equidistant from the bottom of the Eastern Conference and the second Wild Card spot.
Where do they go from here?
If you’re looking for signs of hope, look no further than Tuesday night, where the Hurricanes downed the Florida Panthers on home ice and had one of their best sixty-minute efforts of the season, and certainly their best first period at PNC Arena.
If you’re looking for signs of this ship sinking very quickly, the effort in Colorado on Thursday might be more your style. Sure, they threw 60 shots at Semyon Varlamov, but quality scoring chances were few and far between for the Canes as they fell to the Avs in convincing fashion.
It’s fight or flight time for Bill Peters’ club and, after three gimme games that didn’t pan out how the Canes had hope, they will now have far tougher challenges in the Columbus Blue Jackets, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars this weekend and early next week.
Amid the fiery chaos surrounding the Hurricanes over the past week, Scott Darling has risen to a level in his game that hadn’t been displayed very often through the opening month of the season.
He stopped a combined 53 of 55 shots against the Coyotes and Panthers and, for the first time as a Hurricane, allowing one goal or fewer in consecutive starts.
There’s still work for the 6’6” netminder to put in, but his past two starts are cause for optimism, which was much needed after a four-game stretch (October 21 - October 29) wherein he posted a .884 save percentage and a 1-2-1 record.
Carolina needs Darling’s recent success to continue. This team’s scoring upside seems barren and, until that changes, #33 will need to keep teams below the magic number of three more often than not in order for the Hurricanes to have a fighting chance of winning hockey games.
Blueliner Roland McKeown made his NHL debut on Saturday night in the desert and managed to show signs of legitimacy in just 9:05 of ice time against the Coyotes.
The flashes of good that he showed in his debut were just an appetizer ahead of Tuesday’s full course meal of optimism that he served up to the fan base as he dished out a pair of assists and formed a dominant even strength pairing with Noah Hanifin.
Assist number one featured McKeown firing a pass across the offensive zone to Hanifin. A net-crashing Brock McGinn finished it off.
Just over halfway through the third period, McKeown made a spinning pass back to an open Justin Williams under pressure, and Derek Ryan’s net-front tap-in gave Carolina their eventual game-winning goal.
McKeown was taken with the last pick in the second round three years ago, and the Kings ultimately let him, along with a first-round pick, go to Carolina for two months of Andrej Sekera. At the time, it seemed like a great trade-off for the Hurricanes, and it could get even better if this wasn’t just a flash in the pan for the second-year pro.
There’s little reason to think this is the last big game that McKeown will have in a Hurricanes uniform. Not only did the Listowel, Ontario native finish his rookie year in the AHL on top of his game and improving by the minute, he also has the drive and the passion to take the next step.
“I’m well-rounded right now and good in a lot of areas of the game,” he said at the end of his rookie season in April. “But I want to get great.”
Bill Peters also felt confident in the 21-year-old’s future after the win against Florida, saying: “I’m confident we’re going to have a really good player if we do the right thing in the development process with Roland McKeown.”
He stopped well short of saying McKeown’s game on Tuesday was going to earn him more time at the NHL level in the immediate future, and the return of Brett Pesce during practice on Thursday spelled the end of young d-man’s first NHL stint. Based on what we’ve seen, it won’t be his last.
Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of yet another supremely promising career on the blue line. We never expected Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, or Justin Faulk to jump onto the scene like they all did, so who’s to say Roland McKeown can’t join that group of bigtime defenders?
There was no shortage of opinions flying around after Carolina’s consecutive losses to Colorado and Arizona last week, and although the flames have since cooled off, one win against a bad Florida Panthers team does not rectify the horrid results that the Hurricanes posted in the two weeks prior.
I think there’s a progression that needs to take place with regards to the types of decisions that the front office needs to make. Should Bill Peters be held responsible for his team’s failures and apparent lack of passion? To an extent, yes. If the team’s mediocrity continues on for much longer, should the coach be on the hot seat? Yes.
That being said, there are options that are far less extreme that general manager Ron Francis can explore in order to prevent that from happening.
For starters, Lucas Wallmark has 15 points in 12 AHL games this year. Despite Derek Ryan’s elite production, perhaps the young Swede has earned a chance at some games in the NHL lineup. If you don’t want to call up a center, pick any of Valentin Zykov, Warren Foegele, or Phil di Giuseppe, all of whom are at or within a point of point-per-game totals through a dozen games and have shown they can get to the net and finish at the AHL level.
If none of those options work, make a trade that brings in talent to the forward group, specifically up in the top-six. Years of piling up draft picks and using them on promising young players have led us to this moment. The NHL team needs another scoring threat beyond Jeff Skinner and whoever he is on the ice with, and the Hurricanes are sitting on a goldmine of valuable young assets.
The ball is in Francis’ court. I’d be shocked if the GM is content with how his team has looked through the first baker’s dozen. It’s time to make a statement, a statement that proves to the fans, the league, and, most importantly, the players on the ice that there is a sense of belief in this group.
We know Ron Francis can accumulate picks, develop a farm system, and play the waiting game, but can he and his head coach take a good team and get the most out of them while actively trying to improve them? Only time will tell.