On Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes got blown out by a division-foe New York Rangers club for the second time in ten days, piling on more questions surrounding the team as they lost their fourth game in a five-game stretch, that one being as close to a must-win as it could get in early December.
On Saturday, that same Hurricanes team picked up their gutsiest win of the season, maybe even spanning back several years. Tempers flared, emotions were high, gloves were dropped, and the tempo quickened as the game went on, ending with a game-winner in the final 2 seconds of overtime against the Florida Panthers.
The huge swing of emotions around this team over the weekend fell in line with what we had seen from them in the 23 games prior.
Inconsistency has been the Hurricanes’ biggest downfall. Entering a crucial month of December, a majority of which will be spent on the road, this team needs to iron things out. If they don’t, they might just put themselves in a hole that’s too deep to climb out of.
One of the few constants for this team since the start of November has been the rapid development of Noah Hanifin, who has turned into Carolina’s best defender in short order.
Considering the company he has on that blue line, that’s not an easy thing to do.
Now, granted, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce (when they are together) will always draw the toughest assignments, and while there isn’t much sheltering with regards to the 20-year-old’s matchups, he is definitely being put in positions to succeed.
He is starting 64.14% of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone, which is the highest rate of any Carolina blueliner. For reference, Slavin and Pesce are at 48.31% and 48.87%, respectively. That is a huge, and unsurprising, difference as the more Hanifin is attacking with the puck on his stick or in the offensive zone, the more effective he will be. The coaching staff is being smart with his usage, and we are seeing just how much of a difference that makes..
Hanifin is playing hockey at an incredibly high level as of late. He has racked up 10 points over his last 14 games, he is skating well in all three zones, the defensive blunders have been fewer and less impactful, and he is still driving the best shot attempt share of any Canes defender at 5-on-5, currently sitting with a 58.69% corsi for rate. His 57.89% expected goal share not only paces the Carolina blue line, it’s up nearly 9% from the 49.04% number he posted in 2016-17.
And, of course, he also scored the overtime winner against Florida on Saturday night.
He is jumping into the play more often, and his top-flight skating ability makes him a hugely valuable asset at 3-on-3. His confidence with the puck is growing every single day and he is shooting the puck far more often than he had in either of his first two seasons - shots on goal up .58 shots/game from previous career-high, individual corsi for per 60 up 2.69 from previous career-high, though he could be more efficient at getting pucks on net through traffic.
Hanifin rifled a single-game career-high seven shots on net in the win against Florida, played a role in setting up Jeff Skinner’s third-period tally, and faired immensely well in his first NHL fight.
“He has gotten better overall in every aspect of the game,” Bill Peters said following Friday’s win. “He’s a young guy becoming a young man... Unbelievable upside. The ceiling is very high for him.”
We are starting to really see why Noah Hanifin was the near-consensus top defenseman in a draft that included names like Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, and Thomas Chabot. It seems like everything is falling right into place for him, and he’s still just 20-years-old, which is nearly unfathomable.
Still not impressed by the third-year man? Hanifin leads all NHL defensemen with 200+ 5-on-5 minutes (186 qualifying players) with 1.71 points per sixty at 5-on-5. He is tied for first in the league with 11 5-on-5 points, but he has 45+ minutes of ice time in hand on the three players that he is tied with. Among that same group of 186, he also has the best 5-on-5 corsi share at 58.69%, and his 5-on-5 expected goals for percentage of 57.89% ranks in the top-ten.
He also has the same numbers of goals and more total points than Matt Duchene this season, which is something that I find amusing.
What Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis likely doesn’t find amusing is that price tag steadily rising for the rising star as he nears the end of his entry-level contract. I’m sure he will be able to get over it, though. Hanifin’s growth this season has been remarkable, and if he keeps it up, the Canes will be reaping the benefits of being patient with him for a long time.
While young Hanifin was been excelling on the ice, veteran winger Lee Stempniak is still seemingly stuck in injury limbo as we enter early December.
Once upon a time, it was expected that Stempniak would return just two weeks into the season, but that never happened. Instead, he remained out with his mysterious injury, but there was finally a positive sign.
Stempniak was assigned to Charlotte for a conditioning stint in mid-November, which would normally signal the nearing return of an injured player, but in this case, the 34-year-old played all of one shift, went to the locker room, and that was it.
He had gotten injured again.
Beyond the player’s situation being remarkably odd, the injury plays a much bigger role on this team than maybe a lot of people think. The Hurricanes are missing a 15-goal, 40-point man in their top-nine, and so far, they haven’t don’t anything to really address it.
Yes, Justin Williams is playing well and provides similar production, but the 35-year-old three-time Stanley Cup champion was not brought in to replace someone’s production, he was supposed to add additional scoring in the top-nine.
The emergence of Brock McGinn has been a treat to watch, but I’m not sure if it’s smart for this team to count on him staying at a 40-point pace over the course of a full season. That’s a big risk, but then again, he has been deemed the most talented of the three McGinn brothers. If that is the case, then maybe he can be a regular 35+ point producer. Though, for now, putting all of your eggs in that basket may be a significant risk.
I am curious as to when Francis would actually pull the trigger on acquiring a proven commodity to replace Stempniak’s production. At this point, we have been given absolutely no reason to think the player will return soon, and even if he does, relying on an older player who hasn’t played competitive pro hockey since April likely wouldn’t be wise.
You aren’t going to trade some big-time asset for a top-nine point producer unless you want to take that next step up for a top-six center or winger, so it would, in theory, be relatively painless to trade for an asset comparable to Stempniak.
It still feels like this team is one goal or one play away in a vast majority of their losses, so perhaps looking outside of the organization for that help could render positive results, unless someone in Charlotte is ready to contribute in that big of a roll. Again, that feels like a risk in that you are putting faith in a young, unproven player.
If Francis does opt to go down the trade route, it’d be his first mid-season trade as a real buyer, thus signifying a potential shift from rebuilder to decided playoff hopeful, at least in the eyes of those on the outside looking in.
With a six-game road trip and a stretch of 13 of 19 games away from home ice staring them in the face, the Hurricanes are entering a huge gut check portion of their season.
Starting on Tuesday, the Canes will play seven times in 12 nights. Five of those seven games will come against current playoff teams, and throwing in the significant travel throughout only adds to the difficulty of their situation.
These next few weeks could make or break their season. A bad trip could put them in a bad spot at the start of the 2018 calendar year. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that this team has laid an egg out West.
A good trip, however, could be the building block for this team to start moving back up the Eastern Conference playoff standings. They could win four or even five games over the next two weeks, but they’ll have to do it against some tough Western Conference customers.
Goalie play is going to be a big part of this. Scott Darling needs to get into a rhythm and establish consistency in his game. In his past four starts, he has had two ugly games against the Rangers, a solid outing against the Predators, and a fantastic showing in Columbus. He has shown a lot of promise as a number one goalie, but he desperately needs to cut down on the duds.
After a physical, emotional team win against Florida, they need to come together again and find ways to win difficult, low-scoring hockey games on this trip. They haven’t been able to do it on a consistent basis so far this season, but now is the time to pull through and make a statement before it’s too late.