clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Fork in the Road: Hurricanes Face A Season-Defining Choice

There are two paths to follow, which one should the team choose?

Carolina Hurricanes v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Same crossroad, different year. Are we at this juncture once again? Is the team a contender or is it another also ran? The boys were cruising right along until they lined up against the best teams in the Metro. It wasn’t pretty and it really wasn’t even that close.

Still, there’s more than just a glimmer of hope this season. Things do feel different. This team seems more likely to string a few wins together. Despite recent evidence, the kids have mostly proven to be resilient. Can they remedy the too frequent defensive breakdowns? Can they do just enough to sneak into the playoffs?

Or is that even something that should be considered? The goaltending situation is shaky at best. The young defenders, even with their often stellar play, are inconsistent. Scoring comes in bunches and then disappears. Players miss their assignments, or even worse, forget them. Would another Top 10 draft pick be more important than the post-season?

Such is the dilemma facing the Carolina Hurricanes’ front office. Last season Ron Francis waited until a late February six-game swoon that saw the team go 2-4 stumbling into the trade deadline. The proverbial die was cast. Francis worked his magic, however, picking up a grab-bag filled with picks and prospects.

But wait a minute...last March started out seeing the team post a 3-0-3 record. The 3-2-3 record to finish out the month of March wasn’t good enough for the Canes to make a real push for the playoffs. They were officially eliminated a few games later, but everybody knew the fat lady had been tuning up for a while. What if the team had kept those vets and really made a push for the playoffs?

NHL: Preseason-Carolina Hurricanes at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Discounting the fact that making the playoffs last year, even with Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg, and John-Michael Liles, would have been nearly impossible, the team wouldn’t have ended up with the restocked prospect pantry the Hurricanes have today. Valentin Zykov (above; acquired as part of the Versteeg to LA transaction) is playing well for Charlotte. After a slow start, Aleksi Saarela (arguably the key piece in the Eric Staal trade) is heating up in Finland. The Canes had 6 picks in the Top 100 of last summer’s draft. Yet, at some point the team has to go from rebuilding to seriously competing. Is that where the Carolina Hurricanes are today?

The Case for Staying the Course and What That Looks Like

This is a young team, a team well constructed, and a team that has proven it can both defend and score. Despite Cam Ward’s recent drop off, he’s proven that he can win for this team. The Canes’ stingy defense and league-leading penalty kill keep them in games, often to the bitter end. The underlying numbers are similar to last season’s, as the team continues to be a strong possession team. Eventually that will translate into more scoring and more wins.

Get the Skinner/Rask line going

The top line that includes Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask, plus a cast of characters, has mostly looked like and performed as a #1 line. Stabilizing the right wing on that line will lead to familiarity and additional scoring. Rask is currently mired in a seven-game pointless streak, and Skinner’s goal on Tuesday was his first point in seven games. The duo typically scores in a Hurricanes win, and when they don’t, wins came when other lines stepped up and chipped in. Give these guys a consistent line mate and it likely has a positive outcome.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Los Angeles Kings Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps, counterintuitively, Bill Peters could increase their defensive zone starts. Currently Rask and Skinner lead the team in O-zone starts, and maybe switching it up a few times a game, requiring more play in their own end, could help. This might lead to more focus and consistency. Both Skinner and Rask have had a couple of lengthy pointless streaks, and adding defensive responsibility can sometimes lead to players simplifying their efforts. Right now both players appear to be squeezing their sticks a bit too hard and trying to do too much. More, and better, shots would go a long way for both of these guys.

Get the power play rolling

Early in the season, the Hurricanes’ power play was pretty darn effective. However, for the last six weeks or so, it has steadily declined. Both zone entries and creativity once they set up seem to be wanting. So once they gain the blue line, the Canes are still not scoring with any regularity.

Currently the Hurricanes sit at #28 in the league for power play opportunities. It seems like the team could force the issue a bit more, play a little tougher on the puck, especially in the offensive zone, and they would get more calls going their way. Add in the fact that Carolina is the least penalized team in the league — by a long shot — and that differential could add up. A timely power play goal can be a serious momentum shifter.

Often, the swings in momentum (I’m looking at you Cam “gave up another softie” Ward) are what have doomed this team’s efforts. We all know how much Tripp Tracy likes to talk about how a particular penalty kill can get the team rolling. The same type of thing happens in spades when power play goals are scored. And this team needs help when it comes to scoring, both timely and otherwise.

Back to basics on defense

When the Canes are playing well, most of its game appears to be simplified. No other place is this more evident than on defense. Gaps are tighter and the guys use their speed to their advantage. Even more importantly, they tend to consistently keep the play to the outside. Shots taken, between the circles, have a much higher likelihood of ending up in the back of the net.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, two other situations in need of remedy have surfaced. First, there is much more traffic in front of our goaltenders. The netminders are consistently being screened on point shots. However, because opponents are getting off high danger shots, more juicy rebounds occur. More of these are being turned into goals by the bad guys. Keeping the play to the outside will help with this. Fighting for position and boxing out more effectively will also prevent these outcomes. If the team does this, then they’re is capable of winning more than their fair share of games.

Secondly, there’s been a recent spate of opposing goals being scored where the play was initiated from behind the Hurricanes’ net. This can be an indicator of too much “chasing”. It is also indicative of being overly puck focused. Plays from behind the net can only happen if the opposing player in front of the net is open and in prime shooting position.

A back to basics approach here, where both defenders and forwards stick to their responsibilities, is an effective cure. The team has been quite good at this in the past (even earlier in the season); they need to rediscover this part of their defensive game.

An effective back-up goalie surfaces

The last game that Michael Leighton started was on January 21 and even though he gave up 3 goals on 20 shots, he didn’t look like a train wreck. The team played pretty well offensively, but gave up a couple of high danger chances that ended up as goals. Before that game, Cam Ward had the crease in every game since December 3, a loss to the Rangers in which Leighton played pretty ineffectively. Whether you’re of the mind that the workload caused physical fatigue, or mental fatigue, Ward’s play has declined since the beginning of January.

A back-up goalie that can be trusted needs to surface, plain and simple. One wonders if the coaching staff is doing the secondary goaltenders any favors by having them sit for so long between starts (or even appearances). The good news is that Eddie Lack appears to be ready to jump back into his role in Raleigh. His two game stint in Charlotte yielded encouraging results, facing 62 shots and stopping 59 of them.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Interestingly enough, it was around this time last season that Lack had his best string of games. Ward went down with a concussion and Lack strung together a nice seven-game stint. While not always perfect, he did win 4 of 7, including two shutouts and one overtime loss. Hopefully, the team will gain confidence in Lack, and Ward’s 33 year old mind and body doesn’t have to continue to shoulder the current workload.

Standing pat could mean selling at the Trade Deadline

In a nutshell, the next 10 games will dictate trade deadline activity for the Hurricanes. Something dramatic might happen before then (probably unlikely), but if the team treads water or unthinkably continues to sink, then expect some assets to be shed. Realistically, some of those players might still be moved by February 28.

The guys that are attractive enough to other teams and have value in the market would probably include Ron Hainsey, Viktor Stalberg, Lee Stempniak, and maybe Jay McClement. Hainsey and Stalberg are just the types of players many teams look for at the deadline. Hainsey would be a 2nd/3rd pairing tweener on most good teams and can provide the type of depth teams need in the post-season. Stalberg is big, fast, physical, and has some scoring capabilities. Add in his penalty killing resumé, and there’s a fairly nice return to be had.

One would think that Ron Hainsey might return a second round pick, but it is more likely that he’d generate a 3rd rounder, perhaps paired with a solid prospect. Maybe the pick is conditional or the Canes send a 5th or 6th round pick back. Stalberg probably nets you something closer to either a solid prospect or a 3rd/4th round pick. While he does have good value, let’s not get carried away.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Many might think Lee Stempniak goes on the block as well, but you have to consider his position in the upcoming expansion draft. Based on the number of games played, he probably represents one of the forwards the team will have to expose to Las Vegas.

The Jay McClement from a couple of years ago might have garnered a nice return at the deadline. However, he’s not winning faceoffs and his overall play has declined. At best he’s a depth penalty killing option and likely struggles to make most playoff rosters.

If the Hurricanes keep the same basic personnel (assuming that a player or two from Charlotte might surface as replacements), they might squeak into the playoffs. That, my friends, is a yeoman’s task. Consider the 2008-2009 Carolina team, the last one to make the playoffs. With 33 games remaining, that team went 22-9-2, including a nine-game winning streak at the tail end of the season. This year’s team would probably need to do even better given the competition in the Metropolitan Division this season. In that case, “dancing with the one you came with” might not be the worst option.

The Case for Chasing the Golden Ring and What That Might Look Like

Finding its “mojo” hasn’t been a problem, until recently, for this year’s squad. They’ve given up firstst goals and come back to win. In several outings they’ve kept their foot on the pedal, getting a lead and keeping it. When one line was in a scoring drought, other lines stepped up and took the scoring mantle. The goalie even stole a few games.

Before the recent five-game losing streak, in the 21 games since the beginning of December, the team had run off a record of 12-6-3. That is a 100+ point pace. Maybe there’s something to this group after all.

Actions not words; make a move that betters the team

We’ve all heard the rumors. We’ve even heard whispers that the Hurricanes have discussed “players” with the Colorado Avalanche. We also know what it will cost. Can the team afford it? Will it have an impact? One opinion is that adding a higher end skill player like Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog is one-half of what this team needs. The other is addressing the goalie situation.

For the team to drive to the playoffs and really be competitive (notice I didn’t say win...even a round), it must address these two issues. While Derek Ryan has been a nice player and a noted contributor, he’s suffering from a parallel pointless streak to Skinner and Rask. Lee Stempniak was brought in to be a viable secondary scoring option, but he’s been very streaky. Best described as “nice players”, they are easily replaced if a higher-end producer is in the offing.

NHL: Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

If the Canes are playing for the “now”, but with an eye to the future, it makes more sense to target a player like Gabriel Landeskog. A prototypical power forward with skill, Landeskog also plays with a bit of an edge. Add to that a contract that runs for four more years after this season, and this acquisition would be more than a rental. He would fit in nicely next to Staal, or on the Aho/Teravainen line. However, if even more skill is desired, perhaps there is a deal to be had for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. There are other, less sexy but still useful, names out there (like Ondrej Palat with Tampa Bay, for example).

Ideally the Canes would be able to work a deal with some combination of futures (picks and prospects). Realistically, however, the cost would likely include one of the young, top four starters on the blueline. This team would have to think long and hard before giving up a Hanifin or a Pesce (Slavin is most likely off the table). In the case of Landeskog or Nugent-Hopkins, their scoring comes with a fair bit of defensive responsibility. Regardless, one would have to think the added offense could be worth the defensive downside.

Fix the power play, part 2

Carolina’s power play should be a source of consistent scoring potential — as in realized potential. It is not firing on all cylinders at the moment. Without the danger that going a man down brings, teams can afford to be more reckless, more physical, and have little to fear from a scoring perspective. Right now this team has zero confidence with the man advantage.

It is time for somebody to take the reins and run with them. Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t seem to be that guy. In fact, since he has been in charge of the power play, the team has been 15th, 24th, and now 23rd in power play percentage. What the team is doing isn’t working.

Perimeter passing in the hopes that one of the point men gets a clear shot feels futile, even more so when nobody works to screen the goalie on a consistent basis. Teams are now stacking up the blue line, much like the Canes do with their own successful kill, denying entry time and again. Bill Peters sees this, knows he has to remedy this situation one way or another, and could take over responsibility for this group.

Rotating zone entry schemes so as to not be predictable should be part of their repertoire. Quicker passing and faster decision-making needs to happen. More work from both behind the net and at the half-wall is in order. And by all means, a big body (cough, cough, Jordan Staal, cough, cough) needs to either be planted in front of the net or quickly crashing the net. Most goalies not named Cam Ward stop the vast majority of the shots that they can see. These things together will create havoc, likely leading to more power play goals.

Carolina Hurricanes v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images

Address the back-up goaltender situation

There are two, and really only two, scenarios where the Hurricanes can address their goalie situation. The first is that Eddie Lack, coming back from his tune up in Charlotte, proves to be the back-up we thought him to be. He hasn’t played well this season and only had occasional sparks of good play last season. But he is capable and has played some very good games for the team — just not this season.

However, when Lack is in net, the defense tends to be a hair more conservative, a hair more responsible. That’s a good thing. It keeps the play to the outside and minimizes the number of odd man rushes. As a byproduct, the young defensemen seem to keep their game a bit simpler.

For some (and mostly justified) reason, there seems to be a notion that Cam is a safer bet and aggressive play is more acceptable. Frankly, given the youth of our back end, it might be better, no matter the net minder, if these guys stick to their knitting and play a more fundamentally sound game. As long as Eddie isn’t the sieve he has occasionally been (The infamous Eddie “Leak”), that more conservative mindset will be rewarded.

The other option is to make a trade because nobody in the system is anywhere near ready to spell Ward. There are very few options that are better than the dumpster fire the Canes currently have in net. By the way, which capable backup is on the market, will be on the market, or might otherwise be pried away from their team? Would Chicago really consider parting with Scott Darling while in the midst of another playoff run? Would Vancouver even consider moving Ryan Miller given they’re only a point out of the Western wild-card? Still, there might be a transaction or two to be had.

Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There are really only two goalies that would fit the Carolina Hurricanes’ bill. Jaroslav Halak sits toiling away for the Islanders’ minor league affiliate. It appears that he’s rediscovered some things (6-1-1, 2.03 GAA, .927 SV%). In truth, if he had Carolina’s defense in front of him, he’d likely be at or above league average. He could be quite serviceable in either a back-up role or as part of a 1a/1b tandem. He probably could be had for very little in assets and only carries another season on his current contract. Heck, New York would probably even retain some of that salary, especially now that Thomas Greiss’s contract has been extended.

The other option is Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, destined for free agency after this season, who will almost certainly be asked to waive his no-movement. With Andrei Vasilevskiy clearly manning the fort now and in the future, Tampa Bay will want to get something for him. Bishop would most likely be a short term “rental” as it is doubtful the Canes would re-sign him. But if the Canes decide that they are pushing for the playoffs, then Bishop is clearly an option, albeit an expensive one. The team will have to decide whether they want a back-up or a replacement starter. Halak and Bishop are really the only two “good” options if this team wants to make a true push.

What Should, Could, and/or Will Happen

I’m no mind reader and cannot predict the future....accurately. I do, however, think the Canes will make a playoff push. It almost certainly requires winning two out of every 3 games of the remaining schedule. To do that, some changes have to happen pretty quickly to have any real impact. I’ve got to think Ron Francis was doing more than collecting Top 100 in the NHL accolades while in the City of Angels.

It is hard for me to fathom asking this fan base to shoulder another non-playoff season without the appearances of making an effort of shifting to the next gear. Trading away the farm, for a short-term rental isn’t what is being suggested. Finding impact player(s) who can contribute now and still have significant term left on their deals is my recommendation.

Were I General Manager, I’d put significant effort into acquiring Gabriel Landeskog. As much as I hate the thought of it, Hanifin wouldn’t be off the table (but I’d do my best to keep him out of the conversation). I like Landeskog better than Duchene for the Hurricanes mostly because of his contract, but also because of the more physical game he plays. The Canes need that.

Or I might also inquire as to whether a reasonable deal for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be had. He’d bring more scoring than Landeskog, while not giving anything up defensively. In either case the skill level of the Carolina Hurricanes would be instantly upgraded and this team needs that boost — and quickly.

I’d start Eddie Lack one or both of the two games this week to see what he had and make a call from there. Yes, that is indeed rolling the dice, but the goaltending situation is beyond critical anyway. If he looks adequate, then perhaps the duo on hand can get us to the promised land (but color me skeptical).

If not, I’d make a play for Halak. You’ve then got a goalie who should, at worst, be a solid back up, especially in front of our defense. The team would either carry 3 goalies, try to run Eddie through waivers, or look to make a trade (Lack might be part of any deal for Halak).

2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Chicago Blackhawks v St Louis Blues Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Finally, I would consider making a crazy, totally out of left field type of move. What would it cost to acquire Kevin Shattenkirk? Even though they never happen, would there be a possibility of a “sign and trade” type of deal? Could you just re-sign him if you traded for him? Think about adding a 40+ point scorer on the back would that change the construction of the blueline? Consider for a moment one power play unit with Faulk at the point and the other manned by Shattenkirk.

Wouldn’t Hanifin benefit from the same type of veteran tutelage that Liles provided? Sure it would be expensive and out of character, but it might also be the straw that stirred the offensive drink. At 28, Shattenkirk still has some years left. Who knows, maybe he’s looking to jump to an up and coming team like the Carolina Hurricanes. He also provides the added benefit of a playoff tested, veteran voice in the room.

In the end, the team will most likely stand pat. Maybe one of the kids comes up from Charlotte and a vet gets moved at the trade deadline. Maybe Ron Francis goes off script and makes the deal for more offense. That feels like a long shot, however. Maybe Eddie Lack ends up being better than he’s been so far. My guess is that we’ll be picking around #14 or #15 at this summer’s draft, just a little bit better than last season. My hope is that this team that I love surprises and amazes me and secures that last playoff spot. We’ll see...