It’s March 31st, and the Carolina Hurricanes are right in the thick of the playoff race.
That’s not a sentence that would not have been accurate to type out since 2011. It’s not a sentence that’s had a happy ending since 2009.
However this run ends up, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of just how much progress this franchise has made this season.
At this point, the Hurricanes look like a pretty sure bet to come in at 6th, and they’re ahead of the Islanders right now in the race for 5th. That may not seem too far removed from the 7th-place finish they were pegged for, but nobody could have possibly foreseen that four of the best five teams in the league would reside in the Metropolitan Division.
The point is, this team has finally outperformed the expectations placed upon them by the broader hockey media instead of the other way around, and while the elite teams in the Metro division regress a bit as their cores age, the Hurricanes have set themselves up to take their places at the top in the years to come.
Even this season, as the youngest team in the league, there’s a team of destiny feel to this team that hasn’t been present since the most recent playoff run in 2009. Never was that more apparent than in last night’s thrilling victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But it’s not just the magical moments like that one that make this team seem like it’s going in the right direction. There are other factors too. The team’s process has generated outcomes in terms of advanced statistics that are a reflective of a team on the doorstep of success. Further, the development of the personnel both on defense and at forward that we’ve seen this season is encouraging as well.
The Underlying Numbers
It’s often said that the Hurricanes are a team that’s just a season of league-average goaltending away from being a playoff team, and there is certainly statistical reason to believe that.
In terms of Corsica’s expected goals metric, the Hurricanes are 8th in the NHL. They’re ahead of teams like Washington, Columbus, the Rangers, and Chicago.
When it comes to score-adjusted corsi share, the ‘Canes are the 7th best team in the league. That’s ahead of all of the above teams except Washington. It’s also better than Pittsburgh’s mark.
The process that’s being put in place by general manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters is working.
In the month of March, the Hurricanes have gotten an even-strength save percentage of .934 from Eddie Lack and Cam Ward. It’s not a coincidence that the team has become borderline impossible to beat in regulation when they finally get above average goaltending.
The best part of that is for this team to be successful, they don’t even need the goaltending to be at that level. If Carolina can find a way to get even-strength goaltending in the .920-925 range and can stay reasonably healthy, they will be a playoff team next season.
Further, the team’s performance in terms of advanced metrics has actually slightly declined during March. Their score adjusted expected goals and corsi shares in March are 50.36 and 51.5 respectively.
If the team’s CF% and xGF% numbers come closer to 52 percent, the aforementioned .920-.925 5-on-5 goaltending would be good enough to have this team in contending range.
This season, the Nashville Predators have a 52.03 xGF% and a team save percentage of .925 at 5-on-5. At the time of this writing, they’re 39-27-11 and a virtual lock to make the playoffs.
Prior to this year, there would have been good reason to doubt whether or not that would be enough to lift the Hurricanes to a playoff spot given the team’s long-running inability to put the puck in the net.
Several players have had seasons that have gone a long way to putting those reservations to bed.
Breakout Seasons Up Front
By far the most encouraging storyline of this season was the team’s group of young forwards showing real development as a group for the first time in years.
Jeff Skinner has 30 goals for the third time in his career, and his 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes of 1.24 is 11th in the entire NHL. The 24-year-old has once again proven himself to be on of the league’s premier goalscoring talents.
Elias Lindholm is among the league leaders in 5-on-5 primary assists per 60 minutes. This metric is the best indicator of a player’s quality as a playmaker. His peers atop the leaderboard throughout the year have consistently included Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid, and Henrik Zetterberg. If Lindholm’s uptick in production is for real, and there’s every reason to believe that it is, it will be huge for the team’s ability to generate offense moving forward.
Sebastian Aho has had the league’s most under-appreciated rookie season. He’s likely to post 50 points as a rookie while being solid in the neutral zone and his own end. As has become a common saying in these parts, for Aho, the ceiling is the roof.
Teuvo Teravainen has brought a solid two-way game to whatever line he’s been put on, and it looks like he’s going to hit 40 points with ease.
Jordan Staal has been absolutely dominant territorially once again, and his 2.04 5-on-5 points per 60 minutes is the highest he’s posted as a Hurricane.
Victor Rask struggled mightily throughout January and February, but he’s still on track to finish with somewhere between 45 and 50 points.
This six players form a solid core group of forwards that can be built around moving forward, and even more help is on the way.
There’s Still Talent in the Pipeline
Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier, and Valentin Zykov are big bodies who know how to make life very difficult for opposing teams around the net. They’re also all skilled enough with the puck on their stick to generate offense on their own.
Guys like Janne Kuokkanen, Aleksi Saarela, and Lucas Wallmark all offer options that are more puck skill-centric with strong two-way play.
That’s not even to mention the contributions that players like Brock McGinn, Phil di Giuseppe, Warren Foegele, and Andrew Poturalski could make as depth options to fill out a line-up.
On defense, Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, and Jake Bean are all still yet to make their NHL debuts. There aren’t very many teams who have three defense prospects that good, and those guys are just in addition to the immense defensive talent that the Hurricanes already have on their roster in Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin.
In goal, Alex Nedeljkovic had a rough season adjusting to life as a professional in the AHL, but there’s still little reason to doubt his long-term upside. In the QMJHL, no regularly-played goalie had a better save percentage than Callum Booth’s .911. Jeremy Helvig’s .907 was solidly above average in the OHL.
This isn’t even to mention the seven picks that Carolina currently possesses in the first three rounds of the upcoming 2017 NHL Entry Draft. It seems likely that some of those picks will be moved to improve the current roster, but even if two of those picks are moved, the Hurricanes will be adding five solid prospects to an already burgeoning pipeline of prospects.
The moral of the story here is that things are looking up for the Hurricanes. They have a process in place that is highly conducive to well above-average results in underlying numbers. Those numbers will only get better as more talent joins the team and the talent already on the team improves.
They also have several young forwards who have broken out in big ways this season, and their continued development will help to supplement the team’s elite defensive unit with the scoring talent it has desperately needed to get over the hump.
On top of all of that, they have a decent amount of promising prospects still on the way, and they’re loaded with high draft picks to add to that group even more.
As grim as things will seem if the Hurricanes fail to qualify for the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season this year, remember all of these when evaluating the team’s outlook for the future. This team’s future is a bright one.