If this year’s preseason is any indication, it seems that there will be a greater need for special teams this year than in years past. If faceoff violations are now minors and if all slashing around the hands will be called, we could well see twice as many penalties as normal. This may not be a bad thing; scoring will go up and the game will be extremely high energy. However, this also means special teams will make or break your season.
The Carolina Hurricanes special teams over the past couple of years remind me a lot of the Batman villain Two-Face. On the one hand, the penalty kill unit has been one of the most successful and effective in the entire league. On the other hand, the power play has been one of the worst and struggles to score.
Let’s start with the good news first. Since 2015 the Hurricanes have been an elite penalty killing team, ranking 4th with an 84.2% success rate. In all likelihood, the Hurricanes have improved their penalty kill units this offseason.
Jay McClement will be replaced by Marcus Kruger, who led the Blackhawks forwards in PK minutes last year. The second PK unit will have more options than in the past with Josh Jooris, Derek Ryan, Lee Stempniak and Elias Lindholm all available and capable to play on the wing.
This improved second PK corps, combined with the top unit of Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom, will continue the Canes’ PK dominance. Among skaters that averaged more than one minute of PK time per game, Staal and Nordstrom ranked first and eighth in PK Corsi-for in the league.
The improvements didn’t stop there. The Canes also acquired Trevor van Riemsdyk, who was a major piece of Chicago’s PK last year on the blue line. He played 49:53 of shorthanded time, third on the Blackhawks roster. One of the Canes’ struggles last season was not having a strong second pair to kill penalties. Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin did the heavy lifting, but after Ron Hainsey’s departure, there was not another full-time PK pairing. Van Riemsdyk can now play a PK role, possibly with Justin Faulk, to shore up the blue line while down a man.
The Canes have looked good in the preseason, only allowing four goals in 34 shorthanded situations. The Canes are looking to build off of this preseason’s 88.2% PK rating and previous year’s success to maintain their place at the top of the league in penalty killing.
The power play unit has been where the Hurricanes have struggled mightily in the past. Over the past two seasons, the Canes’ tendency to drop one-goal games has kept them from being able to make the jump to a playoff team. While goaltending has been an obvious issue, another great way to win close games is by making teams pay with timely power play goals.
The Canes have been unable to take advantage of the high number of penalties they draw, converting just 17.9% of their opportunities last season. The Canes only scored 41 power play goals, which ranked fifth-bottom in the league, 21 goals behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last season the Canes rolled out a variety of units, with the only one with consistent production being Sebastian Aho, Staal, Lindholm, Teuvo Teravainen and Faulk, responsible for more than half - 21 - of the team’s power play goals. Beyond them, the Canes struggled to put together a solid second group.
What made the group so successful was having a big body to get down low with Staal, having a great playmaker in Lindholm, two dangerous wings with Teravainen and Aho, and a rocket shot from the point. Combined with the skating ability of both Staal and Faulk, the group was able to gain the and make dynamic plays from both sides of the net.
The second group is where the Canes struggled. Jeff Skinner was able to register seven goals and eight assists, but never had a fully solid unit with him. The group tended to rotate with the most predominant group being Skinner, Victor Rask, Lee Stempniak, Derek Ryan, and Noah Hanifin, not necessarily overflowing with scoring ability.
Enter Justin Williams.
The Canes’ marquee free-agent signing will not only slot in as the top line winger, but he will also play on the top power play unit as well. With the Washington Capitals last season, Williams had 10 power play points (5g, 5a).
That may not sound like otherworldly production, but 10 points would have ranked him tied for fifth last season with Rask, and his five power play goals would also rank him tied for third with Teravainen. Adding his five goals alone would have also taken the Canes from 25th in the league to tied for 16th in the league in power play scoring.
This means that if the Canes want to keep their top group together, Williams will plug in with Skinner, Rask, Hanifin, and Stempniak (or another defenseman like Slavin who can move the puck). This line already had speed, but what Williams brings to the table is more scoring threat and better possession to a line that desperately needs someone who can gain the zone and set up the play.
With the addition of a top line winger to that group, opposition PK units have to play more cautious against the Canes, which opens up space and prevent more chances of the shorthanded team getting to clear the puck.
Carolina’s power play has looked better in the preseason going 9 for 39 for a 23.1% success rate. It can be tough to gain real insight from preseason games, since the rosters vary wildly from night to night. That being said, there are hints that the Canes could get 20% from their power play unit during the regular season, which would go a long way to boost their shot at a first playoff berth in eight seasons.