The 2018 All-Star break is coming to an end and, for a Carolina Hurricanes team desperately fighting for their playoff lives, it’s go time.
Before we move forward, though; let’s take a look back at the 49 games that got us here and, in particular, the players who determined the outcome of those games.
I gave every Hurricane player with 17+ games played a letter grade. The grades are determined by the player’s performance, factoring in their pre-season expectations.
So, at the unofficial half-way point of the 2017-18 regular season, here are my player grades for the Hurricanes.
Sebastian Aho: B+
It took the sophomore forward 16 games to finally get a bounce to go his way but, once he got his first goal of the season, he quickly emerged as one of the most dangerous scorers in the league. Since November 13, he has amassed 16 goals and 29 total points in the 28 full games he has played in.
Drafting Sebastian Aho in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft may end up being one of the crowning achievements of Ron Francis’ tenure as GM in Carolina. Of the 11 forwards from that draft that have played 75+ NHL games, Aho ranks fourth in points per game. The 35th overall pick trails only a trio of top-four draft picks - Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Mitch Marner.
His elite level of play since mid-November has, undoubtedly, exceeded expectations. I’d love to ignore the first 16 games of the season, wherein he had zero goals and eight assists, but that’s the only thing keeping me from giving him an “A”-level grade. That being said, he is a special player whose performance over the next ten weeks could make or break Carolina’s playoff aspirations.
Teuvo Teravainen: B
Aho and Teravainen’s coinciding breakout seasons are far from coincidental. The two Finns have remarkable chemistry. Teravainen’s pass-first tendency, while occasionally irritating, pairs perfectly with Aho’s growing confidence in shooting the puck. The former Blackhawk’s steady offensive production, especially with Aho out of the lineup, has been a positive step for him after an inconsistent first season in Raleigh.
There are still lulls in his game, but his ability to create scoring chances for his teammates makes him a strong top-six offensive player both at even strength and on the man advantage. He is on pace for 44 assists this season, which would be the highest single-season total from a Hurricane since Eric Staal (46) in 2011-12.
Jordan Staal: B
In the midst of his best season of point production as a Hurricane, Staal is continuing to prove that he can be a factor in the offensive zone when he has talent around him. His ability to drive play, win faceoffs, kill penalties, and provide steady - albeit unspectacular - offense makes him an invaluable asset down the middle of the ice. He lacks the offense that you want out of a first-line center, but that doesn’t take away from how important he is to this team and what they are trying to do.
Brock McGinn: B-
McGinn is carving out an important role on this team with his down-hill style of play. He is an energy player who is capable of changing the momentum of a game with his physicality. He is tapping into some of his goal-scoring ability as well. He currently sits at seven goals, but he has hit ten posts this year. With any luck, he could be hovering around 13 goals right now. McGinn is a limited offensive player, but his uptick in production is encouraging and he is taking a step forward in his development as a NHLer.
Elias Lindholm: B-
Two months ago, I likely would have given Lindholm a “C” - no, not the captaincy. He struggled early on and I was skeptical if he would ever find a lasting role on this team. Lately, though; he has excelled at being a net-front presence. His 14 goals in 48 games put him on pace to crush his previous career-high of 17.
He is turning into a very different player than the team expected him to be when they drafted him. He was originally projected as a creative playmaker/two-way forward but, while he still possesses those skill sets, his tendencies are turning into that of a power forward. He is playing a heavy, physical game and it has rendered positive results. His strong faceoff-taking ability adds to his value.
Justin Williams: B-
Williams has left me scratching my head fairly often. With regards to his production, he is meeting expectations and is on pace for a 50-point season. That said, he makes a lot of risky plays in the neutral zone, like east-west moves and blind passes that result in turnovers.
I wonder if his age is starting to catch up to him a little bit and some of the plays he was able to make in years past just aren’t as viable anymore now that he may be losing a step. His big uptick in stick infractions, which have been costly due to the team’s struggling penalty kill, could also be a result of him not being able to keep up with some players.
On the flip-side of that, he is always engaged in the game as a physical presence. He is a team guy and his work ethic is never at question. Bill Peters raves about his leadership.
Derek Ryan: C+
In his second full NHL season, Ryan has seen a slight uptick in his offense and proven that he belongs in the NHL. The 31-year-old journeyman has the 13th-best corsi share and seventh-best expected goal share, respectively, among NHL forwards. He has quietly racked up solid middle-six forward numbers (26 points in 47 games) and is Carolina’s best faceoff man (56.3%). Given his UFA status at season’s end, it’ll be interesting to see how the front office handles him going forward.
Jeff Skinner: C-
I’m giving Skinner a “C-” because his numbers have regressed markedly this season. After finishing sixth in the league in goal scoring last season, the 25-year-old winger currently isn’t even cracking the top-60. Some of that is puck luck, but the problems go further than his raw goal totals. His defensive game, which had improved throughout Bill Peters’ tenure as head coach, has taken a big step back. He routinely misses coverages in his own end, he is weaker along the boards, and his effort level has looked questionable at times.
Plus/minus is among my least-favorite stats, but Skinner is a -20. That’s the fifth-worst of any forward in the NHL. When the plus/minus starts to look that ugly, it’s tough to ignore.
The Hurricanes need Skinner to be an impact offensive player regardless of if he is totally invested on defense. After scoring seven goals in the first ten games of the season, the 2011 Calder winner’s presence in the offensive end has rarely been felt. He has fallen short of expectations thus far, but it’s not too late for one of his patented hot streaks.
Josh Jooris: C-
The July 1 Jooris signing was overshadowed by the return of Justin Williams, but he has been a serviceable 12th/13th forward on this team. He has a near-even corsi share and possesses a bit more puck skill than other fourth-line guys like Joakim Nordstrom and Marcus Kruger. He has, by and large, kind of just existed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Marcus Kruger: D+
Kruger was brought in to replace Jay McClement as the team’s fourth-line center and second unit penalty killer. His even strength numbers aren’t bad. In fact, his 54.89 corsi-for percentage and 50.46 expected goals-for share is actually pretty good considering his 46.92% offensive zone start rate. The real issues come on the penalty kill. He is among the league’s most scored-on penalty-killing forwards this season. Five points in 44 games is also very low, even for a fourth-liner.
Joakim Nordstrom: D+
Nordstrom falls in the same boat as Kruger in most facets, except he doesn’t have the relatively solid even-strength metrics that his Swedish line mate has and he’s also producing less offense. Credit where credit is due, he is a fearless player who can play with an edge and block shots, but his production has declined ever since Andrej Nestrasil got hurt and the 2015-16 line of Nordy-Jordy-Nesty was broken up. He is scheduled to be an RFA this summer.
Victor Rask: D-
The first month and a half of the season was brutal for Rask. After recording just five points in his first 18 games, Peters sat the 24-year-old center for two games in hopes of lighting a fire under him and turning things around. Since then, he has amassed eight goals and 13 points in 29 games with seven of those points coming in the last 11 games. The Canes have a lot of money and term invested in Rask and they’ll need him to perform like a legitimate top-nine player moving forward. He has struggled to do that this season.
Phil Di Giuseppe: D-
Di Giuseppe logged 17 points in 41 games as a 21-year-old three seasons ago but, in the 51 games since, he has just eight points. This season, he has one point in 20 games. He is a decent physical presence but, beyond that, PDG has been a non-factor. He has turned into a 13th/14th forward and, with a handful of Charlotte forwards looking to push for roster spots, the pending RFA’s status with the team will be something worth following in the second-half of the season and beyond. I didn’t expect him to fall off the way he has, and that plays a role in the grade.
Noah Hanifin: B
After a turbulent start to Hanifin’s NHL career, a great finish to his sophomore year has carried over into a breakout 2017-18 campaign. From November 4 to December 21, the 21-year-old tallied 15 points in 23 games, beefing up the resume for his All-Star nod in the process. Despite lingering bad decision-making both with and without the puck, he has been Carolina’s best defenseman this season. He leads Carolina defensemen in goals, assists, and points; and his 56.71% corsi share and 56.31% expected goal share at 5-on-5 rank fifth and ninth, respectively, among all NHL defensemen. He’ll be an RFA after this season, and he’ll get paid.
With Hanifin and Aho showing signs of being legitimate franchise cornerstones, the 2015 draft may go down as the most pivotal draft in team history. Nicolas Roy could also contribute to that cause.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: B-
TvR has been a pleasant surprise with regards to his stability at even-strength, especially when you factor in that he has had a rotating door of defensive partners, seeing considerable time with all of Hanifin, Fleury, Slavin, and Dahlbeck. The Hanifin-van Riemsdyk pairing has been excellent, albeit sheltered with favorable zone starts. His expected goals-for of 57.35% ranks fifth among NHL defensemen. He is a UFA at the end of the year, but the Hurricanes would be wise to make him part of their future plans.
Klas Dahlbeck: C
The seventh defenseman has had a solid year. I think bringing him back for another year was almost solely for expansion purposes, but Dahlbeck has played far better this season than he did in 2016-17. He’s not a defensive liability and he brings the “sand paper” that other players on the blue line, or anywhere else in the lineup, don’t provide.
Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce: C
I’m lumping these two together. Slavin and Pesce have been good but not great. They haven’t quite been at the level they were at for long stretches a season ago and their “off nights” have been slightly more frequent - though, you could say the same thing about the team defense as a whole. It is important to remember that they always have the tough assignments and, for the most part, they have faired well. I’d even debate that some of their best games this season have come against the most dangerous offensive teams.
I think there’s another gear in Slavin’s offensive game that he has yet to hit. He is a tremendous passer, but he doesn’t have many opportunities to be aggressive due to his assignments and low offensive zone start rate.
Overall, they haven’t taken a big step forward, but they aren’t playing poorly by any means. That lands them right in the middle of the spectrum with a “C”.
Justin Faulk: D+
Faulk’s problems have been well documented. His defense has been incredibly tough to watch at times and many of his mistakes are obvious - turnovers, blown coverage, poorly timed pinches, etc. As of late, the offensive numbers have started to jump, but the issues in his own end are still troubling.
Haydn Fleury: D+
The start of Fleury’s rookie year was promising. He and van Riemsdyk played well on the third pairing and, more often than not, they weren’t a weak link. As the season has progressed, TvR has seen more time up with Hanifin, and Fleury has seen more time with Faulk. The latter d-pairing has not worked well. After starting the year as the club’s number 5/6 defenseman, Fleury has kind of turned into the 6.5 as he and Dahlbeck have been rotating in and out of the lineup over the past five weeks or so. The 2014 seventh-overall pick has a lot to iron out both with and without the puck on his stick in order to live up to that top-ten pick pedigree. All of that comes with the caveat of him still being just 21-years-old.
Cam Ward: C
We pretty much know what Ward is at this point - a slightly below-league average goalie whose one great three-week stretch will make the numbers look a little better when it’s all said and done. He has been fine and, while this season hasn’t gone as expected in net; he isn’t the person who should be blamed for Carolina’s last-place team save percentage. He’s a UFA this offseason and I am very excited to see how the inevitable drama unfolds.
Scott Darling: F
I’m still in the camp that thinks Darling will get out of the hole he is in. He has the talent. He has to put it together consistently and solve whatever problem is bothering him, be it physical or mental.
Regardless of what I think about his future, though; he has played far worse than anyone expected entering the season. He posted a .910 save percentage through 12 starts but, over his last 17 starts, that number is .879. That is absolutely abysmal. There’s still a lot of time to figure this thing out, though; and it looks like the organization is taking the right steps. I won’t be surprised at all if he is flourishing as Carolina’s number one goalie by this time next season. He is way too good to keep playing like he has been playing.