Today is the final day of 2018, a calendar year that ranks among the most controversial in the history of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The hope was that the 2018-19 campaign would see this franchise turn around in short order. Young stars were pouring in, the leadership group was sturdy, the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning captain took over behind the bench, and the fiery new owner would not accept losing on his watch.
He should probably look into getting a new watch battery.
After all the talk, all the controversy, and all the perceived change that the organization went through, the Hurricanes find themselves in a place that is all too familiar.
So, with 2019 just hours away, what do we really know about this team? Let’s talk about it.
The playoff drought will reach a decade
Have crazier things than the Hurricanes rebounding and making a playoff push happened? Yes, but there’s no reason to have faith that this team can get their way into the top-eight of the Eastern Conference. The playoff drought will reach ten seasons.
After opening the 2018-19 campaign with an unexpected 4-0-1 run which saw them net more than four goals per game, the Hurricanes have nosedived in painful fashion. Carolina is 11-17-4 since October 14 and they have the fewest wins in the NHL in that span.
Things have only gotten worse as of late. In their last 13 games, they have lost ten times, been shut out three times, and have averaged all of 1.4 goals in their losses. Even for a franchise as downtrodden as the Hurricanes, their dramatic crash and burn is unprecedented. They have experienced many stretches like the one they are in, but few (if any) of those stretches followed a start as promising as the 2018 team had.
This team just isn’t good enough to compete. I outlined before the start of the season that, in order for this team to be a playoff contender, they needed a lot of things to go right. They needed Andrei Svechnikov to become an impact player, Sebastian Aho to establish himself as a first-line center, Martin Necas to put together a productive rookie year, the defense to play up to expectations, and the goaltending to be, at the very least, passable among other things. While some of those things have happened, too many situations haven’t panned out. This roster is severely lacking goal-scoring talent, and I think it’s too late to fix that problem for this season.
The only question now is if the Hurricanes will continue to fall down the standings (they are just two points out of last place in the entire league) or if they will do what they have done very often - hover around .500 and end up with a draft pick in the 7-12 range?
With the 2019 NHL Draft’s strength residing at the forward positions in guys like Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Vasily Podkolzin, and a couple of big centers in the WHL, perhaps the best thing for the Canes would be to be in a position to secure an impact forward in June to add to the group of Aho, Svechnikov, and Necas among others as the team’s core moving forward. That’s a tricky proposition, though. With the lottery system, nothing is guaranteed, as we saw with the Hurricanes getting the pick that got them Svechnikov.
The power play is a real problem
What started as a concerning trend has turned into a legitimate problem for the Hurricanes.
Over the last decade, this team has had some downright ugly power play numbers, but I can’t remember it ever being as bad as it is right now. Entering tonight’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Hurricanes are 0 for their last 24 on the man advantage and have plummeted down to 28th in the NHL in power play efficiency at 14.6%.
There’s a lot to unpack here. For starters, this shouldn’t be all that big of a surprise given that the assistant coach that oversaw Carolina’s below-average power play over the last several seasons is now the head coach and is still in charge of said flailing power play.
If we aren’t at the point where it’s clear to the Hurricanes that Faulk is not a top-pairing power play puck distributor, I don’t think we will ever reach it. It also calls into question; what, exactly, was the point of trading for Dougie Hamilton over the offseason if the plan was not to use him on the top power play unit and utilize his skillset that is regarded as one of the best in the NHL when used as the focal point of a man advantage?
Side note: having both Hamilton and Faulk on the same blue line is extremely redundant and a separate issue itself.
To boot, the first three months of the season have featured some of the least-creative power play units and strategies that this team has utilized in years. At what point does “doing the right things” and never getting results turn into a tired narrative? They very well might be doing the “right things” with regards to taking what they practice and translating it into a game, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually doing the “right things” with regards to scoring goals on an NHL power play.
This team is lacking offense, but they have enough pieces to form a power play that doesn’t instantly deflate the team every time a penalty is called on an opponent.
Goaltending is not the problem
The 2018-19 Hurricanes’ goaltending success seemed to really rely on Scott Darling’s ability or inability to bounce back and become a serviceable NHL goalie, but that’s not how it played out.
Darling’s preseason injury forced the club to go out and claim Curtis McElhinney, Toronto’s veteran journeyman backup, and that has turned out to be a Godsend for a team that has been clamoring for competent and controlled goalie play for the better part of six years.
In 13 starts, the 35-year-old has a .922 save percentage and has singlehandedly stolen games for his team along the way. His calm demeanor has impacted the team in front of him. At no point has it felt like he was about to crack and regress.
The numbers are impressive for McElhinney, but I’d debate that Petr Mrazek’s play has been equally as impressive. A .901 save percentage is nothing special, but I wrote in depth about how he has been a perfect fit on this team.
The Hurricanes are getting quality goaltending that you can win hockey games with. They’re a top-ten team when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. The problem is that they’re the second-worst offense in the NHL.
The Flames are winning the trade
When the Hurricanes traded Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox, I thought it was a good deal for Carolina. Through the first half of the 2018-19 season, though, it has been anything but.
Lindholm is having a breakout year that has seen him score 17 goals in 39 games. His career-high goal total with the Hurricanes was 17 goals... in 81 games.
I’ve always been a huge, huge fan of Lindholm. He’s talented, smart, and versatile. He can play in every situation and do so extremely well. The only thing he wasn’t good at in Carolina was scoring goals, but now he’s doing that at an elite level while playing with a couple of high-end players in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
Hanifin hasn’t experienced the same level of breakout production, but he’s been very good. He has 18 points in 39 games and, still at age 21, has looked like the player that had a torrent first half in 2017-18 and went to the All-Star Game. Keep an eye on him, because while he got his fair share of criticism as a young player for the Hurricanes, he’s going to be a very good defenseman for a long time.
The Hurricanes’ end of the deal has been a mixed bag.
Ferland’s physical presence has been a huge addition for the Canes. He has also proven that he isn’t just a big body whose lack of skill is made up for by playing with good players. He can play. He has a strong shot that can pick corners and a pair of hands that can finesse pucks into the net from in close.
Hamilton’s first year in Carolina has been tough. He’s having his worst offensive season as a prime NHL player and has had his effort and defensive game called into question at several points throughout the season.
Is he as bad as he is right now? No, he just isn’t. 40 bad games a player does not make. That said, he needs to be better. I don’t think his usage has been great, but he hasn’t done himself any favors.
This team traded two extremely valuable assets to get him, though. He was the consensus “best player in the trade”. If you’re the Hurricanes, you absolutely have to get him going. That means putting him on the top power play unit. That means playing him with a guy like Calvin de Haan. The fact of the matter is that, even with how this season has gone to this point, Hamilton is a better player, has a higher ceiling, and is more important to the team moving forward than Justin Faulk. If they keep giving Faulk the better minutes and situations, they will be making a big mistake.
The wildcard is Adam Fox, the third-round pick turned NCAA superstar whose sign-ability is still TBD. The small right-handed blueliner has 20 points in 11 games for Harvard as a junior and is, according to almost anyone who has seen him play this season, NHL ready right now.
Here’s the thing with Fox; he has two options. He can sign with the Hurricanes at the end of his junior season and make the jump to the NHL with the team that has his rights, or he can choose to not sign and instead play his senior season before going on the open market next summer.
He has said that he wants to play in the NHL ASAP, so if the Hurricanes can convince him that there is a spot for him, they have a real shot of getting him to put pen to paper in the spring. There needs to be a spot for him, though, which means the logjam on the blue line has to be resolved. Someone has to get moved out.
If he just isn’t going to sign, that’s a problem. The Hurricanes will have been the second team that had that problem with Fox. You think many teams are going to be super excited to call Carolina and trade for his rights if he’s just going to hit the open market regardless?
For now, the Flames are winning the trade by a landslide. Will that be the case this time next season? Probably, but there’s reason to think that this trade can still even out. For that to happen, Ferland needs to keep playing well and likely sign an extension, Hamilton needs to turn back into the player he has always been, and Fox needs to sign.
The pieces are there
While the 2018-19 season looks more like a lost cause with every single 3-1 loss, the Hurricanes should feel pretty confident about the core that is in place.
For my money, you have two world-class players to build your entire organization around moving forward in Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov.
Aho, 21, has transitioned unbelievably well to the center position. His team-high 15 goals and 39 points in 37 games this season is what has kept the Hurricanes from really falling into the abyss. He’s a first-line center that can log 20:00 a game and do everything that you want him to do. He can light up the scoreboard, he can play in all three zones, he can win faceoffs, and we have seen that he is also an extremely effective penalty killer.
That’s a franchise center. That’s also a pending RFA franchise center. The Hurricanes need to get him locked up.
Svechnikov, 18, has been brought along slowly. While it can be frustrating at times to see him on the bench in situations wherein his skill set could be a big difference-maker, you can take comfort in knowing that they’re playing the long game with this special talent.
The 2018 second-overall draft pick has scored ten goals so far this season and has seen his usage grow every step along the way. In his first 16 NHL games, he saw 13:18 of ice time per game. In his last 21 games, that number has jumped up tp 16:18. In his last nine games, 17:20.
We’ve seen some pretty remarkable flashes from him and we’re not even at the mid-point of the season. This is a special player with a skill set that this organization hasn’t had in a very long time. He’s the real deal.
There are some good pieces in place to compliment their two pillars. Teuvo Teravainen continues to show that he’s a dynamic top-six forward and his chemistry with Aho has always been a treat to watch, even if there are areas in his game that will make you want to pull your hair out. He’s a pending RFA, so Don Waddell and company have a big decision to make on him.
Micheal Ferland has been an impact player with his physicality and goal-scoring touch. He’s a pending UFA, so the Hurricanes have to decide if he has warranted a long-term deal. The futures of Teravainen and Ferland are going to be something to watch closely.
Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan have been great on the left side of the top-four and they’re both locked up to team-friendly deals for the long-term.
Martin Necas, Janne Kuokkanen, Nicolas Roy, Jake Bean, and the aforementioned Fox all look like future NHL players. In Necas’ case, the upside is that of a top-six offensive center. If the Hurricanes have a top-nine center core of Aho, Necas, and Staal moving forward, they’re going to be in a good position. They have to get to that point, though.
They have a lot riding on Necas’ development. They need to get it right and do what’s best for his future. If that is letting him be the second-line center after World Juniors and surrounding him with real NHL talent, then that’s what you do.
Still work to do...
The front office will have to make a lot of difficult decisions in the very near future.
For starters, what direction is the team headed in? I think it makes the most sense to focus on the 2019-20 season and beyond. The goal should be to win next year and put yourself in the best situation when October roles around.
Again, the blue line is still too crowded. With Fox looking for a reason to sign and Bean on his way to being an NHL player, the Hurricanes need to do something about the defense and make a move that opens up room and makes the 2019-20 team (and beyond) better. One would assume that trading a d-man for a forward is still the way to go.
What do you do about Victor Rask and Scott Darling? They are combining to eat up north of $8 million in salary cap and are, at this point, dead money. Do you convince a team to take on the contract, utilize your buy outs, or just let them toil away in the bottom of the depth chart or in Charlotte? Right now, those look like bad contracts and I don’t think anyone is benefiting from the current situations there.
UPDATE: 12:30 pm
Now, we also know Phil Di Giuseppe has been placed on waivers.
It’s the second time this season that he has been placed on waivers. In October, he passed through waivers and he will likely do so again. If he does, he can be moved freely between the NHL and AHL without having to go through waivers for 30 days.
The news release from the team:
The Carolina Hurricanes today placed forward Phil Di Giuseppe on waivers.
If Di Giuseppe clears waivers on Tuesday at noon, the Hurricanes can assign him to the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League at any point in the next 30 days (as long as he does not play in 10 or more games during that stretch).
Di Giuseppe was placed on and cleared waivers earlier this season in mid-October, both moves designed to create roster flexibility for the Hurricanes.
Di Giuseppe, 25, has played in 21 games with the Hurricanes this season and has recorded a goal and three assists (four points). A second-round draft pick in 2012, Di Giuseppe has totaled 41 points (14g, 27a) in 147 NHL games with the Hurricanes since 2015.