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Quick Whistles: Pointing Fingers, Jeff Skinner, and Trade Rumors

A string of poor efforts has forced Carolina’s hand as their playoff hopes start to dwindle.

Jeff Skinner’s rough season has, predictably, led to his name being thrown in the rumor mill.
Jamie Kellner

There are reasons to think that things are falling apart for the Carolina Hurricanes.

At the 54-game mark, they are on the wrong side of the playoff cut line, they have dished out three consecutive efforts that have ranged from questionable to unacceptable, and their troubled offense has reached a low-point as they haven’t hit the magic number of three goals in any of their last five games and have done so just twice in their last ten games.

With disappointment comes blame, but who’s to blame for Carolina’s offensive ineptitude? Furthermore; who’s to blame for their apparent lack of desperation in the midst of a legitimate playoff push?

Is it general manager Ron Francis’ fault for not assembling a team that is capable of scoring on a consistent basis, Bill Peters’ fault for not getting the most out of his players, or the players’ fault for not living up to even the most reasonable of expectations?

I think there is enough blame to go around here.

Francis has executed a brilliant rebuild to this point, effectively turning an organization-wide dumpster fire into a gold mine of valuable assets at all levels. He has assembled one of the best farm systems in hockey, the third-youngest roster in the NHL, and elevated the Hurricanes into playoff contention in year four of his regime.

He accomplished that by way of patience. Now, his patience is growing tiresome for many, as the need for more offensive contributors on this team grows by the day. A glaring first-line center-sized hole still exists - one that is very difficult to fill, especially in-season. At what point does his patience become detrimental?

Peters got the most out of a dreadful roster for three years by establishing a responsible defensive-oriented system on the ice.

Though, like Francis, Peters’ way of doing business is now being criticized. You can play as much defense as you’d like, but if you’re not employing a system that can actually win the “race to three” or properly utilize some of the league’s most talented players, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your unpredictable goaltenders and disjointed team defense. The possibility even exists that his message is now falling on deaf ears after more than three and a half years of his system not rendering playoff-worthy results.

This roster has some game-breaking talents in Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk, and a handful of others. However, when only 15-25% of them actually show up, a losing product is inevitable.

Consistent uninspired efforts ultimately fall on the players who are payed to play the game, even if the message in a locker room has worn thin and the front office hasn’t actively pulled the trigger on beneficial transactions.

So, who deserves the blame? I’d say “all of the above”.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it; Carolina’s recent stretch warrants some finger-pointing. From management to coaches to players, everyone needs to be held accountable.

With all of that in mind, there is still ample reason to think that this team can sneak into the playoffs. Despite a putrid string of games, the Hurricanes are just one point out of a playoff spot and have more wins over their last ten games than any of the three teams that they are in tight contention with for the second wild card spot - the Rangers, Islanders, and Blue Jackets. (Keep an eye on the Florida Panthers, though.)

Though the February 26 trade deadline is less than three weeks away, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Carolina will buy, sell, buy and sell, or do nothing.

Before Thursday, “do nothing” was probably a safe bet, but that may have changed after Ron Francis and company made a statement in the form of putting Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris on waivers. More likely than not, both players will pass through and be assigned to Charlotte - unless a team wants to take on Kruger’s big cap hit, someone sees Jooris as an attractive depth forward option, or the team keeps them in Raleigh for whatever reason. We’ll find out at noon on Friday.

Update (12:20): Kruger and Jooris clear waivers, assigned to Checkers.

The move accomplishes several things. One; it removes a pair of players whose offensive contributions are sorely lacking. Two; it opens up two roster spots for the team to utilize in the way they see fit. Three; it might be a sign that Bill Peters is all in on doing something different.

For a vast majority of his tenure, Peters’ fourth lines have consisted of checking forwards with very little scoring upside. This week, he changed his tune.

“We’re going to try and dress a lineup that we think will be able to compete and be dangerous offensively every night,” Peters said with regards to the waiver transactions following Tuesday’s practice. “We’ll see what happens. Two good players. They’re NHL players. Two good men.”

The fourth line was, in essence, a slightly more talented grab bag of left over players against the Flyers on Tuesday. Derek Ryan and Joakim Nordstrom each saw north of 11:30 of ice time while Lee Stempniak logged just 7:16, his lowest number as a Hurricane. I’d imagine (hope) that trio will be tinkered with prior to the Vancouver game.

If the team is serious about icing the best offense possible, Phil Di Giuseppe seems like a clear odd-man out. He has just one point in 21 games and doesn’t play a role on the penalty kill like Nordstrom does. Quite frankly, I was surprised to see that Kruger and Jooris were put on waivers before Di Giuseppe was and, with an abundance of wingers rising up through the organizational depth chart, I can’t see him being much of a long-term fit unless he can hit another gear offensively that makes him a viable fourth-liner.

How/when the team utilizes their available roster spots will be something to keep an eye on. Smart money says they’ll look to Charlotte for scoring help and call-up at least one of Valentin Zykov, Warren Foegele, Aleksi Saarela, or Lucas Wallmark. Zykov (1st), Foegele (5th), and Saarela (20th) all rank among the top-20 AHL goal-scorers and Wallmark is the lone point-per-game player in Charlotte - 31 points in 30 games.

A trade still seems unlikely, but perhaps Francis’ willingness to pass two veterans through waivers is a sign of more significant changes to come. There are a lot of teams selling and, while prices appear to be laughably high right now, they should inch closer to the realm of reasonability as the deadline nears.

The Rangers are among the group of teams looking to be full-on sellers, and one intriguing name is J.T. Miller. He is expected to be a potential casualty of New York’s active deadline strategy and, despite his up and down year, he is a two-time 22-goal scorer at the age of 24.

It also wouldn’t hurt to look into adding a steady veteran on the blue line.

A few familiar names were tossed around this week, as well.

Elliotte Friedman mentioned in his 31 Thoughts column that Derek Ryan could be an option for the Pittsburgh Penguins as the two-time defending champs continue their search for centers. If the Canes fall out of the hunt, you’d have to think that a UFA like Ryan would be expendable.

Additionally, Friedman speculated that a Carolina-Detroit trade centered around Justin Faulk and Andreas Athanasiou could make sense. A player with top-flight speed like Athanasiou would be a welcome addition, but that trade doesn’t make much sense for the Hurricanes. Trading Faulk at his lowest value and doing so for a ~.50 point per game forward would be short-sided. I really like Athanasiou, but that trade could be high-risk and low-reward as Faulk could very easily return to being a borderline top-pairing offensive defenseman at any time and see his value sky rocket again.

Then, there is TSN’s Trade Bait list. Frank Seravalli listed Jeff Skinner tenth among the league’s top-40 trade chips, noting the 25-year-old’s down season, contract status, and an assumed “growing friction” with Bill Peters as factors that could lead to him getting moved.

When Skinner is getting his bounces and is fully engaged in the game, he can be one of the very best goal scorers in hockey and, despite his rough season to date, he is still tied for second among Carolina skaters with 15 goals.

His all-around play as of late is troubling, but it’s worth considering that his usage under Bill Peters has been beyond questionable at times, his shot volume is still where he needs it to be, and Derek Ryan has been his center more often than not at even strength. Ryan is a viable bottom-six center, but he’s far from what I would consider to be an ideal fit with Skinner, especially now that their magic from last season has vanished. I think that finding a center - one with a higher offensive ceiling than that of Ryan - that can develop chemistry with the four-time 28+ goal scorer would be a better way of going about this situation, unless an earth-shattering offer emerges. It’s too soon to push the panic button on Skinner. As streaky and explosive as he can be, that “15” in the goal column could turn into a “25” in a very short period of time.

Though, with all of that being said, there is a discussion to be had about how he fits on this team moving forward, especially if Peters sticks around. In the meantime, Skinner’s soon-to-expire contract (2019 UFA) will only add more fuel to the trade rumor fire.