A lengthy break between games for the Carolina Hurricanes gives them time to practice and rest after a busy stretch of nine games in 16 days that saw them get off to a 6-3-0 start.
It also gives us a bit of time to look at their first section of games and see what there is to learn from it.
There’s a lot to unpack from Carolina’s blazing-hot start and rough California road trip, so here we’ll try to dive into some of it.
Five goals and five assists (three of them primary assists) in nine games is impressive, even more so from a defenseman.
Through the opening weeks of the season, Hamilton has put his talent on full display and, as a side effect of the trade involving Justin Faulk, he has seen a pretty dramatic increase in usage.
Hamilton is averaging a team-high 23:28 of ice time, including 3:12 on the power play and 2:07 on the penalty kill. Those numbers are eye-popping when compared to his 19:40 average TOI last season with just 1:52 on the man advantage and a negligible 15 seconds on the PK.
When asked during training camp if the Faulk trade opens up room for him, he said it absolutely does. More recently, he was asked what the biggest difference has been for him this season, and he had a good answer.
“I think opportunity is the biggest thing,” Hamilton said after Carolina improved to 5-0-0 with their win over the Islanders. “I’ve wanted this opportunity for a while, so it’s nice to have it and I’m just trying to do my best.”
He’s taken full advantage of the opportunity, silenced any remaining critics, and played like a guy who is truly comfortable and happy about his situation. The coaching staff has been forced to put more trust in him, and he has proven every step of the way that he is worthy of having that trust on both ends of the ice.
This version of Dougie Hamilton is one of the best defensemen in hockey, and it’s the guy that Carolina hoped they were getting when they acquired him from the Calgary Flames two offseasons ago.
If there's a defenseman in the NHL who is better at roaming the offensive zone than Dougie Hamilton, I don't know who it is. https://t.co/tpRUoQ5rvR— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 17, 2019
Erik Haula is a perfect fit
When you have a farm system as deep as the Hurricanes’, you’re able to take some gambles. That’s exactly what Don Waddell and company did over the offseason when they dealt Nicolas Roy to the Vegas Golden Knights for Haula, who was coming off of a devastating knee injury and skated in just 15 games with the Knights a season ago.
Through nine games as a Hurricane, Haula has scored a team-high seven goals. He’s tied for third in the NHL in goals as of Monday afternoon.
He has established his area on the ice early on, as each of his seven goals have come between/below the hashmarks - three via back-door tap-ins, two via deflections, and two via shots. He has a whopping 20 high-danger shot attempts in all situations thus far, which is double Nino Niederreiter’s second-placed 10, and just one behind James van Riemsdyk’s league-leading 21 high-danger shot attempts.
In addition to his knack for going to goal-scoring areas, his impact on the Canes has been felt on the other end of the ice.
When Haula is on the ice, the Hurricanes allow 17% fewer unblocked shots compared to league average.
That same impact is felt on the penalty kill, as well. When Haula is on the ice during a 5v4 penalty kill, the Hurricanes allow far fewer shots from the slot and the middle of the ice.
Through nine games. Haula has been everything that the Hurricanes could’ve hoped that he would be. Flanked by Ryan Dzingel and Martin Necas, Haula has centered the team’s most effective forward trio through the early stages of the season and he has helped take some of the burden off of Carolina’s other heavily-relied-upon point producers. Based on his body of work, there’s no reason to think that his performance will dip in any significant way moving forward.
The summer trade with Vegas is paying early dividends and looks like a steal.
Martin Necas belongs
It was a controversial decision for many to keep Necas and assign Julien Gauthier to Charlotte at the outset of the regular season, but it has unquestionably been the right decision.
Necas is just a special player with a toolbox of talent that’s extremely difficult to defend.
When carrying the puck through the neutral zone, Necas dodges around the ice like a gnat and almost always finds a way to get the puck into the offensive zone - with a controlled zone entry, in many cases.
In the offensive zone, he makes smart decisions with the puck to keep possession and set up scoring chances and has a great read of what part of the ice he needs to get to without the puck. He has elite vision both with and without the puck and the hands to make things happen when the puck does find his stick.
The primary concern for him entering the season was his 200-foot game. Early on, there were clear lapses, but those have become increasingly extinct over the past week and a half. He’s made a number of quality defensive plays on the back check through the defensive zone and has proven that he’s good at evaluating his options when trying to get the puck out of his own zone.
Necas has been one-third of the Hurricanes’ best forward line and his skill set will make him a hugely viable option on the man advantage moving forward. He’s already shown flashes of brilliance with his playmaking on the power play through the early stages of the season.
There’s a lot to be excited about with Necas, and while he isn’t a perfect player, he has a very bright future in this league and on this team.
Canes need something from Aho and Niederreiter
There’s really no beating around the bush here - the Hurricanes need production from Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter, and it needs to come during this upcoming home stand.
Through nine games, the duo has combined for two empty-net goals and four assists. That’s just not enough, especially when factoring in the reality that Carolina’s secondary scoring won’t keep them afloat through the course of an 82-game season on its own.
Now, it’s important to realize that there’s a big difference between not producing and playing poorly. Aho and Niederreiter have both been great at driving 5-on-5 offense and keeping the puck out of high-danger areas in their own zone.
The disconnect comes at the level of production - pucks aren’t going in the net. Aho and Niederreiter have taken 48 shots on goal (excluding Aho’s two ENGs) and all 48 of them have been stopped. They have also combined for 19 high-danger shot attempts.
Getting chances hasn’t been the problem for them, by any means, but at some point they’re going to have to get a bounce and find the back of the net.
It’s not panic time yet and those two players are way too good to have their slumps continue much longer. It’s well within the realm of possibility that, five games from now, they’ll both be up to three or four goals, each, and their early struggles will be in the rearview mirror.
If that’s not the case, though, Rod Brind’Amour might need to ditch the current configuration of his top-nine and find ways to get them going. As important as it is to get wins now, it’s even more important to get those two key players on the scoresheet consistently so they can put themselves in a better position in the middle and latter stages of the season.
Still a top-nine forward short
There’s one notable hole in this Hurricanes team, and it’s in the top-nine.
I think Brock McGinn can be a useful NHL forward, but he doesn’t belong on a line with the likes of Andrei Svechnikov or Sebastian Aho. Be it from in-house or elsewhere, the Canes need an additional forward who can help provide offense.
TSN’s Pierre LeBrun has already reported that the Hurricanes are cognizant of that issue, saying that Jesse Puljujarvi and Joshua Ho-Sang are among the players that they’ve kicked the tires on in trade talks.
Given Puljujarvi’s hold out in Finland and the fact that Ho-Sang was put on waivers just a couple of weeks ago, those two players seem like relatively attainable options, though both of them come with red flags that make you wonder just why players with their level of skill haven’t been able to stick in Edmonton and New York, respectively - two teams who could seriously benefit from that skill.
In theory, the more time that passes, the lower the asking price will get. The questions are, how long are the Hurricanes willing to wait, what price is too high, and are there other options that involve more proven NHL ability?
This early in the season, it’s hard to imagine that many teams are eager to move on from viable top-nine point-producing forwards, unless there are question marks surrounding them.
Elsewhere, Taylor Hall’s future in New Jersey is in question.
You never know...