Normally, in this space, we look at the Carolina Hurricanes’ action from the night before, picking out two or three storylines and delving into them to provide a coherent explanation of why the game went the way it did.
Today, we take a different tack: a one-subject plea for Rod Brind’Amour to please, please, please change up the top power play unit.
The Hurricanes’ loss to the New Jersey Devils yesterday included one power play goal in five attempts, and that one came with Petr Mrazek on the bench for the extra attacker. The Hurricanes had a 30-second two-man advantage in the first period and not only did they not score a goal - keeping them 0-for-the season at 5-on-3 - they did not generate a single shot.
In short, it was exactly the power play performance that we’ve come to expect, and it’s well past time for the coaching staff to shake things up and make changes.
The top power play unit should be better than it is. Eighteen of Sebastian Aho’s 63 points have come on the man advantage. Teuvo Teravainen has 15. Justin Williams has 9, as does Micheal Ferland who was part of the first unit for a good portion of the season’s opening few months. Nino Niederreiter has only been a Hurricane for ten games, but he has three points already.
And then there’s Justin Faulk. He’s played every game. He’s quarterbacked the first power-play unit in every game. He has five points.
Five power play points. In 56 games. For all their trouble on the power play, the Hurricanes have scored 30 man-advantage goals this season, and on 25 of those goals, the team’s top defenseman is nowhere to be found on the scoresheet.
For all of Rod Brind’Amour’s motivational tactics and his ability to inspire confidence and a buy-in from every corner of the locker room, this is his biggest blind spot in the opening months of his coaching career. Sticking with the same personnel is admirable to a point, because it shows he trusts his players. But we’ve now reached the point - in truth, we’ve long since passed it - where it’s gone from admirable to a hindrance.
Faulk averages 1.87 5-on-4 points per 60, which is the worst among all defensemen in the NHL with more than 140 5-on-4 minutes. Expand that out to 100 minutes and he’s third-worst. Dougie Hamilton, who plays a full minute per game less than Faulk on the power play, averages 2.62 points per 60 at 5-on-4.
The Hurricanes are getting very little from the man they need to be the trigger for power-play efficiency. Two things need to happen here: Faulk needs to be put in a position to succeed, which he is indisputably not doing right now, and the Hurricanes need to get more production out of that spot.
Perhaps Faulk’s best spot is on the half-wall along the boards. Part of his ineffectiveness is due to it being too easy for his passes from the point to down low to be read by opposing defenses - not because they’re soft passes necessarily, but more because there is very little movement away from the puck. Recipients of Faulk’s passes tend to be either along the goal line to either side of the net or direct vertical passes that get too close to a defender. Repositioning Faulk to the half-wall, in what was the Ray Whitney spot in years gone by, would insert more uncertainty into the process.
From that spot, Faulk would have a few options: set up a point man (Jaccob Slavin?) for a one-timer, pick out a skater coming down the back side of the defense, or maybe work it behind the net and cause chaos in the crease.
For this to work, it would require a forward not currently playing the point to assume that role; Lucas Wallmark is the obvious possibility. Faulk would then serve as a rover of sorts, not a defenseman but not really a forward either.
The fact is, Faulk in his current position is not helping the Hurricanes’ power play. Hamilton’s play has improved dramatically since Christmas, and he’s only averaging 2:11 of power play time per game. If that number holds, it would be his lowest usage with the man advantage since his sophomore season with the Bruins, six years ago. The Hurricanes have an underutilized asset with Hamilton on the power play. Why not change things up and try to solve two problems at once?
In the offseason, the Hurricanes can - and should - address the systemic issues with the power play, which now stretch over three head coaches. But in the meantime, they need to do something to make the man advantage more potent. Not doing so will be the Achilles heel of the Hurricanes’ nascent surge into the playoff race, and will render meaningless the solid goaltending and timely scoring they’ve gotten from elsewhere in the lineup.
We've seen what can happen when one component of a team’s machinery breaks down. Last year, it was goaltending. This year, it’s the power play. The Hurricanes can’t keep allowing history to repeat itself. They need to shake up the power play, and fast.