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Quick Whistles: Life without Jordan Staal and the most crucial road trip in years

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Staal’s absence has forced the young Canes to grow up, but the hole he has left isn’t easy to fill.

Jamie Kellner

After a deflating loss on home ice against the league-worst Ottawa Senators before the All-Star break, Rod Brind’Amour pointed to something that often gets overlooked.

“We didn’t start with the puck, ever,” the Canes’ head coach noted. “You have to start with the puck. If you lose a draw and you’re in your own end for 20 seconds, or whatever, you wasted that shift. That’s a huge area we have to get better at, among other things.

“You gotta remember, we’re missing a big guy here (Jordan Staal). This is the stuff that starts to creep in, I’ve been saying it for a long time. He takes 30 faceoffs every night for us and he hasn’t been there for a while. The deficiencies that we have are starting to creep in, and tonight it was evident. Generally, that’s a stat (faceoffs) that you can look at and see if you’re engaged or not.”

The areas that Staal, who has now missed 23 games with a concussion, leaves his stamp on a game aren’t very glamorous. He won’t score 30 goals and he’ll be lucky to reach 50 points, but you know for damn sure that he will win upwards of 60% of his draws on a nightly basis and play his defensive role at a high enough level that makes him worth his lofty $6 million price tag on an annual basis.

Despite playing with a distinct disadvantage in that area, the Hurricanes have put together their best stretch of hockey this season. They brought a 10-3-1 run into Sunday’s matinee against the Calgary Flames before losing in controversial fashion by a final tally of 4-3.

In the veteran pivot’s absence, a few things have been exposed about this Hurricanes team. For starters, they are giving up more goals. What doesn’t help is that their strong penalty kill has hit a rut of as of late. One would have to put two and two together there and assume that having their best penalty killer gone for a long period of time has finally started to take a toll there.

Those negatives have been accompanied by some real positives.

Sebastian Aho has been forced to be the number one center. On top of his offense, he has to play on the penalty kill and go up against some tough matchups. The result has been further growth in his game. In his last 18 games, Aho has 26 points while averaging 20:30 of ice time. Over his last five games, he has nine points and has averaged 21:39 of ice time. Those are pretty eye-popping numbers from a 21-year-old in his first season playing center in the NHL. That’s a place where going without a key player has forced a different player to step up. In Aho’s case, he has done so in remarkable fashion and his big point totals and well-rounded play has driven up his value. He will reap the benefits from that outcome here in the next few months when he signs what is expected to be a superstar-level contract.

He has earned it.

While the team has struggled at times to keep the puck out of the net, they have been scoring more goals. A lot more goals.

Over their last 15 games, the Canes have scored 57 goals. That’s good for 3.8 goals per game. In their first 37 games, they scored 90 total goals and averaged 2.43 per game. That’s a huge disparity. That’s the difference between losing and winning a game in many, many instances. That’s nearly a 1.4 goal per game swing.

The easy thing to do here is pin it on Staal’s lack of offensive prowess. It’s a secret to no one that #11 isn’t the most capable offensive player. It’s irresponsible to say that Staal makes the Hurricanes worse. It’s simply not true. He’s one of the best faceoff guys in the league, he kills penalties at an extremely high level, drives possession at an elite level and does everything other than contribute offense.

Granted, that is a big exception.

I do want to point to one thing here, though. At age 30, Staal is averaging 19:40 of ice time this season. That’s his highest count since the 2013 lockout-shortened season - when he was 24.

For me, the solution to all of this is easy. When he returns, you use him less. It’s really as simple as that. Instead of using him for nearly one-third of the game, use him on the top PK unit, use him in defensive situations, and keep him away from the power play and from all offensive situations that don’t involve him needing to win a big faceoff - he is still, far and away, the best option to win a faceoff.

Let’s rein in that TOI number. That’s not only the best thing for this team’s present; it’s also the best thing for its long-term wellbeing. Staal is under contract for four more seasons beyond 2018-19 and it would just be peachy if they didn’t run him into the ground and make his contract a total albatross down the road when they will be competitive and in serious need of cap space.

For the time being, though, he has to get healthy. His journey back has been difficult to follow and you just have to hope for the absolute best for a guy as genuine and selfless as he is. It’s been an unthinkably rough year for him. This team is better with Jordan Staal, both on the ice and in the locker room.


Five games to decide a season

Three points separate the Carolina Hurricanes from the eighth-place Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference standings, and the upcoming road trip will decide whether or not the Canes remain in the hunt.

Starting on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, the Canes will play five games in five cities in eight days. That’s a meaty road trip, and it comes at a very crucial point. No matter which way you slice it, Carolina has to have a winning road trip.

If the Hurricanes return home with only one or two wins, it’s hard to make a strong case for them to be buyers at the deadline or even go out of their way to make this team better at any cost of its future. On the flip side, winning four of those games might just put them in (or just barely out of) a playoff spot. That would make things very interesting with the trade deadline just three weeks away.

It’s entirely possible that more than one of the players on this roster have played their last game at PNC Arena while donning the red and black. Micheal Ferland could be gone at any second if things head south. Pesce, Hamilton, and Faulk all have trade potential.

It’s a tough time for players, coaches, and executives alike. No matter how this road trip shakes out, the next few weeks are going to be rather crazy. Get ready to hang on for dear life.

Poll

How many points (out of a possible 10) do the Hurricanes *need* to get on the 5-game road trip?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    9-10
    (41 votes)
  • 77%
    7-8
    (311 votes)
  • 11%
    5-6
    (47 votes)
  • 0%
    Fewer than 5 is okay...
    (1 vote)
400 votes total Vote Now