A vast majority of players in the NHL aren’t overly special. They’re replaceable. That, in part, explains the parity in the league and the constant player transactions.
Dougie Hamilton is not one of those players.
Just moments after a seemingly obvious too many men on the ice penalty on the Columbus Blue Jackets was missed on Thursday night, Hamilton went down along the boards. His left leg bent... unnaturally. The result of the incident was a broken fibula. Hamilton had surgery just a day later, likely ending his 2019-20 campaign.
The injury came in game 47 of his season, wherein he had 14 goals, 40 points, a plus-30 rating, and was just a couple of weeks away from his first NHL All-Star weekend. He was in line to be a Norris Trophy finalist while averaging a team-leading 23:17 of ice time per game, almost an entire two minutes more than his previous career high.
Losing that player isn’t just bad, it can be catastrophic. It can be season-changing. One cannot simply replace one of the top three defensemen in the NHL.
But life goes on.
Hamilton will recover and be on the ice next season, at the latest. In the meantime, the Hurricanes have to find ways to win. They’re in the midst of a pretty alarming scoring slump, which will only be exacerbated by the loss of Hamilton.
These are very unfortunate circumstances, but this will gift opportunities to players who need to take a step in the right direction. It will be a wake up call to a defensive core that hasn’t looked fully invested as of late. They’ll have no options outside of refocusing on their play as a unit.
There needs to be more urgency and responsibility on that blue line, and that was the case even before Hamilton took his scary fall.
Jake Gardiner’s Improvement
If the Hurricanes are going to stay afloat while Hamilton is out, Gardiner has to be part of that solution.
The former Maple Leaf’s bad first half was well-documented, but his very noticeably better play as of late hasn’t gotten that same attention, for obvious reasons.
After producing just eight points in 40 games to start his Hurricanes tenure, Gardiner has five points over his last nine games, while seeing north of two more minutes of average ice time (he is also an even plus/minus over the last nine games, which is a stat everyone likes to talk about with Gardiner).
His last two games might have been his best of the season so far. He saw 21:51 of ice time in an overtime loss to the Ducks and 21:49 of ice time in a shootout win over the Islanders. He was, more often than not, paired with Brett Pesce at even strength, which was the plan entering the season. That was before Joel Edmundson turned into Bobby Orr for a few weeks and changed things, though.
Against the Ducks, he had the best corsi share among Carolina defenders. Against the Islanders, he had the best corsi share among all Carolina skaters, also boasting a +13.81% relative corsi number.
The advanced stats have always been kinder to Gardiner this season, but the eye test is finally starting to back him, as well.
These recent developments are very encouraging, and the Hurricanes need him to take this stretch of much more reliable two-way play and add his dynamic offensive abilities to the mix. At some point, I think he’s going to get a shot on the first power play unit. When that happens, he needs to take advantage of that opportunity. Hell, that was the reason he was signed in the first place.
If that happens, it will go a long way in trying to replace at least some of Hamilton’s production. It’s easy to forget, but there was a moment in recent memory when many of the things being said about Gardiner were also being said about Hamilton.
And then what happened?
Granted, they are different players with different perceived ceilings, so don’t hold your breath waiting for him to turn into a Norris candidate.
With that being said, though, he didn’t sign a 40-game contract with the Canes. His story is far from over, and based on his recent performance and years of NHL track record, there’s reason to think that his first 40 games in Carolina won’t be the defining portion of his tenure that many seem to think it will be or already is.
No one knows whether or not Gardiner will turn into the player the Canes expected him to be, myself included, but half of a season into a four-year UFA deal with a new team (the first new team of his NHL career) isn’t enough for me to close the book on what he may or may not be or forget about the player he was for the better part of eight seasons in Toronto.
For now, the Hurricanes just have to hope that his improvements as of late will lead to a strong second half that helps them be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Another Goalie Controversy
A tradition unlike any other - the Hurricanes’ goalie controversy.
Through 49 games, Petr Mrazek and James Reimer have combined to give the Hurricanes above average goaltending, statistically, which is great considering the amount of uneasiness there was around that position entering the season.
Now, thanks to Reimer’s last three starts wherein he has a .971 save percentage, the question is being raised - should Reimer be the number one goalie moving forward?
I’d pump the brakes on that for now.
Time goes by very fast during the NHL regular season, but it was just a few weeks ago when Reimer went through a stretch (also of three games) wherein he allowed 12 goals and had a .769 save percentage. The narrative around him wasn’t about making him the full-time starter, it was about Alex Nedeljkovic and whether or not he should be given Reimer’s spot on the NHL roster.
All of that being said, the goaltending that Carolina has gotten out of Reimer this season has been huge. He is 11-6-1 with a .921 save percentage, three shutouts, and a +7.15 goals saves above average (11th-best among the 46 NHL goalies with 20+ appearances).
He has absolutely overshadowed Mrazek, whose .904 save percentage is exactly the league average so far this season. The second year Hurricane’s rough go of things in Columbus adds to the debate, for sure, but he had just gone through a 12-game stretch with a .912 save percentage.
As a matter of fact, Mrazek was actually much worse at this point in the season last year. On January 22, 2019, he had a .894 save percentage. From February 1 through the end of the regular season, he had a .938 save percentage.
So, should Reimer be the number one goalie going forward? I think it depends on what your definition of it is. Should he get a bulk of the starts while he stays hot? Of course. The tendency of the Carolina coaching staff with this tandem has been to ride the hot hand. That’s what they should do, but committing to Reimer as the number one guy through the rest of the season, or even beyond a week from now, feels premature.
In two weeks, Mrazek could be the hot hand. Based on what we saw from him last year, and knowing how streaky he can be, him going on a heater in the second half is well within the realm of possibility.
Justin Williams’ Season Debut
On Sunday, it finally happened. In front of a sellout crowd at PNC Arena, Williams played his first game of the 2019-20 season.
For game one, he played better than I expected. He wasn’t phenomenal, but he certainly wasn’t bad. He started well, maintained that through much of the second period, and he tailed off a bit towards the end of regulation, which is to be expected, all things considered.
His 13:03 of ice time, three shots on goal, and even corsi share at 5-on-5 isn’t what people will remember from his debut, though.
Of course, right?
I mean, when the shootout reached round eight, I think everyone was thinking “where’s Willy?” Rod Brind’Amour finally came through and gave the 38-year-old forward the chance, and I think everyone knew what was going to happen.
It was a huge moment not only for Williams, but for the team. That was a must-win game. It simply was. Another heartbreaking divisional loss would’ve been a big blow. If Reimer didn’t have the game he had, Williams would’ve never gotten a chance to make that special memory. But as these things do, everything led up to that moment.
Brind’Amour put it best after the game; “Only Willy can make that up.”
Williams’ return likely couldn’t have come at a better time. In the wake of what happened to Hamilton, the Hurricanes need stability and leadership. I don’t think it gets much better than Williams in that regard.