The last few weeks have lacked consistency for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Over their last eleven games, the Hurricanes are 5-5-1, and when you’re in a playoff hunt that’s as closely contested as the one Rod Brind’Amour’s team is in right now, .500 hockey isn’t going to cut it in the long run.
Leading that charge will be one of the few players who have been consistent despite the team’s up-and-down play - Sebastian Aho.
The fourth-year forward is in year one of his five-year contract, and he’s proving to be worth every bit of the $8.454 million annual cap hit and the massive signing bonus he collected upon signing over the summer.
The numbers are pretty outstanding.
Aho is riding a six-game goal streak and a seven-game point streak. Over his last six games, he has scored seven goals and logged a team-best ten points. On the season, Aho has scored 31 goals in 56 games. That number is important because it marks a new career-high for the 22-year-old franchise cornerstone. He scored 30 goals in 82 games a season ago — he topped that number in 26 fewer games this season.
Carolina’s now established superstar ranks sixth in the NHL in goal-scoring, and he has the fewest minutes of any skater in the top-ten. The only players with more goals this season are Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, and David Pastrnak.
Among the group of skaters with fewer goals than Aho? Well, how about Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Patrik Laine, and every single player in the league who isn’t MacKinnon, Draisaitl, Ovechkin, Matthews, or Pastrnak. He is on pace for 45 goals in 82 games.
This recent burst of offense has been spawned, in part, by line shuffling from Brind’Amour and his coaching staff. They decided to go top-heavy with their forwards, flanking Aho with Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. That change was made during Carolina’s game in Arizona, following a hugely disappointing loss in St. Louis two nights earlier and a poor start to their game in the desert.
In the three games since the move was made (at Arizona, at Vegas, at Dallas), Aho has four goals and six points, Svechnikov has two goals and five points, and Teravainen has three points.
On the whole, that trio has been excellent all year when they’ve been on the ice together. In 164:37 of 5v5 ice time this season, the trio has outscored opponents 14-6 and controlled possession with a corsi-share of 58.35% (192-137) and a scoring-chance-share of 58.56% (106-75).
It wouldn’t have taken an extraordinary hockey mind to tell you that putting your three best forwards on the ice at the same time would probably bring some good results. Everyone has known that this trio would/could be amazing, which they have been, but when the Hurricanes commit to this top-heavy forward depth chart, the other lines suffer.
Jordan Staal’s line hasn’t been a reliable source of offense, Erik Haula’s play has dipped rather alarmingly as of late, and the fourth line is pretty much performing as expected - and that expectation doesn’t include consistent goal-scoring. There needs to be more consistency from the middle-six, and it’s concerning that this current group just can’t get the job done.
Martin Necas has quietly had a great rookie year. Still at age 21, he has 14 goals and 29 points in 52 games. He’s on pace for 44 points in 78 games played this season after missing four games. That’s more than good enough from a young, dynamic middle-six scorer with great upside. I don’t think it’s fair to expect more from him.
Ryan Dzingel got off to a hot start but has evened out through the middle portions of the season. He’s had some game-to-game inconsistency in his play, especially in the defensive zone. That being said, he’s also had a number of really strong two-way games as of late, as well, even in games where the team, as a whole, has struggled. He has 29 points in 55 games.
Staal’s offensive touch continues to decline from the already not-so-amazing place it was a couple of years ago, but he is still an elite play driver. Nino Niederreiter’s play is growing more and more concerning as of late. For pretty much the entirety of the first half of the season, his snakebitten offensive touch wasn’t as alarming because he was playing some absolutely excellent hockey. He just wasn’t scoring. Now, as we enter the stretch run, that lack of production might be getting to him and his game is falling apart to an extent.
He’s not a liability, though, and you can understand why the confidence wouldn’t be there right now for him. I truly have no idea what more he could’ve done in the first half. The puck just didn’t go in the net. He’s a streaky player, not a bad player or a lazy player. There’s a big difference there.
Regardless, the Hurricanes need production. Perhaps pairing former Minnesota Wild teammates Haula and Niederreiter could spark offense. Both have been really lacking as of late. It’s honestly kind of shocking that they haven’t been paired really at all this season. Haula’s first-half offensive tear with Necas and Dzingel and injury were the likeliest reasons for that.
It’s something that is worth trying. Perhaps Necas or Dzingel would be a good fit on the other wing.
That leaves you with Staal, Necas/Dzingel, Warren Foegele, Lucas Wallmark, Brock McGinn, and Justin Williams with Jordan Martinook injured. Can you make a competent bottom-six with that group? Probably, but that hinges on Haula and Niederreiter figuring it out. If they don’t they’re left with a problem that needs addressing.
Julien Gauthier, Janne Kuokkanen, and Jake Bean continue to terrorize the AHL. Gauthier and Kuokkanen could be options in the middle six if they want offense right now, and Bean seems like an obvious choice if they want to explore their in-house defensive options. I’ve said this for weeks now, but Bean is as close to NHL-ready as he’s ever going to get. I still believe he deserves a shot, especially if they’ve can’t reel in a bonafide top-four defenseman via trade like they are rumored to be trying to do. I don’t think anyone would disagree with them looking for a productive forward, as well, though.
There’s a lot on the table right now for the Hurricanes, and all the things we’ve talked about here doesn’t even include the extremely problematic development of defensive breakdowns and hugely increased rates of scoring chances and shots against.
This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but to do so, they have to look themselves in the mirror and realize that what they’re doing right now isn’t enough.
We’ll see how they respond. It needs to be with four points this weekend.