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Quick Whistles: Looking Back at the Trade Deadline, Brady Skjei’s Surprising Early Success

Despite the great early returns on Brady Skjei, the Hurricanes have put themselves in a do-or-die situation down the stretch.

NHL: FEB 29 Hurricanes at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One week removed from the NHL trade deadline, the Carolina Hurricanes find themselves in an even more precarious situation than they were in ahead of making three flashy additions on February 24.

They’ve played three games since the deadline, and they lost all three games. Each loss had its own unique spin on disappointment.

The Dallas Stars visited PNC Arena on Tuesday, just over 24 hours after the 3:00 pm deadline on Monday. A symphony of comical errors led to the game getting out of hand early as the Canes eventually lost 4-1 to Anton Khudobin and company.

The Colorado Avalanche posed an incredibly tough challenge for the Canes on Friday, but there was a lot to like in the group’s game. They played well enough to win, and they probably should have won after they put together one of their best periods of the seasons in the third period, clawing back from down 2-0, tying the game, and being in line to secure at least one crucial standings point with 3:00 left on the clock.

A defensive breakdown soured the upbeat vibes that Teuvo Teravainen supplied the sellout crowd via two goals in 121 second of in-game time. Andrei Svechnikov lost his man, Samuel Girard, and Girard beat Anton Forsberg. Then, with less than a minute left in the game, Jaccob Slavin airmailed a shot on an open net.

So, so close, but not close enough.

Then there was the disastrous first period in Montreal that saw Forsberg, who somewhat curiously played both ends of the back-to-back, get pelted with each of the game’s first ten shots on goal before the Canes could throw rubber at Montreal’s Charlie Lindgren.

It took a goalie change and a shuffling of the forward lines to spark a quality effort in the second half of the game, which to their credit, is exactly what happened.

A trio of point shots through traffic in front of the Montreal net led to three unanswered for the Canes, the last of which came with just 1:17 left in the third period. Momentum was on the Hurricanes’ side after laying an egg through 30 or so minutes. They had a very real chance to steal two points.

Instead, Teravainen opted to dump a puck in during the 3-on-3 overtime session and it led to a long breakaway goal for Jeff Petry.

The theme here is obvious, and very concerning if you’re banking on this team to figure it out in time to establish a spot in the Eastern Conference’s top eight. They simply aren’t starting on time - not even fashionably late, either.

Playoff teams don’t need 30-40 minutes to get to their game. Playoff teams don’t get scored on first in five consecutive games in late February when the time for beating around the bush is over and the results are all that matter.

It’s totally unfair to discount the massive losses this team has suffered over the last couple of weeks in the cases of Brett Pesce, James Reimer, and Petr Mrazek, and months in the case of Norris-contending defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

That excuse can be also used for both the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets, though, and they both sit above the Hurricanes in the standings and occupy the conference’s two wild card spots.

As far as I’m concerned, this four day break between Carolina’s loss in Montreal and their trip to Philadelphia on Thursday needs to feature some soul searching and some sort of internal breakthrough with this group. Even after the loss of two of the league’s best right-handed defensemen and both of their goaltenders, talent isn’t the obstacle that needs to be conquered - it’s the mental.

They’re plenty good, but not good enough to fall asleep for two periods every night.

It’s now or never now for the Hurricanes.

Hey Skjei

The most controversial move that Don Waddell and company pulled off on deadline day was acquiring polarizing defenseman Brady Skjei for a 2020 first-round draft pick.

Skjei’s metrics over the years just haven’t been kind to him. He’s been a routinely below-average defenseman in his own zone whose offensive abilities haven’t been impactful enough to outweigh those deficiencies.

The other side of the equation for him, though, is his age and cost certainty. The Lakeview, Minnesota native will turn 26 on March 26 and has four years remaining on his contract beyond this season at a $5.25 million cap hit that would be excellent value for a top-four defenseman.

But is he a top-four defenseman?

The early indications have been promising. In three games (an exceptionally small sample size), the 6-foot-3, 214-pound blueliner has fit in almost seamlessly while averaging a pretty hefty 21:25 of ice time. He has one assist, which came in Carolina’s loss to Colorado, but he’s been knocking on the door for much, much more dating back to his debut.

It’s now easier to see why the Canes parted with a very valuable asset to acquire him. He’s big, lanky, a great skater, and a really nice fit in the system that Rod Brind’Amour and friends deploy.

His mobility and aggression with and without the puck has been a pleasant surprise. My initial impression is that he looks like a combination of Hamilton and Slavin.

Calm down. Let me explain.

He reminds me of Slavin, in part, because of his build and mobility. He carries the puck out of trouble areas in the defensive zone with a Slavin-like confidence and doubles down on it at the offensive blue line. He always carries pucks in, and it’s almost always successful because I think he catches teams off guard with just how quick he is for such a big guy. He’s not easy to catch up to, and if you do catch up to him, his ability to protect the puck with his reach and body position poses an equally trying test for defenders.

He reminds me of Hamilton because of his play within the offensive zone. In just three games with the Hurricanes, Skjei has spent more time than anyone pinching in the zone and roaming around to create problems for his opponents.

These are comparisons based on his style, not based on his raw ability.

He’s not as good as Slavin in the defensive zone. He’s not as good as Hamilton in the offensive zone. There have already been a few examples of defensive shortcomings in the form of coverage breakdowns that Slavin has made a career out of not making. There have been a couple of instances where he hasn’t capitalized on chances that Hamilton has made a career of cashing in on.

He isn’t them, but he doesn’t have to be. The way he plays has fit surprisingly well in the infancy stages of his Hurricanes tenure and it’s easy to see why the idea of a Slavin-Hamilton, Skjei-Pesce top-four was such a tempting proposition for Carolina’s front office. Frankly, as someone who has gone on record all season as being a bigger fan of his game than almost anyone, Skjei feels like what the Hurricanes were hoping to get from Jake Gardiner - at 5v5, in particular.

He started out on a pairing with Slavin, and those two put up some exceptional shot quantity and quality numbers, but Skjei has been paired with Fleury for the past two games. They’ve been pretty good, though I’d be interested in seeing what Skjei-Slavin could do down the stretch. I’m still very skeptical about Joel Edmundson seeing first-pairing matchups over the longer term. Maybe more tinkering will happen once Carolina’s other blue line addition enters the lineup.

We’ll see where it goes from here. There are some very real red flags, as Corey Sznajder wrote about in great detail here, but if the Canes can fix him and tailor him to their system, he can be a legitimate piece of the puzzle.

V’s for Vendetta

The acquisitions of Vincent Trocheck and Sami Vatanen were met with far less controversy.

Trocheck is going to be a very important piece moving forward for the Hurricanes, even if he does come with the loss of an under-appreciated bottom-six piece in Lucas Wallmark, two NHL-projected prospects, and to a less painful extent, pending UFA Erik Haula.

There’s a lot of value in his contract, which extends through two more seasons beyond 2019-20 at an outrageously team-friendly $4.75 million AAV. He’s also a right-shot center with elite face off numbers. Brind’Amour loves his face off guys, and Trocheck is about as good as it can get, especially factoring in his handedness and Carolina’s desperate need for that versatility in the dot.

He has won 58.6% of his draws through three games with the club. He’s also been very good on the penalty kill.

The Hurricanes do need the production, though. He’s without a point through three games, despite a handful of great chances against Dallas and a shorthanded breakaway chance against Montreal. Neither resulted in a goal.

He was very public about his love for the Florida Panthers organization. That, combined with an injury that hampered him earlier in the season and all of the things that come with being traded mid-season from the only NHL team you’ve ever known, can be daunting and you can live with some easing in.

It’s been three games now, though. This four-day break will give him an opportunity to settle down and get comfortable with his new team and his new line mates, Svechnikov and Martin Necas, who had an excellent third period against the Habs upon the line’s formation.

It’s go time for Trocheck.

Sami Vatanen skated for the first time on Monday ahead of the team’s practice, which is hopefully a sign that his return could be soon.

He’s about as close to a pure rental as you can get, but he came at a price - a good prospect in Janne Kuokkanen, to be precise. The sooner Vatanen plays, the better. Trevor van Riemsdyk is the lone right-handed defenseman in the lineup right now, and that seriously limits what the team can do. Joel Edmundson was a train wreck on his off-side, and even that might be generous.

The team needs to hope that, in addition to balancing the 5v5 lineup, he can spark the first power play unit. He had a positive impact on the Devils’ power play this season despite being overused on the whole. I have some reservations about the player, but a sheltered role on a far better hockey team should do him well.