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Quick Whistles: Next Man Up, Rough Patch, Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The Hurricanes will have to find their way through another obstacle after losing all three of their right-handed defensemen to the COVID protocol.

Carolina Hurricanes v Seattle Kraken Photo by Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

People were boasting about how much depth the Carolina Hurricanes obtained over the offseason. Well, we’re about to really see if that is the case.

The Canes have lost three defensemen now due to COVID protocols, and all three of them happen to make up the entirety of the right side of their defensive lineup.

Brendan Smith re-entered the lineup after Ethan Bear had to be removed from the team, and now an entire Chicago Wolves defensive pairing in Maxime Lajoie and Jalen Chatfield are on the big club to replace Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo.

Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky raved about the play of Lajoie and Chatfield through the first month of the AHL season, and both guys do have some level of NHL experience. Of course, Lajoie played in plenty of NHL games with Ottawa across multiple seasons and got into two playoff games with the Hurricanes last year.

Chatfield played in 18 games with the Vancouver Canucks last season.

We’ll see how it all shakes out. The Hurricanes are going through a rough stretch after their world-beating start to the season, and now they’re getting dealt another lousy hand in the form of half their defense getting sidelined.

On top of replacing one of their best 5-on-5 defensemen in Bear, the team will now be tasked with replacing one of the best all-around defensemen in hockey and one of the best offensive defensemen in hockey. They’re going to have to lean on a few regulars, Jaccob Slavin in particular, to make their way through this jam.

Rough Patch

In recent weeks, I’ve written about how the Hurricanes have managed to win some games they had no business winning. Well, over the course of an 82-game season, things tend to even out. For the Canes, it didn’t take long for some games to start going the other way.

They have lost three of their last four games as they head into Dallas with a patchwork defense tonight. Did they deserve to lose three of those four games, though? I’d say no.

After getting worked by the San Jose Sharks, their game in Seattle was a fever dream of sorts. They consistently did everything but score, and former future Hurricane Philipp Grubauer stole the game for the Kraken in their first-ever matchup.

The Canes bounced back in a track meet in Philadelphia before returning home in suffering a painful divisional loss to the now-Metro-leading Washington Capitals.

Carolina played 40 strong minutes of hockey, but it was the middle 20 that made the difference. The first period was relatively back and forth, but it was Carolina who outpaced Washington. The second period saw the Capitals tally six high-danger 5-on-5 shot attempts to the Hurricanes’ two and score twice in about a minute. That put the Canes behind the eight-ball for the third period, which happened to be one of their best periods of hockey all season.

Carolina erased the two-goal deficit at 13:32 of the third period and had dominated every step along the way, but then a poorly-timed first NHL penalty from Seth Jarvis and the now-infamous Sebastian Aho slashing penalty sank them at the end.

“I thought we had a great third period,” Rod Brind’Amour said in postgame. “We just did everything we could. It’s unfortunate. What are you going to do? It’s tough to go. The first penalty is a penalty, for sure. We blew our coverage there. We didn’t do any of that in the whole period, and then all of a sudden we take a breath. And that’s what they do to you. We give up a breakaway and take a penalty. And then the other one, I get it. But that’s a tough call when you’re down one. It’s a nothing play. We actually have the puck. We’re getting it.

“I get it, why they call those. But it kind of felt like their guy called it. He kind of gave the yell at the ref, and then they decide to call it. It is what it is. That’s a penalty, so you can’t do it.”

It certainly was an unfortunate series of events that took the wind out of Carolina’s sails. All the momentum in the world was going their way, and then it’s all gone in 30 seconds.

As good as they’ve been, the minor penalties have been a big issue. Luckily, their penalty kill has impressed this season, but when you keep flirting with disaster, disaster will eventually flirt back.

Disaster is relative, though. The past week has been a minor step back in what has been a season of leaps forward. But now, with everything going against the Hurricanes on and off the ice, the next couple of weeks have the potential to be an increasingly tricky stretch.

Jesperi Putting it Together?

On a lighter note, things haven’t been all gloomy for the Hurricanes, especially not for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

From October 25 to November 11, Kotkaniemi might have been Carolina’s worst forward. It was a rough stretch for the new Hurricane, looking to flip the script on what has been a rollercoaster of a young NHL career.

Kotkaniemi has goals in three of his last five games and has logged three points in his last two games, including the ice-breaking goal for the Hurricanes in the third period against Washington.

It’s probably not a coincidence that his move back to the center position has sparked his promising stretch of games.

For the first time this season, Kotkaniemi has been deep into the positive in on-ice expected goals for at 5-on-5. He was at a mind-boggling 90.45% against Seattle, 72.31% against Philadelphia, and 68.11 against Washington.

The eye test matches those numbers. He’s been much more noticeable in the offensive zone, creating chances for him and his linemates on a much more consistent basis. With Kotkaniemi on the ice, the Hurricanes are outshooting their opponents 23-6 and outscoring opponents 3-0 at 5-on-5 over the last three games. They're outscoring opponents 5-1 with him on the ice over the last five games.

It took a while for him to catch his footing on a new team and find a role that makes sense for him at this point in his development. The fourth-line center spot has been very kind to him lately, and while it’s not a top-nine role, what matters is that he plays well and builds up confidence.

The Kotkaniemi experience was always supposed to be a marathon and not a sprint.