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Quick Whistles: Organizational Depth, Jesperi Kotkaniemi Keeps Rolling, Key Players Step Up

The Hurricanes have been leaning on their organizational depth as of late, and things couldn’t be going any better.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

On this week’s installment of Carolina Hurricanes organizational depth, we shift our focus to forwards.

The Canes needed the help of five Chicago Wolves players last week - Jack Drury, Andrew Poturalski, Josh Leivo, Stefan Nosen, and C.J. Smith.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Drury who stole the spotlight, scoring goals in each of his first two NHL games and doing so in impressive fashion.

The 2018 second-round draft pick averaged 15:58 of ice time across his first two games, scored twice, won 12 of 15 faceoffs, and had a 58.3 xGF%.

Poturalski’s first NHL point against Detroit got understandably overlooked, but his journey has been a long one to get to this point. He was an undrafted player out of the University of New Hampshire who got a contract from the Hurricanes all the way back in March of 2016.

He played in his first NHL games the following season, but then he went four full seasons without playing in any games on a big club. Over that period, he won a Calder Cup, was named the AHL player of the year, and ultimately found himself out in California with the Anaheim Ducks’ AHL affiliate.

Things all came full circle, though. He returned to the Hurricanes’ organization last summer and finally found his way back to the NHL. In two games, he has two points.

He has been a world-beater in the AHL for years, so it’s very cool to see him back in the league and contributing.

Leivo, Noesen, and Smith were contenders for a depth roster spot in training camp, and while they didn’t make the team out of camp, their start to the AHL season set them up for an opportunity here. They’ve both looked comfortable in depth roles through two games, which is another testament to just how much depth the Hurricanes have.

You have to look for the positives in tough spots like this, and these guys coming up and playing the way they have has made that very easy for the Hurricanes.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The up and down debut season of Kotkaniemi in Raleigh has seen much more ups than downs as of late. In fact, there’s very little to be down on with regards to his play over the last month.

Dating back to November 26, Kotkaniemi has five goals and nine points in his last 11 games, and it’s probably not a coincidence that his great stretch of play lines up almost perfectly with his move back to the center position.

Over that stretch, the Hurricanes have controlled north of 50% of the expected goals-for with him on the ice in all but two of those games. And in one of those two games where they didn’t, they came in at 49.85%. Eh, close enough?

The numbers back up what has been obvious on the ice - he’s getting it together, and he’s making an impact all over the ice.

Before these last 11 games, Kotkaniemi had just four total points in 18 games to start the season.

His game has steadily elevated as his role has. As the Canes have gotten hit hard by COVID, he has seen his ice time skyrocket. In his last three games before the COVID/holiday break, he saw 16:30 of ice time per game and recorded five points.

It will be interesting to see what happens when things (hopefully) calm down and the Hurricanes get their regular lineup back. It’s hard to imagine that he would supplant any of the team’s top three centers, and with how well he’s played in the middle of the ice, it’s also hard to imagine that he will move back to the wing.

So, for now, it looks like the Canes should be very happy to have such a great group of four centers. While the path to a more prominent role consistently might not be clear right now, if he continues to play the way he’s been playing, that will happen in due time.

Key Players Stepping Up

The story from Carolina’s last few games has been about their organizational depth, and deservedly so, but the play of their regulars who have stayed in the lineup has been just as important.

After starting the year as a big piece on the team’s third line and missing much of November due to injury, Nino Niederreiter returned to the lineup in that same role, but he has been relied upon more heavily for offense as of late, and he has been up to the task.

Over his last seven games, Niederreiter has four goals and eight points, including a two-goal game against the Detroit Red Wings when the Hurricanes were two players short. He had a season-high 19:57 of ice time in that game.

This season was always going to be a crucial one for Niederreiter. He’s a pending unrestricted free agent, and you’d expect a player in that situation to be pushing for offensive production so that he can secure a bigger contract. That wasn’t the case for him, though.

For most of the season, he hasn’t been in the top-six. He’s been grinding away on the third line with Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast, and his game has been centered around puck possession, physicality, and defense.

Now, he’s getting rewarded in the form of more opportunities for offense. Before Sebastian Aho got put on COVID protocol, Niederreiter got bumped to the first line with the Finns and instantly clicked in that spot.

With both Nino and Vincent Trocheck scheduled to be UFAs this summer, the popular conclusion was that Trocheck would be the guy they brought back. That still may be the case, but Niederreiter is again proving why he shouldn’t be overlooked.

There was a relatively long stretch where Teuvo Teravainen was quietly in a big rut with his game. The team wasn’t controlling the puck with him on the ice, and, as a result, they weren’t producing offense.

That script has flipped over the last few weeks, too. Teravainen has eight points over his last seven games, and outside of the game in Calgary, he’s been a massive plus in terms of possession and expected goals.

There are plenty of players to thank for the Hurricanes managing to get through this unbelievable stretch of obstacles, but Niederreiter and Teravainen holding things down might be at the top of the list.

And I checked that list twice. Happy holidays.