The Carolina Hurricanes were bombarded by a COVID outbreak that started with Jordan Staal and quickly followed up with five additional players being added to the league’s COVID protocol list.
After a 10-day hiatus between games due to the outbreak, the Canes returned to the ice without five everyday players, including top-of-the-lineup players like Teuvo Teravainen and Jaccob Slavin. Oh, and they had to play a three-games-in-four-nights set against last seasons’ Stanley Cup finalists.
What are fair expectations for that kind of slate? Realistically, you hope to scratch out a win. You’d be thrilled to get three out of six points, get your guys back, and reset.
What’s that? The starting goalie who had been, statistically, one of the best goalies in the league got hurt before even facing a shot on goal in the second game, which forced the backup to play two games in less than 24 hours?
If you haven’t heard, the Hurricanes actually won all three of their games against top-of-the-league clubs, including both games against the previously unbeaten Dallas Stars in a back-to-back over the weekend.
They’re now 5-1-0 through six games of their 56-game sprint of a 2021 NHL season. By any metric, that is great news for the Canes, a team looking to build upon back-to-back postseason appearances and take the fabled “next step” towards Stanley Cup contention. For this particular team in this particular season, though, their hot start is an even bigger testament to the roster's makeup.
Staal did return for the post-COVID outbreak games, but he was accompanied by a merry band of taxi squad misfits featuring the likes of Steven Lorentz, Max McCormick (suffered a serious shoulder injury on Saturday), Sheldon Rempal, Drew Shore, and Jake Bean - all but one of whom made their Hurricanes debuts during that stretch.
It’s easy to hone in on one or two guys to carry a team through that kind of run, but Rod Brind’Amour will tell you that it was a team effort that guided the Hurricanes through their fourth consecutive win on Sunday.
“I hope we can rely on that next-man-up philosophy. Everyone has to contribute, whether we have the regulars or not. That’s just the recipe for success that way. These three games, that’s pretty much what happened.”
Monday served as a much-needed day off for the Canes, and now their sights are set on a 12-day road trip that will take them through Chicago, Columbus, and Dallas.
Things aren’t getting easier any time soon.
This is Quick Whistles, a weekly in-season column wherein I write about things that have stood out to me over the course of the week or the season or whatever period of time. These observations tend to be about the NHL hockey team native to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
The New and Improved Jake Gardiner
After a year and a half of writing in defense of Gardiner, despite him going through periods where he didn’t defend anything or anyone on the ice, I’m here to report that he is good and looks like an entirely different player in 2021.
The grueling growing pains of Jake Gardiner have seen him show brief signs of life. He was brought in to be an offensive producer in the top-four alongside Brett Pesce. That wasn’t the case for most of his first season in Carolina, but something is clicking now.
He showed real improvement in February and March of last season, but the season’s suspension put an end to any momentum he was gaining.
Fortunately, it seems as if that momentum has carried over to the new year. He played well alongside Haydn Fleury on the team’s third defensive pairing in the opening week of the season, but when the COVID protocol list expanded to include the name of Jaccob Slavin, the door was opened for him to step up and reclaim his spot next to Pesce.
Since reuniting in the top-four, they have often been the club’s best pairing at 5-on-5. Individually, though, he’s been playing some of his best hockey since joining the team.
His 56.74% expected goal-share at 5-on-5 ranks first among the five Carolina defensemen who have played in all six games to start the season. The same goes for his 55.9% high-danger corsi-share. He also leads the team in blocked shots at 5-on-5.
Beyond the numbers, though, he looks more comfortable. He was coming off a back injury last season. Perhaps that had something to do with the visible issues he had moving around the ice and the lack of confidence he had while defending and moving the puck both in transition and in pressurized moments in the defensive zone.
Whatever the reasons were, he looks to be in a better place right now, and his game speaks to that. I think everyone knows he has the ability to make plays offensively, but now his defense is catching up to his offense, and he’s playing like a guy who can be relied upon all over the ice.
The question now is whether he will stay with Pesce on the second pairing once Slavin returns. Brady Skjei’s spot there has been telegraphed since the beginning of camp, so I doubt it, but at the very least, Gardiner has made it a discussion worth having.
Nino Niederreiter’s Impact
Entering the season, it was known that the Hurricanes needed more out of Niederreiter. He had a hugely disappointing season in 2019-20, and after seeing what he was capable of after the trade back in 2019, not getting anything close to that production in his first full season on the team was a let-down.
There was a fair amount of criticism for him, and, to quote a prominent sports figure, he took that personally.
Niederreiter has been outstanding this season at 5-on-5. All of the hallmarks of his game have been on display - heavy north-south game, dominant puck possession, constant scoring-chance generation, and of course, goal-scoring.
The Hurricanes need him to be a game-breaking player, and his line-drive rocket down the left wing late in the third period of a 3-2 game on Sunday was an example of him being that kind of player.
Nino Niederreiter with a rocket to tie the game at 3-3 with less than 3 minutes to go in the 3rd period. pic.twitter.com/240MJfiWYb— Brett Finger (@brettfinger) February 1, 2021
What I loved about the goal was that he absolutely deserved the result to go his way. That shot he took was one of the least threatening shots he’d taken in six games, but it went in. He’s been all over the slot creating scoring opportunities, and while he hasn’t capitalized on many of them, he has been relentless in making things happen in the offensive zone.
The Nino that the Canes have been getting is the Nino that they need. When he was on the top line with Sebastian Aho, he was doing more than just keeping up with the Finns; he added to their ability to make plays. Now playing with Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas, he has been the unsung hero of the line who has been doing the heavy lifting with regards to maintaining puck possession, retrieving pucks, and cycling around the offensive zone.
Simply put, he has been a dominant force on the ice. And when he is playing like that, the ceiling is the roof for the Hurricanes.
Jake Bean Isn’t Joshing Around
The expectation entering the season was that Bean would finally get some more looks on the NHL team, although the team probably didn’t want it to be this early in the season.
Regardless, Bean’s name was called after Slavin went on the COVID protocol list, and he had a spot next to Haydn Fleury on the third defensive pairing. His play in the AHL over the last two seasons provided a great deal of confidence that he could step in and be a good player, and he delivered on that in a sheltered role over the last three games.
It’s important to reiterate that he was absolutely sheltered in his minutes and matchups, but he has objectively good in his first taste of NHL action since the 2018-19 season.
He is rocking a 63.58% corsi-share at 5-on-5, which is the best number out of all Carolina defensemen. His 66.04% expected goal-share at 5-on-5 is the second-best number among Canes blueliners, and he has been a great fit next to Fleury.
Watching him play last season in Charlotte, some things stood out in his game. He is an extremely deceptive puck-mover in the offensive zone. You never know where the puck is going to go when he has it on his tape. In the somewhat limited chances he had to show off that ability, he put it on display. His mobility in the offensive zone is an obvious strength to his game, as well, but I didn’t expect him to have the level of confidence in that part of his game that he had over the weekend. It was very impressive.
Above everything else, though, his maturation and his poise stood out last season. He doesn’t look like a defenseman in his early-20’s, thanks to his internal clock and his calmness around the ice. That translated into his NHL game, which was the most impressive part of what I saw from him.
He isn’t without faults. There were times when he lost his man in coverage, and it led to scoring chances the other way, but those aren’t unique to him, especially given how little NHL experience he has.
The long road that has been Jake Bean’s development is far from over, but this has been a positive milestone in his journey that will almost certainly end with him being a quality NHLer for a long time.