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Hurricanes midseason awards: Pesce, Trocheck, Staal, Nedeljkovic among standout players from first half of NHL season

The Hurricanes have a number of players to thank for a stellar first half of the 2021 season.

Vincent Trocheck, Alex Nedeljkovic and Brett Pesce across various NHL games in the 2020-2021 season.
Kaydee Gawlik

We did it, everyone! We are halfway through the 2021 regular season!

And the Carolina Hurricanes are pretty good!

Today, we’re going to celebrate the midway point of the season by giving out some awards. These awards are all positive, and they’ll be handed out based on a mixture of statistics, spite, and my own personal opinions.

Several of these categories were very difficult to decide on, but perhaps one of the best signs of a good team is that your MVP isn’t obvious. Many players deserve recognition for their strong first half, and we will be highlighting some of them here.

Most Valuable Player

Winner: Brett Pesce
Runners-Up: Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Sebastian Aho

On Wednesday, I went to Twitter to ask who the MVP of the Hurricanes’ season has been in preparation for this. Most of the responses went for Trocheck and Staal for very obvious reasons.

But since I love spiting people, I’m going with Pesce.

Jokes aside, you could choose any of four or five players, and you wouldn’t get too much of an argument from me. Pesce has had an outstanding season, though, and he deserves every bit of praise for how he has stabilized Carolina’s blue line.

I wrote in-depth about him about a month ago, and all of the things that were true about him at that point remain true. He is the connective tissue that bridges the gap between the first pairing and the rest of the defensive depth chart. Without him, the transition to Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner, Jake Bean, and Haydn Fleury becomes a lot tougher.

And on top of all of that, he’s just been really, really good. At 5-on-5 play, the Hurricanes allow 11% fewer expected goals compared to league average and 4% fewer xGA compared to how the Canes play when he isn’t on the ice, according to HockeyViz.

Surprisingly, his biggest contribution might be his offense. He has experienced a huge breakout season in how he has driven offense at 5-on-5. He has recently been given an opportunity on the power play, and while the early returns aren’t particularly great, I think he certainly earned a chance there.

Ideally, though, you play him at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill in a big way and allow him to rest while the team is on the man advantage. He is such a strong driver of offense at 5-on-5 that he will get his points and numbers simply through even-strength play.

Without Pesce, I think there’s a genuine possibility that Carolina’s blue line play could turn into a serious problem. The Canes can’t afford to be a one-pairing team, and Pesce allows them to stretch things out and be as effective as possible one through six. He makes everyone he plays with not only better but playable in the top-four. You can throw a 4/5/6th defenseman next to him, and you have a suitable second defensive pairing. That’s such an underrated quality that a defenseman can have.

Using TopDownHockey’s data, he has the highest shooting-adjusted WAR among all Carolina skaters and the ninth-best among all NHL defensemen.

He’s my pick for Canes MVP of the first half.

Best Forward

Winner: Vincent Trocheck
Runners-Up: Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas

I can’t, in good conscience, exclude Trocheck from this list of awards. Thankfully, I don’t have to because he has been the Hurricanes’ best forward this season.

He has been everything that the Canes have needed from a second-line center and then some. At the time of his injury last week, he had a team-leading 13 goals and 24 points in 24 games and was riding a six-game point streak wherein he had scored four goals. Since his injury, you can feel his absence in the lineup.

In many ways, he is to the forward unit what Pesce is to the defensive unit. Trocheck gives the Hurricanes two deadly 5-on-5 scoring lines thanks to the chemistry he has developed with Necas and Niederreiter. That trio has been electric at even strength, and they’ve carried it over to Carolina’s top-ranked power play.

He isn’t an overly flashy player like Necas, and he isn’t a big board-battle-winning guy like Niederreiter, but he is a mixture of the two, and he is extremely dangerous around the front of the net. He knows how to score in this league, and those are players that the Hurricanes have needed for a very long time.

Get in scoring areas and capitalize on your opportunities. Trocheck has done exactly that to this point, and he has plenty of goals at crucial moments to show for it. He’s my pick for best forward.

Best Defenseman

Winner: Brett Pesce
Runners-Up: Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin

I’ll spare you the time and not wax poetic about Pesce again, but I will say that I think Slavin and Hamilton's criticism at points this season has been too harsh. In my eyes, the gap between them and Pesce isn’t as large as a lot of people would probably say.

Best Goalie

Winner: Alex Nedeljkovic
Runner-Up: James Reimer

I’m not doing some kind of deep goalie evaluation here. Who has the best numbers? The answer is Ned.

Nedeljkovic has the sixth-most goals saved above expected in the NHL this season. He has a .926 save percentage in 10 starts this season, and that number inflates to .943 over his last seven starts.

One month ago, I would’ve said that Nedeljkovic couldn’t reasonably play his way into the goalie conversation once Petr Mrazek returned, but Mrazek’s lengthy recovery has allowed Ned to get more games and prove that he belongs.

The results are in. He belongs, and he ain’t going on waivers again.

Biggest Surprise

Winner: Jordan Staal
Runners-Up: Alex Nedeljkovic, Jake Bean, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck

Rod Brind’Amour will tell you that the sudden dramatic uptick in Staal’s production isn’t surprising.

I will tell you that it’s one of the most unlikely accomplishments in human history and is more surprising than the United States men’s hockey team winning the gold at Lake Placid.

It’s been nine seasons since Staal has produced points at the rate that he is currently producing them. There was an 11-game stretch from January 28 to February 17 where he logged seven goals and 15 points. Then, after not scoring for two weeks, he piled up three goals and seven points in four games at the beginning of March.

He has 10 goals and 22 points in 27 games this season, with the worst underlying numbers of his tenure in Carolina. This is all shocking information, and I have no idea what to do with it.

Best Team Game

Winner: 4-0 @ vs. Tampa Bay (Feb. 20)
Runners-Up: 3-0 W @ DET (Jan. 14), 4-1 W vs. DAL (Jan. 30), 6-5 W @CBJ (Feb. 7), 4-2 W vs. FLA (3/7)

This is very subjective. Do you go with the most dramatic finish, the most entertaining game, the best team win, the best 60-minute effort, or something different?

I’m going with the best team performance. In my opinion, that was on February 20 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Hurricanes welcomed the defending Stanley Cup champions into PNC Arena and shut them out in convincing fashion. That was a huge win for many reasons.

For starters, it was a statement that this team could play with anyone and beat anyone. Yes, they followed up that big win three losses to the Bolts, but that stretch of games only hardened my opinion that the Canes can go toe-to-toe with them. Two of those following three games were toss-ups, and Carolina just didn’t get the one bounce they needed to go their way.

A close second place for me is their 4-2 win over Florida on March 7. Again, that was one of their best games of the season, and they looked like the clear better team after three games of nail-biting, close games against the Cats. That was an important win against a team that they may very well face in the first round of the playoffs.

Also worth mentioning is the 6-5 game in Columbus on February 7. That was probably the craziest game of the year, which means it was wildly entertaining. Tons of goals, tons of shifting momentum, and one of the most controversial moments of the season with Vincent Trocheck’s goal and the offsides review that followed.

You couldn’t script that game going the way it did.

Other First-Half Standouts

Niederreiter and Necas have been vitally important for the Hurricanes so far. Nino has bounced back hugely and is a legitimate candidate in my eyes for the best forward and maybe even MVP.

Necas has just casually dazzled everyone on almost every night this season. His newly-formed chemistry with Aho has been a treat to watch. It’s been reported that Teuvo Teravainen has been placed on IR due to a broken heart.

Speaking of Aho, Carolina’s number one center has been quiet at points this season, but I’m starting to think that a lot of that has to do with other guys occupying the spotlight. He has never been playing poorly, but he certainly hasn’t been a huge standout. With Trocheck out of the lineup, Aho has suddenly become more noticeable.

That isn’t a coincidence.

He just hasn’t been the clear-cut go-to guy, which isn’t a bad thing. He is getting plenty of help. When the team needs him, he shows up and is a difference-maker. He has six goals over his last eight games, so he is heating up at a great time. He leads the team in points, and after hitting the twine twice last night against the Jackets, he is tied for the team-lead in goals.

Bean was certainly in the running for the biggest surprise, but when you think about it, he really isn’t that big of a surprise. If anything, the surprise is that he finally got his chance. It isn’t surprising that he is making the most of it. If you paid attention to how dominant he was in the AHL as a first and second-year player, his hot start definitely didn’t come out of nowhere. He put lots of work in, and now he and the Canes are reaping the benefits.

Rod Brind’Amour got a mention for MVP in the responses to my tweet from Wednesday, and while he isn’t a player, I get it. There’s nothing I can say that adds to the things that have been said about him to this point in his coaching tenure, but he is among the best coaches in the league and should be in the Jack Adams conversation at the end of the season.

This was fun. Let’s do it again at the end of the season.