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Quick Whistles: Necas and Aho lead Hurricanes to top of standings; Hamilton’s contract still needs to be a priority

Carolina’s newest dominant forward duo has helped lift the Hurricanes to the top of the NHL standings

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Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, and Martin Necas celebrate after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 27, 2021.
Kaydee Gawlick

When the Carolina Hurricanes lost Vincent Trocheck after their win against the Nashville Predators back on March 9, it felt like yet another massive blow to a team that had already gone through injuries to impact players in Petr Mrazek, Teuvo Teravainen, and to a lesser extent, Jake Gardiner.

Since their leading goal-scorer went down, though, the Canes have not only treaded water; they’ve improved their standing both in the division and in the league-wide standings. They’ve posted a 5-1-2 record over their last eight games and have a chance to improve that record as they start a two-game set against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight at the United Center.

The Hurricanes have the highest points percentage (.742) in the Central Division and are tied with the Vegas Golden Knights for tops in the entire league.

It’s been a pretty complete team effort for the Canes that has made that happen, but it’s hard not to point to the play of their two stars in March and not heap a lot of the praise on their shoulders.

Those two stars, of course, are Martin Necas and Sebastian Aho.

You can’t talk about one of them without talking about the other, because since Trocheck’s injury, they’ve been attached at the hip in all situations. Necas has been on Aho’s wing at 5-on-5, they’ve both been on the top power-play unit, the duo has killed penalties together and they’ve been featured as a consistent game-deciding pairing in overtime.

Both of them have nine points over their last seven games. Aho has five goals and four assists. Necas has four goals and five assists. Necas has assisted on four of Aho’s five goals. Aho has assisted on three of Necas’ four goals. All but two of those seven combined assists have been primary assists. They’re first and second among Canes forwards in ice time since March 14.

This is just another month for Aho, who has been a steady three-zone force for the Hurricanes for what feels like ions now. For Necas, however, this is the result of the combination of steady improvement and the raw talent that has jumped off the screen if you’ve watched him over the last several years.

“He’s never lacked for confidence,” Rod Brind’Amour said after Necas’ four-point night against the Lightning on Saturday. “From day one, he’s been trying to make plays. We encourage it, but I think now he has a better understanding of when and where to make plays. You can see it. He’s matured. Physically, he’s a little strong, which goes a long way to having your own confidence. I think it’s his maturity, physically. He’s always had the confidence.”

It looks like we’re watching yet another young Carolina forward turn into a star.

The Beat Goes on for Alex Nedeljkovic

The past couple of weeks have been more of the same for Carolina’s rookie goalie, who has strengthened his hold on a crucial spot in the Hurricanes’ goalie rotation as the regular season nears its end.

He has a .932 save percentage over his last five starts. Dating all the way back to February 20, he's stopped 94.3% of the shots he has faced. He has just one regulation loss over that span.

For the first time in his very young NHL career, he earned back-to-back starts. Those starts were both in Columbus last week, and the Canes won both of those games behind a 19-save shutout and a 33-save effort where Ned got big praise from Rod Brind’Amour after the game.

The trust Carolina’s coaching staff has in Nedeljkovic has very clearly grown by leaps and bounds. That trust seemingly extends to the front office as well.

The Athletic’s Sara Civian talked to Hurricanes GM Don Waddell, who said that one of the team’s trading chips at the deadline might be a goalie.

“But I’ve also said — we don’t have a lot of cap space,” Waddell told Civian. “If we’re gonna do something at the trade deadline, maybe one of the chips is one of our goalies. I can’t say which one. It depends.”

If the goal is to shed cap space, that would obviously remove Nedeljkovic from the conversation as he has a very negligible cap hit. Reimer carries a $3.4 million cap hit and is scheduled to hit the UFA market this summer. He carries a salary of just $850,000 after getting a majority of his money through signing bonuses before the season, so he is a very tradeable asset.

If the Hurricanes are looking to bring in a high-dollar player, Reimer makes a lot of sense as a player to include in that deal. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with having a stable of goalies, even if Reimer’s play has been shaky, at best, throughout the 2021 season.

All it takes is for one goalie to get hurt.

Dougie Hamilton’s Wild Ride

It’s now been more than a month since the Hurricanes played a game that Hamilton failed to record a point in. The pending UFA has an active point streak of 14 games, wherein he has found the back of the net twice and has 14 assists.

This has been a very different season for Hamilton compared to his outrageously good 2019-20 season. Last season, he couldn't avoid scoring goals. Almost every time he even contemplated throwing a puck anywhere near the net, it resulted in a goal.

It hasn’t been that way for him this season, but it hasn’t stopped him from producing at an eye-popping rate. He ranks fifth among defensemen in assists and eighth in points.

Despite his production, he very clearly isn’t playing at quite the same level he as at a season ago. He’s not too far off, though. Last season, he was playing like a clear-cut number one defenseman. This season, he’s still playing like a top-pairing defenseman, but he’s a notch lower.

In 2019-20, his even-strength defense was around the 75th percentile among NHL defensemen, which is great. This season, he is just a tick below the 50th percentile, a huge downgrade from last season but still a great deal better than his 2018-19 season. His offense is still in the top 1% of defenders, just like last season and the season before.

Stats from TopDownHockey’s data.

On the whole, it’s hard for me to be upset about Hamilton’s play. If he repeated what he did last season, we would be talking about a player set to make $8.5-10 million AAV on his next deal. I don’t think that’s going to happen now, but perhaps that’s the best-case scenario for the Hurricanes in their hopes of signing him long-term.

He is worthy of a big payday, and you know what he’ll bring offensively. He has proven this season that, even when he isn’t scoring goals, he is a big-time producer of offense. Right now, it feels like it’s all about his defense. He is certainly good enough to be a top-tier defender in addition to his offense, but it just hasn’t been there this season.

Do you have faith in him getting closer to that mark next season when he is further removed from his devastating leg injury? I do, which is why I still believe that getting him signed needs to be a huge priority. No matter how you look at it, he is a fringe top-10 defenseman at his most “meh” and a top-five defenseman when he is firing on all cylinders.