The month of November was a weird one for the Carolina Hurricanes.
After winning six of their first nine games of the season, the team started and finished a run of 14 games in 25 days with back-to-back wins. In the other ten games, they went 2-4-4, scored just ten goals in their eight losses, and had a five-game skid that featured four overtime losses.
Already hampered by injuries, they lost their starting goalie on November 7 and their best pure playmaker just three days after that. Neither of them has played since.
November was a humbling month for a team looking to take the proverbial next step, revealing holes in their lineup and providing some level of concern about the team’s upside.
That’s a pretty negative appraisal for a Hurricanes team with the second-best points percentage in the Metropolitan Division, behind only the world-beating, league-leading New Jersey Devils, but it’s quite the show of where the franchise has gotten over the last few seasons.
The expectations are different now, and while they’ve been kept afloat by a handful of players who are meeting or surpassing the expectations, the way this team played in November will have to change if they want to avoid taking a step in the wrong direction.
3 and 50
Despite the team’s lackluster production last month, the players who led their strong start in October were still the guys making impact plays.
Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Martin Necas all had big moments in November. Aho and Svechnikov recorded hat tricks in the first half of the month, Necas scored a team-leading six goals, and the three forwards had no choice but to put the team on their shoulders.
Necas, Svechnikov, and Aho combined for 17 November goals. The Hurricanes scored 34 total goals. Three players made up 50% of the team’s offense.
Now, if those three guys made up 50% of the goals while combining for 25 goals, the tone of the conversation would be a whole lot different. It would be about how good they are, not how dry the overall offense is.
Of the team’s six November wins, five of them featured all three players on the scoresheet. The only one that didn’t was a Pyotr Kochetkov shutout in Chicago, and Svechnikov was one of the goal-scorers for Carolina.
Teravainen’s injury was a big hit for the team. He got off to a pedestrian start, but the injury came right when it looked like he was putting it together. He’s one of the best two-way puck-distributing forwards in the league. It’s a substantial loss, and the Hurricanes felt it at 5-on-5 and on their 26th-ranked power play.
There’s a lack of weapons on this team right now. But it stands to reason, with Teravainen and two of their offseason plays at forward (Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase) out of the lineup and unable to contribute. They’re also feeling the absence of Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck, who have combined for 17 goals with their new clubs.
Last season, the Canes were able to elevate Jesperi Kotkaniemi to compensate for injuries. This season, Kotkaniemi was expected to take the second-line center role and provide at least a chunk of the production that Trocheck accounted for, but it hasn’t gone to plan.
After playing well at the start of the season as the pivot between two uber-skilled wingers, his play has deteriorated to the point where he goes through long stretches of having very little impact on the game.
The Hurricanes don’t have a viable solution there at the moment. Necas has taken more faceoffs this season and has benefitted from being shifted to the middle in spurts, but unless he makes a full transition to center, Kotkaniemi is their only real option.
It’s fairly surprising that the team hasn’t given an opportunity to a veteran center like Paul Stastny, who had a 20-goal, 45-point year with the Winnipeg Jets last season. Instead, his usage has gone the other way. After averaging 12:49 of ice time in October, he averaged just 9:47 in November and 8:27 in the second half of the month. He still hasn’t scored a goal with the Hurricanes.
Meanwhile, Niederreiter’s role has been absorbed in large part by Stefan Noesen, who has performed admirably but just isn’t the player that Niederreiter is.
The Hurricanes are in a precarious situation. They will have in-house help from returning injured players, as Teravainen is traveling with the team and could return in the near future. Pacioretty is one of the most consistently productive shooters in the league when he’s healthy, but he’s upwards of three months away from being healthy enough to play.
In the meantime, they’re forced to play the waiting game and hope for the best. It would be huge if second-year forward Seth Jarvis could go on a run. He had a seven-game point drought in November, but he now has points in four of his last five games.
Unless they throw a hail mary with young players like Jamieson Rees and Vasili Ponomaryov, who are both doing fine with the Chicago Wolves but aren’t ready to be thrown into the fire, it looks like the team is playing a waiting game.
A Close Game of Bounces
The Hurricanes have played a lot of close games this season. 13 of their 23 decisions have been by one goal (excluding empty-netters), and nine of them went to overtime.
They’ve won seven of those one-goal games, and their place in the standings has been boosted by having five of the six losses go to overtime. It feels like every game is coming down to the wire, decided by one bounce that you can only hope goes Carolina’s way.
At full strength, it’s fair to assume that those losses could go the other way, but injuries don’t account for the entirety of their problems.
They’ve had difficulty closing out games, and they rank 26th in the NHL in winning percentage when they have a lead at the end of the second period. Getting a lead hasn’t been the issue, but holding onto a lead has been.
Inconsistent special teams, particularly the power play, factor into that. They’ve had plenty of man advantages with a lead in hand that they’ve squandered, just to turn around and cough up a goal the other way.
Those sequences are killers.
They have outscored their opponents 40-35 in periods one and two, but they have a combined -6 goal differential in third periods and overtimes. Those numbers make the losses more frustrating because, on paper, it’s not like they’re losing to bad teams, but they’re managing to lose games that they should have had control over.
Building on Positives
Despite a shaky month, the Hurricanes managed to go above NHL .500 by collecting overtime points in half of their losses. They have the second-best points percentage in the Metro and the eighth-best in the NHL.
There are positives to build on outside of the big three up front, namely back-to-back tight wins to close out the month and put the slide behind them.
Kochetkov’s young NHL career has been a baptism by fire, dating back to his role in the playoffs last season and continuing now as the defacto starter. Outside of a tough night in Winnipeg, he’s been the reason why the Hurricanes have had a shot in all of their losses. They needed an anchor in the net, and the 23-year-old has exceeded expectations.
Their collective effort certainly hasn’t been an issue, either. If anything, it’s felt like they’ve been gripping their sticks too hard and thinking too much. When Rod Brind’Amour’s teams are at their best, they’re playing free and with confidence.
Those aren’t words I’d use to describe the Canes right now, outside of the obvious exceptions. Winning will change that, and this team is clearly talented enough to get on a streak. They’ve been one shot away in most of their losses.
It’s also nice that these things are happening in November and not March. The Hurricanes have championship aspirations, so getting exposed a little bit in the early going and having an opportunity to fix issues with 60 games left to go isn’t the end of the world. Though, of course, it could quickly turn into that if they tempt fate with another month similar to the one they just had.
This six-game road trip is an interesting checkpoint in their season. It’s their longest run away from home this season, and it’s followed by four straight home games and seven home games in their final eight games of December.
The hope should be that the Canes can put some pieces together over the next two weeks and take advantage of all the home games at the end of the month.