The NHL moves fast, but Pyotr Kochetkov continues to do more than just keep pace.
Winners in five of Kochetkov’s last six starts, the Carolina Hurricanes are approaching a big decision in their net. When all of their goalies are healthy, who will be the number one in this season of great expectations?
The team likely won’t use labels when describing their goalie roles once (or if) that fabled day comes, and as fast as Kochetkov has risen, he could just as swiftly fall. But even after taking caution into consideration, it certainly doesn’t seem to be in Carolina’s best interests to take their rookie goalie off the ice. At least not right now.
It doesn’t appear that the Canes coaching staff has that anywhere in their plans, either.
After posting a .913 save percentage and a 2-1-3 record through his first six games this season, Kochetkov has exploded to a .940 mark over a 5-0-1 stretch. He has shutouts in back-to-back games. He hasn’t allowed a goal since overtime in Anaheim last week, giving him a tidy 120-minute stretch without allowing a goal.
Granted, it would be a stretch to say that he has had to stand on his head during this streak. He only saw 16 shots in the win on Long Island thanks to a suffocating team defensive effort. However, at least in quantity, he had a busier night in Detroit, facing 27 shots.
His busiest stretch on Tuesday came in the second period when he thwarted the Red Wings’ best offensive push of the game. He made seven high-danger saves in the middle frame, compared to just two combined in the other two periods. Detroit also squandered three power play opportunities in about eleven minutes of in-game time, scratching across just one shot on goal on the man advantage.
Even with those qualifiers in mind, the part he has played in providing the team with much-needed stability between the pipes shouldn’t be understated. Kochetkov’s dominant six-game stretch spans the entirety of the team’s season-long road trip, which was crucially important for the Hurricanes to open up the month of December.
According to MoneyPuck, among the 53 NHL goalies with at least ten appearances, Kochetkov ranks second in goals saved above expected per 60 and save percentage above expected in all situations. The only goalie fairing better in those categories is Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov.
The rookie’s .926 save percentage is tied for the third-highest in the NHL among qualifying goalies, and his three shutouts are tied for the most in the league.
As much as Kochetkov deserves a great deal of credit for how he’s played, Carolina’s team defense was equally impressive during the road trip. Over their last five games, the Hurricanes have allowed fewer than two expected goals in all situations three times. According to NaturalStatTrick, that’s the first time the team has managed to do that this season.
There’s been a fun synergy between the defense and goaltending as of late, and it came at the right time for an abundance of reasons.
So, to revisit the original question, who will be the team’s starter? It really doesn’t matter. It’s an interesting talking point right now, but these things have a way of figuring themselves out. If Kochetkov keeps playing the way he has, he won’t go anywhere. And when Andersen returns, he will get his opportunities to get back on track.
For now, it’s hard not to enjoy a young, extremely likable goalie putting his upside on display on a playoff-caliber club.
Top Road Trip Performer
The successful road trip was significant for the Hurricanes’ place in the standings and the level of morale heading home, but it was also big on an individual level.
Jordan Martinook’s hat trick in St. Louis was a great moment for both him and the team, as I wrote about last week. He closed the trip with five points, adding a pair of assists to his trio of goals.
The biggest contributor on the second half of the trip might have been Brady Skjei.
The 28-year-old defenseman is in his third full season with the club, and it has been the best he’s looked since putting on a Hurricanes uniform by an increasingly massive margin.
Skjei’s goal was the lone tally for Carolina in Detroit and his third in four games. He has points in four straight games and has been a totally different player all season.
Skjei’s year-over-year charts put his steps forward into perspective. He was a poor 5-on-5 player in his first full season with the team, and he only really provided value on the penalty kill.
Year two was his big offensive breakout. He had a career-high nine goals and 39 points, and his on-ice finishing rate crept above the league average. However, he took a lot of minor penalties on the way. Many of those resulted from him being out of position on rushes the other way. He substituted some defense for a lot of offense, which makes sense, considering it was the year after the team lost Dougie Hamilton.
Year three has seen Skjei strike a near-perfect balance in his game. He’s shooting the puck more than he has at any point in his Carolina tenure, and his on-ice finishing rate has been great. His heat map in the offensive zone looks almost identical to last year, but the difference comes with his defense.
Skjei is having a career-best season in almost every 5-on-5 metric - shot attempts percentage, high-danger shot attempts percentage, goals for percentage, and expected goals for percentage, all while averaging a career-high 21:19 of ice time.
He’s committing penalties at roughly half the rate he did last season. And on the flip side, he is drawing penalties at a higher rate.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Skjei in a Hurricanes uniform. I was one of many who questioned the trade back in 2020 and criticized it for much of his first couple of years in Raleigh. It seemed like a needlessly risky bet.
It looks like I was dead wrong. Last season was a massive step in the right direction, and I’d argue he’s been even better this season, even if his counting stats aren’t eye-popping.
It took some time, but the bet is paying off. Skjei and the Carolina coaching staff deserve much credit for his turnaround. The organization’s reputation with developing defensemen took a hit with first-rounders Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, but this is a significant win.
The (Lack of) Road (Games) Ahead
The Hurricanes are finally home and will stay there for all but one game through the end of December.
A four-game homestand starts tonight against the Seattle Kraken and will continue through early next week before the team visits the Pittsburgh Penguins. After that December 22 game, the Canes will play each of their final three games at PNC Arena to end 2022.
Their stellar road trip results have set the table for a potentially dominant month that should get infinitely less draining without having to deal with constant travel. The team has the third-best road record in hockey at 11-3-5. They’ve played 19 road games to just nine home games so far, further highlighting how impressive their collective results have been. Now, things will start to even out.
Sebastian Aho’s availability remains in question after he didn’t participate in the morning skate on Thursday, signaling he will be out of the lineup for a third consecutive game. He missed just three games over the course of 136 team games entering this season.
The loss of Aho has been felt. The hope is that his absence is nearing its end, but there haven’t been any concrete updates on his lower-body injury.
Max Pacioretty, however, is undoubtedly heading in the right direction with his comeback from Achilles surgery. He has been practicing with the team in a yellow non-contact jersey. Getting his shot in the lineup should make a very noticeable impact on the team’s offense when the day comes.
It remains a waiting game on the injury front, but at least now they’re waiting in the comfort of their own homes.