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With the ups and downs (with a few more downs) recently, I have spent some of my Canes’ time thinking about where exactly this team is right now. Trying to boil it down into a neat, tidy and somewhat organized article seems nearly impossible right now because the team’s play seems to run the gamut. For any given area of the game, I feel like I could find a stretch of great hockey and also a stretch of utterly abysmal hockey. Despite the challenge in doing so, today’s Daily Cup of Joe will forge forward and try to sort the wildly differing data points into some kind of assessment.
The Carolina Hurricanes at the top level
Inconsistent: I think the best word to describe the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes thus far is “inconsistent.” On average, the team is below average offensively yet has had games during which it looked like an offensive juggernaut. In total, the goaltending has again been disappointing and below league average, but there were games and even short stretches earlier in the year when the goalie position was a strength. And as talented as the defense is, both individual players and the defense in total continues to have intermittent train wreck games that offer almost know chance of winning and also contribute to the goalie woes.
Lack of identity: In a somewhat similar vein, I do not think this team has found an identity and repeatable winning formula yet. They have won with massive scoring outbursts. They had a stretch where they were air tight defensively and eked out wins without much offense. And they have all varieties of good and bad efforts. On the one hand, good teams do rely on some amount of “just find a way to win,” but at the same time I believe that the vast majority of teams that compile extended winning streaks and/or win consistently for a month or more usually have a repeatable model and style of play that makes them better than the opponent most nights. The Hurricanes lack that right now.
Talented: Since the transition has been somewhat gradual, I think many underestimate just how far the Carolina Hurricanes have come in terms of building a deeper lineup with more raw talent. Though the volume of errors and inconsistency can be maddening at times, the ceiling for the team right now is significantly higher than it has been in recent history. If and when that ceiling will be reached is debatable and definitely subject to doubt right now, but the blue line boasts at least five players 25 years old or younger with top pairing potential.
When I net it out, untapped potential clearly exists but having gone 28 games into the 2017-18 season without really finding it, there are no guarantees for schedule or that it will happen at all this season.
Learning to win at the NHL level
Though there are any number of on-ice specifics that can be critiqued, I also think that the past few weeks have clearly illustrated the young team’s immaturity as relates to understanding what it takes to win consistently at the sport’s highest level. Justin Williams who has won three Stanley Cups and does get what it takes has been increasingly noisy in this regard lately. The team has been able to muster the maximum intensity level intermittently but seems to too regularly do the exhale when things start going well such that they go in a circle of ups and downs. Encouraging is that the team does at least seem to be finding the higher level sometimes which offers hope that they will better be able to quickly self-correct on nights when it does not seem to be there. As hard as it is to measure, define or put a finger on, I think a key part of the next leg up in Hurricanes hockey requires a transformation in terms of mentality and intensity level.
The 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes by position
Goaltending: Unfortunately, the story for the goalie position through 28 games is the same as it has been for multiple seasons now. Despite assertive moves by General Manager Ron Francis to add a new starter in Scott Darling and a new goalie coach in Mike Bales, the Hurricanes are again near the bottom of the league by most statistical measures. And while I do think the performance has been partly due to inconsistent defensive play of the skaters, my estimation is that the goaltending too has been sub-par again in 2017-18. Either for 2017-18 or looking forward, I think the goaltending position will continue to have a huge say in how the team fares. With Scott Darling signed for four years, I think the team needs to be steadfast in giving him every opportunity to get his feet under him and find the higher gear needed to boost the team into the playoff mix.
The blue line: As much as the blue line projects to be the team’s greatest strength, I do not think that has been realized. Performance for defensemen is mostly a function of how many mistakes a player makes and less about how many good plays he makes. A defenseman can have a flawless game through two periods, but if he then has just two bad break downs in the third period and both find the net behind his goalie, he suddenly has had a bad night. And that is where the Hurricanes blue line is still stuck. Because of their skating ability and skill, the Hurricanes defensemen would rank high in terms of how many good or great plays they make during a hockey game. But the problem right now is that they would also be among the league leaders in what I long ago termed ‘big oopses.’ This is where the Hurricanes fall short and also where I think the statistics fall short when they suggest that the Hurricanes should win more often. Shot statistics and even more advanced expected goals type calculations do not yet do not always do a great job of accounting for the quality of shot attempts. Distance, location, shot type and other considerations make expected goals metrics pretty robust, but there is still a huge difference between the kind of uncontested point blank chances that the Hurricanes give up too often because of break downs and a similar location shot that is at least reasonably well defended.
The big challenge right now is tightening up the defensive part of the blue line’s play. Maturity and experience can help, but at the same time very regularly players with incredible skill never master defensive acumen on a consistent enough basis to be more than a third pairing defenseman. So while the hope is that sounder and more consistent play will arrive, I do not think it is as much of a sure thing as some think it is, and the timeline is anyone’s guess. Regardless, the realization of the blue line as a team strength on an every game basis is still deferred and is dependent on fewer bad plays not more good plays.
The forwards: In one breath I can say that the team’s forward depth for the top 9 is as good as it has been in probably 10 years, but at the same time, the team is still short are players who are pure catalysts both in terms of driving scoring and also winning hockey games. Important to note is the fact that it is possible that the answers are already in the lineup and just a step or two away. Teuvo Teravainen recently finished a stretch of play during which he was every bit of a top line forward and scoring catalyst. Sebastian Aho similarly went on a tear. But here the big question is consistency. The difference between being a decent top 9 depth scorer and a true first line offensive catalyst is not about a player’s offensive ceiling on a good day. The difference is how often the player can hit that ceiling and also how much he can produce when not firing on all cylinders and playing at his ceiling level. In that regard, the jury is still out on both Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho who represent the team’s best chance to build a high-end scoring line. Teravainen is on target for 70 points and Aho 60 which is in the neighborhood of being two-thirds of a legitimate NHL scoring line, but both players are a drought away from more modestly being at the high end of the range for the Hurricanes growing group of decent depth scorers.
Special teams: To no one’s surprise, I would rate the team’s special teams play as poor. The horrid effort that saw two goals allowed both while playing up a man and down a man in Saturday’s loss was the extreme example but in total neither special teams unit has been up to snuff so far. Though I think the power play has been somewhat better at least at times lately, both units still look disjointed quite regularly and have been unable to increase their productivity. And the penalty kill that has been a strength for the past few years under Steve Smith has yet to put it together in 2017-18.
So what’s the outlook for the rest of 2017-18?
At this point, I think it is impossible to predict for certain what the rest of the 2017-18 season has in store. Having to chalk another year up to the gradual rebuilding process is definitely not out of the question at this point. But the highs and intermittent improvement thus far does also offer hope that the team could improve consistency, find an identity, make the necessary transformation in terms of every game intensity level and push up into the playoffs.
I think two things have the greatest potential to change the trajectory of the 2017-18 season. First is a clear transformation that sees the team muster determined and desperate (in a good way) on any every night basis. Second is an improvement defensively that gives the team a chance to win without scoring heroics every night. The defense, especially the blue line, needs to be sounder. It is not that they need to be perfect, but they do need to cut down on the types of mistakes that put the goalie in really bad situations. If they can do that, the onus then falls on the goalies to do their part and find a higher gear.
If nothing else, we as Hurricanes fans seem to also get our fair share of suspense and drama.