2016-17 lack of a repeatable winning formula thus far
Thus far the Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 season has been a roller coaster ride. The 3-5-3 record has had more ups than downs. There are any number of player and event-level culprits for the early season struggles, but I wanted to look at it from a higher level.
When teams are playing better than the Canes are right now, it is often said that the team “just needs to play their game” or something similar. When I think of the Carolina Hurricanes in that vein, I am not sure that the team has their game. If I think about what it takes for the Hurricanes to win right now, I think it is some combination of a good goalie night, Jeff Skinner leading the offense and a much better than average night in terms of defending and avoiding costly mistakes. If I think of it more broadly, the team needs to make fewer bad plays and more good plays than has been the case in more than half of the games.
Right now, I do not see a repeatable formula. I also do not see a style of play of identity that defines what good hockey is for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016-17.
Carolina Hurricanes 2015-16 identity
Last winter, when the team started winning, a pretty clear identity did emerge. The Carolina Hurricanes were an incredibly strong puck possession team and difficult to play against because of it. The line of Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil which was minted in early December was incredibly good at winning the puck in their own end, successfully moving it through the neutral zone with possession (primarily on Jordan Staal’s stick) and then playing most of what was left in the offensive zone more often than not. Though they never really lived up to first line scoring totals, Eric Staal’s line was also incredibly good at keeping the puck in the offensive zone. The result was a team that had an advantage in terms of shots and scoring chances simply because they spent more time in places where shooting was at least possible. The result was also a team that was difficult to play against for other teams’ scoring lines because they were forced to spend time and energy trying to win the puck from a line that was pretty good at keeping it. The result was also winning hockey.
Personnel transition and Bill Peters’ challenge
If you look at the Hurricanes lineup at forward, the team added Stempniak, Aho, Teravainen and Stalberg to the mix and most notably lost EStaal and Versteeg in addition to a collection of depth players at the forward position. The team more or less lost 1 of the 2 lines that most drove the puck possession style of play and identity when Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg departed. Then the inability of Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil to pick up where it left off in 2015-16 dismantled the other. In terms of new players in the top 9, veteran Lee Stempniak might be capable of playing a cycling type of game, but it is not really the natural style of game for young skill players Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
The situation is an interesting challenge for Coach Bill Peters who regularly talks about playing a heavy game and raves about the importance of puck possession. Can he develop a puck possession identity that maybe relies less on the physical, grinding game of cycling the puck on the boards? Or does he need to mold a different style of play and identity to fit the personnel he has that is light on size and strength?
The various individual challenges including the goalie situation will obviously play into the Hurricanes’ success and failure each game, but to emerge from the current choppiness that offers some good almost immediately followed by bad, I think the team will need to build a repeatable formula and identity.