Where has the time gone? It has now been almost exactly three months from when the 2019-20 NHL season was abruptly halted by COVID-19. That sudden shutdown had all kinds of impacts on players’ 2019-20 seasons and in some cases possibly even career trajectories.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the Carolina Hurricanes players most impacted by the shutdown.
Potential impacts to career trajectories
In general, great players who are are capable of being difference makers in the NHL find their way to where the belong. Injuries, crowded depth charts, coaches who do not give enough leeway to young players and other obstacles are always there even in a normal NHL environment. I do think that how these thinks shake out can play a significant role for players whose abilities puts them at the fringe of the NHL and AHL. But for players who have enough ability to be a difference-maker at the NHL level, I mostly think they will find their way. But that said, the current situation is truly unprecedented and the potential does exist to alter the trajectory for a few players who sit at the cusp of the NHL.
It is difficult to believe that Morgan Geekie played only two games at the NHL level, but what a two games it was. He posted two goals and an assist and factored in on another goal in a fun 6-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins for his NHL debut. Then two days later he followed it up with another goal in another resounding win over the Detroit Red Wings. If one wanted to define what “shot out of a cannon” meant from an NHL career perspective, he/she needs to look no further than Geekie’s start. At a bare minimum he earned a longer look and more ice time to show he belongs at the NHL level. More optimistically, he made a strong even if short case for being the type of player who seizes the opportunity, never looks back and launches into a productive career as an NHLer. But after what figures to be a four-month layoff, Geekie will have to restart from a stop again without the momentum built in mid-March.
After mostly mastering the AHL level over the past two years, Alex Nedeljkovic is due for a chance at the NHL. But with the Hurricanes in the playoff mix, with minimal margin for error and both goalies playing reasonably well, there had not been an opening to get him NHL ice time during the 2019-20 season – until mid-March. A rapid fire series of injuries to both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer suddenly left the Hurricanes without an NHL goalie. That finally made an opening for Nedeljkovic to play at the NHL level. He did not hit the ground running like Geekie, but through four games including three starts, he had made step-wise progress. His last start was his first win in the four games, but he also played well in relief in picking up an overtime loss in his second outing which was in relief of Anton Forsberg. James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were both on a path back into the lineup, so Nedeljkovic’s NHL ice time was going to come to an end anyway. But might a few more starts have shown him getting his feet under him and starting to chart a path upward? Unless there are injuries, Canes fans will likely have to wait for the 2020-21 to assess that.
Another category for seasons impacted negatively is players who were chasing career highs or peak type seasons. Dougie Hamilton had already had a magical season cut short by injury. COVID-19 similarly took away the opportunity for a franchise benchmark type season.
Through 68 games, Sebastian Aho had 38 goals and 68 points. He was nearly certain reach the rarefied air of 40 goals. In the 23 years of NHL hockey in North Carolina, only Eric Staal (45 goals in 2005-06) and Jeff O’Neill (41 goals in 2000-01) have reached that level. With 14 games remaining, Aho only needed to score at the same clip he had for the prior 68 games to better Staal’s mark and set a new single season high in a Hurricanes uniform.
One effect of the long layoff is that many teams will benefit from reinforcements coming back from injury. The Columbus Blue Jackets who truly had more than their share of bad luck injury-wise all season were a MASH unit when the season was halted. Getting a player or two back is not so much an advantage. Most teams will see a benefit in that regard. But I do think that the Hurricanes net gain is greater than the average due to the volume of injuries on the defensive side of the puck. Both goalies were out and should be ready if/when the NHL returns. And on defense, Dougie Hamilton was getting close anyway but will certainly be ready when the game returns. Sami Vatanen also figures to be ready which gives the Hurricanes an incredibly deep blue line. The real wild card is Brett Pesce whose season ended early with a shoulder injury. His mid-August time line was promising for starting the 2020-21 season on time, but with the playoff restart now looking like late July or early August, there is even a chance that he could return.
The team itself?
By virtue of a decent February and 3-1 start to March, the Hurricanes sat in a playoff spot (under normal circumstances with 16 teams) when the season ended. So in that regard, many put the Hurricanes in the unlucky group with the new format since the team must pay in the play in type round. I am an outlier in counting the new reality as more positive than negative. The Canes margin for error was small such that slipping just a little and missing the playoffs altogether was not out of the question. And based just on hunch in what will be an unprecedented situation, I think the teams that play in the first round could have an advantage in the second round. Normally this time of year, anyone would gladly take a few days off to heal bumps and bruises, but with four months off, I think there is a significant risk that rust plays a factor especially in the first two rounds.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the abrupt halt to the 2019-20 season could impact the longer-term career trajectory of Morgan Geekie or Alex Nedeljkovic?
2) Do you think Sebastian Aho would have challenged Eric Staal’s 45 goals in 2005-06?
3) Balancing pros and cons of the situation, do you think the Hurricanes were winners or losers with the new reality if the season resumes?