Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is a catch up of sorts with a few items that either have not made it into an article yet or are discussed in a little more depth today.
Keeping players active and engaged
A couple injuries helped the process, but I think Coach Bill Peters also deserves credit for keeping players active and engaged. After a long layoff, Peters used a back-to-back set and maybe to some degree a lesser game from Haydn Fleury to get Klas Dahlbeck into the lineup. Icing the best lineup possible trumps giving everyone a turn in the NHL, but there is still benefit to getting extras into the lineup on occasion. One never knows when an injury will force them into the lineup on a more regular basis, so giving them some game ice time helps get players at least some repetitions at NHL speed and with NHL pressure. Dahlbeck logged a healthy 15:28 and jumped right into the penalty kill playing 3:19 shorthanded on a busy night for the Hurricanes’ penalty kill. In the game Dahlbeck was mostly quiet (in a good way).
Phil Di Giuseppe is another player who has recently garnered NHL ice time and been productive in the process. After his recall from the AHL and a game as a healthy extra, Di Giuseppe has now seen action in three straight games. His ice time has been limited, but he has looked capable in terms of two-way play and has even made a decent number of offensive plays given that his total ice time is only 24 minutes.
In addition, all of the other forwards on the NHL roster have seen fairly regular action. The balance of keeping players active but not handicapping the lineup can be a tricky one. Thus far, Peters receives high marks for doing this well.
Watching Jaccob Slavin
I have touched on this in recent game recaps but will go into a tiny bit more detail here. Over the course of a long 82-game NHL season, players will inevitably have lulls often driven by hitting a temporary wall physically. Right now, I am watching Jaccob Slavin in that regard. He has had at least three plays in the past handful of games when players blue by him to the inside off the rush. One of Slavin’s strengths has always been defending one on one at or just inside the defensive blue line. His combination of speed, lateral mobility/agility and good reach with his stick generally make it really tough for even good NHL forwards to beat him with a path to the net. So his recent struggles are clearly outside the norm for Slavin and to me suggest that perhaps he is going through one of those stretches when he is just step slow due to physical limitations. Best guess is that the issue is temporary and is just due the reality that no player is perfect and maybe a need to recharge and re-find a higher gear physically.
Practice makes perfect for the penalty kill?
For most of the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill proficiency has been bouncing around between about 15th and 20th in the NHL. That is not horrible, but it is a significant step down from the top 5 units that the Hurricanes have had in the past couple years under Coach Steve Smith. Important to note is that Smith again had to rework the personnel with the loss of penalty kill regulars Ron Hainsey, Viktor Stalberg and Jay McClement either at the trade deadline or over the summer. So allowing some time for Smith and a new group to figure it out seems reasonable.
That might be happening as we speak, and I think a significant part of the equation might simply be work. The Hurricanes have been the least penalized team in the NHL all season. The result is a number of games during which the Hurricanes gave up only one or two power play chances. The result is that the team has had stretches where there was not much for game action to improve. Despite giving up a goal, I thought the Hurricanes’ penalty kill looked much better in Sunday’s win. In killing off six of seven, the aggressiveness and puck hounding that was a hallmark of the 2016-17 success seemed to return.
In addition, Smith has gradually shifted away from random forward and defense sets to what seems to be a preference for playing groups of four. Staal/Lindholm have increasingly been logging the most penalty kill minutes at forward and playing primarily with Slavin/Pesce such that this set of four has been taking nearly 50 percent of the team’s penalty kill minutes together in recent games.
Visually, another noticeable difference is the volume of shots that the Hurricanes have been blocking on the penalty kill. In Sunday’s win, the duo of Slavin and Pesce combined for seven blocked shots (Slavin 5, Pesce 2) just on the penalty kill.
So there are signs that Steve Smith might have the penalty kill rounding into form heading into the second quarter of the season.