Sixteen games marks almost exactly 20 percent of the NHL season. Mid to late November is also enough time for teams to make adjustments, fine tune some things and find a higher level of play. Teams that do not are often left behind as the majority of teams get better. The Hurricanes 3-0-2 record in the past five games suggests that the team is in fact starting to put things together. In that regard, today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a few things that I am watching closely in terms of things that seem to already be coming together and others that ideally need to.
The reconfigured blue line
Through about half of the 16-game stretch to start the season, I would not have considered the blue line to be a strength. In fact, I would have said that despite having some ups to go with the downs, it was a weakness on the whole. After a strong preseason, Noah Hanifin stumbled a bit out of the gate. Justin Faulk got off to a slow start defensively too, and the two together had more than its fair share of struggles. Haydn Fleury started okay for a rookie but did have transition pains at times, and the third pairing in total was upset early when Trevor van Riemsdyk was injured.
But starting somewhere around the midway point of the 16 games, the blue line seemed to start on an upward trajectory that has continued step-wise since. Van Riemsdyk was back in the lineup and provided experience and stability for the third pairing. Hanifin seemed to right the ship and is seeing his game emerge offensively. Fleury continues to get better game by game. And Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have mostly continued to do their thing.
But I actually think the most interesting and potentially biggest development is Fleury regularly taking shifts on the second pairing. I actually thought he looked to be in way over his head in his first try when he stepped up into the top 4 for the third period against Anaheim awhile back. But he has continued to log ice time in the top 4 next to Faulk and seems to be growing into the role. I think the move is interesting in two regards. First is that I think stylistically he might be a better fit for Faulk. Faulk has a natural bias toward joining the rush (and he generated a bunch of offense doing so in 2016-17) and can sometimes make things hard on his partner. As much as Hanifin’s game has made development in all areas, I would still put ‘sorting things out in terms of positioning and responsibility under duress off the rush’ in the category of weaknesses for Hanifin. Further, as Hanifin has gained confidence and comfort playing with the puck on his stick more, it has benefited his all-around game. With Faulk, there were times when Faulk and Hanifin seemed like dueling puck carriers with both wanting to play with the puck on his stick and neither particularly good at playing behind that in cases where the puck was transitioned the other way quickly. By no means is Fleury an old school, stay-home defenseman without the ability to move the puck, but he just looks more comfortable defensively especially defending in the neutral zone when he can step up and off the rush.
And while some might see Hanifin slipping to the third pairing as a disappointment, I do not so much see it that way. Van Riemsdyk has impressed me as a chameleon of sorts. He comes with a reputation for being a puck-moving defenseman too, and his ability to do some of the heavy lifting in terms of moving the puck was a noticeable difference when he returned from his injury layoff. But he has also looked comfortable supporting the puck when his partner has the opening and pushes forward. Especially playing with Hanifin, he van Riemsdyk looks comfortable adjusting to the situation, and I think this has played a role in the ongoing growth of Hanifin’s game offensively.
Along the way, the Hurricanes have become deep defensively. The late blow out might have better allowed Peters to just roll three pairings in the second half of the third period, but the game still represented the most balanced of the season in terms of blue line ice time. This is significant for using each player to his strengths but also for keeping Slavin and Pesce’s minutes reasonable such that they are fresh come March.
The players in front of him are obviously critical to the equation too, but I really think Haydn Fleury could be the key to converting the future optimism for the blue line to a current reality. By no means is he flawless, but only 16 games into his NHL career, he looks capable of becoming a top 4 defenseman. The burning question is if he can do it on a ‘just parachute in and do it’ schedule like Slavin and Pesce and in the process be a key component for solidifying the second pairing. He maybe is not quite the skater that Slavin or Hanifin are, but he could be the best young skating defenseman on many teams. And in addition to the physical skill set being top 4-capable without him needing to play above his physical skill set, I think equally significant is that he seems to have adapted to NHL pace quickly. He does not look overwhelmed against an aggressive forecheck. He can handle one-on-one situations. And he gets decent marks for being able to sort things out correctly and get the positioning and decision-making right more often than not.
So right now, at the same time, I am watching to see if Hanifin’s offensive game can continue his upward trajectory and possibly even build confidence and crispness that continues to carry over into his defensive game. As his inner Pitkanen continues to show, could he become an offensive catalyst? I am also watching Fleury/Faulk to see if just maybe Fleury can find chemistry with Faulk and be half of the equation that makes for a much better second pairing versus the weakness that it for much of the 2016-17 season.
Elias Lindholm and the ignition switch
After muddling along for three years and being a serviceable top 9 forward but rarely ever much more, Elias Lindholm found a spark last December. For those checking in on the Hurricanes only once in awhile and also relying on offensive production to gauge level of play, December looked no different for Lindholm. But for those of us who track the team on a daily basis, the sudden step up that Lindholm took was unmistakable. Though it did not show up on the score sheet initially, he very clearly found the 5X button for compete level and intensity. For the first time, the comparisons to Peter Forsberg did not seem off base. He was physical. He was intense. And he was engaged. In a few short months, he probably surpassed his preceding two and a half year total for agitating opponents, ending up in minor scuffles after the whistle, being whacked at after the whistle by goalies or defensemen for being in or too close to the crease and just generally being noticeable on a regular basis. Points did eventually come in March, but more significant was that the Peter Forsberg/difficult to play against version of Elias Lindholm had finally arrived.
He gets credit for playing about 40 games in new form in 2016-17 which is enough to say that it was not just a short burst but maybe still not so much to declare the transformation permanent and complete. Fast forward to preseason, and Lindholm did not look horrible, but he was again much quieter for long stretches and not the fiery pit bull from December through March of the previous season. I noted the situation as we transitioned from preseason to the regular season and optimistically hoped that Lindholm was just dialed down a bit for preseason and knew exactly how to flip the ignition switch when real hockey started. Now 16 games, into the 2017-18 season, I think Lindholm is still trying to find the switch. His scoring totals are not great but not abysmal either. He is on pace for 41 points which is a little bit light but not tremendously so. But more significantly, I have seen enough to say that Lindholm has too much reverted to the quiet serviceable but not difference-making and noticeable version of his game.
In a day and age when the nastiness and physical play are a much smaller component of NHL play, but I really think the measure for the return of Lindholm does not come on the score sheet but again my weird set of ‘playing with physical edge’ type of metrics.
Though I would not say that either of the past few games made me say ‘There it is!’, I did note a couple of individual data points. In Tuesday’s game, he was leveled in the corner by a big hit. He had a bee in his bonnet when he got up and also for his next shift running around a bit and trying to exact a toll of revenge on someone. But in watching him the rest of the game, I did not think the increased level of engagement so much carried through the rest of the game. Then on Saturday, he was the player who was parked directly in front of goalie Ben Bishop as the screen on Teuvo Teravainen’s power play goal. Again, I would not say that I noticed the higher level of engagement throughout the game, but that one play is clearly from the playbook of being engaged in places where physical battles happen.
Trying to get inside the psyche of Elias Lindholm and guess exactly how he found the higher gear last year is impossible as is suggesting specific events for now that could do the same. But I continue to feel like the transition is more like an ignition switch and/or an explosion than something he builds up to. I have no idea if it takes an out of the blue fight or game jawing with an opponent after the whistle all night, if Brind’Amour or Peters lighting a fire in private could do it or what the other options are. But last season it seemed to happen suddenly and when it did, it boosted the entire team.
So as subjective and impossible as it is to measure, I do not think Lindholm has found his 2016-17 game yet, and I am watching anxiously to see if something can trigger it.
There is no shortage of angst, frustration, disappointment and everything else negative for the Hurricanes 30th-ranked power play. Because of the power play is under the microscope right now, I think people have overlooked the penalty kill. With a middle-ish rank of #18 it is admittedly not as dire of a situation as the power play, but it is down fairly significantly compared to each of the last two years. And despite average-ish efficiency, the penalty kill looks nothing like the dominant units that were incredibly good at defending the blue line and playing very little defense inside the defensive zone and then gave nothing for time and space in the event that an opponent gained the blue line with possession.
I think two things are in play right now. First is that for the third consecutive season, penalty kill coach Steve Smith had significant changeover in terms of personnel losing Viktor Stalberg, Jay McClement and Ron Hainsey who were all regulars. Second is that the Hurricanes are taking so few penalties, that the penalty kill is not seeing enough real game ice time to round into form. Based on what he has accomplished during the past couple seasons, I trust Steve Smith to figure it out, but at the same time it is something I am tracking. Losing on both special teams units is a recipe for being on the wrong side of too many close games as the season pushes into its second quarter and teams improve and eliminate any big deficiencies such that the volume of one-goal games increases.
On the power play, I am on record as liking the initiative to change up some personnel and most significantly to finally give one of the team’s top few players (Slavin) a chance to help what has arguably become the team’s biggest problem. As I detailed in my game recap for Monday’s win, Slavin had one spectacular shift in which he got three pucks to the front of the net and also put two passes on shooters sticks. I continue to be optimistic that Slavin might provide a boost, but more significant is changing the mentality.
I really think that the biggest thing that the Brind’Amour could do to boost the power play is to make an minor adjustment to make it a specific player’s job (and his only job) to screen the goalie. I completely recognize that this does not work in pure form because players will need to be able to read and react to what happens and retrieve a puck here and there or be available for a pass. But as much as everyone talks about net front presence endlessly and as obvious as it is that more is needed, it just does not happen from harping about it. The problem is that the Hurricanes generally lack players whose natural tendency is to go park in front of the goalie and just stay there. Instead, the Hurricanes seem to be full of players whose natural tendency is to maybe go there based on coaching instruction but then have a natural instinct to pop back out to be open for a pass. Further, I think even of the players who do go to the front of the net, too many have the instinct when a shot is coming to try to quickly move to the side for a pretty tip play. At least short-term, I think having one player or possibly a pair who switch based on whose side the puck is on, whose ONLY job is to screen the goalie could help. Sure there is a downside in the flexibility and movement lost, but right now that flexibility and movement is actually killing the Hurricanes. I am not the Xs and Os person to draw it up, but in basic form, create a 4-man power play unit aimed at playing 4-on-3 with a player mostly out of the mix and parked in front of the goalie for the entirety of the offensive zone time. I guess it probably looks like a more traditional power play with two point men up top and a forward on each side, but that is for the coaches.
Backseat coaching aside, the Hurricanes desperately need to get more bodies and pucks to the crease at the same time and greatly increase the volume of ugly scoring chances that they get with the man advantage.
I will save this one for another day, but I think another thing worth considering on the power play is how few goals Faulk has scored with the man advantage since the team went to the umbrella type set up. In 2015-16 which I believe was completely pre-umbrella with one point man mostly manning the middle of the rink, Faulk had 12 power play goals in only 64 games. After the transition to the umbrella set up, Faulk dropped to only four power play goals in 2016-17. He has yet to score on the power play in 2017-18. I wish I had a bunch of time to go pull Faulk’s shot location data for power play shots from 2015-16 and since and also to watch a ton of power play video to compare. Instead, I will simply say that Faulk’s scoring is way down despite him seemingly still having the same ‘shoot whenever possible’ mentality. If I was part of the coaching staff and looking to find a spark, I would be investing some amount of video coaching and possibly statistical analysis trying see if I can gain some insight into what has negatively impacted Faulk’s power play scoring.
Details and backseat coaching aside, the Hurricanes’ special teams play continues to be something to keep an eye on. Having a regular deficit in these areas can sap points from otherwise productive hockey as the season wears on.
What are you watching closely right now as the Hurricanes look to continue their recent 3-0-2 pace and also find ways to continue improving?