Usually, the Daily Cup of Joe articles in which I pull out unused notes and spill them into an article are entitled “random notes.” Not sure this one is that altogether different, but I am going with “deep thoughts” because of the crossroads that the team is at for the 2017-18 season and the greater magnitude of the random-ish notes.
The starting point is acknowledging that barring a February home win streak, which is entirely possible, that the current iteration of the team, though theoretically improving, just is not good enough. It then follows that something fairly significant must change to take a necessary step forward. Important to note is that I do think the opinion that the team is on the right track and just requires a bit more patience is a viable opinion, but increasingly I lean in the direction that something must be done to adjust course.
With that, here are four thoughts that will likely be continued with a part two in the near future…
1) The season is not yet over
As much as it feels like it after the team limped into the bye week with two losses and more recently compounded things with another run of two losses, I actually do not think the season is over just yet.
The way I termed it on Tuesday night on Twitter was to say that the “Canes are NOT out of it yet, just moving in that direction with a good pace right now.”
I continue to believe that the Hurricanes 2017-18 season will ultimately be decided by the upcoming run of 11 out of 12 games at home that starts after the All-Star break on January 30 against Ottawa.
Quite often a key component for teams that rise up from out of the playoffs to suddenly make the playoffs is a single big winning streak. Over the course of a long 82-game season that includes one-point losses, even for good teams most of the season is a grind with a step forward then a step back and then two steps forward, etc. Teams that rise above the cut line fray and into the playoffs are often the ones that can find that one big winning streak. Winning streaks in the NHL are more often about some weird combination of strong play, mojo/momentum and even a bit of luck and less about opponents or schedule. But if a schedule boost can be part of the recipe, the Hurricanes have exactly that coming up.
Though it is possible for the Hurricanes to muddle through the upcoming home stretch with a 6-6 or 7-5 record, emerge still on the outside but in range of the playoffs and then put it together later. But I really believe that if magic or something close enough is going to happen for the Hurricanes in 2017-18 that it must be in the first half of February.
2) Coach Bill Peters
Most seem to be in wait and see mode with Peters, but during down swings like the current one, there is an increasing rumble of people who think that changing coaches should be part of the path forward.
I was on record last March as saying that Peters’ (and Francis’ too) grace period was officially over and that he was on the clock. As such, I think reevaluating Peters along with the players and everything else is appropriate at the end of the season, I am pretty strongly against a coaching change during the season with the only exception being the point at which the season is officially over in terms of playoff hopes.
When he started, Peters inherited a team that had little chance of being competitive in his first two years and was probably still a year early in the 2016-17 season. I do not see how it could make sense to invest three years in Peters during rebuilding and then cut ties being seeing fully through what is arguably his first real opportunity to prove that he can be successful in his role.
I recognize that the odds of making the playoffs have decreased. I pegged them at 35-40 percent before the 1-2 start after the bye week. And I am not overly optimistic given the current situation. But I still strongly believe that Peters deserves his chance to either make or not make the playoffs in 2017-18 and that it both makes no sense and is not fair to take that opportunity away from him.
3) Max Pacioretty
As noted in #1 above, I lean toward thinking that something needs to change and after some time to think further about whether my original article targeting him was whimsical, I still really like Max Pacioretty on multiple levels.
First and foremost, he is simply a good all-around hockey player and a goal scorer. The Hurricanes can use more of both of those. He is having a slow season by his standards, but his 15 goals would second only to Sebastian Aho on the Hurricanes and his run of four 30-goal seasons prior (not counting the shortened lockout season) is both consistent and impressive.
As a captain in an unforgiving hockey market and leader of multiple playoff teams, he also brings another dose of veteran leadership to the Hurricanes’ locker room.
Finally, I think he could actually be part of the equation to build the true first scoring line that the team still lacks. I clamored throughout the front part of the offseason for the need to add a center who was a playmaker and potential catalyst. That did not occur at least in part because of the asking price to obtain such a player. Meanwhile, the team is on record as thinking that Aho will one day move to center and seemingly be exactly that player. Aho has demonstrated chemistry with countryman Teuvo Teravainen who for now has settled into the right wing slot. As a veteran with a bit more size, solid two-way play and top-end finishing ability, could Pacioretty be the perfect player to help Aho make this transition successfully? I think so.
In the same vein, if Martin Necas continues his rapid rise and fills the team’s need for a higher-end offensive centerman sooner rather than later, then again, Pacioretty could be a perfect, capable veteran complement on the wing.
Some might object to the fact that Pacioretty is only signed through the 2018-19 season and could leave after that. Though I might prefer one or two more years, the term could actually be an okay balance for the team’s long-term planning. If he helps the team push over the hump and into the playoffs, anything but the most exorbitant cost could be deemed worthwhile even if short-term. Further, if he clicks with two talented young line mates and excels, re-signing would likely be possible. Finally, if he does not work out particularly well, then perhaps seeing him depart via free agency before the next round of internal salary increases before the 2019-20 season might not be a bad thing at all.
4) Waiting for the blue line to truly emerge
The Hurricanes faithful are now approaching three years of believing that the next leg up for the team would at least in part be fueled by a top of the league blue line. That projection took a big step forward ahead of schedule when Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce both rose up into the top 4 in their rookie seasons in 2015-16.
While I do believe that the potential is there, I think lost on many is just how big the gap between potential and reality still is.
At the most basic level, the Hurricanes are struggling to find a defensively sound defensive pairing just like they did in 2016-17 when Hainsey/Faulk manned the slots. As measured by level of play especially on the defensive side of the puck, my assessment says that the Hurricanes so far have a capable but not truly elite top pairing and a collection of players who fit nicely in a third pairing.
Starting with what could ideally be the components of a second pairing, I think it goes like this…
Justin Faulk continues to be serviceable on good nights and worse on too many others in terms of being able to play and survive heavy minutes against other teams’ top scoring lines. On a good team and ignoring salary, pedigree and anything else, I think Faulk is a capable #5 defenseman who theoretically adds offensive upside (even that has dissipated somewhat this season).
Noah Hanifin, at this stage of his development, fills almost exactly the same role except on the left side of the ice. His game has grown by leaps and bounds offensively in 2017-18 which is encouraging. He is a capable and improving power play defenseman and arguably even better offensively at even strength using his speed to push up into the play on the rush and his improved finishing ability to be a goal scoring threat. But the other side of coin is that he found his way back into the third pairing not because the team is so deep defensively but rather because he still is prone to too many lapses defensively such that it is dangerous to give him regular shifts such that he plays most of his minutes against the other teams’ best.
Trevor van Riemsdyk is a bit of an unknown in terms of being evaluated above the third pairing role that he has primarily filled during the 2017-18 season. As a player who was acquired to solidify the third pairing and has a salary that fits this role, he has been nothing short of outstanding and potentially Francis’ best offseason acquisition. Whether he could step up and be a regular top four is unclear. Van Riemsdyk has at times started to log shifts that look more like a regular second pairing rotation than picking spots with a third pairing. But playing next to young players Hanifin and Fleury, I am not sure there is a second pairing to be had there. At a minimum, van Riemsdyk is another player who fits very nicely into a #5 or #6 slot.
Haydn Fleury has performed slightly on the high end of what I would have hoped for in his rookie season in the NHL. He has not gone full Pesce or Slavin, but he has shown he has the physical tools to be an NHL defenseman and possibly even a top 4. But at the same time, he has been exposed a bit when matched against top scoring lines. Just like the other three, Fleury is a player that I think could slot into the third pairing even on a good team, but at this point in time, I do not see him as an every-game top 4 defenseman.
So when one adds it up, the team is deep defensively and still has great upside for the future, but at the same time, I think the team still has a gap in terms of icing a good, defensively sound second defense pairing.
In the name of thoroughness, Slavin/Pesce has been serviceable but not truly elite in 2017-18 which has also hurt. I wrote an article awhile back showing that the duo was very much in the middle (be it fault or not) of the team’s penalty kill struggles, and I also think that Jaccob Slavin has taken a modest step backward this season. Finally, even adjusting for lack of power play ice time, the duo is a little bit light in terms of generating offense. Scoring is not an absolute requirement for a defenseman, but in today’s NHL most of the true top-tier defensemen also produce offensively. Part of their scoring is a function of receiving very little power play ice time, but there is still another level to be reached even for the team’s top pairing.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Do you agree that Bill Peters at a minimum deserves his full chance for the 2017-18 season?
2) Am I too harsh on the young blue line, or do you agree that it is still a notch away from truly transitioning from being a projected strength to an actual strength?
3) Does anyone else like Max Pacioretty? Or if not, is there another big name out there who you think could be worth the trade cost?