As a fan, one’s viewpoint on things can be clouded by many things. Optimism for the future and accomplishments in the past probably rank near the top of the list for painting a picture that is rosier than reality.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers up a few unappealing Canes truths that likely do not match with how many view a Canes reality.
He really has not been close to elite for half of a season. Somewhere around two-thirds through the 2018-19 season, Aho peaked at being very close to the elite level both in terms of measurable statistics but also just being able to be a noticeable difference-maker game in and game out. But with whispers that maybe he was not healthy down the stretch, he really was not great as the Canes pushed up into the playoffs in the final month. He finished the season with 0 goals and 6 assists in the final 14 regular season game. And while he did contribute in the playoffs, I think it is fair to say that he was outdone by a fairly wide margin by Ovechkin’s line in the Caps series and Bergeron’s line in the Bruins series. And though he has had some bursts of late, his start to the 2019-20 campaign has seen as many downs as ups thus far. If one excludes empty-netters, he ran his regular season goal-less streak to 23 games before scoring on a goalie in 2019-20.
I think that Aho will rise again. He is too talented not to. But at the same time, I do think he may have hit the first wall that many young stars hit where opponents adjust forcing a young player to also continue to add dimensions to his game. I noted after a failed breakaway attempt that Aho needed to come up with a second move with goalies anticipating his go-to move pulling quickly to his backhand and at the same time sliding the puck five-hole as the goalie starts to shift across. Sure enough, he chose to shoot on his next breakaway attempt and scored. Defenders also recognize that he really does not really utilize a power type move to the middle of the ice off the rush. As such, they are increasingly cheating and forcing him wider and wider upon entering the offensive zone.
He is a heady player with a good combination of smarts, skill and quickness. It’s his move to grow a bit as a player and find his next step up.
He is an elite offensive defenseman who deserves to be considered as the absolute best in the league in that regard. As much as any player in the league, he understands how to smartly be a fourth forward to put himself in position for grade A scoring chances. Combined with a deadly shot and he seems destined to remain at or near the top of blue line goal scorers for the entirety of the 2019-20 season.
But the other side of the coin is his defensive play. He came to the Hurricanes with a reputation for having lapses defensively, and that has proven to be true through about 100 games in a Hurricanes uniform. He started okay in 2018-19 but then struggled mightily for an extended stretch to the point where he was demoted to the third pairing to sort of rebuild his game. He did exactly that and was much better both offensively and defensively in the latter part of the 2018-19 season. But then when the lights were brightest in the playoffs, Hamilton was ‘meh’ at best and too often worse. Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and all anyone wants to talk about with Hamilton is his scoring. But over the past few weeks, he has been a wreck defensively, right in the middle of a number of chances and goals against that were largely the result of lack of coverage and/or focus.
Hamilton is so good offensively that it offsets his intermittent defensive struggles. But at the same time, the contrast is interesting for slotting him and also figuring out what makes sense budget-wise for his next contract. His scoring totals likely get him paid as an elite defenseman, but his overall play is not exactly that.
Wallmark deserves significant credit for what he did in 2018-19. First, Wallmark stepped into a third line center slot as a rookie when Victor Rask was injured. He performed well in that role despite his lack of experience. What stood out about Wallmark’s play was how developed he was as a two-way player. He very much reminded me of the 19-year old Josef Vasicek who years ago won a third line center slot and was able to hold it by virtue of his sound two-way play. Then Wallmark did one better moving up the depth chart and more or less filling Jordan Staal’s role when Staal was out for an extended period of time with an injury. The end result of the 2018-19 season was that Wallmark had established himself as a steady and sound checking line center. But given third line type ice time and a regular helping of power play ice time, Wallmark’s 28 points in 2018-19 were modest. As a player who scored at a decent clip at lower levels, some entered 2019-20 optimistic that he would find a higher gear offensively. Through 18 games that has not happened. He is currently on pace for about 22 points and just has not really been noticeable offensively. Because he is so steady defensively, he is a capable and useful player to have toward the bottom of the lineup. But at the same time, there is room for a player like Eetu Luostarinen or someone else to push him out of the lineup by being similarly competent but also bringing more offensively.
While I do think it is possible that Wallmark’s offensive uptick is still coming, I lean toward thinking he mostly is what he has shown so far. He lacks any kind of skating burst that can buy him the time, space and passing lanes to be a playmaker at the NHL level. And though he does have a decent shot, I just do not see him as taking a huge step up in terms of goal scoring either.
The blue line
Other than maybe goaltending late in the season, I think the Carolina Hurricanes’ blue line was the team’s greatest strength over the full 2018-19 season. The group was steady and deep and scored at a higher clip. Calvin de Haan seemed to be just what was needed to help find a significantly higher level defensively than in the previous couple years. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce just kept doing their thing. And once Hamilton got going, he brought the offense. Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and even minus Justin Faulk, the group figured to again top the list of strengths. Jake Gardiner brought more offensive and rated well in terms of advanced stats. Joel Edmundson brought a physical element, penalty killing and again depth. Combined with Slavin, Pesce and Hamilton, the group looked to be just as deep, still with offense and incredibly good on paper. And through the first few weeks, the group exceeded even high expectations. The blue line was the catalyst for the entire offense and seemed to be holding their own defensively too. But now deeper into the 2019-20 season, the group is still very much a work in process. Porous play defending the rush and at times in their own end have been a regular problem. Despite how much the marketing arm of the team tries to make it seem okay, Jake Gardiner is struggling to adjust to his new team. Dougie Hamilton has hit another rough patch in terms of defensive play. And the result is that there just seem to be holes throughout the entire defense right now.
Despite the recent woes, I think the current personnel has the potential to be as good as the 2018-19 group. There is enough experience and talent there for that to happen. But at the same time, I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that such a ceiling is reached. Chemistry and rhythm are an interesting thing in the NHL. As such, I think the defense is worth watching right now, as it has ripple affects especially in terms of dictating how easy or hard the goalies have it.
Netting it out
As noted at the end of each, I think each of these has the potential to ultimately be resolved favorably. I feel strongest about Sebastian Aho’s ability to grow a bit as a player and resume his upward climb. For Hamilton, I think he is what he is which is a positive but one that has some complications that come with it. I like Wallmark as a depth player, but from what I have seen I just do not think he has the offensive upside to be more than he already is. As such, I think the Holy Grail for a great team is to push players like him out of the lineup for players with more upside. Finally, the blue line is the most intriguing one to me, as I think the fate of the 2019-20 season could rest with how much this group gels heading into the winter and playoff stretch run.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you disagree with any of my Canes assessments/truths?
2) Which of these do you see resolving favorably and soonest?
3) Do you have any other tough truths that do not line up with the party line right now?