Through 6 games, the Carolina Hurricanes have been a disaster in terms of allowing goals. Right now, the Hurricanes rank 27th out of 30 NHL teams in terms of goals allowed with a whopping 4.0 per game.
As is often the case when things go badly for a team, the obvious potential culprits are many.
The Hurricanes goalies currently rank dead last in the NHL with a hard-to-swallow .850ish save percentage. The tally of bad goals off the top of my head includes Ward having a puck shot off him from behind the end line and an odd angle goal from a ways out both to start games on a bad note. On Saturday in Philadelphia, Eddie Lack wandered out of net to again allow a mistake goal and was also beat by an odd bouncing shot to bury any remaining hope late in the loss to the Flyers.
Shorter version: The goaltending has been poor and is definitely part of the problem.
Too many horrendous mistakes
In defense of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, the play in front of them has been anywhere from questionable to downright shoddy at times. Most challenging is that when things start to go the wrong direction, the team has had a knack for completely collapsing and getting worse instead of hunkering down and righting the ship. I detailed the collection of errors through 2 games HERE. Since then we have seen the couple goalie ‘oopses’ noted above a bad turnover by Justin Faulk and a tough night for Ron Hainsey defending in his own zone.
Shorter version: To pin the entirety of the Hurricanes defensive struggles on the goalies is inaccurate. The volume of ‘left alone in front of the net,’ ‘coming in uncontested with a head of a steam after a turnover’ and other grade A+ chances is incredibly high so far. The skaters deserve a chunk of the blame too.
Is it simply too many mistakes?
A superficial first glance at either the visuals or the stats tells the same story. Neither the Hurricanes netminders of the defense in front of them looks anything like the solid versions of both from December through February of 2016 before March gave way to an injury and trade-reduced and AHL try out/shuttle bus lineup.
One might chalk up the problems to simple errors, but I actually think the real culprit lies a level deeper with understanding what made the Hurricanes successful for the middle part of the 2015-16 season.
The success from December through February last season started when Coach Bill Peters found the magic combination of Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom. Jordan Staal morphed into a 1-man break out, neutral zone rush and clean offensive zone entry machine. The result was a puck possession game at an elite level. The line regularly won pucks in its own end, navigated the path to the offensive zone and then finished the shift there. Jordan Staal’s scoring did pick up partly due to increased power play ice time, but the line was never really a high-end scoring machine. But it controlled the puck.
The same was actually true for the first line duo of Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and a rotating right of primarily either Elias Lindholm or Phil Di Giuseppe. That line was a disappointment in the sense that it never mustered anything close to first line scoring totals, but just like Jordan Staal’s line, they were incredibly effective at controlling the puck, driving it into the offensive zone and finishing shifts either with offensive zone face-offs possession or very often opponents at the end of a long shift simply gaining the center line and dumping it for a line change. The possession numbers as measured by shot statistics including Corsi were actually as good or better for Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg as they were for Jordan Staal and his line mates.
Another important thing to note is that shifts in hockey are not independent events. Instead, they are very much connected and pick up where the previous line’s shift left off. If Jordan Staal’s line cycles the puck for 30 seconds before finally losing it or missing on a shot attempt, because it is the end of the shift for the opponents, even when they do win the puck they often just dump it deep to change bodies. The result is that a strong puck possession shift for 1 line has a high probability of starting with puck possession for the next line. When you couple the puck control of the 2 Staal lines and the face-off strength across the Hurricanes lineup, the formula for success during the good stretch of the 2015-16 season was puck possession above all else.
On the surface, this might sound like a description of how the Hurricanes played offense, but the ramifications are at least equally meaningful to the team’s defense. The result was that both the volume and the level of difficulty of defense that the Hurricanes had to play during that run were low. There is not much defending to do when watching Jordan Staal and his line mates cycle the puck in their own end.
I do not mean to completely discredit the capable defense played by the Hurricanes young defensemen last season because I too saw them grow up quickly at the NHL level. But is it possible that there was also a significant element of the entire Canes defense hiding behind the shield of not actually having to play that much defense especially under duress? And because the volume of defense was low, is it also possible that the volume of high-quality chances that the goalies faced was low relative to normal?
The transition to 2016-17
I think those conditions are a significant contributor to why the Hurricanes look absolutely horrible both in goal and on defense so far in 2016-17. Through 6 games, I think you could argue that both of the 2 lines that drove the foundation of the Hurricanes 2015-16 are gone. Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg actually are gone. And while Jordan Staal is obviously still with the Hurricanes, he was unable to rekindle the magic with Nordstrom and Nestrasil and is still finding his way in terms of building a new top line for the Hurricanes.
The result is that the Hurricanes puck possession game is not nearly at the level it was at from December of 2015 to February of 2016. The secondary result is that the Hurricanes are being forced to play significantly more defense than they did during the good stretch of last season, and at least so far they are not very good at it. In addition, the goalies who seemed capable under a medium or maybe even below average challenge in net just have not been up to the task of a greater challenge with an ‘iffy’ defense in front of them.
Is there a way out of this predicament?
So the burning question is whether there is a path out of this or if the 2016-17 season is just doomed to be a full 82 games of what we have seen so far (grab the Tums). At the most basic level, the Hurricanes need to identify and consistently replicate a style of play and identity that is capable of winning hockey games. Part of that must be doing better at keeping the puck out of their own net, but it is unclear if that comes from rebuilding a puck possession type of style, if instead maybe they can attack off of the forecheck or if maybe they just improve at defending in their own end.
Perhaps the most scary potential upshot of the current situation is that general manager Ron Francis completely overestimated the potential level of play of his 2 current netminders based on a relatively easy stretch of hockey that the 2016-17 team has no chance of replicating. That sounds like the makings of a really long season with a boat load of angst and animosity as the ‘stand pat’ decision on the goalie position is put in a negative light on a frequent basis.
The other thing that scares me is the fact that when the faced with a similar situation in 2015-16, Coach Bill Peters did eventually make sense of it all and get it working but not until early December when the season was more or less over already. The NHL season offers a 6-8-game preseason but then significantly punishes team that cannot figure it out at least up to a ‘treading water’ level of play in that time frame. Right now, the Hurricanes are drowning in trying to solidify even the basics of defensive zone coverage, puck movement out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone and just making simple plays.
Finally, the more I watch the Hurricanes play poor 2016-17 hockey, the more I am believe that the team’s current issues are not just a matter a players playing better and cutting down on mistakes. Instead, I think there is the challenge of building an identity and repeatable style of play.
Does home ice help?
After 6 games on the road, Bill Peters will finally get to try his hand at dictating match ups and driving who plays against whom. It will be interesting to see if that helps stabilize things at least somewhat while he tries to put all the pieces together. We get our first look at the home ice version of the 2016-17 on Friday against the Rangers.