After posting four goals and winning in a shootout in the season opener, the Hurricanes have lost consecutive games by 2-1 margins. The first game at least netted a point with the loss coming in overtime, but the second loss dropped the team to 1-1-1.
Through three games, the Hurricanes have exactly two even strength goals from their top 9 forwards. The Hurricanes do have an additional two goals on the power play (Skinner, Ryan), a fourth line goal (Nordstrom) and a tally from a defenseman (Hanifin). But mostly there are a bunch of zeroes in the goals column of the statistics. Aho/Staal/Lindholm combined has zero goals combined Teravainen, Williams, Kuokkanen and Ryan who represent two-thirds of the other two lines also check in with zero goals.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the short-lived scoring woes on a couple levels.
Is it possible that there actually is not even a problem?
In a word, yes. Three games is a tiny sample size, and the scoring slump is only two games of that. If the Hurricanes bust out for four goals and a big win on Tuesday in Edmonton, at a minimum the scoring woes will instantly shift from “slumping” to “inconsistent.”
And worth noting is that two-game slumps will happen multiple times even for a good team over the course of a long NHL season.
So while I do think noting the Hurricanes scoring struggles for the past two games is worthwhile, I fully acknowledge that there is a reasonable chance that this is just a blip on the stat line of a long season and will be quickly rendered inconsequential by a short scoring burst of a couple games.
But is there potentially cause for concern?
In a word, again, yes. Two things trouble me about the Hurricanes lack of offense in the past two games. First is that the team has been unable to generate much of anything. Neither game was the story of years past when the Hurricanes generated a bunch of great opportunities and just did not finish. In both games, I think the one goal that the Hurricanes scored was reasonably representative of the weak play offensively. Second is that especially in Saturday’s loss to Winnipeg, even when down a goal late and theoretically playing desperate and pressing for offense, the team still generated incredibly little offensively.
At a minimum, the situation is worth tracking on a game by game basis looking for signs that the team is capable of better once it rounds into form.
What are the possible solutions? (If I was Bill Peters/Ron Francis…)
If scoring and more basically generating offense continues to be a problem, there are basically three levels of options, each with increasing complexity, that could spark the Hurricanes’ scoring.
Level 1 – Tactical adjustments
Put simply, the Carolina Hurricanes need to work harder to score more ugly goals. The offense right now seems to be built around a bunch of goodness – puck possession, moving the puck up the ice with pace and offensive zone time. All of those are good things, but at the end of the day, NHL goalies are incredibly good and the net is incredibly small. On a good night (exhibit 1, Sergey Bobrovsky on Tuesday night), they are going to stop all of what they see. Ugly goals count the same as pretty ones and in today’s NHL, the hockey gods seem to allocate an equal number to each category. Right now, the Hurricanes are not sending bodies to the net, screening the goalie, winning battles around the crease, etc. As a result, the current version of the Hurricanes is getting nowhere near its fair share of ugly goals.
Especially on the power play, the team has too many players who are willing to play in the vicinity of the net and look for a deflection goal as they jump to the side. The team lacks a player who is willing to regularly park himself in front of the goalie and just stay there. The fact that Justin Faulk’s shot is a bit randomly all over the place right now and came close to decapitating both Joakim Nordstrom and Elias Lindholm in the opening game alone is probably a factor. Some combination of working with Faulk and the defensemen to have good judgement as to when to blast away versus when there is enough traffic such a controlled wrist shot will do just as well, but at the end of the day, the team needs a few more players who are willing to take the risk. Ideally, if it comes from leadership, it pushes the rank and file to follow suit.
Simpler version: The team needs to fight for ice between the face-off circles both in terms of getting the puck there and also getting bodies there.
Level 2 – Line tinkering
In my Daily Cup of Joe from last Wednesday, I wrote about the fit of Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal. The upshot of that article is that I think Aho’s playmaking is underutilized playing with Staal especially but maybe even to some degree Lindholm. As long as nothing in particular is working in terms of scoring from the current line combinations, I would get Aho some ice time with Rask and possibly Justin Williams. I think Rask is an upgrade over Staal in the category of receive/finish ability, and I think Williams as a heady veteran who has a good knack for finding openings could also provide finishing for what Aho creates.
At a minimum, I think the time is now to see if Aho who in my opinion is the team’s best playmaker can find chemistry and more importantly goals with different line mates.
Level 3 – Moving Sebastian Aho to center
I wrote the longer version of in Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe. Right now, I think the Hurricanes have two players who qualify as dynamic on a regular basis – Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho. I would put all of the other Carolina Hurricanes forwards into one of two categories. First is a category of players who are good hockey players but just are not the type of offensive catalyst that makes a line go. I think of them as being complementary players at least in terms of generating offense. Second is a category of players who do have playmaking elements to their game but have yet to establish themselves as every-game (or at least most game) difference-makers.
The short version of Friday’s article has two primary points. First, as noted above, is that I think Aho’s playmaking is underutilized playing with Staal and Lindholm. Second is that he has looked most dynamic (and productive) thus far this season basically assuming the role of a playmaking center playing with the puck on his stick in the middle of the rink and generating scoring chances for his line mates.
During the post-season press conference, Peters stated a preference for leaving Aho at wing but also said that he still considered him to be a center later. With Francis not adding a playmaking center this offseason, I think “later” could come sooner if the team does not find a higher gear scoring-wise.
Level 4 – Doing a deal to add proven offense
A noisy June ultimately faded into a quiet July and August on the deal front. Though a few other players were moved, none of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Galchenyuk or Matt Duchene who were all allegedly available ultimately moved.
Right now, Galchenyuk may be the most interesting simply because he is trending in the direction of ‘likely to be available’ again. Through four games, Galchenyuk had zero points, had seen his ice time fall, was dropped to the fourth line and seemed to be taking another tour of the dog house in Montreal. He did notch his first goal in the Canadiens’ fifth game, but it still seems likely that the Habs are at least taking calls for Galchenyuk right now.
Who knows what the story is with Duchene. He entered the offseason atop the list of players likely to be dealt, but nonetheless he started the season in Colorado, and might be boosting his trade stock with six points in his first six games. One has to figure that he is still available though the alleged price has always been the sticking point.
Nugent-Hopkins seems to have a trade deadline of next summer when the Oilers must do additional financial maneuvering to make the math work when Connor McDavid’s new contract kicks in. But as a team with Stanley Cup aspirations for 2017-18 and the need for depth at forward, I think there is a good chance the Nugent-Hopkins spends the full season in Edmonton before departing next summer.
The NHL trade market does not usually heat up until November, but with a few unique situations still pending, the potential exists to do an early season deal. I have never been and am still not in the ‘buy regardless of cost’ camp, but if the Hurricanes scoring struggles push into the end of October, the level of urgency must increase.
Reason for urgency
On the one hand, it might seem rash to even mention trades as a possibility after only three games. On the other hand, a trademark of Peters’ teams through three seasons has been slow starts, and in each of his three seasons, the Hurricanes eventually figured things out but only after emerging from November already in a sizable hole that proved too big to overcome.
In terms of drastic lineup changes and trades, some amount of patience might be in order. But down at bench level, the time is now to muster a sense of urgency and even a little bit of desperation to find the net more and win hockey games.
If I were coach and/or general manager…
Putting a renewed emphasis on going to the front of the net and importantly staying there when appropriate is a no-brainer. Especially since this does not seem to within the natural instincts of many of the team’s skill players, this is something that will need to be reinforced on a regular basis.
I would make figuring how best to capitalize on Sebastian Aho’s playmaking ability atop my list of priorities as I consider line combinations. I think Aho more than any other player on the current roster has the potential to find a higher gear that boosts his own scoring but maybe more importantly takes two line mates with him. Trying Aho with different forwards seems like a logical first try, but I would not rule out trying him at center.
I would also stay in the loop on on the availability and price for Matt Duchene, Alex Galchenyuk and others. As I said in many ways during my endless June yammering, the Hurricanes are light on players capable of being an offensive catalyst for a scoring line. The path to just adding up a bunch of good complementary players is a tough way to regularly score enough in the NHL. Three games is not enough to definitively say that the Hurricanes cannot score enough with the current roster, but it is critical not to dig too big of a hole waiting things out.
The Monday Coffee Shop which will be up late morning if not sooner will have a similar theme assessing the significance of the two-game scoring woes and considering ways (if necessary at all) to address them, but feel free also to comment here.