Roughly halfway into the Carolina Hurricanes bye week and nearing the restart and stretch run for the 2017-18 season, today’s Daily Cup of Joe aims to offer an objective view of the Hurricanes’ playoff chances.
A simple mathematical view
At the most basic level, the Hurricanes are in a pack of teams in the Metropolitan Division that is chasing a limited number of playoff spots.
Nothing is written in stone with nearly half of a season left to play, but for the sake of simplifying the math a bit, my starting point says that the Atlantic Division will have three playoff teams and that none of the other teams will factor in. The best of the rest in the Atlantic are Detroit and Florida. Both teams are a game under .500 and therefore six points out of a playoff spot (adjusted for games played). By no means are they 100 percent eliminated, but they are in a tough spot and the teams below them even more so.
That leaves the fray in the Metropolitan Division where literally everyone is still in the hunt. From that fray, there will be three division playoff teams and also two wildcard teams. Again, much can change, but for the sake of simplifying the math, my starting point is to award playoff spots to Washington and New Jersey who are both five or more points above the cut line. Below them, I think all of the other six teams are still in the hunt for the three remaining playoff spots.
So if every team had an equal starting point and an equally good outlook for the rest of the season, the chances of the Hurricanes making the playoffs would be exactly 50 percent (3 out of 6 teams will make it).
But the chances are not equal. The Hurricanes are currently at a minus 4 points to the Blue Jackets, minus 3 to the Rangers, minus 2 to the Penguins and minus 1 to both the Islanders and Flyers (all adjusted for game played). So that decreases the Hurricanes chances below what they would be if everyone had an equal chance.
In addition to that, I continue to think that teams like the Blue Jackets, Rangers and Penguins who have been recent playoff entrants gain some small advantage from their experience.
I have no precise formula to adjust for these factors, but to me it feels like the Hurricanes chance right now is something like 35-40 percent when I come at it from a simple math angle.
Is there anything that could tilt the math a bit more in the Hurricanes’ direction?
There is actually. During the remainder of the 2017-18 season the Hurricanes have 5 more home games than away games. That is tops among the Metropolitan Division fray. Only the Islanders who have two more home than away games left have a home ice advantage in their remaining games. Most vulnerable are the Rangers who have only 14 home games remaining with 23 on the road.
So if the Hurricanes can find a rhythm and a winning run at home in the second half of the season, the situation could sway things in their favor. On New Year’s Day, I broke down the Hurricanes schedule for the front part of 2018. I continue to believe that the fate of the Hurricanes 2017-18 season will be decided during the stretch of 11 out of 12 at home in the front part of February.
Back on the ice, what could sway the outcome most?
If I had to choose only one thing that will decide the 2017-18 season, I think that one thing is goaltending. Readers agreed in a Monday Coffee Shop poll. Though the situation could turn on a dime at any moment, I think the situation is especially precarious right now. Cam Ward who had a strong burst of play in December is trending more negatively of late. And though he did offer a glimmer of hope in a stellar road win against the Capitals, Scott Darling has not been able to string anything together for awhile now. But amid those struggles lies huge upside for the Hurricanes. Despite again receiving sub-par goaltending on average, the Hurricanes are right in the thick of the playoff chase. At this point, simply getting 37 games of league average goaltending would be an upgrade and potentially enough to help the team find the next gear that pushes them up the standings. The paranoid part of me fears the worst and that goaltending will again doom the season, but it is not inconceivable that one or both of Darling and Ward finds his game.
Could Ron Francis boost the odds with a trade?
Might General Manager Ron Francis be a buyer at the trade deadline for the first time in his tenure? And if he is, could that tilt the odds favorably? An upgrade would obviously be a plus, but just like in the offseason, the area most ripe for improvement is the goalie position, and I would be surprised to see Francis be able to do anything with that trade-wise. If the Hurricanes are still in the hunt come late February or possibly even sooner, I do think Francis will be a buyer to some degree. The burning question is whether Francis will shop from the bargain bin for depth help or if he would consider stepping into one of the bigger bidding wars. History suggests the former, but who knows with the team finally playing for the current season and a new owner who might open his checkbook to make a statement.
This might sound strange, but I think the move to add a top half of the roster player could have as much impact from its psychological effect as it does on the ice. When Jim Rutherford acquired higher-end veteran rentals in Doug Weight and Mark Recchi leading up to the trade deadline in 2006, he sent an unmistakable message to the team that they were going for it. I think the same could apply this year.
On January 2, I ventured into trade deadline considerations early with an article profiling players possibly available from the below .500 teams in the Eastern Conference who could be sellers. If Max Pacioretty is truly available, I am at least curious. As an experienced captain in a tough hockey market, Pacioretty is cut from a similar leadership cloth as Justin Williams and also similarly produces offensively. The fact that Pacioretty has another year remaining on his contract and is not just a 2017-18 rental has pros and cons, but I think could be the kind of player who boosts on-ice production and simultaneously the locker room drive and in the process lifts the Hurricanes into the playoffs.
What say you Caniacs?