By no means is anything decided for the Canes 2018-19 season, and the measure of accomplishment currently teeters on the fence of success and failure. But at a bare minimum, the Hurricanes will take the ice in game #82 on Saturday still with a chance to make the playoffs.
Many of the reasons that the Hurricanes are where they are right now could have been predicted. Sebastian Aho, who is still only 21 years old, taking the next step in his development could have been predicted. The deep blue line becoming a strength could have been predicted or even expected. Justin Williams making a difference as the team’s captain could have been predicted as could many other contributors.
But there are also key factors that seemed to fall out of the sky that have played a key role. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe highlights a few of those unpredictable factors.
Curtis McElhinney and the team’s goaltending
Before the season began, one could have made a case for the Hurricanes goaltending improving between some combination of a Scott Darling rebound and/or Petr Mrazek making the most of his chance to claim the starter’s crease. And the Hurricanes goaltending did improve. But no one could have predicted that Curtis McElhinney would play a huge role in the Hurricanes goaltending stepping up from a liability to at least decent to becoming a strength. His role as a stabilizing force in net early in the season when the team was trying to figure it out could become underappreciated due to recency bias and Petr Mrazek’s heroics of late. But when Mrazek started slow and Darling continued to struggle, McElhinney was the one who played well and helped buy time until the team could get its feet underneath it. Despite Mrazek’s late-season surge, McElhinney still boasts the same .912 save percentage which makes for every-game steadiness, and McElhinney was a huge 7-2-1 in October and November when the team was trying to get going.
Don Waddell and the front office
When the team concluded its general manager search more or less with a decision not to hire a general manager, there was definitely potential reason for concern. Don Waddell had experience in the same role with the Atlanta Thrashers but based partly on how that ended, many including myself were not enamored with the decision. But when one considers the key factors in the team’s 2018-19 season thus far, Waddell deserves a significant amount of credit. His off-season work to change over a significant of the roster and pull off a blockbuster adding Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland have been pretty unanimously successful. Jordan Martinook for Marcus Kruger — win. Signing Petr Mrazek to replace Cam Ward — win. Adding Calvin de Haan via free agency — win. And trading Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm for Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland — win. But one of the things that changed the trajectory of the 2018-19 season was adding Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask. The move was a key puzzle piece in building a forward lineup that was four lines deep, could spread some scoring depth throughout the lineup and still had a legitimate top scoring line. When one looks at how the 2018-19 season has come together, much of it has Don Waddell’s fingerprints all over it.
Greg McKegg and Saku Maenalanen
The team continues to find a way to win in March, but peak Hurricanes for the 2018-19 season at least so far was in January and February. The arrival of Niederreiter played a role in the turning point as did the rise of the goalies, but a key part of the formula when the team seemed to pivot upward was Brind’Amour’s ability to find a set of forwards that he could trust 12. Certainly, other players maybe played larger roles and garnered more headlines, but the Hurricanes surge really started with the win over the Flyers on December 31. Not to be lost in the timeline is the fact that Saku Maenalanen was recalled on January 1, Greg McKegg was recalled on January 4. At a time when the team was sinking and short at the center position with Jordan Staal out with an injury, McKegg provided a short-term scoring burst but maybe more significantly long-term depth. In a fit of irony, the Hurricanes transition to being four lines deep actually occurred with Staal out of the lineup. That is an incredibly improbable point in the Hurricanes 2018-19 success especially given that Martin Necas did not work out at the NHL level. In the front part of the season, Brind’Amour cycled through most of the options in Charlotte trying to find something that he liked. Martin Necas, Janne Kuokkanen, Nicolas Roy, Victor Rask, Clark Bishop, Phil Di Giuseppe and Valentin Zykov all rotated through the bottom forward slots before Brind’Amour finally settled on McKegg and Maenalanen. If one looks at scoring totals McKegg and Maenalanen do not stand out, but with Brind’Amour’s uptempo forechecking style of play, I think the ability to roll four lines in most games and reasonably spread minutes across four lines played a significant role in the Hurricanes being able to execute their attacking style without wearing down. That more than scoring is McKegg and Maenalanen’s improbable contribution to the team’s current position.
Piggybacking on my second point about Don Waddell, his hit ratio for moves to build the 2018-19 roster is more or less perfect. But his in-season move to add Nino Niederreiter takes the prize. Before he season started, the possibility of trading Victor Rask after a lackluster 2017-18 campaign was there, but given the mismatch between his salary and his 2017-18 scoring production, the deal would seemingly have needed to be a swap of similarly mismatched players. Then when he missed an extended period of time with his hand injury and started slowly when he returned, the Hurricanes looked to be saddled with his contract. But somehow Waddell pulled off what Minnesota must have categorized as one of those swaps of underperforming players. But the move instantly rejuvenated Niederreiter who has been a solid first line finisher next to Sebastian Aho. As with the arrival of McKegg and Maenalanen, Niederreiter’s addition added scoring but maybe equally importantly depth to have scoring spread across more lines.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you have any other improbable contributors to the Hurricanes current position in the 2018-19 season?
2) Of the four contributors that I detailed which do you is most significant?
3) With other higher-end contributors garnering more attention, which under the radar factor was most significant? McElhinney helping hold things together in October and November? McKegg and Maenalanen providing the forward depth need to run four lines and keep everyone fresh in Brind’Amour’s system?