And just like that the Carolina Hurricanes are a game below .500 and heading in the wrong direction with three consecutive losses (one in overtime). And as luck would have it, a busy Thursday kept me from writing a daily post before the 9pm Hurricanes game which leaves me trying to write one late at night and at the same time that I try to make sense of the bizarre 5-3 loss on Thursday night.
Below is a somewhat random set of musings on the 4-5-2 start.
How bad is it?
4-5-2 was not the target when the season started, but just how bad is it? Let me come at that from a couple directions.
In terms of trying to hit a 95-point pace (generally good enough to make the playoffs) by collecting half the points on the road and two-thirds of the points at home the Hurricanes are 2.7 points off the pace already. That is not a huge amount, but last season was a good indication of just how hard it is to make up even a few points in the second half of the season.
Compared to the 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes are now running only a single point above that pace.
And in terms of optics to casual fans locally, sitting in eighth place (partly due to playing fewer games) just does not look good.
So yeah…It is not an unrecoverable situation, but it is legitimately bad.
Is there reason to think that things will turn around?
I actually think there is. Bill Peters’ teams have been characterized by slow starts, struggles trying to find any kind of repeatable formula in October or November and then finally emergence in early December. If the team can scratch and claw for enough points to stay relevant, it is not at all inconceivable that the team will play its best hockey starting in December.
What concerns me most?
With a myriad of choices, three high level things concern me most right now.
First is that the team’s alleged strength, its blue line, has yet to materialize. The group looks good anytime that games open up, and the game becomes a skating game with pace that plays to the Hurricanes’ strengths. But I would say that the group is average at best in terms of defending and still prone to too many of the lapses that are typical of a young defense that is more learning than fully arrived.
Second is that the team still looks young. The inconsistency is a trademark of a young team still trying to figure it out. The Hurricanes have looked very good when they get going but has proven unable to do much to grind out scoring and wins on the nights that do not go their way.
Third is that I have no idea what the team’s identity is or what its target formula for winning is. The team has fared best when playing open ice games that push pace and trade chances. That is problematic in two ways. First is that I am not sure that such a style really translates to extended runs. Second is that the Hurricanes have not shown that they can force this style of play on teams that do not want it.
But what are the positives?
Though the team might lack high-end scoring punch, the 2017-18 Hurricanes are much deeper at forward than any other Hurricanes team in recent history.
I also think that despite its intermittent struggles at times early in the 2017-18 season that the blue line still has the potential to emerge as a strength. Haydn Fleury has easily been more good than bad as a rookie and has the potential to make big strides forward as he settles in. Noah Hanifin is still a work in progress on the defensive side of the puck, but the offensive part of his game has made more significant improvements. Hanifin’s shot is better as is his comfort level carrying the puck and stepping into the play offensively.
Finally, and not to be overlooked, I think the bigger problem would be if the team seemed to be playing near its potential but still could not win. That would suggest that the team just is not good enough under any circumstances (like 2014-15). I would not say that is the case. I would actually say that the opposite is true. The Hurricanes are not playing well but are still sort of treading water. That suggests that if even a few things start clicking that the team can move up from where it is now.
If I had the controls, what would I do right now?
If I was the coach right now, I think one of my points of emphasis would be trying to build a scoring line around Sebastian Aho.
As I see the Hurricanes offense right now, it goes like this…Jeff Skinner seems capable of generating offense for himself and maybe not so much anyone else regardless of who his line mates are. Past that the Hurricanes are struggling to consistently generate offense. And finally, I think that Sebastian Aho has the greatest potential to be the kind of scoring line catalyst that the team was unable to add this summer.
I could go either way on whether that means a move back to his natural center position for Aho, but I think a simpler first try to would be pairing Aho with as much offensive help as possible and with players who are comfortable playing without the puck. I love the idea of pairing Aho with heady veteran Justin Williams, and then I could see trying either Derek Ryan or Victor Rask between them.
The team needs at least one more source of relatively consistent offense. Without that, every day is a dice roll for whether an individual steps up.
I will be curious to re-read this after some time to mull over Thursday’s loss and what it means in the bigger picture. In the meantime, I would love to hear everyone else’s assessment of the current situation.