Yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe entitled “Righting the ship” identified 3 high-level things that the Carolina Hurricanes needed to do to get the train back on the tracks.
Another lopsided loss on Monday by a 6-1 margin to the Capitals has me thinking for short-term tactical in terms of what I would do if I was Coach Bill Peters to try to quickly help the team its feet back underneath it.
Assessing the situation
Part of assessing the team’s current struggles is understanding the path that it has traveled. I think an important thing to note is that these struggles have been against some of the best competition in the league and that 3 of the 4 games have been on the road. With maybe the Penguins game at home being an anomaly, I am not sure the other 3 games are really that far out of range from even the good version of the 2016-17 Hurricanes team that has struggled on the road. So I think there is an element of looking not just at the 4 most recent losses but also looking at what has worked prior.
I continue to think that the root of the 4-game losing streak and also the incredibly negative trend is ironically rooted in the Hurricanes fun 4-game home winning streak that immediately preceded it. In what has since become an evil foreshadowing, I posted an article just before the start of the losing streak that suggested that there might be problems.
But in watching the past week unfold and thinking about it in more detail, I think that 4-game winning streak actually pointed the Hurricanes in the wrong direction in multiple ways which I will discuss below. (Important long disclaimer: I am writing this late at night after a long day and a frustrating Canes loss, so follow these simple rules…If it seems far-fetched but amusing keep reading, but do not take it too seriously. If it seems far-fetched and annoying, find something else more pleasant to spend the time on. If it seems accurate, then you should consider joining my 10pm ice cream club that might be forming on Twitter if the Canes keep up their current level of play.)
The fallacy of incredible scoring depth and fire power
What it looked like
One of the trademarks of the Hurricanes high-scoring home winning streak was that the Hurricanes were attacking and scoring in bunches across all 4 lines. There was no need to get too bogged down in match ups or roles. There was no such thing as a checking line or a line assigned to a shutdown role. Jordan Staal’s line was a scoring juggernaut with Brock McGinn cast as an NHL weekly star. And the Hurricanes were content to play a loose back and forth style that traded scoring chances and won by out-gunning the opponent. And at least for those 4 games, it looked like the Hurricanes were capable of playing and winning wild scoring shootouts.
Why that happened but was probably not sustainable
The Hurricanes offense hit a perfect storm of goodness that made their scoring prowess probably look much better than reality. After getting chances but failing to score, Brock McGinn caught fire. He deserves full credit for his incredible play, but best guess is that the scoring pace is not sustainable. The Hurricanes also happened upon some weak goaltending. They saw a struggling backup in Anton Forsberg from Columbus have a rough night and allow 3 soft goals to boost the Hurricanes to 5 on 1 night and also shaky play from backups in the Boston and Buffalo wins. And to some degree, the level of competition also helped. The Hurricanes did beat the Bruins (who are struggling a bit) and Columbus but also played middle of the pack teams in Buffalo and the New York Islanders. Probably to no one’s surprise the Hurricanes’ 5-goal scoring pace just was not going to continue.
What the effect has been on the Hurricanes’ style of play
I think the implications stretch across multiple levels. First, I think Bill Peters got away from having lines that were at least slightly more role-based. No longer did Jordan Staal’s line drive possession and play into the offensive zone therefore tilting the ice such that the Hurricanes played much less defense – no cycling, none of the long shifts just playing in the offensive zone and much less of the defensive acumen. Staal’s line was a scoring line willing to trade chances just like the others, and it showed based on the fact that they were on the ice for nearly as many goals against as goals for despite scoring a ton. And across the other lines, the dial on the continuum of ‘stay sound defensively’ versus ‘attack and score’ kept moving in the attacking direction with each successful thrust and goal such that the Hurricanes were creating offense in bunches, but they also starting giving up more too. And along the way the play became looser and more open. The looser brand of hockey put additional pressure on the blue line which had seen its share of struggles earlier in the season. That style of play also put more pressure on Cam Ward who was at his best when the team was playing a reasonably tight defensive game and was regularly winning by giving up 1 or 2 goals. But when you are scoring 4, 5 or even 7 goals at home and winning, these details and the potentially dangerous trend can be easily buried in the success of winning and doing it in a fun way on home ice.
Then comes the wake up call
So basically the Hurricanes left home feeling good and winning with a brand of hockey that was loose defensively and in terms of goaltending but easily made up for it by scoring in bunches. And as luck would have it, the next round of games featured 4 teams among the top of the entire NHL. And those teams basically feasted on the Hurricanes open style of play that was too often light on sound decision-making, positional play and defensive zone sorting out and coverage. The top teams displayed a knack for just sitting and watching while the Hurricanes tried to play fast and attack. They defended it fairly well and also just opportunistically waited for mistakes that they could pounce on. This was especially true in the Penguins debacle that saw some combination of break downs and sub-par goaltending bite the Hurricanes again and again. The loss in Columbus was a better game but maybe even more telling because of that. The Hurricanes actually outplayed Columbus for at least two-thirds of the game but were not able to find the same scoring magic against a great goalie, and they gifted enough chances to Columbus to generate offense for them even if they were not doing it on their own.
The Hurricanes saw a rare run of 4 starting goalies all of the top notch variety. Suddenly, the Hurricanes ability to finish that looked strong against a run of backups with holes was not what it was the week before.
In games where the Hurricanes could not just score another goal or 2, the increased volume of defensive and puck management miscues were amplified.
Similarly, Cam Ward’s decreasing level of play possibly because of being overworked was put into a spotlight by the strong play at the other end of the rink, the pressure from shoddy defense in front of him and the fact that there was no margin for error against elite teams.
And in trying to patch holes, build a foundation or do something to solidify things at key times, Bill Peters really did not have the type of reliable, solid combinations that he might have had in early December when winning was driven more on the defensive side of the puck.
If I was Bill Peters
With 4 consecutive losses, the challenge for Coach Bill Peters is to not only coach the team to a different course but equally importantly to do it quickly. If Peters works the team back to a higher and more productive level of play but it takes him until the last week of February to do it, it is probably too late. Peters and his staff must find enough small gains quickly to start collecting wins while on the path to greater improvement.
The schedule does offer a some degree of help in accomplishing this. First and importantly, the upcoming schedule is more of a mix of teams in terms of level of competition. The schedule is also friendly in terms of work load with only 1 back-to-back through the end of February, a couple long lay offs and enough rest between games or chunks of games. And most significantly, 8 out of the next 13 games are home. The brutal loss to the Penguins creates a nasty recency bias for many Canes fans, but the Hurricanes have still been incredibly good at home since mid-November. In addition, the next 3 games are at home offering the opportunity to use home ice to get upright again and rebuild a foundation.
Return to a shutdown line built around Jordan Staal
If I was Bill Peters, I would adjust away from the balanced forward lineup of recent times and shift back to building a couple of strong purpose-built units that I could lean on heavily especially with the nicely-spaced schedule. I would build a strong defense-first/puck possession line around Jordan Staal and at least at home giving them the assignment of marking the other teams’ best lines and doing it by driving the puck into the offensive zone and keeping it there. There are different combinations that could work, but my thinking is that some combination of Lindholm, Stalberg, Stempniak or Nordstrom could work. Especially against teams that have a clear top line, I would then go back to trying to play Staal’s line with Slavin/Pesce as much as possible to create a 5-man shutdown unit. If successful, that would give Peters stability and reliability for 20 minutes per night against the opponent’s lines mostly likely to create problems. If the cycling capability returns too, the line has the potential to drive and keep play in the offensive zone which takes pressure off the defense and Ward and also has a high probability for shift changeovers that are favorable in terms of puck possession and zone start. I think that gives Peters a defensive foundation that he can use to start working back toward playing a sounder defensive game capable of winning 3-2 or even 2-1 on occasion and also creating a more sustainable formula for winning hockey.
Past Staal’s line, I would try to build a fourth line that is also capable of starting shifts in the defensive zone (maybe the regular fourth line depending on who plays with Staal) and then 2 lines that Peters can use opportunistically based on match ups looking to generate offense.
What say you Canes fans? If you were Bill Peters how what changes in strategy or combinations would you make before Thursday with the aim of getting things quickly back on track?