An important starting point for what follows is to note that the Carolina Hurricanes are in a very good place right now definitely with the potential to do more. Most importantly, the team advanced to the next round which at the end of the day is all that matters during the playoffs. But past that there are a number of positives coming out of the first round. The team’s top line was dominant in the Rangers series, and Sebastian Aho found a higher playoff gear. In a series where goaltending was expected to be a disadvantage, both Canes netminders were phenomenal. And though the depth scoring was a bit light, the Canes were able to compete four lines deep at forward with the fourth line of Jordan Martinook, Morgan Geekie and Brock McGinn being especially impressive. So sure I am going to nitpick a bit as a devil’s advocate down below, but let’s be very clear that this is not a story of impending doom.
But today’s Daily Cup of Joe does look at a few potential Achilles’ heels for the Carolina Hurricanes despite the team’s first-round success.
The blue line
Jaccob Slavin and Sami Vatanen
Being a bit contrarian given current sentiment and putting it bluntly, Sami Vatanen is overslotted as a first pairing defenseman. He just does not have the straight line speed or lateral mobility to consistently defend top end forwards. That issue was buried a bit in the first two games that saw the Canes forecheck minimize the pressure on the defense. But a little bit in the Washington exhibition game and in a bigger way on in game three against the Rangers, the issue was apparent. Vatanen twice had players beat him with speed and in case draw a penalty and in the other case have a break to the net. In addition, there were two plays were he was unable to move across quickly to cover mishaps by Slavin. Against a top-tier scoring line, I think he will be a bit overmatched defending from the defensive blue line one on one against speed. In addition, Slavin plays an aggressive style that sees him up into the neutral zone at times. His judgment is generally pretty good, but playing with Vatanen shows the importance of having a partner who can slide across sometimes to help patch a hold. That ability was the hallmark of Slavin and Pesce together. Both were aggressive stepping up to take away time and space in the neutral zone, and both were incredibly good at reading and reacting when his partner got caught a bit too far forward.
In a good playoff lineup, I think Vatanen is a tremendous #5 defenseman or a capable #4 who pairs well with a partner with good wheels and read/react ability. Add Vatanen’s power play ability, and he is a great #4/#5 defenseman. This problem could be solved quickly if Dougie Hamilton is ready to go for the next series. That would rework the Canes blue line and slot Vatanen better to match his skill set.
Haydn Fleury and Jake Gardiner
Despite Brind’Amour’s attempt to hide them a bit and pick match ups, this duo also had some issues in game 3 once the Canes forecheck dissipated a bit and forced the defensemen to do a bit more. Interestingly, I think Gardiner and Vatanen are somewhat similar. Both are competent or better offensively and on the power play. Both have played in the top 4 in the past. But both I think are also #4/#5 type defensemen. Gardiner like Vatanen seems to lack the mobility to defend one on one against the rush with speed. If Hamilton does return, would Brind’Amour consider sitting Gardiner and playing Fleury with Vatanen? Regardless, this is another pairing that could be an Achilles’ heel.
But again, a Dougie Hamilton return helps immensely by reslotting the blue line and adding depth and speed.
The need for production/depth scoring
The positives coming out of the Rangers’ series are the elite play by the top line, the strong play in their role and contribution from the fourth line and the general ability for all four lines to be competitive. That is a solid foundation for the depth needed to go deep in the playoffs. But at the same time, the Canes really did not get much actual production from the middle of the lineup. From the six forwards in the middle of the lineup, the Canes received only two goals (Necas and Foegele) in three games. Projected over an 82-game season, the group of six would average only nine goals over an 82-game season. Though the first line production is obviously welcome, the Hurricanes were very top-heavy in terms of scoring in the first round.
This situation will also be interesting to watch. Vincent Trocheck was much more snake bit than unproductive in the first round. He played well and seemed to be on the brink of scoring regularly. I continue to think that getting a second scoring line going will be critical to making it deep into the playoffs.
What say you Canes fans?
1) In the name of not getting too high after the sweep of the Rangers, what do you think about the potential Achilles’ heels that I suggested?
2) Does anyone have additional potential weaknesses for the Canes coming out of the first round win?