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I had ambitious plans and even got off to a good start writing a longer, detailed article that I think is timely and relevant right now but had to shelf it for tonight. Look for that possibly during the day on Thursday or otherwise Friday.
Instead, I am going to take what I think is a well-timed lighter route for Thursday’s Daily Cup of Joe. To be clear, I do not mean to candy coat the Hurricanes current situation which has the team sputtering a bit. Rather, my aim is to point out that despite the recent struggles, there are still legitimate positives.
The season will reach the one-third marker with Thursday’s game, so timing is good to take an early look at players who have exceeded my expectations and can be considered pleasant surprises.
1) Haydn Fleury
He had the kind of year in the AHL in 2016-17 that suggested he could be ready for a jump to the NHL. Because of that, I would not call it shocking that his transition to the NHL level has gone well. But I think stopping there understates how well Fleury has played. Fleury has been steady even in unspectacular in terms of highlight reel type plays. Further, he has very quickly played his way up from the third pairing to a top 4 role. His rapid rise after arriving at the NHL level is reminiscent of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce’s fast start. What is especially encouraging with respect to Fleury is that players who can quickly adapt to NHL speed like Fleury has very often use their strong starting point as a foundation for another step or two up.
I would have expected more growing pains from Fleury thus far and also that he would still be finding his way at the NHL level in a third pairing role.
2) Brock McGinn
I have never been as high on Brock McGinn as the consensus. His heat seeking missile approach to forechecking with Jay McClement’s lack of mobility in the neutral zone playing behind him were a horrible combination in 2015-16, and I thought he was undersized relative to the type of game and role that brought him success in juniors. Both of those assessments might actually still be correct, but nonetheless McGinn has shown himself to be a capable depth NHL forward this year.
For me, what jumps out about his game is his consistency level in terms of tenacity, intensity and physical play. In that regard, he reminds me a little bit of Nathan Gerbe in the sense that McGinn never has trouble finding the go switch. That consistency is a good starting point for being a fourth-line energy type forward which is about where I pegged his ceiling prior to the 2017-18 season. But McGinn has been much more than that. His six goals and six assists are on pace for 18 goals and 36 points despite a modest 12:41 of ice time and minimal power play ice time.
In addition, I think he has the potential to be a lieutenant in Justin Williams’ effort to help change the mentality of the team.
I would have expected McGinn to be in and out of the lineup as a #12/#13 forward and to be scoring at a fourth-line-ish 15-point pace. Instead, he has replaced Stempniak’s production and also brought a physical element in a top 9 forward role.
3) Teuvo Teravainen
Teuvo Teravainen’s scoring has come in bursts, so one could nitpick the lack of every game consistency in his offensive production, but the volume is impressive. With a single point in Thursday’s game against San Jose, Teravainen would finish the first third of the season on pace for 70 points. That is not quite in the elite category, but in today’s NHL that is easily in the tier that follows. Also worth noting is that streaky bunches of scoring are not out of the ordinary even for proven NHL scorers.
I would optimistically have hoped that Teravainen would take a step up and perhaps play at more like a 55-point pass. He has obviously surpassed that thus far.
4) Cam Ward as a backup
Cam Ward had a horrid start in a loss to the Maple Leafs during Thanksgiving week and the vibe around Hurricanes goaltending right now is negative. But in terms of assessing Ward’s play importantly against reasonable benchmark’s for a #2 goalie, I think his transition has gone well. In seven starts, Ward has two incredibly good games (road wins in Edmonton and Columbus) in which his play was a leading factor in the win. He has three ‘good enough’ outings at home including a 2-1 loss to St. Louis but also wins against the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers. And yes he does have that rough outing against the Maple Leafs and another against the Avalanche. When you tally the numbers, he has been good enough or better in five of seven starts. For a backup who faces the challenge of being sharp even with long layoffs, that is pretty good play for Ward given that he is now in the backup slot. The team’s 4-3 record in Ward’s seven starts is a 94-point pace which is better than average for the backup slot.
I would have settled for a .500 pace. While Ward is only slightly above that pace, he has achieved it by virtue of a few really good outings, not just from being serviceable and having the team in front of him win.
5) Noah Hanifin’s growth offensively
The defensive part of Noah Hanifin’s game is still a work in progress. He has been pretty solid of late, but the bigger story has been the emergence of the offensive part of Hanifin’s game. He has been the team’s best offensive defenseman by a wide margin thus far in 2017-18 and the improvement has been in multiple areas. His slap shot and maybe more significantly ability to receive and shoot (usually a wrist shot) off the rush are much-improved. Whereas he sometimes struggles with split second decision-making defensively, Hanifin has been incredibly good at deciding when and where to step up into the rush as a secondary option. And he is becoming increasingly comfortably patiently playing with the puck on his stick and using his skating ability to buy time when necessary. The result is a current pace for 42 points that seems to have upside from there is he just keeps doing what he is doing now.
I would have expected Hanifin to be scoring at a more modest 30-point pace. Maybe more significantly though, I just think he looks more dynamic than I expected such that I think we might only be seeing the tip of the ice berg.
6) The Charlotte Checkers
The Charlotte Checkers received an infusion of youth especially at the forward position with so many players moving up to the AHL ranks. In a league that includes a number of very good veteran professionals, too much youth at the AHL level can lead to inconsistency and extended rough patches while talented young players transition to the professional level and begin to mature as players. Instead, the Checkers flew out of the gate and currently sport a playoff-worthy 14-8-1 record. Equally significantly, a number of the team’s prospects have excelled. Warren Foegele has 12 goals and 17 points in 21 games including four shorthanded tallies. Lucas Wallmark has 17 points in only 14 games played. And Valentin Zykov has 10 goals in 20 games including six power play markers. If and when Francis reaches to the AHL level for help either because of injury or because he is seeking a spark, there are clearly options available.
I would have expected a slower start to the season for the Checkers with so many young players pushing up to the next level.
In addition, I think players like Jordan Staal, Justin Williams, Sebastian Aho and Jeff Skinner are having decent 2017-18 campaigns thus far. They get left off the list simply because I think those players are performing at a level closer to what I would have reasonably expected of them.
Despite the ups and downs thus far in 2017-18, what other pleasant surprises do you see?