Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a set of quick-hitters that might get an expanded version in future articles.
In a recent article, I touched on the significant difference in goalie puck-handling between a Mrazek/Nedeljkovic (and to lesser degree Reimer) goalie group as compared to Andersen/Raanta. That adjustment will be interesting to watch.
As an aside to start, as the season wore on and teams adjusted, I thought Nedeljkovic’s puck-handling ability became more of a pros and cons situation than a true advantage. To be clear, better puck-handling is better than worse puck-handling, but here is a maybe overlooked observation on that. Advancing the puck up the ice to a defenseman headed or at least pointed north-south is a significant plus. Doing so does a number of things. It decreases the time to skate the puck up the ice, creates the opportunity for shorter (and therefore somewhat safer) passes up the ice to quickly navigate the neutral zone and most powerfully it can create odd man rushes when a quick pass catches a team trying to change and incorrectly counting on time for the Canes to get to the offensive blue line. Throughout the 2020-21 season but especially early on, we saw many instances of Nedeljkovic’s puck-handling seizing each of these advantages.
But the advantage dissipated a bit as teams adjusted. Teams learned to forecheck differently trying to take away the outlet to the defensive blue line making that pass significantly more dangerous. Nedeljkovic was actually very good in general at reading options and not making many bad turnovers. But the counter-adjustment from the Canes side had to be the defensemen doing two things – first was regularly adjusting the receive point to being much further down the sidewall than more ideally moving the puck to the defensive blue line. More subtle but actually more significant was the the Canes’ defensemen adjusting to make sure passing lanes did not get jumped by coming back to the puck a bit. The result is a bit more safety in terms of dangerous defensive zone turnovers, but that also nearly eliminates any advantage of playing the puck forward from the crease. In these cases, the defensemen receives the puck much closer to just starting from behind the net with a puck left by the goalie. More significantly, in these cases the defenseman often receives the puck either at a standstill or even with motion headed deeper into the defensive zone facing his own net. That receiving/situation, when it occurs, mostly eliminates the advantage of advancing the puck forward from the crease. The ability to make a quick second pass is mostly eliminated as the defenseman needs to receive the puck blind to what is down the ice, must turn and be careful to not get stripped of the puck if a forechecker is coming or already on his back when he receives the puck and then assess the situation after turning. The time it takes for that sequence usually takes away the advantage. The ability to carry the puck from a head start is also minimized if not completely taken away. Instead of receiving the puck headed north-south with at least a little momentum, the defenseman has to start from a standstill. Especially in the case of defensemen like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce whose strengths include their skating ability, might they actually be faster to the neutral zone with speed from starting behind the net with the ability to gain a head of steam and also see the entire ice early to navigate what is in front of them?
So fast forward to a completely new goaltending group that is significantly lighter on puck-handling ability. Andersen especially leans old school in terms of letting defensemen move the puck themselves with the goalie most often just stopping and leaving pucks behind the net to be picked up. At the most basic level, the change will be an adjustment for the team in terms of advancing the puck from its own end. Per my rambling above, I am torn on to what degree this transition will actually take away a meaningful advantage. Most interesting will be watching the Canes versus the Red Wings if Nedeljkovic is in net. The Canes should be very aware of what worked/did not work in defending his puck-moving ability, so seeing exactly how they attack it and its effectiveness will be interesting.
Playing both sides of the Dougie Hamilton departure (versus an either/or decision)
With Dougie Hamilton officially gone to the New Jersey Devils, I find it interesting how polarized the view of that move seems to be. Many people seem to want to either declare this a good move because of whatever shortcomings Hamilton had plus the contract or to otherwise suggest it was a horrible decision because of the hole left that may/may not be filled adequately by the committee of players trying to do so. I actually think it is possible that both of these stances are simultaneously accurate. On the one hand, I am on board with passing on $9 million per year with term to re-sign Hamilton (and my stance does not change that much if you tell me that the Canes could have negotiated slightly better terms). Especially when I consider that regular season Hamilton was generally better than post-season Hamilton who had some struggles when it mattered most, I get the case for just moving on. But at the same time, I yesterday described the current blue line as ‘could work’. That rightfully suggests reservations and questions that I have with the current group. For a different article on a different day, I think Ethan Bear could prove to be the single most important player on the 2021-22 Hurricanes because he will likely be at first attempt to fill the primary (and not only) hole left by Hamilton as a top 4 defensemen for 20ish minutes per game. So while begrudgingly being okay with passing on re-signing Hamilton, at the same time I see significant risk and a potential Achilles’ heel in the move. Amidst many positive factors, I am on record as ranking the top-end strength and three pairs deep balance/depth of the Canes blue line as the single greatest on-ice factor in the team’s return to the playoffs. (Note the strategically used adjective ‘on-ice’ because I think actually the biggest factor was the change in attitude and culture driven by Rod Brind’Amour and first lieutenant Justin Williams.) From that group that finally climbed back into the playoffs, only cornerstones Slavin and Pesce remain.
Defensively, Hamilton reminded me a bit of Joni Pitkanen in the sense that both players were actually incredibly good defenders when on point. Both are big, rangy defensemen who skate very well. As such, neither was ever going to be overmatched physically or in over his head against even great NHL players. Where both could fall short at times was every shift intensity level resulting in a few too many lapses during bad stretches and also a mentality and style of play that leaned forward toward the opposing net and could at times result in issues with risk/reward type decisions. But sometimes overshadowed by noticeable errors and even runs of them can be the fact that even the down version of these players was significantly better than a run of the mill #5 type NHL defender whose ceiling was significantly lower and whose game and style of play had been honed to maximize safe play to reach as close as possible to a much, much lower ceiling.
So long story short, I am okay with passing on the risk of Hamilton’s long-term contract, but at the same time I think I think at least the potential degree of the downside from losing him could be under-accounted for. The two factors that have the potential to mitigate the risk and make everything okay are twofold. First is the ability of Slavin and Pesce in their prime to be so good that they drive success for their pair and boost the level of play of their partners. Second is the ability of players with ceilings significantly below Hamilton’s to be sound, solid and maybe just good enough. Tee up the article on Ethan Bear…
C.J. Smith as a preseason outlier
The path from the start of training camp to whittling the group down to an opening day roster sees a volume of moves that follow a somewhat predictable set of steps. The first set of cuts sends a group of 18-19 year old players who are still multiple years away and often with no certainty of ever reaching the NHL back to their junior clubs. A second sizable set of cuts usually precedes or coincide with the start of the AHL training camp dumping a significant number of players into that group. Then the last step is usually more of a step-wise approach that usually includes some predictable cuts that return higher-end junior players to their teams, send veteran AHLers down after an extended look to assess their ability to help at the NHL level if needed and then finally last actual cuts. Because many of the moves that are part of step are reasonably routine and predictable, mostly what I look for at each step of the way for cuts is players that are maybe outliers who would logically have been expected to be gone. Many years ago after the big AHL training camp cuts, Josef Vasicek was surprisingly not on that bus and was instead seeing additional preseason ice time with expected NHLers on his wings. He went on to win the third line center lot. A few years later, undrafted and relative unknown Chad LaRose was a big surprise not to be part of that same round of cuts. He did not make the NHL roster out of training camp, but was one of the first call-ups and became a regular on the 2005-06 Stanley Cup-winning team. More recently, Warren Foegele outlasted other players in his category nearly making the NHL roster way early and then less surprisingly doing so the next fall.
So finally getting to the point after a rambling bit of context and history, one player who stands out in terms of dodging expected cuts right now is C.J. Smith. Smith is a 26-year old fringe AHL/NHL veteran whose experience leans heavily toward the AHL side at this point in his career. As a newcomer on a two-way contract, I would have expected him to be part of the cuts that stocked the AHL training camp along with players like Andrew Poturalski and Spencer Smallman. Instead he is still hanging around at the NHL level. (Note that Stefan Noesen is similar as a newcomer on a two-way contract but still in the mix with the big club.) If the Hurricanes stay healthy at forward, Smith still figures to eventually land at the AHL level to start the season especially if they spend an early-season roster spot to keep Seth Jarvis around at least for an extended look. But longer-term, I think Smith’s lasting this long on the NHL roster does mean something in terms of pecking order for call-ups if the team prefers a fringe AHL/NHL player instead of giving ice time to one of the young guns.
Smith earned his current position with a strong preseason. He has looked good playing without the puck and making himself available for a good number of scoring chances, most notably playing with Ryan Suzuki. Combined with being reasonably responsible defensively and not looking like a ‘gambling for goals’ skill player, he has made a decent case for being a good fit if the team needs a call-up with the potential to chip in some offensively.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the transition goalie-wise as relates to style of pay and puck-handling’s role in how the team advances the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive blue line?
2) On Dougie Hamilton, what do you think of the logic of both being okay with letting him go given terms but at the same time being very concerned about his departure versus being more unanimously pro or con on the move?
3) Anyone else notice and agree on C.J. Smith? On a related note, who else a bit under the radar has made a favorable impression for you during training camp and preseason?