Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is a catch all of random notes from the past week or so that have not yet made it into another post.
Jaccob Slavin’s hands and puck handling
Earlier this season, we learned that Jaccob Slavin was not only capable of playing on his off side but actually prefers it. Especially after watching Michal Jordan struggle mightily and look like a completely different player trying to play on his off side next to John-Michael Liles, this is significant news. If he can also play on his natural left side (have seen only very limited ice time of this including most of Wednesday’s game with much of it next to Justin Faulk) it provides some flexibility as the Canes try to build out the defense in the future without knowing for certain which young players will work out and not.
Now 20+ games into seeing Slavin play mostly on the right side as a lefty, Canes fans have a pretty good idea of what it looks like. At a very basic level, it looks natural. Slavin defends and receives, handles and carries the puck and makes it look easy with incredibly few instances when he appears to be in a tougher spot or challenged because of playing on the right side.
It has looked so natural that I think we as Canes fans are mostly missing how incredibly good he is at doing some things that can be incredibly hard (again reference Michal Jordan). The volume of stick handling and minor skating adjustments that he makes on a regular basis is incredible and underappreciated. He actually carries the puck on his backhand at times to protect which is real uncomfortable for most defensemen. He regularly goes backhand receive to forehand carry within the split second that you get to receive the puck and also figure out what is coming for pressure and what you need to do.
The power play
Fairly recently, the Hurricanes power play saw a solid uptick in scoring. Most significantly, it was not simply Justin Faulk dialing up from his already astronomical goal-scoring pace to yet another level. The power play FINALLY started to look better and create more chances of a more diverse variety. The rise of Hanifin in the role of carrying the puck up the ice and gaining successful entry to the offensive zone with the puck intact paid huge dividends. Just being able to actual play offense from a much greater portion of power plays is obviously a good thing. And puck movement coupled with some finishing saw a few different players net goals. But right about the time that Canes fans declared the power play woes solved, the team hit another dry spell. It has not scored on the power play in the last 7 games dating all the way back to December 19.
So what has happened?
First, it is important to note that the dry spell has been characterized by lack of success obviously but also just simply lack of volume. The Canes have only 12 power play chances in those 7 games before Wednesday in Vancouver and have seen games of 0 power plays once and only 1 power play 3 times over that stretch. The other glaring thing at first glance is that Justin Faulk has not scored a power play goal (He does have 2 at even strength during that time frame.) during that stretch.
While I think there is definitely an element of ‘Faulk was due to cool down at some point’ and also the effects of too few chances, I think there are also some adjustments to be made primarily to counter adjustments made by other teams.
Teams have adjusted to take away time, space and most importantly shooting lanes for Justin Faulk. Opposing teams’ high forward on Faulk’s side is oftentimes almost playing man on him even when the puck is on the half wall on that side. That has a player right in Faulk’s kitchen when he receives the puck. Maybe more significantly, teams are also starting to cheat the other side forward into the middle of the rink. This offers help when Faulk makes a small but quick move across either right before, during or right after receiving the puck which he did so well early in the season to open up shooting lanes that were not there initially early in the season.
There is no surprise here. The Canes were a team getting 80% of their power play production from a single player from the same general place. (Faulk does have at least 1 backdoor goal, but the majority are blasts from the point.) Teams were obviously going to adjust to take away or at least limit that, and they have.
The result is that 1 if not 2 penalty killers are cheating to take away the point shot for Faulk on his side of the ice both for where he is and the next shooting lane (or even 2) over.
With 5 against 4 and 2 players cheating a bit, one would figure that something else is open which is of course true. First, with the second forward cheating a bit to the middle, there should be a ton of room for shooting from the other point. There generally has been. The issue here is that Noah Hanifin just does not have much for a blast from the point at this stage of his career, so teams are fine with leaving that shooting lane open, clearing the visual line in front of him and just letting the goalie handle that shot. Without a screen or deflection, Hanifin just is not going to beat many, if any, NHL goalies from that far out at this early point in his career. I am not sure he is an ideal option either, but perhaps John-Michael Liles can exploit this opening a bit more. The other simple answer is to use this shooting lane but make a much more concerted effort to get bodies there first aiming for the deflection or screened goal that I mentioned. The other opening should be right underneath the forechecker coming out at Faulk. Teams are overcommitting to taking away Faulk’s shot (as they should) to such a high degree that there should be room to quickly create a 3-on-2 right underneath the forward in front of Faulk if the Canes can move the puck and their feet quickly enough. The basic idea is to play 3 on that side (1 at side of net, 1 at half wall, Faulk at point) with another player in the middle/in front of the net. If Faulk can catch both forwards cheating just a little bit, there should be a 3-on-2 underneath it also with a good chance for a backdoor opportunity for the other Canes defensemen.
Regardless of the detailed Xs and Os, teams are playing much more aggressively to limit the volume, time and quality of Faulk’s point shots on the power play as they should. The ball is in Rod Brind’Amour’s court to adjust and take advantage of the situation.
What might be worth adjusting?
* Try another option on the other point looking to take advantage of that shooting lane. As much as I hate to remove Hanifin’s success gaining entry to the offensive zone, it might be time to try Liles here. Hanifin could bring the same skill set to the other unit.
* Work on using Faulk as more of a puck distributor than a trigger man. It will vary a bit by team and how aggressively specific off-side forwards cheat, but having Faulk receive the puck a bit more toward the middle of the ice will at times have not 1 but 2 penalty killers at least slightly out of position to defend anything else. The idea is to quickly get the puck underneath the forwards and get to playing 3v2 (also with backdoor possibility) quickly before they can recover.
One of the most fun and challenging things in the NHL special teams is the cat and mouse that goes on with scouting and adjustments. When you figure out something that works, it fairly quickly gets taken away which forces a next move to exploit opponents’ original adjustments. The ball is in Rod Brind’Amour’s court again.
Ron Francis and the trade deadline
By this time in recent years, the Twitter rumblings of Canes fans calling for the team to tank the season had grown. Especially last season with the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes, many thought that losing was the only way to go. While I get the rationale of paying for the future with losses in the present, I just cannot bring myself to root against my team, especially at home in PNC Arena. But by late January, it has been obvious and acceptable that the team was looking to sell off soon-to-be free agent veterans to collect futures for rebuilding. Only 3-4 weeks ago the Carolina Hurricanes were clearly on that same trajectory.
But with a strong December, the situation is completely different. The Canes are still near the bottom of the standings, but the gap has narrowed significantly. The team is very much playing games that matter still. Per my introduction to this point, that is a good thing in my book, but if it continues, it could make things challenging for GM Ron Francis as the trade deadline approaches. Does he continue with the rebuilding plan and collect more futures, especially in the case of players who could yield a significant return (i.e. Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg)? Or does he play for 2015-16 even if the odds are against him? Or is there a hybrid version of these things?
It partly depends on the trade market in February, but I think there could be a case for a hybrid model that sees Ron Francis as both a buyer and a seller. With the forwards prospect pool shallower and farther out, maybe Francis trades modest futures for young forwards who help the team both now but very importantly are part of the long-term future too. I am not talking about veteran rentals who will be free agents this summer. I am talking about trades that add players who are 25 years old or younger, could slot on the NHL roster now and equally importantly could project as a top 9 forward for a long time to come. Proposing specific trades always draws ire from a half dozen people blasting the trade, but for the sake of example, think something like Ryan Murphy for Kerby Rychel. The Canes improve for 2015-16 but not at the expense of the future. Then possibly you couple that with trading some but not all of the free agent veterans. The result is that the Canes still collect some futures, do have to depart with some veterans versus losing them for nothing next July, but they do so in a way that adds both today/tomorrow forwards.
Regardless, if the Canes hit a wall with their current play and fall in the standings by mid-February, I think the plan becomes obvious – sell what you can and add assets for the future. But if the Canes take even a couple more modest steps forward in the standings, the decisions get much harder for GM Ron Francis. Here is hoping that the Canes are in a place in mid-February that has the team’s fans debating what Francis should do.