My rough math says that a team must get two-thirds of the available points at home and half of the available points on the road. That yields a total of 95.7 points which is usually a point or two above the cut line.
In 2016-17, a late surge earned the Hurricanes very close to what they needed at home with 52 points compared the math which calls for 54.7. But on the road, the Hurricanes floundered and finished with a meager 35 points at home which was better than only Buffalo, Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Especially during the tough stretch of hockey that mostly doomed the 2016-17 season by end of December, the Hurricanes struggled away from home. When the calendar flipped to the new year, the Hurricanes were 5-10-6 on the road.
Multiple factors play into the struggles, but at the most basic level I do not think the Hurricanes roster was deep enough to be balanced. Whereas at home Bill Peters could selectively choose match ups, on the road opposing coaches preyed on the team’s weaknesses on the blue line and with forward depth.
With a team that is becoming gradually deeper, the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes will embark on their first road trip of the season. Thanks to a regularly scheduled start to the season with no World Cup this year, the Hurricanes managed two games at home before the North Carolina State Fair road trip which is also only a modest four games. Even with the smaller challenge, the next set of four games will offer an early read on the team’s ability to fare better away from home.
During the four-game trip, I will be watching for a few things to get an early gauge on three things — whether personnel additions help, whether the returning defensemen can be better and what Bill Peters’ strategy will be.
The personnel additions
Justin Williams was the headline addition at the forward position this summer, and his heady all-around play and puck possession skill set undoubtedly make the Hurricanes a better road team. But the bigger move in terms of road play could actually be Marcus Kruger. Kruger brings defensive acumen and a ton experience taking on tough match ups from his role leading a match up-focused third line in Chicago. As long as Kruger’s line is solid (which it has been through two games), he gives Peters a second solid checking line option to roll right behind Staal’s on the road. Last season, coaches who wanted to steer a scoring line around Staal’s to play against a lesser line defensively just had to skip an occasional shift to dodge Staal. In 2017-18, opposing coaches will still have this option, but Peters will have the ability to follow Staal’s line with Kruger’s. To land on a significantly better match up an opposing oach would have to hold his scoring line out for two shifts and possibly even risk seeing Staal anyway if Peters gets Staal’s line off the ice quickly and comes right back to them once in awhile.
The key here is that Kruger’s line needs to be good. I am on record as liking Brock McGinn’s play through two games, and from the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ style of coaching, I figure the fourth line stays intact for game three. But depending on how Kruger’s line looks against tough match ups on the road, I could see Peters going with more defense in Josh Jooris on the road.
Past Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury are also new to the 2017-18 roster. The third pairing was another on the list of Achilles’ heels that were just too many to hide on the road in 2016-17.
The blue line stepping up
Fairly early in the 2016-17 season, Peters found a model/strategy that worked fairly well at home. The simple approach was the stack his lineup and play best on best. He played his best two defensemen, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, together and even tried to support them with Jordan Staal’s line when possible. Not only did Slavin/Pesce hold their own, but they thrived.
But the road was a completely different story. There, opposing coaches steered their scoring lines away from Slavin/Pesce and instead successfully preyed on the Hainsey/Faulk pairing. Especially in November and December when the season was crumbling, Hainsey/Faulk struggled on the road even with Peters trying to support them with help from Staal’s line.
Fast forward to today and only one period into the 2017-18 season, Peters abandoned the balanced top four on defense and returned to Slavin/Pesce leaving Hanifin/Faulk as the second pairing. The duo had a run of good hockey together last March and played well on Tuesday. And Peters does have greater ability to provide some support with both Staal’s and Kruger’s line at his disposal now. But at the end of the day, in the current configuration, Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk will need to be steady and sound on the road.
I actually think that the way things will resolve themselves is that Peters will eventually resort to having different combinations at home versus the road with home featuring the top-heavy defense from 2016-17 and the road featuring a balanced set with Pesce and Slavin split apart. But I do not think that is likely to happen right out of the gate on the road. Rather, I think Peters will initially try the home lineup.
Coach Bill Peters’ strategy
Bill Peters tried all kinds of things on the road last year. Most significant was probably trying to support Hainsey/Faulk with Staal’s line which did not seem to help enough. Less textbook was how Peters went ‘random line combination’ mode in March. More or less trying to make it difficult to for opposing coaches to identify combinations and select match ups, Peters took to icing some seemingly random line combinations here and there. The aim was to get a player or two that he wanted on the ice against certain players even if it meant what looked like constant line juggling. And the aim was also to make it harder for opposing coaches to read lines based on the first player over the boards or the regular sequence.
Teams regularly make minor adjustments for home versus road hockey, but per my comments above, my wild guess is that Peters ultimately ends up with fairly significantly different lines/combinations and strategies on home versus the road. First up however, is trying the defense pairings he has used thus far.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Do you think the team’s gradually increasing depth and balance will be what it takes to shore up the team on the road without Bill Peters needing to use gimmickry, trickery and whatever else to be avoid catastrophic match ups on the road?
2) Do you think the top two pairings (Slavin/Pesce, Hanifin/Faulk) will hold up on road? Will they be good enough? Or will Peters be forced to balance them out by splitting Slavin and Pesce?