Wednesday night’s game in Vancouver marked exactly the midway point of the Carolina Hurricanes 2015-16 season. The team failed for the third consecutive game to push to break even for the season but is still improved from the 2014-15 pace.
Not sure if I will be able to make time for a broader report card type evaluation, so let me offer some quick thoughts on the Canes thus far while it is still timely.
Both netminders have been a mixed bag. Cam Ward started slow, had a better stretch and then faded quickly. He has been better of late. His 2.45 GAA and modest .903 Sv% are ‘meh’ at best. Eddie Lack struggled mightily to get his feet under him in a Hurricanes uniform but has been better of late. Lack’s overall numbers include a 2.96 GAA and a .890 Sv% which is even worse than ‘meh’, but he is 4-1-2 in his last 7 games with better stats. Some combination of the coaching staff and Lack himself seemed to mostly abandon the attempt to make changes to his style of play recently, so it will be interesting to see if he can get back to what he did in Vancouver starting at about this time last season.
Scoring-wise especially, the forwards have been disappointing, but I do not think the story is quite as 1-sided as the stats might suggest. Most of a still below average power play has just been defenseman Justin Faulk blasting away from the point, and from a forward core light on proven depth, the players who need to score have largely underperformed at least in terms of scoring. Only Victor Rask, who continues to be a bright spot, is on pace for more than 50 points and just barely. At a style of play, effort and basic level, I like both Eric and Jordan Staal’s play, but both are light on the score sheet with Eric on pace for only 48 points and Jordan Staal only 34 points. If you average them out, you get 2 third-line centers with Eric Staal only slightly above that pace and Jordan Staal actually below it. They do more. Their all-around play has been pretty good. But for the Canes to win consistently, they need to produce in addition to just playing reasonably well. Jeff Skinner is an interesting case. I continue to give him credit for making significant strides in his defensive play. And he had 1 absolutely phenomenal scoring burst. And his 30-goal pace is actually not too far off hopes. But his 6 assists and the fact that it pulls his full season scoring pace down to only 42 points suggests that he could do more offensively especially in terms of setting up line mates. Rounding out the players who were expected to be in the top half of the offense, Kris Versteeg’s 22 points in 40 games are okay not great. And maybe most significantly looking to the future. Elias Lindholm has actually taken a step backwards this season. There is still time to make a season of 2015-16, but it is a concern.
The most positive Carolina Hurricanes story for the 2015-16 season has by far been the blue line. When a blue line light on veteran depth (basically started season with 4 veterans and no spares to build out the top 4) lost James Wisniewski in his first shift of the season, the situation looked incredibly dire. From that potentially horrible event has sprung a bunch of positives. Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin have both played reasonable stretches in the top 4. Neither has been perfect, and both need to continue to improve, but jumping straight from college to that level puts them way ahead of schedule. Noah Hanifin has been a mainstay on the third pairing and continues to make step-wise progress as he gets more comfortable. Finally and most notably, just when it seemed that Justin Faulk had hit a peak, he took another step up. After barely missing 50 points last season, I would have been happy with a repeat or even tiny step backward. Instead, Faulk has surged to 14 goals in half a season and is on pace for 60 points. His defensive play has been a bit sporadic, so that is what is left to officially put it all together, but overall he has been the Canes best player, arguably its leader and the fuel that makes the engine go. Hidden behind the rookie headlines, John-Michael Liles has had a solid campaign that has probably boosted his market value if he hits the trade market in February. All in all, the defensive play in 2015-16 has been decent (not great), but the bigger thing is how far ahead of schedule the young group is.
Overall, I think the Canes almost break even results are fairly good. The team obviously was not good in 2014-15 and really did not add much (Versteeg, Nordstrom and Lack plus the rookies) but still has managed to improve. A healthy Jordan Staal has been part of that, but I think the team in general deserves credit.
The burning question with the team playing well in December is whether the improved play is a trend that will continue into the second half of the season or if it was a random burst that will be matched by a random fade.
Stay tuned to find out…