With a day to let the abrupt and disappointing ending to the 2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes season settle in, today begins the off-season journey both looking back at the previous season and considering moves to build the 2022-23 season.
Tentative plan is to alternate back and forth between looking back at the 2021-22 season and considering how best to
A good starting point is considering how it ended with the loss to the New York Rangers.
If I had to boil it down to a couple key factors, it would be the following:
Summing it up – Fatal flaws
1) Rangers’ goalie advantage
After that not so much being the case in a very up and down first round series versus the Penguins, Igor Shesterkin was very good against the Hurricanes. With the power of hindsight now in hand, I think the key game of the series was actually game 4 not game 7. After the Canes were part lucky and part good winning two low-scoring coin flips in Raleigh to start the series, they needed only one win in New York to return up 3-1 and in control of the series. After a ‘meh’ effort and deserved loss in game 3, in game 4 the Canes were decent defensively on the road, received solid netminding from Raanta and generally controlled play. The Canes peppered Shesterkin with 44 shots on net and generally did a decent job of getting traffic to the crease. But despite probably deserving better, Niederreiter’s goal at about the midway point pulled the Canes only within a goal at 2-1. Even with a decent number of chances, the Canes never got closer. Game 4 was the one that Shesterkin truly stole, and I think that was the difference in the series. Shesterkin logged a .949 save percentage and boosted his team during many stretches during which the Canes were better. Important to note is that saying that the Shesterkin was a difference-maker in the series is not to say that Raanta was necessarily a problem. He was horrible in game 6 which cost the Canes any chance to win that game. But game 6 aside, Raanta gave his team a chance to win and was not the problem in the series loss.
Upshot for the off-season: In an ideal world, the Canes would add an elite goalie during the off-season. But that is impossible. Such a player is not available this year nor is such a player available most years. The rare recent example of such an opportunity was Sergey Bobrowski, who required an eight-year contract for $10 million per year at 31 years old. No thanks for that risk/reward tradeoff. For all of the areas where I think the Canes do need to and can improve, I do not think goaltending is one of them. Andersen’s injury was unfortunate, but he was good during the regular season. Raanta proved to be a capable backup who gave the Canes a chance in the playoffs. And Kochetkov has the potential to be next in line in net.
2) Special teams deficit
Arguably the most frustrating problem during the playoffs was the Hurricanes’ special teams struggles. After leading the NHL in penalty kill during the regular season, the penalty kill dipped at the worst time. And the power play that struggled down the stretch of the regular season never regained its footing. Playing at minus a goal or two on special teams in many games is a really tough starting point for any playoff series. The Canes barely survived it in the first round win over the Bruins, but that Achilles’ heel played a huge role in the Canes demise versus the Rangers. Game 7 was mostly decided by the end of the first period when the Rangers capitalized on consecutive power plays while the Canes were 0 for 2 for a quick tw0-goal deficit. The Canes did add a power play goal late when the game was mostly already decided, but when the outcome was in play the Canes were minus 2 goals on special teams in both game 6 and 7. A couple big shorthanded goals significantly helped the Canes cause, but the penalty kill was only 14 for 21 for 66.7% in the series. Paired with a 2 for 18 on the power play for 11.1%, and the Canes lost the special teams battle. More significantly, the two losses to end the series were where the deficit emerged most.
By the end of the playoffs, I could tell you with reasonable certainty, that the net front presence and the other player down near the goal line were going to move very little and rarely touch the puck such that puck movement was too much limited to the three players at the top of the umbrella and almost always on the perimeter. The puck was going to move 1-2-3 across the top of the umbrella. And teams did a good job of anticipating passes and taking away time and space on the two wings such that those players were mostly limited to shooting into traffic on occasion. More than anything, I think the team could have benefitted from having players like Teravainen, Aho and others serve more as playmakers versus being too much limited to being shooting options.
Upshot for the off-season: For both the power play and the penalty kill, I do not think it is so much personnel. The Canes could use a power forward who is a skilled finisher around the net as an upgrade to one of the two low spots. But there is enough scoring talent there. And on the penalty kill, I similarly do not think it is a significant deficit in terms of personnel. Rather, I think this one falls a bit on the coaching staff. The power play became very predictable, slow-moving and stagnant down the stretch of the regular season, and nothing really seemed to change over the course of 7-8 weeks. I think some of the rumblings trying to pin the season end on Brind’Amour is in total silly, but I do think the coaching staff’s fair share of the second round loss is its inability to make any helpful adjustments for the power play.
3) Not enough from top scorers
Before the playoffs began, one of the factors that I named that would determine how deep the Canes went in the playoffs was whether they could get enough goal scoring from at least two from Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Max Domi. Two from that group needed to produce as top 6 scoring forwards to go with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and Vincent Trocheck. The Hurricanes did not get enough scoring from that group which makes it really hard to score enough with a balanced lineup and a third line that leans checking over scoring. In 14 playoff games, neither Kotkaniemi nor Necas scored a single goal playing mostly together on the fourth line and both were basically non-factors on an every-game basis in the playoffs. Max Domi had one game for the ages scoring two goals to lead the Canes to the game 7 win over the Bruins but was also mostly a non-factor offensively. I thought Jarvis had a great first playoffs for a young rookie. The key words here are “for a young rookie”. His three goals in 14 games for a 17-goal pace over 82 games are also just not enough from a top 6 scoring wing for a playoff team. Then if you add in Svechnikov’s underwhelming playoffs that saw him collect only two points of significance over 14 playoff games, and the Canes were just really light offensively. His breakaway goal in game 5 to put the Canes up 3-1 was a huge one, but maybe the only scoring point he had in the Rangers series and probably his only scoring point of the playoffs with any significance. (Svechnikov’s four goals and one assist for the playoffs included an empty net goal, an empty net assist and a goal really late in a 5-1 game.
Aho, Teravainen and Trocheck produced even if intermittently and more at a balanced scoring kind of level instead of a true top-tier scorer level. Though it was enough to sneak by the Bruins and nearly enough to sneak by the Rangers, there just were not enough top 6 type contributors on the score sheet.
Upshot for the off-season: With the top-end offensive core that I would consider to be Aho, Svechnikov and Teravainen, I think patience is required. Svechnikov just needs to be better for this team to take a next step, and though the 2022 playoffs were not a positive sign in that regard, I would bet again on him. The skill is there, and equally importantly I think the intangibles like effort level/desire, coachability, etc. are too. Because he jumped straight to the NHL, it is maybe hard to remember that Svechnikov is barely past 22 years old and still growing as a player. For Aho and Teravainen, the necessary realization might just be that they are great offensive and all-around players but not quite at the truly elite level. If one takes that to be accurate and does not assume a higher level for them, the upshot is that the team needs to be deeper offensively. That is especially challenging with a third line that is excellent in its role but also a bit light on scoring. And at the end of the day it gets back to where I started with the forward group for the playoffs which is to say that they really need to be two full lines and six players deep with productive scoring forwards. So that makes the off-season work to figure out how to get more from a couple young forwards and/or add a player or two (another power forward with size could help) to round out the top 6.
Summing it up – Positives
1) Jordan Staal’s line doing its job
The way an NHL hockey team is constructed, different players and groups of players have different roles. The Nino Niederreiter/Jordan Staal/Jesper Fast line had the role of matching up against the other team’s top scoring line on home ice and shutting them down. Going against Marchand and Bergeron in the first series and the Zibanejad and Kreider in the second series, Staal’s line excelled in its role. Not counting the empty-netter at the end of game 7, Zibanejad had only one even strength point (an assist) in Raleigh and an even strength goal against Staal’s line in New York. Without the play of Jordan Staal’s line, the Canes would have not have made it to game 7 in either round.
2) Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin
Continuing with the theme of the Canes defense, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were both solid as expected in the playoffs. In an ideal world, the Hurricanes would have a higher-end #3 defensemen and a steady and solid #4 such that they could play together. But even separated, each serves as an anchor for his respective defense pairing. Each’s partner was up and down a bit in the Rangers series and in the playoffs in general which made their level of play even more impressive. Whether playing together or separate, the duo continues to be the core around which the blue line will be built.
3) Strength down the middle
The Canes matched up reasonably well down the middle against both the Bruins and the Rangers. Per #1 above, Jordan Staal is a bit limited offensively (except for break out 2020-21 season) but excels at what he does in a match up role defensively. Aho had some ups and downs playing head to head against the Rangers’ and Bruins’ top lines on the road, but the half-full version of his playoffs also included his all-important game-tying goal late in game 1 and his pretty shorthanded assist to Brendan Smith to win game 2. So while Aho does have room to grow as a playoff performer, it is not as if he did not make some plays to win games. Vincent Trocheck similarly contributed. He is consistently tenacious and looks to shoot. The issue with the Canes offensively was more so that they did not get enough from the wings. One of the burning questions for me entering the off-season is whether the Canes just need to upgrade at that position or if perhaps it is that Aho and Trocheck are not great at making those around them better.
What say you Canes fans?
1) If you had boil down the playoffs into a couple Canes positives for the Rangers series (and including the Bruins series if you wish), what would they be?
2) If you had to similarly boil down the fatal flaws for the Rangers series (and again including the Bruins series if you wish), what would they be?