Yesterday was a reminder of how difficult it has been to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan at times during the past eight-ish years. No doubt there have been good times mixed in if you are open-minded enough to appreciate them. But largely, the experience of being a Hurricanes fan has had more than its share of downs to go with the ups recently especially as measured by the standings and NHL playoff goodness. Because of that, I think that based on recent history the Carolina Hurricanes fan base is (probably justifiably) a little sensitive and sometimes bordering on paranoid anytime things take even the slightest turn for the worse.
To be clear, I am not casting stones but rather am personally getting in the boat with other fans who get worked up at this point with every downturn.
With a day to digest Tuesday’s loss, today’s Daily Cup of Joe aims to take an objective and even-handed look at the Carolina Hurricanes 2017-18 season thus far and the outlook for it going forward.
I also recommend checking out the volume of insightful reader comments on yesterday’s game in the recap. Those comments offer a wide set of views that of course span the map of positive to negative.
What to make of Tuesday’s loss specifically
I think a good starting point is to consider Tuesday’s loss by itself. I did finish my notes by recognizing that the match up was a tough one, arguably the toughest in the league right now, but I leaned negative in my recap and notes.
Looking at Tuesday by itself, the Tampa Bay thing is significant. The Lightning are now 8-1-1 and were coming fresh off a 7-1 thumping of the defending champion Penguins. The Hurricanes 2-1 loss not counting two empty-netters and last second garbage goal is not a horrible outcome, and even if the Hurricanes had been shellacked like Penguins, it would easily have been a game that one could write off.
Shorter version: Tuesday by itself is a small negative but is nothing to panic about.
Assessment of production through seven games
The Hurricanes’ 3-3-1 mark is not good, but it is not horrible either. It is short of playoff pace but only by about one point. Maybe most significantly, the Hurricanes have successfully lurched out of the starting gate without anything going horribly wrong. So while it is fair to say that a 3-3-1 start is disappointing, the level of damage done is tiny. This might sound strange, but if given the chance to take the Hurricanes 3-3-1 record or replay the games, I would begrudgingly take the 3-3-1 start and move forward. To be clear, 3-3-1 is not great, but I would accept it and the fact that it means the team did not fall coming out of the starting gate rather than risking acceptable potentially for a couple more points.
But what about the current level of play? Is that a cause for concern?
The lack of an identity and winning formula thus far
In a word, yes. The Hurricanes have yet to settle on any kind of repeatable formula that seems likely to generate consistent winning. Rather, the team rode a handful of offensive outbursts to a couple wins (Minnesota, Edmonton), played a single solid game (Calgary) and has struggled otherwise.
Through seven games, it is hard to picture what the good version of the Hurricanes looks like. The lack of an identity and/or winning formula is a cause for concern. If I had to describe the Hurricanes’ success through seven games, I think it could best be characterized as when things click offensively, the team has some scoring ability. Ironically, two of the three wins (the opener against Minnesota and the 5-3 win in Edmonton) featured exactly that despite the fact that I did not think the team played particularly well on either night. Over the course of a long 82-game season, I think the key to consistency is finding an identity and formula that can be replicated with reasonable consistency. That is what makes it possible to string together an extended run of above .500 hockey versus the one step forward, one step back that comes with winning at random.
More specific flaws
In addition, a few flaws have crept up early in the season and will need to be addressed for the team to improve upon its 2016-17 season.
Even strength offense: Most notable is the team’s inability to consistently generate offense and more pointedly goals at even strength. Through seven games, the Hurricanes have only 12 even strength goals Nine of those goals come from the forwards which means that the team is averaging about 1.2 goals per game at even strength from its forwards. In addition, Jeff Skinner’s four is almost half of the total which means the other 11 forwards in the lineup have combined for a measly five even strength goals in seven games. That is simply not enough. I am mostly taking a day off from trying to get Sebastian Aho into a position to use his natural skill set as a playmaker with the puck on his stick, so I will end there.
The power play: The visual and the math on the power play are interesting. The power play currently ranks 17th out of 31 teams which is not great but is fairly close to average. But the visual is worse. The second unit especially is struggling with zone entries and any generating any kind of cohesive puck movement right now. In a few key few instances when a power play goal could have tilted the scales, it has come up empty.
The blue line past the top pairing: As much Canes fans want to just project into the future and declare our blue line to be among the best in the league and an every game strength, it just is not yet. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce continue to do their thing, but just like in 2016-17, the play below them is sporadic at best. I continue to like Haydn Fleury, but understandably, he is still learning and it shows sometimes. Maybe not surprisingly, Klas Dahlbeck struggled on the right side just as he did in 2016-17. And Trevor van Riemsdyk is benefiting from Dahlbeck being the plan B, but in addition to being capable moving the puck, he has found himself in the middle of a few too many mistakes for goals against. The buck ultimately stops or goes with Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk who must be defensively capable for the top 4 to be balanced. Both have been intermittently good enough but in my mind are trying to stretch upward to be stable on an every game basis defensively.
When I net it out, maybe not surprisingly, the forward group that looks pretty similar to the 2016-17 group that finished 20th overall in goal scoring and did not add a pure catalyst this summer is struggling to produce goals again. As of now, the blue line of the future is still about two-thirds in the future. And while I would not pin the Hurricanes troubles on Scott Darling, he has been adequate but not better overall.
Is there hope that things sort themselves out?
I think there is. When the team did not land a catalyst or playmaker this summer, I figured the offense for being somewhere between the same and a modest step up with intermittent struggles from a lineup full of good complementary depth scorers but lacking ignition switches. That said, I think so far the team has undershot even that.
The key is finding some kind of a hot hand or two and identifying some combinations with chemistry. Out of the entire set of forwards, the only group that seems to be clicking in terms of finding chemistry is the fourth line, and unfortunately it is not built to score. I like Lindholm and Staal as two-thirds of a top-end checking line, but in all honesty, I am not sure there is a single set of two players in the top 9 that I would say must be left together.
Part of it is always on the players who step onto the ice, but I think part of it is also on Bill Peters and his coaching staff to find a spark and/or combinations that work. Despite the deficiency or pure top 6 scorers, the team is underperforming its natural ability right now.
The blue line is trickier. The team is currently hitched to Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk being capable top 4 defensemen defensively. Except for a good stretch of hockey to finish out the 2016-17 season, I do not think either player has been that for more than a game here or there over the past few years.
The biggest thing is finding more goals. Lack of scoring puts everything else under the microscope and leaves nothing for margin for error for the defense or goalies. With the current group, I do think there is more scoring possible relative to what we have seen thus far.
How critical are the three games this weekend?
The past couple seasons present a strong case for how hard it is to dig out of even modest holes dug early in the season. Even with a decent and extended push later, figuring things out in December is not good enough if a hole has already been dug.
So while I do not think it is critical that the Hurricanes make some kind of statement and run the table in the next three games. The path of falling just a bit farther behind game by game is a slippery slope. That does put some urgency in the next three games. As disappointing as 1-1-1 would be, I think that version of treading water until the team learns to swim could be a minimum level of acceptable. It is not a playoff pace, but it keeps the team from dipping below .500. I would be thrilled if the Hurricanes could pull out 2 wins in three tries right now against pretty good competition.
What say you Caniacs?
Is it time for some calm and patience?
Or is the team teetering on the edge of real trouble?
And are you expecting a rebound, treading water or continued struggles during the quick three-game stretch that starts on Thursday?