With a disappointing 0-1-1 mark last week on the road, the Hurricanes return home with a 4-5-1 record through 12 games. All is not lost by any means, but the trend is not favorable with four straight losses and an 0-2-2 record in the last four games. The slow start forces Ron Francis and Bill Peters to carefully balance patience and urgency and probably figure out how to deploy some of each to find a higher gear.
The 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes found the ignition key in early December when Ron Francis shook up the roster with a group of AHL call ups. The team responded instantly and played its best hockey following the infusion of young legs and the message sent.
The 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes actually found their stride right about now. After a 3-6-4 start mostly on the road, Peters happened upon a couple line combinations that work and also hitched the team to starting goalie Cam Ward. The result was a five-game winning streak that started on November 12. The ultimately returned to up and down and gave back most of what was gained, but the short burst did at least temporarily right the ship.
Fast forward to the 2017-18 season and where the team is today, and the Hurricanes again need to find some kind of spark or ignition switch before the hole becomes too big and it is too late. I think the time is now for Francis and/or Peters to lean a little bit on the urgent side and pull whatever levers they can to jump start the team.
I would consider three different initiatives right now.
Reach to the AHL not just for depth but for meaningful offensive contributors
Right now, the Checkers are playing well and a couple players who would have been near the top of the call up list anyway are tearing it up at the AHL level. Lucas Wallmark leads the team with 13 points and 10 assists in 11 games, and Valentin Zykov leads the team in goals with seven an is also second in points with 12.
If I had Ron Francis’ job, I would call up both of them and make sure Peters inserts both of them into the lineup in slots where they have a chance to make an impact. Wallmark would center a scoring line with capable wings in place of either Derek Ryan or Victor Rask. Zykov would similarly receive ice time in the top 9 and jump onto one of the power play units with the goal of adding a crease crasher to the mix. To make room for Zykov, one of Brock McGinn or Josh Jooris would slot on the fourth line and the other would receive a few games off.
The AHL call ups could benefit the team on multiple levels. First and most directly, both of these players are hot right now and just might carry it over the NHL level and provide a much-needed scoring boost. Second, it sends a very clear message of urgency to the NHL roster when a couple of regulars find their way to the press box and new players jump straight into top 9 roles. Finally, I think it sends the right message to Charlotte which is suddenly full of Canes prospects. Rewarding players with NHL ice time for strong play in the AHL is exactly how things should work.
Put the team’s best players in a position to help with the biggest problems
In one of multiple examples of Peters rigidly sticking to what he thinks will work instead of adjusting based on actual results, the power play which seems to find new lows each game is still without Jaccob Slavin who has a strong claim to being the team’s best player right now. With scoring being a significant problem right now and the power play sputtering how is trying the team’s best defenseman on one the two power play units not obvious? With nothing else working, why not at least give Slavin the best opportunity possible to boost scoring?
In a somewhat similar vein, I continue to think that Peters should be doing all he can to jump start Sebastian Aho’s game. He has had an up and down 2017-18 campaign thus far and has had stretches during which he as far too quiet, but I continue to think that his offensive ceiling is as high as anyone not named Jeff Skinner on the current Hurricanes roster. If I were coaching the Hurricanes, I would make a concerted effort to put Aho in the best situation possible. I think that means two things. First is to put him in a role that best suits his natural skill set. At his core, Aho is a playmaker whose greatest strength is playing with the puck on his stick as a distributor who can also finish. In that regard, I think best is to slot him with line mates who are more receive/finish types who play well without the puck. That could be a move to his natural center position or could possibly just mean pairing him with a center and opposite wing that affords Aho more time with the puck on his stick. Second is to give him the best possible line mates for reading and reacting without the puck and finishing. I think Williams is a natural fit, and I lean toward Rask in the center slot. But the biggest thing is at least temporarily separating Staal and Aho such that Aho can assume more of a puck carrying/distributing role.
Consider adding coaching help
Though it might have the potential to ruffle some feathers, I would consider options to add coaching help. Because of who is involved, I suggested somewhat gently in an article entitled “5 Carolina Hurricanes predictions for the offseason” on April 20, 2017 that the Hurricanes would make a coaching staff addition. Without an actual opening, I pegged the odds of this happening as fairly low. But as the team tries to transition from rebuilding to winning and given the early season struggles, I think even more so that adding a gray beard to the coaching staff could help. For a modest cost, such an addition would provide more experience with the ups and downs of a long NHL season and another resource for addressing specific shortcomings including the power play.
During the offseason, the options would have been more numerous, and the awkwardness of Francis more or less pushing another coach into the mix would have been significantly less. Who is available and how exactly he accomplishes this during the season is definitely trickier, but perhaps sending a message and ruffling a few feathers within the coaching staff is not the worst thing after another slow start.
To be clear, I am not suggesting firing any of the current staff after only 12 games. The cost for assistant coaches is such that the new coach would just be added to the mix with a “specialist” or other funky title that is becoming more common as teams expand their coaching ranks.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Which, if any, of my three initiatives would you deploy to try to jump start the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes?
2) What else would you do to try to find a higher gear?
3) Which AHL players, if any, would you recall right now, and what slots would you put them in?