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Much of covering an NHL hockey team during the regular season is constantly evaluating the latest event, usually a game. The results can vary wildly from day to day. The Hurricanes ups and downs of late have been a perfect example of that. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe steps away from the wonder of Saturday’s win and also the negative of Friday’s loss and looks at a few broader trends right now that are at the top of my watch list.
1 – The emergence of Haydn Fleury and eagerness to see what is next
In true Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce-like fashion, Haydn Fleury has jumped right into the NHL looked capable and almost immediately stepped up from there into the top 4 still without missing a beat. Last Friday, I suggested that Fleury could be the key to the entire Hurricanes blue line. His potential to simultaneously help solidify the second pairing that has been an Achilles’ heel for some time now and also put Noah Hanifin comfortably in #5 slot where perhaps he can thrive offensively could boost two-thirds of the defense. On top of that key contribution, it is important to remember that Fleury himself is only 24 games into his NHL career, so it is reasonable to believe that he could have a higher gear himself as he gets his feet under him and then takes the next step up. It is not inconceivable that the somewhat conservative defense-leaning 1.0 version of Fleury has another level offensively as he gets comfortable and grows as a player, especially given that he has shown offensive ability at lower levels.
2 – Noah Hanifin as a high-end, offense-leaning #5 defenseman
After seeing about two hours of Noah Hanifin live for the first time at the Carolina Hurricanes prospect camp shortly after he was drafted, I compared his game and skill set to Joni Pitkanen. At prospect camp playing mostly against other 18-19 year olds, Hanifin showed a propensity to play with the puck on his stick until he had something productive to do with it even if that meant an extra loop in the neutral zone or twirling around the net in the offensive zone. But the 1.0 version of Hanifin that jumped straight into the NHL looked nothing like Joni Pitkanen except for his smooth skating stride. He played an incredibly buttoned down game that focused on safely moving the puck forward without incident and very rarely saw him freelance by using his skating ability with the puck on his stick. That 1.0 version of Noah Hanifin extended for so long that I started to doubt that the inner Pitkanen in Hanifin would never reemerge. But after a couple years building a foundation at the NHL level, Hanifin looks like a different player offensively in 2017-18. He has returned to playing an aggressive game offensively especially on the rush. He more regularly is finding holes and carrying the puck through the neutral zone. And even more significantly that, he has shown an incredibly good knack for joining the rush as a third or fourth player without the puck. The result is that Hanifin has more high quality scoring chances off the rush from between the face-off circles than the vast majority of the team’s forwards. The overtime game-winner on Saturday is the most recent highlight reel version, but it is only one of many good scoring chances for Hanifin this season. Because of Hanifin’s high draft pedigree, the expectation and hope for Hanifin from the beginning was that he would grow to become a high-end, all-around top pairing defenseman, and that is still possible as Hanifin who is only 20 years old continues to mature as a player. But nearer term, if Fleury settles into the #4 slot and helps solidify the second pairing defensively, I think Hanifin could be just as valuable as an offense-leaning #5. One of the biggest weaknesses of the 2016-17 team was scoring and that weakness has been addressed only intermittently thus far in 2017-18. The advantage of Hanifin filling this role in the #5 slot is that Peters can be more selective and steer Hanifin toward offensively-favorable match ups that fit well with playing an aggressive, attacking brand of hockey.
I originally had Fleury and Hanifin as 1a and 1b because I think the roles identified for them are interrelated. One of them must log a bunch of minutes in a top 4 role that especially on the road means facing off against the NHL’s top scorers on many shifts. The other is freed up if you will to play in a somewhat less demanding slot defensively which could in theory make it possible to focus more on generating offense.
3 – The need for more consistent and steady goaltending
The goaltending roller coaster has been strange over the past couple weeks. We are only a couple weeks away from a pair of weekend wins that saw Scott Darling and Cam Ward take turns standing on their heads stealing wins on nights when the defense in front of them was not very good. Since then, Canes fans have witnessed a run of increasingly softer goals of the back-breaking variety. Darling did net a win with a strong overtime and shootout performance last Sunday against Nashville and Ward seemed to stop the bleeding to some degree in Saturday’s big win over Florida, so there is hope that the roller coaster is getting ready to turn back up. But more so than an upturn, the team needs the goalies to consistently play at a level of ‘at least decent’ on many more nights. I think it will be incredibly hard to push up into the playoffs if the Hurricanes do not get at least league average goaltending and more consistency over the rest of the 2017-18 season.
All eyes are on Scott Darling. Through 25 games, his season can best be described as up and down. He probably has had enough good starts, but the problem is that too many of his lesser starts were the kind that almost certainly lose hockey games. Ideally, he needs to be steadier such that he keeps the good outings and upgrades the bad outings to at least be decent such that the team in front of him gets a fair chance win or at least claim an overtime loss point on those nights.
4 – Justin Williams and Saturday’s feistiness
Following Friday’s loss to the New York Rangers, an agitated Justin Williams did a post-game interview. There was none of the standard, nondescript and meaningless “calm and cliches” fare that usually fills the obligatory post-game interviews after a loss. Williams instead struck a decidedly “that’s not good enough, and I’m POed about it” tone in his responses. I commented in my post-game that I hoped it was contagious and showed up X3 in Saturday’s game. And it did. Williams himself spent a ton of time battling for ice in front of the opposing team’s crease. The Hurricanes played a physical, determined and snarly brand of hockey and backed down from nothing physically, even a couple fights. And despite not catching much for breaks in a strong first period, the Hurricanes stayed the course and grinded out a much-needed win to salvage a treading water 1-1-1 week.
The burning question right now and the thing I will be watching most closely when the Hurricanes take to the ice in Vancouver on Tuesday night is the path forward from Saturday’s game. Is that level of extra intensity, determination and even a bit of snarl something that can only be mustered up when things get back every few weeks or so? Or can Justin Williams and a game like Saturday’s cause a change in attitude and intensity that shows up on an every game basis? The former is likely a recipe for collecting just enough wins on the needed nights to avoid completely drowning but still seems destined to see the rest of the Metropolitan Division swim away. I think hope for the latter is exactly what Ron Francis was aiming for when he spent his biggest chunk of money this summer bringing in Justin Williams, and I also think finding a gear that is one notch higher EVERY night (not just every so often) is likely one key ingredient to pushing above the playoff cut line.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Which of these four stories is most significant in your opinion?
2) What other top stories are you following with the Carolina Hurricanes right now?