In the midst of a 3-7-2 run starting in mid-February leading up to the trade deadline and the playoff stretch run, the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2017-18 season feels like a dumpster fire right now. Making a list of what’s broken seems much easier than building a list of foundations to be kept for the next attempt to push up and into the playoffs. And the volume of problems seems big enough, especially on the day of a Canes loss, that one could easily just wander from one problem to the next without any semblance of which are more important.
The better time to assess it all will be after the conclusion of the season and with some time to decompress and then try to digest and make sense of it all.
Nonetheless, today’s Daily Cup of Joe will make an early attempt to identify the biggest missteps that have the 2017-18 season teetering very close to collapse.
1) The decision to add Scott Darling
Francis made a concerted and targeted move to add Scott Darling to improve the team’s goaltending which was among he worst in the NHL in 2016-17. The move has not worked out (which is an understatement) and arguably is the single most influential factor in costing Francis his general manager job.
As detailed in my article on the Hurricanes goalie situation on January 23, the Hurricanes were the only team who really missed out of five teams who added starting netminders last summer. The debate on where the blame lies and how bad it is for Scott Darling’s 2017-18 play is fresh in the comments from yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe that looks forward to the offseason and the 2018-19 season, so I will not rehash that. But regardless of where blame should go, if there Hurricanes were able to squeak just a couple games above .500 with Darling in net, the team would be tied with Columbus right now with the two teams sitting in the two wild card slots.
2) The decision not to add an offensive catalyst
When looking through high-level measurements to find weaknesses, the Hurricanes #27 ranking in goal scoring stands out like a sore thumb. Entering the offseason with a team that finished 21st in the NHL in scoring in 2016-17 and needing an upgrade scoring-wise, Francis added leadership and a great two-way veteran in Justin Williams and rebuilt the fourth line with light scoring veterans. Williams has been a positive, but arguably did not address the team’s most glaring weakness at forward, and the fourth line has since been mostly disassembled with Josh Jooris traded to Pittsburgh and Marcus Kruger toiling away in the AHL. Scoring continues to be a problem and just like goaltending will again enter the offseason as a top item to be addressed. The very first part of my long-running series last summer that aimed to build a playoff team very specifically called out the need for a top 6 forward capable of driving offense. In a combined fit of deja vu and painful irony, I will probably be able to use much of that article when I write similar in a couple months.
3) The failure of the blue line to materialize as a true strength
The potential for the Hurricanes blue line to be a strength that drives wins remains intact. But the key word is “potential.” That reality did not really materialize in 2017-18. Leaders Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had somewhat similar seasons to 2016-17 but arguably took a small step backward with a tough stretch in the middle of the season. Further, the offensive part of their game has yet to catch up to their defensive play. Noah Hanifin made strides early in the year on the offensive side of the puck, but now at 229 games of NHL experience, he still rates as a third pairing defenseman with the potential to be a first or second pairing defenseman. And Justin Faulk who entered the 2016-17 season as arguably the team’s #1 defenseman has struggled more than he hasn’t for two full years. The defensive part of his game just has not been good enough in 2017-18 such I view him on a good team as being a solid offensive #5 defenseman but not an every game top 4. The group can go six deep with big, mobile, skating defensemen and has had its share of good games, but inconsistency and sub-par offensive production put the blue at average at best and still a ways away from being a catalyst for consistent winning hockey.
4) The choice to name dual captains and not Justin Williams
We will maybe never know the series of events from June through October that saw the Hurricanes go from being non-commital on naming a captain to suddenly saying they would name a captain to adding a potential captain to in the end not really making an actual decision on the captain. With the way Williams talked after his signing, he said the right things about doing what was needed but at the same time very much felt like a captain. In my article on July 9, I thought that Williams would be named the captain and also offered my early claim that the team needed a ‘jolt’ of some kind. Did Francis sign him intending for him to be the captain, but then Peters chose otherwise? Was Williams’ tone just that of a leader and necessarily indicative of what he expected in terms of a formal leadership role? Was the intent all along just to have Williams to reinforce the leadership group? How did the brain trust arrive at the choice to not really make a choice and instead have two captains?
We will never know for certain, but there is some possibility that a different direction with this decision could have mattered.
5) The decision not to add more veteran coaching help
A less headline-ish thought on the whole situation is that I think that Bill Peters and the team in total could have greatly benefited from the addition of one more experienced person on the coaching staff. With a couple years at the helm of a team mostly rebuilding and not expected to win, the 2017-18 season represents the first for Bill Peters with the pressure and everything that comes with coaching a team that needed to make the playoffs. Shortly after the conclusion of the 2016-17 season on April 20, I put forward five predictions for the offseason (and actually went 4 out of 5 :-). My one miss was predicting that the Hurricanes would add another experienced coach with a specialist or similar title. My thinking was that Francis would recognize that 2017-18 was a different animal with the rebuilding over and time to win arriving and that he would offer, encourage or whatever else necessary to get Bill Peters to add one more experienced coach to his staff. Especially at times when the team seemed to get stuck in ruts, I wonder if having one more battle tested viewpoint could have made a difference.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Do agree with this list and its order?
2) What would you add or subtract?