After five days off, the Carolina Hurricanes will return to the ice in Columbus on Thursday. Coming off a stretch with three losses in four games, timing was right for a few consecutive days of practice to try to clean up a few areas of the Hurricanes game that had deteriorated. Below is a short list of watch points coming out of the the break.
Special teams issues
1) Taking fewer penalties
The Hurricanes have surrendered 37 power play opportunities in only 9 games. That ranks fourth in the NHL and in the Eastern Conference is better than only the Devils, Senators and Rangers who not coincidentally are the bottom three teams in the conference. What has stood out is the volume of unnecessary penalties in the offensive zone and with some repeat offenders. Nino Niederreiter who is still trying to launch into the 2019-20 season has taken six minor penalties already. Andrei Svechnikov has had a few of the same lapses that plagued him in 2018-19 and has five minor penalties. Usually unpenalized Jordan Staal has taken four minor penalties. In general, the team has been sloppy in this regard.
2) The penalty kill
To make matters worse, the Hurricanes penalty kill has struggled a bit of late. After a decent start and a leading role in the win over the Capitals in the game of the season, the penalty kill has sputtered a bit giving up seven power play goals in 28 penalty kills in the seven games since. Two things stand out to me from assessing the penalty kill. The team has not been as effective at denying entry. In recent games, the Canes have been unable to pressure the puck when the opponent is in the offensive zone.
3) The power play
After a decent start, the Hurricanes power play has fallen to 17th in the NHL. In addition, what was originally the first power play unit led by Sebastian Aho has been a non-factor with only one goal. The other five power play goals have been scored by the second unit. With the additions over the off-season, the team seems to have enough weapons. Finding a higher gear with the man advantage would be a nice scoring gain with the potential to be a difference-maker in close games.
4) Sebastian Aho
After a quiet start, a bit of a break from the pressure from trying to get going offensive could be just what the doctor ordered for a few players. For Sebastian Aho in particular, he started quietly but at least sporadically has been making things happen in more recent games. One concern with Aho at this point now slumping a bit nine games into the season is that he has shown some Jeff Skinner-like tendencies to start pushing a bit in the wrong way and letting up on his two-way play in the process. Might Aho’s at least up and down play of late be a sign that he is ready to break out? Could five days off to recharge and start anew be a trigger for Aho? One can hope.
5) Nino Niederreiter
Even more than Aho, Nino Niederreiter could use a fresh start. He has been some combination of snake bit and just not precise enough with a decent volume of scoring chances of late. And maybe because he is pressing, Niederreiter has also been a frequent penalty culprit of late. Here is hoping that Niederreiter can use the break to reset and start anew.
6) Andrei Svechnikov
Svechnikov is not nearly in the same category as Aho and Niederreiter who have underperformed in terms of offensive production. Svechnikov is tied for the team lead with Teuvo Teravainen with seven assists. And he has also been a going concern driving play 5-on-5 and also playing a role on the successful power play unit. But he has another gear offensively in terms of goal scoring that will hopefully emerge as the season wears on. So with Svechnikov the aim is not so much to be significantly better as it is to boost goal scoring a bit.
7) Jake Gardiner
Also from the category of not being a huge negative, Jake Gardiner has another gear offensively. Thus far, Gardiner has acclimated well to his new team, but has yet to really get on track as the offensive difference-maker that he can be. He has only one goal and one assist and has yet to tally a power play point as the center point man on the first unit that has struggled thus far. The next leg up for Gardiner after a decent start on the defensive side of the puck is to bring more offensively both 5-on-5 and on the power play.
Attention to detail
8) Defensive zone play
Another area of concern of late has been the team’s play in their own end both in terms of managing and clearing pucks and also in terms of defensive zone coverage when the other team has the puck. Even in a few games where the Hurricanes had the better of play in terms of puck possession and offensive zone time, the team has given up too many chances from break downs.
9) The forecheck
Last but definitely not least is the forecheck. I dedicated an entire Daily Cup of Joe to this on Monday. The relentless forecheck was the identity of the team in 2018-19 and also a key catalyst for the offense. Though there have been a few powerful bursts that suggest the 2018-19 level of forecheck is possible again, in total the forecheck has been ‘meh’ at best. Regaining that strength could go a long way toward providing even more offense across the lineup, minimizing the amount of defense the team has to play and establishing an identity.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which of these watch points do you see as most critical for continued success during the 2019-20 season?
2) What else do you see as watch points coming out of the long break?