Usually, my ‘What I’m watching’ is a game day article.But with hockey now only a day away after a four-month layoff, I think it is fair to jump into it a bit early especially given the unprecedented circumstances with the game being the lone exhibition game before parachuting straight into playoff hockey only three days later.
So today’s Daily Cup of Joe has at least a first set of watch points for the Canes exhibition game against the Capitals on Wednesday at 4pm.
General team level
Under Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes have generally been fast out of the gate in preseason. Other teams catch up by the start of the regular season which is all that matters, but under normal circumstances that is three weeks later. Is that preseason advantage mostly a function of the fact that the games do not matter? Or is it something that will repeat even when the games matter? Teams that take a week or two to get up to speed will likely exit the bubble quickly and start looking toward the 2020-21 season. So on Wednesday, I will be watching closely to see if the Canes seem to have the same advantage in terms of jump and intensity.
After a four-month layoff from real games, there is likely to be some sloppiness. The question will be which teams can shake off any rust and find at least a mid-season rhythm sooner rather than later. Wednesday represents a first look at how ready the Canes are to play real hockey with a good measuring stick on the other bench.
Rod Brind’Amour and the combinations
Regular preseason games feature a ton of randomness. Sub-NHL players get ice time to be evaluated. And coaches regularly experiment quite a bit with forward line and defense pairing combinations. But with only a single preseason game before starting the playoffs three days later, this exhibition game is a different animal. One would figure that Brind’Amour ice his current thoughts on what Saturday’s combinations will be. So what we see for combinations is likely close to what the team will use Saturday. In that same vein, it will be interesting to see if/how much he tinkers based on what he sees in the early going. In 2018-19, Brind’Amour held steadfast to combinations more than any other coach in team history. But in 2019-20, he was a bit more prone to tinker and try different combinations. So Wednesday will offer a look at what Brind’Amour is thinking but also how set he is on that?
Players in the spotlight
Despite playing his first game in a Hurricanes uniform on Wednesday, Vatanen figures to be in a critical role. Dougie Hamilton’s unavailability has the potential to change things, but Vatanen was initially slated to anchor a second pairing. As I have touched on already this week, he was likely to pair with a left shot defenseman whose strength is maybe not steadiness. As such, I see Vatanen as a critical piece of the puzzle for building a capable and balanced blue line. Wednesday represents a first chance to see how Vatanen looks after a long layouff, how he fits into the Canes system and if he can quickly find chemistry with his defense partner.
Goaltending is always critical, especially in the playoffs. Based on watching Canes goalies almost always play decent or better in preseason only to regularly struggle at the start of the regular season, I am not confident on putting a lot of weight in Wednesday’s game. But it is still a chance to get an initial read on Mrazek’s readiness.
Staal started slow in 2019-20, but historically he always seemed to get stronger as the season wore on. My gut says that was because as other players wore down over the course of the long season, Staal’s size and strength enabled him to maintain his level of play. Was Staal’s late-season advantage from others wearing down? If so, the current situation could erase Staal’s normal late-season gains making him more likely to suffer a slow (re) start. Or was it more just Staal finding a higher gear when games counted most? In that scenario, he would figure to follow his past trajectory for this point in the season.
What say you Canes fans?
What are your watch points for Wednesday’s exhibition match up against the Washington Capitals?