Yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe offered a bunch of simple math to assess where the Hurricanes were currently with regard to making a push for the 2017 NHL playoffs.
So what does it take for the Carolina Hurricanes to still be playing hockey that matters in late March and early April when the final playoff spots are decided? I think it takes 3 things.
1) The second defense pairing of Hainsey/Faulk needs to solidify
With Cam Ward playing well when the team delivers a reasonable game, and Slavin/Pesce playing incredibly well in the top defense pairing, the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes have the potential to be a formidable team defensively.
Right now, the formula for opposing coaches is simply to get ice time for their top scoring line against Hainsey/Faulk which has pretty consistently resulted in goals. The return of Jordan Staal helps by providing road support for the veteran duo, but at the end of the day, Hainsey/Faulk needs to be better for this team to win more on the road.
Consistently sound defense wins over offense in terms of pushing into a bottom playoff spot because it has the ability to keep a team in games night in and night out when they hit a hot goalie, when they are dragging a bit physically, when they are playing an elite opponent, etc. Staying in games means points in the NHL system that basically awards half of a win for even a loss if the outcome is determined after regulation. Also, though it has not treated the Hurricanes kindly thus far, overtime and shootouts basically chuck an extra point into the air to be seized on a somewhat random skills competition of 1 variety or another.
When you net it out, playing a bunch of tie games is a path to being rewarded as if you are winning 75 percent of your games and that really helps in the standings. And Hainsey/Faulk finding a higher gear is potentially the lone missing link in the Canes becoming an every night, home and away tough out defensively.
2) Cam Ward must stay on track
After a horrid start, Cam Ward has been the team’s best player since the beginning of November when it righted the ship and started playing winning hockey. In 2 games when the team in front of him was admittedly poor, Ward allowed 5 and then 4 goals in 3 starts on the road (middle game was solid effort and 1 goal against in a win). Hopefully, this is a measure of what went on in front of him and not a sign that Ward is cooling off after a solid 5 weeks of hockey.
If the other things can come together, I do not think Ward needs to carry the team, but he must be consistently sound and solid and avoid downturns like the start of the season that cost the team points in the standings.
3) The kids need to rise up
Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce quickly found yet another higher level early in 2016-17 when they were united and pushed up into a top defense pairing role. Among a couple other solid candidates in Ward’s resurgence and Jeff Skinner’s leadership and scoring, I think the emergence of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce has been the story of the season thus far. With veterans Ron Hainsey and Justin Faulk still trying to find their way, the team could very well be an unmitigated disaster right now if not for the solid 20+ minutes per night by the pair of second year players.
With a young roster, I think the Hurricanes will need a couple more ‘kids’ to rise up in the remainder of the season, if they are to push above .500 and try to chase the surging Metropolitan Division rivals above them. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are both generally trending up right now, arguably having recently played their best game of the season together against Anaheim. If they could at least provide sporadic bursts of scoring, that might be enough to boost and balance out the Canes’ scoring. Elias Lindholm was playing his best hockey and even kicking in some offense when he was derailed by an injury. Can he find the higher gear again and provide more depth scoring too?
4) The team needs to get hot, ideally soon
As noted in yesterday’s post, the vast majority of the Metropolitan Division is on fire thus far in the 2016-17. The result is that the Hurricanes are already facing a big gap between where they are and where the playoff cut line is despite the fact that the Canes have at least played at a treading water, .500 level. I think it is reasonable to think that the pack could come back some, but I also think it will be necessary for the Canes to find a win streak to quickly make up some ground. While it is not imperative that said win streak come now, I think the gap in the standings does increase the urgency for the Canes to make some kind of move sooner rather than later. The team plays 6 of its last 9 games at home to close out December. The team then plays 5 out of their first 7 games in January at home. When that run of games is over, the Hurricanes will be past the halfway mark with 44 games played and will have nearly evened out the home vs. away mix in their games played (21 home vs. 23 away). The remaining 38 games is still a lot of hockey, but as the team learned last season, when you push too far into the season with a sizable gap, it is incredibly difficult to make up too much late in the season.
Interestingly, similar themes can be found in part 2 of my season preview from October 12.
What say you Canes fans? Would you include key players staying healthy in this equation? What else will it take for the Hurricanes to still be playing games that matter in late March and early April?