Canes fans exited a late night of hockey feeling good after a late highlight reel save (plus a few other good ones) pushed the team to overtime and Victor Rask ended it on a positive note with the game-winning goal.
But even coming off a rough outing in Washington on Saturday (at least that was second half of a back-to-back), I think Wednesday could aptly be called a new low point for the team offensively in 2015-16. The Avs came into the game averaging 33 shots against per game and were trying again to get struggling Semyon Varlamov on track. He entered the game with a GAA north of 5.00 and a save percentage to match it. The Canes never really even challenged Varlamov mustering only 18 shots in regulation and most of the grade B or lower variety. The Canes forwards had only 11 shots in regulation and only Kris Versteeg had more than 1. (He had 4.)
Wednesday’s win is a game to be celebrated for results and progress in the standings, but there is virtually nothing to carry forward in terms of the offense, system play or the power play.
Offensive woes through 6 games
The Canes are still very much at square 1 offensively.
I wish I could say otherwise, but I am not surprised. There are many contributors, but at a high level, I think the key contributors are:
- Inability to build chemistry with a moving target for line combinations. They have settled down a little bit over the past week, ironically at a time when they are not working, but it still looks more like a weekly random drawing than a plan with at least some parts working.
- Personnel. I addressed this in a pretty direct article entitled “Harsh commentary on Hurricanes depth from the waiver wire” before the season started. You can find that HERE, but the short version is that the Canes are just undermanned in terms of true top 6/top 9 NHL forwards.
- Not enough help from the blue line. This one is unfortunate because I really think James Wisniewski was exactly what the Canes needed from the back end to chip in a bit of scoring but more importantly to help the Canes generate more off the rush. Instead, we have Michal Jordan struggling in that slot on his off side trying to just do the bare minimum to get the puck on/off his stick without problems. And while Hanifin/Murphy are capable of helping, they just are only showing flashes of being the puck movers that they can be right now.
- Power outage. The single greatest medicine for a struggling offense is a power play that is clicking. A power play can turn a sluggish 1-goal game into a 3-2 win in a heartbeat and also help struggling players gain some relief from the pressure to score. The Canes are getting no help right here now either.
While there is always an element of effort, determination, timely plays, etc., the “We need to play better”/”We need to play harder” tone coming from Coach Bill Peters is troubling to me. I think the team literally is back to square 1 in terms of figuring out a system, lines and most other things offense that can produce.
Very few positives
In looking for positives through 6 games for the Carolina Hurricanes offense, I come up with exactly 2 positives and 1 of those only spans a single game.
The positives thus far are:
- Justin Faulk with 2 goals and 2 assists has chipped in from the blue line.
- The line of McGinn/EStaal/Versteeg had a SINGLE great game. Against Detroit, they had a goal each and also played a part in Faulk’s power play goal.
That is all. Literally.
A more methodical approach versus just trying more stuff
I think the path to better comes from 2 things.
First, I would set a couple priorities that factor above everything else. Trying to get all 12 forwards/4 lines going is too big right now. Focus on a couple big wins first.
Second, I think it is important to understand what individual players bring to the table offensively and try to match them up accordingly.
Priority 1 (and sort of 2)
I wrote about this in more detail before the season started, but if I was the coach for the Carolina Hurricanes, my top priorities above all else would be to get Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal going offensively. If these 2 players do not produce, I just do not see any path toward generating enough offense.
So my starting point is trying to get 1 or both of these players going, and if I can do that I let the other line combinations/players fall where they may.
Understanding who is doing what right now
At a basic level, I continue to think that the first thing to do is to do whatever possible to get Jeff Skinner more scoring chances. If he gets chances, at some point, he will start finishing. From the beating a dead horse category, Jeff Skinner has had exactly 1 dynamic/lights out game in about 10 tries in 2015-16. It was in preseason game #4 on a line with Riley Nash and Kris Versteeg. In that game he scored 2 goals and added a third in the 3-on-3 overtime exhibition. Inexplicably, the next practice saw a complete reshuffling that separated Skinner and Versteeg. The duo united for a grand total of 2-3 shifts since then in the Capitals game and lo and behold Versteeg scored a pretty goal on an even prettier Skinner pass.
PUT SKINNER AND VERSTEEG BACK TOGETHER. LEAVE THEM TOGETHER FOR AWHILE.
If/when Nash gets healthy, he was the center for the 1 game of magic, but as a good all-around center who goes to the front of the net, I think Rask could work as well.
I continue to like his play despite limited scoring except for the big outburst in the Caps game. What he is doing very well right now is playing a power forward game winning, keeping and distributing pucks from below the goal line. Ultimately, he needs to pot some goals, but I think what he is doing well right now is a good fit for a bit of cycling help and to set up someone else to finish in the slot.
I like Lindholm as maybe the best all-around player with a good chance to finish from the slot if the puck finds his stick there. As things are working right now with Versteeg, I think it is mostly backwards anyway. Versteeg who leans playmaker is really in the role of finisher with the way Staal is playing. If the Canes had a bunch of playmaking to fill other lines, this would be fine, but they do not.
And with the goal of focusing on only the biggest priorities, that is where I stop with line combinations. Jordan Staal is in a hard place without enough true offense to go around, but I think Peters just needs to challenge him to be the best defensive forward on the ice every night (within his capabilities) and deemphasize the need to score.
Already touched on, I think Kris Versteeg represents the single best option for creating scoring chances for a finisher; hence I pair him with Skinner, and I think Elias Lindholm represents arguably the best all-around offensive player past the 3 already mentioned, so I pair him with EStaal.
So I have this:
_______ – Eric Staal – Lindholm
Skinner – Riley Nash or Victor Rask – Versteeg
Figure out the rest as best you can. If I am correct that these 2 lines can produce more offensively, the Canes are instantly in a better place with time to figure out the rest.
But sadly it is not that simple
The other dirty little secret is that as much as half of the Canes offensive woes are not the forwards at all. It is the limited ability to move the puck from the back end to play more in the offensive zone and even better generate more high-quality chances off the rush. The current blue line sees Michal Jordan struggling mightily with the puck on his stick, and Hanifin/Murphy playing a brand of ‘figuring it out’ cautious that is not enough better than run of the mill third pairing defenders.
I think the pressure is really on Coach Bill Peters and his staff to figure some things out quickly. Cam Ward’s play in the past 2 games suggest maybe the team can steal a few points on goaltending along short-term, but there is no way that the current trajectory offensively wins over a full season.