After a strong start to preseason, the Hurricanes have stumbled to 3 straight losses and an 0-2-1 mark in the last 3 games. More disconcerting for fans is the sudden and pronounced power outage offensively. The Hurricanes have mustered only 2 goals and very few offensive chances in the 3 losses. Context is important for deciding the level of concern.
Last Friday’s lineup featured a lineup that was pretty heavy on NHL-level forwards who are expected to drive the Hurricanes offense. While 1 goal (very late even) is obviously not a great total Andrei Vasilevskiy looked to be in regular season form in net, so the 1 goal for was maybe not as bad as it looked. The 2 more recent outings were every bit as bad as they looked on the scoreboard. The Hurricanes mounted virtually nothing for an offensive attack. Important to note is that both of those games featured lineups heavy on AHL players and very light on players expected to be among the team’s scoring leaders. None of Skinner, Rask, Stempniak, Teravainen, Aho or Lindholm saw action in either game and Jordan Staal played in only the latter game. Short version – After last season’s scoring woes, it is definitely something to watch but maybe not as big of a deal when considering context.
And that leads nicely into tonight’s game preview…
Michael Smith, the Carolina Hurricanes web producer, reports the lineup from the morning skate as:
So getting back to my introduction, tonight’s lineup is the right lineup to get a preseason gauge at least of where the Canes are offensively right now. The majority of lines and players expected to carry the offense are in the lineup and even the AHL line is heavy on skill and scoring.
‘What I’m watching’
As the preseason wears on, I think the Hurricanes are destined to enter the regular season with players still working to grow into new, bigger roles in the form of rookies, new players, lines getting bumped up higher, etc. As such, I think a key to a decent start will need to be rooted in solid stable play from a few core pieces while everything else works into place. At forward, I think it is Jordan Staal’s line. On defense, I think it requires sound even if not spectacular play from the top 2 defense pairings. And finally it requires a better start in net. Central to that checklist is the play of Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk. Justin Faulk has been labeled as a top 2 defenseman for some time now had a mixed 2015-16 campaign on the defensive side of the puck. Jaccob Slavin looked to be every bit of a top 4 defenseman in the tail end of the 2015-16 season but it was for only a stretch of 25ish games not a full season, and it was after he build a head of steam working up from the AHL to a somewhat sheltered third pairing role and finally growing into the top 4. This season Slavin will be required to parachute directly into a top pairing role straight out of the gate which is a huge challenge.
Thus far, I am pleased with where Justin Faulk is. The single biggest read for Faulk early in the year from me is actually a very simple one. The read is watching what he does with his feet and from where he releases outlet passes when moving the puck out of his own end. If he is releasing passes from at or near the end line mostly from a standstill, it means he is not skating yet. When instead he starts to push up the ice and releases passes more frequently from inside or on top of the face-off circles, it means Faulk is skating and moving his feet. How mobile he is in this single read has proven to be a pretty good read on Faulk’s overall level of mobility which permeates his entire game. Early indications are mostly good in terms of Faulk finding his skating legs early.
Not surprisingly, Jaccob Slavin has demonstrated the same rangy mobility that fueled his success in 2015-16. My watch point for Slavin is his ability to sort out positioning at transition points and have good awareness of what is or is soon going to be behind him. One flaw in his game is that he can occasionally push up too far at points when the puck is either free or about to be leading to rushes behind him when things transition in a hurry. Especially playing against other teams’ top lines, this kind of mistake that leads to an odd man rush is regularly lethal to the tune of a grade A scoring chance against.
Shorter version: I think it will be very hard for the Hurricanes make things work defensively if the top pairing of Slavin/Faulk is not clicking, so I am watching closely to see if they are rounding into regular season form.
2) Arrival of the offense
As noted above, Wednesday’s lineup includes many of the players expected to step up and produce offensively and also a good chunk of the players likely to make up the team’s 2 power play units. Tonight I will be doing an early assessment of the Hurricanes ability to generate offense, not so much measured in raw goal totals but rather in ability to move the puck cohesively and generate quality chances. The flag bearer for this effort should be the top scoring line of Skinner/Rask/Stempniak but Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen should be part of the equation too.
3) The power play system
The biggest wrinkle system-wise is probably what the Hurricanes are doing on the power play with Faulk in the center flanked by 2 skill players in a chameleon-like role either playing forward on the half wall or the point like a defenseman depending on where the puck is. The upside is potentially more and better shooting opportunities for Faulk’s cannon which is the focal point of the power play offense. The umbrella-like flexing of the top 2 forwards also has the potential to create solid shooting chances for either of the 2 flex forwards/points if they can find soft spots at or near the top of the face-off circles. Thus far, there have not been problems, but a risk is the potential for a turnover in the top half of the offensive zone to very quickly lead to a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush if the forwards are slow to adjust to defensive responsibilities.
4) Try outs
Today the Hurricanes announced 5 more cuts (Lowe, Woods, Leighton, Tennyson, Sutter) coming out of Tuesday’s game. I would expect at least a few more coming out of Wednesday’s game. Most notable was the early demotion of Matt Tennyson who figured to be the #7 defenseman at the NHL level.
The move seems to trigger a true try out competition between Trevor Carrick, Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown for the #7 spot. Right on cue, all 3 are in the lineup tonight. Tonight’s lineup also features 3 forwards who maybe did not figure start the season at the NHL level but have built momentum during the offseason.
Warren Foegele still figures to either finally get his entry-level contract and join the Checkers or play as an overage player in juniors before eventually getting the contract that he is earning. But in his lone preseason game, he looked every bit the NHL forward. Can he do it again and become a surprise part of the last week of training camp and round of cuts?
After a summer of producing offense in bunches against younger players, Sergey Tolchinsky has yet to have a break out game against NHL competition and suggest that he could be a catalyst at the NHL level. Returning to Sault Ste. Marie where he played junior hockey, could he be in for a magical and career-changing night?
Lucas Wallmark, like Foegele, is another player who rose from off the radar to have a solid training camp. His stock has risen regardless, but could 1 more impressive outing boost his standing and push him into the ‘now’ mix for the Carolina Hurricanes?
5) Second read on Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho
The skill level of both players jumps out fairly quickly in watching them play. What also jumped out in their Hurricanes debut was both players’ propensity to use their skill stick handle out of trouble in their own end. One game is just a data point, so I will be watching the next few to see if that was perhaps first game jitters or if it is more of a part of their current level of play. Both players had either turnovers or near turnovers in their own end making high risk/low reward plays trying to beat forecheckers with fancy moves in front of their own net. The most glaring example was Aho getting pick-pocketed for an immediate point blank chance on the Hurricanes net, but Teravainen had a similar turnover that was less harmful because the Hurricanes defenseman reacted quickly to do damage control. Wednesday’s game provides a chance to see if these were one-off errors or more habits that need to be cleaned up.
The puck drops at 7pm with WRAL Sportsfan app/internet radio coverage. I have not had time to see if anyone is televising the game such that there might be a video stream available.