Coming off a surprisingly sugary 6-5 win over Columbus on Sunday, the Hurricanes are right back at it against the same Blue Jackets on Monday night.
Despite giving up goals by the bushelful, the Hurricanes finished last week with a solid even if imperfect 2-1 record. The current iteration of the Carolina Hurricanes is just so much more talented and goal-scoring capable that too similar iterations for nearly a decade that tried to eek out three goals through sheer volume of mostly low probability shots.
But despite giving up five goals on Sunday, I thought the Hurricanes rebounded a bit from a couple loose games defensively in Chicago. The five goals against came on only 22 shots against, and none of those goals against were really on break downs or even grade A chances. That story line features heavily in my watch points below with Reimer allowing 16 goals in his last four starts, Mrazek out for a awhile and Alex Nedeljkovic finally getting his first start nine days and four games after Mrazek’s injury.
That story line and other watch points for Monday night’s game follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Columbus Blue Jackets
1) Alex Nedeljkovic
I cannot think of another upcoming prospect who have had more mixed feelings about. On the one hand, my assessment and expectations on him are not incredibly high. Mostly from evaluating him in live NHL-ish action in preseason games and scrimmages/practices in Raleigh, I question whether Nedeljkovic’s ceiling is more than that of a backup NHL goalie. As a slightly smaller goalie, the margin for error is just so small. Being smaller means that a goalie must challenge a bit more to take away angles which has the potential to create multiple problems. First, challenging even when it is the right decision requires some precision to get the correct angles and not leave even small openings that NHL shooters regularly exploit. Second, trying to make saves while moving and not set, there are much more likely to be small holes that lead to shots finding small openings. Third, incorrect decisions on when/how much to challenge can put goalies far out of a position if the opposing team moves the puck across with a look usually at a half open net behind a goalie who is then out of position. In short, being smaller does not mean a goalie cannot be successful, but the margin for error and is just that much smaller which makes a difference at the top level of a sport.
But two things on the positive side. First, Petr Mrazek is similarly a smaller goalie and plays a challenging style partly because of it. Second, at lower levels, Nedeljkovic has proven he can overcome whatever limitations he might face. He excelled as a junior player and notably played his best in the biggest games in the CHL playoffs and as the regular starter for the US junior team for his age group. And after a bit of an adjustment phase, Nedeljkovic has also mastered the AHL level. Does this mean he is a sure thing to succeed in the NHL? Far from it. The correlation between AHL success and being more than a depth goalie at the NHL level is fairly small. But at the same time, Nedeljkovic has done all he can do at lower levels to suggest that just maybe he is an ‘against the odds’ anomaly who can make it at the NHL. Combine that with the general randomness of goalie success, and I feel strongly that the Hurricanes should give him an audition to see if just maybe he has that ‘it’ factor.
So sitting at both ends of the spectrum but I think for good reason, put me firmly in the camp that is skeptical about Nedeljkovic becoming more than a backup at the NHL level but despite that prognostication thinks it is very worthwhile to give him a chance to prove otherwise.
The Nedeljkovic start has both a short-term and a long-term angle. Above I mostly discussed the long-term angle of figuring out what, if anything, the Hurricanes have in Nedeljkovic. In a recent article, I pegged him as a potential key to making the salary cap work in 2021-22 and beyond. His contract would likely save $2 to $2.5 million as compared to what Reimer is making right now as a #1B or #2. That combined with whether his ceiling could be higher than maybe expected is the long-term angle. The short-term angle looking at the here and now is that Petr Mrazek figures to be out for awhile, which makes Nedeljkovic half of the goalie tandem for the foreseeable future. I am on record as thinking that Reimer is at his best with a once per week type work load as a #1B or #2 goalie. Only one week into a Mrazek-less crease, we might already be seeing that. Nedeljkovic at least reaching a baseline that gives his team a chance and spells Reimer regularly could prove to be critical for the team’s near-term success. Put another way, I am skeptical that just riding Reimer into the ground until Mrazek returns is a viable option.
Important disclaimer: With no preseason games and Nedeljkovic sitting on the taxi squad instead of playing at the AHL level, the situation of playing his first real game in 11 months adds an element of unpredictability. On the one hand, the Hurricanes cannot just spend games unproductively accepting losses seeing if he can get up to speed. On the other hand, making any kind of final decision on Nedeljkovic for 2020-21 or longer-term based on a single game or even a couple is unfair. Tough situation. Easiest is obviously if he rises to the occasion given his chance and shows he is ready for an NHL role.
With so many angles, Alex Nedeljkovic is easily the biggest watch point for Monday’s match up against the Blue Jackets back home for him in Ohio.
2a) More of the same offensively
Last week the Hurricanes scored 13 goals in three games. And the offense/scoring right now is coming from many sources. This team is arguably (or would ‘definitely’ be fair at this point?) the most talented Hurricanes team scoring-wise in a long time. Jordan Staal is playing the best offensive hockey literally in his time with the Hurricanes (except maybe that odd season with Jeff Skinner that somehow had more than enough negatives to offset the scoring). Vincent Trocheck has seemingly settled in and is rolling. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are both doing maybe just as expected which is incredibly good. And the team is getting contributions from other forwards and more recently the blue line. So the goal offensively is to stay the course.
2b) But combined with tightening up defensively
I actually thought the Hurricanes were fine defensively on Sunday despite giving up five goals. Reimer had a tough game and the shots that found the back of the net behind him were medium or worse quality chances that were not so much the kind that one pins on the defense. But the two games in Chicago were shaky defensively and not to be tagged so much to Reimer.
So on Monday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can find the best of both worlds keeping the boosted scoring but not at the expense of trading defense to play North Division fire wagon hockey in both directions.
3) Getting everyone in the boat
As noted above, the Hurricanes have many players going, but there is still upside in a few players getting going. Dougie Hamilton had a strong game with a goal and an assist on Sunday after a ‘meh’ start (mostly defensively at times). Could he be finding the peak form from last fall when he was among the NHL’s best defensemen offensively and was playing sound defense too? After a COVID protocol layoff, could Teuvo Teravainen be ready to find a higher gear after a disjointed start? On Monday, I will be watching a couple players to see if they can find a higher gear and make the team even better.
The puck drops just after 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with Tripp, Mike, Abby and Shane.