Heading into the 2015-16 season both the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes were teams coming off difficult 2014-15 seasons and light on expectations for the upcoming season. Thus far, the Carolina Hurricanes have fully lived up to the low expectations. With Edmonton’s win last night, the Canes wake up in a 4-way tie for the very last spot in the entire league.
The New Jersey Devils made some ho-hum moves over the summer and were similarly categorized as a team likely to be near the bottom but so far have fared a bit better. The Devils are not exactly blowing the doors off it with 26 points in 24 games, but at least so far the team is within at least talking distance of 1 of the bottom playoff spots.
I have seen minimal Devils hockey so far this season, but the report coming from print and digital media is goaltender Cory Schneider who has been a difference-maker so far this season. His 11-7-2 record, 2.03 GAA and .927 Save % have the Devils a respectable eighth in the NHL in goals allowed per game. Couple that with 2 special teams units that are in the top 10 in the league, and the team has found a formula for playing better than .500 hockey despite being in the midst of trying to build from youth like the Canes.
I think the contrast between the 2 teams shows how small the difference between winning and losing is in the NHL. With better goaltending and special teams play, one could easily see the Hurricanes having 5-6 more points and also still talking playoffs instead of NHL cellar at this early juncture in the season.
Against that backdrop, the Hurricanes set up for an interesting 3 games in 4 nights all at home. Timing would be real good for a win or 2 with the die-hard fans/season ticket holders spending a large chunk of time at PNC Arena over the weekend during a busy time of year.
Personally, I continue to focus first on a couple of the fun stories outside the win-loss column, and that is the focus of ‘what I’m watching’:
1) Ryan Murphy
I have written about him quite a bit recently and all season. I really think it is ‘go time’ for him as much as any other player on the roster right now. There are numerous players rising on the Hurricanes blue line right now, but most of the others are a couple years behind Murphy, are ahead of schedule and are signed to contracts for 2 more years. Murphy is at more of a crossroads as a 23-year old who is in a contract year and entering the window when he either makes it or does not as an NHLer.
He possesses elite skating ability. He continues improve defensively. He has been an offensive leader at lower levels. Can he put it all together and be good enough defensively and at the same time figure out how to turn his skating and puck-carrying ability into actual scoring? If he can, he projects to be at least a good #5 who brings near elite offensive ability. If he cannot, he projects to be a serviceable third pairing depth defenseman who leans offense.
To be clear, this is NOT something that sees a final conclusion in the next 3-4 weeks, but for the sake of fun and something to track besides wins/losses, I will be tracking Ryan Murphy’s play and progress closely over the next 10 games starting tonight.
2) Eddie Lack
Lack is another player who is at ‘go time.’ Ron Francis committed $2.75 million per year for 2 more years to Lack when he extended him with a new contract this summer. My rough math says that is half if not more of what a budget team like the Canes would like to spend at the goalie position. (They have needs at forward that a few $ might help next summer.) That price puts Lack clearly above the ‘just a cheap backup’ level and in the slot of a goalie expected to be at least a 1A/1B type who plays regularly.
He is still very early in his time with the Hurricanes, but early returns are not good overall. He had a couple rough outings early and was mediocre otherwise. I thought he was very good despite losing 3-2 in overtime last Monday in Philadelphia and voted for him to start again on Wednesday against Edmonton. He did not get that start and has not seen the ice in the 3 games since that game. But coming off a pretty good outing and with Ward being sub-par especially in his most recent start, the opening is clearly there for Lack to seize the reins, earn at least a 1A/1B share of the starts and show what he can do. If nothing else, GM Ron Francis needs to figure out how much goalie he needs from his other goalie for 2016-17.
Ron Francis 2-year commitment for 2016-17 and 2017-18 looks better if Lack can go on at least a short run as a #1, and his job of building a goalie tandem for 2016-17 gets easier with on-ice evidence that Lack can be a key part of it.
3) The Jordan Staal line
Playing with 2 forwards not from the ‘skilled scorer/top half of the roster category’ in Nestrasil and Nordstrom, Jordan Staal’s line has been a bright spot in recent games. His line has played mostly in the offensive zone, played mostly with the puck and has even chipped in some scoring. Reports from the morning skate today (per Michael Smith from the team) has Nestrasil out and Versteeg in on that line. I liked the power game and puck cycling of Jordan Staal and Andrej Nestrasil, but then I have been on the same page as Coach Bill Peters infrequently in terms of line combinations. Hopefully, what we are witnessing is a Jordan Staal rising in which case he leads whatever set of line mates. If that is the case, then just maybe Versteeg adds more offense to the mix and the scoring pushes even higher.
The puck drops at about 7:07pm in the friendly confines of PNC Arena.