The Carolina Hurricanes are in the middle of their best start since 2012. No, I’m actually serious about that. It’s true. As we hit the quarter mark of 2016-17, we see a Hurricanes team that has had some amazing highs and some frustrating lows. Matt details all of this in his quarter-season analysis, but while the fires of playoff-less anger continue to flare in Raleigh, the big picture shows a far brighter situation than the team’s 2016-17 record would indicate. This article will look in detail to how this Hurricanes team is performing compared to years past, and determine where the team is showing the most improvement and where they have fallen off the pace.
Disclaimer: This post is ridiculously long. Not intended for folks watching children under 3 or people who hate to scroll.
First and foremost, a simple glance at the Hurricanes win-loss record shows that the team is off to its best start since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Take a look:
Granted, 9-9-5 will inspire nobody to invest in playoff ticket reservations in the Triangle any time soon, but the fact that our team is off to that improved start with its youngest team in years should be looked at as a major positive. Even if our team does seem to be allergic to holding late leads. Just look at the age of the top four scorers this year, compared to 2012-13. This year the Canes are led by Jeff Skinner (24 years old), Victor Rask (23), Sebastian Aho (19) and Teuvo Teravainen (22). During that torrid start, five years ago, the Canes were led by Eric Staal (28), the Russian-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (28), Jiri Tlusty (24) and Jordan Staal (24).
Of course, this writer loves to keep bringing up the fact that we’re young more often than Cam Ward allows a soft goal. I do that because it’s huge for the franchise’s future. Still, after nine years, and an infuriating number of blown leads and 1-goal losses to begin the season (much of which can be attributed to that youth….and Ron Hainsey) many of you loyal Caniacs are rightfully sick of the future and want to make the playoffs now. Is that possible? Absolutely. The team is only 4 points out of a spot, early in the season, with games in hand over multiple teams in front of us.
Keys to the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes Early ‘Success’
Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask
It may as well be written in stone now. The best thing to ever happen to Jeff Skinner’s career was the Eric Staal trade. He’s currently on pace for 33 goals, 37 assists and a career-high 70 points, to go along with another career-best 53.4 Corsi %, and has emerged as the key spark plug for this team. His Partner-in-Crime Victor Rask (Pace: 30G/34A/64P; 52.4% Corsi) has been nearly as good. For reference, the last Hurricane with a 60 point season was Eric Staal, with 61 in 2013-14. This is a huge boost for the team, and crucial to the improved start.
Wow, this record is broken. But seriously, the Hurricanes have 6 players in crucial roles that are 22 or younger. The Fantastic Finns, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, are both on pace for 40-point seasons and have Corsi numbers above 56%. On the defensive side, top pairing Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are a combined +2, with each player averaging over 20 minutes of ice time a game. Still two years away from legal drinking, Noah Hanifin got off to a very slow start to the season, but he has been playing markedly better since partnering with Matt Tennyson. Unless you were hoping (unrealistically) for a McDavid-esque impact, you cannot be disappointed with our youth movement.
Somehow Cam has managed to turn back the clock, much to this writer’s glee. It always seemed like Cam Ward’s issues were in his head, and while they haven’t disappeared, he has gone from mediocre to the an above average NHL goalie. Seriously, his .919 save % (would be his best since 2011-12) is sits 2.13 points above the league average. The real truth is, every decent start (and legitimate playoff push) that the Hurricanes have had has been fueled by a that better-than-average Cam Ward. Which leads us to a rather shaky, yet all-to-real truth about our 2016-17 playoff prospects…
Sustained Success Depends on Cam Ward
The reason nobody talks about the 2012-13 season, (and a 5 year playoff drought, instead of 10) is because Cam Ward suffered a season ending injury half way through that year, which completely derailed all the momentum. The Hurricanes lost 14 out of 15 during the stretch directly following Cam’s injury, and the season was subsequently flushed down the Toilet of Useless Statistics. While I have been overjoyed (and slightly vindicated) to see the resurgence of Cam Ward early in the year, I simply cannot trust him to keep up that level of play over an entire season, and I don’t believe Ron Francis should either. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
How Did the Hurricanes Made the Playoffs Last Time?
The 2008-09 playoff bound Hurricanes opened up the season slightly better (11-9-2) than the current version. They were also a very veteran team, with 5 of the top 7 scorers on the plus side of 30, and 8 players that played for the 2005-06 Cup champion. They had veteran leadership and a championship pedigree, two things that the current version definitely does not have, and two things that are incredibly helpful towards making the playoffs.
Okay Genius, What Do the Hurricanes Need to Make the Playoffs?
While the situation is significantly different than it appeared a few games into this season, the Hurricanes still desperately need another goalie. Eddie Lack has done the opposite of proven that he can be the 1B to Cam’s 1A, Michael Leighton is NOT the 2nd coming of Tim Thomas, and the team needs another reliable option to turn to when Cam is off his game, or just tired. If the team really wants to make the playoffs this year, that should be priority number one. The team also needs another veteran scorer to add some more punch to an offense that can be invisible for way-too-long stretches of the game.
All of that being said, here’s a reality check for all of us.
The Carolina Hurricanes are a small-market hockey team. It will always be a small market hockey team. ALWAYS
The financial realities will always have us in the lower third of NHL payroll, which means internal player development will be our best chance for sustained, long-term success. The very worst thing that could happen this season (and WAAAAAY worse than missing the playoffs for the 9th year running) would be to trade a crucial young piece of our rebuild and long-term bright future, for a veteran rental that may or may not pan out for short-term success. Nor do I believe Ron should, with his exceptional draft record, trade anything higher than a 4th rounder.
So, in order to make the playoffs, while still keeping the rebuild effort in tact, Ron will have to find some value on the trade market. If Ron can conjure a Lack upgrade for Ryan Murphy and a 5th rounder? This writer would take that in two seconds. I don’t think I’m alone in that opinion
Possible Trade Options for the Hurricanes
Jaroslav Halak– I’m biased towards Halak after his World Cup performance, and the Islanders have been rumored to be wanting to trade the guy. His price shouldn’t be too high
Jimmy Howard- Perhaps too expensive, and currently nursing a groin injury, but with Mrazek taking over in Detroit, Howard would be a great 1B, cost-permitting.
Jonathan Bernier– His worst years came behind Toronto’s Swiss cheese defense, and he’s having something of a resurgence as Anaheim’s backup. Would be the best value acquisition, but would Anaheim trade?
Jordan Eberle– Would be far too expensive, but his puck possession skills fit Coach Peters’ style, the Oilers are (surprise!) terrible, and who wouldn’t love to see him work with Skinner and Rask up top?
Gustav Nyqvist– He’s having a down year in Detroit right now, and he’d likely be cheaper as Red Wings have to trade him this year, or a two-year full No Trade Clause kicks in for him.
Patrick Eaves- The Former Hurricane is having a breakout year at age 32 for the Stars. He was actually on the 2008-09 playoff team in Raleigh, and Dallas is on shaky ground in the West standings. He could be an option.
2016-17: Our Future is Far More Valuable Than Our Present
Here we go again, talking about the young people, BUT IT’S SO DARN EXCITING. While Matt was absolutely spot-on earlier this week in his assessment that the current version of the Hurricanes is depth-deficient, we still have a Top-5 NHL prospect system, and the team has a proven track record of successful player development. Roy, Kuokkanen, Fogele and Gauthier are all having decent to great seasons in the juniors, and are untouchable in this writer’s mind. AHL players like Fleury, McKeown, Zykov, Wallmark, and maybe even Tolchinsky and Poturalski, are all playing reasonably well, and would be included in the untradeables as they will be the ones likely to push aside older vets McClement, Hainsey and Stempniak down the road.
My highly subjective list of tradeable Hurricanes:
Ryan Murphy– He’s on everybody’s list. It seems like more a foregone conclusion.
Elias Lindholm- ONLY as a means to get Eberle or maybe Howard. Lindholm is a very good two-way NHL center. That demands value. But we really don’t need a poor man’s Jordan Staal when we have Jordan Staal. We could REALLY use Eberle.
Eddie Lack- If Ron wants another goalie, Lack’s sole value to the Hurricanes is balance the trade that gets him that goalie. Thanks, Michael Leighton.
*I’m calling Phil Di Giuseppe, right now, as the Hurricanes’ future contribution to hockey in Las Vegas, so he doesn’t count as tradeable either.
As it currently stands, the reality is that the Hurricanes 2016-17 playoff prospects are very shaky. To happen, the youth cannot regress and Cam Ward has to stay healthy and reasonably hot throughout the year. Neither prospect of which I would stake anything of value on. This writer firmly believes that if Ron Francis finds a move to shore up the team’s current playoff prospects he will make it, but not if that trade jeopardizes his overall rebuild.
For now, take heart Caniacs! The team has shown a marked improvement, and the foundations are well-laid for the team to keep building on that in the years to come, whether we make the playoffs this year or not. If that comes as small consolation to some of you, especially given the teams current affinity for blowing multiple goal leads, I understand. Sort of.