The venue, environment and event itself playing in Marquette, Michigan in the Kraft Hockeyville USA even were all absolutely phenomenal.
The Hurricanes were not.
I think lackluster would be generous for describing the Hurricanes ability to find any cohesion, mount any sustained attack and be even remotely dangerous offensively. The game marks 3 consecutive challenging games scoring-wise and maybe rightfully has gun-shy Hurricanes fans remembering the 2015-16 scoring challenges. But as I said on Twitter during the game, specifically in the past 2 games, I think a significant share of the meek offensive production can be fairly chalked up to the lineup. None of the 6 players on arguably the Hurricanes 2 best scoring lines were in the lineup for either game. If you go with something like Skinner, Stempniak, Rask, Staal, Teravainen, Lindholm and Aho as a reasonable guess for the Canes top 7 scoring forwards for 2016-17, the group has made only 1 appearance (Jordan Staal tonight) in the lineup in the last 2 games.
The result was a game that was a bit sluggish overall but did feature the Sabres at least sporadically generating scoring chances that the Hurricanes could not match. The result was a 2-0 Sabres win a game where 2 goals looked like a big number based on the chances the Hurricanes had.
‘What I’m watching’ checklist
You can find the detailed version of my checklist in my game preview.
1) NHL combinations for readiness
Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil: This group had a good tune up challenge presented to them in Buffalo’s top line including Jack Eichel. Jordan Staal in particular was a mixed bag. He looked ready to go with the puck on his stick starting deep in his own end navigating the neutral zone with speed and power that was the core of his game in the middle of the 2015-16 season. But he was little slow in terms of mobility and reaction on multiple occasions defending without the puck. He picked up 2 minor penalties when he was a little slow and suddenly out of position. The line was reasonably effective moving the puck but did not generate much for scoring chances. All in all, I think ‘mixed bag’ is a fair assessment for Jordan Staal’s line.
Hainsey/Pesce: I think I would rate this duo as the biggest silver lining in a tough game overall. They showed signs of quickly finding the same strong puck support approach to advancing the puck that worked well for Liles/Pesce for most of the 2015-16 season. In my “If I was Bill Peters…” post from about 1 week ago, I wanted to see a Hainsey/Pesce pairing. I like the idea even more after seeing it in action. Though neither is the pure version of a puck-moving defenseman, they both get the positioning and puck support part of moving the puck as a 2-man unit. They also give the team a penalty killing unit that is already paired together. And with both being pretty responsible in their own end, they provide a pairing that might not be dominant but should hopefully be pretty sound.
Hanifin/Murphy: At the most basic level, I like how they played when they had the puck. The duo looked much more comfortable and less timid/buttoned-down than v1.0 from the very beginning of the 2015-16 season. They moved the puck fairly well. Hanifin in particular had more than his fair share of good defensive plays and showed off an improved shot that he worked on over the summer. Even better he is starting to be able to slow the game down and look pass the first simple pass to assess other options. He had a handful of nice forward passes of the variety that can lead directly to odd man rushes or good 1-on-1 rushes where the offensive player has a head of steam entering the offensive zone and is therefore dangerous.
The only downside to their game was that Hanifin/Murphy did look overmatched a few times trying to defend Eichel’s line. The second goal came when Hanifin coughed the puck up in his own end without much pressure and then let Sam Reinhart streak behind him unhindered for a tip in goal. Important to note is that Hanifin/Murphy would mostly be shielded from other teams’ top lines. When I net it out, I was encouraged by their more aggressive and confident play pushing pace out of the defensive zone with the puck on their sticks and lean slightly positive on their defensive play.
2) Try out for AHL players
Tuesday and Wednesday’s games might be the last chance for players currently sitting below the NHL cut line to make an impression and stay in Raleigh a bit longer. The surest way for the forwards in this group to make an impression is to generate offense and at least raise the possibility that they could be part of an equation to boost scoring. None of the 7 forwards likely destined for the AHL in tonight’s lineup did much to boost their case for providing scoring help at the NHL level. Ironically, the player who is arguably near the top of the list for boosting offense is Patrick Brown who also rates well being safe and sound defensively.
3) Julien Gauthier
I watched his game fairly closely. First, I think he did take a step up from his first NHL action in his first preseason game. He made more small plays on the puck including a short set of solid plays in the defensive zone. I am not sure if it was the same shift or 2 in row, but Gauthier had a nice pair of plays first checking and separating a Buffalo player from the puck on the boards and then sniffing out and intercepting a Buffalo center pass from behind the net.
* He looks every bit of an NHL power forward entering the offensive zone with the puck on his stick with a good combination of skating ability, speed, power and ability to handle the puck.
* His straight line speed continues to be better than expected for a big player.
Room for improvement:
* He needs to work on supporting defensemen in terms of receiving and moving the puck when transitioning from defense to offense. He gets the 101 version of getting to the wall to provide an outlet pass, but at least twice in both of the games he played he received pucks there but was unable to advance them. Tuesday’s game also featured a couple plays where the defenseman carried the puck and Gauthier was a bit slow to react and get up ahead of the play, one time resulting in the defenseman skating right up into Gauthier for a crowded mess and turnover.
* While his straight line speed is decent (and should continue to improve), as is common with young big men, his 2-3 step acceleration has a way to go to match NHL speed for being able to transition from defense to offense and vice versa and get going the right direction in a hurry.
I think Julien Gauthier’s play in preseason easily keeps the optimism and projection for his long-term upside intact. But I also think that his time is not 2016-17. At a basic level, I do not think what he has shown thus far suggests that he can make the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes significantly better than the team is without him. In that scenario, the smart thing to continue his development in Canadian and not burn a year of his entry-level contract for only marginal gain.
After a short run of struggling to generate anything offensively, I think Wednesday’s game is an interesting. The lineup will likely include 2 of the Canes top 3 lines and arguably the 2 expected to produce the most offense. It could also feature an NHL-level fourth line. Unlike the past 2 lineups that were heavy on AHL players, Wednesday’s roster should include the core of the offense and therefore the right group to evaluate for NHL scoring readiness.