When the Hurricanes surged in the second half of the season and pushed into the 2018-19 NHL Playoffs breaking a decade-long playoff drought, it represented a huge step forward for the team. When the went on to defeat the Washington Capitals in thrilling fashion, that was just icing on the cake. But despite making the Eastern Conference Finals, I do not think that team was more than a longshot to win the Stanley Cup.
The repeat playoff appearance in 2019-20 arguably established the Hurricanes as a team now expected to make the playoffs. Couple that with the team’s young core, and the team clearly had the potential to reach a higher level and join the short list of teams who have better than a ‘made the playoffs dice roll’ chance of hoisting the Cup. But NHL teams regularly push up into the playoffs, seem to be improving and then either plateau or fade.
What does it take for the Hurricanes to take another step up and join the elite teams in the NHL? How long might it take? is that what we are seeing right now?
Over the past couple years, a legitimate top scoring line has been established with Sebastian Aho at center. The team’s blue line has both solid top 4 defensemen and depth and contributes offensively. During the off-season I wrote about the need to have a second scoring line to balance the offense and match up a bit better against deep top-tier teams especially on the road. I also at least considered the possibility of upgrading in net while noting that it was not a necessity.
The 2020-21 season is still very young, but against an undersized sample size the Hurricanes are off to a good start in both regards. Petr Mrazek has been among the best goalies in the entire NHL in his few NHL starts, and the Canes netminding in total ranks among the NHL’s best.
And in terms of building a higher-end second scoring line progress has also been made. As I wrote yesterday, the situation is a little in that second line forwards Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas are both scoring at a high pace, but not so much as a unit yet.
But if Necas and Trocheck keep clicking and the goaltending stays at a high level, are we basically at or near peak Hurricanes already?
Again based on a small sample size, the results look promising. Even minus four regulars, the Hurricanes just completed a three-game sweep of the two teams that played in the Stanley Cup Finals. The first and third games were closely contested, but the middle game was eye-opening. The Hurrianes built an early lead and then completely shut down a good Dallas Stars team that should been pressing the score. The game was nothing close to playing decent and catching a few bounces. The Hurricanes gave up just five shots on goal in the final two periods.
A long NHL season (even if only 56 games) inevitably has peaks and valleys, so it is possible that this is just a random upswing on the longer path. But some of the results have me wondering if maybe what we are seeing right now is the Hurricanes adding a couple elements to an already good team that made consecutive playoff appearances.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Looking into your crystal ball, what do you make of the Hurricanes impressive three-game homestand with three straight wins over good teams? Is largely just the normal ups and downs of an NHL season, or do you think it is something bigger?
2) What do you see as any remaining key elements for the Hurricanes to take one more step up and join the ranks of the elite (top 4-6 teams) in the NHL? …Or are they already there?
1. It is impressive and I think it is real. And we have done it with 4th line that barely plays. Lorentz has stepped up and shown he is a solid top-9. But Geekie’s wings have been the weak links and don’t spend much time on the ice.
What will be interesting to see is what happens when the players return on Tuesday – there will be some line shuffling Rempel and (now) Shore will be gone. But Lorentz is out and Turbo will be looking for his place. The team has found so much chemistry with the recent players on ice, their return could be disruptive.
2. Nothing. Three of the problematic contracts I had previously identified – Gardiner, Skjei, and Trocheck – are playing excellent hockey. We have speed, we have depth, we have solid goaltending. What could we possibly be missing?
1). This appears to be something bigger. What is clicking – perhaps for the first time under RBA – is the power play and the offensive part of special teams play. The past weaknesses may not have been personnel as much as a refined system and everyone executing on the same page.
For me, the thing to watch going forward is the PP. Elite teams are generally elite on the PP, if the canes have that the last piece is in place.
2).the canes are already there in the early season sense. This will be a very unique year, with each team playing the others in their division 8 times. Making adjustments, adjusting to adjustments, etc, will almost be like playoff hockey all year long. How the adjustments unfold will determine who is best at the end.
The thing I’ve noticed in the games this year is how much more our style of play resembled ’18-19 than ’19-20 where the desperation and energy and effort seemed to be the most consistent part of our game.
Add on top of that the development of ALL our key skill players – Aho, TT, Svetch, Necas, Slavin, Pesce, Dougie.
Add on top of that the return to form of Nino, Dzingle (who has played very well, too, early), and Gardiner.
Add of top with the addition of Trocheck and Skjei, both playing better this year than in the recent past.
And add on top of all that Jordo: let’s not overlook how much better he looks in his new role without the burden of generating offense; his response had been to generate more offense. He looks like a new player and the best version of himself in years.
The sum is a much better team that is among the league’s best. I think this level of player is sustainable. The only question is whether it will be sustained.
The last two games have resembled 18-19. They also resembled the Ayres game. The Canes can play intense hockey. However, it is not reasonable for Carolina or any team to maintain that level.
What is different (or should be different) is that Svech is now hitting his peak and Necas is hitting another level. That should allow Carolina to win games that require slogging out victory.
All that said, before the COVID break the Canes were not near peak. The first victory was fine but not inspiring. The loss to Detroit was actually uninspiring. Even after the break, the Tampa game was a mixed bag as the Canes were unable to score on a top-flight goalie in regulation.
Not trying to be contentious, but any team’s “peak” needs to be a season or more. The talent is there for peak Canes—especially if the depth can be developed as players like Lorentz, Bean, and Geekie can really impact the next 3 years.
So to address Matt’s question—at this point it is just ups and downs. However, if Necas and (as you correctly point out) Staal continue to make plays in all situations, then the Canes will be able to consistently compete with the NHL’s best.
Agree with ctcaniac. These last two games were a lot of entertainment (yes, I broke down and bought the $45 Spectrum package for 12 months, the wife wouldn’t have it any other way, but at least this month’s $45 has already been justified).
But while they are fun I am not convinced the cup winning Caniacs have emerged. The team is in good shape physically but it’s humanly impossible to maintain that level of desperation over a whole season, let alone one with such a tight schedule.
But it’s been a pleasure to see how depth players have emerged and looks night and day compared to last season, Trocheck, Nino (the Swiss mistle), Necas, captain Staal, Gardner.
I also really liked Lawrence’s play and would give Jake Bean a B+ (the rest of the audition guys were pretty invisible, but at least not invisible in a bad way).
What does worry me though is lack of scoring from the back end. Lots of shots, some assists but guys like Hamilton have not yet hit their scoring stride.
In a way it’s ok, because if we have guys hit their scoring peak at different parts of the season it bodes well overall, but I am seeing less from our D than we hvae been.
Also, kudos to the goalies, so far they have done an outstanding job.
The magic won’t last, there will be tough spots, but the team really looks poised to do well this year and maybe go all the way next year.
Having guys like Gardner play well opens up trade options if the team needs to be retooled in the spring, they are much more tradable, or maybe we can keep the crew together and go for it.