On Tuesday night at PNC Arena against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes will play what is probably the closest thing to a must-win game thus far in the 2017-18 season. Over the weekend, the Hurricanes suffered two deflating losses that seemed to have a much bigger negative effect than simply missing out on four points. Coach Bill Peters followed the second loss with a seething press conference that alleged that changes would be made before Tuesday’s game. He then bag skated the team in Monday’s practice. And now here we are…Tuesday morning before a huge game. A win will not instantly put all of the team’s issues in the past, but it will put the Hurricanes either in a playoff spot or within a point of it and ahead of a pack of teams also with their own issues. At that point, it will be much easier to look forward rather than backward. But with a loss, the Hurricanes will fall two points farther off the pace, stretch their losing streak to three straight home games and continue on a path that looks eerily similar to the string of playoff misses in recent years.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe starts the process of charting the series of events that have the team where it is now. Part 1 starts by recapping and assessing Francis’ moves during the offseason.
Assessing the needs
In the post-season press conference shortly after the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, Ron Francis identified three needs — goaltending, a scorer and a third pairing defenseman. In May, I started my series of articles on the offseason needs with a similar list but with one subtle but increasingly significant difference. Whereas Francis defined the forward need fairly generally as being a 20-goal scorer, I used the terminology “capable of driving offense not just being a complementary player.”
Addressing the top priority – Scott Darling
The single biggest need last summer was adding a goalie capable of being at least a league average starter. Francis acted early in this regard adding Scott Darling via trade and then pretty quickly signing him to a four-year deal. In my article with first impressions on Scott Darling, I noted reservations with lack of experience and more specifically lack of experience as a #1.
Things may change over the course of the four years for which Scott Darling is currently signed, but I think it is fair to say that through two-thirds of the 2017-18 season, the move has failed. That bears out in my analysis that shows the Hurricanes losing the game of goalie musical chairs to the other four teams who also added a starting goalie this summer.
Adding a forward – Justin Williams
On July 1 in comments made on the video board at PNC Arena during the prospects week scrimmage game, Francis made reference to a certain center (implied to be Matt Duchene) costing too much. Then shortly thereafter it was announced that the Hurricanes had signed free agent Justin Williams to a two-year contract. The move was the feel-good variety bringing back a player with Cup history and equally importantly the signal that the signing sent in terms of playing to win in 2017-18.
By my assessment, Williams has been a positive as a two-way player and locker room leader. But if you go with the assumption that Williams was the one big budget item that he could afford, the move maybe comes up short in two regards. First, I would not consider Williams to be the “catalyst” that I hoped for. He is a very good all-around player and capable of scoring, but if you started from his 24 goals and 48 points in 2016-17 with the Capitals who were an offensive juggernaut and then downgraded from there, Williams figured to be the equivalent of another 40+ point depth scorer. Second, I think the team missed the boat on fully leveraging the potential for Williams to lead a culture and attitude change when the team went with the old guard in naming captains. After the announcement of Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk as co-captains, I stated my preference for Justin Williams with words that could be equally appropriate for today — “I just think the team needs a sudden and stark shift in mindset.”
Thus far, I think Justin Williams has performed about as one might have hoped in July. On the positive side, he has been a solid two-way player and has helped in adding another leader and locker room presence. On the negative side, his current pace for 14 goals and 50 points represents another depth scorer who does not significantly boost the offense to another level. In addition, I think the team minimized what he might have brought in terms of a culture shift when Williams was left on the outside of the formal leadership ranks.
Filling out the bottom part of the lineup – Marcus Kruger, Josh Jooris and Trevor van Riemsdyk
Following on Bill Peters’ comments at the end of year press conference that suggested a preference for proven NHL players, Francis also built out the majority of the bottom part of the roster during the summer instead of leaving more room for spots to be won by youth. In what was arguably his best move of the offseason, Francis acquired Trevor van Riemsdyk to provide a sound and proven player for the third defense pairing. And Francis also added veteran checking line forwards Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger to go with Joakim Nordstrom and fill out the fourth line with proven NHLers.
On the topic of filling out the roster, I noted the following from the end of season press conference:
Peters followed up on the theme of needing to add players from outside the organization a couple times. When talking about the Metropolitan Division in 2016-17, Peters said, “The pieces need to come in to close that gap. If we think guys from the American League (AHL) are going to come n and close that gap, it’s not happening in my opinion as the coach. He later followed that comment up by saying, “I don’t want to put a guy in a situation hoping without knowing. I want to know that he’s capable of playing that position. We have specific needs. If we can fill those specific needs, then you don’t have to jam a guy in there.”
And that is exactly what Francis did. He filled the bottom of the forward roster with a couple proven players.
To date, I do not think that has worked out. Increasingly, I am hearing similar opinions elsewhere, but I wrote about concerns about the fourth line and its role in some detail on December 29. In short, the team is getting virtually nothing in terms of offensive production from the fourth line. If the team was top-heavy scoring-wise perhaps this would not be a big deal, but for a team struggling to score enough receiving nothing from the fourth line just makes for another deficit to be made up. Further, I did a reasonably deep dive on the team’s penalty kill woes in my January 3 article. In short, the fourth line has been a minus in terms of scoring and has also played a key role in a penalty kill that is below league average. Interestingly, the penalty kill seemed to perform better when Kruger was on the shelf with an injury.
Evaluating the moves
Scott Darling: Put simply, through 53 games, Ron Francis’ selection of Scott Darling to fill the goaltending need has not worked out.
Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris: Though not as glaring, I would also say that the depth forward additions have not worked out. This miss is arguably as much about strategy and stubbornness as it is about personnel. Despite getting nothing for scoring from the fourth line and sub-par penalty killing to boot, Peters remains committed to the group. With players who project to be defensively capable in Charlotte but with significant scoring upside in Lucas Wallmark and Warren Foegele, one has to wonder if the biggest error in the end is simply stubbornness and ignoring results.
Justin Williams: In my opinion, Williams is the most interesting case. At the most basic level, I think that the Hurricanes are a better team with him than without him. I also believe that his leadership has been a positive. But if I only had budget for one big forward addition, I continue to think the priority should have been adding a player capable of being an offensive catalyst. Further, I think the Hurricanes failed to maximize the jolt that Williams could have provided in terms of changing the attitude and culture when the team made Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk co-captains. So while Williams is a net positive, if you go with the assumption that Francis had budget for one higher-end forward, I think he failed to address the most pressing need.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: Of Francis’ offseason moves, I think the addition of Trevor van Riemsdyk scores highest. Van Riemsdyk both addresses a specific need and has filled it successfully during the 2017-18 season.
When one nets it out, maybe it should not be so surprising that the Hurricanes are roughly where they were at this time last year and also seemingly on the brink of a final tumble to miss the playoffs just like last year. The move to address goaltending which was the top priority has not panned out. Instead of directly addressing the need to add more scoring with a maximum player, Francis went a slightly different directly adding a good player but not so much a pure offensive catalyst. Finally, Francis mostly missed in terms of improving the fourth line by building it out with a new set of veterans. When one adds it up, aside from solidifying the third defense pairing which I would have considered priority #3, the team really has not successfully addressed its top two deficiencies from last season. Perhpas it should not be a surprise that the team is in a similar position.
What say you Canes fans?
Maybe impacted by the recent down swing, am I being too harsh in grading Francis’ offseason work?