Sunday’s game marked the 42nd game of the 2019-20 season for the Carolina Hurricanes which means the team is officially into the second half of the season.
My tentative plan is to do at least short player by player reviews for the first half of the season sometime this week, but a good starting point is looking at the team in total.
With the roller coaster currently tilted downhill after consecutive home losses over the weekend, it could be easy to get caught up in the recent results and be a bit too negative on the season so far.
In the standings
The Hurricanes currently sit in the first wild card spot. As things stand right now, the team is a three-way battle with Florida and Philadelphia for the two wild card spots. The Hurricanes have a one point lead over both teams, so they are where they want to be but with a slim lead. Another positive is that a number of teams have slipped off the pace with the teams at the cut line generally winning. Columbus is still fairly close at four points back but the rest of the pack is six or more points back (adjusted for games played). So one small bit of good news is that the pack of teams at the cut line has shrunk for the time being.
Compared to my expectations entering the season, I think the Hurricanes are in a good place so far. The easier path for 2019-20 would be the young team taking another big step forward and pushing up well above the playoff cut line. But I think more realistic was recognizing that the 2018-19 barely made the playoffs and did so only after finding magic in the second half of the season. As such, I think a modest step up for 2019-20 would be spending a greater chunk of the season in playoff position, not requiring a late miracle and making the playoffs before the final weekend.
By no means is that guaranteed, but that is the track the Hurricanes are on thus far.
So by my book, though I would have welcomed a bit more, I like where the Hurricanes are after 42 games.
In terms of current trajectory
If one looks only at the last two games, the losing streak is not positive. But when one considers that those two losses were against two of the best teams in the NHL, it becomes easier to chalk it up as being part of the ups and downs of a long NHL season. After a horrid December in 2018-19 that nearly ended the season, the Hurricanes were a solid 8-4-1. Sure the team’s 2-5 mark in the last seven games is not great nor is the 0-2 start to January, but anything even slightly longer term looks positive.
So yes there is a need to keep the current skid or any other skid as short as possible, but I would not consider the current situation desperate or dire.
Potential upside / greatest risk
I think the greatest upside for this team and also its greatest risk are two sides of the same coin. The 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes have proven capable of scoring in bunches at times which has made for some fun wins and also a good number of imperfect wins in which the team just out-ran/ out-gunned any number of mistakes. The upside there is twofold. First, the team’s newfound ability to score in bunches at times offers a larger margin for error than the team has had in a long time. Second, despite having a decent record, this team still has significant room for improvement.
But the flip side of that same coin presents a significant risk. Generally good teams improve as the season wears on such that the teams that rise to the top and stay there are teams that improve, tighten things up and find consistency and winning formula that is repeatable. Teams that win in a haphazard way in the front part of the season can be left behind in the second half of the season when the good teams work out kinks, improve and tighten things up. I think the Hurricanes got a taste of that on Sunday when a Tampa Bay Lightning team that they had beaten twice earlier in the season came in theoretically tired after playing the night before and mostly dominated the Hurricanes with a strong forecheck and opportunistic finishing.
Areas for improvement
I think the Hurricanes currently have some issues in terms of individual players’ performance, but I will save those for a follow up that looks more player by player. But at a general level, I see a few key areas for improvement:
Cleaning up the penalties
The successful December road trip featured the Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill playing super hero but not surprisingly that formula for winning was flawed all along. The struggles of late have featured the penalty kill struggling. Put simply, the team needs to greatly reduce the number of unnecessary penalties in the offensive zone and neutral zone, and the Canes need reduce the quantity of lazy stick infractions.
Tightening up defensive play and puck management
The bad version of the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes has regularly featured sloppy play in terms of sorting things out and marking individual players especially in transition and also bad turnovers at the two blue lines. Those are the kind of plays that gift offense to the other team often in the form of grade A chances that decide hockey games. The better version of the Canes will find a way to decrease the volume of costly errors.
Generating more work boots type offense
As noted above, a big positive for the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes has been the team’s ability to generate scoring in bunches at times. The power play is improved and deeper with capable talent across two units. And in general the Hurricanes have been able to score and win even high scoring affairs. But along the way, the team has also been shutout and stymied by more than its fair share of ‘hot goalies’. More often than not ‘beaten by a hot goalie’ has a high concentration of not creating chaos at the crease and mostly just shooting more to try to get one past the goalie. The 2018-19 team had less sheer offensive talent/fire power but was able to score more consistently because of a work boots mentality. The engine for the 2018-19 scoring was much less so raw ability and much more a strong forecheck that generated scoring chances across all four lines. In addition, I think the 2018-19 team did a much better job of consistently sending pucks and bodies to the front of the net to fight for ugly goals. I think a key to greater consistency offensively is making a more concerted effort to make things difficult on opposing teams both in terms of moving the puck from their own end and in terms of opposing goalies having to battle traffic in front of the net.
Netting it out
When I net it out, I like where the team is right now, but I also think it will need to find a higher gear in the second half to make a return to the playoffs. As good teams improve and tighten things up, I think the current version of the Hurricanes will struggle. But that is exactly what the team did under Rod Brind’Amour last season, so I think there is a legitimate case for hope that is exactly what will happen.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is your assessment of the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes both in terms of where they are in the standings and the current trajectory?
2) What do you see as the greatest areas for improvement and concern for the second half of the season?
1) The standings look good. The current trajectory is more concerning. The Canes had one of the more favorable schedules in the league in terms of opposition winning % the first half. That means the remainder of the year will be against tougher opponents. While the western swing included victories over good teams, the recent games have looked like the Canes can’t just outwork the more talented teams in the league. I would say one thing that most concerns me is that Hamilton’s play has declined both offensively, and more importantly defensively. Also the goaltending hasn’t “stolen” a game in a while. My concern is that now that the calendar has changed the Canes are playing more like Oct-Dec 2018 than Jan-Mar 2019.
2) Whenever I hear folks argue that the Canes need more effort, I am concerned that RBA agrees that what is lacking is “net front” play. For those of you who haven’t visited, I highly recommend hockey-graphs.com. There is a recent analysis of the types of passes that lead to goals. Once again analysis indicates that moving the puck is the key to scoring. Think about the Svech goal, or the Haula goal on the pass from Pesce, or even the TT power play goal where there was a scramble in front of the net but it was Aho’s pass away from the traffic that resulted in a goal. I am not arguing that battling for pucks in the crease and tipping shots that originate from the point aren’t valuable—they are often the difference in 1-0 games. However, the best way to make sure to get more than 1 goal is to play attacking hockey that gets both the D and goalie looking for the puck as it quickly moves through the Royal Road.
While the first half of the season has gone well, there are many bad signs as the Canes approach the second half of the season.
First and foremost is the Canes lack of attention to defense. Some of this is personnel, and some of this is lack of commitment by the team. Jake Gardiner is a liability. A big downgrade from Justin Faulk, but he isn’t the only or even the biggest issue IMO. The biggest issue is their commitment to team defense. With the development of the Canes younger scorers they seem very willing to get into run and gun games. They have even won a few, but that will get them nowhere in the playoffs and may even put them in danger of not making the playoffs. Why? Tampa Bay and Toronto are coming. They will be factors. With more games for the Canes against the Eastern Conference they need to tighten it up, or else.
Potential solution: Justin Williams. Not the best defensive player, but a guy committed to playing the right way and with discipline. He would be a big help in the locker room when the guys seem to want to run and gun. From what I hear he looks very good skating. Hopefully the Canes can add him soon. Who goes? In a perfect world they could find a taker for Nino Niederriter. They’ll have to eat some salary, but a Williams for Nino switch would be a good move.
1. Overall the standings look okay. I really think a lot of people, not necessarily here, are using last year as a baseline and believing we should be better. But last year was exceptional. You highlight the difference in team play between the seasons.
My biggest concern is the up/down nature of this season – we win a few games in a row than we lose much of that back. That has been the hallmark since opening night. Even good teams go on losing streaks (Boston, anyone?) but we keep cycling back and forth.
I think you compressed the field too much in terms of who we are competing with. Short of there being a 2nd half of the season like we had last year, I think the cut-line for playoff consideration is about 45 points – which expand the field to include CBJ and BUF.
Every game counts – but every game in the Metro counts more and I would suggest that games, like last night, with the top-5 in the Atlantic also represent meaningful 4-point games.
2. Cleaning up penalties is important – but as RBA has said, you have to kill them. And the team’s PK has been in serious decline in recent weeks. Special teams may become a longer term risk this season.
Goaltending is sliding back into mediocrity. Mrazek showed us last season what he can do – now he is showing us the other side (again). And that is how Mrazek has played – he plays extended stretches of the season then loses his groove (or vice versa). Reimer had an elite stretch earlier in the season but hasn’t come close i his most recent starts.
You already mention puck management and play in the defensive zone and that needs to be emphasized. IN the early part of 2018-19 the team played very poorly in the defensive zone – and I was reminded of that in the first 10 minutes of the TOR game and again last night. You can’t clear pucks by passing to the center. And we have to track opposing players better.
Didn’t mention it in my post, but goaltending is an issue. It is average at best. I guess it’s better than we have had prior to last season, but as the commercials say, it’s “OK.” Not much they can do about it at this point.
I agree. Goaltending is my concern. Mrazek, except every once in a while, let’s in a couple easy goals every game. We have to score big to win. D could be better but the goalies can’t make a couple good saves a game and then not make a difference when they need too. It’s not as bad as Darling, but any time Mrazek is in net, I expect him not to make stops. We should give Reimer a go at it. May not be better but Mrazek does not seem to be the answer. 900 is not average goaltending.
Maybe I should not say easy, but things a good goaltender should stop.