After three consecutive playoff berths since Rod Brind’Amour took over as the bench boss, the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2021-22 NHL season as a team expected to make the playoffs and also a team with a possibility to hoist the Stanley Cup in June.
For those with short memories, this is an incredible hockey blessing after a decade-long playoff drought and the heartbreak that came with it.
But now making a fourth straight playoff appearance, things shift to a ‘what have you done or me lately?’ situation. The rise was spectacular with the second half run to make the playoffs and then two series victories in 2019. And the decent playoff success so far has made for a nice plateau. The Brind’Amour-led Canes are a solid 4-3 in the playoffs and have never lost in the first round (counting the COVID year play in series win over the Rangers). The question is whether that plateau will ultimately be just that or if instead it will become the foundation for that last big step.
The potential negative with the current situation is that increasingly success will be measured only by playoff success. The Hurricanes have had a strong 2021-22 regular season, but if the team is ousted in the first-round of the playoff, it will largely be for naught.
So that raises the all-important question of what it takes for the Hurricanes to push deep into the playoffs.
The every-series/every-team answers
Each and every NHL playoff series has the potential to be decided if one team has too sizable of an advantage in either goaltending or special teams scoring. Either of those has the potential to almost by itself decide a series.
In that regard, the Canes have some question marks entering the last week of regular season hockey.
On special teams, the penalty kill has been the NHL’s best for much of the 2022-23 season and is still mostly firing on all cylinders which is a positive entering the playoffs. But the power play, and most notably the first power play unit, has struggled down the stretch. There have been some signs of life in recent games, but in total it is something to watch when the playoffs begin.
In net, the outlook is a it murky with about a week until the playoffs start. Frederik Andersen is still working his way back after being pulled from the Colorado Avalanche game on April 16 with a lower body injury. Then to compound things, Antti Raanta was pulled from Saturday’s game also with a lower body injury. It still seems possible that one or both could be available for the playoffs, but if not the Canes would seemingly have to turn to rookie Pyotr Kochetkov. If one takes the Canes broadcast and Tripp Tracy at face value, Kochetkov has been nothing short of sensational. To be clear, he has not been bad obviously with two wins and only three goals against in a game and a half, but he really has not been tested.
If the Hurricanes are even or at least close for special teams and goaltending
If the Hurricanes can at least hold their own in terms goaltending and special teams, I think the team’s key to extended success will be what it can get from its second-tier wings to provide balanced scoring and the ability to generate enough offense past the top line.
In an ideal world, the Canes could ice Teravainen/Aho/Svechnikov as an all-in first scoring line, use Niederreiter/Staal/Fast as a match up or checking line if you will without a ton of pressure/need for them to score and then have a second scoring line that can exploit lesser match ups especially on the road where Aho’s line gets a regular helping of the opponents’ defensive best.
And therein lies the challenge. With the aim of becoming deeper offensively, the Hurricanes parted ways with Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn to make room for higher-end scoring. Indirectly, the budget from those players was spent on Jesperi Kotkaniemi and to a lesser degree Max Domi who was added later. That, combined with Kotkaniemi’s unsuccessful audition at wing on a scoring line early in the season, also opened the door for Seth Jarvis to climb into the mix. And entering the season, Martin Necas was expected to take another step forward offensively in his second full NHL season.
With Vincent Trocheck as the center, those four players are still the options to build a second scoring line, but during the regular season the results have been fleeting.
Unless he nets a goal and four points in the final two games, Martin Necas will come up short of the 14 goals and 41 points he had in only 53 games in 2020-21 despite playing 78 (if he plays the last two) games in 2021-22. The playoffs have the potential to dramatically alter the final assessment of the season, but looking only at the regular season, I would say he not really progressed. He still shows flashes of skill and ability but is also prone to extended invisible stretches.
Seth Jarvis has had a strong rookie season. Based on it, he projects well as he continues to develop. And he has had stretches where he has been a going concern as a top 6 forward. Both his strong start and his recent second wind resurgence demonstrate a high ceiling, but those bursts also bookended an extended stretch where he was a non-factor on a regular basis.
After investing $6.1 million and a first round and third round draft pick to acquire Jesperi Kotkaniemi, he figured to play somewhere in the top 6. But he did not seem to mesh either on Aho or Trocheck’s line and was ultimately bumped down the depth chart in favor of Jarvis. He got his feet under himself a bit when he was moved to center on the fourth line. The result has been better play and a bit more scoring productivity for a fourth-line role. But with question marks in the top 6, penciling Kotkaniemi in as a great fourth-liner on a team that had acquired Derek Stepan to fill that slot is a miss and a minus in terms of having the depth needed to build a team with enough scoring in the top 6.
Finally, Max Domi was a great addition at the trade deadline giving the Canes’ limited salary cap space. He brings a bit more sand paper in the form of a player who is not a pure agitator who cannot score. But a bit like Kotkaniemi, Domi was competent but not offensively productive playing wing going scoreless in his first 13 games in a Hurricanes uniform. Like Kotkaniemi, he looked better when he moved briefly to center when Jordan Staal was out of the lineup. So if you tried to use players where they seemed to be most effective, the Hurricanes have a logjam able to fill the fourth-line center slot three times over but have question marks filling out two wing slots in the top 6.
I think how this shakes out could more than anything else determine how deep the Canes go in the playoffs. Necas, Jarvis and possibly Kotkaniemi have higher-end skill and the potential to produce in a top 6 role. Domi brings a bit more of a Brock McGinn skill set that leads with being disruptive but does also have some finishing ability.
So the upside or potential is there.
But consider also that just in the second half of the 2021-22 regular season that the team has had goal-less streaks of 18 and 13 games from Necas, 18 games from Jarvis, 19 games and 8 games from Kotkaniemi and 13 games from Domi.
If one stacks a couple long goal-less droughts from whichever of those players slot into the top 6 against a good defensive hockey team that has the ability to slow Aho’s line at least on the road, and it could be really hard to find enough scoring to win consecutive series without much for scoring depth.
Out of necessity, Brind’Amour may be forced to go with balance (not Teravainen/Aho/Svechnikov) over top-heavy especially on the road. But even in that case, a couple of the second tier wings need to produce.
The positive is that I think the future is bright based on potential. But in the here and now of trying to make magic in the 2022 NHL Playoffs, the question is whether the future is now.
Tomorrow’s Daily Cup of Joe will likely include a second key to deep playoff success, but if forced to name one thing past the standard goaltending and special teams, I will say that the ability to get offensive production and solid play from two of Necas, Jarvis, Kotkaniemi or Domi would be my choice.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think enough of the Hurricanes young guns will step up in the playoffs to make the Canes three lines deep in terms of scoring production?
2) Which of Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Max Domi are most likely to rise up and be difference-makers in the playoffs?
3) Past my assertion that goaltending and special teams are always a possible difference-maker with second-tier wings added, what else would you name as a key to Canes’ playoff success?