Hello old friends. I have had good intentions of dusting off the Canes keyboard for about a month now, but a bit belated am finally getting around to jotting some Canes thoughts for the first time in awhile. For those curious, nothing horrible happened; life just got busy on a few different levels and maybe to some degree my ability to write after midnight (probably 2/3 of my writing historically was 11pm or later when my house quieted, kids were in bed and other stuff was finished) is dwindling as I get older.
But just like for everyone else, playoff hockey boosts energy, so here I am…
Below are my thoughts on the current state of the Canes on 3 levels:
Level 1: The biggest picture
The current state of Carolina Hurricanes hockey is the highest it has ever been in the team’s history. Yes, we have a glorious Cup win and another fun trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in the annals, but both of those sort of came out of nowhere, and neither was followed up by any sort of sustained goodness.
As we sit right now, the team is 5 for 5 in terms of making the playoffs since Tom Dundon became the owner and initiated a culture change and all-importantly made the critical decision to name Rod Brind’Amour as the head coach. It seems simple and obvious now but was anything but that when it happened. Brind’Amour had exactly zero games of head coaching experience at any level and was a risk. Somewhere down the road, maybe in the summer, I have good intentions of writing a bit more about Tom Dundon and his role in the culture change and dramatic turnaround, but let’s focus on Brind’Amour for now. In late March this year, the talk around the Canes was whether a team depleted by a couple key injuries had the personnel for a deep playoff run. After a decade of not making the playoffs at all and only intermittent and limited success prior to that, it is important to appreciate how far this team has come and where it is right now. That does not guarantee a Stanley Cup at any point, but the Hurricanes are now entering every season among the 8-10 teams that at least have a chance.
That is an incredibly good place to be and not something that should be underappreciated even if there are ups and downs in the playoffs.
At the next level, the Hurricanes have won in the first round (counting the odd play-in round against the Rangers in the first COVID year) in each of the last four seasons. As Brind’Amour will always tell you, the goal is to hoist the Cup again as it should be, but the path to getting there requires winning four playoff series, so some evidence that the system, personnel, etc. can win arduous seven-game series in April and later is meaningful.
So again, regardless of how the rest of the 2023 NHL Playoffs play out, I think it is worth appreciating the general state of the Carolina Hurricanes right now.
Level 2: The current series against the New York Islanders
This series very much reminds me of the Rangers series last year. The final score on Friday looks lopsided, but it was a 1-1 game midway through the third period before a power play goal seemed to break the dam. Like the Rangers series last year, this one seems destined to continue to be a string of tight games where any kind of a hot streak could swing the series. If not that, a couple bounces here or there could be the difference. And if not that, the series could be destined to the unpredictable randomness of a game 7.
I liked the Islanders match up simply because I think their offense/scoring ceiling is a bit lower than the other options, and I think that is a good fit for a Canes team also minus some scoring fire power to try to play its way into the playoffs and figure out a formula for generating enough offensively. After three games, I even more so like this match up. Through three games, my assessment of the Canes offensively is not positive. The team has scored only a handful of 5-on-5 goals and really is not generating a ton offensively. I do not think that bodes well for a possible second round match up against the Rangers who added significantly at the trade deadline and can now come in waves offensively nor does it bode well for other teams with more offense. But that is a bridge to cross if/hopefully when the Canes get there.
The team’s best line in terms of generating scoring chances has been Staal’s line which is problematic. Minus Svechnikov and Pacioretty, the Canes are staring at the same issue that they had this time last year which is finding enough sources of offense, especially on the road. Before Teravainen’s injury, I kept thinking that the Aho/Teravainen combination could greatly benefit in the post-season from having a power forward with finishing ability (think Evander Kane or a Tkachuk) to play more in between the face-off circles instead of on the periphery. And like this time last year, the Canes desperately need some combination of the young wings Necas, Kotkaniemi and/or Jarvis to get going offensively. Necas had two power play assists in the first game, but at even strength, the trio has a lone Jarvis assist for even strength scoring through three games.
Fear, doubt and mostly unbiased sanity check for the broadcast team aside, I like the Canes chances in this series. The team arrived in Long Island needing only one win out of two to return home with control of the series. That still has a chance to come to fruition, but even if it does not, the path to a game 7 which has generally been good to the team is still there.
With a short turnaround with the early start on Sunday, it will be interesting to see what Brind’Amour does in net. As much as Tripp had been pumping Raanta’s tires after two wins and a decent start in game 3, he has been ‘meh’. He gave up an ‘iffy’ goal in each of the first two games and allegedly his best save in game 3 was on a puck that went through him and was on its way to becoming a somewhat leaky goal before Seth Jarvis saved it at the goal line. There was nothing he could have done on the Isle’s power play deflection to take the lead, but with a fourth-liner like Martin running out of room on the rush, Raanta needs to take away the short side and force Martin to make a tough shot across the grain and hit the far side of the net. He did not, and Martin mostly finished the game into the part of the net that Raanta needed to take away first. With Kochetkov on the bench, it is not clear if Andersen is available, and he did not look great in the last game of the regular season. So there is no easy or obvious choice, but with a 2-1 series lead, maybe this is the opening to see what, if anything, the team has in Andersen or even Kochetkov knowing the worst case scenario is returning home tied 2-2 with a somewhat rested Raanta.
Level 3: Trying to find that higher gear
Put simply, I do not think the game 1-3 version of this team is Cup-capable. But I am not sure that really matters. You cannot win the Cup in the first series, and there is not necessarily a carry over from one series to the next. So being up 2-1 is a good place to be in terms of the simple “survive and advance” objective.
That said, the teams that go deep in the playoffs tend to get better and be at or near the top of their game as things progress. With the injury issues at forward, it is not clear what that looks like for the Canes. Possible X factors always include a hot goalie and/or a big advantage on special teams. Past that, finding combinations and strategies that click at the right time can go a long way.
In that regard, it will be interesting to see how Brind’Amour shuffles the deck as the playoffs progress, especially if he gets more than a couple days between series to make bigger adjustments. At even strength at forward, his general preference is balance rather than purpose-built/role-focused lines. Staal’s line by definition is a bit of an old school checking/match up line, but even in that regard, in years past he has not hesitated to shuffle someone like Teravainen or Svechnikov onto Staal’s line. I think the fact that Staal’s line is playing well and also generating more than its share of offense makes it the only ‘must keep’ line for now. Past that, the team desperately needs to find a combination that can generate scoring chances. One would figure that Aho is the centerpiece of that line, but right now it is not clear how you build around him. Paul Stastny has been utilized almost exclusively in a depth role this season and is in the twilight of his career at 37 years old, but might his experience rise up this time of year? I know the possible combinations are limited by the injuries, but coming off a strong regular season, might Necas benefit from playing with Aho?
More directly, the Canes need more offensively right now. I would put Aho and Necas as the two players with the greatest potential to help here. I would start trying some things to get one or both of them going at even strength otherwise the rest of this series is destined to be a hard slog trying to win 2-1 or maybe 3-2 twice at home to squeak out a seven-game series win but maybe without generating any viable path to win against a better scoring team in the next round.
What say you Canes fans?
Not sure how many people will find/see this after a long layoff and no real announcement for layoff or return, but I would love to hear people’s thoughts on the state of the team in general and how you think the rest of the Canes/Isles series plays out.