Have Carolina Been Trolling Us?
Winners of four straight games, the Carolina Hurricanes now find themselves on the edge of the playoffs, despite many believing they’d be more likely to be competing for a shot at Auston Matthews than the Stanley Cup this season.
But dig deeper, and the Hurricanes success shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, as the organisation recovered from a rocky start to become one of the best possession teams in the NHL.
Despite a 26th overall finish last year, the seeds of this success were planted 12 months ago and we’re now seeing the flowers start to bloom.
Boasting the fourth best Corsi For Percentage (53.1%) in the NHL at even strength 5v5, Carolina trail only Los Angeles, Nashville and Anaheim – who, despite their inability to score this season, are still a pretty formidable team in most regards.
Expand that to all situations and only Los Angeles can better the Hurricanes 54.3%.
Individually, stars like Eric Staal, brother Jordan and Kris Versteeg are large drivers of this success, but eighteen of the 24 skaters that have represented Carolina this season boast a Corsi For Percentage over 50% at even strength 5v5 and difference makers like Jeff Skinner, who was somewhat slow out of the gate this year, are finding their scoring touch.
Whilst largely unheralded and missing the injured James Wisniewski, the Hurricanes blue line has also performed well this season. 23-year old Justin Faulk leads the team in scoring (14 goals, 32 points) and all eight defencemen who’ve played any kind of significant role this year (10 games or more) have a Corsi For rating above 50% at even strength, with only veteran Ron Hainsey dropping below that number if we expand to all situations.
So why did the Hurricanes struggle early?
On December 1st, the franchise sat 14th in the East with a 8-12-4 record with the worst offensive record in the league (though Anaheim had played one game more) and one of the weaker defensive records.
If you can’t score, or keep the puck out of your own net, this is what tends to happen. Even if you have the puck.
While some blame lays at the door of the clubs offensive leaders for failing to turn chances to goals, many fingers pointed squarely at Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, both then and still now. And that criticism is partially justified.
From their season opener in Nashville on October 8th through to December 1st, Ward posted an even strength 5v5 adjusted save percentage of 90.86%, while Eddie Lack put up an unimpressive 88.64% – numbers which only got worse when we consider all situations, with Ward at 89.85% and Lack 87.42% respectively.
From December 1st through to today, Lack has boasted a 92.34% adjusted save percentage at even strength 5v5, Ward 92.31%.
Carolina has gone 12-6-3 during that same time period.
For Lack, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that this improvement follows a reversion to his previous style of play, with the affable Swede sitting a little deeper in his crease rather than outside it, a change many felt he struggled to adapt to in Raleigh.
Another area that Carolina seems to have excelled in is face-offs, with the Staal brothers, Jay McClement and Victor Rask – the club’s four current centres – all winning more than 50% of the draws they have taken.
So with the numbers on their side, and results coming on the ice, how do Carolina approach the second half of the season? This is the tricky part.
Trailing the Rangers by 4 points whilst also having played two games more, claiming one of the Metropolitan Division’s three automatic qualification spots may seem a little ambitious for the Hurricanes – though not impossible per se – but the organisation seem to be firmly in the fight for one of the two wild card spots right now.
Where things begin to get murky is if the clubs around Carolina win their games in hand.
Tampa Bay and Boston, who currently who the wild card spots, have two and three games in hand on Carolina respectively. Pittsburgh, currently 10th in the East but only a point behind Carolina and New Jersey, have three games in hand, whislt Ottawa, tied with the Penguins on 46 points, has one game in hand.
Philadelphia, another in form team in the East right now with four wins on the trot, trail Carolina by two points but have four games in hand.
The Hurricanes could go from 9th to 13th pretty quickly.
And there in lies the quandary for General Manager Ron Francis – Carolina could be in striking distance of both a playoff spot and a top ten pick.
Lets assume for a moment the Hurricanes do fall behind the Flyers, leaving them 13th in the Eastern Conference and, as things stand, 22nd overall – which would be good enough for around a 2% chance of landing the first overall pick right now.
But don’t forget that also puts them in with a chance of landing the second overall pick, or the third overall pick.
Because the NHL changed the rules on the draft lottery, Carolina could have a chance at adding Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi or Matthew Tkachuk. At worst they’d be looking at someone like Max Jones or Michael McLeod.
Is chasing down a playoff spot, attempting to overtake five other teams while doing so, justifiable?
That’s a hard sell. Ottawa were the exception rather than the rule last year, the vast majority of teams that try to leap frog their way in to the playoffs fail. And even in those small handful of cases where a club does make it, most flame out in the first round.
Again, is it justifiable for a young team like Carolina to continue chasing rather than maybe taking one on the chin in order to add another quality youngster to an already solid group of under-25s?
The situation is further complicated by Eric Staal’s return to form.
An unrestricted free agent in the summer, Staal has looked like his old self again this season, having had an ‘off’ year last term, and thus has seen his stock rise once again.
It seems unlikely Staal could command another contract worth $8.25m per season, but his preference seems to be to stay in Raleigh and at 31 he would still be a more than useful contributor for Carolina moving forward, especially if he is underlying numbers remain as strong as they have.
But the best case scenario for Carolina, as much as I am sure the NHL would frown on it, would be to trade Staal at the deadline and then re-sign him in the summer. The Keith Tkachuk theorem!
In 2007, Atlanta gave up Glen Metropolit, a first-round pick in 2007, a third-round pick in 2007 and a second-round pick in 2008 to acquire veteran power forward Tkachuk from St. Louis for what turned out to be the Thrashers one and only playoff appearance. The Team USA forward was then sent back to the Blues that summer, where he would go on to re-sign.
Would a similar move for Staal and Carolina be out of the question? Again, it might be somewhat underhanded in many respects, but clubs like Minnesota would not baulk at the idea of adding a veteran centre in time for the playoffs…
The Thunder Bay, Ontario native then *magically* re-appears in Raleigh on July 1st…
The Hurricans may also be able to flip pending UFAs Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles at the trade deadline – though moving Cam Ward seems a stretch, but might not be impossible given the former Conn Smythe winner is also an unrestricted free agent come July.
With 13 players under 25, and top prospects like Haydn Fleury and netminder Alex Nedeljkovic in the system, this seems like the better course of action – as much as Canes fans might want the club to make a run at the playoffs.
It might cost Bill Peters a shot at the Jack Adams, it might cost Justin Faulk a shot at the Norris Trophy, but if it adds someone of Puljujarvi or Alex Nylander’s ilk to a roster already set to boast Noah Hanifin and the underrated Elias Lindholm in the coming years it’s a trade off Carolina might want to take.
Francis doesn’t have to make any hard decisions until closer to the trade deadline on February 28th, allowing some time to see just how things are panning out for the club both on the ice and in the standings.
Whatever the outcome this year, the 2006 Stanley Cup winners are rebuilding much more quickly, and more quietly, than many people realise.
Sorry for doubting you Carolina.