The Atlantic hurricane season typically runs from June to November, but the Carolina Hurricanes are hoping they can do some damage starting in April when the NHL playoffs get underway.
If they do happen to make the postseason, it’ll be first time they’ve achieved it in a decade.
The Hurricanes were on a roll when the All-Star break arrived with 9-3-1 record in their previous 13 games and fans are hoping that momentum won’t disappear when they return to action. There are several reasons the club is optimistic at this point as they’re now within reach of a wildcard berth.
They appear to have hit the jackpot by acquiring Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild for fellow forward Victor Rask as he’s chipped in with four goals in four games. He’s fit in well with linemates Justin Williams and Sebastian Aho and this trio will be the key to the team’s playoff hopes. Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic could also be important if Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney should happen to falter, suffer an injury or find themselves traded down the stretch run.
Both goalies are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in the summer and one of them could be dealt before the trade deadline. If so, the 23-year-old Nedeljkovic could step in as the back up. The youngster is a former goaltender of the year and all-star as a junior in the OHL and has been playing with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. He was between the posts in Carolina’s 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks just before the break and has a 2.65 goals-against average in 31 games in the minors this season.
Head coach Rod Brind’Amour also recently called up forward Greg McKegg and he’s responded well with three goals and six points in 11 games. The 26-year-old could give the squad some much-needed secondary scoring if he can keep it up.
The team has a lot of hard work ahead of it though and their season may ultimately come down to a stretch of road games early in February. They’ll be taking on conference rivals Pittsburgh, Buffalo, the New York Rangers, New Jersey and the Ottawa Senators in a span of just 10 days. If they can at least break even in those five games they should still be in the playoff hunt. However, anything less than five points will certainly put a dent in their chances.
There’s definitely a light at the end of the tunnel for a Hurricanes team that sat in 30th place in the 31-team league about a month ago. But to be successful they’ll need to improve the power-play as it sits at just 16.7 per cent on the year. One of the problems has been finding a suitable quarterback for the unit as both Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton have struggled back there and have combined for just three goals and 10 points with the man advantage.
Brind’Amour is also hoping veteran center Jordan Staal will soon return from his concussion problems after being sidelined in early December. He’s often used on special teams with penalty-killing being his strong point. The coach also needs to get together with general manager Don Waddell and discuss any possible deals the team may make at the upcoming trade deadline.
If Waddell plans on making any moves he’d be advised to make them sooner than later. It’s always been puzzling why teams wait until the trade deadline to improve their squads. Why not make a swap sooner rather than later to give the acquired players more time to gel with their new teammates and make an impact? Carolina may be out of the playoff race by the Feb. 25th deadline if they come home empty-handed from the upcoming road trip, so why wait?
Waddell has already improved the team with the addition of Niederreiter and further shrewd moves could strengthen it even more.
Still, no matter what the GM pulls out of his hat between now and the trade deadline, this team seems to live or die with Aho, a legitimate NHL star. The native of Rauna, Finland is just 21 years old and had already racked up 22 goals and 57 points by the All-Star break,. He’s on pace for 36 goals, 93 points and a plus-24 rating. He’s banged in four game-winners so far this season and his speed has enabled him to score a trio of shorthanded goals.
Aho broke into the league in 2016/17 and showed great promise with 24 goals and 25 assists as a rookie. He followed up with 29 goals and 36 helpers for 65 points as a sophomore and should have no problem topping those numbers this year. Also, he’s now being used as a full-time center after after spending some time on the wing during his first two campaigns.
Waddell should lock Aho’s services up with a contract extension as soon as possible and for as long as possible as his value will likely rise with each passing season. If the youngster does happen to hit the 90-point plateau this year he should easily be looking at a minimum of $8 million a year in a new deal. Aho would be wise to sign a relatively short contract at this price and if he keeps improving he’d be able to cash in big-time a few years down the road when he’s hitting his prime at the age of 25 or 26.
Carolina may rank close to the bottom of the league attendance-wise, but the 13,841 fans on average who show up to home games are being treated to some of the best hockey in Raleigh in the past 10 years. If the squad can keep up the same effort during the home stretch, the Hurricanes’ season should be extended in 2019.