As silly as it sounds, the 13-12-4 Carolina Hurricanes are playing some of the finest hockey in the league. In his first year as a bench boss, Rod Brind’Amour has his squad doing all the right things: It defends well as a five-man unit, it moves the puck smoothly through the neutral zone and it generates chance after chance on the attack.
Natural Stat Trick indicates that the Hurricanes control 57.2% of the shot attempts and 57.1% of the scoring chances at 5-on-5. They lead the NHL in both categories by comfortable margins. To their dismay, they also rank 30th in goals per game and 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Through 29 contests, Carolina just doesn’t have enough wins to show for its even-strength dominance.
You could point to its league-worst on-ice shooting percentage (5.2) as a sign of bad luck, but this isn’t a new development. The Hurricanes have sported the lowest OISH% among all 31 NHL teams since the start of 2017-18. At some point in time, reality must set in: They aren’t snake-bitten. They simply don’t have the firepower required to keep up in this high-scoring race to the mountaintop.
This weakness is particularly evident when they’re trailing. When their opponent has led after one period, they’ve lost 75% of the time (3-8-1). When their opponent has led after two, they’ve never prevailed (0-8-2). Try as they might, they can’t muster the offense to climb back into games.
Trading Jeff Skinner to Buffalo in August didn’t help. The 26-year-old has flanked Jack Eichel this season and fared exceptionally well. He ranks third in the league in goals (21) and has elevated the Sabres’ top line to borderline elite status.
In Carolina, the top dogs up front are Sebastian Aho (28 points in 29 games) and Teuvo Teravainen (20 points in 29 games). The young Finns are supremely talented, but they’re decidedly pass-first forwards. While their skill and vision will lead to production, they won’t reach their full potential without a pure finisher by their side.
The club’s current leader in goals, Micheal Ferland, has 11 markers in 25 games — and he’s more of a grinder than a noted scorer. After coming over from Calgary in an offseason swap, the 26-year-old has impressed with his net-front presence and physicality. He brings much-needed bite to the forward ranks. With that said, his offensive ceiling is limited. That, in turn, caps the upside of his most frequent linemates.
Beyond the main figures, 37-year-old Justin Williams (16 points in 29 games) and 30-year-old Jordan Staal (11 points in 27 games) don’t quite fit into the league’s speed-oriented landscape. They both play the right way and boast a wealth of experience, but leadership doesn’t always translate to goals.
The most intriguing case is 2018 second overall pick Andrei Svechnikov (13 points in 29 games).
While conventional wisdom suggests that the 18-year-old simply needs to adjust to the pro game, the underlying numbers tell a different story. During his shifts, the Hurricanes own 59.9% of the shot attempts and 62.6% of the scoring chances. Those aren’t the stats of a player who’s struggling to find his rhythm. He’s completely tilting the ice toward the opposition’s cage when he’s out there. The goals just haven’t followed suit.
That could be attributed to roster decisions. His most frequent linemates this season have been Lucas Wallmark (11 points in 29 games) and Jordan Martinook (10 points in 29 games). Those are decent players, but certainly not the type to bring Svechnikov’s production to the next level. Carolina must make the most of the pressure he exerts on opponents. He’s constantly around the action, banging away at rebounds and using his soft hands to create quality opportunities in tight.
His early-career performance warrants a promotion, and Brind’Amour may eventually try him alongside Aho for an extended stretch. The Hurricanes could then let Teravainen spearhead the second unit in an effort to yield more consistent offense.
Pinning your hopes on a rookie isn’t ideal, though. What are the odds that he is ready to jump-start Carolina’s top line in his first pro campaign? He may get there in time, but asking too much of him too soon could ultimately stunt his development. While the Hurricanes are looking to compete right now, they can’t lose sight of the big picture.
There is a healthy compromise: Acquire help. According to reports, management is already on the case.
— Kukla’s Korner (@kuklaskorner) December 12, 2018
The problem with this option is that general managers are usually reluctant to ship star-caliber players out of town. Since conference rivals aren’t in the business of assisting each other, Carolina will have to look West for reinforcements.
One possibility is St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko. His name has been floated in rumors, and he would likely welcome a change of scenery too. While his confidence is at an all-time low, his skill set is tailor-made to remedy the Hurricanes’ woes. With a sturdy build (6’0”, 225 lbs) and world-class release, he would slot in beautifully next to Aho as a potent finisher from distance and around the crease.
Prior to 2018-19, his last four full-season goal tallies were 37, 40, 39 and 33. The man can find the back of the net, and he did so with suboptimal linemates in St. Louis. Alongside a wonderful playmaker in Aho, he could crack 40…this year…even though he only has nine goals through 29 games.
Los Angeles, which sits at the bottom of the league standings, might also be willing to part with assets. Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter stand out as candidates, although their scoring numbers fall short of Tarasenko’s. The former is rather inconsistent, whereas the latter is slowing down at 33 years old and so far appears to have lost what he once had since recovering from a severe cut on his left leg. Neither player is a perfect fit, but they might be worth inquiring about nonetheless.
At any rate, Carolina must pull the trigger in a hurry or risk sealing its fate as a team that won’t enjoy the fruits of its labor.
By refining their system, the Hurricanes have become monsters in possession. Their defense, which was upgraded in the offseason with the signing of Calvin de Haan, now ranks sixth in the league. Their penalty kill ranks a respectable 13th. However, none of this has amounted to wins because they can’t score.
After diligently laying down the groundwork, they’re searching for that one last boost to get over the hump.