Jeff Skinner

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Hurricanes once again NHL’s most frustrating outlier

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For what seems to be the fourth or fifth year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2017-18 season as a popular pick to jump back into the playoff picture, finally taking that long awaited big step forward in their rebuild.

It is not hard to understand why there has been so much excitement about this team in recent seasons.

They have an outstanding young core of players. Jeff Skinner is one of the absolute best goal-scoring forwards in the league (that nobody ever talks about). Sebastian Aho looks like he has a chance to be a star. This summer they added Scott Darling, Justin Williams and Trevor van Riemsdyk to that young core.

In terms of their play they seem to pass the eye test by playing everyone close (they have already lost nine one goal games this season, including six in overtime or a shootout — they have only won three such games) and giving everyone fits.

Their analytics consistently rate them among the best in the NHL.

Defensively, they have been one of the four or five best teams in the league at suppressing shots against despite having one of the youngest blue lines in the league. They are consistently among the best possession teams in the league, finishing near the top of the league in shot attempt metrics.

But the results in the standings have not been there. At all. They have made the playoffs just once in the past 12 years, and in their most recent seasons have seemingly hit a glass ceiling that caps them in the mid-80s for points.

In 2014-15 they finished with 71 points in the standings even though they were third in the league in shots against and ninth in attempts percentage.

In 2015-16 it was 86 points despite finishing fifth and 11th respectively.

Last season? 87 points. Where they did they finish in those two shot based categories? Fifth (shots against) and sixth (shot attempts percentage).

You can probably guess what is happening in Carolina this season. Through their first 29 games the Hurricanes are allowing 29.5 shots on goal against per game, the third lowest total in the league. They are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts in their games, the highest mark in the NHL.

Their current point pace for the season? It is just 84.9.

New year, same story. A promising young team that seems to be doing everything right but is destined to finish somewhere in the middle of the league, just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The frustrating thing about this from a Hurricanes perspective is that they should be better than this. Teams that play the way they do, limit shots the way they do, and control possession the way they do not only tend to make the playoffs, they tend to do very well once they get there.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season there have been 29 teams that have finished the regular season allowing less than 29 shots on goal per game and finishing with a shot attempts percentage higher than 51 percent.

Those 29 teams finished with an average of 100 points in the standings. Twenty-two made the playoffs. Twelve won at least one series once they got there. Six advanced to the Conference Finals. Three reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Here are the seven teams that fit that criteria over that stretch and missed the playoffs.

You might notice a common name or two.

So, basically, the Hurricanes and Kings are the two biggest statistical outliers in the league over the past five years.

But at least the Kings’ formula has proven to be successful at one point or another with a lot of playoff appearances in between — they seem destined to return this season — and two Stanley Cup titles.

But the Hurricanes. Geez. The Hurricanes. Three times playing at a level that is on par with a contender and missing the playoffs every time. It seems at least possible, if not likely, that it will happen again this season.

So what in the world is happening here?

The most common target for blame has been their inability to find any sort of stability in net. To be fair, it has been a huge problem.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Hurricanes have finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in the league in team save percentage. So far this season they are 25th. Probably the biggest reason they do not finish lower in terms of goals against is the fact they do such a great job limiting shots against. It has not been any one goalie that has been the culprit because they have tried several different options, whether it be long-time starter Cam Ward, or any of the many recent successful backups they have tried to acquire to take over the starting job, ranging from Anton Khudobin, to Eddie Lack, to their recent attempt with Darling.

It is obviously far too early to write Darling off, but with a .902 save percentage in his first 20 appearances it is not exactly an encouraging start.

But for all of the issues they have had in goal, there is another one that seems to quietly slide under the radar: For all of their dominant possession numbers, and for all of the shots they are able to register for themselves … they don’t really score a lot, either.

So far this season the Hurricanes are 25th in the league in goals per game, and have consistently been in the bottom-10 over the aforementioned five-year stretch.

There is something to be said for the argument (recently put forward by Andrew Berkshire at the Sporting News) that as teams become more involved in analytics that stats like Corsi may not be as predictive as they once were. By now pretty much everyone in the league knows the value of keeping the puck, generating shots and preventing shots. It’s a lot harder to find an advantage there if everyone is in tune with that.

It could also be a matter of just overall talent and scoring ability.

I argued during the Stanley Cup Final that it was possible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to outperform their possession stats because their roster is made up of elite, high end talent. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel at the top of your lineup, not to mention Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel as complementary players, you have the ability to strike fast. You don’t always need sustained pressure or a lot of shots to score. Those guys can strike at any moment and from anywhere on the ice. To a lesser extent that might also be true for a team like this year’s Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t dominant territorially but has some of the top offensive players in the league.

The Hurricanes, for as good as their young talent is, especially on the blue line, do not really have that sort of talent.

Skinner is certainly on that level, and Aho could end up there, but that is pretty much it.

What they have is a lot of players that are great are driving possession but aren’t really game-breaking offensive players. Jordan Staal, their top forward in terms of ice-time, is a perfect example of this. Staal is a really good two-way player. He does a lot of things really well. He is a great defensive player, he can drive possession, he can play against other team’s top players. But he has never been a great playmaker. He has never been a player that will be a threat to score 35 or 40 goals.

Justin Williams has been a similar player for much of his career. Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask seem like they are trending in that same direction with their careers. Very good players. Players necessary for a winning team. But not players that can really break a game open offensively. That, too, is still a necessity.

All of this together makes the Hurricanes an incredibly frustrating team.

They have a lot of necessary ingredients. They seem to play the right way, and they can be pretty entertaining, too. But they seem to just always be a little bit short of being able to take that next step we keep anticipating.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Rinne shuts down Blackhawks; Williams dazzles with incredible assist

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Player Of The Night: Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators. 

The Nashville Predators were able to steal a win in Chicago on Friday night thanks to a sensational goaltending performance from Pekka Rinne.

Rinne stopped 43 out of 44 shots in the win and continued his recent dominance over the Blackhawks

Dating back to the start of last year’s playoffs, where the Predators swept the Blackhawks in the first round, Rinne is 5-0-1 against the Blackhawks and has only allowed six goals. He has allowed more than one goal in a game just twice and never more than two.

His save percentage in those games: .970.

You could say that for the time being he has their number.

Highlight Of The Night.

Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best (and most underappreciated and overlooked) goal scorers and has been for quite some time. He scored his sixth goal of the season on Friday night. But it was not necessarily the goal that makes the highlight. It is the impossible assist by his teammate, Justin Williams.

My goodness that is an amazing play.

It still was not enough to give the Hurricanes a win as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues.

Factoid Of The Night.

The Vegas Golden Knights just keep winning in ways that almost no other expansion team has. What an incredible run they are on to start the season.

Misc.

— With his 32-save effort in the Vegas Golden Knights’ dismantling of the Colorado Avalanche Oscar Dansk recorded his first career shutout as well as the first shutout in the history of the Golden Knights franchise. He is only in the lineup due to injuries to Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban. In the past seven days Dansk has picked up his first NHL win (in relief of Subban), received his first NHL start (which he also won), and then recorded his first NHL shutout. Quite a week for the former second-round pick.

— The New Jersey Devils let a two-goal lead slip away in the final two minutes of regulation but were still able to beat the Ottawa Senators in a shootout. They are now 7-2-0 on the season.

Craig Smith scored the game-winning goal for the Nashville Predators. It was his 100th goal in the NHL.

Alexander Radulov is starting to heat up for the Dallas Stars. He scored his third goal of the season to lift the Stars to a 2-1 win in Calgary. He now has five points in his past four games.

Josh Anderson‘s third goal of the season gave the Columbus Blue Jackets a 2-1 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Scores and recaps

Vegas Golden Knights 7, Colorado Avalanche 0

Columbus Blue Jackets 2, Winnipeg Jets 1

New Jersey Devils 5, Ottawa Senators 4

St. Louis Blues 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Nashville Predators 2, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Dallas Stars 2, Calgary Flames 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes split captain duty between Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk

via Hurricanes
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Some people believe that captains are crucial leaders in NHL locker rooms. Others counter that the captaincy is an overrated honor that mainly drives up a player’s media duties.

Apparently the Carolina Hurricanes believe that captain can be a two-man job.

The team made the strange announcement that Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk will serve as co-captains, while Jeff Skinner gets the “A.” They explained it this way:

Staal will primarily serve as captain at home and Faulk will primarily serve as captain on the road.

/shrug emoticon

This explanation will make eyebrows furrow a little deeper:

Weird, right? At least this opened the door for former Hurricanes defenseman (who may or may not still have a clown-like, wonderful crop of red hair) Mike Commodore to swoop in with this fun one.

Yeah, maybe it would have been easier to just use Justin Williams as something of a stopgap captain, but oh well.

Hey, the hockey world is still struggling to decide if the Hurricanes will finally be good in 2017-18. The team might as well embrace the uncertainty by being wishy-washy about naming a captain.

(At least they didn’t make their goalie the unofficial captain, right Roberto Luongo?)

Sebastian Aho one of the reasons for optimism in Carolina this season

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Even though the organization hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2009 there is a lot of excitement around the Carolina Hurricanes heading into the 2017-18 season. A lot of the attention is directed toward their young defense that is the backbone of their current rebuild, but they also have a ton of talent up front and leading the way is 20-year-old forward Sebastian Aho.

Aho was one of the standout rookies that shined in the NHL during the 2017-18 season, and while he didn’t get as much attention as Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine, his performance was still one worth paying attention. His 24 goals were third among all rookies, and he did that while not scoring a goal until his 15th game of the season.

That goal total put him in some pretty strong company in recent NHL history.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season only 11 players under the age of 20 have scored at least 24 goals in their debut season. That list, other than Aho, includes Sidney Crosby, Matthews, Laine, Jeff Skinner, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Jack Eichel, John Tavares, Jordan Staal, and Jonathan Toews. Pretty good list to be a part of, and everything about Aho’s rookie season would seem to indicate it was not a fluke performance. He was a possession-driving forward (53 percent Corsi) and averaged more than two-and-a-half shots on goal per game, finishing as one of the league’s top rookies in terms of shot on goals.

That is the early career resume of a potential All-Star level player for a long, long time.

Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said this week, via Chip Alexander of the News & Observer, that he is going to give Aho one more season on the wing to help his development before moving him back to his natural position of center.

With Aho becoming one of the focal points of the roster the Hurricanes definitely have a lot of reasons for optimism heading into the season.

Their defense has helped them become one of the best shot suppression teams in the league in recent years, while they are hoping that Scott Darling can help solve the long-standing problem in net. Jeff Skinner is one of the league’s best goal-scorers and they now have an intriguing collection of younger forwards just ready to hit the prime of their careers with Aho and Teuvo Teravainen leading the way.

We’ve been hearing about the Hurricanes’ young talent for a couple of years now, and they have entered previous seasons as a popular sleeper pick to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, and this year’s version might be the team to finally fulfill some of that promise.

Report: Skinner among leading candidates for Hurricanes captaincy

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The Carolina Hurricanes went last season without a captain. That will change once training camp is over, and, according to a recent report, Jeff Skinner is one of the prime candidates to possibly wear the ‘C’ for this season.

The Hurricanes selected Skinner seventh overall in 2010. He made an instant impact on the NHL club, scoring 31 goals and 63 points in his rookie season as a teenager. He’s been a valuable offensive weapon for Carolina ever since.

This past season, he scored 37 goals — a career best. Although the consideration to potentially make him the next captain goes beyond his skills around the opposing net.

From NHL.com:

“He’s a passionate guy and he’s a passionate player,” Peters said. “He’s a real good pro in the fact that he looks after himself, he trains properly and the guys have unreal respect for the way he looks after his body. The maturity shows. I know guys bring it up quite a bit.”

To that end, Peters said he was at a staff golf outing prior to the start of training camp with about 16 people, including members of the Hurricanes’ medical and strength training staffs, and he polled as many people about the captaincy candidates as he could.

“[Skinner’s] name came up in the conversation quite a bit, and they bring up that type of stuff, the way he looks after himself and the way he prepares,” Peters said. “He’s passionate about it and he’s hungry to win.”

The Hurricanes have, over the past few years, done a nice job of building a talented young roster that has shown signs of being able to compete in the Eastern Conference. They do, however, play in a difficult Metropolitan Division, which features the Blue Jackets, Penguins, Capitals and Rangers.

The biggest change in Carolina this offseason was in net, with the addition of Scott Darling, who was the capable back-up in Chicago but is now taking over the No. 1 role with the Hurricanes.

Another change is still upcoming. Eric Staal was the captain in Carolina for six years, but the team is expected to soon name a replacement. There are other candidates for the Hurricanes captaincy, as well, like Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal.

“Someone is going to wear one, for sure,” said Peters earlier this month, per TSN. “Our leadership group is fine and we’ve got real good candidates. They’ll all provide leadership whether they wear a letter or not.”