For the better part of the past decade there have always been two things consistently holding the Carolina Hurricanes back.
The obvious one that always got the most attention was the fact they could never get their goaltending situation quite right.
Cam Ward never recaptured the magic he had during his rookie season Stanley Cup run, and there always seemed to be a revolving door of potential replacements that just could not fill that role.
The other big factor, one that always seemed to get overlooked in an endless barrage of “why can’t this team ever find a goalie,” was the fact that for all of their dominance as a puck possession team on the shot chart, they never really had any forwards that were great finishers. Jeff Skinner was really good for a few years, but he was always the only one and he could never do it all on his own.
The emergence of Sebastian Aho as a bonafide star, as well as the in-season trade for Nino Niederreiter, have helped address that issue in the short-term. But there is another player on the roster that might make an even bigger impact in that area in the future, and he is starting to make his presence felt as the Hurricanes enter the stretch run of the regular season and look to secure their first playoff berth since the 2008-09 season.
That player: No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov.
When the Hurricanes picked Svechnikov at the top of the 2018 draft there was obviously a great deal of hope that he could become a superstar player for the organization, and maybe the type of elite goal-scorer every contending team needs to win.
His performance as a rookie should give Hurricanes fans — and the team itself — a lot of hope that he can blossom into that type of player.
Perhaps sooner rather than later.
He is not going to win the Calder Trophy because Vancouver Canucks phenom Elias Pettersson seems to already have that award locked up (while goalies Jordan Binnington and Carter Hart are making pretty strong runs of their own), but we should not overlook just how good his rookie season has been. Because it has been outstanding, and probably better than you realize.
His overtime goal on Sunday night, lifting the Hurricanes to another come-from-behind win where they turned what looked to be a frustrating loss into an improbable victory, was his 20th of the season, a mark that is good enough for third on the team behind only Aho and team captain Justin Williams.
That alone is impressive for a rookie, but also consider the fact that he is still only 18 years old.
Hitting the 20-goal mark at this stage of his development puts him in some pretty exclusive company.
First, he is just the 22nd player to ever score at least 20 goals in the NHL as an 18-year-old.
Eleven of those previous instances took place between 1980 and 1993 when goal-scoring in the NHL was at its peak. He is one of just eight players to do it since 1994, a list that includes only Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Steven Stamkos and Patrik Laine.
Not impressive enough?
Consider that his shooting percentage of 11.6 is the second lowest of any of the previous 18-year-olds to top the 20-goal mark, which should really be seen as a positive sign for the future as it indicates that he isn’t really benefitting from a strong run of good luck, or that any of this early success is a fluke. He is generating more than 2.30 shots per game, which is the fourth most of any rookie in the NHL this season regardless of age even though he is only averaging around 14 minutes of ice-time per game.
When you take his ice-time into account his ability to generate shots and chances (and goals) looks even better.
Of the 150 forwards that have played at least 900 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season, Svechnikov ranks 33rd in total shot attempts per 60 minutes, and 22nd in shots on goal per 60 minutes. The biggest part of scoring goals is actually putting yourself in a position to take shots and having the ability to get them on net. At 18, he is already showing that he has the ability to do that at a top-line level.
Over Carolina’s past seven games, he has five goals, including Sunday’s game-winner and two in a 3-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche where he had a hand in every goal the Hurricanes scored (he scored two of them himself).
The Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams for three months now and have an exciting young core of players in place.
Out of their top-12 scorers this season, only four of them (Justin Williams at 37, Michael Ferland, Nino Niederreiter, and Jordan Martinook all at 26) are over the age of 25.
Six of them are age 24 or younger, including the 21-year-old Aho and still 18-year-old Svechnikov.
Together, those two are looking they could be one of the league’s most exciting duos for years to come and be the foundation of a team that might finally put hockey in Carolina back on the NHL’s map.