How to heat up ice-cold Hurricanes

To an extent, it’s the same old story with the Carolina Hurricanes.

They’re “heating up their Corsi” like always this season (thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal), yet that quantity isn’t always translating to quality.

That’s especially true lately. Carolina’s managed just four goals total during the past four games, winning once and grabbing an overtime point as they slipped to a middling 12-10-4.

So, what gives? This post examines a few things that are working, some facets that are not, and proposes some potential solutions.

Quantity over quality, or quantity and quality?

Again, the Hurricanes are “heating up their Corsi” as usual, thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal. Despite easily topping all NHL teams with 38.7 SOG per game, they’re only averaging 2.5 goals per contest, the third-lowest total in the league.

To some extent, that might be the nature of the beast for this team.

Here’s the thing: while heating up of said Corsi numbers might present something of a mirage, it’s likely still a sign that they’re hogging the puck in a way that gives them a good chance to win.

After all, there is some element of quality to go with all of that quantity. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes generate 57.19-percent of high-danger chances at even-strength, second only to the Minnesota Wild.

Is it frustrating to dominate the shot clock and not always reap the benefits? Sure, but I’d argue that the Hurricanes are putting themselves in a better position than, say, the Anaheim Ducks (who suffer a barrage of shots and generally hope that John Gibson can save them, over and over again).

Finding a fix?

Interestingly, goaltending – the Hurricanes’ biggest headache for ages – has been alleviated, at least in the short-term.

Claiming Curtis McElhinney has worked gloriously well so far. Through 10 games, the 35-year-old is 7-2-1 with a tremendous .930 save percentage. By Hurricanes terms, McElhinney has been vintage Dominik Hasek with a side of non-irate Patrick Roy.

As you might guess, counting on McElhinney to be “the guy” all season would be tenuous. Obviously, there’s the age factor. He’s also only carried a semi-reasonable workload twice (28 games in 2013-14 and 32 in 2014-15 with Columbus), and was only in the teens the past five seasons.

That said, his career .910 save percentage is quite competent by the standards of a journeyman backup, and the Hurricanes might just be able to create a nurturing-enough atmosphere to make things work … enough.

With Petr Mrazek‘s continued struggles and the waiving of Scott Darling in mind, McElhinney is clearly the option right now.

This post mainly focuses on how Carolina can improve, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room: the goaltending could collapse once again, possibly erasing any gains made through these suggested tweaks.

So, maybe the Hurricanes need to keep an eye out for other goalies on waivers, or even trade options? Sure, McElhinney could save the day, yet they’d be foolish not to be on the lookout for Plan … D? E? Z?

Putrid power play

On Oct. 24, I took a deeper look at Dougie Hamilton‘s disappointing start with the Hurricanes. My takeaway was that, for whatever struggles he was enduring, Carolina was leaving production on the table by not deploying Hamilton with the top power play unit. Simply put, Justin Faulk‘s production since at least 2017-18 has been disappointing, and the Hurricanes’ power play numbers argued that point further.

Well, very little has changed since that post was published. (Sheesh, the Hurricanes have the gall to ignore free advice. How rude.)

Faulk remains their top power play minutes man, despite managing a paltry eight points in 26 games. Faulk only managing two of those points on the power play is, honestly, a little alarming. Hamilton, meanwhile, ranks slightly behind Jaccob Slavin as their third-most-used PP defenseman, and he’s low down the order overall.

That would be acceptable if Carolina’s power play was scoring in buckets. After all, plenty of good power-play units leave talented players out of the mix, as there are typically only five spots.

The Hurricanes power play is not very good, though. They’re connecting at 15.9-percent success rate, eighth-worst in the NHL (and very close to being bottom-five).

Earlier in the season, playing Faulk in that position made sense to me for a more cynical reason: pumping up his trade value. It’s unclear if that was ever actually the plan, but either way, it clearly isn’t working.

To the credit of Rod Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes staff, Left Wing Lock’s latest listings indicate that they’ve at least realized that, at 37, Justin Williams probably isn’t top power-play material any longer. It’s not ideal that he came into Tuesday with the same (2:42 per game) average as a far more spry Teuvo Teravainen, but this stands as a step in the right direction.

This isn’t to say that Williams cannot play. He’s still a heady winger who manages strong possession numbers, even on a team brimming with guys who keep the puck going in the right direction. It’s simply to say that it might be more appropriate to pass the torch to those with more potential, such as …

Unleash Andrei

Look, it’s understandable why teams want to ease players into the NHL. This is a young man’s league nonetheless, so it’s becoming increasingly clear that Andrei Svechnikov deserves more reps.

Really, the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft hasn’t looked out of place. Svechnikov has 12 points in 26 games so far, and could have more considering his 8.7 shooting percentage. He’s not getting buried in the lineup (14:10 per game), but I’d like to see him deployed even more often. They could always scale back his minutes if the burden ends up being too heavy for him to carry.

The deeper you dig, the more it becomes clear that Svechnikov might have more to offer.

Why not see if this sleeping giant could enjoy a monster rookie season? Why wait? Hurricanes fans have been asked to be patient for long enough, right?

Management should also keep an eye on the progress of Martin Necas. He was demoted to the AHL after seven middling games, but it might be worth burning a year off of his rookie deal if it seems like he can give them a shot in the arm later this season. As Jordan Staal showed many moons ago in helping the Penguins make the playoffs with 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks.

Shake things up?

We’ve seen quite a few “lateral trades” lately, and such a thought might make sense for the Hurricanes.

For one thing, there’s Faulk, whose contract ($4.8M cap hit) expires after next season. Carolina’s rife with right-handed defensemen, especially with Brett Pesce possibly coming back soon. Maybe it’s time to break up that logjam?

Victor Rask is another player who might need to relocate. Rask is only getting minimal ice time (11:49 per game) and has only scored a goal in his six games this season. His $4M cap hit could at least be close to the sweet spot to get a deal done, particularly for a team that has a similar player who’s getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe he could rebound to his respectable 40-plus point form after getting a clean slate?

***

The Hurricanes can be frustrating, and not just because they tend to dominate the shot clock without doing the same on the scoreboard. This feels like a team that’s failed to take that next step, instead finding themselves as the perpetual wallflower at a grade school dance.

You can’t control every bounce, and Carolina’s goalie worries linger not very far off in the distance, but this team has a lot going for it. Few NHL squads can compare to Carolina’s depth on defense, and this is still a franchise brimming with young talent.

If they can survive in net, then improving that power play and giving more ice time to skilled players like Hamilton and Svechnikov might just make the difference.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

This looks like the season Sebastian Aho becomes a household name

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With a middling 5-3-1 record so far this season, the Carolina Hurricanes haven’t stormed out of the gate yet in 2018-19. Despite some big roster changes and a dramatically different front office, they feel like the same team: promising, puck-hogging, yet at times snake-bitten.

(The goalies? They remain a question mark, yet have been good enough so far.)

For some time, these critical darlings have felt like a herd of solid players. Jordan Staal – a very, very impressive defensive forward with a certain ceiling on offense – felt like a microcosm of the Hurricanes. They lacked that game-breaking star.

It’s dangerously early, but so far, Sebastian Aho looks like he’s going from “the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a star” to … simply, a star.

Through nine games, the 21-year-old center has four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. Two of his goals have been game-winners, including an overtime-clincher.

Aho was incredible in that game, scoring two goals and two assists. His 14 points put him in a tie for seventh place in scoring with the likes of Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane. Yeah.

Now, sure there’s been a bit of puck luck involved. Aho scored his four goals on 24 shots on net, making for a 16.7 shooting percentage that’s likely to fall at least a bit (his career average points to some shooting skill, though, at 13-percent).

That’s not a everyone-doubting-William-Karlsson-type shooting percentage, though. There should be some drop-off, yet Aho’s unlikely to be fool’s gold.

As much as the flashier numbers bring Aho much-deserved attention (three multi-point games already this season), his consistency is as exciting as anything else. The Hurricanes star hasn’t failed to score in a game yet in 2018-19, and he aims to extend his season-opening point streak to 10 games on Friday as the Hurricanes take on their puck-hogging twins, the San Jose Sharks.

It hasn’t taken long for Dougie Hamilton to note that Aho boasts the sort of skill set that really fits with the way the game is played these days.

“He can get going really fast and still make plays while picking up speed,” Hamilton said, via the Athletic’s Craig Custance (sub required). “That’s the dynamic part of his game. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Aho’s also getting the green light from new Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

The Finnish forward has been on a steady incline during his short time in the NHL, scoring 24 goals and 49 points in his rookie season (16:47 TOI in 2016-17), while taking another step forward with 29 goals and 65 points as a sophomore (17:55 TOI in 2017-18). Another promising sign for Aho’s climb up the ranks of the elite is that he’s carrying a clearer first-line workload so far in 2018-19, averaging an impressive 19:10 TOI.

Here’s hoping nothing gets in that way, then.

Aho’s possession stats are generally strong, with them only looking iffy relative to his puck-magnet teammates. There’s mild concern over some turbulence regarding his work at center, if he hits a cold streak. As recently as late September, there were rumblings about Aho struggling at center, and maybe face-off wizard Rod Brind’Amour will chafe at the Finn’s hit-or-miss work at draws (46.9-percent winning percentage this season, 46.3 for his career).

Ideally, Brind’Amour would see that the good massively outweighs the bad for Aho, and it’s plausible that the young forward will improve his all-around game with experience. There’s still plenty of time for improvement at 21.

That’s a scary thing for opponents, especially since Aho’s found such early chemistry with Teuvo Teravainen and Micheal Ferland.

One wouldn’t expect Aho to maintain his current 127.5-point pace, yet it’s also more than fair to expect a healthy jump from last season’s 65 points. That leap might just be enough to end Carolina’s nine-year playoff drought.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What’s behind Hurricanes’ early-season success?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a mighty fine start, eh?

A 4-1-1 record, with their lone regulation loss coming against the Winnipeg Jets in a game they thoroughly dominated but lost on a late third-period hiccup. The Hurricanes have been a pleasant surprise in the NHL in the infancy of the 2018-19 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed out last week, the team is young, fun and worth watching.

They are all three of those things, and they’re doing so in such dominant fashion thus far. Case and point: Over the past two games, Carolina has logged a whopping 100 shots on goal. They peppered Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild into submission on Saturday night, finally winning the game in overtime on sheer volume alone on their 57th shot.

On Sunday night in Winnipeg, a team playing the second game of a back-to-back put up 43 more against a team that’s touted as a Stanley Cup contender. The Hurricanes enjoyed 61 percent of the possession in the game, producing 34 scoring chances, with 14 of those being of the high-danger variety.

Their loss on vs. the Jets was bad luck more than anything. Winnipeg didn’t deserve to win the game. The Hurricanes didn’t deserve to lose.

And while the ‘L’ might be a sobering reminder that life isn’t always fair in the NHL, Carolina’s play as a whole has put the league on watch.

The Hurricanes roll four lines that control the game’s shot share. Here’s a handy-dandy chart to explain:

Source: Natural Stat Trick

Carolina has been overwhelming teams thus far and it’s coming from everywhere. There’s little drop off no matter who’s on the ice.

There’s a disclaimer here and that is that the season is young. These are far from concrete numbers over the course of an 82-game season, but what they do show is how well the Hurricanes are clicking together amongst their four lines and how it’s having a direct effect on their results, even with the small sample size.

Are these numbers likely to regress? Yes.

But while they may fall closer to the earth going forward, they could get covered off if Carolina’s goaltending improves. Petr Mrazek was sensational against the Jets, and Curtis McElhinney has allowed eight goals in three starts. That’s good. But with the Hurricanes controlling so much of the offense, they’re giving up just 25 shots per game. Their team save percentage is sitting at .886 through six games, which is hardly world-beating.

The return of Scott Darling at some point could help that if he’s the re-invigorated man he claimed to be over the summer. And while regression will set it at some point, league-average goaltending would go a long way into mitigating its effects.

For now, the Hurricanes sit atop the NHL in possession, tied with the San Jose Sharks. They’re sixth in goals-for percentage, which is simply the percentage of goals-for vs. goals-against, third in scoring chances for, second in high-danger chances for, which is shots that occur in the slot in front of the net, and first in high-danger goals for, meaning goals scored from those high-danger areas.

In layman’s terms: The NHL’s most exciting team is also one of its most dangerous.

And the plan is for that to continue.

“We’re going to continue to try to play like that,” said forward Jordan Staal Sunday night. “It’s been our aggressive style. Obviously, we’re a quick team and we’re trying to play that way and create turnovers. Our [defense] has been really good with good gaps and creating a lot of shots, too, to kind of create seconds. We’re going to continue to try and pepper goalies and try to get some more goals.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hurricanes are young, fun, worth watching

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Every year we go through the same cycle with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Throughout the summer, in to training camp, and right up to the start of the regular season they are a hot analytically-driven pick to be the surprise team in the league.

Look at the possession numbers, we say. Look at how good the defense is, we scream. If only they could find a goalie, we plead. Then once the season actually begins they typically stumble out of the gate and put themselves in a deep hole, never recover from it because the goaltending never works out and they never have enough pure finishers to take advantage of the possession numbers, and then process repeats itself over the following summer.

It was the same story this summer, especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames to further bolster their defense, the drafting of Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick, and some of the other promising young forwards that are starting to hit the NHL.

But now that the games have started and the season is underway, things are for once looking a little different on the ice.

Is this the year things finally change? Maybe!

Thanks to Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks, the Hurricanes are off to a 3-0-1 start, which is their best start to a season in years. Over the past six or seven years it’s typically taken them anywhere from ten to 12 games to record seven points in the standings. They have done it this year in four. Even more important than the early wins, is the way they are playing and the way the roster is constructed.

Bottom line: This team looks fun, and there are a lot of reasons for you to pay attention to them.

At the start of the season they are the fourth-youngest team in the NHL, and they finally seem to be working in the type of players up front that they had been lacking in recent years. Specifically, potential impact players.

They have one of the league’s most anticipated rookies in Svechnikov, who has already made a massive impact in what has been a very limited role. Through four games he has averaged less than 12 minutes of ice-time per game and has already averaged a point per game. His potential is massive and if he reaches it could be the franchise-changing player they have been lacking up front.

The rookie that is probably making the most surprising impact has been 22-year-old Warren Foegele, who has already scored three goals this season and , and we haven’t really seen anything from Martin Necas, the team’s 2017 first-round pick, quite yet.

Along with the core of young talent, there just seems to be a different energy around this team. The way they play, and the fact they are trying to just make things … fun.

Stuff like that won’t make a difference in the standings, but it can help build excitement. It can help get eye balls on the team. It can maybe help get more people in the building and give people a reason to take notice of them. And that, too, is important.

If you take advantage of those extra eyes and that extra attention by winning, it’s even bigger.

[Related: Hurricanes’ new victory celebration is pretty awesome]

I argued last season that even after years of preseason anticipation that never manifested itself in victories that this could still be a team on the verge of a Winnipeg Jets-like breakthrough. For years the Jets were another team that had strong talent on paper, would at times be a strong team analytically, but would always fall short because they lacked a couple of key ingredients, whether it be finishers up front or quality goaltending.

The drafting of Patrik Laine at No. 2 helped change that. The development of Mark Scheifele helped changed that. The emergence of players like Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor also helped change that.

While the Hurricanes do not have quite the level of talent that the Jets did up front (to be fair, who does?), the Hurricanes are further ahead of where the Jets were at the start of last season on the blue line.

They may not have quite the offensive depth up front, but they do have talent. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are legitimate top-six forwards, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are solid veteran two-way presences, and we already talked about the rookies.  They still need some things to go right. They need Svechnikov to become their version of Laine. They need Necas and Foegele to work out, and they need somebody to emerge as a reliable starter in goal (though, to be fair, it would be nearly impossible for Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek to play worse than they did a year ago for their respective teams).

I don’t know if the Hurricanes are going to keep winning this year, and I don’t know if they are a playoff team just quite yet. But I do know based on what we have seen so far they are definitely a team worth paying attention and might be able to bring a level of excitement and intrigue that few others can. They also might be able to finally become the team we have been waiting for them to become for years.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Sharks spoil Kovalchuk’s NHL return; Brind’Amour gets first win

Three Stars

1. Micheal Ferland, Carolina Hurricanes. I’ve made this point several times since the trade and am going to continuing making it until he gives me a reason not to, but Micheal Ferland was an outstanding addition to the Dougie Hamilton trade for the Hurricanes. He is an underrated offensive player, plays on a fairly cheap, bargain contract, and can play up and down the lineup without being totally out of place in any role. He made a big impact for the Hurricanes on Friday night in their 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets by setting up Sebastian Aho‘s game-winning goal on a slick pass to thread the needle between the defense, and then adding the insurance-marker early in the third period. Aho also had two points on the net, assisting on Ferland’s third period goal.

2. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. After dropping their season opener against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night, the Sharks were able to get their first win in the Erik Karlsson era on Friday night with a 3-2 overtime win over the Los Angeles Kings. Overall it was a pretty strong performance that saw the Sharks limit a relatively punch-less Kings offense to just 21 shots on goal. Kevin LaBanc was the hero of the night for the Sharks as he scored the game-winner in overtime, taking advantage of a tired trio of Kings that were stuck on the ice during an extended shift in the 3-on-3 period of bonus hockey.

3. Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks. Not only did he pick up his first point as a member of the Sharks by setting up LeBanc’s overtime winner, but he played a pretty dominant all-around game on Friday night. He played more 5-on-5 minutes than any other player on the team (20-plus minutes), while the Sharks attempted nearly 70 percent of the total shot attempts and badly outchanced the Kings (all numbers via Natural Stat Trick) when he was on the ice. He also attempted a game-high eight shots, including four on goal. This is what the Sharks were expecting to get when they traded for him and if he keeps playing like that this defense is going to be a force for every team in the NHL to deal with.

Kovalchuk makes his NHL Return

The Kings were desperate for offense this summer and tried to make a big splash by bringing Ilya Kovalchuk back to the NHL after a five-year absence.

They wasted no time getting getting him involved, giving him more than 20 minutes of ice time in his debut with the team. He finished with six total shot attempts, including two on goal, and was a plus-one.

It still seems that his role is a bit of a work in progress in some areas, particularly on the power play where he seemed to spend some time parked in front of the net. Not exactly the place where you expect to see a player with a shot like Kovalchuk’s.

Overall it was a pretty dismal showing by Kings’ offense as they were limited to just 21 shots on goal in 63 minutes of hockey, while their second goal (scored by Tyler Toffolli) was simply a bad goal by Sharks goalie Martin Jones to give up. Given how bad their offense was the last time we saw them on the ice (a four-game playoff series where they scored only three goals) this was not an encouraging start to the year.

Highlights of the Night

The Hurricanes’ win in Columbus was a special one for head coach Rod Brind’Amour because it was his first win as an NHL head coach. He was presented with the game puck in the locker room after the game by Jordan Staal.

San Jose’s Evander Kane scored his second goal in as many games for the Sharks in their win on Friday night, and this shot was an absolute rocket right underneath the crossbar to beat Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.

Factoids

Curtis McElhinney had a great debut for the Carolina Hurricanes, stopping 31 of the 32 shots he faced to help backstop the team to its first win of the season. For McElhinney this gives him a win as a member of seven different NHL teams, something that only a small handful of other goalies in league history can claim.

Wins for seven different teams! He is the modern-day, goalie version of Mike Sillinger.

San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton has been around for a long time and is climbing up the NHL’s all-time games played leaderboard. He tied Phil Housley on Friday night and will move ahead of Mike Modano later this month.

Scores

Hurricanes 3, Blue Jackets 1

San Jose Sharks 3, Los Angeles Kings 2 (OT)

 

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.