This is going to be a different update than ones in the past because we are at the part of the year where teams are returning from their holiday break and playing a partial schedule. There are also quite a few teams icing much different lineups due to the World Junior Championships currently going on right now. So, instead of looking at each player individually, I'm going to go over each league and talk about any possible standouts from Carolina's prospect pool since it doesn't make much sense to review each player if they only played one game. We'll also look at how Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy are performing for their respective countries at the WJC in Ufa.
It is almost January and there has still yet to be an NHL game played this year as the owners and players still can not seem to agree on a new CBA. This has many believing that there will be no NHL season at all this year but yesterday brought a small glimmer of hope with the league drawing up a new CBA proposal that would give us a shortened season. Whether or not this proposal gets accepted is another story but we were going to be looking at a shortened year one way or another, so that alone is worth discussing. One of the old adages in sports is that the wins early in the season count as much as the ones later in the year, and this is going to be even more true if there is a season of 48-games.
In a full, 82-game season, banking wins in the early part of the year is always important because it puts less stress on teams later on if they are gunning for a playoff spot. If the NHL does end up having a shortened season, then each win is going to be more important and a prolonged streak could put a team in or out of a playoff spot. Remember the good stretches that the Minnesota Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs had in the first half of last season? They both ended up missing the playoffs, but there is a good chance that they would make the final cut in a shortened season if they start the year off a strong note again. Every game is going to mean a lot more and it should make things much more exciting but there are some problems that could arise, especially for the Hurricanes.
While it's true that a shortened season will open the door for a lot of different teams to make the playoffs, some teams might be cut out of the chase early if they have a slow start. I'm sure most want to block the final days of Paul Maurice out of their minds, but Carolina endured a very tough stretch of games last November where they went 4-10-1 and were all but eliminated from playoff contention before the All-Star Break after going only 5-7-2 in December. The Canes have never been a team to come storming out of the gate, but they will need to play stronger than they have in October & November of recent years because one bad losing streak could put them on the outside of the playoff picture before the mid-way point. On the other hand, the Canes may start the year off a high note and it could put them in a better position to make the playoffs. That would be nice, but it's worth noting that the Canes are 35-53-14 in October & November over the last four seasons, so hot starts are not what this team is known for.
This should be a completely different Hurricanes team than we've seen compared to years past, so we could be in for a surprise but the amount of new blood coming in might be a disadvantage to the Hurricanes. All teams are going to go through an abbreviated training camp and the Hurricanes new acquisitions such as Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin are going to need to take time to get used to Kirk Muller's system. Then you have the younger players like Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jeremy Welsh and Zac Dalpe who will be fighting for roster spots which will put a lot of stress on Muller to make a few quick decisions in a short amount of time. It's also worth mentioning that most of these prospects are in the final years of restricted free agency and the Canes won't have much time to evaluate them as they would in a full-season. This will also be Muller's first full year as a head coach in the NHL and the Hurricanes may not be as fully prepared as other teams who have been running the same system for years. The team seemed to adjust to Muller nicely last season, so I would like to think that this won't be a problem but you never know, especially with two new key players added.
The one comforting thing in all of this is that every other team is probably having similar questions about their team heading into this season, should there be one. The Hurricanes recent history of bad starts is concerning, yes but having a different coach and new players here is enough for me to offset this for now. They are just going to have to do what every other team is doing and make the best of whatever comes of this new CBA agreement. If there is a season, then the Hurricanes are going to have a very brief time to prepare themselves and get ready to come out of the gates firing on all cylinders, because a slow start could doom them early this time around.
The World Junior Championships are always a special time of the year for hockey fans because it gives everyone a chance to look at some of the brightest young talent from all over the world. It's especially nice for fans of teams with prospects outside of their viewing area who wouldn't get a chance to see these players otherwise. Carolina fans should be very familiar with this tournament as many of their former prospects like Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Brandon Sutter, Justin Faulk and Michal Jordan have all participated in the World Juniors in recent years. The tournament being broadcasted on such a large platform is great for a fanbase like Carolina, who obviously do not get to watch many of their prospects first-hand if they live within the market. Of course, you have to keep in mind that how these players perform in a small sample size isn't indicative of their overall talent and will sometimes lead to certain players having a higher or lower stock value than they did before (see Matt Halischuk), but the WJC is still a great time and a good way for fans to see some of their team's brightest prospects. Plus, who doesn't love a good sports tournament to enhance their national pride? (USA! USA! USA!)
There are not as many Carolina prospects participating in the WJCs as there were in 2008 or 2009 but a couple of their higher end prospects will be playing for clubs who are favorites to win the Gold Medal in Ryan Murphy (Canada) and Victor Rask (Sweden). Murphy was an invite to Team Canada last year but ended up being cut during camp and Rask played on the U-18 Swedish team while being on the U-20 roster but not playing in a game. So, this is the first time that either player will have a shot at winning a gold medal and both are going to be playing critical roles on their respective teams from the sound of things. Unfortunately, these are the only two Carolina prospects who are participating in the tournament but there are plenty of other names worth keeping an eye on, including some who we may see in the Southeast Division very soon.
After the jump, you will find a country-by-country breakdown of each team participating in the tournament and why each one of them is important to watch from Carolina's standpoint, because there is more to this tournament than just your team and home nation's prospects. It's about discovering some of the best young talent from all over the world.
The last time we had an update on the Charlotte Checkers, they were at the tail end of a rough five-game losing streak and going through a bit of a goal-scoring drought. Since that point, the tides have turned quite a bit as the Checkers have won five of their last six games and four in a row. Almost every team goes for a couple roller coaster rides over the course of a season but it seems like the Checkers have had more of an addict for extremes this year than their peers, as they picked up four impressive victories over the past week. The Checkers made a habit out of blowing out their opponents early in the year, but it was their defense that stood strong this week, allowing now more than 23 shots on goal in all four of their games.
They got things started off on a strong note last Tuesday when they defeated the Milwaukee Admirals, a team that has given them a lot of trouble as of late. Charlotte actually fell behind early in this game but rebounded nicely by grossly outplaying the Admirals in the second period, outshooting them 11-2 and getting two goals from Zac Dalpe and Tim Wallace. Justin Faulk added on another in the third period to salt it away for the Checkers, as they took home a much needed win. Faulk was very impressive as he not only scored his third goal of the season but he also tallied six shots on goal. Dalpe also created a lot of offense with five of his own and the Checkers turned in a terrific defensive effort by allowing only 21 shots and not allowing an even strength goal against.
Charlotte then went onto face Houston in a two-game series and their first win did not come easy. They started off strong by outshooting the Aeros in the first period and getting the opening goal from Nicolas Blanchard. They were then outplayed for most of the second period and allowed Houston to take the lead towards the end of the period with a goal from David McIntyre. Marco Scandella would then give Houston the lead in the third period with his first goal of the season. Charlotte had a strong comeback attempt for most of the third period and their hard work eventually payed off with Justin Faulk scoring the game-tying goal with less than 15 seconds left. Charlotte would then finish off Houston in the shootout to get the two points. Faulk chipped in another six shots on goal in this game in addition to his goal and Charlotte dominated Houston on the shot-board with a 35-22 advantage.
The next game of this series was a much less stressful affair for the Checkers as they continued to control the pace of play en route to a 3-0 shutout. Justin Shugg opened the scoring in the contest with his first goal of the season and Jeremy Welsh added another on the powerplay in the second period. Tim Wallace also got his second goal of the week, scoring the empty netter to put things away in the third period. Zach Boychuk also had an impressive performance with two assists, one of which came on Wallace's empty netter. He had five total on the week. This was one of Charlotte's best defensive performances on the year as they made a statement in front of the home crowd and made things easy for goaltender Dan Ellis by allowing only 23 shots on goal.
After this came one of the few games Charlotte had to play on the road this month and they made the most of it by defeating the San Antonio Rampage 2-1 on the back of goals by Drayson Bowman and Marc-Andre Gragnani. Gragnani's goal was his first of the season and one of the only two powerplay goals the Checkers scored on the week. Gragnani has recently missed sometime with injury and there is no doubt that the Checkers are glad to have him back, as he has been a force offensively whenever he has been in the lineup. His production isn't at the same level as Justin Faulk's but his 10 powerplay assists is second in the AHL behind Justin Schultz of the Oklahoma City Barons, which is impressive when you consider all the time he missed.
The season is still young but it has already been quite a wild ride for the Checkers as they've seen a lot of ups and downs. Fortunately, there were more ups this week with the team winning all four of their games, getting production from their top names (Boychuk, Faulk, Gragnani) in addition to some secondary players (Welsh, Wallace, Shugg) and they can look back at all of these games and know that they played some of their strongest games of the year. This long home-stand didn't go exactly the way most people had hoped, but the Checkers were able to salvage it with some strong performances towards the end and have another set of games against Peoria coming up before they return on the road to face Houston, San Antonio and Lake Erie.
Up until this point, it has been a very quiet season for the Hurricanes NCAA prospect pool, which is understandable when you consider that most of the players under team control are underclassmen. At the same time, it was expected that players like Danny Biega of Harvard and Phil Di Giuseppe of Michigan would emerge as more impactful players than they have been thus far. Biega's three points in nine games aren't bad, but they are a bit disappointing when you consider that he had 35 in 34 games last season and I'm sure most people expected Di Giuseppe to have more than one goal at this point of the season.
It is what it is, though and the most we can do is just wait and see how the rest of their seasons go. Di Giuseppe and the Wolverines have been going through a very rough patch over the last month or so. They went 2-6-2 in November and hadn't went nearly a month without winning a game before this weekend when they took on the #7 Western Michigan Broncos in a two-game series. The good news for Michigan is that they snapped a three-game winless streak on Saturday night by shutting out the Broncos 2-0 on the back of a 31-save performance by Adam Janecyk.
The night before, however, did not go so well for the team as they took a 4-1 loss but the Wolverines lone goal in the contest came from Di Giuseppe. It was the kind of goal most would expect from someone going through a slump, as he snagged a loose puck in front of the net and fired home a quick snap shot to net his first goal since opening weekend. Finally getting that second goal will hopefully take some weight off his shoulders if anything. There is plenty of hockey to be played this season, so he and the Wolverines have time to rebound after a rough start.
The Wolverines have struggled as of late, but their start to the year isn't nearly as frustrating as the one the Wisconsin Badgers had gotten off to. At the beginning of December, this team had recorded only one win on the entire year and scored more than two goals in only one game, which ended up being a 5-4 loss in OT to Colorado College. Things have been turning around for them since then, however. The Badgers started out the month by picking up a huge upset over Denver University, tying both of their games against Michigan Tech and sweeping Alabama-Huntsville this past weekend.
Scoring has been a problem for this Badgers team all year but that wasn't the cast against UAH, as the Badgers outscored them 9-1 and even got a goal from Carolina's fifth round pick Brendan Woods. Woods got his first goal of the season last weekend against Michigan Tech and added another this weekend, so you could say that he is on a bit of a "hot streak," despite having only four points on the season. He is still pretty young and should improve as the year goes on, which appears to be the case as of late.
Unfortunately, the rest of Carolina's NCAA prospects didn't make that much noise over the last weekend. Danny Biega had five shots in Harvard's 5-0 loss to Massachusetts-Lowell last Monday but failed to get on the scoresheet otherwise. Mark Alt's Minnesota Golden Gophers have a couple of weeks off until the Mariucci Classic after Christmas and Collin Olson hasn't started or played a game for the Buckeyes in awhile as senior Brady Hjelle has the starting job there locked down.
Most of these players won't have another game until late-December so now is a good time to measure their progress before they get to the second half of the season. As of now, there isn't much to report on with Carolina's NCAA prospect pool aside from a couple players having strong finishes to the first half. Hopefully they can build on that once the break is over.
Tracking zone entries are something that I have touched on briefly in past articles but have yet to do any serious posts on for the Hurricanes to explain why I am doing this. Part of the reason for this is because I am currently doing a major project from last season and do not have enough data on the team for me to do a substantive post about them. That will come at a later time. For now, I thought it would be a good idea to show what exactly I'm doing with this project and how it correlates to success on the ice.
The main goal behind tracking zone entries is finding out which teams are controlling the neutral zone, how they are entering the zone and how well they perform territorially after getting the puck in. There are other methods but generally, the two most common ways that teams enter the opposing zone are either by dumping the puck in or carrying it in themselves. The whole "dump and chase" method is something that you'll hear a lot of color analysts talk about as one of the "keys to victory" for their team because it's a safe way to get the puck in deep. Carolina's color analyst often puts emphasis on "good dumps," whatever the hell that means.
While dumping the puck in presents less chance for a turnover, there hasn't been much evidence to show that it leads to success in terms of generating shots or scoring chances. In fact, past studies have indicated quite the opposite and it makes sense when you think about it. Teams who simply dump the puck in are essentially giving the puck back to the other team in their own zone. Unless they play in a system that puts emphasis on strong forechecking and creating turnovers, this method doesn't seem like the best for success, especially if you're playing from behind.
In my years of watching the Hurricanes, I have noticed that they tend to play "dump and chase" a lot and it could be one of the reasons why this team has been so poor territorially over the last three years or so. I will have a better idea of this once I have more games tracked but to show you what exactly I'm doing with this project, I will go over one of Carolina's game from last season and show how much the team's zone entries correlated with the amount of shots and scoring chances they generated.
The game is Carolina's 3-2 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators from last October. Why did I pick this game? Because it's where I am currently at in the season right now and featured a lot of even strength play. I thought it would serve as a good introduction to this project, which we will start after the jump.
In need of an offensive spark, the Charlotte Checkers decided to give their ECHL affiliate in Florida a holler yesterday to call up left winger Justin Shugg. This will be Shugg's second stint with the Checkers, as he got to play 33 games with the team last year before injuries set him back and he had to finish the year in the ECHL. Shugg was the Hurricanes fourth round pick in the 2010 NHL draft and is a very creative offensive player who may help the Checkers get out of their recent scoring slump. There were many who thought Shugg would be in the AHL full-time this year because of how well he performed in the ECHL the previous season but there wasn't any room for him on the roster which is partially due to the NHL Lockout.
The general thought was that Shugg should be able to dominate in the ECHL given his talent and he has done that so far if you go by his scoring line of 11 goals and 22 points in 19 games. This is basically him building off how he ended last season, as he should be expected to excel at that level. He was a terrific goal-scorer at juniors and was also pretty effective offensively when he was healthy with Charlotte last year. Whether or not he will produce at a higher level or have a future in the NHL remains to be seen, but it looks like he is going to get another shot with the Checkers starting with tonight's game against the Milwaukee Admirals.
The question is how will Charlotte's head coach, Jeff Daniels, use Shugg because the Checkers have plenty of wingers at their disposal right now. Boychuk, Bowman, Terry and even Sutter have been producing this year so it's hard to imagine that Shugg will take any of their spots in the lineup. However, with the Checkers losing six of their last seven games and scoring two or fewer goals in all of those losses, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Daniels change things up and give Shugg some more minutes. Shugg has been one of the Everblades top scorers this year, so the Checkers aren't going to take him away from them just so he can be plugged in on the fourth line, or at least I hope that they do not plan to do that.
It was announced a few minutes ago on Twitter by Paul Branecky that Jerome Samson will be a healthy scratch tonight to make room for Shugg, so it sounds like he is going to get some decent minutes, whether it be in the top-six or on the third line. After playing so well with the Everblades, it's hard to say that Shugg didn't earn this call-up so let's hope he can make the most of whatever ice time he gets tonight. I doubt his presence alone will break the Checkers out of their slump but inserting another goal-scorer in the lineup is never a bad thing.
The expectations for Hurricanes 2010 third round pick Austin Levi were somewhat high heading into this season. He started the year in camp with the Charlotte Checkers but ended up being one of the final cuts and is now playing his fifth year with the Plymouth Whalers. Seeing how this is his Overage year and he has gotten better with every season, there was little reason to think that he wouldn't perform well after returning to juniors. Unfortunately, the season hasn't gone as planned for Levi as he has struggled to make an impact for most of the year and even found himself out of the lineup for a few games recently. I'm not 100% sure if this was due to performance or a possible injury that I haven't heard of, but I think most would agree that Levi has been somewhat underwhelming thus far.
It is still a very long season, so Levi has plenty of time to make up for his slow start to the year and he began to right the ship on Sunday against the Oshawa Genearls. Levi made his return to the Whalers lineup that night and recorded two assists, one of which came on the powerplay. The Whalers ended up losing that game 4-3 so I'm sure Levi isn't happy about that but he can at least look at his performance and be happy that he made the most of his return to the lineup. You can't really judge his performance based on goals and points alone but that is the easiest way to get noticed for those who are unable to watch the games, so that is one way to make yourself standpoint. Hopefully Levi can continue to do that on more than just the scoresheet for the rest of the year.
There were quite a few players in the Hurricanes CHL prospect pool who posted big numbers this past weekend and we will take a closer look at them after the jump.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Philippe Paradis was being assigned to the ECHL by the Chicago Blackhawks/Rockford Ice Hogs. You may remember that Paradis was the Hurricanes first round pick from the 2009 NHL Draft and was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs later on in the year in exchange for Jiri Tlusty. Seeing how Tlusty has emerged as a top-six player and is currently playing well overseas while Paradis has struggled at just about every professional level, I think most would agree that the Hurricanes won this deal by a landslide. This did get me thinking about what kind of shape the Hurricanes prospect pool would be in had they kept Paradis and how Rutherford and the Canes scouting staff has had a lot of tough luck when it comes to drafting during their tenure.
Would you believe that since the year 2000, there have been only eight draft picks by the Hurricanes who went onto play 100 or more games for the team? Would you also believe that behind Eric Staal, Niclas Wallin has played the most games in a Carolina sweater among players drafted by Rutherford? Well, it's true. Not every team can be as good as the Detroit Red Wings when it comes to drafting younger talent, but the Hurricanes had some very rough drafts from 2000 through 2009. Aside from landing Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter, there were not a lot of great players to come out of those drafts at all.
Now with that being said, the Hurricanes were still a reasonably competitive team during most of those years and this was mostly due to Rutherford being able to acquire talent through trades rather than the draft. If you were to look at just about any of Rutherford's moves during the last 10-12 years or so, it's pretty easy to see that he is more of a "play for the present" kind of guy and doesn't like to have his team sit through long rebuilding periods. He has shown that he isn't afraid to trade away draft picks from proven talent and would rather take a risk on a somewhat seasoned prospect rather than drafting one who is a few years or so away from the NHL. The recent trades involving Jordan Staal, Riley Nash and Bobby Sanguinetti indicate that and so do the trades he made during the 2005-06 year when Carolina won the Stanley Cup.
Trading away draft picks is something that a lot of GM's are reluctant to do but in the end, those picks are only as valuable as the team's scouring department, as it has been proven over the years that some organizations have an eye for finding talent in the later round of the draft. The Hurricanes, unfortunately, have not been one of those teams for most of the last decade and Rutherford seemed to notice this somewhere down the line and began to use a lot of his draft picks as trading chips. Some may not like this strategy but draft picks are never a sure thing and Rutherford was able to turn some of Carolina's picks into pieces the team could use to make the team immediately better.
The most pointed at example of Rutherford's trading is the deal that sent Keith Primeau and a 5th round pick to Philadelphia in exchange for future captain Rod Brind'Amour but there are actually a few more that really stick out. The Canes had to send five of their draft picks away to bring Doug Weight, Marc Recchi and Anton Babchuk to Carolina during their Cup run and I think just about everyone will tell you that they were well worth the price, and that's before you consider that the only current NHL-er to come from those picks is James Reimer. A couple other trades to mention is the Matt Cullen deal from 2008 where the Canes sent their third round pick from 2008 to the Rangers to acquire him and the Aaron Ward trade from 2002 where Carolina got him from Detroit for a second round pick. Both of those players ended up being more than just rentals for the Hurricanes and played important roles in their post-season success, albeit in separate years.
Rutherford's strategy changed a little bit once 2010 rolled along. The team's core was aging and there were not many younger players to take their place outside of Eric Staal. Knowing that the organization needed young talent and that they were going to end up with a high draft pick, Rutherford elected to trade away some of his older players on expiring contracts in exchange for picks. Since then, the team's drafting has gotten better and it also helped that he used a few of those picks to acquire some other younger talent like Riley Nash and Bobby Sanguinetti who were far closer to being NHL ready than most kids in the draft.
Then you have the Jordan Staal trade, which shows Rutherford going back to his older ways of trying to win now rather than waiting out another rebuilding year. I'm still not sure if Staal's value will equate to what Rutherford gave up, but this isn't the first time that he has traded away a first rounder or a high draft pick before. Seeing how the best player taken with a pick that Rutherford traded away was Jiri Hudler back in 2002, I don't think the Canes have too much to worry about on that front. Carolina still does not possess a top-notch prospect pool but they do have a lot of young talent who are on the verge of being NHL-ready, so it will be interesting to see what happens with these players and what Rutherford does in future drafts. The lockout is going to put even more pressure on a team like Carolina to play for the present, so we could see some interesting moves up his sleeve once if the NHL season resumes.
The fantastic start that the Charlotte Checkers got off to at the beginning of the year is looking rather important right now, as the team still sits in first place in the South Division despite losing their last five games. It was said that the Checkers were playing over their heads a little bit during October and November and that they would eventually cool down, which seems to be happening now. The Checkers high-powered offense has been limited to only nine goals over their last five games and they have been outscored 23-9 overall. It was very unlikely for the Checkers to keep scoring at the rate they were previously, but the offense has dried up a bit during the last few games and it doesn't help that they are giving up a lot at the other end of the rink, either. Has the Checkers performance on the ice been as ugly as it looks on the scoresheet, though?
In some ways, yes but they haven't been playing as bad as one would think.
Charlotte's Last Five Games
Other than goal differential, some of the Checkers numbers from the last five games aren't that horrible. The only game where they were completely destroyed was the 7-2 shellacking they took against Oklahoma City. Other than that, they have been fairly competitive in most of these games despite the terrible goal differential. Even with that stinker against OKC, the Checkers have been getting barely outshot during this stretch. So if the team hasn't been playing that poorly then why are they getting outscored so much?
The answer to that all comes down to shooting percentage, something that a lot of players on the Checkers have been getting the better of this season. There was a point where the Checkers scored on over 30% of their powerplay opportunities and had a few players with shooting percentages over 20%. Anyone who has taken a basic statistics course should know that those numbers aren't going to sustain over time and are going to come down eventually and that's exactly what we're seeing happen to the Checkers here. As a team, they have been shooting at only 5.8% during this stretch and their powerplay has converted only three times out of 20 opportunities. The first number is a much more extreme case of regression as the Checkers have seen their luck go in the complete opposite direction of where it was earlier. I don't think the team will get back to scoring as much as they were earlier in the season, but the offense should pick up a little if they continue to stay somewhat competitive in games.
On the other end, you have the team giving up 23 goals in 5 games and that can be traced back to goaltending. Dan Ellis and Justin Peters have a combined save percentage .865 during this stretch, which just isn't going to get it done. I'm not usually one to blame the goaltenders for everything because the defense obviously has to help them out a little but a save percentage under .900 during any stretch of time is usually a bad sign no matter what. I'll cut them some slack in the second OKC and first Rockford games, as the defense gave up a ton of shots those nights but it's hard to defend them in the three other contests. This is only five games and their true talent level is above what they have shown in this small sample size, but these two are going to need to play a little better.
That last statement sums up the Checkers last five games fairly accurately, too. This team isn't as good as what we saw for most of October and November but they aren't as bad as they've played the last five games either. I would expect them to get on track soon and they have a good chance to turn things around for the rest of the month with seven of the remaining 11 games coming at home. The Checkers seem to have a knack for extremes, so we could be in for another roller coaster ride later on in the year.