Losing streaks are tough, both on the fanbase and the team and the Carolina Hurricanes are all too familiar with these skids. The one they endured through March and April last year was especially painful and it feels like they are heading down that road yet again. The Hurricanes have won a total of five games during the month of December and have only two wins in their last 10. They salvaged an okay record with a win over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night, but that's mostly due to them getting an extra four points from overtime shootout losses. Due to that, the Canes season isn't dead but up until this point, they have not been a good hockey team this year.
They rank 24th in the NHL in goals per game, 21st in goals allowed per game and are also in the bottom-ten in both power play an penalty kill percentage. To add to that, they have been a terrible possession team up until recently. Meaning that they haven't spent much time with the puck, have had trouble tilting the ice in their favor at even strength and have generally been the ones getting outshot on most nights. Again, this has started to improve recently, their 5v5 Shot Attempt percentage broke 50% after the Leafs game, but they have been bad in this department for most of the year and it's one of the reasons why they have earned points in only 48.8% of their games.
What's the reason for all of this? As bad as last season ended, the Hurricanes are a "talented team" according to their payroll. They are spending nearly to the salary cap on this roster but aren't getting much for their money right now. Jim Rutherford went into the last two seasons planning for the Canes to be a contending team and so far, it hasn't worked out at all. Why, though? The common response I've seen to this question is that they lack "heart," aren't mentally strong enough to be a winning team or they don't give enough effort every night. Basically, everything you hear about a team when they go through a rough patch.
This way of thinking has never been my thing and I've always seen it as a lazy way to analyze the game or explain a team's problems. Hockey isn't a game that's decided by which team "wants it more" or who tries harder because every team tries. Trying is the bare minimum in professional sports and sometimes the results don't always match the effort you give, especially in hockey where luck plays a big role in the outcome. This debate between Ray Ratto and Drew Remenda after a San Jose Sharks game a couple years ago kind of sums up my thoughts whenever I see an article trying to explain the Hurricanes problems.
Ratto basically says that the Sharks need to stop making things complicated and "just win the game" and goes onto rant about how they aren't playing like they deserve a playoff spot due to their struggles on the road. Remenda takes exception to this and fires back by telling Ratto that the Sharks played a good game but couldn't score, which was a problem for them all season. Ratto's response to this was this:
"If you have Cup aspirations, you can't be 8-18 on the road in the second half of the year, you can't have pronounced trouble scoring the puck (what?), you can't do that if you're a playoff team....to not get results at time when you need them against teams that frankly you are better than in term of skill..this isn't good enough."
Sound familiar? The Hurricanes are not nearly in the same class as the Sharks, but what Ratto said can be applied to what the Canes are going through right now. In fact, most of the things I have read regarding the Canes lately have been similar to that quote. This is a painfully over-simplified analysis that doesn't do much but state the obvious. If you can't score, you aren't going to win many games and will probably be watching the playoffs from home. This isn't news, it's something every hockey fan knows.
What I, and many others want to know, is why do the Hurricanes have so much trouble scoring? Why has a first line that was so dangerous last season fallen off in such a short amount of time? Pointing to leadership issues and Eric Staal being a "bad captain" is not a good enough explanation for me. Leadership has its place in sports, but it's not the reason why this team's offense has dried up. What is the reason then? There are a lot of explanations for this and we'll dive into them after the jump.
SB Nation's excellent Winnipeg Jets blog, Arctic Ice Hockey, had a similar debate a few weeks ago about what the "problem" with their team was. The conclusion was that the Jets simply are not a talented enough team to be a contender. The "character" and "consistency" issues with their top players were just stories drawn up by the media to come up with a quick explanation/find a scapegoat for their team's problems. The truth is that the Jets are a team that lacks depth and top-end talent and that's why they have been struggling this year.
The Hurricanes are a slightly different animal than the Jets, though. They have top-end talents on their team and according to GM Jim Rutherford, "a handful of players" are not performing up to their potential. I won't argue this, but something that I have been wondering is whether or not the Canes have a lot of top end talent or just a lot of players who are being paid as such? The other day, I looked at how each of the Hurricanes forwards were performing in terms of being able to drive possession and noted that only four forwards were posting positive shot differentials for most of the season. Meaning that the Canes basically had one line (sometimes two on a good night) who were capable of tilting the ice in their team's favor. That is a huge problem.
Here's the kicker, though..most of the guys who are driving the play were the big money players. Both Staal brothers have been good at tilting the ice in the Canes favor this year, as has Alexander Semin. Nathan Gerbe is the only player on a small contract who has been consistently driving the play this year and even he has been playing in the top-six on most nights, alongside Jordan Staal. None of these guys putting up big numbers, although Staal's 30 points in 39 games is far from terrible, but they aren't the biggest problem right now.
What is a problem, however, is Tuomo Ruutu being a barely being a positive possession player despite being either sheltered or playing on the first line for most of the year. Ruutu is one of the guys who is being paid like a top talent, but he isn't playing or producing at that level. I put some of the blame on injuries, as his strengths have always been playing along the boards and the two hip surgeries are going to limit his effectiveness there. Yes, he had a brief run on the top line but it didn't last long and was starting to become more of a passenger. He was getting knocked off the puck easily and spent more time chasing the play rather than creating anything. Injuries can be a long process, but Ruutu does not look like the same player that he was when Rutherford gave him this contract.
Another player who has been struggling at even strength is Jeff Skinner, who is probably immune to all criticism right now because he is the only one scoring. Skinner's had the golden touch lately, but he has done a good chunk of his damage on the power play and has struggled to move the puck up ice at evens. Prior to his injury, he was one of the Canes best players in this department but he seemed to suffer a setback after that and only recently started to improve in this department. He is a positive possession player now, but he could be doing a lot more considering how much he is being sheltered by the coaching staff. When you start nearly 45% of your shifts in the offensive zone, you kind of have to produce. He's doing that in terms of goals, but his all-around game needs to improve.
The guy with the golden touch last year, Jiri Tlusty, has seen his scoring ability fall off. Regression was immenient for him, as he wasn't going to shoot at 19.5% this year and he is shooting much closer to his career average this year. That was predictable. The bigger problem is that he has become a possession sink hole this year and was part of the reason why the top line struggled so much earlier in the season. Tlusty is a player that thrives on finding the open space in the defense and finishing off plays. Now that defenses are more wise to him, he hasn't been able to find the soft spots as much and he hasn't been making up for it in other areas. He resorts to dumping the puck in a lot in the neutral zone and given what we know about the Canes inability to create offense off dump-and-chase play, it's limited the amount of chances he can create. It also effects how much he can drive possession and sheds some light on why he has struggled for most of the season.
So those are the guys who I would point to as not playing up to their potential. That leaves the depth players who are, with all due respect, not very good. The Canes bottom-six seems to have gotten a bit of a mulligan from fans because not a lot is expected from them and while this is true, what they are doing right now could be a lot better when you look at how they've been deployed. Take the "third line" for example. With other lines handling the tougher assignments, this unit has been getting uber-sheltered and they haven't done much with it.
The guy who has been anchoring it all year, Riley Nash, has been one of the main reasons for this. He got off to a strong start but that faded once Skinner was bumped off his line and has struggled to create much of anything. Muller has tried to help him out by sheltering his line, there was one point where he took basically no draws in the defensive zone, and while that has helped, what he is doing now isn't good enough. With the matchups his line gets, he needs to be able to at least be a positive possession player at even strength and he hasn't been able to do that yet. His four goals and 10 points might be passable for a bottom-six player in Carolina, but it's not very good when you take his assignments into account.
Then there's the fourth line, who I feel a little bad criticizing because they play the role that no one else wants to. Since they were united, Manny Malhotra, Radek Dvorak & Drayson Bowman have taken basically all of their draws in the defensive zone and their job is simple; Win the draw, defend, get the puck out of the zone when you get a chance and then establish a forecheck. This trio has had their moments but the reality is that they've spent most of their time trapped in the defensive zone.
Out of all Carolina forwards, Malhotra, Dvorak & Bowman have been outshot the most by a wide margin and have struggled to drive the play because they use up all of their energy in the defensive zone. It's not the worst thing in the world because they play some of the toughest assignments on the team, but the Hurricanes rely on this unit more than your typical fourth line. There are nights where they get upwards of 10 minutes and that becomes an issue if they spend all of it scrambling in their own zone. The third line obviously is part of this problem, as their inability to beat soft assignments has made Muller turn to the fourth line more but that just reiterates this team's depth problems.
So yes, depth is an issue and so is talent to an extent. This partially explains why the Canes have been starving to create offense for most of the year. However, what I haven't explained is why the Hurricanes top players have yet to start scoring. For that, I'm not sure what to tell you other than what I said earlier. The results haven't been there for these players, but their level of play hasn't been bad and they should start to post better numbers soon. Goals are the product of a few things: Driving the play, getting the puck on net and luck. So far, they've got two-thirds of this equation down but haven't been able to finish. Is it just luck or are the Staals & Semin doing something different compared to previous years? For Semin, it mostly looks like a string of bad shooting luck that probably won't last much longer.
It's been a long time since Semin has had a stretch this bad, but history suggests that he should rebound. Just like all goal-scorers eventually do. I mentioned this in my post about Jeff Skinner the other day, but goal-scorers in general are streaky and will go through dry spells. Semin's has lasted all of this year and was compounded by him missing 12 games with a concussion. He will rebound, but how much should we expect from him in terms of goals? If he continues to shoot the puck as much as he is right now, he could be due for a nice outburst.
Semin is doing a better job of controlling the play than he was last season and is getting the puck on net at a pretty high rate, albeit much lower than his career average. That said, he should be due for a scoring outburst very soon. One thing I will say is that he needs to do a better job of getting the puck on net. He's done a fantastic job of tilting the ice in the Canes favor and could easily lead the team in shots/60 right now. The reason he isn't is because many of his shots are either blocked or miss the net. He is among the league leaders in both of these categories and I'm not entirely sure what the solution is for it. I would say that he needs to "take better shots" but the main reason Semin misses the net so much is because he is often trying to pick corners and try to beat the goaltender with a "perfect shot." Guys who shoot the puck this much are going to have a lot of misses by default and Semin seems to be in a class of his own when it comes to this. That said, I think he is overdue and should start to see better results if he stays the course. Hopefully his overtime goal on New Year's Eve is a starting point.
What about the Staals, though? I honestly don't see the big hype on how this is a "down year" for him. His 33 points in 40 games puts him on pace for another 67-70 point season and that is generally the norm for Staal. It's a step back from what he did last season, but there was a very small chance that he, and the rest of the first line, were going to replicate that. Staal, Tlusty & Semin had a combined on-ice shooting percentage of 11-13% and there was a slim chance of them repeating that. Semin's shown the ability to sustain a high on-ice shooting percentage over his career but Staal is not in that class.
He isn't Henrik Sedin or Sidney Crosby, it was predictable that his on-ice shooting percentage would come back down to Earth. Unfortunately for the Canes, their first line's shooting percentage has been going in the complete opposite direction, so their numbers look a lot worse than what their actual on-ice performance has been. Finding another winger for this line has been a problem, but Staal & Semin should begin to put the puck in the back of the net more often as long as they keep driving the play at a high rate. A look at Staal's Hockey-Reference page and some quick math shows that he is shooting the puck less often than he did last year (S/60 rate dropped from 8.25 to 9.05) but his shooting percentage is at its lowest since its rookie season so he should have more than 10 goals.
As for his plus/minus, it probably has more to do with Carolina's goaltender stopping only 89.5% of the shots Staal is on the ice for during 5v5 play than him being a terrible captain or whatever fans want to believe. All plus/minus really tells you is that a player is either on a terrible team or has seen some horrific goaltending when he is on the ice. For Staal, it's a mix of both. His defensive shortcomings obviously don't help, but I don't think they are nearly as bad as his -16 rating suggests.
Jordan, on the other hand, has a positive plus/minus but only 19 points in 40 games and that's always going to be a problem no matter how much he drives the play. I think Jordan's offensive upside was overrated by many when the Canes acquired him, but he's clearly better than a 38-39 point player. His "slow start" was a combination of poor shooting luck and him getting buried in the defensive zone with third/fourth line players like Dwyer & Dvorak. Ever since the Canes acquired Malhotra, he's been taking more draws in the offensive zone and his offense has been coming along with 16 points in 28 games. That's not much for a $6 mil. player but his two-way play at even strength somewhat makes up for this. He's the only center on the team capable of playing the tough matchups against other team's top lines and that makes him worth more than his point total suggests.
Still, I don't know how much offense he can produce with his current linemates. He's obviously suffering from some bad luck, with an on-ice shooting percentage of only 4.9% but how many goals is he going to create with Patrick Dwyer & Nathan Gerbe as his linemates. Both of them are career 7% shooters and not great finishers, so there's a limited amount of offense the Canes can get out of their second line unless they can upgrade somehow. They had Semin on his line for a few games and they produced at least one goal in four out of seven games but Semin eventually had to return to his regular home on the top line.
There's always the possibility of Elias Lindholm sliding into the right wing spot, but it's tough to say if he is truly ready for the NHL or not. Combine that with Ruutu's struggles, and it's tough to find a capable winger for Jordan who can produce and take on the tough assignments his line commands. Dwyer can do one half of that (drive the play & get shots on goal) but unless he finds a scoring touch, there's only so much offense Jordan's line is going to produce. Another reason why I believe we will see a few more trades if Rutherford is serious about contending this year.
If I had to sum up the Hurricanes problems in one paragraph, I think it all comes down to poor luck with their top guys not scoring (despite tilting the ice in the team's favor), a few guys underperforming (Ruutu, Tlusty, Gleason) and their depth being mostly bad or non-existent. They've essentially been rolling two fourth lines on many nights and when the first two lines aren't scoring, they don't have anything to fall back on. Eventually the top two lines will get out of this rut and the Hurricanes will string together some wins, but whether or not that happens before or after the Canes dig themselves into too deep of a hole remains to be seen. Rutherford has been more active in the trade front than usual and here's to hoping that he gets something done before it's too late.
Right now, I don't think the Canes are deep enough to be a playoff team and the terrible state of the Metropolitan Division has them still in the race, albeit barely. They don't have to make up much ground, but things can easily spiral out of control if they let the losses pile up.