If there were any positives that the Hurricanes could have dug out of last season, it was that they were a better team than their record indicated. For the first time in years, they were consistently outshooting teams and winning the possession battle at even strength, which usually results in more wins in the long-run. That obviously doesn't mean much in a 48-game season with a condensed schedule, but it did give the Canes something they could build on and install some faith in Kirk Muller as a coach. They weren't winning, but they were at least playing well enough to stay competitive in games and control most of the territorial play. With a stronger defense and goaltending, they could have had some better results and that was the mindset this summer.
The Hurricanes adjusted accordingly and had a bit of a defensive overhaul this off-season, bringing in three new blue-liners and adding two more from within (Bellemore & Murphy). On paper, the Hurricanes looked like an improved team and one that could content for a playoff spot in the East if they continued to stay strong at even strength. The only problem is that their five-on-five play has taken a complete tail-spin this year. Carolina has only outshot their opponent at five-on-five in eight out of 27 games this year and have won the possession battle in only seven of them, two of those coming against the Philadelphia Flyers. To make things worse, they rank 25th in the NHL in Fenwick percentage and 27th in this category during close games. That is alarmingly bad, especially when you compare it to where they were last year, which was in the top half of the NHL
I had a lot of confidence in this team coming into the year because of their strong underlying numbers last season and the fact that most of their core stayed in-tact. Unfortunately, that has not carried over and they have been "chasing the game" way too much this season. It's hard to figure out what exactly happened to this team over the summer because, as I said earlier, most of their core pieces are still in place. Are they underperforming or are the new additions dragging the team's five-on-five play down? After the jump, we will look at that and other possible explanations.
When a team somehow goes from being a solid possession club to the bottom-five in the NHL, the usual explanation is either a change in coaching philosophy or losing a big piece or two over the summer. I've talked about how Kirk Muller has "tweaked" his system a little, but he has stated that he is running the same system as last year but putting more emphasis on the team's play away from the puck. Personally, I think the Canes are playing a much more conservative style than they were last season, especially in the neutral zone, and I'm not sure if they have the right players to run this kind of system.
So I definitely think coaching has a role in Carolina's underlying numbers falling off a cliff, but they did lose a couple of good depth players and the ones they brought in to replace them haven't exactly been great in terms of territorial play.
|Who's in?||Corsi%||CF Rel|
|Who's Out?||Corsi%||CF Rel|
The Hurricanes made improvements in a couple areas, namely their top-four defense. Sekera, Hainsey & Bellemore aren't going to scare anyone, but it's an improvement over what they had last year. Hainsey & Sekera are better top-four options than Corvo & McBain despite what the numbers say and both of them are big upgrades over what the Hurricanes got out of Jay Harrison & Tim Gleason last season. Depth defense, however, is a problem.
Both Ryan Murphy and Mike Komisarek have struggled mighitly on the third pairing and the Hurricanes would actually be better off with either Bobby Sanguinetti or Joe Corvo taking over for one of them. Harrison has also struggled in this role, but we'll get to him later. The third defense pairing usually isn't that big of a problem because they are given easy assignments and are expected not to be awful. Murphy/Komisarek/Harrison haven't been able to do that, as the Hurricanes are owning only 40-46% of the shot attempts when they are on the ice. That simply can not happen when you are playign sheltered minutes.
The new depth players have been kind of disappointing throughout the lineup. Nathan Gerbe has been a great addition and an upgrade over Chad LaRose, but the rest are all underwater at even strength. Elias Lindholm is probably the most disappointing of the bunch, although he is just a teenager and trying to find his legs in the NHL. I think people expected him to make more of an impact in his rookie year, though and his struggles make the loss of Jussi Jokinen sting more.
Radek Dvorak has also struggled, despite the strong scoring numbers for a bottom-sixer and Manny Malhotra is frequently getting pinned into his own zone. Comparing this year's fourth line to last year's is a little unfair, though because they are being used differently. Tim Brent, Tim Wallace and Kevin Westgarth were all used in sheltered situations, both in terms of matchups and territorial play, whereas Malhotra, Dvorak & Bowman are frequently deployed in the defensive zone, which obviously affects their underlying numbers.
The other loss that needs to be accounted for is Joni Pitkanen, who is on the shelf for the entire season with a foot injury. His presence is deeply missed on the power play and on the team's breakouts and it's hard to cover up for him. Sekera has been a nice replacement, though. He has been able to elevate the Canes territorial play just as much as Pitkanen and was putting up points before getting hurt. Still, the third pairing remains a major problem. One would think that a puck-mover like Murphy could drive possession at a decent rate but that obviously hasn't been the case.
So, in terms of players gained/lost, the third line & defense pairing are what's suffering right now. What about the players who were retained? Who is underperforming compared to last year?
|Player||13-14||13-14||Diff||CF Rel. 2012-13||CF Rel. 2013-14||Diff|
Compared to last year, almost everyone on the team has gotten worse in terms of being able to drive the play forward. Alexander Semin is the only one who has improved and he is currently on the shelf with a concussion. Eric Staal, Justin Faulk, Jordan Staal and Brett Bellemore are also playing well compared to the rest of the team but are a small step behind where they were last year. Although, they are elevating the play of their linemates at a much higher rate than they were last year so that's a plus.
Unfortunately, just about everyone else has taken considerable steps back and the most concerning one is Jeff Skinner. Before his injury, Skinner was one of Carolina's best forwards at driving the play, but has struggled mightily since coming back and the Hurricanes have been getting brutally outshot with him on the ice. This is with him getting sheltered assignments, too. The fact that his center, Riley Nash, has been playing awful as of late hasn't helped either.
A few other players who have fallen off are Tuomo Ruutu & Tim Gleason, who were both injured at the start of the season and have struggled to get back into their regular form. Ruutu's had a couple of good games recently, but he has not been good for most of the year and the coaching staff has tried just about everything to get him going, including placing him on the first line. He has shown some improvement these last two weeks, but he obviously isn't where he needs to be.
As for Gleason, he has spent most of the season battling injuries and has just been awful when he has gotten the chance to play. I've expressed my concern about how much injuries have taken a toll on him and it looks like they are really holding him back this year. The fact that he has constantly been on and off the injured list tells me he has never been fully healthy, but defensive defensemen typically don't age well as they get into their 30's, so I don't see Gleason progressing that much even after he heals up. I know he was fighting injuries, but he looked like he lost a step last year and he has gotten worse since then.
Jiri Tlusty also appears to have taken a step back, as well but his numbers compared to the rest of the team are roughly on par with last season. This isn't a good thing, though because he was not effective in terms of driving the play at all. Tlusty was a passenger on the first line and was only effective because of his ability to finish off plays. Now that the first line's performance has gone down, Tlusty is getting less opportunities and isn't doing much to contribute in terms of driving the play. We all knew that regression was coming for Tlusty after last year, but there was some hope that Tlusty could still produce at a decent rate and contribute in other ways outside of the scoresheet. He has done neither.
To sum things up, basically everyone except for the Staals, Faulk, Bellemore and maybe Dwyer have taken considerable steps back for the Hurricanes and it's not a surprise that their underlying numbers went down the drain along with it. Lots of the blame for the Hurricanes poor start has fallen on the shoulders of their star players and while I agree that they need to score more, their supporting cast really hasn't been great, especially those playing in the top-six like Skinner & Ruutu.
One other factor that might be contributing to the Canes poor underlying numbers is their schedule and the fact that they aren't exclusively playing against the Eastern Conference this year. Tripp Tracy mentioned during the Boston game that the Hurricanes have faced some tough teams right out of the gate and while that might sound like an excuse, he wasn't wrong. The Canes have had to deal with some tough Western Conference opponents early on in the season and haven't really gone up against any bottom-feeders, except for the Islanders. How much of a difference is it making, though? I don't think it's a valid excuse for the team's poor play, but the level of competition they've gone up against hasn't exactly been easy.
Carolina has seen all but two of the Top 10 possession teams in the NHL and they've played only ten games against teams with a Fenwick percentage below 50%. Again, I don't want to use this as an excuse because this team should be better than what they've shown thus far, but it's possible that their strong underlying numbers from last season were a result of them playing a lot of games against teams like Buffalo, Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, etc. instead of a more balanced schedule. As we get deeper into the season, the Canes might climb their way out of the Fenwick cellar (7 out of their next 10 games are against below-average possession clubs), but the point remains that this team is way behind where they should be and we can only hope that things get better from here.