Justin Williams and Jeff Skinner Image by: Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images
Hurricanes GM Ron Francis checked almost everything off of his summer to-do list, but his inability to land another scorer to pick of the offensive slack is hurting Carolina early.
No team was expected to take a bigger step forward this season than the Carolina Hurricanes. Reason being is that, if you asked just about anyone, GM Ron Francis had done everything right in the off-season.
Acquire a goaltender? Check. Francis went out and nabbed one of the most sought after backup-turned-starters available, Scott Darling, and inked him to a four-year deal to hopefully put an end to the Hurricanes’ longstanding goaltending woes. Lock up the blueline? You bet, as Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were signed to long-term deals this summer. Solidify the depth? Francis did that, too, by bringing aboard Trevor van Riemsdyk to help out on the back end, plugging Marcus Kruger in as a depth center and inking veteran winger Justin Williams to add some scoring punch up top.
Yet, with seemingly every item on the to-do list crossed out, Carolina finds themselves nearly one-fifth of the way through the 2017-18 campaign and in an all-too-familiar spot: multiple points outside of a post-season position and right near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. And it might just be that the one thing Francis couldn’t accomplish in the off-season is the one thing that is holding the Hurricanes back right now.
A few times throughout the summer, it was reported that Carolina was kicking the tires and sniffing around on adding a scorer to the lineup. It was a justified belief, too, given that Carolina finished with the 11th-fewest goals for in the league, but it was warranted even more so because the Hurricanes were one of 10 teams to finish the 2016-17 campaign with two or fewer 20-goal scorers. Even teams that finished further outside of the playoff picture, such as the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers, had at least a trio of players who were able to hit the 20-goal mark. And while the Hurricanes were one of the few teams that had a great depth of scorers — nine finished with at least a double-digit goal total, tied for 11th in the league — what they were lacking was anyone, outside of 37-goal scorer Jeff Skinner, who could be a true game-breaking sniper.It’s not as though Carolina didn’t chase such a player, however. Matt Duchene’s name cropped up in connection with the Hurricanes several times throughout the summer, and a player of Duchene’s ilk — a five-time 20-goal scorer who registered 30 tallies only two seasons ago — seemed to fit Carolina’s needs. Nothing came to pass of the Hurricanes’ reported interest in Duchene over the summer, though, and, long on the market, the former Colorado Avalanche center is now a member of the Ottawa Senators thanks to a three-way trade that also included the Nashville Predators. But missing out on Duchene and failing to land any other top-six calibre scorer appears to be plaguing the Hurricanes now in more ways than one.
Carolina’s lack of offensive punch is most evident in their inability to fill the net through the early season. With 40 goals, the Hurricanes rank second-last in goals for and their 2.67 goals per game rate is the ninth-worst in the league. Meanwhile, Skinner and Jordan Staal are Carolina’s only skaters with more than five goals and they’ve had no single scorer to really stand out so far. In fact, Brock McGinn is the only other Hurricane to score at least five goals and Carolina remains one of only 11 teams without at least four five-goal scorers at this point in the campaign.
None of this is for lack of chances offensively, mind you, as the Hurricanes have been among the most difficult teams to defend this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Carolina ranks first in shot attempts (73) and shots (37.8), second in scoring chances (33.5) and fourth in high-danger attempts (12.5). The issue, though, is that the Hurricanes have been average or worse when it comes to making good on their opportunities. At 5-on-5, Carolina is shooting only 6.8 percent, ninth-worst in the league, and their 13 percent conversion rate on high-danger attempts is 18th in the league. The Hurricanes’ lack of finish is an unfortunate trend that has carried over from last season, too, as Carolina ranked 20th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage and had the fourth-worst conversion rate on their high-danger attempts last season. That’s why a second pure scorer, someone who could supplement Skinner, could be so helpful to the Hurricanes.
But it goes beyond scoring at even strength. The lack of another true weapon up front has also hindered Carolina’s power play. Through 15 outings, the Hurricanes are operating at a measly 12.2 percent with the man advantage, the second-worst mark in the league, and they’ve been among the least threatening teams in the league. Despite their ability to generate big numbers at 5-on-5, Carolina ranks 25th in shot attempts (91.2), 31st in shots (43.9), 29th in scoring chances (43.9) and 18th in high-danger chances (20.6) per 60 minutes on the power play. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Hurricanes rank 25th in shooting percentage when on the man advantage, and that’s yet another indication that maybe the only thing holding Carolina back right now is another prime offensive weapon.
To be sure, the lack of another offensive weapon and lack of a truly functional power play are seemingly the only things holding this team back. Defensively, Carolina has been among the stingiest teams in the league, allowing the fewest attempts and fewest shots against per game of any team, with the sixth-fewest scoring chances against, as well. The only real shortcomings defensively are that Carolina ranks in the bottom-third of the league in allowing high-danger chances and that Darling has only been OK, not great or as good as the Hurricanes had hoped, through the start of the season. Still, only 10 teams have allowed fewer goals against per game than Carolina.
There are ways for the Hurricanes to rectify the situation, however, one of which is to simply have patience and hope that the dam breaks for one of their scorers. Sebastian Aho, for example, has yet to light the lamp despite putting 45 shots on goal. This on the heels of a 24-goal rookie campaign. Likewise, Williams has only found twine twice on 34 shots, and his shooting percentage has dipped by nearly 10 percent from last season. Faulk, Hanifin and Joakim Nordstrom are also shooting less than five percent with more than 20 shots on goal.
But if patience is wearing thin, Carolina has a wealth of talent on the blueline they can use to test the trade market. What Francis will have to decide, though, is whether he wants to make such a move and, if he does, who goes. Slavin and Pesce, recently extended, aren’t going anywhere. The same likely goes for Noah Hanifin who, though he has struggled at times, is starting to develop into a top-four defender and is only two seasons removed from being drafted fifth overall. Maybe, then, Justin Faulk, who has been rumored as trade bait before, could be the piece moved, or possibly a package that includes one of Trevor van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury or Klas Dahlbeck, prospects or picks.
No matter what route the Hurricanes take, though, it’s becoming clear something needs to be done to bring the offense to life. Entering this season, there was every reason to believe Carolina could shake their eight-year playoff drought, but if they continue to have trouble cashing in, the Hurricanes could be looking at a ninth-straight season outside of the post-season picture.
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