(NOTE: This was written prior to the game vs Nashville. You are welcome for Ward’s good performance and for jinxing basically everything written below.)
Goaltending has been viewed as the most notable thing holding back the Hurricanes for a couple years now. Ron Francis traded a third round pick in last summer’s draft for the rights to Scott Darling. All that was left to do to seemingly solve the long last issue of consistent mediocracy in net was to put Darling’s pen to paper, which Francis inevitably did, locking Darling up for four years with an AAV of $4.15 million, while also giving Darling a modified No Trade Clause.
While Darling was one of the top UFAs available among goalies, he has never been a full time starting goalie in the NHL, and it was not plausible to expect him to jump into a brand new system and perform as such right away. Darling has played in 24 games so far this season, and he has a record of 8-10-6 with a save percentage of .896% and a 2.87 GAA.
While those numbers are definitely not what the Canes need out of Darling, here are a couple of things to keep in mind. Last season, Darling appeared in 32 games with Chicago, which set a career high. That means Darling is only 8 games shy of matching his career high for appearances in a season. Darling is used to backing up a good goaltender in Corey Crawford in Chicago. Moving to a new city, playing behind a new system, and getting the majority of the starts right away under those circumstances is a tough task for a goaltender. Especially one that has never been a full time starting NHL goalie.
Overall, Cam Ward has been good as the backup with a 6-2-1 record and a .906 SV% and a 3.06 GAA, but he’s definitely had his faltering moments as well.
What’s another important thing to remember regarding Scott Darling and his early season struggles. Oh, that’s right. IT ISN’T ALL ON HIM!
This Hurricanes team has definitely had its ups and downs this season, and it’s been rather frustrating at times. But to put all of the blame on this frustrating season on Darling’s shoulders is completely unfair. The TEAM has had its struggles. Not just Darling. And when I say the team has struggled, I mean every area of it. The offense isn’t scoring enough. The defense has taken a step back. Special teams have been atrocious. And the coaching staff and front office have shown a frustrating lack of urgency.
The Canes have scored just 91 goals so far this season, which is the fifth lowest total in the NHL. The Canes have nine players with 15 or more points, which really isn’t too bad given that that is good for 40+ points over the pace of a full season. Teuvo Teravainen is breaking out with 25 points, and Jeff Skinner, Justin Williams, and Sebastian Aho are right behind him with 23 points a piece. Jordan Staal has 20 points as the final skater with 20 points. Elias Lindholm (18), Derek Ryan (18), and Brock McGinn (15) are the last forwars with 15 or more points. Noah Hanifin is breaking out offensively, and he has scored six goals with 16 total points, which leads Canes defensemen.
The most notable disappointment regarding the offense has been Victor Rask. Coming into the season as the clear first or second line center, Rask has just 7 goals and 10 points in 31 games. Rask was healthy scratched for two games, and he’s looked somewhat better since then, but he’s still massively under-performed considering the expectations coming into the season. Justin Faulk scored 17 goals last season, and he has only scored once so far. Faulk is usually among the NHL leaders in goals and points, but he is struggling offensively and just isn’t there right now.
Coming into the year, the biggest strength for the Canes has been their defense. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were both given big contract extensions, and they both have had extremely successful starts to their young NHL careers. Slavin and Pesce was one of the best (and most underrated) shutdown defensive pairings in the NHL last season. But this season hasn’t quite been the same. Don’t get me wrong- Slavin and Pesce have both still been very solid. But I don’t think they are quite as good as they were a year ago. They are still having very good years which shows you just how good they were last year. Noah Hanifin has broken out offensively and to me, he has been the team’s best defenseman this year. He still has his lapses defensively, as does any young NHL defender. (By the way, Hanifin is about to get FREAKING paid)
Justin Faulk just looks lost out there. I mentioned already his offensive struggles. But he is struggling just as much defensively. He’s not scoring and he’s not playing responsible defense. At all. The new “co-captain” has been increasingly frustrating to watch. Too bad he’s probably going to represent the Canes at the All Star Game. Haydn Fleury has had his ups and downs as well. He has overall been solid, but he has had quite a few poor games as of late. He still has some work to do. On the bright side, Trevor van Riemsdyk has been the team’s first or second best offseason acquisition alongside Justin Williams. TVR has seven points and is the lone Canes defenseman with a positive +/- with a +10. Even if that isn’t a good stat, it is very interesting and impressive nonetheless.
Overall the defense has been solid. And I think that the fact I am labeling them as disappointing has everything to do with our increased expectations of them continuing to dominate as they had the year before. They aren’t quite as impressive as last year, but they are not bad at all. Except for that co-captain. He’s been bad, and he needs to sit in the press box for a couple games. Or, you know.
Saying special teams has been disappointing would be a massive understatement. The Canes power play is converting at just 14.2%, which is tied for third worst in the NHL. That is……. terrible. I couldn’t tell you what the issue is. Part of it has to be the reluctance to try something other than feed Faulk on the point. But I haven’t seen enough of it to make an argument on what exactly needs to be changed. Either way, you’d like to be an actual threat to the opposition when you have the man advantage. The Canes are not.
Usually the Canes have a bad PP and a great PK. This season both are just bad. Very bad. The PK has only killed off 75.6% of penalties, which is also third worst in the NHL. Who knew Ron Hainsey was that good. The PK has been the strength to this team for a couple of years, and if the Canes are serious about doing anything this season, they need to start converting more on special teams. What they’re doing now isn’t anywhere close to good enough.
That’s enough about the players. Now I want to talk about the coaching staff and the front office. This team has been extremely frustrating to watch at times. But what has management done to address that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
One of the most frustrating things about Bill Peters is the apparent favoritism he shows to certain players. This year, the recipient of the said favoritism is Derek Ryan. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan has actually been solid as the 3C this year. But we can do better. While he has 18 points, he is small and loses the puck easily. Playing an elite goal scorer like Jeff Skinner next to a guy like Ryan is just asking for criticism. Again, Ryan hasn’t been terrible, but with frustration building and the team going back and forth between good and bad, something has to give. Why not try Ryan on the fourth line? The fourth line has actually been getting quite a few chances offensively as of late, so having Ryan on that line could help them convert more of those chances. Move someone like Elias Lindhom or Sebastian Aho to center for a bit. Call up Lucas Wallmark or Valentin Zykov for a while. Try something. Experiment. Please, just try something.
As GM, it is up to you to construct the team that you expect your head coach to lead on the ice. While adding Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Scott Darling in the offseason, Francis showed that the team starting to add pieces. But they are clearly still a few away. There have been plenty of good players available in recent memory such as Jonathan Drouin, Matt Duchene, and Kyle Turris. It would be nice to see Francis go out and acquire a player of that caliber. I don’t fault Francis for not going for Duchene given that price and his recent performances, but at some point you have to do something. Show the fans you are trying. Show your own locker room that you are doing something to help the team win instead of standing pat and doing nothing. All we want is some effort.
When Francis took over as GM, he proposed a five year rebuild. We are currently in year four. Perhaps our expectations were too high, which is in part causing so much frustration. After all, the team is still within four points of a playoff spot with games in hand. There is plenty of time and the team is within striking distance. Just remember that there’s nothing we can do to actually impact the team or what moves are made, so relax. This season is going to run its course no matter what. Will the Canes be a playoff team? I still believe it. But again, it is completely unfair to put all of the blame on Scott Darling and Cam Ward. There are issues all around and goaltenders can only do so much. I still believe in Scott Darling’s ability to be an above average staring goalie in the NHL, and I think he will turn it around. And so will the team.
(Again, I wrote all of this prior to the Nashville game. So I take full credit for Ward’s strong performance, the two PP goals, the 4/4 PK, the strong defense, etc. Just kidding. But I will say that I’m a little too good at writing articles and then not posting them before the Canes make me look like a fool for writing it. How about that 4-1-0 record in our last five games???????)