I have been running this blog for almost three years and by now, most people know my shtick. Whenever the team goes through a rough stretch or has a problem, I like to dive into the numbers or go over the game tape to break down what happened and what the Hurricanes can do to fix it. Today, I'm going to be taking a different approach and give my two cents on some of the team's problems right now. After the disaster that was last season, this five-game losing skid has a lot of fans on the breaking point and while I am not at that point yet, there has been some frustration building up over the last two weeks.
As much as I don't want to be the type blogger who plays armchair analyst and complains about everything, we all need to vent and the Hurricanes have given me plenty of things to expound upon these last couple of weeks.
Some readers might think I've lost my mind right now because I feel the need to make a grievance post after five bad games. It's true that this is a small sample and could easily mean nothing by January, but this isn't the first time the Hurricanes have gone down this road. In November of 2011, they only lost four games in a row before 14 out of 17 games and falling into the "Fail For Nail" sweepstakes. Last season, they lost seven games in a row and followed it up by winning three total games in the month of April. This is a team that has had the tendency to let losing streaks get out of hand and it usually ends up ruining their season. There's a small chance of their year being "ruined" in November, but they will have to pull a complete 180 if there's a relapse of 2011.
I am actually more concerned about this year's team than last year's because the
2012-13 squad was at least capable of controlling play at even strength, something we have yet to see out of this year's team. Injuries, bad goaltending, poor special teams and just plain rotten shooting luck were the main reasons why the Hurricanes fell off the rails then. This year, all of those problems are still present and the Hurricanes are spending way too much time in their own end on top of that. Maybe they'll get some more wins after Anton Khudobin and/or Cam Ward come off the shelf but this isn't a team that should be relying on goaltending to win/steal them games every night. With the money invested in the forward corps, they should be able to carry the play better than they have thus far.
Despite how last season ended, I went into this season with some optimism because the Hurricanes at least showed they could keep up with teams at even strength last year even if they weren't winning. They also made some improvements on defense by adding Andrej Sekera & Ron Hainsey, which was enough for me to think that the team could be okay. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes play at even strength has took a turn for the worst. They are a sub-par team in even strength shot attempts and rank in the bottom-ten in this department during close-game situations. Combine that with AHL-level goaltending and poor special teams, and it could be a long month of November unless things improve or they see a shooting/save percentage spike.
So what's the problem? The easy answer to this is that the Hurricanes don't score enough goals and if you can't score, you wont win many games. This is true enough, as the Canes have scored fewer than two goals per game and haven't scored at even strength in the last 10 periods, but it's kind of stating the obvious. A better question would be why has the Canes offense run into a dry spell and their poor territorial numbers partially explain that. The Hurricanes have spent a good chunk of close games being forced to play in their own end and have had trouble sustaining any sort of pressure on their forecheck, which is going to result in some putrid offense numbers no matter how talented your roster is.
Carolina has a very talented forward corps, though and they should be able to control play better than they have been thus far. Perhaps this is why there has been a lot of venom directed at Eric Staal and Alexander Semin right now. They need to produce more and got off to a slow start but as far as their ability to control play is concerned, they haven't been the problem. Over the last three weeks or so, these two have been producing most of the Hurricanes offense at even strength and have been on the ice for more shot attempts than they've been giving up, which speaks well of their territorial play and long-term success. Given the talent and finishing ability of these two, I'm not terribly worried about these two.
Despite that, Staal has been the scapegoat for this losing streak for some people. He is always going to get criticized for his contract and "not leading by example" as the captain and I get that, but him not scoring is not the only problem with this team right now. Take a look at the chart from Extra Skater I linked to earlier and notice how the Canes have a total of four active players who are winning the territorial battle. Forward depth was a major concern for this team going into the year and it's gotten even worse with Jiri Tlusty & Tuomo Ruutu having disappointing starts. Eric Staal obviously needs to be better, but his scoring troubles would not be as big of an issue right now if the rest of the forward corps outside of Jordan Staal, Nathan Gerbe and Alexander Semin could sustain any offensive pressure. But hey, blaming one player for all of the team's problems is so much easier.
The Hurricanes forward depth issues can be related to Jeff Skinner being out of the lineup, as he looked great on the third line with Riley Nash and Radek Dvorak before going down with an injury last Thursday but one player should not cripple a team's offense this much. Look at the New York Rangers. They have been without Rick Nash & Ryan Callahan for most of the season and had a five game win streak going until last night when they lost to Anaheim. As good as Jeff Skinner is, one player should not have this kind of negative impact on a team's offense. Without him, they are basically a one-line team and that is baffling with the money Carolina has tied up in some of these forwards.
Scapegoating and playing the blame game is fun, but the problems for Carolina are team wide now and it's going to take some improvement from everyone to right the ship, this includes the coaching staff. The players need to execute better and the coaching staff also needs to help them out by putting them in positions to succeed. They've done a good job of this by sheltering Ryan Murphy & watching his matchups at home but more can be done. A start would be not burying their $6 mil. center in the defensive zone with grinders as his linemates and adjusting their system to fit their players strengths instead of trying to jam a square peg into a round hole (i.e. less dump-and-chase play).
Like I said in the beginning, it might sound like I'm over-reacting to a five-game losing streak but there are some red flags with the Hurricanes right now and team's play seems to fan's emotions at times. By that, I mean they seem to lose confidence and focus when their game plan gets disrupted and it's hard for them to get back to square one. Instead of playing a simple game when falling behind, they get way too cautious with the puck and it often leads to them making more mistakes and digging themselves into an early hole. We saw this too many times last year and those bad habits have shown up again in this brutal five-game stretch. The Canes still have plenty of time to make this nothing more than five-game losing streak but it's going to take a much better performance from everyone in order from that to happen.