One week of the 2013 NHL season is officially in the books and it's already been quite a roller coaster ride for the Carolina Hurricanes. Things started off about as bad as they could have in the first two games, losing two games that weren't even close but the team responded by winning both games in a back-to-back series against the Buffalo Sabres and the team now sits at .500 after four games. I've been tracking various sorts of data from this season and am very excited to do some analysis on it…but I can't just yet because so few games have been played and a four game sample size doesn't tell you a whole lot when it comes to predicting future success. It doesn't help that the Hurricanes have played in two games that were fueled by score effects because they were playing from behind.
When it's this early in the season, advanced metrics are mostly helpful to give the viewer a closer look at what happened during the games and they say a lot of good things about the Hurricanes right now. If you've been reading my scoring chance recaps then you will know that the Hurricanes have outshot and outchanced their opponents in all four games at even strength. They are also second in the league in Fenwick close and are producing over 40 (!) shots per 60 minutes during 5v5 play. Normally, this would be a sign of good things to come but again, it's only four games and that doesn't tell you much concerning the big picture. So the hard analysis will have to wait for another week or two but what I can tell you is that I really like what I've seen from the Canes thus far and that I'm feeling a lot better about this team than I did at this point of last season.
Some might recall that the Hurricanes got off to a similar start to the 2011-12 season where they dropped their first three games, went on a three game winning streak and then the wheels came off in November. They were also getting outshot and outplayed at even strength during that time and were buoyed by Cam Ward having a save percentage above .920 at even strength. Once that regressed, there wasn't much keeping the Hurricanes out of the cellar of the Eastern Conference because of how poorly they were playing at even strength. What are the chances of that happening again? If they continue to outshoot their opposition like they are doing now, they should be able to avoid a skid but that obviously isn't guaranteed. There are some reason to be confident, though and the main one is the offensive firepower this team has.
The duo of Eric Staal and Alex Semin have been producing a pretty great amount of shots and scoring chances on a nightly basis and the former is looking a lot more explosive than he did last year. Semin has only one goal on the season but it's hard to deny that he has had an impact, as he is consistently one of the first players leading the rush into offensive zone along with Eric Staal and has been on-ice for 25 even strength chances through four games. Staal hasn't gotten to play with a winger like this in years and the two could make a lethal combination once they fully get on the same page. The puck always seems to be in the opponent's zone when these two and Jiri Tlusty are on the ice, which is a very good thing.
As for Jordan Staal, he has been as advertised thus far and a reason why the Hurricanes offense is more potent than it was last season. Muller's been using Jordan against opposing team's top lines and he has been winning those matchups on a nightly basis and creating more chances than he is giving up. In addition to that, he is creating a considerable amount of offense to go with it. He has yet to score a goal but Jordan has been on-ice for 7.33 even strength chances per 15 minutes and has really developed some chemistry with Jeff Skinner on the second line the last couple of games. The fact that Jordan has been winning the tough matchups should also go a long way when it comes to freeing up his older brother's line to easier minutes. If Jordan can continue to do win these battles, then watch out. He is essentially doing what Brandon Sutter did for Carolina last year, only providing more offense and doing a much better job at driving hte play.
My biggest concerns for Carolina so far are all related to their defense, as they have given up a lot of shots and their goaltending hasn't been great. Dan Ellis managed to bail them out of a few situations on Friday night but Cam Ward has been lit up in two of his three starts, already giving up 12 goals this year. Not all the goals have been on him, as the defense has been prone to bad plays and they are giving up a lot of shots, especially on the PK. They also may have potentially lost their best defenseman, Justin Faulk, for a few games after sustaining an injury during Friday's game which is very, very bad news. Carolina has been producing enough offense to make this not appear to be an issue but the Canes aren't going to receive goaltending like they did from Ellis on Friday every game, so I'm not sure if a run-and-gun style of play will work in the long run.
The Canes lack a big, shutdown defenseman outside of Tim Gleason, but this might become less of an issue if they can continue to play well at even strength. Defensive zone coverage and shot blocking becomes less of an issue when the puck is in the opponent's zone over 50% of the time, so Carolina might be able to mask their defensive flaws by getting strong play from the forwards and continuing to keep the puck in their zone. I'm still not sure if they have the personnel or goaltending to run this system effectively but it should work better than a defensive, conservative sytle of play. It's a hell of a lot more fun to watch, too.
My outlook on the season is still set at "cautiously optimistic" for now but I've definitely seen a lot of encouraging things from this Canes team that make me think they could be in for a successful years but there are a few causes for concern, as well (*cough*penalty kill*cough*). We'll probably have a better idea of where they stand after another few weeks after they and everyone else have played more games. Hopefully the Canes keep up the strong play at even strength because to me, that is the most encouraging thing I've seen from the team this year.