On New Year's Eve, the Hurricanes were sitting with a record of 15-16-9 and were on the brink of falling out of the playoffs race early. To make matters worse, they were also in the midst of a five-game losing streak and many of us were wondering "what is wrong with this team." Where were we supposed to begin? Their top players weren't scoring (despite playing well in other areas), their depth was very poor (which was overlooked) and their special teams were an absolute disaster (and they are still in pretty bad shape). The scoring issues with the Staals & Semin were likely going to sort themselves out in the long run, but the team's lack of depth was a major problem.
On a nightly basis, the Canes were essentially rolling out two fourth lines, using third liners in their top-six and a third defense pairing that was getting heavily outshot in all situations. The bottom of their roster was getting torn apart every night and it made the peaks & valleys of their "star" players a lot more glaring when they happened. They were simply not deep enough to be a playoff team and it looked like they were destined to be on the outside looking in come April, even with the East being as open as it is.
One month later, the Hurricanes have clawed their way back into the race after winning 10 out of 14 games in January. They are now only one point out of a playoff spot (both in the wild card and the Metro division) but what are the chances of them staying there. The Canes were in a good position around this point last year (albeit with fewer games played) and all of that went down the drain after tanking during March & April. Is what we saw from the Canes in January them playing up to their talent or was it just smoke & mirrors?
One thing that got overlooked in December is that despite the results, the Hurricanes weren't playing that poorly. Four of their losses were in overtime and they dropped a couple other games that could have gone in a much different direction if they had better puck luck (Washington and Toronto). The scoring and depth issues were still present, but the Hurricanes were making some considerable improvements from October/November, even if most didn't notice it. They had the puck more often than their opponents that month and controlled over 55% of the 5v5 shot attempts, which wasn't going to go unrewarded if they could carry it over into the next month.
So far, that has carried over into January and the Hurricanes have a few more wins to show for it as a result.
The Hurricanes are winning the battle more at five-on-five and it's not a surprise to see them climbing in the standings now. It's how they won a lot of their games last year and now that they've gotten great goatlending to back them up (thanks Khudobin!), it's given their win total even more of a massage. Some might point to Jim Rutherford's interview or the new year as the "turning point" for the Canes season, but this has been a work in progress and the results didn't start coming until the overtime win against Washington.
You can see here that the Canes have been steadily improving since about game 29-30. Some of it might be driven by score effects, but it's still far above where they were early in the season and it's very possible that they can push for a playoff spot. What has changed so much in the last month, though? I've said countless times that the team's top players have been fine in terms of driving the play, but their depth has been terrible. This has changed a bit over the last 14 games or so.
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Some of the Canes depth forwards have really picked it up over the last month and Kirk Muller deserves some credit for shaking up the lines. Jiri Tlusty has been great since returning from his appendectomy and being reunited with Eric Staal & Alex Semin. He is doing an excellent job of driving possession on that line too, which is great to see because he was an anchor at even strength for most of the year. Staal & Semin have both been excellent this month, but Tlusty's contributions shouldn't be overlooked either. Him being able to drive the play does wonders for the Canes depth.
Another thing that helps the Canes depth is having Jeff Skinner & Elias LIndholm on Jordan Staal's line. These three haven't been scoring at a high rate, but they are dominating their opponents at even strength in the territorial game, which should lead to better results in the long run. Both Lindholm & Skinner have struggled to drive the play at evens this year, so it's good to see them both improve in this regard. Although, playing with Jordan will help a lot of guys underlying numbers. Right, Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer?
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the last month is that the Canes have been getting more of a contribution from their depth forwards. Riley Nash and Tuomo Ruutu have struggled to earn ice time this year but when they are out there, the puck is moving in the right direction and they are not hurting the team when they are out there. This wasn't the case from October through December when Nash was barely breaking even against soft competition.
Even the "fourth line" has shown some improvement this month, although they're still getting outshot at high rate. Part of this relates to the role they play, but Malhotra's specialty has never been driving possession, so him playing 12-14 minutes a night at evens might a problem soon. Him scoring a few goals this month masked some of these issues, though. He's essentially the team's "third line center" now with Gerbe & Dwyer on his wings, so the Canes depth can definitely use an upgrade. So while their depth forwards have been playing better, they can definitely use some improvement here.
Here's hoping that a trade can work out as well as it did for their defense.
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I've heard a lot of complaining about Liles for his defensive miscuts, but they haven't hurt the team all that much. He may not be putting up points, but he has been excellent as a third-pair defenseman. The Canes third-pair was getting destroyed all season no matter who they were sending out there and that has changed dramatically since adding Liles. I'm still iffy on him in a top-four role (especially since they have him on his off-side), but Liles has done a very good job so far.
The rest of the Canes defensive depth has also improved and this includes the much maligned defense duo of Jay Harrison & Mike Komisarek. This pairing has every right to be a complete abomination at even strength and so far, despite one awful game in Buffalo, they have actually done a pretty good job. Harrison in particular has been great since returning from a concussion. Muller stuck with these guys for awhile and they earned their ice time. It makes me wonder if I was wrong about Ryan Murphy not being the weak-link on defense because the third pair has been a lot better ever since he was scratched;/sent down.
The performance of Liles, Harrison & Komisarek has made up for the struggles of Ron Hainsey, who seems to have hit a wall over the last month. He has been a rock for most of the year, but has had a lot of trouble preventing shots and keepng pucks out of his own net at evens this past month. His usual partner, Brett Bellemore, also went through a bit of a rough patch and was benched for seven games while Harrison/Komisarek were playing well.
Despite his struggles, Bellemore should be playing every night and I'd like to see him reunited with Hainsey with Liles moving down to the third pair with one of Komisarek or Harrison. So far, Liles has proved to be capable of handling other teams depth lines and should be fine with either one of them as his defense partner. Hainsey has played his best hockey alongside Bellemore and those two were doing great in a top-four role for most of the year, so I wouldn't be against going back to them. Faulk/Sekera has managed to hold the fort down on the top pair and the rest of the defense has been okay. Getting everyone to play well remains a problem, although the defense is easier to solve from within, unlike the forwards.
Regardless, the difference between the last month and the rest of the year is that the Canes have more players contributing outside of their top guns, which will need to continue if they are going to stay in the playoff hunt.