Revisiting the disaster: Carolina’s last five games

After Game 10, I did a brief overview of the Hurricanes season up until that point and determined that the Hurricanes should be in good shape for the rest of the year. There were plenty of reasons to be confident, the team was crushing their competition at even strength, had two good scoring lines and were just finishing up a road trip where they went 4-1-1 against Atlantic & Northeast Division teams. Since then, the Hurricanes have suffered a barrage of injuries, losing five players in the span of less than a week and the team seems to have fallen apart. The Canes have won only two of their last six games since the road trip and have looked pretty lifeless in almost all of their last five games.Three of those losses coming against Southeast Division opponents, who they are battling for points with right now.

It's pretty easy for some to point to injuries as the reason for the Hurricanes recent struggles and it's a justifiable excuse. Injuries are tough to overcome and it's even tougher when three of those players are defensemen who regularly log big minutes. Not having Jeff Skinner is obviously a big loss too and they also lost a depth forward in Tim Brent, who is a fourth liner but plays often on both special team units. It also doesn't help that the lineup has changed basically every night, as the Canes have used 22 different skaters in the last week alone and at least nine or ten of these players started this season outside of the NHL. In addition to that, a good few of the players from the AHL are playing some pretty big minutes, too and there is only so much one can expect from this roster the way it is constructed right now.

At the same time, injuries are part of the game and every team has to deal with them. The Ottawa Senators lost their two best players and seem to have no problem with at least staying competitive in most of their games. Carolina probably isn't going to win many games with their defense corps consisting of only one proven top-four player right now, but this team has struggled to be even competitive lately. I try to stay away from questioning effort and compete level since I really don't know what goes on inside the player's heads but for the last three games, this team had a tendency to come out flat while the game is on the line and that's concerning. Take the Tampa Bay game for instance, the Canes were competitive in the first two periods and were down only 1-0 heading into the third. They came out flat, were outshot 13-2 and let Tampa run away with it. The same thing happened against Washington after the first period and it nearly happened once more against the Islanders before team mounted a comeback.

I really think it's best to stay rational in this situation since this is only five bad games with a depleted roster. Not to mention that the division still appears to be up for grabs since no one else the Southeast has yet to take control of things yet and the Hurricanes still have 13 divisional games left. Carolina is lucky to be in the position where they are now and the guys on IR are going to come back eventually but even if/when those players return, Carolina needs to get more out of some of the guys currently on the roster, namely their top players.

For most of the year, Carolina has been a good team at controlling the scoring chance battle at even strength. They've been weaker territorially than their underlying numbers would lead you to believe, but they have still done a good job at creating more scoring chances than they have allowed. This hasn't been the case for the last five games.

Period Total EV 5v4 5v3 4v5 3v5
1 21 20 20 23 4 1 0 0 1 3 0 0
2 17 28 20 24 5 0 0 0 0 8 0 1
3 21 19 24 23 1 0 0 0 1 5 0 0
Totals 59 67 64 70 10 1 0 0 2 16 0 1

The Canes have been losing the battle at even strength over the last five games and have been pretty bad in second periods, which isn't too surprising after the Washington and Islander games where they were heavily outshot. The Canes special teams struggles are also evident here. They have also been outscored 17-8 in these games and haven't been great on special teams either. Special teams have been a poor area for the Hurricanes all season, but they were able to make up for it earlier by outplaying their opponents at even strength. Now? Not so much.

So what's the root of this problem? Common sense should tell you that injuries are the main issue, especially when you look at who is missing from the lineup and how much they have contributed this season.

Injured Players

Player 5v5 SCF 5v5 SCA SC +/- Net Zone Adj Chances
Jamie McBain 53 55 -2 5 -4.13
Tim Gleason 44 52 -8 -27 3.48
Joni Pitkanen 76 63 13 8 9.60
Tim Brent 18 10 8 -6 10.55
Jeff Skinner 78 67 11 2 10.15

Net Zone = Offensive zone start differential

The biggest losses here are clearly Joni Pitkanen and Jeff Skinner. Pitkanen might be the one who the Hurricanes are missing the most right now becuase of his ability to drive the play. He also logs a lot of minutes every night, plays on both special teams units and is their best defensemen when it comes to neutral zone play. The Hurricanes really don't have another defensmean who brings the same level of skating, puck-handling and creativity to the table, so he should provide the Canes with a boost whenever he returns.

Skinner is also missed greatly since he is also able to drive the play north and is one of the team's best goal-scorers. Not having him in the lineup creates a big hole on the second line and the left wing spot has been a revolving door since he got hurt. It reached a new low in the Washington game where Muller shuffled the lines seemingly every few minutes. Having him back in the lineup would at least create some continuity there and return the offensive spark that it had for most of the season.

As for Gleason, his raw numbers aren't too impressive but it's easy to forget that he plays the toughest minutes on the team along with Justin Faulk and is a huge part of the penalty kill. Faulk has continued to be great but finding a suitable partner for him has been a struggle without Gleason. This along with the injuries to Pitkanen and McBain has forced guys like Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti, Jay Harrison and even 19-year-old Ryan Murphy into top 2-3 minutes on some nights. That is a lot to ask out of guys who are normally 4-6 defensemen when everyone is healthy.

Brent is probably the most replaceable player here, but he was playing well against other team's depth lines this season and plays on both special teams units. What he does is replaceable but the guys who the Canes have been sending out on the fourth line haven't exactly been great since he went down.

Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances: Last Five Games

Player Pos Chances For Chances Against Diff Net Zone Adj Chances
Justin Faulk D 29 23 6 -5 8.13
Joe Corvo D 25 20 5 -1 5.43
Patrick Dwyer R 21 18 3 -1 3.43
Jordan Staal C 25 22 3 0 3.00
Jussi Jokinen L 23 22 1 -3 2.28
Drayson Bowman L 16 15 1 -2 1.85
Andreas Nodl R 3 3 0 -1 0.43
Chad Larose R 13 15 -2 -5 0.13
Jamie McBain D 3 3 0 2 -0.85
Jay Harrison D 31 31 0 4 -1.70
Riley Nash C 13 16 -3 -2 -2.15
Jeremy Welsh C 1 4 -3 -1 -2.58
Tim Wallace R 7 9 -2 2 -2.85
Marc-Andre Gragnani D 1 4 -3 1 -3.43
Kevin Westgarth R 3 4 -1 6 -3.55
Bobby Sanguinetti D 19 24 -5 -2 -4.15
Jiri Tlusty C 20 20 0 11 -4.68
Zac Dalpe C 3 7 -4 2 -4.85
Ryan Murphy D 17 24 -7 8 -10.40
Eric Staal C 21 29 -8 7 -10.98
Michal Jordan D 3 12 -9 5 -11.13
Alexander Semin R 21 30 -9 6 -11.55

The injuries definitely hurt but one of the main problems with this team over the last five games has been the play of the first line. Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin have just been awful territorially recently and it's exactly the opposite of how they were playing early in the year. Staal was probably due for some regression since he wasn't going to keep up his scoring pace from earlier in the season but he shouldn't be losing the battle at even strength this much, especially with the assignments he is getting. They've been creating plenty of chances but giving up way too much in their own end for how often they're starting in the offensive zone. I don't think their effort has been off, but something has been wrong with these three the last few games. 

The issues on defense are pretty clear to see here, as well. Sanguinetti has been forced to play tougher minutes and has struggled while Jordan and Murphy have been getting lit up badly at even strength. Jay Harrison is also taking on tougher assignments and while he has broke even during 5v5 play, he has also been on-ice for more scoring chances against than any other player during this timespan. I thought Murphy would turn out okay after his impressive debut he he has looked out of his league a bit the last three games and will probably be sent back to Kitchener soon. Gragnani was also very bad in his season debut and was abruptly sent down.

The blue-line is just a mess right now and the only things keeping it from being a total disaster is the play of Justin Faulk and Joe Corvo. I know Corvo is a scapegoat and is prone to bad plays but he and Faulk have actually managed to perform okay despite the rest of the defense corps' problems. want to say that the Canes should have planned for this better by adding a proven stay-at-home defenseman this off-season but I don't think anyone saw half of the defense going down all at the same time. The Canes weren't a good defensive team to begin with and it's gotten much worse with half of the starting lineup on IR right now.

The way Jordan Staal's line has been playing lately has also been very encouraging since they are winning their tough matchups at even strength and providing a decent amount of offense. Getting Skinner back will obviously give this line a jolt, but they've been doing a fine job at carrying the play at even strength and doing their job in my opinion. The bigger concern is that his brother's line hasn't been winning their battles despite this. Until Skinner returns, I think Jussi Jokinen is a good fit on this line. I know that he only has two goals on the season and has yet to score at even strength, but he is helping drive the play forward at least, something he wasn't doing as the third line center. The point should come to him if he keeps it up because I doubt the Hurricanes will continue to shoot at less than three percent with him on the ice. He's actually had a few great opportunities to score but has just seen some really unfortunate bounces. PDO usually regresses to the mean and Jokinen's isn't going to stay at 952 forever.

So to sum up these last few games, it's been a perfect storm of injuries and the top line having their worst stretch of the season but let's remember that this is only five games in a 48-game season. I think they can get by without Skinner for a little while but they will need their defense corps to get healthy soon or make some kind of trade because the blue line needs serious help. That isn't going to fix everything but it will certainly help. The Hurricanes are still in an okay position due to being in a weak division/conference and it's up to them to take advantage of it from here on out.