What has changed with the Hurricanes?

The last couple of weeks have been just brutal to watch from a fan's standpoint and I'm sure that the Hurricanes have been even more frustrated. The team's losing streak has now extended to seven games, they've compiled only one point in the standings over the last 16 days and everyone's confidence is at currently at an all-time low. It's tough to get a team motivated when they haven't tasted victory in weeks, but something that might spark the Hurricanes is the fact that they are not eliminated from playoff contention. Normally, a prolonged losing streak would knock out most teams in a shortened year, but the rest of the bubble teams in the Eastern Conference (namely the Devils and Rangers) have also fallen on hard times recently and the Hurricanes can get themselves back in the mix by winning the majority of their remaining games.

Of course, this is much easier said than done because this team has been horrible for the last two weeks and it's gotten to the point where some fans, myself included, wonder if they will even win one more game this season. That was mainly just frustration talking on my part, but I think most would agree that the Hurricanes need to pull a complete 180 if they even want to think about making the playoffs. We've said the same things for the last 16 games and yet, the result is always the same and the team seems to find a more painful way to lose every night. Thus, there will be no more mentions about things like "playoff chances," "must-win games" and "games in hand" until the Hurricanes finally break the losing streak because it's all pointless until then.

The level of how much this team has struggled recently is kind of a mystery because for the majority of the season, the Hurricanes have been a good team. Even after this rough stretch, the Canes are still a top-ten team in Fenwick Close, meaning that they have been controlling the majority of even strength shot attempts when the score is close. That alone is surprising to me because if you take a look at my scoring chance recaps, Carolina has been on the losing end of that battle in most of their recent games. Part of the reason for it is that they've been failing to hit the net and not getting to the scoring areas. Those are definitely parts of the problem but I feel like there's more to this.

My reason for this suspicion is because the team has looked just plain bad in most of their games. Their underlying numbers suggest that we should believe that this streak should end and that it's only a minor bump in the road, but this isn't just a spell of bad luck. There's losing by getting a few unlucky bounces, and then there's losing by three or more goals on a nightly basis and getting outshot heavily while playing from behind. This is what has been happening to the Canes for most of this losing streak. 

The Hurricanes biggest weakness all season long has been their inability to play for a full-sixty minutes and that's never been more obvious than right now. They've had segments where they've played well over the last two weeks but for the most part, they've been playing some of their worst hockey in awhile and letting their opponents dictate the flow of the game. What exactly is the problem with this team, though? Is it the injuries that are keeping them down, or is the coaching staff "not doing enough" to get the most out of this squad? We'll explore all of these issues after the jump.

Last Seven Games

Whenever there's a good or bad streak, I usually like to go back and look at how the team has performed during this stretch compared to the rest of the year. It gives us an idea of how big of a role poor shooting/save percentages have played in the team's struggles. If a team is controlling over 50% of the shot attempts during close game situations, then the outlook for them is usually good over a full-season. However, since we are stuck with a condensed schedule this year, luck plays more of a role in a team's success so there are going to be some good teams missing out on the playoffs this season no matter what.

Before the streak, the Hurricanes were controlling over 51% of the even strength shot attempts during close game situations. That was good enough to put them in the top-half of the league. During the losing streak, they have owned only a little over 50%, which is a little surprising because of how the team has looked by the eye-test. So while the Canes have been worse, they haven't been getting demolished at even strength territorially. Their inability to create scoring chances aside, it appears that things could be a lot more worse than they are right now.

Taking a look at each player's even strength performance shows where some of the injuries have made an impact, particularly the one to Justin Faulk.

Hurricanes Fenwick Close (courtesy of Timeonice.com)

Player First 25 Last 7 Diff
Chad LaRose 0.481 0.75 0.269
Tim Gleason 0.475 0.532 0.057
Jussi Jokinen 0.553 0.581 0.028
Kevin Westgarth 0.436 0.457 0.021
Alexander Semin 0.511 0.522 0.011
Drayson Bowman 0.477 0.482 0.005
Jiri Tlusty 0.517 0.52 0.003
Eric Staal 0.518 0.517 -0.001
Jay Harrison 0.501 0.5 -0.001
Joe Corvo 0.587 0.584 -0.003
Bobby Sanguinetti 0.556 0.545 -0.011
Riley Nash 0.527 0.512 -0.015
Jeff Skinner 0.546 0.528 -0.018
Tim Wallace 0.53 0.5 -0.03
Jordan Staal 0.544 0.508 -0.036
Justin Faulk 0.523 0.486 -0.037
Jamie McBain 0.512 0.471 -0.041
Joni Pitkanen 0.509 0.449 -0.06
Patrick Dwyer 0.538 0.46 -0.078
Tim Brent 0.531 0.438 -0.093

There are a few guys who have been playing worse lately and two of the most notable ones are Jamie McBain and Joni PItkanen. Not only have they've been playing worse, they have been getting crushed territorially in close game situations and this is bad when you consider the minutes they've been logging. Justin Faulk may have been struggling lately, but let's remember that he usually handles the bulk of the tough assignments among the defense corps. Now that he is on the shelf, someone else has to step up into that role and Kirk Muller has gone with the Jamie McBain/Joni Pitkanen defense pairing, who are clearly in over their heads in this role. They've been performing poorly territorially and have been giving up a ton of scoring chances since being reunited. These two could probably succeed as a sheltered defense pairing or possibly on separate units, but as a tough minute defense pairing, they are not getting the job done.

I'm not sure if it's possible for one defense pairing to cause a team to struggle so much, but these two have been logging more minutes than anyone else at even strength with Faulk out of the lineup so their struggles have contributed to it. The fact that they are getting these assignments is kind of baffling when you compare their numbers to Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison & Joe Corvo. I get that Harrison is there to serve as a "mentor" to Brett Bellemore while he's with the Canes, but I don't think having him on a sheltered pairing while Pitkanen/McBain get eaten alive by other team's top lines is the best option.

Faulk's absence creates a bit of a domino effect with the Canes defense. One tough-minute player goes out and another one needs to step into those minutes and I'm not sure if the Canes have anyone on their roster capable of replacing Faulk's role at the moment.

Neutral Zone Play

Games Entries per Game Controlled Shots per Entry
Season 61.06 49.7% 0.50
First 25 58.36 50.6% 0.51
Last 7 70.71 47.1% 0.47

The other change I've noticed with the Canes play lately is that they have been much more conservative in the neutral zone. For the majority of the season, they were carrying the puck in and creating more offense on over 50% of their five-on-five zone entries. In their last seven games, they've controlled the puck on only 47% of their entries and produced fewer shots as a result. They are entering the zone more but when they do it, seems like they are more content to dump the puck in and it's resulting in the team creating less offense.

A look at each player's zone entry stats from the last seven games shows that the problem might be related to the bottom-six.

Player Entries Controlled
Terry 2 100.0%
E. Staal 29 75.9%
Skinner 41 73.2%
J. Staal 39 71.8%
Semin 38 71.1%
Jokinen 25 60.0%
Tlusty 44 56.8%
Bowman 22 50.0%
LaRose 6 50.0%
Ruutu 15 46.7%
Dwyer 31 41.9%
Pitkanen 29 37.9%
Nash 34 35.3%
McBain 23 26.1%
Westgarth 8 25.0%
Faulk 12 25.0%
Wallace 8 25.0%
Gleason 14 21.4%
Brent 15 20.0%
Harrison 22 18.2%
Sanguinetti 6 16.7%
Hall 25 12.0%
Bellemore 1 0.0%
Corvo 6 0.0%

Almost every player who has had possession of the puck on over 50% of their entries is a top-six player, while the bottom-sixers mostly revert to dumping the puck in. RIley Nash and Tim Brent have been doing a lot of this all season and Patrick Dwyer has been doing it a lot more recently for whatever reason. Adam Hall has also been more of a dump-and-chase player since arriving in Carolina. All of these players have been producing less than .50 shots per every entry, which is pretty bad for a team that's starving for offense and depth scoring right now. The top-six is doing the bulk of the heavy-lifting in the neutral zone, and they currently doing have much to fall back on if they go through a slump.

This is why I think Jussi Jokinen still has some value to this team. Even if he isn't going to center the third line, he can still help that unit create more offense since he has been a very good neutral zone player for most of the season, controlling the puck on 53% of his entries. That's about an average rate for a top-six player and a huge improvement for a bottom-six player on the Hurricanes. I understand that his contract looks bad for what he is producing now, but if Muller wants to dress the best lineup possible, Jokinen should be playing. If anything he can help give the bottom-six a jolt.

Good and Bad Luck

With all of this in mind, has luck also played a factor in Carolina's recent struggles? The Canes haven't exactly been on the receiving end of a lot of poor puck-luck this season until late. Their PDO (5v5 Sv% + 5v5 Sh%) has stayed north of 1000 because of a high save percentage from the tandem of Cam Ward, Dan Ellis & Justin Peters, but their team shooting percentage at even strength has been all over the map, especially if you look at it over different segments.

Hurricanes Even Strength PDO (Five Game Segments)

Games GF SF Sh% SV SA Sv% PDO
 1-5 9 144 6.3% 104 114 0.912 0.975
 6-10 8 111 7.2% 99 108 0.917 0.989
 11-15 6 87 6.9% 71 79 0.899 0.968
 16-20 13 98 13.3% 107 114 0.939 1.071
 21-25 11 107 10.3% 85 92 0.924 1.027
 26-30 2 103 1.9% 112 119 0.941 0.961
 31 & 32 2 47 4.3% 53 59 0.898 0.941

Yes, you are reading this right. The Hurricanes just came out of a five-game stretch where they scored two goals on 103 shots at even strength. They were getting outshot in those games, but it's hard to believe that they will continue to be that unlucky for awhile. Hell, they could have even snuck out a win or two if they weren't suffering from abysmal shooting luck during that time considering how much Peters/Ellis were standing on their heads at even strength. The Canes have been a pretty bi-polar team as of late in regards to shooting percentage because they had a ten-game stretch where over 10% of their shots found the back of the net and now they can't buy a goal. If I were to make a graph of the team's PDO and label it "Fan Confidence" instead, I'm willing to bet that it would be pretty accurate.

I guess if you were going to take away one thing from all of this article is that the Hurricanes have been underperforming over the last two weeks, but it's not indicative of their true talent. Injuries along with a lack of depth in the defense and bottom-six have caused a lot of these problems. That being said, all streaks come to an end, and I'm sure the Canes will eventually emerge from this one but I'm not sure if it will happen before it's too late. Everything is so crunched this year and it's so hard to make up ground with every team playing each other. This is why things like injuries and puck luck can have a bigger impact than usual and it's something that a lot of team executives should think about before they make any rash decisions in the off-season.