Expectations weren’t high for the Hurricanes this season. In 2014-15, Carolina finished in 25th, had the league’s fifth-worst goal differential and finished in the basement of the Metropolitan Division, even below the veteran-laden New Jersey Devils.
Faith in the Hurricanes was undoubtedly lower because of the type of up-and-down campaign they had in 2014-15, too. Carolina strung together multiple three-game winning streaks and one four-gamer, but also dropped seven straight twice and began the year on an eight-game winless streak. Add in rumors about the future of captain Eric Staal, goaltender Cam Ward and the ever-present trade talk surrounding former Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner, and it’s not hard to see why there weren’t many high on Carolina this season.
So when the Hurricanes began the year by dropping three straight and followed it up with inconsistent play that included a three-game winning streak and a recently snapped five-game skid, it seemed fitting for the youthful club.
Here’s the thing, though: this Hurricanes team continues to be much better than they’re given credit for and are deserving of a much better record than what they currently have.
The Hurricanes have the fifth-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 5.3 percent. Carolina’s offensive woes have been worrisome, surely, but it likely won’t hold. Since 2010-11, the worst full-season shooting percentage was had by the 2014-15 Arizona Coyotes, who ended the campaign at 5.7 percent. There’s almost no doubt, then, that the Hurricanes will see a boost in their shooting percentage.
But, really, it’s goaltending that has been Carolina’s biggest downfall. Through 22 games this season, the Hurricanes have the fourth-worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the entire league at an ugly .912. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (.909), Edmonton Oilers (.904) and Calgary Flames (.896) have been worse. The league’s best 5-on-5 SP teams — New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers — all have marks above .940. The league average, .927, is significantly higher than the Hurricanes’ mark.
Ward, 31, is set to become a free agent at season’s end, and it doesn’t appear there would be any reason for Carolina to attempt to re-sign the veteran goaltender. He’s played the bulk of the games in Carolina this season and in 17 appearances has a record above .500 at 7-6-3, but has an ugly .906 SP. It’s not any better at 5-on-5, either. At this point in the season, most starting netminders have played at least 500 minutes, and of the 32 goaltenders to do so, Ward ranks 25th with a 5-on-5 SP of .922.
It doesn’t help that Eddie Lack, who was acquired from Vancouver in the off-season, has been much worse. Lack has played little more than 250 minutes at 5-on-5, and of the 48 netminders to do so Lack ranks 47th with an .888 SP, ahead of only Calgary’s Jonas Hiller.
Some might argue that the play of Ward and Lack is the result of poor defending, but Carolina has actually been quite efficient in their own end. With one quarter of the season over, the Hurricanes have allowed the seventh-fewest high-danger scoring chances against — they’re not letting opponents operate in the middle of the ice. At 5-on-5, Carolina only allows 9.6 high-danger attempts per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5. It’s not as if the Hurricanes have been playing out of their own end often, either, as no team in the league has had a more favorable slant of zone starts. The Hurricanes sit atop the league with a 55.3 percent offensive-zone start percentage, which is great than top teams such as the Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks. That goes along with a strong puck possession game — the Hurricanes have the second-best shot attempts for percentage at 53.9 percent.
Whether you’re an advocate of advanced statistics or not, there’s undeniable proof in the effectiveness of a strong puck possession game. Of course, there are always outliers — teams with sub-par puck possession ability that end up as winning clubs and break into the playoffs. The 2014-15 Calgary Flames, 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche and 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs are all great examples. It’s more rare, though, that a team in the top-five of puck possession doesn’t make the post-season.
In the past five seasons, only two of the 25 teams to finish top-five in shot attempts for percentage have missed the playoffs: the 2013-14 Devils and 2012-13 Devils. There are parallels between those New Jersey teams and Carolina, too. Both Devils squads were undone by poor goaltending, finishing 25th and 26th in 5-on-5 SP.
Carolina GM Ron Francis could potentially look outside the organization, but he’ll have a tough time at this point in the season dealing for a goaltender who can make an impact. And, unfortunately, without an improvement in play from Ward and Lack, there’s no way Carolina can start to climb the standings. Hurricanes coach Bill Peters has the team playing some of their best hockey in the past several seasons, but without decent goaltending, the results won’t come.