There are 26 games left in the season for the Carolina Hurricanes — the regular season, anyway. Six of those come prior to the league’s trade deadline, and the Canes have exactly two weeks to figure out who they are and what they want from the 2018-19 season. To that end, there are three major things on the minds of most Caniacs and I’m here to help you sort through them.
The road back to the playoffs
Hate to say this, but I kind of felt the loss in New Jersey was predictable, though not necessarily for the reason you may think. Yes, the Hurricanes could have moved inside the playoff cut line with a win in Newark — where they’ve now lost both times this year. But, I do not think that played a factor in the 3-2 setback. To me, the bigger issue is that even in winning the first three games of the road trip, I’m not sure Carolina played more than three periods the way they truly need to play in order to win.
Carolina beat Pittsburgh with a dominant final two periods after Curtis McElhinney bailed them out in the first. The game against the Sabres was a 60-minute fire drill in which the Canes escaped in overtime in spite of twice blowing 2-goal leads. The next night, staring at longtime nemesis in Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the group battled hard for two periods, but never really imposed their will on New York until the third, when the Canes finally hemmed the Rangers in their own end and skated out a 3-0 win.
Three periods out of nine, the way the Hurricanes need to play, is not the recipe for a 3-game winning streak. Yet, because of — at times — spectacular goaltending, some outstanding individual defensive plays and clutch goal-scoring from the likes of Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederretier the Hurricanes DID string those wins together and put themselves in position to climb over the Penguins with a win in New Jersey.
The mirror, though, always shows the truth.
Coming off the high of snapping a 16-game Madison Square Garden losing streak (deny the impact as you see fit) the Canes would need to have their best 60-minute effort to beat the Devils. They didn’t, falling behind 2-0 after the first, and they just weren’t able to come all the way back. For a team positioning itself for a playoff run to lose to a team positioning itself for the first pick in the draft, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.
The best way to put the disappointment of Sunday’s lost trip to Newark aside is to start another streak in Ottawa on Tuesday. There’s nothing wrong with a 4-1-0 road trip, regardless of what the standings look like come Wednesday morning. After that, the next five games will determine the plan of attack for owner Tom Dundon and his leadership team.
Let’s make a deal?
The Hurricanes are firmly in the post season race. A 13-5-1 stretch since New Year’s Eve coupled with the Blue Jackets and Penguins falling on (relative) hard times has given Carolina a glimmer of hope. Three weeks ago it was a foregone conclusion that the likes of Michael Ferland, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk and others were strong candidates to move. Now, with the Canes desperately trying to make the playoffs and the apparent glut of offensive players on the block, it appears more likely than not that Carolina will wait all the way until the deadline to make any moves.
There was a time when Ferland was among the most attractive rental forwards on the market, along with Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds. But, with Ottawa’s Mark Stone and Matt Duchene potentially available plus New York’s Matt Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes as well as Artemi Panerin of the Blue Jackets, it’s suddenly a buyers’ market. And, unless the return for Ferland is worth taking him off your roster, it’s probably not wise to give away a player who helps you win today. A first round pick is a given, a good prospect and a second rounder, sure.
Also, don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes re-engage Ferland’s representatives on a contract beyond this season. The longer he’s on the roster, the greater those possibilities become. Has his contract leverage been diminished some with a few nagging injures, plus a 10-game drought without a goal — yes, I know he scored into an empty net in Pittsburgh?
As for one of the right-shot blue liners, before the break, we got an idea of what was coming when the team moved Brett Pesce to the left side on the second defensive pairing with Justin Faulk. Now, those two, along with Dougie Hamilton — who is playing his best hockey of the year — are all playing top four minutes and the organization is not inclined to do anything unless the return is substantial. They are not moving any of them unless a bonafide 25-goal forward comes back and those don’t just fall from the sky.
It’s far more likely that the Hurricanes make a few smaller moves (Trevor van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury, Brock McGinn, etc.,) as long as they get back on the winning path over the next 10 days. Of course, it all depends on the market.
Darling needs a break
Finally, we have the situation regarding the enigmatic and embattled Scott Darling, who has just requested — and has been granted — a temporary leave of absence from the Charlotte Checkers. To say that Scott has struggled since signing his 4-year/$16.6 million contract in the summer of 2017 would not do justice to the word “struggled”. Darling’s statistical resume prior to arrival on Edwards Mill Road suggested a player ready for a starter’s role in goal.
As I wrote, and stated several times prior to last season, there is a responsibility that all number one goaltenders must bear. You are not only supposed to perform at a high level, but you are expected to be able to do so night after night after night. More importantly, you’re tasked with doing so even after a bad game.
ESPECIALLY after a poor outing.
Darling never could do that in his first year with the Hurricanes posting the worst save percentage (.888) and the 43rd (out of 49) best goals against average (3.18) of all qualified goaltenders in the NHL. This year, in eight starts for Carolina, the numbers are worse. And, his time in Charlotte, where he was demoted to (in theory) reclaim his game, has not seen any improvement. He’s just 5-6-2 in the American Hockey League. In five of his 14 appearances, he’s given up at least four goals and in another he was pulled after allowing three goals in the first.
That isn’t to say this leave is performance-based. Who knows what factors have contributed to Scott asking for time to sort through whatever it is that is impacting his ability to play at his highest level. In honesty, we do not know the reasons behind the request, nor is the team at liberty to disclose them. What is certain, is that Darling has overcome a lot — mostly his own doing — to become an NHL-caliber goalie.
It is also certain that he hasn’t yet managed to completely put those demons in his past. Here’s hoping that Scott figures out how to get through this and get back to being a productive member of this, or another organization.