As Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaches, PHR will be taking a look at what teams are thankful for in 2023-24. There also might be a few things your team would like down the road. We’ll examine what’s gone well in the early going and what could improve as the season rolls on for the Carolina Hurricanes
Who are the Hurricanes Thankful For?
Of all the Hurricanes players, so far this season Jarvis has been the most impressive and taken the biggest step forward. 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a contender for this title until the calendar flipped to November and his hot start faded quickly.
While Kotkaniemi still appears on track to have the best season of his NHL career, it’s Jarvis who has stood out the most.
At the moment, Jarvis is only behind franchise pivot Sebastian Aho on the team’s scoring leaderboard and is on pace to register 35 goals and 65 points by the end of the season. But based on how he has been performing, there is a distinct possibility that Jarvis’ pace even increases over the course of the season.
A player who is defined by his aggressive and fearless approach to creating offense, Jarvis stands just five-foot-ten and yet is an extremely difficult player to win battles against.
The Athletic’s Cory Lavalette reported that Jarvis added eight pounds of muscle this offseason, and his diligent preparation for 2023-24 stands in contrast to how he began last season. Hurricanes head strength and conditioning coach Bill Burniston told Lavalette that last season, Jarvis “really wasn’t where we thought he should be or could be” in terms of his preparedness to handle the rigors of the NHL season. (subscription link)
That’s changed in 2023-24, and the Hurricanes are reaping the benefits on an almost nightly basis.
What are the Hurricanes Thankful For?
The struggles of several of their Metropolitan Division rivals.
Entering the season, most neutral observers viewed the Metropolitan Division as easily the NHL’s most cutthroat collection of teams. The division boasted three clear-cut Stanley Cup contenders in Carolina, the New York Rangers, and the New Jersey Devils, while fans were also optimistic that both Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin would lead their teams to bounce-back campaigns.
In addition, aggressive offseason additions made by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the returns of Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson to the Philadelphia Flyers, and the presence of elite netminder Ilya Sorokin between the pipes for the Islanders meant that the entire Metropolitan division could conceivably have entered the season with legitimate hopes of making the postseason.
So far, things haven’t shaken out quite as expected in the Metro. The Rangers have clearly separated themselves and the Washington Capitals are close to doing the same after a slow start, but otherwise, each team in the division has had its fair share of struggles.
So while the Hurricanes have had a less-than-ideal start to their season, they still find themselves firmly in the mix for a playoff spot due to similarly uneven starts from expected contenders.
The Devils, for example, are currently second-to-last in the division. The Penguins are at the moment sitting on a flat .500 record with 10 wins and 10 losses, while the Islanders have not been able to carve out any sort of consistency under head coach Lane Lambert, whose seat may be starting to warm.
In prior seasons, the Hurricanes’ slow start could very well have doomed them in such a competitive division. This year, the Hurricanes remain firmly in the playoff picture thanks to many division rivals also struggling. That’s definitely something for the franchise to be thankful for in a Stanley Cup-or-bust season.
What Would the Hurricanes be Even More Thankful For?
An improved penalty kill.
When looking for explanations as to why the Hurricanes are currently 11-8-0 and a point behind the still-rebuilding Philadelphia Flyers, the penalty kill might be one of the most obvious choices. Under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, Hurricanes fans have grown accustomed to having among the best short-handed units in the entire NHL.
From 2018-19, Brind’Amour’s first season as the bench boss in Carolina, through 2022-23, the Hurricanes rank a clear first place in the NHL in penalty kill percentage. Their 84.7% kill rate stands a full percentage point above the next-best team, and has been a clear driver of team success throughout the club’s entire Brind’Amour era.
That longstanding track record of success short-handed makes this season’s immense struggles all the more confusing. The team currently ranks eighth-worst in the NHL in penalty killing with a 74.6% kill rate, a far lower number than any years prior. There do not appear to be major structural differences driving this decline, as NHL Edge indicates that the Hurricanes are actually spending even less time in their defensive zone while short-handed than they did last year.
So why has their penalty kill been so uncharacteristically bad? The answer could lie in goaltending. Last year, according to MoneyPuck, Carolina saved 88.24% of its shots on goal while on a four-on-five penalty kill. This season, that number has crashed all the way to 75%, which is by far the lowest mark in the NHL. To put it simply: Hurricanes goalies are not making the saves while short-handed that they once made.
The Hurricanes’ penalty kill, for the entirety of Brind’Amour’s tenure as coach, had served as the bedrock for the team’s exceptional team play. That team play, in turn, translated into success in the standings and multiple deep playoff runs. So far this season, that bedrock has eroded and the penalty kill has dropped to the league’s basement. So the number-one thing that the Hurricanes would be even more thankful for would likely be a return to form for its short-handed units.
What Should Be On the Hurricanes Holiday List?
Potential reinforcements in net.
Expected number-one netminder Frederik Andersen is out indefinitely with a blood-clotting issue. As a result, the Hurricanes have relied more heavily upon a tandem of Antti Raanta and Pyotr Kochetkov, and that tandem has appeared to be a major weakness so far this season.
According to MoneyPuck, Raanta currently ranks fourth-worst in the NHL in goals-saved-above-expected. Kochetkov, in just six games played, has also posted a below-expected mark.
Using more traditional numbers, both Raanta and Kochetkov have posted disastrous save percentages. Kochetkov has a grisly .874 mark, while Raanta’s .854 save percentage through ten games is a glaring issue.
Although the Hurricanes have found ways to win despite Raanta’s struggles (he has a 6-3-1 record) the veteran netminder will be 35 years old come the postseason and looks far worse than last season, when he posted a respectable .910 save percentage.
Moreover, Raanta’s tendency to run into injury trouble throughout his professional career raises questions as to whether the Hurricanes can rely on him to endure the rigors of being an NHL starting goalie. With each day that passes, it appears more and more necessary for Carolina to seek outside help between the pipes. They already did so in the form of signing veteran Jaroslav Halak to a PTO, but that tryout was relatively short-lived.
Moving into the Holiday season, the Hurricanes should be scouring the goalie market to find a netminder capable of leading them to a Stanley Cup championship. Should contract talks between 27-year-old Sam Montembeault and the Montreal Canadiens end without an extension in place, he could be the kind of goalie the Hurricanes target.
Montembeault ranked as one of the league’s better goalies by goals-saved-above-expected last season and has excelled for the Canadiens so far this season. It’s possible that in an environment where his club is likely entering almost every game with a talent advantage, Montembeault could post even greater numbers, just as he did for Canada at the recent IIHF Men’s World Championships. (6-1-0, 1.42 GAA .939 save percentage)
Regardless of if it’s Montembeault or someone else, the Hurricanes should be looking for external help between the pipes. Raanta has simply played too poorly and proven himself to be too injury-prone for the Hurricanes to count on him as their number-one goalie this season, a year where the team is looking to win the Stanley Cup. Entering the Holiday season, a talented goalie should be number one on the team’s wish list.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.