Hurricanes Defense & Improving Forwards Are Fueling Fast Start

The 2022-23 NHL season is a little over a week old, and the early excitement has been palpable league-wide. From games in Prague, explosive young talent making their mark, and the Toronto Maple Leafs inability to beat, of all teams, the Arizona Coyotes at Scotiabank Arena, storylines abound and social media fun is warming up right off the bat. It feels good to be back.

For the 3-0-0 Carolina Hurricanes, it’s easy to be impressed with their start to the season, as has become the norm under head coach Rod Brind’Amour. It’s hard to know if it’s a coincidence, or if it’s simply proof of just how good the team is when guys aren’t banged up or worn down during the long NHL season. Regardless, it seems every season they come out and immediately put together a nice win streak, much like last season when the team started 14-2-0, which included a perfect 9-0-0 month of October.

Of course, while it’s far too early to be making any striking statements about what the team is at this point, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some fascinating storylines worth discussing. The Hurricanes have seen a handful of individuals getting off to particularly strong starts that have the fanbase abuzz, and a couple areas that projected to be improved have been all that was hoped and more to begin the season. So, with that, let’s take a look at three of those early-season storylines that will be worth tracking as the 2022-23 season rolls along.

Necas & Svechnikov Becoming an Absolute Force of a Duo

It seems like only yesterday that I was heading to PNC Arena for one of my first assignments as an aspiring hockey writer, sent to watch the Hurricanes hold prospects camp. It came in July of 2018, when a recently selected second-overall pick was headed to his first rookie camp alongside the prior summer’s first-rounder. The Hurricanes made a point to put the two players together, and, unsurprisingly in that environment and the ensuing prospects tournament, the duo was dominant (as a treat, if you want a nice chuckle, here is the post I wrote). It took a little bit longer than expected when sitting in the stands at PNC Arena on those hot summer days, but the vision the team had all along just might finally be starting to come to fruition. And, boy, is it exciting to watch.

After the most disappointing year of his NHL career so far and abounding questions about what his future hel, Martin Necas has arguably been the Hurricanes’ best player through three games (from ‘Necas hits reset, looks to be Hurricanes’ X-factor,’ The North State Journal, Oct. 4, 2022). The dynamic element he’s always flashed is showing up on a consistent basis, and it’s blatantly obvious the confidence the 23-year-old is playing with. His speed is a massive problem for defenses, he’s using his lightning-quick (and highly underrated) release liberally. He is tied for the team lead in points through three games with five.

RALEIGH, NC – APRIL 8: Martin Necas #88 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates with the puck during an NHL game against the Florida Panthers on April 8, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

He’s only half the story though, as the man he’s tied with, Andrei Svechnikov, has been just as impressive. The 22-year-old is looking like the potential breakout superstar we’ve really expected him to eventually become all along. The power forward’s playmaking has improved every year and it’s seemed to take an ever bigger leap so far this season, even though three of his early points are goals. He could (maybe even should) have had two beautiful primary assists in two second-period shifts in Seattle Monday, Oct. 17 aside from the one he did register, and ended up with two goals and three points anyway. Their work on the power play has been similarly impressive, and in conjunction with Sebastian Aho is a large reason the Hurricanes netted two-man advantage markers against the Kraken.

Following the Max Pacioretty injury it became obvious that in order for the Hurricanes to take the next step, a large portion of their improvements needed to come internally. With Seth Jarvis also finding the back of the net twice, the Hurricanes’ youngsters are off to a rock-solid start, positioning themselves to fill that void successfully. Along with their new centerman Jesperi Kotkaniemi, it appears the team could have a young, high-flying second line with former top draft picks that could be a huge reason the team takes another step towards Stanley Cup contention. Kotkaniemi has been solid for his own part, doing a lot of dirty work in the corners, winning faceoffs (67 percent) and playing smart. He doesn’t need to drive the play with his two wingers, and his straightforward, simple play has helped him pick up a couple assists.

Now, of course, as the title suggests, these are extremely early takeaways and things can, and likely will, change in short order. Svechnikov has also gotten off to scorching-hot starts in the past, only to fall off slightly as the year went along. By no means do his and Necas’ five-point-in-three-game starts mean they’re assured to be point-per-game players that compete for individual hardware at the end of the season. Regardless, though, this is a continuation of what we saw in preseason, and carrying that over into games that matter is exactly what the team had to be hoping for. Confidence is a funny thing, and the two homegrown Hurricanes wingers seem to have set the table for big things in 2022-23. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see if they can continue the magic as the seasons drags on.

Jalen Chatfield Proving Many (Including Me) Wrong

It was at least a little bit surprising when Dylan Coghlan was scratched in favor of Jalen Chatfield in the opener. Coghlan was one of the stories of training camp for the Hurricanes, especially with his stellar work on the second power-play unit in the exhibition games. However, when the game started, Chatfield just made play after play after play, and before you knew it, longtime veteran Calvin de Haan was the one getting scratched so Coghlan could get into the lineup. How quickly things can change; if he does keep playing like he has and stays healthy, I’d actually be surprised if Chatfield didn’t end up seeing a very large majority of the Hurricanes’ 82 games this year.

Jalen Chatfield Carolina Hurricanes
Jalen Chatfield, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The 26-year-old defenseman made a pretty good impression after coming over from Vancouver before the 2021-22 season, finding his way into 16 NHL games and making a relatively solid impact with his motor and skating ability. Even still, he mostly looked like a depth piece, one that was suited for the role he was in: stepping in when guys got hurt, then heading back to the press box or American Hockey League (AHL) when they returned. That made it easy to pigeonhole him into the seventh defenseman role at the outset of this season when Coghlan started making flashy passes and putting up points in the preseason.

Then Chatfield started using his speed to wall forwards off at the blue line before getting a zone entry. Then he started making plays while jumping into the rush. Then he started throwing his weight around and mixing it up when opponents would take liberties after the whistle. Then he broke up a 3-on-1 against the Kraken. Suddenly, he doesn’t just look like a playable defender, but one who straight up belongs, and arguably one of the team’s better players through the first week of the season.

Related: Hurricanes 2022-23 Roster Breakdown: Questions, Storylines, & More

Players like Chatfield are a great example of what has made the Hurricanes so successful the last few seasons. They don’t always grab the big fish over the offseason, but it seems like so many under-the-radar moves the front office makes turn out to be far savvier than initially thought. The extension of Chatfield last January — and willingness to give him a one-way deal on a loaded blue line — shows the team picked up on on his potential pretty quickly, and it is already paying dividends (from ‘Necas hits reset, looks to be Hurricanes’ X-factor,’ North Star Journal, Oct. 19, 2022). The team has the star power, but adding depth additions that outplay their expectations is almost as good of a way to improve a hockey team as throwing premium free agent dollars around, at least in some cases.

There’s a lot to be said for the style of play Chatfield brings simply working in Carolina, perhaps better than it would with other NHL teams. His compete level is always at 110 percent, and in the up-tempo Hurricanes system his aggressiveness has really brought a nice element to the third pairing. He’s not likely to explode on the scoresheet or eat into the top-four’s minutes too significantly, but his emergence has provided the flexibility to give a little more rest to the top defensemen and given the Hurricanes one of the most impressive defensive units in the league early on. Which, incidentally… let’s talk a bit more about that impressive defensive start.

The Defense is Stingy as Ever

Now, this one obviously ties in with the point I just made, but it bears going back into considering the Hurricanes have allowed just three goals in the first three games (vs. scoring 11 times). However, let’s take a moment to really break down why I think this iteration of the Hurricanes defense just might be the best the franchise has ever seen.

We know all about the top four. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei are one of the most under-the-radar, fantastic shutdown pairings in hockey right now. They both have shown the ability to pitch in offensively, too, making them extremely valuable in every facet of the game. Up top, meanwhile, Brent Burns hasn’t been quite as dominant offensively as he was in the preseason yet, with just one assist in the first three games, but it feels like a matter of time for him with the way he’s relentlessly been firing the puck.

Brett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes
Brett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Burns registered 12 shots on net so far, and a couple of those were awe-inducing despite not finding twine. He’s a couple excellent stops away from a much bigger impact on the scoresheet, and, along with his solid work quarterbacking the power play, it’s only a matter of time before the goals start to rain from the ‘Canes’ premier offensive defenseman. Beyond the offensive performance, though, he’s already proven to be an excellent partner for Jaccob Slavin. The two are next to impossible to create clean zone entries against thanks to their agility and length, and they’ve played a huge role in both the one-goal-per-game average goals against and nearly flawless penalty killing (11 of 12). The Hurricanes have a tremendous luxury in having two legitimate shutdown pairs that can cancel out any opposing top line.

Then, of course, there’s the third pairing. Chatfield was discussed above, but Coghlan had some nice moments in his first appearance Monday night as well. He had one particularly impressive pass to Kotkaniemi on the back door, which would have resulted in a goal if not for the Kraken’s Brandon Tanev (unknowingly) blocking the shot away from the yawning cage with the back of his leg. That was one glimpse into the offensive ability that excited Hurricanes fans so much in the preseason. He did have some rougher moments too, including a bad pinch that resulted in an odd-man rush and a tough turnover in the offensive zone that nearly did the same. Still, for a young defenseman in his first game with his new team, there were more positive things to take away than negative.

To wrap it up, de Haan is a known commodity as a steady, shutdown defender that knows his role and can be counted on to do what he is asked on any given night, even if that means sitting in the press box, so Coghlan can stay sharp. There’s nothing flashy about his game, but his defensive prowess as an elite shot blocker and penalty killer gives him a solid role on this blue line. Incidentally, the Hurricanes are in a somewhat tough spot with seven defensemen that truly don’t deserve to sit, and it’ll be a sneaky-tricky task for Brind’Amour to divvy up playing time when all are healthy. This is a problem that 31 other coaches would love to have as well, though.

Add it all together and the Hurricanes have three absolutely elite pairs, at least in regards to what they are. Slavin and Burns? Two of the best defenders in the league, clearly an elite top pair. Pesce and Skjei? You’d be hard pressed to find many middle pairings as reliable in the league. Then, the third pair, with whatever two defensemen dress that given night; well, considering they all seem like players that could play in a top four or two around the league, that’s a pretty complete six-man unit. Er, I guess, seven. As good as the forwards are, this could legitimately be the best blue line in the league, and with Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta backing them, will be the strength of the team as they look the chase down their second Stanley Cup.

Questions Remain to Be Answered as Road Trip Continues

The Hurricanes’ annual North Carolina State Fair road trip is only just underway, with two games down and three to go before they return home to PNC Arena on Friday, Oct. 28. As mentioned at the outset, we haven’t truly learned about this team yet, as a three-game sample is utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that nothing the Hurricanes do this regular season is all that important, at least to a degree. It’s hard to envision this team not competing for the Metropolitan Division crown, and they’ll almost certainly be in the postseason. The real question is what happens when the postseason starts, and if they can step up to the task this time around.

Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Obviously, you have to get there first, though, and all of these factors are going to be important storylines in that journey. The players outlined above all had questions entering the season, some more pressing than others. So far they’ve proven up to the task. The competition is about to step up considerably, though, as the team heads through Alberta to face the new-look Calgary Flames and Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers. That defense will be facing its largest challenge yet, while Necas and Svechnikov have a chance to continue to produce against elite talent. That occurrence would only further boost their confidence, and the Hurricanes’ chances of carrying this little win streak on for a while.

So, while three games may not make a season, if the lineup can continue to take the 82-game marathon one day at a time, make incremental improvements, and find consistency, suddenly this “small sample” will no longer fit that moniker.

Source link

Leave a Comment