As we get ready for the Nashville Predators to take on the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we spoke to Andrew Schnittker of Canes Country about the upcoming series. Our answers to some questions of his are already live at Canes Country, and you can check them out there if you want to know more about that hockey team in Tennessee.
Without further ado, here’s Andrew on some of our staff’s burning questions (among the rejected suggestions: “Can we have Dougie?” and “Have you thought about rebranding as the Candy Canes?”):
1) What adjustments did the Hurricanes make the last couple of seasons to go from analytics darlings to delivering on all the potential they’d been showing on paper?
“Getting better players” feels like a cop out, but that’s basically what it boils down to. For years, the Hurricanes were that team that would dominate games on paper, controlling play and possession, but simply could not finish the chances they created or overcome their abysmal goaltending.
When it comes to the latter, the trio of Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek and, to perhaps a lesser extent, James Reimer, have given the team stellar goaltending all season.
And, when it comes to finishing chances, the Hurricanes have spent the past few years turning what was already a group with a strong nucleus up front with the likes of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Jordan Staal into one of the deepest forward corps in the league.
It started with the stroke of luck to win the draft lottery and select Andrei Svechnikov in 2018, and continued with the one-for-one swap of Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter in January 2019. At last year’s trade deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Vincent Trocheck in a larcenous trade with the Panthers, giving them a great one-two-three punch down the middle at center.
Having Trocheck revert back to his previous top-six form he showed in Florida, along with emergence of Martin Necas, has turned the Hurricanes into a legitimate three-line attack this season. Coupled with the addition of Dougie Hamilton, perhaps the best offensive defenseman this team has ever had, at the 2018 draft, all that added talent up front has finally given the Hurricanes the scoring prowess needed to back their chance-generating ways.
2) How have Rod Brind’Amour and co. been so successful at turning supposed reclamation projects like Petr Mrazek and Brady Skjei into quality NHL players these past few years?
Well, number one, if Rod Brind’Amour can’t motivate you and get the absolute best out of you, there are probably very few people on the face of the earth who can. One of the biggest reasons for the Hurricanes’ instant three-year turnaround with him as head coach is his ability to inspire the entire group to buy into the way he wants them to play, and get the best out of everyone.
I think the Hurricanes are also just good at identifying talented players who fit their system and allowing them to play to their strengths. Mrazek had shown the ability to provide good goaltending on better Detroit teams than the ones he finished his tenure there with, so seeing what he could do behind one of the best blue lines in the league made sense.
The Hurricanes’ system asks its defensemen to jump up into the play, get involved in the offense and take an active role in breaking the puck out and skating it up the ice. It took some time for Skjei to adjust to the Canes’ system (and it was for virtually every defenseman they’ve acquired under Brind’Amour), but over the past couple months of this season it’s easy to see why the Canes saw his skating ability and offensive instincts as a fit.
This front office and coaching staff’s ability to identify players who are (for the most part, with a couple exceptions such as Ryan Dzingel) good fits and allowing them to play to their strengths is one of the main reasons this team has grown into a cup contender.
3) One thing that seems to be holding the Canes back is their lack of finishing. They had 2.7 xG/60 at 5 on 5, but only 2.3 Goals/60 at 5 on 5. Has there been a reason they’ve seen that has given them bad puck luck, or is it just that: bad luck?
To be honest with you, I haven’t seen finishing as much of an issue this year. The Canes ranked 11th in the league in both goals scored with 175 and goals per game with 3.11, more than enough for a team that’s gotten as good of goaltending as it has this season.
I’d say most issues with finishing that are there boil down to bad luck given the aforementioned group of forwards. One thing that could have played a role, however, is the absence of Teuvo Teravainen. The Canes’ best playmaker, who is capable of seemingly always making the right pass and setting his teammates up for prime scoring opportunities, played just 21 games this year as one of the players affected by the Hurricanes’ January COVID outbreak, and then missed over 30 games with concussion symptoms through the middle portion of the season.
Having him back in the lineup the past couple weeks has already paid immediate dividends, especially for his linemates in Aho and Svechnikov, and the ripple effect of his return should go a good way to correcting any finishing issues.
4) Which players, other than the obvious big names, can we expect to see make a big impact for the Canes this series?
Allow me to introduce you to playoff Warren Foegele. Foegele, a solid third-line winger who plays a good two-way game, has a tendency to turn into a beast this time of year. We’ve already seen it start, as he posted four goals and seven points in April.
And Canes fans need look no further than the 2019 playoffs, in which Foegele scored five goals and nine points in 15 games, including some huge tallies in the Canes’ first-round upset of Washington, to know the impact he can have.
Something about this time of year brings out the best in Foegele, and causes him to step up his game, which can be quite hard to handle when he’s on, as Jordan Staal tells it:
“When he’s on, he can be one of the best players on the ice,” Staal said. “He skates so well, he’s got some great mitts on him. He’s got good vision and all the tools that you need. I think for me personally, his speed helps me out. He’s great on the forecheck, and I kind of just read off him while he goes barreling in there.”
On the blue line, Brett Pesce’s elite shut down game, which is still somehow underrated league wide, and under-appreciated offensive instincts are always valuable and likely to play a big role in any kind of run the Hurricanes make this postseason.
5) What’s your biggest concern with this matchup? Is there a particular weakness you’re worried the Canes have that the Preds might be able to exploit to potentially manage an upset?
The Canes’ power play does come into this series ranked second in the league, but spent a good chunk of the season in the top spot and is heading in the wrong direction. Given the power play playing a major role in the Hurricanes’ downfall against the Boston Bruins in each of the last two postseasons, that’s cause for concern. However, given the amount of practice time they have heading into the series to get it figured out, the return of Teravainen and the Predators’ 29th-ranked penalty kill, I’m not overly worried about.
The biggest concern I have in this series is Juuse Saros. He comes into these playoffs as one of the hottest goalies in the league, and I think he’s someone who should be at least in the conversation (well, the finishing second to Andrei Vasilevskiy conversation) for the Vezina Trophy. We’ve all seen time and again that a hot goalie playing at an elite level can swing a playoff series in an underdog’s favor, and it seems that’s exactly what the Preds seem to have in Saros.
I think Mrazek and Nedeljkovic are capable of going toe-to-toe with Saros, but the Canes’ forwards will need to be on their A-game to beat the Finnish netminder and avoid an upset.
We’d also like your staff twitter handles so our readers who are looking for Hurricanes analysis and discussion can follow you, please!
Canes Country - @CanesCountry
Andrew Schnittker - @aschnitt53
Ryan Henkel - @RyanHenkel_
Brett Finger - @brettfinger
Brian LeBlanc - @bdleblanc
Alec Sawyer - @AlecSawyer
KayDee Gawlik - @kayderp
Zeke Lukow - @zlukow
Cody Hagan - @CodyHagan94
Sarah Avampato - @WriteSaidSarah
Johnathan Kirkland @jkirkland_1