As season ends, guessing game begins for Hurricanes
Posted April 10
Updated 10:16 a.m. Tuesday
The Carolina Hurricanes closed out the 2016-17 season Sunday night in Philadelphia in the least likely way — with a shootout victory.
It was just the third such win in nine tries this year, continuing a trend that has been one of the main contributors to the Canes’ playoff drought, which has now stretched to eight consecutive seasons.
Maybe Sunday was meant to be, though. Following the inevitable announcement that Carolina’s Bryan Bickell would retire at season’s end to concentrate his full attention on his family and his battle with Multiple Sclerosis, head coach Bill Peters sent Bickell out first in the shootout.
Bickell, who was diagnosed with MS early in the season and endured several treatments before his return to the ice, didn’t disappoint either, ringing his shot off the pipe and in, scoring on Carolina’s first attempt.
And when Brock McGinn capped a two-goal night with the Canes’ second shootout goal, Carolina put a bow on an emotional farewell for a player who only spent one season in a Hurricanes sweater but left an indelible mark on their locker room.
Sunday, in a way, was cathartic. A salve that won’t go nearly far enough to soothe the pain of missing the playoffs for an eighth straight year, but at least it sends the team into the offseason with a little bit of a better taste.
It snapped a five-game losing streak and helped the Hurricanes close the year with a 10-4-5 mark in their last 19 games.
The problem, though, is what to make of Carolina’s late-season push and how to judge the players who shined in the closing weeks when it would have taken a miracle on ice to force their way into the postseason.
In truth, we’re all just guessing.
Jeff Skinner scored 37 goals and registered 63 points in 79 games in this, his seventh season. Jeff was at his best in the final 21 games, scoring 17 times — 16 of them at even strength — and totaling 23 points with a plus/minus rating of +11 over that span.
Was that a player playing his best when the lights were off, or a player trying to lead his team back into the playoff race after a poor January and February ran them into the ground?
The reality is that during an 18-game valley, in which the Hurricanes rocked themselves to sleep, Skinner wasn’t at his best. Starting with the 4-1 January loss at Columbus when the season began to unravel, Jeff had just three goals and was a minus-9. This isn’t to blame Skinner, one player does not carry an entire team. But that 5-12-1 record doomed them to their fate.
Elias Lindholm enjoyed his best season in the NHL. Even though the 5th pick in the 2013 draft registered just two points over his last seven games, Lindholm’s post-Christmas marks were very high. He recorded 36 points and a plus-5 rating over his last 45 games and became an every situation player for Bill Peters. He played primarily on the right wing, often next to Jordan Staal, but spent plenty of time in the middle and became one of the top face off men on a team full of them, finishing the year at nearly 56 percet in the circle.
Lindholm also brought a more physical, agitating presence to much of the last three and a half months of the year, which clearly contributed to his scoring success and made him a more dangerous player for opposing teams.
But as the Hurricanes were opening up the year with a dismal 3-6-4 start, Elias was a passenger. He recorded a mere two assists over the first baker’s dozen trips to the ice and didn’t score his first goal of the year until game 17.
So, is Lindholm a two-way difference-maker who can be a 60-point producer, or is he a guy who doesn’t start the season on time?
Sebastian Aho enjoyed a great rookie season. Sure, he made us wait 14 games until his first goal of the year — a 2-marker performance in an exciting November win over the Capitals — but he punched in 24, showed remarkable toughness for 19-year old, and played all 82.
The inevitable rookie wall got to him at times, and his late 3rd period tally last night in Philly snapped a nine-game goal-scoring drought as the Hurricanes struggled a little down the stretch.
There isn’t anyone who doesn’t think an excellent NHL career lies ahead of Aho. But professional sports is a series of adjustments. Now that Sebastian has been around the league, how will he take the next step? There’s a lot of room between a 48- and a 70-point season, and Aho is going to have to close that gap to be a top-line forward.
Victor Rask’s season was disappointing. You can dress it up with statistics all you want, as the third-year center finished only behind Aho and Skinner in points for Carolina.
However, after a fast start that saw Rask score four times and register 10 points in the first eight games of the year, he disappeared. He suffered through 9, 14 and 15-game goal droughts, regressed somewhat defensively and was sub-50 percent in the face off circle.
Maybe there was an injury, and it’s worth reminding that he did have shoulder surgery during the offseason, but he played all 82 games, so it’s not really an excuse. On top of that, General Manager Ron Francis made a substantial investment in Rask over the summer in the form of a 6-year, $24 million contract.
For this franchise, that player must have a significant impact on a nightly basis. Rask did not.
So, is Victor the player who garnered that commitment from the organization or the one who fell short of expectations this season?
Justin Faulk scored a career-high 17 goals. For the fourth time in his career he was chosen to play in the All Star game. He’s represented the United States in the Olympics and the World Championships and he could very well be Carolina’s captain next season. As an aside, that issue will have to be addressed because you can’t convince me that the absence of a “C” wasn’t at least a small part of why the Hurricanes lost their way at times — especially within games.
Faulk, however, for all of his goal-scoring, point-producing prowess from the blue line, was disturbingly generous to the opposition. The 25-year old from St. Paul, Minnesota was a minus-18 this year and over the last three seasons is a staggering minus-59.
Can that particular statistic be misleading? Sure. But Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were each a plus-23 without being as potent offensively, so there is some significance to that number.
Granted, a lot of this is predicated on strong goaltending, and the Hurricanes, apart from a two and a half month run from Cam Ward, didn’t get what they needed from the painted area.
As a team, the Hurricanes suffered from the same issues that some of the players did individually, and it creates the same doubt. Starting the season with just three wins in the first 13 games ultimately sealed their fate.
That they managed to play well enough to claw their way back to the edge of the group of eight heading to Columbus on Jan. 17 was great. But once the games carried that supreme meaning, they couldn’t handle the moment.
Starting with a 4-1 loss to the Blue Jackets, they got drilled five straight times, being outscored 23-5 and included a home ice 7-1 pasting by the Penguins that was less-competitive than the score indicates.
With all of that, the Hurricanes ripped off a 13-game stretch in the season’s final month that saw them set a Carolina record with at least a point in every game.
That 9-0-4 run had them sitting eight points over league-.500 with six games to play. Then they got shut out — at home — by a Dallas Stars team with a losing record, and their season was effectively over.
Again, just when the games appeared to carry the most meaning, the team showed to be not good enough.
How much can we really trust the good when the bad came at the most critical times? In truth, the team probably played better than their record over the first month of the season. The goaltending wasn’t good enough and some of their better players hadn’t found their scoring touch, but 3-6-4 probably should have been at least a few points better.
At the time, it was pushed aside, because that’s what you do to rationalize failing to take advantage of your opportunities.
In the end, the job of Francis, Bill Peters and the rest of the brain trust will be to take a hard look at not only what went wrong, but why things went wrong.
How do they get tougher, not just physically but mentally? More challenging will be deciding which performances from their key players were truly signs of things to come or products of the burden of consequence being lifted.
I don’t know the answer to that question. Neither do you. Most importantly, neither does the team. We can sit here all day and hot take this whole season and we still won’t know the answer to any of those questions.
The truth of the matter is that we won’t know until next year begins, and therein lies the dilemma faced by Francis and company.
We saw great things from Skinner and Aho and Lindholm and Slavin and Pesce — and others — throughout the season. But what meaning do we assign to those accomplishments and performances when the team ultimately fell far short of their goals?
At least as the sand finally drained from the 2016-17 season, the human element took over.
Bickell, with his shootout goal, gave us a moment to savor, even as he skates off to fight a more important battle and a more difficult opponent.
I have no doubts that he will meet the challenge.