Carolina Hurricanes Report (Oct. 21): Eric Staal, Cam Ward Leading Team Forward
Exactly two weeks into the 2010-2011 NHL Season, the Carolina Hurricanes hold the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference Standings and the third slot in the Southeastern Division with six points on three wins and three losses.
Their mediocre record is misleading, however. In fact, the 'Canes are off to a very promising start considering that they are starting four rookies, led by a 27-year-old captain, are the fourth-youngest team in the league and have not yet played a game within a 650-mile radius of the RBC Center.
Staal, who was held without a point in the 'Canes two NHL Premiere games, now has three goals—one short-handed—and three assists in his last four games. Ward, on the other hand, holds a 3-2-0 record with a .923 save percentage even though he's been tested plenty, having faced an average of 36.2 shots per game so far.
Carolina is also getting a great effort from some unexpected players. First-round draft pick Jeff Skinner has been very impressive, notching one goal, three assists and a shootout winner as well. Erik Cole, who played just 40 games last season due to several nagging injuries, has also come out of the gate strong, scoring once and adding three assists and a plus-four rating.
Additionally, Chad LaRose, a perennial underperformer, has found his place lately, scoring two goals and two assists in this week's back-to-back. Now that he has found his typical chemistry with Eric Staal again, look for LaRose, who's already 27, to have a breakout year.
Anton Babchuk, who was in Russia during last year's disappointing campaign, is back and firing away too, with three points. He has also improved his defense, with a plus-two rating and 13 blocked shots, good for second on the team.
In fact, while players like Cole, LaRose, and Babchuk continue to show signs of an upcoming breakout year, the 'Canes group of rookies are also standing tall. Skinner, Jamie McBain, Zac Dalpe and Drayson Bowman have combined for seven points and a plus-five rating.
To be truthful, the whole team has looked quite solid through their first two weeks. Twelve different players have already recorded their first goal of the season, a good sign for the offense that they can trust on production from everyone. The team has been very willing to block shots in their own zone—they are ranked 7th in that category with 95 total—and to force puck turnovers.
However, they need to improve rapidly in three main categories. The first and most glaring is special teams, a common struggle for the Hurricanes.
So far, Carolina has scored on just three of 27 power-play attempts. That's a measly 11.1 percent conversion rate (19th in the league) despite having the seventh-most opportunities.
On the flip side, the penalty kill is even worse, having given up seven goals on 28 chances, a 75.0 percent kill rate (26th in the NHL). One way to improve that statistic, however, is to stop taking so many penalties, as they are sixth out of 30 teams in number of power plays surrendered.
The second major issue occurs in the faceoff circle. Although the retirement of longtime faceoff superstar Rod Brind'Amour was bound to hurt, the Hurricanes' pathetic 37.1 winning percentage in faceoffs is absolutely inexcusable.
That number is more than three whole percentage points lower than the second-worst team (Edmonton, at 40.2%) and more than seven percentage points lower than the third-worst team (the New York Rangers, at 44.4%).
The third and final problem that is readily apparent through the first six games is unforced turnovers, i.e. giveaways. Carolina is tied for fifth in the NHL in that statistic, having already handed over 58 possessions to the opponent, with wrapping paper and a bow included. They aren't nearly making up for those mistakes by creating takeaways, either—the 'Canes have just 36 of those.
After the Hurricanes seven-game road trip to begin the year ends Saturday night in Phoenix, they will return home for the first time. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't mean the schedule gets any easier. They will open up in Raleigh with a game against rival Washington and, after one day off, play a back-to-back against the Rangers and Penguins before a match in Philadelphia two days after that.
In order for Carolina to make it through the stretch alive, they will need to keep doing what they've done so far, in addition to making some big strides in power play, penalty killing, faceoffs and limiting giveaways.
Still, there's very little to worry about so far. The first few concerns over this season's Hurricanes squad have been answered nicely...the next tests, though, may be even harder than the first few.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 230 articles and received over 205,000 total reads.
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