The two players that lead the Carolina Hurricanes (8-7-0, 3-2-0 home, 5-5-0 road) in scoring one month into the 2010-2011 NHL season are the oddest pair. They each have six goals and nine assists, tying them for the top spot with 15 points each.
One of the players is Eric Staal, the 'Canes current captain, and a former 100-point scorer, Stanley Cup Champion, and NHL All-Star Game MVP. Of anyone on the Hurricanes' current roster, Staal would be the most expectable choice for team leading scorer.
The other player, Jeff Skinner, is just the opposite. Only 18 years old, he was the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and a surprising one and that, considering he was ranked far lower than seventh and the 'Canes were supposed to be looking for a defenseman.
However, he's already had an eventful NHL career. In only 15 games, he's scored the Hurricanes only shootout goal of the year (in their only shootout), became the youngest player to ever score a goal for the Hurricanes, averaged a point per game, and his 15 points are a nearly double the second-highest scoring rookie (Edmonton's Jordan Eberle, who has eight points).
Staal and Skinner have been only two pieces in an unpredictable yet welcomed scoring explosion this fall for Carolina. Although the Hurricanes were a decent 13th in the league last year, averaging 2.76 goals per game, they're fifth this season, averaging 3.13 to date. Even some of the Hurricanes most underachieving players from a year ago are contributing in big ways.
Some of those under-performers include aging Sergei Samsonov, who is tied for third on the team with four goals, sixth with eight points, and fourth with a plus-three rating; Erik Cole, who has four goals and nine points with a team-leading plus-eight rating; and also Brandon Sutter, a 2009-2010 breakout who's keeping the pace going with eight points and a plus-six rating.
You could consider Tuomo Ruutu, who's overcome a position switch to center to record nine points and contribute much more on defense than he has in years past, including leading the team with 56 hits (23 more than second-place Tom Kostopoulos). Additionally, the newly re-discovered top defensive pairing and powerplay duo of Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen has begun to bring out the best in both, as they have five goals, nine assists, and a plus-one rating between them.
Analyzing the Statistics
After winning both games in NHL Premiere Helsinki, Carolina went on a long road trip primarily on the West Coast. When they returned for their home opener October 27th, they were 5-4-0, a long way from the beginning of the previous season when they didn't win their first road game until December.
However, two shutouts in their first two home games (albeit to East Coast dynasties Washington and Pittsburgh) severely dampened the spirits. Lately, though, they've revived the hometown crowd with three consecutive victories in the RBC Center, including racking up seven goals in two of the three games. Two seven-goal games is a claim they only share with the Capitals so far this season, and the 'Canes are the only team to have done it both times at home too.
Carolina has also taken 32.6 shots per game, the 8th most of 30 teams. However, they've allowed 34.4 per game, which is fourth-most. It's been a good thing Cam Ward has been there to handle the blow: His 450 saves are second-most among goaltenders and his .920 save percentage is 11th.
Another good sign for the Hurricanes is their discipline. They have the second-fewest penalty minutes per game in the NHL and are tied for the fewest majors with only three. They've also drawn the second-most penalties by opposing teams with 73 power play opportunities already.
Unfortunately, after a decent start to the year, the Hurricanes special teams units found themselves in a slump for several weeks and proved much of the team's good marks in discipline to be worthless. They have begun to find some life again, though.
In the 7-1 win last Tuesday over Edmonton, Carolina had three powerplay goals while killing all four Oilers power plays. Still, the 'Canes are 18th in the league in power play (15.1%) and 21st in penalty kill (80.7%).
By the statistics, it also appears that the 'Canes are struggling late in games, as they've outscored opponents 32 to 25 in the first two periods but have been outscored 20 to 14 in the third period this season. However, their late-game struggles have still not cost them yet, as the Hurricanes have been impeccable once they've gotten the lead: They're 4-0 when leading after the first period, 6-0 when leading after the second, and 6-0 when scoring first.
On the other hand, Carolina has yet to show that they can recover from early deficits. They are 2-7 when they give up the first goal, 1-5 when trailing after the first period, and a miserable 0-6 when needing a rally in the third period.
An even bigger issue for the team, though, is the face off winning percentage that hovers at a dastardly 38.9%. Not only is that worst in the league, but it's worst in the league by a long shot: The second-worst is Edmonton with a 44.8 winning percentage.
The departure of face off master Rod Brind'Amour certainly hurt, but it was supposed to be Eric Staal that would become the next reliable " face off man". He hasn't filled that role, winning only 132 of his 324 attempts, a 40.7 percentage. Furthermore, secondary face off players Tuomo Ruutu (61 for 147, 41.5%) and Brandon Sutter (80 for 225, 35.6%) haven't been any better.
Several times in early Carolina Hurricanes Team Reports back in October, I mentioned that the Hurricanes were struggling in their takeaway/giveaway ratio, too. They've managed to drastically improve that over the past few weeks, thankfully, as their giveaway total has dropped to a withstandable 14th-most while they've recorded the seventh-most takeaways, a welcome statistic.
A Few More Thoughts
While I think the team as a whole has been strong through the first month, I think some of the lineup and team management decisions have been poor.
The first thing that jumps to mind is the coaching staff's stubbornness to give Patrick O'Sullivan any significant ice time. GM Jim Rutherford made a marvelous move late in the off-season to sign the former second-round draft pick and 50-point scorer for a very small sum.
However, he's been a healthy scratch in eight games already while only playing in seven, and he's averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time in each, still managing to score a goal (and a fancy one at that). Meanwhile, the coaches have been opting for prospects like Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, and Jiri Tlusty instead, who have three points combined and have been practically invisible.
Another complain I have considers defenseman Jay Harrison. Why did they ever sign the guy, much less to a one-way contract?
He's a 28-year-old who's never played anything close to a full NHL season, and that has been evident as he's made poor, stupid decisions one after another after another, forcing Cam Ward to bail him out time and time again. His 20 penalty minutes are tops on the team, too, perhaps because he's often forced to trip, interfere, or slash the guy who just blew past him.
Carolina has won three of their last four games (oddly, the only locally televised game out of those four was the only loss), but they've going to continue to be tested in the upcoming weeks. They are about to begin an eight-game stretch against 2009-2010 playoff teams, including two games against top-seed Washington.
How would you grade the Carolina Hurricanes first month of the season?
They play against the Flyers (9-4-2, 3-1-2 on the road) tonight to finish out a three-game homestand, then head to Montreal (9-5-1, 4-3-1 at home) Saturday evening. Following three free days, the Hurricanes will have three games in four nights, hosting Ottawa (8-6-1, 3-3-1 on the road) Wednesday, visiting Pittsburgh (7-8-1, 2-5-0 home) Friday and then coming back to Raleigh to face off against Nashville (5-5-3, 3-4-0 on the road) the next day.
The 'Canes will then get Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off again before hosting Washington (11-4-1, 4-3-0 on the road) on Wednesday, November 24th and visiting Boston (8-3-1, 2-2-1 at home) two days later. They will then close out the month with an at home game against the Capitals the following Sunday and then on the road against the Stars (8-5-0, 5-3-0 at home) just 24 hours later.
Perhaps it would be good to leave the pressure off of him for now, but Jeff Skinner has been undeniably spectacular in his first month of NHL action. He's on pace for 33 goals and 49 assists for the season, an 82-point year. That would put him over 30 points ahead of the second-place rookie in total points and over 25 points higher than last season's top-scoring rookie, Colorado's Matt Duchene.
Indeed, the 2010-2011 NHL season is still very young, and it's mighty early to make projections like that. But with a player like Jeff Skinner on your team, who could resist doing it?!