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Beware of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016-17 If They Can Find a Hot Goaltender

Michael LeboffFeatured ColumnistNovember 21, 2016

Carolina Hurricanes' Elias Lindholm (16) celebrates his first goal of the season with teammates Jeff Skinner (53), Victor Rask (49), Ron Hainsey (65), and Justin Faulk (27) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes won 3-1. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

The Carolina Hurricanes haven't made the playoffs since 2009, their owner is answering questions about relocation and they currently sit second-to-last in, perhaps, the NHL's toughest division. Yet there are legitimate reasons to believe in the Canes this season.

The Hurricanes' 7-6-4 record doesn't jump off the page at you, but it's respectable—especially when you consider how the team’s goaltenders, Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, are performing. Through their first 16 games, Carolina's goaltenders have posted an .899 save percentage, which ranks 27th overall and is well below the league average of .911.

So how are the Hurricanes staying afloat despite their goaltending woes? They play an exciting yet effective possession-driven style of hockey that has turned them into a quietly dangerous squad.

Through the first 16 games this season, Carolina ranks fourth in the NHL with a 52.98 Corsi percentage at five-on-five. That may not seem like a big sample size, but the impressive possession numbers aren't anything new to the Hurricanes. Since Bill Peters took over behind the bench prior to the 2014-15 season, Carolina has played to a 52.03 Corsi percentage, which is the sixth-best mark in that span.

An even deeper look, this time using Corsica's expected-goals metric, shows the Hurricanes to be among the league's best at both creating high-quality scoring chances for and preventing high-quality scoring chances against. Carolina averages 2.66 expected goals for per 60 minutes compared to just 2.29 expected goals against per 60 minutes.

Over the past few years, general manager Ron Francis has done a tremendous job of cultivating young talent through the draft and making trades.

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Up front the Hurricanes are led by 23-year-old Victor Rask, who is quietly becoming one of the league’s most effective centers. He leads a top six that features 24-year-old Jeff Skinner, 19-year-old Sebastian Aho and 22-year-old Teuvo Teravainen. All four have already recorded 10 or more points this season.

Skinner, Rask and Aho were all drafted by Carolina, and Teravainen was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks this summer. The Teravainen trade was an especially shrewd move by Francis, who was able to exploit the Hawks' cap issues to bring the 2012 first-round pick to PNC Arena.

Behind those youngsters, the Hurricanes are getting production from veterans Jordan Staal and Lee Stempniak, who have nine points each.

Things are just as encouraging on the blue line for Carolina. Justin Faulk has already established himself as one of the game's better young defensemen, and fellow rearguards Noah Hanifin and Jaccob Slavin aren't all that far behind. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

At first glance, one may be tempted to point to Peters for not being able to turn the Hurricanes' possession-driven style into results, but the truth is that he took over a rebuilding team, and Carolina's core has adapted well to his uptempo game plan. Peters' 72-76-31 record in his three-plus seasons may not seem like the mark of a good coach, but if you watch the Hurricanes play, it is plain to see that Peters is not the issue.

The good news is that the Hurricanes are as good a bet as any other team to break out if they can find even league-average goaltending. Under Peters, Carolina has proved that it can tilt the ice in the right direction on a consistent basis. More good news is that there are good goaltenders, such as the Islanders' Jaroslav Halak, available.

The bad news is that it seems like Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis, for all the good work he's done bringing high-end talent to Raleigh despite a shoestring budget, seems married to the idea of moving forward with Ward and Lack in the blue paint. This offseason the Hurricanes had the chance to go in a different direction because Ward's contract was up. Instead of looking to upgrade over Ward, whose numbers have been below league average in each of the past five years, Francis signed the 32-year-old netminder to a two-year extension.

It may be a little complicated to let go of Ward, who was drafted by Carolina in 2002 and backstopped it to its only Stanley Cup in 2006, but even a move to upgrade their backup goaltender could prove to be a just what the Hurricanes need. Lack has struggled mightily as Ward's backup in Carolina, posting an .896 save percentage since joining the Canes in 2015.

Perhaps Francis thought that with the level of competition in the Metropolitan Division the Hurricanes were still a year or two away from competing for a playoff spot, but it is clear this team could turn some heads starting now.

The gifted offensive core is already in place, a dependable defense is beginning to emerge and the team believes in its coach and his system. Francis has already proved himself to be an able general manager even with Carolina's financial constraints, so it is fair to be confident that he knows how close his team is to climbing the table. 

Every season there seems to be the team that makes noise in the spring because it gets hot at just the right time. The Hurricanes can be that team if only they could fix their one glaring weakness.

       

Corsi percentage and expected goals for percentage per Corsica.hockey and current through Nov. 20.

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