The Carolina Hurricanes entered the All-Star break with a 2-0-1 run through western Canada that included two high-scoring wins — both with two-goal performances by newcomer Nino Niederreiter — and a point stolen in Calgary when Sebastian Aho scored with 44 seconds remaining and the goalie pulled for an extra attacker. With their bye week coming after this weekend’s All-Star break, the Hurricanes won’t play again until Feb. 1. Here are some thoughts after 50 games.
Category 1: It’s still early, but the Hurricanes’ swap of Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter seems like a huge win for Carolina. After a Hurricanes’ debut in which Rod Brind’Amour apologized to him for how poorly his new team played, Niederreiter has scored four goals in the past three games, including a pair of two-goal efforts.
As far as in-season trade acquisitions go, it is arguably the best start for a new player since the franchise relocated to North Carolina.
No one is likely to match Tuomo Ruutu’s debut game on Feb. 26, 2008. A refresher course on that one: Ruutu was late arriving to the game, then climbed on the bench — after a crash course in the Hurricanes’ systems from Ron Francis on the ride from the airport — and proceeded to hit everything in sight, immediately cementing his status as a fan favorite. Then, with a little over three minutes left in the eventual win of New Jersey, Ruutu was on the wrong end of a Patrik Elias follow through and gushed blood all over the ice. The wound required 40 stitches, but the next day Ruutu met with media — looking worse than Frankenstein, with a Family Circus-esque path of stitches down his face and one eye swollen shut — and was all smiles.
Ruutu had an assist in that debut, and had a goal and two assists in his first four games with Carolina. He finished with 11 points (including four goals) in 17 games for the balance of the season.
A few others had standout debuts. Martin Gelinas had a goal and an assist in his first game with Carolina on Jan. 5, 1998, but was held without a point in the next three. Jaroslav Spacek had two assists in his first game as a Hurricane on Dec. 9, 2011, his only multipoint game in 34 with Carolina. And Andrej Nestrasil scored one of the 17 goals he had in 115 games with Carolina in his first Hurricanes game on Nov. 22, 2014.
But as far as getting off to this hot of a start through a handful of games, few match Nino.
Radim Vrbata, traded straight up for Bates Battaglia in 2003 in a deal with Colorado, also had four goals in his first four games, then added another in his fifth. He fizzled out from there, managing just 14 goals and 30 points in his last 101 games with Carolina.
A season earlier, Carolina sent Shane Willis and enforcer Chris Dingman to Tampa Bay, bringing back goalie Kevin Weekes. Weekes won his two regular season games, then went 3-2 with a 1.62 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in the playoffs, seizing the job from Arturs Irbe. Weekes was solid as the No. 1 the next season, but he then left for the Rangers via free agency following the lost lockout year. That contributed to Carolina getting the only other Swiss player to skate for the NHL franchise, goalie Martin Gerber.
Finally — and this is cheating a bit — Erik Cole’s return to the franchise in 2009 via a three-way trade that sent Justin Williams from Carolina to L.A. and Patrick O’Sullivan to Edmonton worked out perfectly. Cole had six points (1-5-6) in his first four games back with the Hurricanes — including a goal in his re-debut and a four-assist game in the second — and finished with 15 points (though just two goals) in 17 games. He added five assists in 18 playoff games as Carolina reached the Eastern Conference Final.
And while we learned that a fast start doesn’t necessarily mean long-term success, we can also point to Brind’Amour (no points in his first four games with the Hurricanes; got his first goal in his ninth game) and Williams (a serviceable five goals and 18 points in 32 games after coming over from Philadelphia in 2004) as proof some players just take time to adjust to their new surroundings.
For now, Niederreiter has been everything Carolina could have asked for — and more.
Category 2: Speaking of Niederreiter, I asked Jordan Martinook what it was like to play against the Swiss power forward back in their Western Hockey League days. Martinook got a bit wide-eyed recalling what a handful the tandem of Niederreiter and center Ryan Johansen were with the Portland Winterhawks back in 2010-11.
“I don’t think I won a faceoff (against Johansen) and Nino kept crushing me in the corners,” said Martinook, who was in his first season with the Vancouver Giants that year. Mark Martinook down as one guy who’s happy to have Niederreiter on his side now.
Category 3: Another newcomer, goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, earned a win in his first NHL start Wednesday, stopping 24 of 26 shots in Carolina’s 5-2 victory at Edmonton. Nedeljkovic has seen NHL action one other time, making all 17 saves in relief of Cam Ward in a 4-1 loss at Columbus on Jan. 17, 2017.
The Hurricanes now have four goalies with a win this season: Curtis McElhinney (11 in 18 appearances), Petr Mrazek (10 in 24), Scott Darling (2 in 8) and Nedeljkovic (1 in 1). The last time the Hurricanes did that was in 2009-10. Ward had 18 wins in 47 appearances, while Manny Legace (10 in 30), Justin Peters (6 in 9) and Michael Leighton (1 in 7) also all earned W’s.
Category 4: It’s hard not to think where Carolina could be without Darling’s struggles. The Hurricanes rightfully gave Darling a shot at the start of this season after he dedicated himself to getting in shape and being as prepared as possible following a nightmare first season in Raleigh.
Simply put, it didn’t work.
Darling was 2-4-2 with Carolina — with a save percentage and GAA even worse than last season — to start the year before the team determined it’d had enough. One surprising silver lining was Darling’s injury in the preseason finale: It opened the door on the team claiming a goalie off waivers right as several were hitting the wire ahead of the start of the season, and management made the right call in picking McElhinney over Calvin Pickard in a decision that involved two Maple Leafs castoffs.
Still, Carolina got just six of a possible 16 points when Darling played this season (.75 points percentage) compared to 48 points in 42 games with a different goalie (1.14). That’s roughly three points left on the table — which would put Carolina right on the back bumpers of Pittsburgh, Boston, Columbus and Washington in the playoff race.
In 11 games with the Checkers this season — including a post-injury conditioning assignment game in late October that proved to be his best performance — Darling is 5-4-1 with a 3.48 goals-against average and .880 save percentage. Charlotte’s other goalies are 25-6-4 on the season.
Category 5: Much has been made of Dougie Hamilton’s slow start with the Hurricanes. He’s playing nearly two minutes less than he did last year with the Flames (19:33 compared to 21:32) and is on the second power play unit while Justin Faulk holds onto the spot on PP1.
While the assists (just 11) still aren’t there, Hamilton now has eight goals in his first 50 games with the Hurricanes — three more than fellow defenseman Jaccob Slavin’s five and seventh most on the entire team. That puts Hamilton on pace for 13 goals — just a touch behind his average goal output heading into this season.
But there’s reason to believe Hamilton will best that total given that he has scored five goals in the last 12 games. In his career, Hamilton has scored more goals in January (14 in 75 games) and February (16 in 68 games) than any other month. February has seen him score nine of his 23 career power play goals, and even March is impressive — 12 goals along with a whopping 42 assists in 86 games.
In all, Hamilton is a player who performs better after the calendar flips to a new year each season. His totals in October through December games: 28 goals, 62 assists and 90 points in 218 games. January through April? Hamilton has 44 goals, 105 assists and 149 points in 255 games.
If we average those out on a per game basis and then apply them to an 82-game season, it looks like this:
Oct-Dec: 10.5 goals + 23.3 assists = 33.8 points
Jan-April: 14.1 goals + 33.8 assists = 47.9 points
That’s close to a 50 percent increase in point production. The Hamilton we’re seeing now will likely be the one we see the rest of the way.