Category 5: Road-weary Hurricanes near end of season-long trip

Paul Stastny will get a bigger opportunity Saturday on Long Island

Hurricanes forward Paul Stastny will center the top line in place of injured Sebastian Aho when Carolina plays at the Islanders on Saturday. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

The Hurricanes are finally nearing the end of a treacherous run of 19 road games in the season’s first 28 games. Carolina will play at the Islanders on Saturday before finishing a season-long six-game road trip at Detroit on Tuesday.

1. To put the Hurricanes’ schedule in perspective, the regular season will be 34.1% over following the game against the Red Wings but 46.3% of the team’s road games will be completed.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said following Thursday’s practice that the cumulative impact of being on the road wears on a team mentally.

“I think it’s the wear and tear over the course of a year of just being on the road so much,” he said. “You’d like to just get guys home and see their families, kind of get their life back for a day or so, and then we’re right back going away.

“It’s the mental fatigue that sets in in the pro game of hockey. The physical thing is not as demanding as people think. But mentally it’s tough to get up for every game and to play at the level you have to play at. So you do need to really watch the mental side of things.”

As Brind’Amour said, the road is a mental grind. That’s especially true this time of year when players wish to spend time with family or significant others during the holidays.

Paul Stastny spent the first 16 seasons of his NHL career playing in the Western Conference, so he’s used to doing a lot of traveling. But even Stastny admitted this season’s schedule has been rough.

“Seventeen years, I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of two road trips like that,” he said. “Usually you get the long trip out of the way first and then you kind of move back towards home. And here it was like the opposite, both of them. We ended in Anaheim and we had one in Vancouver. So those have been tough flights back, but it’s something new every year.”

2. Sebastian Aho won’t play Saturday on Long Island after missing the last two practices with a lower-body injury.

At Friday’s practice, Stastny centered Martin Necas and Seth Jarvis in his place.

“A veteran guy that’s been around (and) knows how to play,” Brind’Amour said Friday of Stastny, who has six assists this season. “He’s not gonna replace him but certainly fill the void a little bit.”

After playing 15:35, 14:25 and 16:19 in the season’s first three games — starting the year opposite Jesper Fast on Jordan’s Staal’s win — Stastny hasn’t cracked 13 minutes since, was a healthy scratch once and has mostly played on the fourth line.

Saturday should provide an opportunity to play more minutes.

“I’ve just got to be ready,” Stastny said Thursday. “I always kind of knew my role being a depth piece on this team, and I want to win, obviously. We’re getting more and more comfortable, and it takes a little bit of time in the systems and everything, but it’s been good.”

Aho being out should also mean Derek Stepan will play for the first time since Dec. 1.

3. The Hurricanes assigned defenseman Dylan Coghlan to the AHL Chicago on a conditioning stint on Wednesday after he was a healthy scratch for the past month, not playing since Nov. 9.

With Jesper Fast questionable to play on Saturday, according to Brind’Amour, Carolina recalled Max Lajoie from the Wolves and could go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen against the Islanders.

Lajoie played one game with Carolina this season, logging 13:51 in Chicago on Nov. 14, after playing five regular season and two playoff games with the Hurricanes last year.

In his first game with the Wolves on Friday, Coghlan was a minus-2 with three shots on goal in Chicago’s 5-2 road loss to the Texas Stars.

4. Goalie Frederik Andersen practiced Thursday, his first time joining the team on the ice since he left practice on Nov. 8.

Pyotr Kochetkov was recalled in his absence and has gone 5-1-4 with a .914 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average, playing in 10 games to Antti Raanta’s five. Given how well Kochetkov has played, that has naturally led to calls from the fanbase for Kochetkov to hold onto one of the two jobs once Andersen is healthy.

GM Don Waddell stamped out that fire pretty quickly.

“The hope is to get Andersen and Raanta playing and let Pyotr settle back in and play some more American League games,” Waddell said last week. “I think playing games is what’s going to benefit him right now.”

5. Jeff Skinner is in trouble.

The former Hurricanes winger will have a hearing with the NHL after receiving a match penalty on the play, and a suspension is likely forthcoming. It would be Skinner’s second — he was suspended for two games by the NHL in 2012 when he was with Carolina for kicking an opposing player.

Also in Buffalo, Tage Thompson set the NHL ablaze this week with a five-goal game. The 25-year-old has been the definition of a late bloomer, scoring 18 goals in his first 145 NHL games over four seasons and then getting 59 in his last 105 in the past two seasons.

Stastny was in St. Louis when the 6-foot-6 Thompson, a year after being selected 26th overall in the 2016 draft, played 41 games as a rookie in 2017-18 and totaled three goals and nine points.

“I couldn’t even tell you what he weighs now, but he was 20% lighter than he is now,” Stastny said. “He was still very, very raw. … I think he’s a perfect example of putting the hard work in every year, just add a little bit, get a little better and eventually it pays off. You don’t have to be 18 in this league to to be rewarded. Sometimes it takes a little longer, and he’s obviously earned that.”

The trade that brought Thompson to Buffalo had long been a critical flashpoint since it sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues. St. Louis went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2019 — and O’Reilly earned the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP — while the Sabres are still looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010-11.

But things are now looking up in Buffalo, in part because of Thompson — who signed a seven-year $50 million contract extension in late August that will kick in next season. O’Reilly, meanwhile, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

It’s a good reminder that not all trades and signings pay immediate dividends.

“I don’t judge other teams’ trades too often. I don’t have time for that,” Brind’Amour said. “But when you’re dealing with top players, usually the trade is good for both teams. And that’s really what should happen.”