RALEIGH — Before the season, I took a crack at what would need to happen for the Hurricanes to reach their goal of winning the Stanley Cup. With Tuesday night’s game being the midway point of the regular season, it seems like a good time to see if Carolina is on track to live up to the four points I made before the season.
Point 1: More than Max
As expected, Pacioretty returned to the ice before mid-February’s outdoor game, coming back ahead of schedule and even scoring twice in his second game on Saturday.
But the key to the season wasn’t just Pacioretty recovering and performing.
“Pacioretty is about as reliable a scorer as you can find in the NHL,” I wrote in October. “That said, anyone coming off an injury as serious as this shouldn’t be seen as a midseason savior. Pacioretty will be a big addition, but what Carolina really needs is for (Andrei) Svechnikov to become a star.”
Svechnikov has done that, earning his first All-Star Game berth while scoring a team-best 19 goals in 40 games. There’s still another gear for Svechnikov, but he’s well on his to stardom.
Point 2: Kotkaniemi steps up
Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s eight-year, $38.56 million contract came with the hope he could become Carolina’s new second line center. Even if he didn’t become a 50-point player, the Hurricanes’ front office saw enough potential to talk itself into the contract.
Here’s what I thought said about Kotkaniemi emerging as a viable No. 2 center:
“Most are seeing Kotkaniemi as a downgrade from (Vincent) Trocheck. Not me. What Carolina loses in Trocheck’s truculence and penalty killing it gains in Kotkaniemi’s size and vision. The former third overall pick is unlikely to ever score 30 goals — he’d need to shoot the puck a whole lot more than he seems willing — but he will win offensive zone battles and has a knack for finding the open guy. He should take a huge step this year.”
Kotkaniemi hasn’t played poorly — he’s defensively reliable, physical and has a positive plus/minus. That hasn’t translated to many points — seven goals and 13 points through the first 40 games — and his time on ice has mostly been low-event in terms of goals scored. At even-strength, Kotkaniemi has been on the ice for just 28 goals this season (15 for, 13 against) in 12 minutes of 5-on-5 minutes per game.
He lost his spot in between Svechnikov and Martin Necas to Paul Stastny, but Stastny’s numbers are about the same — he also has 13 points (just two goals) and has a 14-12 5-on-5 goal differential in about 10½ even-strength minutes per game.
No, Kotkaniemi hasn’t taken a huge step, but he’s also not a liability. There’s still a chance he turns the corner, but to this point his season has been a disappointment.
Point 3: Slavin stands out
Slavin remains one of hockey’s top defensive defensemen, and he has proven a good foil to newcomer Brent Burns. I predicted Slavin would build off the career-high 42 points he had last season and have the best offensive numbers of his career.
“Slavin is as selfless a player as you’ll find,” I wrote. “It appears he will be relieved of any power play responsibilities to start the season, so any boost in offense will have to come at even strength. I could see him eclipsing 50 points this season, but that probably won’t be enough to get him into Norris territory.”
Slavin’s numbers have remained steady. His goals are down (just two through 40 games), but he has 14 points in the first 40 games. That puts him right on pace for the 28 points he had last season.
Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Brady Skjei has picked up the goal-scoring slack with eight goals this season — tied for the eighth-most among defensemen in the league and well on his way to topping the career-high nine he had last season.
Point 4: Will Carolina win it all?
This one is much harder to assess. The Hurricanes are again one of the NHL’s best teams and have shown they can get red-hot by reeling off 11 straight wins from December to New Year’s Day.
The special teams, after a shaky start, have been better, and the emergence of Necas has given Carolina another game-breaking player.
Getting another Vezina-level season out of Frederik Andersen seemed like a necessity, but the goalie has been hurt most of the year and opened the door for rookie Pyotr Kochetkov.
Kochetkov, who was the NHL’s rookie of the month for December, has allowed four goals in his two January starts since returning from a minor injury. The Hurricanes will need one of their netminders — Andersen, Kochetkov or Antti Raanta — to stabilize the net in time for the postseason.
As with any season, things haven’t gone exactly to plan for the Hurricanes. But there’s still plenty to like about what the team has done so far and can do going forward.