Sports

Hurricanes still lacking a Plan B

One of the big problems for the Carolina Hurricanes under Bill Peters was that there was no Plan B. They’d pile up shots, too often from the perimeter, sometimes seemingly for the sake of piling up shots instead of actually trying to score, and then talk about how well they played.

Things are different under Rod Brind’Amour. The shots are coming from more dangerous locations. The Hurricanes are getting to the net and making plays there. The scoring chances are better.

But there’s still no Plan B when they get pushed to the perimeter, especially when they let a team like the Islanders get a lead and lock things down, as they did in the opener and did again Sunday in a 2-1 Hurricanes loss.

Beyond Sebastian Aho, there isn’t enough individual skill to break open a defense, especially with Martin Necas in Charlotte and Andrei Svechnikov adjusting. And even Aho is more of a playmaker than a natural scorer, becoming only the third player in NHL history to record an assist in the first 11 games of the season (joining Wayne Gretzky and Ken Linesman -- and when you’re messing with any of 99’s records, you’re doing something) . Don’t even ask about the power play.

So there are going to be nights like this, where the Hurricanes do a lot right and end up on the wrong end. The lack of goal-scoring ability is a persistent problem, the reason why the Hurricanes can still win the analytics and lose the game.

“You come off a game like this one, and everyone says, ‘You guys lost, you were brutal,’” Brind’Amour said. “If we hit a post and one of those goes in, everybody’s talking about how well we played.”

But that’s the margin. That’s the difference. And it’s still missing.

(And the cry “What about Jeff Skinner?” overlooks the obvious impact a change of scenery has had on Skinner in Buffalo, where he is clearly revitalized. Conversely, what role has Skinner’s absence played in the equally obvious chemistry this team has developed despite all the newcomers? There’s no way to answer that, but it’s worth pondering.)

So what do you do?

There’s no one available via trade at a reasonable price or salary who is any better than what the Hurricanes already have. The Hurricanes may have the cap room now to overpay William Nylander, but it’s going to evaporate quickly over the next few years. They have a lot of young players to re-sign and overpaying Nylander would have a ripple effect that destroys the salary structure that Ron Francis, to his credit, started to build with the very reasonable contracts for Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – not to mention any chance of a reasonable extension for Aho.

Internally, Svechnikov is their best hope, but Brind’Amour continues to protect him as he tries to adapt to the speed of the game and his defensive responsibilities. He has pure goal-scoring talent, but has yet been unable to make the most of it at the NHL level. His time will come. But when?

And then there’s the power play. Even on a night when the Hurricanes play into the Islanders’ hands out of pure stubborness, trying to make pretty plays against a locked-down defense instead of getting the puck deep and grinding it out, none of that should matter with the man advantage.

But the Hurricanes’ two units lack chemistry and fluidity, and their persistent misfiring continues to cost them games – especially when combined with a penalty-kill that has allowed a goal in all but three games this season.

“Losing the special-teams battle every night, trying to win games, it’s tough,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said.

The Hurricanes are immensely improved over last season, playing a more central game, getting to the net – Micheal Ferland was exactly what this team needed – and creating better chances. But they still lack that little something extra to get them over the top on nights when that isn’t working.

Until Svechnikov is ready, until the power play starts clicking, until there’s an upgrade via trade, until they have some kind of a Plan B, there are still going to be nights like this, even if there have been, and should continue to be, fewer of them.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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