Bill Peters knows exactly what history says about the NHL standings and Thanksgiving, recently calling it “a line in the sand” for his team. The Carolina Hurricanes coach is very aware that the the vast majority of NHL playoff spots tend to be set in place by the holiday – roughly 12 of 16 each season.
“We don’t need to talk about it anymore,” Peters said Wednesday. “We know how big it is.”
Elliotte Friedman of “Hockey Night in Canada” tracks an even more ominous trend: Since the lockout, only five of 44 teams four or more points out of the playoffs on Nov. 1 came back to make the postseason. That’s what the Hurricanes are up against now.
Still, unlike most years past, the Hurricanes aren’t already out of the running. With two weeks and seven games to go before Thanksgiving, they still have a chance to put themselves in position. But they need to start winning more games and scoring more goals, and they need to do it fast. Tuesday’s 3-0 loss at the New York Rangers was their third in the past four games, and they haven’t scored an even-strength goal in two games.
They need to close a six-point gap and leapfrog five teams in the standings over the next seven games just to have a shot. In their favor, they play six of the seven at home leading up to Thanksgiving, starting Thursday against the Minnesota Wild, and there are some games in there that the Hurricanes would expect to win at home, against the Philadelphia Flyers, Anaheim Ducks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers.
Either way, by the time they’re done, the Hurricanes will have a pretty good idea whether they’re playing for this season or moving on to the next already. That has considerable implications for what Peters and general manager Ron Francis do next.
If the Hurricanes have a chance to make the playoffs, then it makes sense to stash Brock McGinn in the minors where he’ll play extensively (he was sent to the AHL on Wednesday) and continue to healthy-scratch 18-year-old defenseman Noah Hanifin on a regular basis. It would become imperative to hold onto Cam Ward, who has dramatically outplayed Eddie Lack in goal so far (although even Ward is 33rd among qualifying goalies in save percentage).
If it becomes clear the Hurricanes will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season, then the Hurricanes should look to move Ward by Christmas and let the kids play. There’s no sense yanking Hanifin in and out of the lineup in that case. Sink or swim with Lack and hope for lottery luck that leads to the NHL’s next uber-prospect, Arizona native Auston Matthews, who missed this year’s draft cutoff by two days and is playing pro in Switzerland at 18.
In the NHL, you don’t have to wait until the trade deadline to figure this stuff out. It will be pretty clear by the end of this month whether the Hurricanes have a shot. And that will have a lot to do with their shooting, not coincidentally.
By various metrics, the Hurricanes have generated a decent amount of scoring chances on a moderately consistent basis. What they haven’t done is convert those chances into goals. Typically, a team’s shooting percentage regresses to the mean, which in the Hurricanes’ case would mean they’ve merely been unlucky. But it’s also impossible to shake the sense that the Hurricanes are playing the right way but lack the ability to reap the rewards.
Only two teams have scored fewer goals than the Hurricanes’ 30. Their power play is last in the Eastern Conference at 11.5 percent. (The Boston Bruins are converting at nearly triple that rate). After 15 games, no player has more than three even-strength goals. The team’s leading goal-scorer is defenseman Justin Faulk, and all five of his goals have come on the power play.
“Are we worried?” Peters said. “For sure we’re concerned. We just have to stay with it.”
From Peters’ perspective, the only option is to stay the course. He may not be running out of patience, but he’s running out of time. A day of reckoning looms for the Hurricanes when everyone else is giving thanks.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock