This season wasn’t one to remember for the Carolina Hurricanes. They finished 26th in the league with 71 points and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight year. The Hurricanes were 27th in the league in goals for and 20th in goals against. Between injuries and deadline deals, the Hurricanes weren’t able to dress a full NHL lineup for most of the season.
Forward Jordan Staal was injured for almost half of the 2014-2015 season and when healthy, produced at one of the lowest rates in his career (1.2 Pts/60 tied the previous season for 2nd worst rate, lowest was 1.1Pts/60 in 2007-2008 with Pittsburgh). Alexander Semin (who was just bought out yesterday) had a horrific season where he spent time out of the lineup due to injury and as a healthy scratch.
At the trade deadline, impending free agents Tim Gleason, Andrej Sekera, and Jiri Tlusty were shipped out of town as the team began to focus on their future. In return, those three players netted Carolina a handful of draft picks along with a defensive prospect in Roland McKeown but left a gap for the team’s immediate future.
As a whole, Carolina’s defensive core is one of the weakest in the Eastern Conference. The defense is led by Olympian Justin Faulk, aging John-Michael Liles, and the 12th overall pick in 2011 Ryan Murphy, but the talent level really falls off after them. Murphy has split the past few seasons with AHL Charlotte and his NHL play has been very inconsistent. Ron Hainsy, Michal Jordan, and several other young defensemen underperformed this past season where the team had a better shot differential percentage when they were off the ice.
While the Hurricanes had an above average score-adjusted shot differential percentage of 51.6% that was ranked 13th in the league, their score-adjusted scoring chances percentage was only 50.7% (19th in the league), and their score-adjusted high-danger scoring chances percentage was below average at 49.0% (21nd in the league). This indicates that though Carolina had more shot attempts, their opponent’s shot attempts were of a higher quality.
Beyond a lower quality of shot attempts, their five-on-five shooting percentage that ranked 29th in the league at 6.15% didn’t help either (their opponents shot 9.02% at five-on-five). This added up to the league’s worst PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) at 97.13. One would expect them to regress up towards the average of 100 this upcoming season.
War-On-Ice’s Hextally graphs can further prove the preceding statistics. While Carolina had a higher rate of shot attempts away from the net compared to the league average, their shot attempt rate in the slot was significantly lower. They weren’t driving to the net to create high-danger shot attempts.
On defense, Carolina actually did a pretty good job at limiting shot attempts. In the regions away from the slot, the relative shot attempt rate was below the league average, but, the relative shot attempt rate in the slot was equal to the league average. While this isn’t necessarily bad, they weren’t limiting the shot attempts in that region either.
Looking at shooting percentages in the three regions, Carolina’s opponents outshot them at a significantly higher percentage in all three major regions. Specifically looking at the high-danger scoring region in the slot, the combination of a higher relative shot rate for Carolina’s opponents (shown in previous hextally graph) and Carolina’s opponents having a much higher relative shooting percentage, adds up to a major disadvantage for Carolina. This is one of the main reasons that they had the fourth worst even strength goal differential this season.
Carolina realized that improving their defense was a priority this off-season and their three main moves this past weekend have improved their defensive tremendously. This includes drafting Noah Hanifin with the fifth overall pick, acquiring goaltender Eddie Lack, and acquiring veteran defenseman James Wisniewski.
Drafting Noah Hanifin with 5th Overall Pick
Carolina held the number five pick in this year’s entry draft and with the top four forward off the board, they selected Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin. Hanifin, ranked as the number three North American skater in the draft by NHL Central Scouting, is a dynamic two-way defenseman that has a tremendous vision of the ice, can lead the breakout, help provide offense, and is very reliable in the defensive zone.
Hanifin, a true freshman, steadily improved as the season went on in both the offensive and defensive zones. He was playing against forwards that were must older and stronger than he was. Hanifin put up 23 points in 37 games, good for third among NCAA rookie defensemen. He also boasts international experience in being selected for USA’s under 17, 18, and 20 year old teams, capturing gold medals at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge and the World U18 Championship.
Before the draft, Hanifin was planning on going back to Boston College for his sophomore year, but that may change as he feels he could compete in the NHL and Carolina may feel he would develop better playing against professionals. Very few defensemen can come into the league at 18 and dominate, but the possibility is definitely there for Hanifin. Carolina has a shallow blue line and Hanifin would fit right in as he plays a smart game. He’ll likely play in a depth role where his minutes will be limited and he’ll be sheltered from the opponent’s top players. Hanifin has the potential to be a top defenseman in the league for a long time and this early development will be key for his future.
Acquiring Goaltender Eddie Lack
On day two of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Hurricanes made two trades that immediately improved the team. First, they acquired goaltender Eddie Lack from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a 2015 3rd round pick (66th overall) and a 2016 7th round pick.
In Lack, Carolina now has two proven goaltenders (alongside Cam Ward). Lack stepped in while Ryan Miller was hurt this season to save their playoff dreams going 12-6-2 and posting a 93.23% adjusted save percentage (AdSv%) down the stretch. At 6’4”, Lack towers over the net and is able to use his large body to stop pucks.
This past season, Lack performed better than either of Carolina’s goaltenders, Ward and Khudobin. This includes in adjusted save percentage, low-danger save percentage (Sv%L), medium-danger save percentage (Sv%M), and high-danger save percentage (Sv%H). The only category Lack was outperformed was by Ward in Sv%H and it was only by a slight margin. One could argue that the team that surrounded Lack was stronger than Carolina this past season, but the statistics speak for themselves.
At this level, the main difference in goaltenders is their ability to save the puck from high-danger shot attempts. The upgrade from Khudobin to Lack (three percentage points) will pay huge dividends moving forward.
Lack is very affordable this season as he only carries a $1.15M cap hit (compared to Ward’s $6.3M cap hit) before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2016. At this point, it is unclear who the starting goalie will be come opening night, but if Lack continues to shine and steals the starting job from Ward like he did for a short while with Miller, expect Carolina to sign Lack long term and allow Ward to hit the free agent market next summer. Ward being dealt on or before the trade deadline is another possibility as well.
Acquiring Defenseman James Wisniewski
In the second trade on the draft’s second day, Carolina acquired defenseman James Wisniewski from Anaheim. With the preceding deal, Carolina was in a position where they could unload a goaltender as they wouldn’t carry three NHL goalies. Backup goaltender Anton Khudobin fell victim to the numbers game and was shipped out of town almost immediately.
Wisniewski is coming off a successful season where he scored eight goals and totaled 34 points in 69 regular season games. After a being traded from Columbus to Anaheim at the trade deadline, Wisniewski was a healthy scratch in all of Anaheim’s 16 playoff games where they pushed the eventual Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. Wisniewski said in an interview following the trade to Carolina that this postseason has lit a fire underneath him so look for him to work harder than he has before and to have an even stronger year.
In Wisniewski, Carolina acquired a very solid, second pairing defenseman that can help both offensively and defensively. Looking at his HERO Chart, Wisniewski is near the top of the league at generating shots and plays at a level above his ice time in suppressing shots and individual scoring rates.
In Wisniewski’s ten season NHL career thus far, there’s been only one season where Wisniewski’s team’s shot attempt differential has been higher when he’s off the ice compared to when he’s on the ice (2011-2012 with CBJ)
Looking at shot rate differentials for and against Wisniewski for the past two seasons via War-On-Ice’s Hextally graphs (same chart as previous shown for Carolina as a whole), Wisniewski’s impact is largely seen in the offensive zone. Per 60 minutes of ice time, Wisniewski’s team is generating over six more shot attempts than the league average with the highest being low-danger shot attempts from the points.
In the defensive zone, Wisniewski is doing a good job at limiting shot attempts from further out but is allowing over 1.3 more shots than the league average in the high-danger slot area. This may be concerning for Carolina as that is where they have gotten torched by their opponents this past season, but practice and film sessions teaching defensive strategies along with a stronger goaltender in net will likely negate the negative effects (goals) from the high-danger area.
Overall, Wisniewski is bringing a net goal impact of .19 per 60 minutes of ice time which is the highest among current Hurricane defensemen over this same time period (Faulk is second with a net goal impact of .18 and Liles is third with .14).
In less than 24 hours, Carolina made three moves that strengthened their defense. Seeing a positive impact from drafting Hanifin will take a few seasons but acquiring Lack and Wisniewski will improve the team immediately. Look for Carolina to play a much tighter defensive game this season.
Follow Steve Ness on Twitter at @QuickkNess