After an eventful and at times confusing offseason, the Carolina Hurricanes got off to a scorching start to the 2018-19 season. In their first five games, the Canes went 4-0-1 while outscoring the opposition 22-15 in all situations and 16-9 at 5v5. They were also controlling 62.4% of the unblocked shot attempts at 5v5 during this stretch, suggesting they were very much deserving of their early results.
In the ten games since then, the results have fallen off the rails. The team has gone 2-7-1 in their last ten games, bringing their record on the season to 6-7-2, a 77 point pace. That’s not great! The good news is that this awful stretch seems to be mostly percentage driven, as they’re still controlling shots and scoring chances at evens (58.63 adj.CF%, 61.99 adj.xGF%). Despite that, they’ve been outscored 15-11 at 5v5 during the last ten games. The problem has been that the puck just hasn’t gone in the net, which has been a real issue for this team over the years, along with serious goaltending issues. They have the lowest 5v5 shooting percentage in that stretch (3.58%) which is bound to regress closer to league average, which usually falls somewhere in the 7-8% range. Taking all 15 games into account, the Canes are converting on 5.83% of their shots (29th) while their goaltenders are stopping 91.21% of the shots they’ve faced at 5v5, which results in a PDO of 97, about 3% below average.
The only reason that people seem to be doubting that this blip is a mirage is that we’ve seen this story before with this team. Year after year the Hurricanes underperform their shot and expected goal differentials, which has become an extremely frustrating trend for fans and analytically inclined people like myself who annually pronounce “THIS YEAR IS DIFFERENT!” before watching the exact same thing happen again. Time is a flat circle. In 2017-18, the Canes finished 30th in PDO at 98.01 (30th in sv%, 28th in sh%). In 2016-17 they finished 26th in PDO at 98.6 (29th in sv%, 19th in sh%). In 2015-16 they finished in a tie for last with the last place Toronto Maple Leafs at 98.3 (29th in sv%, 24th in sh%). Long story short, they’ve long dominated the shot share, but really struggled to get saves while simultaneously struggling to convert on their chances in the other end.
It’s also possible that the public data we have available misses something with this team. The shots and shot quality look good, but after consistently underperforming their shot and expected goal metrics you have to consider that maybe there is something lacking in the pre-shot movement department, which isn’t taken into consideration in these metrics due to not having the required data publicly available.
Though it’s difficult to pin down exactly what about their system has caused them to underperform their shot and scoring chance metrics for so long, it’s much easier to look at the goaltending and shooting talent up front and see that it simply hasn’t been good enough. For any other team, you could look at a low PDO over a given season and just chalk it up to bad luck, but this has been a trend year over year for this team.
Cam Ward spent way too much time in net and there hasn’t been near enough shooting talent up front, but they’ve been attempting to remedy these issues (although trading their best goal scorer seems like an odd way to do so). Sebastian Aho is a budding superstar with fellow Finn, Teuvo Teravainen riding shotgun and they added junior goal scoring phenom Andrei Svechnikov this summer by drafting him second overall while also adding to their elite defence group. Nobody would claim this team has a top-tier forward group, but they’re definitely improving in that area.
Ward has moved on, but the biggest question mark remains in net for the Canes. They added Scott Darling in the offseason heading into the 2017-18 season in the hopes that his results in his limited time as a backup goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks would continue as a starter for them. That certainly did not happen last season as Darling played 43 games, posting an abhorrent .888 sv% at 5v5, a -1.84% difference from his expected sv% which is based on shot location. As a result, the Canes brought in Petr Mrazek in the offseason to shoulder some of the load from Darling. It’s a good thing they did, too, because Darling began the season on the shelf with an injury, resulting in Mrazek starting eight of the first 15 games. Mrazek has been serviceable at 5v5, posting a .924 sv%, which is about middle of the pack. Remember that league average goaltending is a foreign concept for this team.
The issue has been that Mrazek has been awful with the team shorthanded, giving up seven goals on 19 shots for a .631 sv%. That just won’t cut it, but 4v5 sv% has historically been volatile and this is a tiny sample of course, so the good news is this is much more likely to be related to bad luck than something to worry about going forward. This is even more encouraging when you take into account that the team has given up shot attempts at the lowest rate in the league at 4v5, so the hope would be that the team continues to limit shots on the penalty kill while getting saves on a more regular basis. Less encouraging is that the difference in shot attempt suppression and scoring chance suppression has been rather stark, though, as the Canes rank 11th in expected goals against rate at 4v5, so maybe it’s not all on Mrazek.
Darling has returned from injury and it’s going to be interesting to see if he can provide the bounce back season the Canes need him to have. I highly doubt he’s as bad as he showed last season, but I’m also not sure he’s as good as he showed in his limited role with the Blackhawks. The Canes will likely take something in between the two, as it would still be a significant improvement on their past goaltending situations.
The powerplay has been a different story, as the shot attempt and expected goals for rate pretty much line up with each other. They rank seventh in shot attempt rate and eighth in expected goal rate, but they’ve only scored at a rate of 3.95 goals per hour (29th in the league). Again, these models can’t account for pre-shot movement which, intuitively, is likely an even bigger issue on special teams. Maybe it’s due to a lack of high-end shooting talent mixed with a lack of lateral passes leading to dangerous shots such as one-timers, but I’m inclined to say the goal rate is very likely going to increase significantly either way.
Ultimately, the team is dominating at 5v5, owning 59.83% of the unblocked shot attempts (best in the NHL) and 61.11% of the expected goals (also best in the NHL). I mean, look at this shot map.
By expected goals, this team should expect to have about 38 goals for at 5v5 so far, yet they’ve only scored 27. By expected goals at 5v4, this team could expect to have scored around 12 goals so far, yet they’ve only scored six.
Despite the rut they find themselves in, I feel pretty much the same about this team as I did coming into the season, maybe slightly more optimistic if anything. One worry I had was that the coaching change would hurt their shot and goal metrics, but that’s only improved. The other major worry I had was goaltending, which is the one area that still concerns me.
This is a more talented team than the Canes have iced in a long time, so the bounces are very likely going to start going their way more often in the offensive zone both at 5v5 and 5v4.
To me, these last ten games seem more likely to be a mirage than cause for concern. The only major question that really hangs over this team is whether or not they’ll get the saves required to finally get themselves into the playoffs.
*all 5v5 stats adjusted for score
*visuals via hockeyviz.com