AT THE QUARTER: PT II
It’s report card day! The day I resented back in grade 1 because I was extraordinarily competitive and extraordinarily poor at math. In this case, the math is now behind us. We are going to jump to broad conclusions based on little more than opinion and optics! Sound like fun?
In Part I of our quarterly review, I asked the question, is the Hurricanes’ early season success sustainable? In order to draw a conclusion, we took a look at statistics across the Eastern Conference. I concluded that, while there were some red flags, the small sample size and actual on-ice product didn’t leave me fearful of a collapse. That, however, isn’t necessarily my full view on the sustainability of their success. At the quarter mark, the Hurricanes sit in a statistical position of strength, but not one that is impervious to decline. In other words, they’ve been playing good hockey, but holes exist.
Today I want to take a more opinionated approach to analyzing the team. Statistics can only tell you so much, and this half of the review will rely primarily on my own personal analysis of what I’ve seen over the past 18 games. Obviously, everything I say is completely subjective and I’m confident some will have seen things differently than I. That’s okay. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even entertain my views regardless of your own.
Oh, and be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
With that said, let get into it! There will be no parent-teacher follow-ups, but report cards abound….
Before I fully get into the scores you see above, I need to break down what each letter grade means.
A = Exceptional work. Have gone above and beyond the expectations.
B = Good work. Room for improvement but generally solid.
C = Average performance. Not exceeding but not failing either.
D = Below average performance. Needs to improve or risk seriously hurting the team.
F = Total failure causing loss to the organization in the form of wins, income, public perception, player development.
Our quarterly report card breakdown will start right at the top. General Manager Peter Anholt inherited a mess. Anyone who has followed the team for any length of time will understand that’s an understatement. I don’t believe in luck. The Hurricanes are a good team now, and it’s not due to fortune or maturity alone. I gave the GM an A because, were it not for his shrewd moves, I don’t believe the Canes would be where they are today. Let’s, for a moment, review the work Anholt has accomplished.
Beginning with player personnel, Anholt has cleaned house. The team that currently calls itself the Lethbridge Hurricanes bears very little resemblance to its predecessor twelve months ago. If you’re just getting back into following this team and are overwhelmed by the new names, you’re not alone. Even the most ardent Canes fans have been overwhelmed with the sweeping change Anholt delivered.
A few of the notable trades he has made include bringing in Brady Reagan, shipping out Lenny Hackman, acquiring Jayden Sittler, and moving former Hurricane captain, Jamal Watson. Overagers have been a key trade focus of Anholt. All three of the Hurricanes’ current overagers, Millette, Gutierrez, and Atwal, are Anholt acquisitions. All three have turned out to be magnificent deals. It seemed like a somewhat rag-tag group in the off-season, but at the quarter mark, I can confidently say the moves were strong and look to be paying off.
It goes without saying that acquiring Jayden Sittler for a 7th round pick in 2016 is looking like a stroke of genius. Jayden is a great young man from a fantastic family and is exactly the kind of player you want on your team. He deserved a chance and has exceeded all expectations. Credit Anholt and the scouts for moving to acquire Sittler. There were rumblings that Sittler might be moved this season to pave the way for Skinner to play more games. Today, I can’t imagine this team with Skinner alone. Stuart Skinner never should ‘ve been asked to carry the load he did last season. Anholt saw something in Sittler and now the Canes boast one of the best tandems in the league, allowing Skinner to grow and develop at a more natural pace.
The master stroke of Peter Anholt was the hiring of Brent Kisio. Kisio was a relative gamble. He had never been a head coach in the WHL, was one of the youngest potential candidates, and he had his detractors in Calgary. Having a legendary jr. hockey mind as a father has a way of following a man. It’s a tough situation for a guy wanting to carve his own niche’ in the hockey world. In this case, Kisio had confidence in his ability, and rightfully so. Anholt did what neither Robson or Preston managed to do – hire the right coach.
I could go on about how Anholt’s ability to manage situations and personalities has been another key to his success, or about his uncanny skill at defusing hostile circumstances, but the work speaks for itself. Peter Anholt is akin to a soothsayer. His demeanor and confidence has begat a calm, collected, and intelligent attitude around this organization. Something that’s been missing for over a decade in Lethbridge.
For all the reasons mentioned above, I also give the coaching staff an A. Brent Kisio and crew have excelled where so many have failed. He has gotten his players to believe and buy-in to a system of complete hockey. Sure, there are times where Brent is still learning to be a head coach and has made mistakes. I’m confident he would say the same thing. More often than not, Brent Kisio has been the perfect fit here in Lethbridge. It’s hard to say this without being exceptionally frank, but Brent has brought something the two previous coaches lacked. Humility.
Coach Kisio doesn’t project an attitude of superiority when he interacts with players, management, fans, or… bloggers for that matter. He’s the kind of coach you want to play for – not because he is lenient and a pushover (he’s not) – but because he is humble and respectful. I can’t say enough good things about the work Kisio has done here in Lethbridge. It appears to be the perfect fit for all parties, and with Anholt at the helm, there is no concern of a coach Dyck situation – meaning management and coaching are on the same page.
I want to also recognize the other coaches. It’s too bad Jeff Battah hasn’t been able to work with the goaltenders full time. I believe he’s done some good work with both guys. In addition, both Mike Craig and Josh McNevin have fit well into what Kisio is doing. Josh McNevin’s hair alone is reason enough to have him behind the bench… #flow
It’s been a great start from a coaching perspective and I can’t wait to see them grow and learn as the season progresses.
Heading into the season, the Hurricanes appeared to have an average looking offense. When Anholt took over last season, players like Wong and Estephan really broke out and started producing. With Jamal Watson traded to Seattle, I’m not sure what fans expected out of this forward group. It’s been well documented that the Canes had some blue-chip prospects in the system – Bellerive, Davis, and Franklin among them. But while the future looked bright, I’m not sure anyone could say with confidence that goalscoring would be the Hurricane’s strength. As it turns out, it is their strength.
The emergence of Brayden Burke and addition of Egor Babenko has completely transformed the forward core. Tyler Wong is playing out of his mind, Giorgio Estephan just continues to improve, and secondary scoring has been consistent from Ryley Lindgren and Carter Folk. Corey Millette and Justin Gutierrez, two of Anholt’s new overagers, have also worked well together on the second line. The strong play from the 18 to 20-year-old players has allowed Bellerive and Davis time to develop confidence and comfort in the league free of unnecessary organizational pressure.
There is also an emerging secondary group of young players. Zane Franklin, though no longer with the team (he was assigned to AAA), is going to be a solid player in the future. Big players like Ryan Vandervlis and Barrett Sheen, though in and out of the lineup, have complimented well. Look for these guys to improve as the year goes on and they carve out a more clearly defined role.
I would be remiss to not mention how well Ryley Lindgren has been playing. His faceoff ability is unrivaled within the lineup (one area of concern) and he brings a fantastic effort almost every night. The Hurricanes would really miss Lindgren if he were to be lost to injury and will need him to stay healthy if they want to continue to winning.
I should also mention the play of Jaeger White. Jaeger is a player that has perhaps polarized, or in the very least, confused some fans. The old regime may have overhyped the player, and placed unnecessary expectations on him. Jaeger hasn’t been able to break out offensively the way some people had hoped he would at the WHL level. While he shows flashes, it’s been a battle to hit the scoresheet with any real consistency. The good news is that Jaeger has still been playing some really solid hockey for the Hurricanes. With so much scoring in the top six, Jaeger has been able to find his niche on the third line. I think it’s allowed the coaches to bring out the best in his game, and with time, we might see more from him.
The reason I have given the forwards an A-, is the Hurricanes have, at times, struggled defensively. Defense is not the sole responsibility of defensemen. Playing good defense is a team effort and the forwards play a huge role in it. When the Hurricanes have had success, the forwards have played an integral role in backchecking and stripping opponents of the puck. Tyler Wong is particularly good at this.
Unfortunately, the forwards haven’t been able to play with that level of intensity every game. In the games the forwards haven’t moved their feet, the Hurricanes have struggled to move the puck out of their own zone. So while they have done their job scoring, the Hurricanes forwards have considerable room to grow on the defensive side of the puck.
In regards to our question of sustained success, the forwards are certainly reason to suggest the success is here to stay. The team does have a very high shooting percentage, but the type of goals the forwards score are often the product of hard work and not incredible individual efforts. For that reason alone, I believe the Hurricanes will find the back of the net with consistency all season long.
This one is tough. On one hand I struggled to give the defense an “above average” grade. The backend has been, and will likely remain, an issue from time to time. Where the forward ranks boast some exceptional depth, the defense hasn’t been as strong top to bottom. I did, however, feel that the play of the top defenders was enough to raise the overall defensive grade to a B-.
Let’s start with Andrew Nielsen. Andrew has been a stallion on the Canes’ back end. He regularly plays the most minutes against the toughest opposition, quarterbacks the league’s second best powerplay, and gets emotionally invested in the games. Andrew is a ‘gamer’, and even if his emotions sometimes lead to poor decisions, it’s a good quality. The Hurricanes are a better team when he is out on the ice. As a recent article on Yahoo Jr. Hockey mentioned, Nielsen is quickly becoming a “blue chip prospect” for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I’ve mentioned in our post game articles that Nielsen has made his fair share of mistakes. If there was an area for improvement, consistency would have to be near the top of the list. It’s not at all uncommon for a raw young defender to be asked to calm down his game and find more consistency.
Looking beyond the occasional bad decision and unnecessary penalty, Andrew Nielsen has been a massive part of the Hurricanes early season success and will be called on by the coaches all season for big plays in key moments.
The other great pairing has been newly acquired overager Arvin Atwal, and veteran Kord Pankewicz. Atwal has been a big time contributor for this Hurricanes team. He has shown far better offensive flair than what many in Vancouver gave him credit for and has done well on the Hurricanes second powerplay unit. Pankewicz has been much of the same. Kord has been a steadying force on the Hurricanes blueline and his puck moving has gotten better over the years. Atwal and Pankewicz have played together most of the season and have generally been a reliable pairing. I say generally because they are prone to the occasional ugly play. Both players have made glaring mistakes leading to breakaways and odd man rushes. Atwal has speed that Pankewicz doesn’t, and has shown he can recover, but it isn’t always the case. That said, it’s one negative on an otherwise strong pairing. At this point, I’m not sure if that element will ever completely leave their game. Canes fans might just have to accept that, while the pairing is generally solid, mistakes are going to be made.
Outside of those three players, the defense has been a jumble. For the first ten games or so, Brady Reagan and Brandon Kennedy formed a pairing while Darian Skeoch and Igor Merezhko took turns sitting. When youngster Nick Watson returned from injury, he too took turns rotating in and out of the lineup. While each player has had moments of greatness, by in large, the bottom pairings haven’t been fantastic. Each of the players mentioned has had the occasional rough night, some worse than others. I could point to individual players or plays, but I think it would be best to blanket the whole bottom end of the Hurricanes defense as needing to find some solidarity.
I want to be careful not to get down on any of these players. I think Darian Skeoch is a great story and brings some fantastic elements to the club. While he isn’t a visionary passer, he adds size, toughness, and plays a simple team game. Igor Merezhko remains a work in progress. He too adds size to the back end, but he is young, in a new country, and at times seems a little timid. If Igor can raise his intensity level and start to really use his size to dominate the opposition, I think there’s a player here. Until he starts to do that, he will likely bounce in and out of the lineup.
Nick Watson has been good when he has played. He was just off with Bellerive and Davis at the U17 tournament. Canes fans should be excited about the prospect of he and Calen Addison patrolling the blueline together in coming seasons. If Ethan King can rebound from his injury issues in training camp and come back playing well next season, the Hurricanes could have some great internal options to replace the graduating players in the offseason. That said, I’m still interested to see where Watson fits-in this season. He’s been good here, but is he playing enough minutes? It’s something I’m sure GM Anholt is watching closely.
All in all, the Hurricanes defense, has collectively exceeded expectations. The big minutes eaters, Nielsen, Pankewicz, and Atwal, have had to bear the weight of the load, but have done well with it. Questions remain on the backend and costly mistakes and turnovers need to be curbed from top to bottom. On a whole, the Hurricanes defense has rarely been their strength, and has, at times, been a weakness. However, when the forwards do their part in helping out and providing high percentage outlet options, the defense has managed to give the Canes a chance to win on more nights than not.
Much like the defense, the Hurricanes goaltending has been above average. It may be a stretch to suggest the duo of Skinner and Sittler has been truly exceptional, but they have been good – really really good. Both netminders have had rough outings and both have received the hook. Jayden Sittler was battling what I believe to be a hand injury on the lengthy Western road swing and Stuart Skinner was shelled in a couple of the Hurricanes worst team performances of the season. While I’ve heard it said that Skinner has had a tough start to the year, I think we need to maintain perspective. Stuart Skinner not being the de facto starter is in NO WAY an issue Hurricanes fans should be concerned about. Stuart Skinner, like every 17-year-old goaltender, is still developing his skills. There is absolutely no reason to get down on his game right now and I hate to even mention it. What he did last season led many to get ahead of themselves on the Hurricanes goaltending situation for this season.
To date, both goalies have had great games, both have had rougher games. Right now the Hurricanes have one of the best goaltending tandems in the WHL. There is no denying that Skinner’s numbers aren’t fantastic. Those are statistical facts. But having watched the games, I’m not convinced the numbers are an accurate indication of his play. As you can see in the graph, Skinner has yet to play 500 minutes and is currently sitter above highly touted Wheat King Jordan Papirny. The season is still very young, Stuart Skinner is a great goalie, and Jayden Sittler is the perfect companion to a great duo.
While I can’t point to many games where the goaltending outright stole a win, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Needing a goalie to have a 50+ save performance to eke out a win is not something you want to have happen very often. It’s an indication of an exceptionally unhealthy team-game. Both goaltenders have given their team a chance to win almost every night. That’s above average play in my books and fully worthy of a B+. It’s also another area that gives me reason to believe the Hurricanes early season success is sustainable.
So now we come to it. We’ve looked at the numbers and spoken on what we can see out on the ice. Based on what we know, is success sustainable? The answer, I believe, isn’t clear-cut. I think that long-term (2-24 months), success is absolutely sustainable. The Canes sit in a fantastic position with stable management and fantastic coaching. Finances aside, it looks like the hockey ops have completely turned the page. The Hurricanes are here to stay.
In the immediate future? It’s harder to say. I do believe the stats say that the Hurricanes will at least be very competitive all season long. There are enough good players on this team that they can absolutely remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference for the season. The issue of consistency is a red flag. They don’t have a very sustainable PDO and last night’s loss to Moose Jaw is an example of how it may rear its ugly head. I believe in the leadership core of this group and I get the feeling that Tyler Wong and crew won’t accept long losing streaks.
The Hurricanes might not win eight straight games again, but they will remain in the mix all season.
The first quarter of the season has been a wild ride. It may not continue at this pace, but Canes fans don’t have to worry about the roof caving in on this team. Things may not be good all the time, but at the quarter, there’s no reason to think anything but positive thoughts about where this team is headed.