THE PRESEASON: WHAT WE LEARNED
The Canes’ exhibition season came to a close Friday evening with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Calgary Hitmen. Lethbridge finished the preseason with very respectable a 3-2-1-0 record. Each of the losses were of the one-goal variety, suggesting that the Canes had a chance to win every night. For an organization in desperate need of a good start, the six preseason games have to be considered a wild success.
In light of that success, here are a few things I learned about this years Lethbridge Hurricanes, based on the preseason.
Before I go any further, it’s important to clarify the fragility of the exhibition season. What I mean by that is that making predictions based on the preseason is anything but an exact science. Over the years many teams have had great success in the preseason only to fall apart early in the regular season. Take everything you see during an exhibition game with a grain of salt.
With that said, the preseason exists for the purpose of evaluating under game conditions. Not everything about the preseason should be thrown away without second thought. So while I caution fans not to get to high or low on the Canes based on six games, it’s okay to take something away from the preseason.
Starting At the Bottom…
From top to bottom, based on what I saw, the Hurricanes are going to be a much more difficult team to play against this season. Not only is the team bigger, but from early indications, it will play a grittier, hard-nosed style. That’s not to say the Canes will intimidate or run the opposition out of the rink. On most nights they won’t (The fact that they will be one of the younger teams all but guarantees it). What I am talking about is how the Hurricanes approach their game from a psychological perspective. Based on the results and what I saw, I believe the Hurricanes will embrace a different team identity this season – an identity that values hard work and physicality.
I’m optimistic about the team embracing an identity centered around making life difficult for the opposition. Being a tough team to play against is about so much more than throwing massive hits and fighting. In fact, I would suggest both fights and big hits come as a direct result of playing tough and are not an indication of toughness itself. Fighting, in particular, is an effect rather than a cause (the cause often being frustration on the part of the opposition). If the Canes are going to make strides this season, they are going to need to be a more difficult team to play against.
While there is still work to do, I think we may have seen glimmers of that in the preseason.
Have no doubt, the Canes continue to be underdogs heading into the regular season. They are, for all intensive purposes, starting at the bottom.
That’s okay. They will need to embrace the underdog mentality and prove their detractors wrong. Kelly Friesen, a Yahoo columnist, affirms how the Canes are being evaluated externally. In his preview of the Easter Conference, Friesen wrote this about the Canes,
With Peter Anholt in the GM chair and Brent Kisio behind the bench, there’s hope that the organization will return to the post-season for the first time since 2009. The odds are against them to make that happen this year, but sophomore goalie Stuart Skinner has the potential to flip the script. He was phenomenal last season, posting a .909 save percentage in 43 games on a troubled team and appearing as one of the best 16-year-old netminders to play in the WHL since Montreal Canadiens star Carey Price.
You can find the rest of the article here – Eastern Conference Preview.
If they(the Hurricanes) can carry forward some of what I saw in the preseason, I believe this is a team on the rise… if not, we will be having conversations about private ownership by Christmas.
Buckle in Lethbridge, it’s going to be a fun ride regardless of how it ends.
The preseason also taught us that coach Kisio approaches his job in a different way than his predecessors. Kisio has displayed a willingness to do his job while also allowing his staff to unimpededly do theirs. Kisio, from my viewings, is not a man of idle talk. He tells the players what they need to hear, when they need to hear it, and little else. Rather than over complicate the game, I get the impression that Kisio wants to let the players play as freely as possible.
By allowing for a more free flowing ‘system’, Kisio will be looking to maximize creativity and minimize hesitation. Those that follow the team will know that this approach (if I have observed it accurately), is in stark contrast to that of Berehowsky. While neither may be intrinsically right or wrong, I am optimistic that the club’s recent history gives context to suggest Kisio’s approach may get a positive (if not effective/winning) response.
Between training camp and preseason, it’s evident to me that the organization has managed to accrue some legitimate depth. Competition for opening night roster spots was/remains strong this year. There’s a crop of young players actively pushing themselves upwards within the organization. The depth is most evident at forward, but with the addition of young Calen Addison, emergence of Nick Watson, and surprising effectiveness of lesser known picks like Ayden Roche-Setoguchi, there is talent on the backend as well. While Ethan King wasn’t able to push his way into the conversation this Fall, I expect he will be back and push himself onto the roster next season.
While a limited sample size, we also learned that the Hurricanes have themselves an impact player in Russian import Egor Babenko. It’s been a few season since the Canes brought over a truly impactful import, and Babenko promises to be all that and more. What he lacks in size he makes up for in hockey sense and unbridled skill.What I first noticed about Babenko is he always seems to be engaged in the game. From the first time I saw him skate, he seemed to really want to be here. He plays hard, plays smart, and does most everything at a high level. His size may be an issue if he has pro aspirations, but at this level, there is no reason Egor can’t establish himself as an elite scoring winger.
If the preseason is any indication, Babenko has the potential to score 30+ goals this season. Further, if the Wong, Estephan, Burke line can translate last season’s success, and Babenko can be the offensive engine of a second trio of forwards, the Hurricanes may find themselves with two effective scoring lines. It’s early, but the potential exists.
Overall, the Hurricanes have to be happy with the direction things are trending heading into this weekend’s home opener. The new coaching staff was able to get six solid performances from the team and walk away with a .500 record. While there were some notably bad stretches of hockey (1st period against the Tigers or four unanswered goals from Calgary last night for example), the Canes found themselves in a position to win both of those games. Even more promising is the fact that the shot differentials were very good in the preseason. While not a meaningful statistic in a vacuum, in the context of how the team has played for the past few seasons, a positive (or even close to neutral) shot differential gives hope that the Canes preseason success can be maintained moving forward.
If I’m a Hurricanes fan, I learned enough from the preseason to remain cautiously optimistic.