Pucks in Deep: Let the Hurricanes Have Some Fun

by Sam Stockton | 2/25/19 2:10am

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The Carolina Hurricanes have developed a dynamic offense this season.

Source: Courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy

If you haven’t been following the NHL season too closely, you may not have heard about the audacity of the Carolina Hurricanes, who have been so bold as to enjoy winning hockey games on home ice. After each win at PNC Arena in Raleigh, the Canes, led by their captain Justin Williams, perform some choreographed group celebration at center ice to the delight of their fans, whether jumping into the glass, sliding on their rear ends miming kayaking or — one of their most recent acts — re-staging a baseball home run trot, complete with a monstrous bat flip from Warren Foegele to make sure baseball purists were upset along with the angry old hockey men.

Hockey media’s spokesman for those angry old hockey men Don Cherry referred to the Canes as a “bunch of jerks” over the baseball celebration. Dressed in a vibrant blue blazer adorned with golden dragons and a bright yellow tie, Cherry jeered, “Young men expressing themselves for joy of winning ... you don’t do this thing in professional hockey.”

It is easy to see why a humble man like Cherry would be repulsed by flashiness or an attempt to draw attention to oneself, but professional hockey, like any sport, is an entertainment industry. Whatever pleases the home fans, as the “Storm Surge” celebrations have, is worthwhile. More importantly, it is the opinion of this columnist that the NHL’s biggest advantage is its sport itself. Hockey is the best game there is; it requires a unique combination of hand-eye coordination, endurance, quick twitch speed and strength. However, the culture surrounding professional hockey is overwhelmingly boring and exclusionary. Cherry’s quote epitomizes this culture, specifically frowning on joy. He might as well have condemned the recent trend of NHL franchises adopting a team dog. Any team willing to go out of its way to make the sport fun is a winner in my book. In response to Cherry’s comments, the Hurricanes printed shirts with “Bunch of Jerks” across the front.

The biggest argument against celebrations like the Canes’ seems to be that it somehow disrespects the opponent. Personally, I believe that the best way to avoid feeling disrespected by an opponent’s celebration is to deny them any reason to celebrate. Beyond this point, the Canes wait for their opponent to vacate the ice before launching into the day’s routine. If some visiting team were to choreograph its own celebration after a win at PNC, all the better.

The biggest reason Carolina’s group celebrations work is that they are quietly in the midst of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in recent NHL history. In last week’s column, I offered an introduction to Corsi, the most basic of the advanced hockey analytics, which uses shot attempts at either end of the ice to provide a sense of puck possession and which team has been driving play. When combined with shot quality analysis, this data can be used to come up with expected goals for each side.

Over the past few seasons, the Hurricanes earned a reputation for generating great possession numbers without actually scoring very much. It was as if they were artificially goosing their possession data by bombarding opponents with low quality chances. Or perhaps they lacked shooting talent, meaning that despite high rates of chances, they were not actually scoring.

This season started in much the same fashion. Heading into the new year, the Hurricanes once again boasted fantastic possession metrics but struggled to score goals. This, combined with inconsistent goaltending, left them in an all-too-familiar position, well outside playoff contention.

Then, come 2019, something changed. Call it a change in puck luck, aggression to the mean or the hockey gods smiling down, but the Hurricanes finally began to translate possession into actual goal scoring. With pucks finally going into the net, the Canes are in the thick of the Eastern Conference wild card race. As it stands, they lead the NHL in expected goals for per 60 minutes at 3.14 and expected goal differential per 60 minutes at 0.7, and they are also top in the league in Corsi For percentage at 55.02.

The chart pictured above, produced by Micah Blake McCurdy’s website Hockeyviz.com, represents the Hurricanes’ offensive production at five-on-five this season. Dark red suggests a high rate of excess shots per hour at five-on-five relative to the NHL average. As you can see, the Canes’ offensive zone has an awful lot of red in it, specifically around the area directly surrounding the net. From this chart, you could not argue that Carolina has taken an excess of low danger chances (i.e. shots from the outside, which generally prove unthreatening to an NHL goaltender). Instead, quite to the contrary, most of the Canes’ production comes from the inner-slot. As NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk has preached for years, “You’re never going to score if you don’t hit the net.” The Hurricanes have followed this model to perfection, generating a high volume of chances from the most dangerous part of the ice. 

During this surge, third-year Finnish forward Sebastian Aho has led the Canes. In his sophomore campaign, Aho emerged as a gifted three-zone player and provided the production the Canes desperately needed, turning himself into a darling amongst hard core hockey fans, particularly those inclined toward the study of analytics. This season, Aho has become a legitimate superstar as the Canes’ number one center, playing in between Williams and Nino Niederreiter. Aho’s greatest gift lies in his transition play, where he excels at getting his team out of its own end and then relies upon his strong skating to carry the puck through the neutral zone to create space for his running mates. Carolina added Niederreiter in January in a trade with Minnesota, and his insertion into the lineup helped spur the once dormant Hurricane attack, netting nine goals in his 15 games in Raleigh so far. Alongside Aho, Williams has enjoyed something of a renaissance season at age 37, scoring 17 goals and adding another 24 helpers.

Beyond this prolific top trio, the Canes boast a surplus of quick puck movers among their defensive ranks, including Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Jacob Slavin. This collection of d-men allow the Canes to play what I would argue is the perfect version of modern hockey. They spend most of the game in their opponents’ offensive zone, and when they do find themselves in the defensive zone, they prove economical in getting themselves out of trouble. The defensive corps can move the puck quickly in transition to a speedy forward group, headlined by Aho but supplemented by speedy playmakers like Aho’s fellow Finn Teuvo Teravainen or the No. 2 overall pick from last year’s draft, Andrei Svechnikov. This array of talent makes them dangerous in transition and allows Carolina to rapidly restore play to their opponents’ end of the ice.

In the end, the “Storm Surge” is more than some marketing gimmick aimed to generate fan interest for a team without much to offer on the ice. Instead, it is a declaration of a franchise’s intention to defy the NHL norm and find joy in the game they play professionally. That the Hurricanes have combined this newfound enthusiasm for the sport with as dominant a performance as we have seen from any one team in recent years makes it that much more fun. When I say that the Canes lead the league in CF percentage, what I mean is that they drive play better than any other team in the league. The Canes’ roster is not star-studded in the way of Pittsburgh’s, San Jose’s or Nashville’s, but it fits brilliantly together, making them the league’s most fun team on and off the ice.