Quickly 3 games deep in the Canes 2011-12 season, here is a set of 5 questions and 5 statements based on what we have seen so far:
Question 1: Is the leadership of the team in good hands? Sometimes the media tied more directly to the team goes a little bit easy on the players in my opinion. I don't mean to paint the Canes crew as completely biased because they do call things out and relatively speaking are fair. But over the years they have a slight bias toward protecting young players and maybe stepping in front of the leaders. I think this is how it should be. As an outsider, I try to be fair and not knee-jerk reactive, but I also try to call it more like I see it.
So after game 1, I called out Eric Staal for not playing well in that particular game. He came back to score 2 big goals on Saturday and had a respectable effort in Monday's loss.
So I will continue to say "Staal stunk" in a particular game if I honestly believe that to be true, and similarly will give him credit when due. And in his role as captain, veteran leader, highest-paid player this scrutiny is fair and part of the bill of goods for his job.
But let me be clear about 1 thing. I like Eric Staal as a leader and as a captain and even in the down times (i.e. the disappointing ending last season), I do not question Staal as the right guy for the C. It is a bit of an aside, but I think the calmer, quieter, less fiery captains in the NHL have a harder time of it in terms of scrutiny compared to the opposite. When a team is struggling, fans and media often want to see something clearly visible that shows the captain is doing all he can. For a quieter, calmer kind of captain who leads more by example and does the talking discretely behind closed doors in the room, this just is not as obvious as compared to someone like a Jarome Iginla who will drop the gloves and stir up a fracas if he thinks it will jumpstart his club. But it is not at all that Staal's approach is the wrong one - just different. And put me firmly in the camp that thinks Eric Staal (with help from Cam Ward, Brandon Sutter, etc.) is the right guy to lead this team in good times and bad.
Question 2: Is it time to quickly move past the Justin Faulk trial run? My long-term opinion of his potential is changed exactly none by the past few games. Physically he looks to be on a path to being a solid NHL top in the near future. But the 3 real games have me strongly believing that the near future is not next week. His situation is a great illustration of the challenges of a young defenseman breaking into the NHL as compared to a forward. At forward, you are more measured on how many good plays you make. If you make a couple incorrect decisions in the offensive zone, maybe miss an open net or lose a couple battles for the puck, it can all be forgotten and converted into a good game with 1 great play to score a 3rd period goal. Defensemen much more so are measured based on how many big mistakes they make in a game. You can play shift after great shift for 2 periods, but then if you make too bad decisions that lead to goals against in the 3rd period, you quickly become the goat and all the good is forgotten. I think that is a perfect portrait of Justin Faulk's NHL campaign through 3 games. He is physically capable and gifted. He has played many a good shift. But he has been victimized by the bad kind of mistake prone to rookies who are learning on the fly at high speed and under pressure.
The list goes like this:
--Tam: Made bad decision under pressure on the power play coughing the puck up at the blue line for a potential breakaway before taking an obstruction penalty to slow it down. (I too questioned that call, but the decision-making to get into that situation was not good regardless.)
--Tam: Took another obstruction type minor penalty.
--Was: X2 Twice was the defenseman on the other side when Kaberle pinched unsuccessfully, failed to recognize/sort out quickly enough such that both resulted in breakaway goals. In both cases the initial mistake was his partner's but in both cases he failed to recognize things quickly enough and defend it into a decently defended 2-on-1 where Ward at least had a chance. On the worst of the 2, he actually turned to skate backwards and defend the puck in front of him in his offensive zone not realizing that a Caps player was streaking behind him at center ice for an easy pass on 1-on-none for a goal against.
--NJ: Was pressured into a "puck over glass" penalty leading to a stretch of 5-on-3 for NJ.
--NJ: Was victimized by the important Kovalchuk goal making 2 learning mistakes. First, he was indecisive on whether to pursue behind the net or defend the front. When he decided late to defend the front, he was too late to stop Kovalchuk's first shot which Ward defended. But the killer was when he failed to play the body such that he just floated by as Kovalchuk banged in the 2nd try.
--NJ: Took another obstruction type penalty. (Note that I actually like the heart, fire and character that he showed late with the roughing penalties that had no outcome on the score.)
--NJ: Was undressed by Parise between the faceoff circles (though I guess that 1 happens to many a promising young defenseman and even veterans on occasion).
That's just too many mistakes of the significant variety for a regular NHL defenseman.
Shorter version is that Justin Faulk is playing a lot of NHL-capable shifts but is also making far too many costly mistakes for a team that is trying to make the playoffs.
Question 3: This leads to the next question - what is the coaching staff up to as relates to defense? How long ago was it that Jamie McBain was the greatest thing since sliced bread in Raleigh and slotted to be a top 4 in a Hurricanes uniform for a long time? Suddenly he is a healthy scratch. I pointed out Faulk's struggles above. Does the coaching staff think that he is ultimately 1 of our 6 best but just fighting through the learning curve right now? Or is it possible that they are risking a few games to get a better feeling for what they have in preparation for potential deals down the road? If you are thinking about trading Gleason, Allen or someone else on defense down the road, you need to understand what your options are behind them for depth. So just maybe this is a forward-looking assessment of the personnel options?
Paint me surprised regardless. For a team that missed the playoffs last year and desperately wants in this year, it seems odd that you would push things too far dinking around when you have reasonably solid and known quantities in McBain and Joslin sitting in the press box every night. I will be surprised if we don't get a Jamie McBain sighting real soon.
Question 4: Is Jeff Skinner destined to be the best player on this team? I think he is the obvious choice through 3 games. What is most telling is how it is happening. He is just a pedal-to-the-metal puck hound always in the play for loose pucks, rebounds, position to receive a pass, playing in front of the net where goals happen, forechecking, etc. It is not simply what he is doing with the puck when he gets it but more so how many times in an average shift that he either has or is battling for the puck.
Question 5: What do the first 3 games say about the fate of the 2011-12 season? While the early results are not the most favorable, I would say that it is too early to get a read on things. The team played a tough stretch of 3 games in 3 1/2 days with the Mon afternoon start. And with the line shuffling just prior to starting the season and questions on the blue line, I think the team is still working at chemistry, cohesion and all of that kind of stuff. Better to have pushed this farther along in training camp (that is what it is for), but 3 or even 5-6 games are not catastrophic especially if the team can scrape out a few points.
My assessment on the trajectory of the season on the whole comes once the blue line stabilizes (probably after some changes) and after the lines start clicking a little more.
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