How Hurricanes have quietly been one of NHL's best teams once again

Carolina is loaded with talent, is getting great goaltending, and the defense can grind opponents to a halt.

The Hurricanes quietly go about their business and consistently find themselves near the top of the NHL standings. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
The Hurricanes quietly go about their business and consistently find themselves near the top of the NHL standings. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

*All stats current prior to games played on Jan. 6, 2023

Among a sea of elite contenders, the Carolina Hurricanes are not for the faint of heart.

There are sexier teams to be sure. Colorado won last year’s Stanley Cup largely due to its blistering pace. It’s a formula the New Jersey Devils have tried to replicate this year. Tampa Bay built its modern dynasty off an unmatched combination of lineup flexibility, elite players at every position and vastly superior goaltending.

The Hurricanes aren't a team you’d recommend to a casual fan, but their success is undeniable. During their recent 11-game winning streak, they choked out opponents, all the while painting the portrait of an offensive juggernaut, even if few would associate them as a highlight-reel team.

We don’t want to bore you with an overly mathematical description, but here’s how the Hurricanes rank analytically, per Natural Stat Trick.

Pretty, pretty, pretty, good. Carolina is elite at sustaining offensive drives and creating shots, but perhaps more tellingly, it’s equally adept at suffocating the opposition. And this is perhaps because they Hurricanes have taken on the characteristics of their best defenseman, Jaccob Slavin.

Slavin is not a flashy offensive player. If you read into his pedestrian counting stats of two goals and 11 points, you would be prone to mistaking him as a middle-tier, stay-at-home defender. Slavin — along with New York’s Adam Fox — is the best defensive defenseman in the league. He is the best player at suppressing two-on-one chances, it’s his best trait, and the Hurricanes can afford to take a few more risks in the offensive zone knowing they have a magic eraser on the blue line.

It’s a stretch to call Slavin underrated, as he’s made an All-Star team and was the Lady Byng recipient in 2021 but he’s certainly deserving of a larger audience. It’s truly remarkable he can avoid staying out of the box while being asked to suppress chances at an elite level.

Dimitri Filipovic of the PDOCast highlighted one clear-cut example of Slavin’s impact during Carolina’s recent winning streak. Florida’s Sam Bennett appears to be off to the races unimpeded on this play, looking to either roof a backhand shot into the corner, or switch to his forehand to deke the goalie. Slavin swoops in and swats the puck out of harm’s way in one fell swoop. It’s a play he routinely makes and it’s a personification of the Hurricanes’ attention to detail when suppressing chances.

After losing standout defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the New Jersey Devils in 2021, Carolina's transition game has been steadied by veteran Brent Burns, who is having another stellar all-around season. Burns may have been cast off by the Sharks last July but he’s still among the game’s best offensive blueliners.

“I think the most impressive thing is he’s 37 and he’s like a 20-year-old — he wants to learn,” Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said of Burns to The Athletic’s Cory Lavalette on Nov. 23. “He knows he’s in the new system, he knows this. And he’s like, ‘Just give it to me. How do I learn to catch up?’”

Burns and Slavin have played the third-most minutes of any defense pairing at 5-on-5 and they’re crushing the competition. They hold a 62.17 percent Corsi share and a 60 percent share of the expected goals. It’s remarkable that this unit can post elite possession numbers, while facing massive volume.

Carolina’s second defense pairing of Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce has logged the fourth-most minutes at 5-on-5, and has been on the ice for 27 goals with 18 against. The continuity of Carolina’s top-four cannot be understated, and it’s a primary reason why the Hurricanes sit in pole position in the Metropolitan Division.

You cannot reasonably thrive in the modern NHL without great goaltending and Pyotr Kochetkov has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. We were first introduced to Kochetkov last summer, when he dared Boston star Brad Marchand to fight him during the playoffs, where Marchand ultimately backed down. Once considered nothing more than a gimmick, or a third-string goalie playing above his true talent level, Kochetkov has earned the No. 1 designation and has been among the NHL’s best goalies.

Kochetkov has posted a stellar 2.2 goals-against average with a .919 save percentage and three shutouts. More impressively, Kochetkov ranks 12th in goals saved above average, per MoneyPuck, a cumulative metric that accounts for how many goals a goaltender has saved, relative to shot location. By itself, that statistic may not stand out, but remembering that it is a cumulative metric, the only goaltender with fewer starts within the top 12 is Minnesota’s Filip Gustavsson.

Andrei Svechnikov was named as the team’s All-Star selection this year, although that honor could easily have gone to Slavin or Martin Necas. Svechnikov leads the Hurricanes with 19 goals, Necas leads the team with 38 points, while Slavin has been their most impactful player.

Svechnikov is a known quantity at this point. The 22-year-old can shoot the lights out, he’s a creative wizard in the offensive zone, he can sustain offensive play and the Hurricanes sport superior shot and expected goal differentials when he is on the ice — as is the case for Necas. Both players have been inseparable and accentuate each other’s strengths. They’re both great at getting into prime scoring locations. Svechnikov has a laser of a release and Necas is proving to be more than adept at picking the corners, too.

Here is just one of several examples: it’s worth noting you could flip Svechnikov and Necas here and get the same result.

Max Pacioretty is back in the lineup too, adding another veritable top-six forward to a team that is leading the league’s shot parade. Pacioretty, along with Burns and captain Jordan Staal, should provide veteran resolve and leadership to a team that has flailed out of the second round in consecutive years. This group has the talent and drive to wear teams out, they’re getting surplus goaltending, and the top two defensive pairs can grind opponents to a halt.

The Hurricanes aren't the most fun team to watch. And though they dominate the possession charts, they’re not necessarily going to shoot the lights out. They’ve built a brand of two-way responsibility while being one of the toughest outs in the league. They’re well-coached and they’ve made the key acquisitions that could get the core group over the proverbial hump.

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