Not that there’s a straight line from the regular season to the playoffs, but the Carolina Hurricanes got an object lesson in the difference between having some of the best special teams in the NHL and being average or worse.
The power play, second in the NHL during the regular season at 25.6 percent, dropped to 18.2 percent, seventh of the eight teams that advanced to the second round. The penalty-kill, third in the NHL at 85.2 percent, was only successful 76.2 percent of the time in the postseason.
Some of that had to do with their second-round opponent — the Tampa Bay Lightning’s power play was just too powerful for anyone to stop — but neither was a strength in the first round against the Nashville Predators, either.
Then they lost Dougie Hamilton, who spent more time on special teams than any other defenseman, one of several big offseason changes that will inevitably impact both units. And unlike goaltending, where the Hurricanes expect significant improvement, this is an area where the Hurricanes are just fighting against any slippage.
They can’t afford not to pick up where they left off.
“It has to, because that’s the game now,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Everybody, five-on-five, pretty much saws each other off and it seems to come down to special teams. We know we have to be good in both of those areas and it should be a strength for our team.”
The big question surrounds the power play, where Hamilton was the straw that stirred the man-advantage drink. No defenseman saw anywhere near the power-play time Hamilton did, and among players only Sebastian Aho played more. It’s a massive void to fill.
Hamilton’s ability to quarterback the power play was a big reason why the New Jersey Devils were willing to pay him $9 million a season; the Hurricanes are paying Tony DeAngelo a ninth of that to (partially) replace him as a right-shot power play triggerman. No one expects DeAngelo to do what Hamilton did, and his skill set is unquestionably different, so there’s a big unknown there.
Hamilton is a unique talent, with unusual vision and preternatural smoothness. As will be the case five-on-five, the Hurricanes won’t necessarily notice what they’re missing until they’re actually missing it.
But they remain hopeful the continuity elsewhere on the top unit -- Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck -- will make the transition as seamless as possible, especially if Svechnikov can bounce back from a disappointing third season.
“Four other guys on the power play are the same as last year, second-ranked power play in the league last year, so I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to pick up where we left off,” Trocheck said.
On the other side, the Hurricanes lost three of their top eight penalty-killers in Hamilton, Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele as well as the assistant coach who orchestrated things, Dean Chenowyth. Former Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason replaces him.
But Ethan Bear should be able to fill some of the gap on the blue line. A healthy Teravainen will soak up a lot of the forward ice time McGinn and Foegele played with a man down, and Derek Stepan has plenty of experience in that role as well.
Given the Hurricanes’ consistent success short-handed under Brind’Amour -- both in smothering opposing power plays and generating offense of their own down a man -- there’s no reason to expect a drop-off.
“We’re not going to change a heck of a lot there,” Brind’Amour said. “On both things we were pretty successful last year. We know what we have to do. A few little tweaks here and there. Personnel, obviously, is the big change. Getting those guys to dial in on it and figure out how we get better at it. That’s the whole key. We know the system works. Now we’ve got to get better at it with the people we have.”
The power play and penalty-kill were among the Hurricanes’ primary strengths last year, reliable and productive. They can’t be anything less this time around.