RALEIGH, N.C. – For many Carolina Hurricanes fans, it’s probably hard to understand what defensive structure the team is trying to play, particularly when it is still winless, sitting at 0-6-2, following a 4-1 loss to Vancouver on Tuesday.
After the team’s first four games ended in consecutive one-goal shootout losses to the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, it seemed that there was some light at the end of the tunnel to soon arrive at a victorious stop during the early part of the season’s journey.
However, at the end of a subsequent four-game foray into Western Canada, the Hurricanes remain in that tunnel, made darker and longer, after being outscored 18-5 while accumulating four more losses.
Immediately the thought falls to the team’s defensive play – on the blueliners and the goalkeepers.
They’re not doing their jobs – they’re giving the puck away – they’re out of position.
All those things have happened and mistakes have been made, but that should be expected at this early point in the season.
However, when a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years is winless, those mistakes – the missed defensive assignments and soft goals – generate a heightened sense of panic and frustration amongst those watching.
Chalk it up as the fight or flight response with the obvious criticism being that the players haven’t grasped it yet.
Carolina’s defensive system in place this season is different and more fluid in motion than the more simplistic set-up the team played for the past three years under former head coach Kirk Muller and defensive assistant coach Dave Lewis.
Under head coach Bill Peters and assistant coach Steve Smith, utilizing the team’s defensemen to be actively involved in every rush offensively is a big change.
It shines a bright light on the forwards to back up the defenseman, not only following the rush, but in the defensive zone, if faced with a two-on-one or one-on-one situation due to a pinch situation.
Talking of the team’s start after four games, the Hurricanes had not played enough to overly-judge mistakes and Smith pointed that out before the team embarked on its road trip a few weeks ago.
“Number one, the goaltenders are trying to find their game,” Smith stated.
“Secondly, defenseman are trying to find their angles, they gotta’ play the body again because they spent the summer not playing the body – playing that sort of pond hockey style. I think there’s definitely an adjustment. Sometimes within a team like this because we’ve got all new sytems in place, there’s a little bit of paralysis by analysis at times where a guy will be standing still and saying, ‘do I need to be here or there?’. “
When considering the fact that younger players like rookies Victor Rask and Patrick Brown, along with second-year defenseman Ryan Murphy took on more ice time than they would have if the Staal brothers, Nathan Gerbe, and Patrick Dwyer, to name a few, were in the lineup, some lapses could provide answers.
“I think in general because of the injuries that we’ve had, as a staff we’re trying to create offense any way that we can,” Smith said.
“So our number one goal is to try and get at least four guys involved as much as possible. Then we have some pretty highly-skilled guys that are capable of doing it. Guys that can join the rush and do it efficiently and still not compromise our defensive structures.”
However, with injuries early on, the Hurricanes have worked with a less experienced set of NHL’ers drawing from a lower NHL I.Q. in terms of learning and knowing one or more systems, or how to switch from one to another.
“The key thing with younger players – the key thing is that they’re gonna’ make mistakes,” Smith said.
“Not only are they trying to learn a system – they’re trying to learn the league as well. So they gotta’ go into a corner knowing that they’re gonna’ play Rick Nash or Marty St. Louis. Until you’ve had that opportunity and do it several times, it’s difficult. You’re going in thinking you gotta’ keep D-side of the puck and I’m also wondering if I do hit him, is he gonna’ fall down – can he be knocked down – or do I contain him?’ All of these things with so many players, for a new player, it takes a while just to learn the league as much as it is to learn any team’s defensive structures.”
Youth and inexperience aside, the games against New York and Buffalo showed that when this Carolina team executed the new system effectively, it was competitive and in a game to win it.
Smith worked with the blue liners to be vital cogs of the five-man system that Peters preached for every player on the ice to be a part of, and the early results on the team’s power play looked positive as well.
“Overall, I think defensively our guys have adjusted well,” Smith said.
“Offensively, I think we’ve done a pretty good job too. We’ve done a good job on the point on the power play – guys have got pucks through to the net and realized relative success up to this point. I attribute a lot of that to the defensemen gettin’ the puck, shootin’ the puck and creating chaos on second opportunities in front of the net.”
However, in recent games, the team’s even-strength defensive play has shown its kinks, and even the man-advantage hasn’t been the consistent strength needed for this team to offset any of those defensive deficiencies.
To be fair to the defense corps and goalkeepers Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin, Carolina has not scored a lot of goals at the other end of the ice.
If you spot your opponent two or three goals to start the game, you need to be able to score three or four to beat them.
That hasn’t happened.
If you don’t possess the puck and score goals, then you’re chasing it to deny the other team from doing so.
When you do get the puck, then you must not turn it over.
If you give it up, then you have put in the effort to get it back by anticipating passes and shots correctly with proper positioning and communicating with your teammates to help them do the same.
All part of a five-man system.
However, if you’re not doing all of that, the losses accumulate quickly – and they have.
Is it a perfect system?
Not entirely, but it is one that preaches and requires responsible actions from everyone on the ice and requires at least a handful of knowledgeable and talented players as well as a whole bunch of hard-working ones to execute.
Otherwise, the mistakes and who committed them become evident and the coaches’ jobs are then to help the player(s) correct them or find other players who don’t commit as many of them.
At this point, every player on the Hurricanes roster has to put in more effort to minimize mistakes and draw upon his own physical and mental energy reserves to persevere through the team’s slow start.
“One of the things you have to decide as a player is, this is the business that we’ve decided to be in,” Smith said.
“So, mistakes are gonna’ happen – good things, bad things – and you come back every day wanting to learn and thirsty for knowledge. I think if you come with the right attitude every day, you have a chance for success. The key factor of all of this is knowing you’re gonna’ make mistakes. If there were no mistakes made on a nightly basis, it’d be 0-0 every night. They’re based upon a mistake being made by someone and that’s how goals get scored. These guys have got to understand that they’re gonna’ make mistakes. We wanna’ be as constructive as possible in our criticism of them or as positive as possible.”
While the players realize that they are the ones responsible to finish the job on the ice, the coaching staff also understands how important their support is to the players.
Bottom line – trust between the coach and the player is paramount for all players to achieve success according to Smith.
“Absolutely,” he said.
“That part’s never changed. I think when you’re on the bench and you’re going on the ice and you feel like coach thinks you can do the job, you’re a whole lot better player than you are if you’re questioning whether or not he thinks you have abilities to do what he expects in his way.”