RALEIGH, N.C. – Heading into Saturday’s match-up against the Minnesota Wild, the Carolina Hurricanes cling to the hope and goal of chasing the final wildcard spot in the National Hockey League (NHL) standings.
Scraping and clawing at it.
That’s exactly the way head coach Bill Peters wants to see the team’s current roster end the regular season.
During Carolina’s past five games, a 2-1-2 ledger which it carries into its final game of a five-in-10 day road trip, rookie forward Phil Di Giuseppe has been a catalyst for that result.
He’s put together his best play of the season, his first in the NHL.
He’s posted three goals and an assist, and maintained an even plus-minus rating during the team’s current stretch.
He even threw in a memorable sliding fist-pump goal celebration after he scored his first career game and overtime winner against Boston on Mar. 10.
When the Hurricanes drafted the six-foot, 200-pound, 22-year old in the second round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft I really didn’t know what to think of him.
Here was an under-the-radar type pick who Carolina identified as having the potential, as all draft picks possess, to become a regular in the league.
During his draft night teleconference interview with local media, Di Giuseppe described the Hurricanes, as “an organization on the rise.”
“It’s a dream to get drafted – I am just so happy right now – it’s a real honor to be drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes,” he said back then.
Having attended prospect and training camps since his draft year, he’s picked up on different points of learning to become a pro.
A quiet, but intense-looking young guy, he’s watched and listened.
As he’s gotten used to the routine of becoming a pro, he’s even learned to crack a smile every once in a while.
He played three games for Charlotte late in the 2013-2014 season, but played his first full AHL campaign with the organization in 2014-2015 and recorded 30 points (11g, 19a) in 76 games played – fourth overall in team scoring.
This season, he’s posted good numbers with the Checkers (8g, 10a in 25 games), and eventually received his first opportunity to play with Carolina.
Upon being called up from Charlotte, Di Giuseppe made an impression quickly, and finished with a shot on goal in his first NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 5th.
He also finished that game with an even plus-minus rating, no harm to the Hurricanes as they won 3-2 following what has now become a season-defining loss to New Jersey two nights earlier.
Di Giuseppe scored his first career goal three nights later against the Dallas Stars, playing in his third career game.
Even though they lost that night, Carolina won their next two, and he posted his second marker in a 5-4 overtime win against Arizona.
It seemed that the rookie was in the right place at the right time and was a part of the beginning of the team’s resurgence for the season.
Di Giuseppe posted two goals and three assists in his first six games with the Hurricanes.
After going pointless for four straight in mid to late December, he posted three points in four games before suffering a concussion while attempting to finish a check in a game against Nashville in early January.
He missed six games as a result and returned to Charlotte for a quick tune-up to ensure that he was ready to go again.
He was recalled to restart his season with Carolina against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre – a perfect scenario for 50-60 friends and family members from Maple, Ontario to make the short drive into the city to watch him play.
I recently caught up with him following practice the day after Carolina recorded a 4-3 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators.
I asked him about what he’s gone through during his rookie season and how taking time to develop in the AHL, going back down following his injury, and coming back again, has helped him up to this point.
“When I first came up, I just wanted to work hard – that was my main focus,” he said.
“You know, when you get sent down like that, you just have to have a positive mindset, keep workin’ hard, and hopefully you’ll come back up. Last 10 games I think, except for the last one (Tampa Bay – Mar. 5), I haven’t able to contribute on the score sheet, so just tryin’ to work hard. I’ve had chances, but I’ve gotta bury them.”
Since that talk just over a week ago, Di Giuseppe’s held to his word.
He’s worked hard and buried his chances or helped linemates Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask do the same.
Di Giuseppe’s recorded three goals and three assists, and has carried a lot of the offensive load along with linemate Jeff Skinner who’s posted three goals and four assists during that span.
After Carolina traded captain Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg prior to the NHL trade deadline, two of the team’s six double-digit scorers up to that point, the team had less offensive support than it was already struggling to find.
I thought who would or could step up to fill the gap.
As Di Giuseppe currently sits with seven goals and 10 assists in 38 games, his recent surge has accomplished that.
While taking three years to get his shot, it seems that he’s progressed at the apparent right rate to help make his introduction to the NHL a palatable one for the Hurricanes and himself.
Having had to take time and ‘pay his dues” as the proverbial saying goes, he knows that as quickly as he’s filled a spot to produce, it can also disappear and someone else can fill his spot.
Since he was called up back in December along with defenseman Jaccob Slavin, the Hurricanes have posted a 23-14-9 record, have risen from 30th to 18th in the league standings, and are still contending for a playoff spot.
Albeit, he’s not the only reason for that change in the team’s play and success, his play has been part of it moving in that direction, particularly over the past six games.
Di Giuseppe’s is probably the most productive example of how the investment and effective development of a prospect could pay off.
All other prospects in the organization should take note of his progression accordingly.
Nothing will come quickly, but it can and will come.
Though it’s taken a while for the Hurricanes and their fans to see what Di Giuseppe is capable of doing, he’ll continue to work hard and ensure it stays that way by having the same mindset he’s maintained since being drafted.
“I’m grateful for where I am right now,” he concluded.