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Can The Hurricanes Win The Stanley Cup With Mediocre Goaltending?

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the least successful franchises in NHL history, boasting the third-worst win percentage of the expansion era. Only the Arizona Coyotes and the California Golden Seals/Cleveland Barons have been worse, the latter of which doesn’t exist anymore.1 Aside from a lone Stanley Cup win in 2005-06 — an admittedly extraordinary achievement for any franchise, let alone one of the league’s all-time worst — and an unsuccessful Stanley Cup Final appearance four years before that, there hasn’t been much cause for celebration since the Hurricanes blew into Raleigh.2 But recent evidence suggests that the Hurricanes might be changing course.

Take the tail end of last season for example. Carolina won its final three games of the regular season to ensure a wild-card bid in the playoffs and then proceeded to shock the hockey world with an opening-round, upset win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. The Canes then swept the New York Islanders en route to an unlikely Eastern Conference finals berth, and if they hadn’t run into a hot Boston Bruins team, they might have reached their third Stanley Cup Final.

That wasn’t to be, of course. The Bruins swiftly and easily swept the Canes aside. But the relative postseason success was a glimmer of hope for a franchise that had been out of the playoff picture for a decade — and one that carried over into the 2019-20 season.

This time around, the Canes easily qualified for the expanded Stanley Cup playoffs. They had the league’s ninth-best points percentage when it suspended play in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the underlying picture wasn’t bad either. In terms of Hockey-Refefrence.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,3 the Canes were the league’s sixth-strongest team in 2019-20, tied with the Capitals.

A season ago, SRS pegged the Canes as the league’s 13th-best team, just good enough to sneak into the playoffs and cause some chaos. This season, the Canes truly belong, as they proved with a comprehensive sweep of the New York Rangers in the opening round of the expanded playoffs.

So was its opening-round dominance an illusion, or can Carolina take last season’s success a step further and make a run to the Stanley Cup Final? If it harbors any hopes of Cup glory, Carolina will now have to do something it was thoroughly unable to do last season: beat the Bruins in a seven-game series. But that might not be an impossible task.

The Bruins were the NHL’s best team in both points percentage and SRS before the league suspended play in March, but they’ve stumbled out of the blocks since the restart. Boston lost each of its three round robin games, scoring a whopping four goals in the process, none of which was scored by its vaunted “Perfection Line” of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. (The line — which was one of the league’s best, at one point on a historic scoring pace — generated a single point in its three games since the restart.) And while three games is a small sample size, the Bruins looked uncharacteristically leaky at the back, conceding 0.61 more goals per game in the round robin than they did during the regular season. If the Canes can figure out how to further stifle Boston’s top line and attack its suddenly pedestrian rearguard, they might repeat their roles as agents of chaos in the East.

But even if they are able to upset the Bruins, Carolina won’t go far without sorting out its goaltending issues. I wrote in 2019 that there is a certain mystique attached to the concept of the hot goalie in the NHL playoffs. Save percentage accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor, so good playoff goaltending is crucial for a team’s success (or lack thereof) in the playoffs. But goalies hardly ever “get hot” in the playoffs, and good playoff goaltending is mostly a function of good regular-season goaltending that carries over into the playoffs. Unfortunately for Carolina, its regular-season goaltending was ordinary at best.

Starter Petr Mrázek posted a league-average .905 save percentage, and his Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA)4 mark was in the red. Backup James Reimer, who started 14 fewer games than Mrázek, had significantly better numbers but didn’t exactly light the league ablaze either — his save percentage of .914 tied for 27th and his GSAA mark of 3.38 ranked 26th. Indeed, Carolina’s goaltenders — a cohort that included David Ayres, an amateur hockey player who was called into action as an emergency backup in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and who famously made eight saves en route to securing victory for the Canes — combined for a save percentage of .906, just a smidge better than league average.

It’s rare to see a team win the Stanley Cup after enduring a regular season of poor goalie play. If the Canes are to make a run this summer, they’ll need better than league-average play from their goaltenders. Mrázek held the mantle of starter during the regular season, but Carolina might consider giving Reimer, whose regular-season numbers were superior, the bulk of the workload in the playoffs. Or perhaps they should just give Ayres a call and see what he’s up to.

Footnotes

  1. Well, sort of. The Barons were on the verge of financial calamity at the end of the 1977-78 season, and the NHL allowed them to merge with another struggling franchise: the Minnesota North Stars. The coalition kept the North Stars name and remained in Minnesota for 15 seasons before relocating to Dallas and dropping the “North.” The merger meant that Cleveland’s players weren’t out of a job, but it did render the franchise defunct.

  2. The franchise began life in the NHL in 1979 as the Hartford Whalers before relocating to North Carolina and becoming the Hurricanes in 1997.

  3. SRS measures a team’s average goal differential after adjusting for strength of schedule.

  4. GSAA measures the goals prevented given a goalie’s save percentage and shots faced vs. league average on the same number of shots. Minimum of four shots faced per team.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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