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It’s Early, But The Carolina Hurricanes Are Playing Like Stanley Cup Favorites

Among the usual favorites — the talent-stacked Colorado Avalanche, perennial-powerhouse Vegas Golden Knights and two-time-defending-champ Tampa Bay Lightning — there’s a somewhat unexpected name atop our Stanley Cup forecast with nearly one-fifth of the regular season completed: the Carolina Hurricanes, who have won 11 of their 13 contests this year and now have a league-best 12 percent chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug.

Carolina has been no stranger to the playoffs in recent seasons, making it each of the past three years under head coach Rod Brind’Amour. But the Hurricanes were ultimately outclassed in each of those postseasons, being swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 East final, losing again to the Bruins (this time by a 4-1 margin) in the 2020 first round and falling short against the Lightning in a five-game second-round battle last spring. As we detailed going into opening night of this season, the Hurricanes were a team that badly needed to get over the hump in the playoffs and make the leap to true Cup contention this season.

So far, they look closer to that objective than at any point in recent memory. Carolina currently leads the NHL in goal differential per game (+1.54), with the league’s sixth-best offense, No. 1 save percentage and No. 1 overall defense. The Hurricanes’ current Elo rating of 1569 is not only the highest of any NHL team at the moment, but it’s also the best mark the franchise has ever carried after the first 13 games of a season — including its two Stanley Cup Final seasons (2001-02 and 2005-06) and its days as the late, lamented Hartford Whalers.

It’s been an ensemble effort. The Hurricanes’ leading goal-scorer and points-earner, winger Andrei Svechnikov, doesn’t crack the NHL’s top 20 in goals or the top 10 in points. Instead, the team has spread its goals out across 17 different scorers so far this season.

But that’s not to say the Canes lack for high-impact players, when you dig beyond the basic numbers. Among skaters with at least nine games played this year, Svechnikov ranks 10th in Game Score per game relative to position average,1 while defenseman Anthony DeAngelo ranks 12th and 13 total Hurricane skaters are above average, giving the team a deep cast of contributors that ranks fourth in the league behind only Florida (15 above-average skaters), Calgary (14) and Minnesota (14). Carolina may not have, well, any household names — how many people on the street can even come close to pronouncing “Skjei” correctly?2 — but the Hurricanes have been overwhelming opponents with waves of players who control possession and limit opposing scoring chances.

Illustration of ice rink

Related: Our NHL predictions Read more. »

They’ve also gotten stellar goaltending from former Toronto Maple Leafs backstop Frederik Andersen, whose save percentage — .938, which is 30 percent better than league average — ranks fourth among qualified netminders so far this season. Andersen’s struggles last season (his save percentage was 14 percent worse than average) made him expendable in Toronto, but the 32-year-old has bounced back with a performance that has him ranked among the top early candidates to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie. (His backup, Alex Lyon, looked pretty sharp over the weekend against St. Louis, too.)

Andersen is also symbolic of how these early world-beating Hurricanes were built. Most successful teams — and Carolina was unquestionably one of those last year, even if they fell short in the playoffs — tend to reload with mostly the same core elements that helped them win before. But while the Hurricanes still have a number of familiar faces from last season, no team lost more wins above replacement (as derived from player's Game Score production) from its 2020-21 roster than Carolina, and no team has gotten more WAR from its newcomers in the early going this year than … you guessed it, Carolina:

No team turned over its roster like Carolina

Most wins above replacement in 2020-21 from players who departed after the season, and most WAR in 2021-22 from players who were acquired before the season

2021 WAR from departures 2022 WAR from additions
Team WAR Team WAR
Carolina Hurricanes 9.75 Carolina Hurricanes 3.25
Colorado Avalanche 6.77 Minnesota Wild 1.46
Vegas Golden Knights 6.74 Calgary Flames 1.35
Arizona Coyotes 5.84 New Jersey Devils 1.34
Florida Panthers 5.50 Detroit Red Wings 1.28
Montreal Canadiens 5.30 Philadelphia Flyers 1.10
Pittsburgh Penguins 4.73 Winnipeg Jets 1.07
Nashville Predators 3.98 Los Angeles Kings 0.92
Washington Capitals 3.70 Seattle Kraken 0.82
Boston Bruins 3.70 Dallas Stars 0.78

Wins above replacement derived from player’s Game Score production.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Much of that turnover comes directly from the change in Carolina’s leading goalie-defenseman tandem: going from Alex Nedeljkovic and Dougie Hamilton in 2020-21 to Andersen and DeAngelo this year. (Though newcomers Ethan Bear, Derek Stepan, Ian Cole and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — who was picked up via a troll-minded but probably overpriced free-agent offer sheet this summer — are also making some noise of their own.) There are legitimate questions to be asked over whether the Hurricanes sold their soul when they brought in DeAngelo, whose bad behavior in New York made him such a toxic presence that the Rangers waived him in February and paid him not to play for most of the 2020-21 season before buying him out in July. But for now, DeAngelo is contributing greatly to the Hurricanes’ success, helping to fuel the team’s successful offseason course change.

The real question is whether Carolina is in better shape to stand toe-to-toe with Tampa Bay and the rest of the league’s most talented teams come playoff time. Back in late May and early June, the Bolts held the Hurricanes to nine goals in five games (with Andrei Vasilevskiy stopping 94 percent of Carolina’s shots), scored on 44 percent of their power-play chances, spoiled Carolina’s hard-won home-ice advantage with three road wins in the series and generally frustrated a talented team that thought it was closer to a championship level than it proved to be.

"We have to be better obviously. We got beat in a lot of different aspects in that series," Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said at the time. "We need to be more committed to our system and play it stronger. We're right there and very close, but that's a very good team that obviously got the better of us."

A number of Carolina’s many offseason changes were aimed at being better prepared if a rematch materializes next spring. And to the extent it tells us anything about how things might play out, the Hurricanes won the first skirmish in this year’s war with the Lightning last week, battling back with a late goal to tie Tampa in the third period and force overtime, where center Martin Necas eventually netted the winner.

While it might just end up being a footnote in another close-but-not-good-enough title bid for Carolina, clutch wins like that — and the Hurricanes’ hot start in general — have them finally looking like they are the team to beat at the top of the Stanley Cup pecking order.

Check out our latest NHL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. A holistic performance metric that incorporates not just scoring but also on-ice team goals and shot attempts, blocked shots, faceoffs and other categories. (You can download Game Score data from NHL history, updated daily, here.)

  2. For those curious, it sounds like “Shay.”

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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