One of the ripple effects of Moneyball, at least one that isn’t primed to destroy a sport from the inside, is that a lot of fans have that one team — the team whose games you watch most outside your own team’s on whatever streaming service you have. The team you’re convinced is doing things in a more advanced way than anyone else. They almost certainly play in a smaller market, and you just know that the East Coast- or Canadian-obsessed media has dismissed them simply for not being sexy in whatever faded definition they have of sexiness. They’re the underdogs, the outsiders, somehow catering to that punk rock nerve some of us desperate souls can never let go of even as we sink into middle-age, playing the bars and halls outside of the mainstream. The A’s, the Sacramento Kings, soccer as a whole (until the past two days, huh?), whoever embodied it for you.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been that for me, and a lot of other analytic-inclined fans, for years now. Yes, they do employ one of my favorite players in dear sweet boy and Finnish prince Teuvo Teräväinen (who could be miraculously returning for the playoffs like the mythical figure he is!), but it’s far beyond that. The Canes do just about everything right, and they do it with just about no star-power or attention whatsoever. Though the latter contributes to the former, because the Canes have a few players who would be stars in bigger markets, which only feeds the punk rock/inferiority complex. You just don’t get it, man!
They grift other teams on trades. They have paid basically nothing for Nino Neiderraiter, or Vincent Trocheck, or Brady Skjei, or Prince Teuvo, while also winning the trade for Dougie Hamilton when Calgary decided his ability to read was a problem. They’ve plugged holes with underappreciated players like Jesper Fast this year, players whose previous fanbases were sure were capable of more if only given the chance. Well, the Canes give them that chance.
And they draft well, which doesn’t sound like much, but so few NHL teams actually do it. Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Sebastien Aho, Martin Nečas, Andrei Svechnikov, are the core of the team and all homegrown. You’d be shocked at how many NHL teams can’t sport this kind of drafting. It just feels like they run a completely different organization. They even let swamp monster Bill Peters leave for Calgary to let Rod Brind’Amour ascend to the head coaching spot, and he’s done things even better (though they did hire Peters in the first place). And he looks like this at 50. Remember this next time some lard-tub football coach wants to get all red-assed.
And with all that, they do everything on the ice that fans who pour over NaturalStatTrick.com or similar want to see. They dominate possession, running up obscene Corsi or expected-goals percentages, like this year’s 55.2 and 54.8 respectively, good for 2nd and 4th in the league respectively. And they play fast. They’re actually fun to watch. They’ve been doing what everyone slobbers over Vegas doing for much longer.
But it always falls flat. The Canes have only made the playoffs the past two years, and both times they’ve gotten thwacked by the Bruins, who do what they do except they also have Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrňák, and Brad Marchand, along with either Tuukka Rask or, last year, Jaro Halák in net.
That’s the problem for the Canes, is that they haven’t had the sharp end of the stick at either end. All that possession and all those chances don’t matter much if you can’t finish them or prevent the other guys from finishing theirs enough. That requires elite talent. The Canes haven’t had enough of it.
Which I thought would be their fate again this year. For the depth they have, only Trocheck is averaging more than a point per game. And the Canes goalies were the Canes goalies. To believe would only be to be hurt again.
But...maybe not? And is salvation’s name Alex Nedeljkovic?
Nedeljkovic took over the Canes crease after Petr Mrázek got hurt and James Reimer proved to have a terminal case of being James Reimer. He has put up a .932 save-percentage in 17 starts, which has seen the Canes arise to the top of the Central standings, tied with Florida on 65 points but having played two less games. And that was a spot thought to be just a given for the Lightning, who are currently third.
Nedeljkovic has been perhaps the first Canes goalie to be groomed for this. He actually comes with a pedigree instead of just some guy they picked off someone else’s recycle bin and hoped they could hide. He was a second-round pick of the Canes, and had backstopped Team USA to a gold in the U-18 championships and a bronze medal at the WJC. He has spent four years with the Canes’ AHL team. He’s the goalie they took as seriously as all the skaters they had drafted. Moreover, Mrazek has returned from injury to back him up and of his nine starts on the season, four are shutouts. It’s not a bad Option B.
I got sucked in again officially last night, as the Canes flattened the Lightning in Tampa 4-1, the night after losing to the Bolts in overtime. Since the beginning of March, they’re 16-6-4. They have two enormous games with the Panthers coming up, then two with the suddenly cogent Stars, before finishing the season with a heaping helping of the Wings, Hawks, and Jackets, who all suck something awful. The Central is there for the taking.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to buy in on Nedeljkovic and the depth and finally getting the playoff star-turn from Aho or Nečas or Svechnikov or all of them and this will be the time the Canes prove all of us stat-heads and outsiders wrong.
Until they get poleaxed by the Avalanche in the third round, at least.