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Maple Leafs vs Carolina Hurricanes: comparing two playoff losers

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What can we learn from the team that fell to the Lightning?

Carolina Hurricanes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Last week, Hardev took a look at the Lightning and asked where the Leafs could realistically improve to get to their level. Hardev is intimately acquainted with the Tampa team, so his analysis came from years of watching them play a lot of games. I wanted to look at how the Leafs measure up to the Hurricanes, a team they resemble in many ways, but I’m not claiming that level of knowledge about the team.

How are the Leafs different from the Hurricanes?

Money and cap space is the obvious difference. While the Lightning played LTIR games just like the Leafs did and spent a lot of money, the Hurricanes, even under their new owner are a team with a different sort of budget.

Carolina has one player earning more than William Nylander money, the very deserving Sebastian Aho, but it took an offer sheet to get him his underpay of $8.5 million. The next highest paid member of the team is Jordan Staal, on a legacy deal that looked painfully horrible five years after it was signed in 2012 at $6 million for 10 years. He has two years left, and seemed to earn his pay this year after a rough patch. He is 32, and not getting better, though.

This budget-consciousness is why it’s a very outside chance that the Canes decide to re-sign Dougie Hamilton, arguably their best player after Aho.

As is fairly common on teams that squeeze the salaries on the very top end — and here I’m remembering the old salary structure on the Avalanche when no one was allowed to get over $6 million — the Hurricanes have a bulging middle class, often somewhat overpaid.

It’s not unusual for players like Staal in the downslope of their careers to bring a bit less than their cap hit might require to the table, but the Hurricanes have seven other players costing $4 million or more:

  • Dougie Hamilton - $5.75 million
  • Teuvo Teräväinen - $5.4
  • Nino Niederreiter - $5.25
  • Vincent Trochek - $4.75
  • Jacob Slavin - $5.3
  • Brady Skjei - $5.250
  • Jake Gardiner - $4.05
  • Brett Pesce - $4.025

Some of those deals are outstanding bargains, like Hamilton’s expiring contract and Pesce’s cheap deal. Some are mistakes, like Jake Gardiner, and some are fair value most of the time like Niederreiter.

As is obvious from that list, the Hurricanes have chosen to go big on defence, and they’ve been consistent in one other thing too — suspect goaltending.

Goaltending on both teams is a question mark

One main difference between Carolina and Toronto is that the Hurricanes have a prospect goalie they are bringing along, and in fact, they played him in the playoffs as they went down in defeat. Alex Nedeljkovic was their best goalie in the postseason, appearing in nine of their 11 games. He was good enough that, if the team had been very strong in front of him, they would have had a chance to win another round. He was not excellent, however. Petr Mrazek, perhaps unsurprisingly, was league average in two games played.

In the regular season Nedeljkovic was very good, but Mrazek was excellent in limited use. However, in his prior two seasons as the 40-game starter, he’s averaged out to average. And that’s what his full career should lead you to expect.

James Reimer as the backup has been inconsistent, often injured, and not really a factor on the team this year. That’s a problem, because Carolina payed him like a tandem goalie, and his $3.4 million coming off their books this year is likely going to be gratefully reallocated elsewhere.

Comparing the Leafs to the Canes in net is interesting because the struggle to find a starter who can consistently be good is similar, with a revolving door of backups as Carolina searched for someone to take some of the load off of Mrazek and the Leafs looked to do the same for the better Frederik Andersen. The Leafs seem to have found in Jack Campbell someone at least as reliable as Nedeljkovic, they just had to trade for him while the Hurricanes developed Nedeljkovic in their excellent farm system.

The two teams sit in identical levels of uncertainty for next year. Nedeljkovic has arbitration rights and he’ll get a good salary, and then they, like the Leafs, are shopping for a second goalie to be the veteran backup/partner. The Canes might simply go with Mrazek again, and at the end of the day, the Leafs are better in net right now, but the Canes have the younger man. The Leafs have such a tight budget to spend in net that they have to be smart about this offseason choice, while the Canes can always choose to spend more or move out an underperforming contract.

Goaltending didn’t cost the Hurricanes the series against the Lightning anymore than it cost the Leafs, but it wasn’t going to match up to Carey Price or Andrei Vasilevskiy. Neither team can or will pay that kind of price for a goalie, though, so in that respect, both teams have chosen to go good enough in net and spend elsewhere.

Defence

The Hurricanes spent on defence, with their top six defenders by ice time costing $21 million. They also had Gardiner’s $4 million on top of that adding no value for a bill of $26 million plus some cheap depth.

The Leafs paid for all of their actual top six and their cheap depth with $22 million. The difference in cost really is the Gardiner deal, and Carolina’s unwillingness to play him when he is healthy enough.

What the two teams got for their money, however, was very similar rates of unblocked shots against at five-on-five, both top 10 in the NHL . The Leafs maintained that standing in Expected Goals against, but the Hurricanes fell to absolute mediocrity at 15th.

This is a fairly standard result for the Hurricanes, who have fantastic Corsi percentages, slightly less fantastic Fenwick (they block shots below league average) and an Expected Goals percentage that’s top five, but is the weakest on the defensive side.

They might be known for their defence, but this season, at least, it wasn’t really a strength. More in the mediocrity zone with their goaltending. The Leafs faced some less hyperpowered offence overall in the North, had very similar numbers, but gained on the weighting of the unblocked shots to Expected Goals against.

Both teams controlled the play, kept the volume of shots low, and made it possible to get a lot of points with very good, but not Vezina goaltending. Each team followed a fairly similar pattern in the playoffs, with the Hurricanes winning five of 11 and Toronto three of seven while seeming to be a competitive team against their opponents everywhere but in net. The biggest difference is that Carolina maintained a very high pace of offence in the postseason, and Toronto was not great in that area.

Offence

Carolina is famous for something else as well as their deep defensive corps and their penchant for questionable goalie choices — terrible team shooting percentage. This is not one year of bad luck. In the last four seasons combined, they rank 27th in shooting percentage, and, co-incidentally, 27th in save percentage as well (five-on-five). The Leafs are second in shooting percentage and 12th in save percentage, and that shooting skill is the main difference between them.

You can’t take a good possession team and give it away with bad percentages at both ends and expect to succeed. In this respect it seems like the Leafs have cracked the formula for the best of both worlds — a dominating possession team with offence so skilled that it can and should cover over the weaknesses where the team has allocated less cap space.

The Hurricanes get a lot of their dominating possession from their top line, and that’s where their skill is, but they shot at the expected rate this season, as they usually do. They are a fantastic team at getting into good shooting locations, despite also having heavy shooting from the blueline, but their team skill is system-based, not shooting skill. This year in particular, their stars didn’t add an extra scoring over and above what their systems produced and that continued into the playoffs.

Conclusion

Toronto can’t afford the good quality two-way, defensively gifted, system-oriented forwards that Carolina has filled their middle six with. Staal, Trochek, Niederreiter are all out of reach. What Toronto does have produces better offence on balance than the Canes’ and the only time it falls apart is against a certain type of team that defends in a particular way. Carolina is less vulnerable to that but can be countered with offence too good for them to match with their perennially poor percentages.

The NHL is a hard league to build a winner in, and neither the Leafs or the Hurricanes are absolutely and totally wrong in their approach. Neither of them have a winning formula yet, either.