The 2013 Carolina Hurricanes were a very strange team. They finished with a lottery pick despite being a positive team in terms of even strength puck-possession and managed to do it while playing behind one of the most porous defenses in the NHL. They were among the worst teams in the league at preventing shots on goal but managed to create more than they gave up, as they were also one of the best teams at creating 5v5 shots on goal. This should have resulted in them scoring more goals but that wasn't the case, unfortunately.
Outside of their first line, the Canes had problems finding the back of the net. They had the 7th worst 5v5 shooting percentage in the NHL and the worst shooting percentage on the power play. On top of that, they received below average goaltending and that's generally bad news when you give up 30+ shots per 60 minutes during even strength play along with a terrible penalty kill. The fact that the Hurricanes were able to stay above water at even strength was kind of amazing when you consider how poor their defense was, the fact that it wasn't resulting in many goals has a lot of people thinking that the team needs a massive overhaul.
While the defense had a lot of room to improve, the Hurricanes should not have been as bad as where they finished last season, because intangible things like injuries, shooting percentage and goaltending played a major role in where they finished. It has been shown that teams who can control possession generally make the playoffs and the Hurricanes were pretty solid in this regard in just about every game situation, which tells me that this team would have posted a stronger record in a full season rather than finishing 26th in the league.
However, the Hurricanes were a little different from other positive possession teams out there because they were such a high-event club. By that, I mean they created a lot of offense, but they also gave up almost just as much in their own end. Having a stretch of bad goaltending or a couple of weeks where you can't score can doom a team playing this kind of style and this is pretty much what happened to the Hurricanes last year. The Canes didn't have a strong enough defense to play a shutdown style, so they did their best to outscore the opposition and needless to say, the results weren't that good.
This relates to the way the team was constructed and the system Kirk Muller runs, so it wouldn't be a shocker ot see them play a similar style next year unless a major overhaul happens. Is it possible for them to contend while playing this style or will they need to change systems to find their way back to the post-season? They aren't the first team to play such a "high-event" style and I'm sure other clubs have been able to find success playing firewagon hockey instead of "shutting down" their opponents. How common is it, though? To answer that question, we'll look at some other "high-event" teams and compare their results.
Finding similar teams to Carolina isn't terribly difficult because there were a few from this past season who posted similar underlying numbers. There are a few ways you can describe a "high-event" team, but for this study we're looking at teams who gave up a high number of 5v5 shot attempts while owning at least 50% of them. Those were the numbers the Hurricanes posted this past season and there were actually a couple of playoff teams who were similar to them in this regard. Don't believe me? Take a look at the chart below.
This chart plots each team's Corsi For/60 against their Corsi Against/60 to show how good they were in terms of puck-possession. Teams in the lower or right part of the graph are generally the strongest while teams in the upper or left part of the graph are the weakest. You can see that the Hurricanes are in the upper-portion of the chart, which indicates that they were bad defensively. However, they were also one of the best teams at creating shots on goal & were generating more offense than they were giving up. The three teams closest to them here are San Jose, Ottawa & Boston, all of whom made the playoffs last season.
These teams were slightly better than the Hurricanes defensively, but preventing shots wasn't exactly their strongest assets and their strategy at even strength was to outscore their opponents instead of trying to slow them down. That's probably the best way to go when you look at each of their defense corps. So why did these teams make the playoffs while Carolina's season ended up in the toilet? It's pretty simple: Goaltending and special teams.
San Jose, Boston & Ottawa all had mediocre shooting percentages at even strength despite their high shot totals, but it wasn't that big of a deal because they received some of the best goaltending in the league. In addition to that, they either had one of the best power plays in the NHL (San Jose) or an elite penalty kill (Ottawa & Boston) to make up for their low goal totals at even strength. Carolina had sub-par goaltending and awful special teams, so any advantage they had during five-on-five was mitigated by that. The fact that they struggled to score at even strength was just salt in the wound.
Ottawa is probably the most similar team to the Hurricane son the list. Like Carolina, the Sens went through injury problems, had issues scoring at even strength and had a defense corps that wasn't going to scare many opponents. They also gave up a ton of shots but managed to make up for it at the other end by creating more than they were giving up. The difference is that Ottawa received elite goaltending at even strength and on the PK to help keep them in games and that was even with starter Craig Anderson on the shelf for a good part of the year. Carolina did not receive such a luxury and ended up dropping in the standings as a result. Everyone likes to point to the Senators as an example of what great coaching can accomplish and while I admire the job Paul Maclean has done there, I have a hard time believing they make the playoffs if Dan Ellis & Justin Peters were their goaltending options for half the season.
So, when looking at last season alone, you can conclude that it's possible to make the playoffs while playing a high-event style but that was only a 48-game season, so it's not safe to assume anything based on that. Thankfully, we have sites like Behind the Net & Hockey Analysis which allow us to look back at the last six seasons and we can see if other "high-event" teams have had success in the regular season. When looking at the top 10 clubs since 2007, we are left with similar results.
Only four of the top 10 teams since 2007 made the playoffs and the ones who did had a lot that went right for them, whether it was benefiting from percentages or great goaltending. However, one thing you may notice here is that the ones who did have success ranked pretty high in their conference. The Caps & Flyers were both among the best teams in the East in their respective seasons and the Bruins club listed here won the Cup. The 2010-11 Hurricanes club that missed the playoffs by one game also makes an appearance on this list and the only reason they were able to get that far is because of Cam Ward having the best season of his career.
So yes, it is possible to make the playoffs while playing a "high-event" style, but some things need to go right for it to work. It seems to produce terrific results when it does work, though. The problem is that if you go through a cold stretch or have bad goaltending (see Toronto), your team may find themselves in the cellar of their conference. It's also worth noting that a couple of high-event teams on this list were bad possession teams (Islanders, 2013 Leafs), so those clubs are not comparable to the Hurricanes because of how often they were getting hemmed into their own zone.
The Hurricanes style of play is a double-edged sword because it can be so effective and thrilling to watch when it works, but infuriating when the opposite happens. Most of Carolina's core pieces are still in place, so I'm not sure how much their underlying numbers will change next season and I expect their strategy to stay the same as long as Muller is coach. Fans just need to hope that the results are a little better and I think they will be. If oly for the fact that they upgraded their goaltending and should get better seasons out of their second & third lines than they did last season. Still, I would expect a lot of peaks & valleys as the year rolls along.
Stats courtesy of Hockey Analysis & Behind The Net