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Tweetmail No. 121: Surprise, Improvement & Contention

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

Hello and welcome to a weekly feature on CarolinaHurricanes.com in which I take your Twitter questions about the Carolina Hurricanes or other assorted topics and answer them in mailbag form. Hopefully the final product is insightful to some degree, and maybe we have some fun along the way.

Let's get to it.

Tweet from @CanesNetfront: @MSmithCanes #Tweetmail Who has been the biggest surprise for you so far this season?

I'm not going to say Jeff Skinner. Yes, he ranks tied for third in the NHL in points with 11 (5g, 6a) in just eight games played. In fact, his 1.38 points per game ranks second in the NHL among players who have played at least five games.

But this doesn't surprise me because we've seen what Skinner is capable of offensively. He is an elite offensive talent in the NHL, and there is no denying that fact. What you've seen through the first month of the season is that talent manifesting itself and Skinner dominating shifts in which he's on the ice.

What is surprising to me and what I've been most impressed by is the chemistry exhibited between Skinner, Victor Rask and Lee Stempniak, who comprise one of the most dangerous trios in the NHL thus far this season. From years past, we knew Rask and Skinner had a bit of a spark together, but introducing a free agent pick-up to the mix is always a question mark.

As it turns out, Stempniak has been the perfect addition on that line. Throughout his career, Stempniak has proven to be a reliable goal-scorer and point producer. Last year, he quietly assembled a 51-point season (19g, 32a) with New Jersey and Boston. He's carried that production into this season with six points (4g, 2a) in nine games, tied for third best on the team. He puts himself in the right positions offensively, and he's benefitted from that, as has the line itself, which has been a scoring threat each and every night. At just 23 years of age, Victor Rask is one of the NHL's underrated centers, and Skinner, as noted above, has continued to show why he's one of the league's elite skaters and finishers.

Without question, the early chemistry and success of that line has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the season so far for me.

Tweet from @B_Low_: @MSmithCanes what is the biggest aspect of the 'Canes game that needs improvement? #tweetmail

I think there are a number of aspects in all areas of the ice that the Hurricanes need to assess.

Offensively, it would be nice to see one of the other lines get going. The success of the Skinner-Rask-Stempniak line has been well-documented (see above), but what about the other three? The Staal and Lindholm lines have been threatening at times, but the hope is that one or both of them catch fire.

On the defensive side of the puck, the Hurricanes need to be cleaner and tighter. Too many times this season has an errant pass or failed clearing attempt in the defensive zone or neutral zone led to a rush the other way and the puck in the back of the net. Tuesday night's contest in Ottawa was one of the Canes' better defensive efforts of the season, at least in the first and third periods.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it's imperative that the goaltending improve. Goals-against averages of 3.33 and 4.00 and sub-.900 save percentages of .882 and .857 are not going to cut it in today's NHL. I thought Ward's game in Ottawa on Tuesday night, in which he made 30 saves, was one of his better efforts this season (and it's tough to win in this league when you only score a goal). At some point, though, the Hurricanes need one of Ward or Eddie Lack to bail them out, to make that save or series of saves that gives them life and can carry them to victory.

Tweet from @carsonmcgee99: @MSmithCanes do you still see Carolina as a playoff contender? #Tweetmail

I do still believe there is playoff potential in this locker room. The Hurricanes are going to need to address the ailments above and do so soon. Yes, the team is only nine games in to what is a long 82-game campaign, but we've seen how quickly things can slip away in the early going. There's not a lot of movement in the standings in the second half of the season, so the Hurricanes need to put themselves in a position to be successful down the stretch. The good news is there's still time to do so, and perhaps most importantly, there's the talent to make it happen.

Tweet from @MSmithCanes: Visual proof that the #HurricanesHomegrown food and drink was #good. You can have this very pork belly & mac 'n cheese pizza on March 18. pic.twitter.com/48hc7qgFDr

This isn't a Tweetmail question, but y'all. This Hurricanes Homegrown Series is going to be something else. Lots of unique food items, a collection of tasty beverages, locally designed original t-shirts and posters and live music. Mark these eight games on your calendar with a big red star because they're sure to be a good time.

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Join me next week for more questions and more answers!

If you have a question you'd like answered or you'd like to know the blow-by-blow details on the signature food items and beverages featured in the Hurricanes Homegrown Series, you can find me on Twitter at @MSmithCanes or drop an email here.

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