Sharks at Hurricanes Preview: Sturm Warning

Time to really start banking some losses.

The San Jose Sharks (14-25-10, seventh Pacific) continue this already difficult roadtrip as they head to Raleigh, North Carolina to play the surging Carolina Hurricanes (30-9-8, first Metropolitan). The Sharks will have their hands full defending against superstars like Sebastian Aho — who scored a hat trick earlier this week against the stingy New York Islanders — and Andrei Svechnikov. Of course, they will also be facing Brent Burns, who is having himself a solid season in his first year with the ‘Canes.

These two teams met in the Sharks’ home opener at SAP Center on Oct. 14. The game was kept closely contested, thanks to James Reimer’s heroic efforts in net, but San Jose ultimately fell 2-1.

On Tuesday, San Jose lost to a beatable and inconsistent Detroit Red Wings team — the second time in three games that the Sharks let a good opportunity slip away. Columbus and Detroit were arguably the two easiest teams on this East Coast swing, so the next two weeks could be quite straining. Notably, the Sharks traded Matt Nieto back to the Colorado Avalanche, losing a piece of defensive veteran depth up front.

Carolina must be especially feeling good about their game right now. No matter who is in net, or who is in the line-up, the team finds a way to win. They have won five of the last six, including wins against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars.

This is a team who appears to be gearing up for a deep playoff run. Much like the Boston Bruins, the Hurricanes have a dominant home record at 14-5-2. They have been lead offensively by Martin Necas, Sebastion Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, but have also seen plenty of depth scoring. Former Sharks forward Stefan Noesen is on pace to have the best season of his NHL career and already has 22 points. The other former Shark, Brent Burns, continues to play heavy minutes as he did for San Jose. He leads the Hurricanes in time on ice per game with 23:29.

One of Carolina’s biggest off-season acquisitions, Max Pacioretty, finally joined the team on Jan. 5, after missing the entire season thus far with a torn Achilles. However, Pacioretty has been placed on the injured reserve once again after only five games. Unfortunately for the star goal-scorer, it appears that this major nagging issue might be hinder the rest of his career in hockey.

But really, what’s up with Kevin Labanc?

Labanc’s defensive game has been questioned nearly his entire career. Head coach David Quinn has scratched or benched the talented forward a few times already this season, including four straight games last week. Labanc rejoined the line-up against Detroit and put up two shots on goal in the 3-2 overtime loss. Quinn paired the 27 year-old on top with Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier and in return, he’s been in on some key chances created by the trio.

Can he find consistency to remain in the line-up? His offensive production, plus a more consistent effort defensively could really help the team. Under the Doug Wilson era, a top line of Meier, Hertl and Labanc would have been the most logical and idealistic future of team’s offense. Those three forwards have been considered by many to be the next three star forwards after the Pavelski, Marleau and Thornton years.

Of course, the Sharks as a whole have fallen mightily since the end of the 2010s, and the three young forwards cannot be left alone to blame. Of the three, Kevin Labanc continues to be the most troubled skater, but the good news is that he is performing at a much better pace this year than in the past three. His name has been suggested as a trade target for a few years now, and if general manager Mike Grier were to trade him, some better play right now would certainly increase his value.

Looking forward to the summer

Many Sharks fans have already resigned to wait until the 2023 NHL Entry Draft to make decisions about how to feel about the direction of this team. Grier will have some big decisions ahead of him, and has already discussed the exciting potential of this year’s Draft Lottery.

Following the Hurricanes, San Jose will face the Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. These teams are all playoff contenders, if not mostly Stanley Cup contenders. If the remainder of this road trip goes as expected, the team could find themselves in a position to have solid odds at a top-five draft pick. This year’s draft is projected to offer several superstar caliber prospects, so any position in the top five would be advantageous.

Unlike the Hurricanes, who are focused on the 2023 playoffs, the Sharks’ most pressing quest is to find and ensure success after this season.

Can the Sharks solve the Hurricanes goaltender(s)?

Hurricanes starter, Frederick Andersen, left Wednesday’s game with an upper-body injury after playing remarkably since returning from a separate injury. If Andersen is unable to go for Friday night’s game, it is likely that Antti Raanta will have to step in. Raanta is no slouch himself. He had a solid showing against San Jose in October and sports an 11-2-3 record this season, although he has struggled at times this year.

The Hurricanes are a three-headed monster in goal too, and will have to make a goaltending move to make way for future no. 1 netminder Pyotr Kochetkov, who has been in and out of the starting crease for Carolina all season. Kotchetkov holds a 13-4-5 record, leads the Hurricanes in games played among goaltenders, and has posted the highest save percentage by a significant margin. This bright young star may or may not get the nod against San Jose, but he has already earned at least a permanent 1A/1B role in this league for next season.

Bold prediction: Lead by Meier and Erik Karlsson, the Sharks catch Carolina asleep and strike twice in the first. They play stingy defense in honor of now second-time former Shark and second-time Avalanche, Matt Nieto, and squeak out a 3-1 win.