Martin Necas’ Hurricanes breakout has reached critical mass

You could consider the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win over the Lightning on Saturday their best of the season for a few reasons: Their perseverance to come back after falling into an early 2-0 hole. The league’s best power play staying consistent. The fact that they beat the best team in the league and by far the best goaltender.

But when I look back on that game, I’ll remember something that has been quietly building all season and hit critical mass that day: the unignorable emergence of Martin Necas.

Necas’ career-best four-point evening left no crumbs. He factored in on every Carolina goal, assisting on Cedric Paquette and Sebastian Aho’s goals while giving the Canes the lead twice with his own snipes.

And he did that against Tampa Bay. Against Andrei Vasilevskiy.

If you watched, you’ll also recall the crossbar he hit and Vasilelevskiy’s robbery of another chance.

“I know how good he is,” Aho said when I asked him if Necas is underrated around the league. “In my mind, he’s not. Our team knows how good he is. But maybe for the media and other teams, maybe underrated. I don’t know. But our team for sure knows how good he is.”

It all brought me back to the first game of the month against the Panthers, when head coach Rod Brind’Amour benched Necas for almost nine minutes after some lazy defense. Y’all remember the rest of March 11, 2021, though? Necas came back for an assist and the game-winning goal in overtime.

“He’s never lacked for confidence,” Brind’Amour said. “From Day 1, he’s been trying to make plays. We encourage it, but I think now he has a better understanding of when and where to make plays. You can see it. He’s matured. Physically, he’s a little stronger, which goes a long way to having your own confidence. I think it’s his maturity, physically. He’s always had the confidence.”

I picked the brain of Hurricanes color commentator Tripp Tracy while writing this article, and he nailed the dynamic between Brind’Amour and players like Necas that has made this team work so well: “It’s a two-way road, and two-way players get two-way coaching.”

Necas has been one of the best players in the league in March with seven goals and 17 points in 10 games, but his impact — and Brind’Amour’s decision to put him on a line with Aho and Nino Niederreiter — has been deeper than that.

Overall, Necas ranks No. 3 among the Canes in Goals Above Replacement, according to Evolving-Hockey. His power-play production (four goals and 10 points) has contributed greatly to his point totals, but then you consider his plus-16 rating, and it’s his even-strength offense and reliability that is driving that.

And according to The Athletic contributor Shayna Goldman, Necas’ progress is likely here to stay.

“His offense looks pretty sustainable — no red flags standing out, no inflated shooting percentage (13 percent), goal scoring is close to expectations (8.02 expected versus actual 9), and the team is driving play at five-on-five with him on the ice,” she said. “When we weigh his ice time to compare how he stacks up to the team, he’s scoring at a rate of 3.18 points per 60 minutes in all situations, which is second to Vincent Trocheck (and rates 29th in the league).”

In eight games with Aho and Niederreiter, Necas has posted five goals and five assists. And when the line is on the ice at five-on-five, the Canes control 53.3 percent of the shots and 56.7 percent of the expected goal share. The team has scored at a rate of 2.22 goals per 60 minutes with them on the ice, which is just below expected (2.42 goals per 60).

Hockey-Viz shows us something Brind’Amour would love: The Hurricanes are 14 percent stronger defensively when the NAN line (we’re making this a thing unless you have any better suggestions) is out on the ice.

You’ll notice how much they have protected right in front of the net.

That doesn’t come without buy-in from Necas, and many wondered if he’d be given that after finding himself on the short end of an expansion-draft loophole that allows the Canes to keep him — unprotected — because they left him in AHL Charlotte in 2018-19.

“It was hard, that one year when I was in the AHL,” Necas said. “I was not upset, but maybe it pissed me off that I was in the AHL. But it happens. You’ve just got to keep getting better every day. That’s what I was doing in the AHL. Last year was my first year in the NHL, and this year it’s better.”

Can confirm.

He ended up getting Calder Cup-champion experience despite probably being ready to play in the NHL, and while anyone would have been frustrated, he also got to work on the defensive side of the game, which is part of what has made him ready for the first line now.

Patience pays off, but this is one of these situations where it truly seems the perfect coach met the perfect player.