Chicago and Washington: Rising to the top

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Chicago Blackhawks vs. Washington Capitals
12:30 p.m. EST – Sunday, March 14, 2010
Live on NBC

It’s just a normal, regular season game between two teams that meet
just once a year – but today’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and
Washington Capitals is so much more than that. It’s a game between two
potential Stanley Cup finalists and two teams who have mirrored the
other in a rise to tops of each conference.

We always love to make the most of the storylines each game and
perhaps make them out to be a bit more than they really are. Yet today’s
game is such an interesting matchup that I can’t help but look ahead at
what these two teams could bring in what would be perhaps the most
exciting playoff series the NHL has even known. The skill on display by
each, the amount of goals scored due to goaltending ineptitude? It’d be
like an all-star game, but much more physical and the stakes are just a
bit higher.

From mediocrity to potential greatness.

The Blackhawks and Capitals have each risen from the ashes that lie
in the dredges of each conference to become the two most exciting teams
in the NHL. The San Jose Sharks lead the Western Conference,
technically, but their style is so methodical – and perhaps boring —
that the Blackhawks have certainly taking the lead in scariest team in
the West.

Just a few years ago both of these teams were either out of the
playoffs or just lucky to get there. For the Blackhawks it was much
worse; the team had just one postseason appearance in 10 seasons. Yet
when a team is that bad for that long, there are some positives that
come from all of the frustration: high picks in the draft.

It’s all about the draft, baby.

While Chicago’s rise has been a bit swifter than Washington’s, each
team boasts a nucleus of great players taken in the draft. Sure, not
every team with a number one draft pick becomes great just a few years
later – but it sure doesn’t hurt when trying to rebuild. The Capitals
and Blackhawks both built a team predicated on speed and skill, and they
drafted players that fit into that mold.

Of course, getting Alex Ovechkin in 2004 certainly helped speed up
the process for Washington but it’s still taken them a number of years
of building around him to get where they are now. Plus, the combination
of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane could be considered an ever greater
threat than the Great Ovechkin alone.

Who’s greater? Let’s find out.

Are the Capitals really as good as their record says they are? I know
they score a lot of goals, but they can’t be just heads and shoulders
above every other team like it seems they are on paper. And despite my
constant harping on Chicago’s goaltending situation, there’s no doubt
its defense is miles ahead of Washington’s.

Perhaps Washington’s bloated points lead is the result of playing in
perhaps the worst division in the NHL. Well, maybe not the worst – but
having just one team in the top eight in the conference doesn’t help the
argument. And while we all fawn over Chicago’s exciting style and their
great defense, our lamenting of the goaltending is perhaps a bit
overplayed.

So who is better? Which team’s offense can overcome the other’s the
most? These are the two most exciting teams in hockey to watch and
they’ll be taking on one another in a one-game playoff to determine
which team really has risen higher in such a short time. I know that
it’s just one game but these are two teams that are at the peak of their
skill level after years of re-tooling and rebuilding. They’ve been
raised side by side, their styles mirroring each other and now we get to
see them faceoff for the only time this season.

Hopefully it won’t be the last.

Join us for a live chat of today’s game at 11:30 a.m. EST, only on
Pro Hockey Talk!

Get to know Hurricanes’ slew of young defensemen

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There’s a strong chance that Carolina Hurricanes fans are strongly informed about this team’s wealth of promising – in some cases, already productive – young defensemen.

Carolina still has some questions in net, as Scott Darling must prove that his strong work as a backup in Chicago will translate into a productive career as the top guy with the Hurricanes. There’s also some questions at forward; while the group looks feisty, it’s unclear if they’ll be dominant or merely solid.

The defense, however, seems to be the group that could really become the envy of just about every NHL team outside of maybe Nashville.

Again, Hurricanes fans probably know this well. On the other hand, plenty of other hockey fans – maybe even hardcore ones – only know so much about these guys. In the event that the Hurricanes finally make good on their building hype, here’s a guide so that you can look like you knew about them first.

(Hey, you missed out on that sensation with your hipster music friends in high school, so here’s your chance.)

Note: This will focus mainly on their most prominent defensemen.

Justin Faulk – OK, if Hurricanes defensemen are indie bands, then Faulk is The Arcade Fire: most people know about him by now.

Still, at just 25, he’s in the thick of his prime, and at the very team-friendly clip of $4.833 million for three more seasons.

Since he really broke through in 2014-15, Faulk has generated 48 goals. That’s the sixth-highest total among NHL defensemen during that period of time, according to Hockey Reference. (Brent Burns is in a league of his own with 73, but he’s only eight behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who came in second with 56 goals.)

Faulk’s 23 power-play goals rank third among blueliners during that same stretch.

The American defenseman is a bit of a double-edged sword in that chances seem to go both ways when he’s on the ice, but his offensive production is probably worth it.

Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin – At the moment, it seems clear that the Hurricanes would be wise to make their current defensemen specialists.

While Faulk can be the offensive motor, it sure seems like Pesce and Slavin could be the guys doing the dirty work in their own end. Head coach Bill Peters can decide if he wants to have one be Faulk’s “defensive conscience” or if he wants to put them together, but either way, each blueliner puts up modest offensive numbers but limits chances against to a promising degree. And, hey, there’s a chance they might bump those scoring numbers up at least a bit as they mature.

The Hurricanes made big investments in contract extensions for Pesce, 22, and Slavin, 23, this summer.

Noah Hanifin – There are certain numbers that make you grimace with Hanifin, 20, especially if you grade him based on the fact that he was drafted fifth overall in 2015.

He certainly doesn’t work out too well from a fancy stats perspective:

Yikes, well at least he seemed to be a strong playmaker …

On the bright side, Canes Country’s Peter Dewar notes that Hanifin’s numbers dramatically improved once he was elevated to a spot with Pesce in Carolina’s top-four once Ron Hainsey was traded.

Hanifin scored almost as many points (14) in 26 games after Hainsey was traded than he did (15) in the 55 contests before that happened. His stats improved basically across the board, often in dramatic ways.

Perhaps Hanifin made the jump to the NHL a bit too quickly, but there’s still plenty of time for him to figure things out. Much like Klas Dahlbeck and Trevor van Riemsdyk, Hanifin enters a contract year as he’ll be an RFA after 2017-18. Dalbeck and TVR are both 26, so the similarities likely end there.

Haydn Fleury: Click here for plenty on Fleury, the subject of “Looking to make the leap.”

Jake Bean: Along with Fleury, Bean is one of the blueliners who could battle for minutes in the near future. Bean, 19, was the 13th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft. He’s been putting up impressive offensive numbers in the WHL, and even last year spoke with NHL.com about the logjam in the Carolina pipeline.

“In some ways it’s a logjam, but for me, I’m excited that I’m going to be surrounded by really talented prospects and players,” Bean said. “It’s an opportunity not everyone is going to get with every team.”

***

For all we know, amassing such an impressive war chest of defensive talent might one day allow GM Ron Francis to improve other areas of the team. It’s the sort of luxury few teams can relate to.

As is, though, this is one impressive group with its best days almost certainly coming down the road.

Video: Don Cherry sings ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ at Cubs game

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So, CBC personality Don Cherry was the Chicago Cubs’ recent guest for their traditional rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.

He’s not the first hockey-person to do so, as Jonathan Toews was involved in a memorable butchering of that song, among others.

Cherry put his own spin on it, giving fans a chance to review both his singing, lyrics, and his suit (the latter of which was relatively understated):

Russian Machine Never Breaks and Sportsnet note that Cherry tweaked the lyrics just a bit, but he earned some points with fans in Chicago by getting a cheap Blackhawks pop.

Hey, if nothing else, it provided an opportunity to dust off that awesome, ancient photo via Getty.

The case for Hurricanes signing Jaromir Jagr

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It’s tough to pick the perfect NHL home for Jaromir Jagr because there are just so many variables.

There are, for instance, unspoken demands. Jagr has easily earned the right to ask for a significant salary and role thanks to his Hall of Fame career. It’s his right to hold out for what he wants.

Of course, it makes him a tougher puzzle piece to wedge into a team’s bigger picture. The 45-year-old could finally totally fall off the map in 2017-18. Naturally, even if he merely continues to slip, there’s the argument that Jagr is taking minutes away from players with a brighter future.

SBNation blog Canes Country, for instance, ultimately argued against the Carolina Hurricanes bringing the legend in:

Justin Williams was brought in this offseason to help bring veteran leadership to the Hurricanes, and it seems general manager Ron Francis – Jagr’s former teammate in Pittsburgh – is done making moves. Their leadership quota filled, there’s really no place for Jagr to fit in the Canes’ lineup.

Perhaps not, but let’s trot out a few reasons why the Hurricanes should really think it over.

Star power

In Mid-July, 24/7 Wall St. reported that the Hurricanes saw the second-largest percentage drop in professional sports over the last decade. An eight-year postseason drought tends to hurt a team at the box office, after all.

Now, winning would be the best way for the Hurricanes to fill the seats. There’s no denying that.

Still, for all the hype about this roster full of young stars, that buzz might not go far enough to really draw mainstream attention. Signing Jaromir Jagr would be a way to draw eyes to the Hurricanes, and with a ton of cap space, Carolina is nicely equipped to meet his demands.

Grumpy old men?

Canes Country makes a strong point about how Jagr might not fit in with, say, Jordan Staal or Victor Rask.

Of course, part of that reasoning is based on a perfect world scenario where no one gets injured, but even assuming that’s the case … perhaps head coach Bill Peters could find some creative solutions?

For one thing, the question of foot speed could, conceivably, be mitigated by putting the few elder statesmen together. Perhaps Jagr would line up with Lee Stempniak and/or Justin Williams, thus sequestering some of the older legs and giving Peters a chance to massage situations to their advantage?

He might still provide a boost

It’s understandable to point to, say, dipping numbers for Jagr without Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and say that he can’t do it on his own.

On the other hand, Jagr sure seems like he would fit in on a team that’s quietly building a reputation as a possession powerhouse. Even in 2016-17, Jagr’s incredible hockey IQ and puck protecting prowess allowed him to put up the sort of possession numbers that players half his age would envy.

Just consider how he compares to the HERO chart standard for a first-line winger:

If fancy stats bore you, consider this:

Maybe Jagr wouldn’t be such a bad stylistic fit, after all?

***

Hurricanes GM Ron Francis said that he’s comfortable with the team as is, yet he’d also be willing to make an upgrade. The implication seemed to be via the trade route, but the Hurricanes really might want to give some extra thought to bringing in Jagr.

It might just help them break that playoff slump.

Gulutzan thinks Flames can be ‘a 100-point club’

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Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan covered a wide array of topics in a great Q & A with the Calgary Sun’s Wes Gilbertson, with his discussion of how well 2017-18 could go possibly being the most interesting note:

“The challenge, for sure, is managing expectations. We weren’t a 5-10-1 team to start last year, and we weren’t a 16-5 team to end,” Gulutzan said. “We finished with 94 points. I think, realistically, we can do better than that. But to make a jump from 77 to 94 to 118 isn’t realistic. So we have to manage that expectation. Our goal is we think we could be a 100-point club. That’s kind of what I think a lot about in the summer — trying to manage that expectation but also have something in mind that we think we could be.”

Interesting.

Adding Travis Hamonic to a defensive mix that was already quite impressive should raise Calgary’s ceiling to begin with. It doesn’t hurt that many of their best players are in the meat of their primes, from Johnny Gaudreau to Dougie Hamilton to Sean Monahan and more.

Gulutzan praised the size, character, and “play” of new goalies Mike Smith and Eddie Lack, yet that might once again be the reason to wonder if the Flames can make that next step from a team fighting for a playoff spot to a team legitimately contending.

(The jury’s still out on Gulutzan, too, though he makes a reasonable point that 2017-18 could be more stable as his second season after the “mega changes” of his debut season.)

There are some other interesting bits in this interview, which is worth your time, including:

  • Micheal Ferland is slated to start the season as Calgary’s first-line winger alongside Gaudreau and Monahan.
  • Hamonic will likely pair up with T.J. Brodie to begin; Gulutzan says that while Hamonic isn’t a “void” on offense, he expects Hamonic to open things up for Brodie.
  • Gulutzan expects a “big leap” from Sam Bennett.

Check out the full back-and-forth at the Calgary Sun.

If you need even more Flames action, there’s also this: