As Southeast rivals make big changes, the Hurricanes are left twisting in the wind


everythingisonstaalandward.jpgOne of the easiest questions for most hockey people – aside from the least objective Washington Capitals fans, perhaps – was “which division is the weakest in the NHL?” Any puckhead worth his or her salt would swiftly choose the Southeast Division as the league’s worst.

The fact of the matter is that the SE might still be the weakest in the NHL, but the once-middling lightweights are building up resources to knock off Ted Leonsis’s heavyweight gorilla in DC.

The Atlanta Thrashers are bulking up with former Chicago Blackhawks including Dustin Byfulgien, the Tampa Bay Lightning are experiencing a shrewd makeover thanks to new GM Steve Yzerman and the Florida Panthers are trading a little success today for potential payoffs tomorrow with multiple draft picks and younger players. Despite those moves, you’d have to be quite the Kool-Aid drinker to handicap anyone as the division winner over Ovechkin & Co. and GM George McPhee can probably point to the natural internal improvements that come with having a young team to explain his lack of splashy moves.

For years, the Capitals would run away with the division while one other team was lucky to even make the playoffs (if there even was a second team; one year the Atlantic sent four teams, the Northeast sent three and only the Capitals represented the Southeast). If there was one team that gave the Caps at least a token effort, it was former Stanley Cup winner Carolina. With a talented goalie in Cam Ward and a great young forward named Eric Staal, the team would experience some of the most dramatic peaks and valleys of any in the NHL.

But what now? The team lost Ray Whitney (via free agency) and the rapidly declining Rod Brind’amour (retirement) while doing very little to improve their team outside of signing the strange “in one year and out the other” defenseman Anton Babchuk and another retread in Joe Corvo. Even in a top heavy league like the NHL, it cannot make Hurricanes fans too comfortable to realize that Staal, Ward and defenseman Joni Pitkanen account for one third of the team’s meager $44 million salary structure.

You can’t completely blame GM Jim Rutherford since owner Peter Karmanos wants to make the team cheaper and therefore easier to buy, but who can the Hurricanes even hope to step up this season? Aside from Brandon Sutter, I don’t know many go-to guys once you get past Staal and Ward. Considering that injuries and inconsistent play doomed a more credible Canes roster last season, it would require quite the coaching job by Paul Maurice for this team to make an impact, even in a decidedly soft Eastern Conference.

While all four of their divisional cousins can point to an improving short-term and an even better long-term future, the Hurricanes must see nothing but clouds and uncertainty on the horizon.

Even the Flames’ struggling power play capitalized against the Blackhawks’ struggling penalty kill

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The Calgary Flames had the league’s worst power play at just four per cent coming into Monday’s game against Chicago.

Yeah. Awful.

The Blackhawks had the league’s worst penalty kill at just 42.9 per cent, which is also awful, although their issues go deeper than that aspect.

So, of course special teams played an important role in this game. Despite their previous struggles with the advantage, the Flames scored twice on the power play, on goals from Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan, taking their turn capitalizing on Chicago’s early-season difficulties short handed.

The Flames finished two-for-five on the power play, giving them three power play goals in 30 opportunities so far. They jumped all the way to 27th in the league in that category (!!) at 10 per cent. The Blackhawks have given up 14 power play goals against on 26 chances.

This is not the company you’d expect the Blackhawks to be keeping.

The Blackhawks did come back to force overtime, but they ultimately lost 3-2 in the shootout.

Former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg scored the only goal in the deciding breakaway contest, giving Calgary the win.

While the Flames power play came alive for this game, the play of goalie Brian Elliott was significant.

He, too, had struggled mightily with three losses in three starts, and a .839 save percentage, prompting his former teammate Jake Allen to say Flames fans shouldn’t be worried about Elliott despite his dreadful start.

Against Chicago, Elliott made 31 saves on 33 shots and then made five saves in the seven-round shootout.

The Habs took a chance signing Radulov and (so far) they’ve been rewarded

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 20:  Alexander Radulov #47 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at the Bell Centre on October 20, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-2.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadiens took a chance on Alexander Radulov.

The cost? One year at $5.75 million, which is a significant investment for a 30-year-old player with plenty of talent but past off-ice discipline issues. So far, Radulov has been a welcomed addition to a Habs lineup that needed a skilled forward capable of putting up good numbers and taking a top-six role.

The success — or lack of — for the Habs will always focus around the play and health of goalie Carey Price.

But Radulov is off to a nice start to the season, which should provide some optimism for Canadiens fans after a disappointing 2015-16 season and the tumultuous summer that followed.

He entered Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers with two points in five games, but had solid puck possession numbers. Against the Flyers, he was once again a central figure for the Habs on the attack.

And the production followed.

He had a three-point night, setting up Shea Weber‘s goal in the second period — Weber’s slap shot busted the stick of Brayden Schenn and still had enough to get by goalie Steve Mason — and Brendan Gallagher for the eventual winner late in the third period.

Radulov then secured the win with an empty-net goal, giving him five points in six games. The Habs, following their 3-1 win over the Flyers, remain the only team in the league without a regulation loss.

Radulov entered the season as a potential X-factor for the Habs.

General manager Marc Bergevin received plenty of criticism for trading P.K. Subban. But so far, the returns from signing Radulov have been promising for the Habs.

Video: Shea Weber scores with blistering slap shot that destroyed Schenn’s stick


In case you didn’t know by now, here is more evidence that Shea Weber possesses a devastating slap shot.

The Montreal Canadiens defenseman on Monday scored his second goal of the season, once again deploying his shot from the blue line. This time, he ripped a shot that busted the stick of Brayden Schenn, who was trying to get into the shooting lane, and still had enough behind it to beat Flyers’ goalie Steve Mason.

That gave the Habs the lead.

The Flyers responded later on in the second period on Jakub Voracek‘s third goal of the season.

Christian Ehrhoff signs with Kolner Haie in Germany

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Christian Ehrhoff #10 of Team Europe looks on against Team Canada during the second period during Game One of the World Cup of Hockey final series at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Christian Ehrhoff is finally under contract for this season, but not in the NHL.

Ehrhoff, 34, signed with Kolner Haie in Germany, the team announced via Twitter on Monday.

Most recently, Ehrhoff was with the Boston Bruins on a professional tryout (PTO) prior to the beginning of the season, but he opted not to sign with that club, instead deciding to return home to Germany.

Ehrhoff also suited up for Team Europe at this fall’s World Cup of Hockey.

In 789 NHL games, the puck-moving defenseman scored 74 goals and 339 points. His most productive seasons came with the Vancouver Canucks, as he helped that team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.