2010-11 NHL season preview: New Jersey Devils

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ilyakovalchuk6.jpgLast season: (48-27-7, 103 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference) The New Jersey Devils won another Atlantic Division title while acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk before the trade deadline only to get pounded by the Flyers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs. Despite winning three Stanley Cups in their history, the post-lockout Devils are starting to earn a reputation as a team that is great in the regular season but can’t get it done when the games matter the most.

Head coach: John MacLean paid his dues by going through the Devils system, so now he’ll get his shot with the big team. Things didn’t go so well in Jacques Lemaire’s second stint with New Jersey and the team recently got burned by Brent Sutter, so the Devils must hope for some stability behind the bench.

Key departures: D Paul Martin, G Yann Danis, F Rob Niedermayer, F Dean McAmmond, F Jay Pandolfo and whoever leaves to clear cap space. The biggest loss was Martin, a player who struggled with injuries last year but was often one of the team’s top two defensemen. The other guys are depth players, but whoever leaves to make room for Ilya Kovalchuk – most likely Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner or a mid-level defenseman – will probably be the second biggest loss.

Key arrivals: F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Anton Volchenkov, F Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, G Johan Hedberg. OK, I know Kovalchuk came over last deadline, but his signing was such a headache that he makes sense here. Volchenkov is a valuable defenseman, but he’s coming at a hefty price and his shot-blocking style might make him a likely candidate for the IR. The trade to land Arnott smells of nostalgia, but he can bring some offense. Tallinder is a solid but quiet defenseman while Hedberg did well as a starter in Atlanta, yet might not be more than adequate as a backup. Overall, the Devils improved themselves.

Under pressure: When you are the focus of two months of tedious contract banter (and receive a $100 million contract), then you better deliver, so Kovalchuk is under big-time scrutiny. Zach Parise is also under quite a bit of pressure to drive up his own price in the last year of his bargain contract, while Martin Brodeur needs to win in the playoffs before people start giving up on him.

In other words, there’s plenty of pressure to go around.

Thumbnail image for martinbrodeurglance.jpgProtecting the house: Brodeur is the all-time leader in wins, shutouts and HEbaG (Hamburgers Eaten by a Goalie) and is about as automatic as death and taxes. He still puts up great stats year in and year out. Chances are the no-brainer Hall of Famer will play his typical ton of games because Hedberg is nothing more than an average backup.

On paper, their defense is uninspiring but the Devils’ system tends to camouflage many flaws. Volchenkov might be an upgrade on Martin as far as pure defense goes while Tallinder is another steady upgrade. If the Devils can keep Bryce Salvador, they have a decent trio along with the occasionally mistake-prone but rugged Colin White. The Devils struggle in the playoffs because they lack a true shutdown defenseman, so maybe Volchenkov will be worth those big bucks.

Top line we’d like to see: Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Parise. Sometimes, you get what you want, which is the case of the “ZIP” line. They’ve been tearing it up in the preseason, so don’t expect to see a lot of this trio in the regular season. Patrik Elias isn’t chopped liver in Zajac’s spot, either.

Oh captain, my captain: Jamie Langenbrunner might end up getting traded from New Jersey, but he’s a solid lead-by-example type who should maintain his captain status if he avoids a swap. Lemaire being out of town is a big plus in keeping him happy.

Street fighting man: Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond – rather than discussing his fighting merits, just watch this two-plus minute bout with Cam Janssen.

Best-case scenario: The “ZIP” line becomes the best scoring line in Devils history while Elias and Arnott are inspired to defend the honor of the Elias-Arnott-Petr Sykora line by putting up great depth offense, too. Volchenkov helps the Devils put together their best defense since they lost Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in rapid succession. Brodeur shakes off his playoff struggles and the Devils win yet another Cup.

Worst-case scenario: The Devils falter in the playoffs while Kovalchuk justifies all the “once a loser, always a loser” fears by putting up empty numbers in the regular season but struggling when it counts. Worse yet, the Devils allow both the Penguins and Flyers to pass them in the Atlantic Division so they don’t even have a division title to heal their wounds. Brodeur shows his age with a below-average season.

Keeping it real: The Devils are a top-heavy team that should be great in the regular season, but what about the playoffs? Arnott and Kovalchuk are one-dimensional players while Volchenkov puts himself into consistent danger by blocking shots (even though that’s just what he does). Brodeur has a lot of mileage, so that whole 70-starts-per-year thing might not be so wise any longer.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and a five being the best, they get a 5. They have some flaws, but every team has its blemishes. The bottom line is that this is the best Devils team in ages, one built to win now or (almost) never.

Francis hopes Hurricanes live up to hype

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t been able to make the jump that some have been anticipating for a while, but that hasn’t shaken GM Ron Francis’ confidence in head coach Bill Peters. At least not yet.

Francis had high praise for Peters and other facets of this Hurricanes team in a detailed interview with Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News & Observer.

And, oh yeah, Francis also doesn’t have an issue with the Hurricanes being a dark horse candidate in many eyes.

“It all starts with us and we have a lot of belief in our players and we think we’re capable of having a good year and doing some good things,” Francis said. “I have no problem with people talking about that and putting those kind of expectations on us. Hopefully, they’re right.”

Even so, Francis had some interesting things to say about the makeup of the team, including the fact that while he’s comfortable with where Carolina stands, he’s also open to making a move if an opportunity comes up.

Don’t expect him to bash what they have, though.

Take the team’s set of centers, for instance.

“If you look around the league and you say ‘This guy is a legitimate No. 1, top-line center,’ there’s probably 16 of those guys in the entire league,” Francis said. “They are not easy to find, and a lot of time you have to draft those guys and develop them. We’re hoping we have that kind of guy in our system already, but I certainly feel the guys we have in the middle are elite center men.”

Francis reasonably views Jordan Staal as a sturdy “horse” for the team, and doesn’t seem too concerned by Victor Rask‘s uneven 2016-17 season. Even in also flattering depth options, those two will indeed play a role in Carolina taking the next step, as long as some big changes – Scott Darling getting a significant contract, Justin Williams coming back – end up working out.

That said, file this under “Easier said than done,” as the Hurricanes must navigate the brutal Metropolitan Division to get a “foot in the playoffs.” For all we know, that might not work out even if this group makes some big strides in 2017-18.

Either way, it’s enjoyable to get Francis’ perspective on the team, being that he was one of the most cerebral players of his era. Read the full article here.

Looking to make the leap: Haydn Fleury

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes have built an impressive stockpile of young defensemen, arguably the best in the NHL.

Looking at their current NHL roster there isn’t one defensemen under contract for this season that is over the age of 26, while three of their best — and youngest — are all signed to long-term deals. Not only are they young, they are also already really, really good and just need a more stable goaltending situation behind them to help the Hurricanes take a big leap forward this season.

For as good and promising as that group already is, there is another young player in the pipeline that hasn’t even had a chance to make an impact yet in 2014 first-round pick (No. 7 overall) Haydn Fleury.

The 21-year-old Fleury is coming off of his first year of pro hockey, spending the 2016-17 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Other than missing part of the season due to injury it was mostly a successful pro debut for the young rearguard, appearing in 69 games and scoring seven goals to go with 19 assists and showing considerable improvement down the stretch following a slow start.

The logjam of young defensemen already in Carolina is going to make it tough for Fleury to crack the lineup, but the No. 6 spot on the blue line does seem to be up for grabs between him and Klas Dahlbeck. Even if he doesn’t grab that spot at the start of the season it seems reasonable to assume that at some point during the season — whether it be due to injury, a trade, or just a lack of performance from somebody else — that he is going to make his NHL debut.

When he does it will be just another promising young player added to a defensive core that already boasts Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Given the contracts Faulk, Slavin and Pesce are signed to, and the fact Hanifin and Fleury are still on their entry level deals it gives the Hurricanes a ton of flexibility when it comes to constructing their roster. Any of them would be attractive pieces in trade talks to make improvements elsewhere, or they can be the foundation of the defense — and the team itself — for the next six or seven years for a remarkably affordable price.

Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

  • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
  • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

Goaltending.

They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.

Poll: Will the Hurricanes be a playoff team this season?

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It has been eight years since the Carolina Hurricanes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then they have gone through three coaches, numerous roster constructions and a still ongoing rebuilding effort.

For the past three or four years it seems as if the Hurricanes have entered the new season as a popular sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and things never quite seem to work out for one reason or another (recently goaltending has been a big reason). Those expectations are back once again this season.

They had a pretty strong finish to the 2016-17 season with an 11-5-5 mark down the stretch and have an impressive young core of players in place, mostly on their defense that is stacked with a ton of already good — and very underrated — players all under the age of 24, with several of them now locked in to long-term contracts. Up front Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, while Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask are looking like two of the best young forwards in the league. They attempted to complement that young core this summer with some pretty significant veteran additions, including Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling.

Their young players are still at an age where they have room to improve, and they made some significant additions around them (and do not forget Jordan Staal, who is still a really good player even if he carries a huge contract). Will those improvements be enough to help the Hurricanes make up eight points in the standings and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season?