Matt Cooke’s despicable dirty elbow puts Mario Lemieux and NHL on the hot seat

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It seems that lately not a week goes by without some debate or outrage over a hit. In the last year, the name that comes up more often than not is Matt Cooke. Once again, Cooke delivered a very blatant and dirty hit, this time to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke’s hit put the Penguins down a man for five minutes as he was ejected for the blow. During the course of the major penalty, the Pens were able to score once shorthanded but allowed two goals to swing the game in their favor.

This time around, his chicken-wing elbow to the back of McDonagh’s head comes during a high-profile game just days after the NHL’s general managers met in Florida to figure out what to do about further reducing blows to the head. Thankfully McDonagh wasn’t injured on the play, that’s the good news. The bad news is that Matt Cooke is continued to terrorize opponents on the ice with his brand of hockey. When not delivering cheap shots, Cooke is an excellent checking forward but today’s incident against the Rangers proves that he just doesn’t get it and the guy that’s going to have his hands full in dealing with him is Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

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After the Islanders-Penguins brawl in Long Island, Lemieux lambasted the league for not doing enough to protect its players. Lemieux was torn to shreds for his statements for his seeming ignorance that he employs a cheap shot artist of his own. Lemieux then later wrote a letter to Gary Bettman coming up with some very progressive ideas on how to improve punishment for dirty hits including fining teams large sums of money for keeping those players employed under their watch. In that letter, Lemieux owned up to the players of that ilk they have on their team, a nod to those critical of his first statement.

Now all those who clamored for Lemieux to recognize that his employment of Matt Cooke is part of the problem in the NHL have a loud voice again and rightfully so. For all the issues the league is having with players disrespecting each other and delivering questionable hits to one another Cooke is the poster boy for it all. From his boarding of Fedor Tyutin that earned him a four game suspension, to his hit on Ovechkin, and thinking back to his disgusting hit on Marc Savard a year ago the league hasn’t had this obvious of a pariah in its history.

The NHL has whiffed badly on previous instances on an alarmingly consistent basis to show that they give even half of a damn about player safety. For all the talk that went on at the GM meetings we’ve seen the league fail to take charge with their soft two-game punishment of Brad Marchand of the Bruins for connecting to the back of R.J. Umberger’s head with a blow and the failure to punish Patric Hornqvist of the Predators for his elbow on Boston’s Tyler Seguin. Two very dirty plays, two very head-scratching and soft penalties to both. This time around, the league has a lot to work with.

Cooke’s hit touches on a lot of things the league wants to eliminate from the game and makes him the perfect target for a message-sending landmark punishment:

  • He delivered a blindside hit
  • He delivered a blow to the head
  • He targeted McDonagh’s head
  • He’s a repeat offender

If all those things aren’t grounds for a major suspension, then there’s something inherently wrong with everything the league is doing when it comes to disciplining players.

The one guy who could make the debate over what the NHL will do irrelevant is Lemieux. If Lemieux believes in what he was preaching to the world in the wake of the Islanders thuggery against them, he’ll drop the hammer on Cooke himself before the NHL gets to. If Mario comes out and does that, he’ll set the example he was hoping to with his initial decree to the league. People respect Mario and if he takes a stand like that he’ll be an even bigger hero across the league.

We’re going to assume that the NHL’s response to Cooke’s hit will not be sufficient for most people. After all, how do you appropriately punish a player that’s escaped previous bans for any number of reasons and thus getting by on the NHL’s backwards logic that you’re essentially allowed one dirty play before you’re really punished. Cooke’s record looks virtually spotless considering he’s played over 800 games in the NHL and only been suspended for a total of 10 games in his career.

It seems that each time after he does something else foul we rush to yell that it’s an opportunity for the NHL to send a message to the rest of the players that wanton wretched play will not stand in the game. We’ve yet to be wowed by anything the league has done regarding other thugs and cheap shot artists and maybe for once the league can finally do something to be a positive influence instead of just talking about doing things the “right” way.

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?

Under Pressure: Bill Peters

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

“I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

  • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
  • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
  • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
  • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
  • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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The Carolina Hurricanes have been building up some buzz ever since Bill Peters helped transform a young core into an impressive possession machine.

Even so, whether you blame it on goaltending or some other factor, the Hurricanes haven’t made it to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season.

Management took measures to make some key upgrades in the off-season in order to break that slump.

Logically enough, Carolina searched for an answer in net, trading away Eddie Lack and boldly handing a four-year, $16.6 million contract to Scott Darling. With that, they’ll mix the future (Darling) with the past (Cam Ward) as their goalie duo.

Speaking of the past, the Hurricanes also brought back a vestige of their Stanley Cup victory, acquiring Justin Williams as a UFA. They added some additional championship experience by bringing Marcus Kruger into the mix, too.

Some of the biggest transactions come down to keeping players in the fold. The Hurricanes made it clear that, along with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin figure into their long-term plans with substantial contract extensions.

Of course, the biggest decision may come off the ice, as the Hurricanes’ ownership situation remains fuzzy at the moment.

Switching gears, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about the Hurricanes. Aside from a Williams here and Lee Stempniak there, this roster is brimming with young talent, including players whose peak years are likely ahead of them.

Still, at some point, potential needs to make way for production. PHT will examine where the Hurricanes might be headed in 2017-18 on this fine day.