What Went Wrong: Tampa Bay Lightning

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Once again a team pushed a series to seven games and once again they’ve fallen short of their goal of moving on. Tampa Bay was able to force a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals against Boston only to come up short losing 1-0 in Game 7 after playing inspiring hockey throughout the playoffs that saw them flip the switch from defensive stalwarts to offensive juggernaut when they wanted to. Against Boston, however, it wasn’t meant to be. So what caused them to bow out against the Bruins? Despite pushing a seven game series, we’ve got a pretty good list of problems to work with.

1. Defensive effort not good enough
We talked a little bit about the one missed play defensively in Game 7 that ended up costing Tampa Bay the game and the series, but overall the Lightning’s defensive effort was lacking. Early on in the series you saw Victor Hedman making many youthful mistakes. With it being just his second year in the NHL and him being just 20 years-old and in the midst of his first playoffs, it’s understandable. He improved though but his teammates also had issues.

Eric Brewer and Mattias Ohlund had some struggles later on in the series while Marc-Andre Bergeron was essentially an offense-only option as his defensive play was highly suspect. When the Bruins turned up the pressure on their attack, Lightning defense was hard pressed to fight it off.

Perhaps the most emblematic guy showing off the Lightning’s problems was Brewer. For the amount of ice time he saw (averaged 24:46 per game) he had just one assist and had a plus/minus rating of -4. If you’re going to be a minus, you’d better score points to go with it (Martin St. Louis had seven points and was a -3 for example). Brewer wasn’t helping produce enough and wasn’t helping out enough stopping the opponent. And yes, Brewer was one of the defensemen on the ice for Horton’s game-winner in Game 7 (Ohlund being the other).

2. Dwayne Roloson wasn’t consistent enough
Dwayne Roloson’s play in Game 7 will go down in history as one of the more inspiring performances of the playoffs. 37 saves and an unfortunate loss for the 41 year-old goaltender will leave a bitter taste in his mouth but what will irk him more is his play the rest of the series. Before last night’s Game 7, Roloson was rocking a 4.33 goals against average and a .851 save percentage, numbers that are stunningly poor for the playoffs.

Considering that Roloson was 3-2 in the games he started before Game 7 it’s remarkable the Lightning were even tied in the series. Had he been better though, Tampa Bay may not have gone seven games and would be working on strategies of how to contain the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler. Instead, they’re done for the year with some important questions waiting to be answered before next season.

3. Sean Bergenheim was a lot more important than you think
When Sean Bergenheim went down with an injury in Game 5 of this series the main thing most of focused in upon was how the Lightning were losing one of their top goal scorers in the playoffs. After all, when you’re second in the entire playoffs with nine goals that’s difficult to ignore. Of course, Bergenheim was a star on Tampa Bay’s third line and the traditional role of the third line is to lay the body and defend against the opposing team.

With Bergenheim out, the Lightning not only lost a goal scorer but a physical component of their team as Bergenheim was second on the team in hits against Boston with 16. Only Mattias Ohlund had more hits with 19 and given the apparent lack of physicality overall from the Lightning, losing a guy who was averaging over three hits a game hurts badly.

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Tampa Bay obviously has a lot of high end talent with St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Steve Stamkos, and Victor Hedman. They’ve got the kind of role players you need to be successful in the playoffs as well but next season they have some questions to answer. Who will be their goalie? Both Roloson and Mike Smith are unrestricted free agents. Will they bring back Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim? They’re both free agents to be. How much money will they need to fork over for restricted free agent to be Steven Stamkos? GM Steve Yzerman worked wonders to assemble a team that was instantly successful in the league and went much deeper than anyone thought they would in he and Guy Boucher’s first season.

Expect Tampa Bay to build on this, bring a lot of the band back and help make the team much deeper in the offseason. After all, you build on success with guys like Yzerman in charge, it’s not hard to convince guys to play there especially when “there” is a sunny getaway in Florida.

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?