Will a quiet offseason in Boston translate to another deep playoff run for the Bruins?

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When a team wins a Stanley Cup, the general manager has a different job than his 29 counterparts. While everyone else is trying to improve their team to reach the promised land, the defending Stanley Cup champs are looking for ways to maintain the talent and chemistry that helped them win sports’ most hallowed trophy. Everyone from Dale Tallon to Dean Lombardi to Mike Gillis has an offseason mandate to improve their respective teams—Peter Chiarelli’s mandate is to put a team together that is only as successful as last year’s team.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

There’s a reason that it’s been thirteen years since a team was able to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. It’s difficult to find the same motivation for a second consecutive year—but it’s also increasingly difficult to keep the same team together for multiple years. In the 1980s, the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers were able to rattle off multiple Cup runs because it was easier to keep the majority of their core players in town. Likewise, the Canadiens were able to keep Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer in Montreal as they won 4 straight Stanley Cups in the late 1970s. It’s a different era.

One of the most impressive feats for Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has been that he’s been able to put together a competitive team with an eye to the future. Guys like Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas are veterans who are two of the best players at their respective positions. On the flip side, the Bruins have youngsters like Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, and Milan Lucic who all have their best hockey ahead of them. Don’t look now, but the Bruins could very well be a better team next year than they were in 2010-11.

With all due respect to Boris Valabik, the major parts the Bruins lost in free agency were Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle. Even though fans had been calling for his head for years, Ryder provided some timely goal scoring during the Bruins Stanley Cup championship run. His 8 goals and 9 assists even put him in the top 10 for playoff scoring last season. With his departure to Dallas, the Bruins will expect to fill the void with a combination of newcomer Benoit Pouliot and an increased role for former #2 overall pick Tyler Seguin. Some people forget that Seguin was a healthy scratch periodically throughout his rookie season and only averaged about 12 minutes of ice-time per game. Towards the end of the season and during the playoffs, it looked like Seguin started to turn the corner. The Bruins will look for Seguin to breakout with an increased role next season. In fact, they expect it.

On defense, Tomas Kaberle was supposed to be the missing piece—and since the B’s won the Cup, there’s a little something to the argument. However, most people in Boston will tell you that Kaberle was one of the biggest liabilities on the Bruins roster throughout the playoffs. The only thing that helps fans forget the horrible Kaberle trade with the Maple Leafs is that big shiny chalice that the Bruins are touring the globe with this offseason. By all accounts, Kaberle was a disappointment on the ice in just about every facet of the game. He was brought in to specifically help the Boston power play, which, by the middle of the playoffs, was the biggest joke this side of Philadelphia’s goaltending.

With Kaberle signing with the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent, the Bruins were given another chance to fill the void at the point on their power play. This time, they went the trade route by trading a 4th round pick to the same Hurricanes for Joe Corvo and his booming slap shot. He may not be the best defender in the league, but he’s proven that he can run an NHL power play. He scores with his howitzer from the blueline and also knows how to get his shot through the defense to create rebound opportunities for his teammates. On a team with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg eating up the major minutes, Corvo should be a nice depth player to help the Bruins improve their most glaring weakness.

Perhaps the biggest loss off of last year’s roster has nothing to do with free agency and everything to do with retirement. Mark Recchi provided invaluable leadership for the younger players on the team throughout the regular season and in the playoffs. Of course, it will be important to replace his 48 points from a season ago—but it will be just as important for the newly crowned champions to find someone to step into his leadership role. On the ice, prospect Jordan Caron has been knocking on the door for over a year and could finally get a chance at a permanent spot on the team this year. Caron is a different kind of player than Recchi: he’s more of a third-line guy who plays with energy and can get under the opponents skin. If he develops like the Bruins project, he’ll be able to chip in some points as well.

The Bruins are in a much different position than the Blackhawks faced last season. There was no post-season salary cap purge; there was no feeling of finality during the parade. This team has been put together for the long-term (as long as possible in today’s cap era) and should be just as competitive as they were a season ago. Now, the only question is if their Eastern Conference rivals have done enough to overtake them and win the Prince of Wales trophy next season.

Of course, there’s that other trophy they won as well last season.

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?