2011-12 season preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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2010-11 record: 40-31-11, 91 points; 9th in East, 3rd in Southeast

Playoffs: Did not qualify

If the Hurricanes won just one more game, that sad category above could have been very different. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning absolutely flattened the ‘Canes 6-2 in a win-and-you’re-in game in Carolina. It seems harsh to sum up an 82-game season full of ups and downs by a single loss, but that defeat is the lasting image of the 2010-11 season.

This Hurricanes team only sports subtle differences compared to last season, so it’s going to come down to execution in 2011-12.

Offense

The Hurricanes basically exchanged veteran wingers Cory Stillman and Erik Cole for prospect Anthony Stewart and journeyman forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. It’s understandable that the Canes balked at Cole’s asking price, but the bottom line is that their offense might take a step back next season.

One can imagine that a Carolina fan’s reflexive answer might be “Jeff Skinner.” The seventh pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft burst onto the scene to win the Calder Trophy, but with even less offensive support, teams will be able to gear more attention toward him (although Eric Staal’s obviously remains the top threat). That might make a “sophomore slump” more probable.

Ultimately, the Hurricane’s offense looks like it will take a step back – on paper, at least.

Defense

The big defensive change is in the higher end of their offensive blueliners. Rutherford opted to sign Tomas Kaberle to a substantial contract, which forced Joe Corvo out of town (they traded him to Boston).

It’s easy to judge Kaberle too harshly for his flat performance with the Bruins after the trade deadline, but considering how well his lesser brother Frantisek fared with the Canes, one could assume Tomas will fit in better in Carolina. The Canes generated the highest number of power play opportunities since the lockout, but haven’t been able to capitalize on those chances very often. He didn’t help Boston’s PP much in that short time, but if the Hurricanes continue to force their way to the man advantage as much as previous seasons, the Kaberle signing could be very beneficial.

Kaberle could be a difference-maker, but the onus remains on Joni Pitkanen. While he’s not an ideal top defenseman, Pitkanen brings a nice set of skills to the table for a team that’s shaky in the back end. Things could look far more respectable if Jamie McBain takes “the next step” too.

Goalies

Cam Ward would have a chance to put up Vezina Trophy-level numbers if he played in a conservative defensive system. He earned 37 wins and put up an outstanding .923 save percentage in 2010-11 while making a league-leading (and franchise record) 2,191 saves.

The team simply leans too much on Ward and Staal, but at least their franchise goalie has a suitable backup next season. Brian Boucher comes in from Philadelphia, where he quietly put up solid numbers here and there despite being a frequent scapegoat. Sure, he isn’t an ideal top goalie, but you won’t find many backups who are as stable and experienced as Boucher. Of course, he probably won’t put up fantastic numbers behind a leaky Hurricanes defense, so maybe you should just ignore that positive paragraph.

Coaching

Paul Maurice continues his second tour of duty with the Hurricanes, as he was the coach who saw the team transition from being the Hartford Whalers to the Canes. (His first stint ran from 1995-2004.) Maurice seems like he does a solid job of getting the most out of an extremely top-heavy roster, but one cannot help but wonder if he’ll be on the hot seat if the team missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Breakout candidate

For the Hurricanes to sneak into the playoffs, they’re going to need support beyond the usual suspects. The team has high hopes for two-way forward Brandon Sutter, who managed a +13 rating last season. If he can add a little more offensive oomph to his significant defensive chops, then the 22-year-old center could have a breakthrough year.

McBain and Stewart are also players to watch, although one could argue that McBain already broke through.

Best-case scenario

If you’ve followed the Hurricanes franchise, you’re probably aware of their remarkable tendency to rotate hot-and-cold seasons. At times, it seems like they’ll either a) go on a red-hot run deep into the playoffs or b) miss the postseason entirely. In an ideal scenario, the Hurricanes use their aggressive style to make the playoffs and ride a world-class set of seasons from Ward and Staal into the Eastern Conference finals. Skinner, Sutter and other younger players mature nicely while Ponikarovsky finds a system that suits his style. (See: Nik Antropov’s first season with the Atlanta Thrashers.)

Reality

When you have elite players like Staal and Ward, it isn’t wrong to think that you can put a deep run together. The thing is, the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Hurricanes featured a ton of scoring depth. It wasn’t just Staal carrying the load; they enjoyed a Conn Smythe-worthy run from Rod Brind’Amour and a fleet of dangerous scoring veterans from Ray Whitney to Mark Recchi and Doug Weight. Now Staal must hope for the best from Tuomo Ruutu and other players who’ve done a commendable job of putting their careers back together.

The Hurricanes should be around the same place they were last season: the Eastern Conference playoff bubble. The problem is that a lot of bubble teams got better while they remained stagnant (or maybe got worse). ‘Canes fans aren’t crazy to hope for a seventh or eighth seed, but they’re just as likely to miss the playoffs again.

Inconsistency is the only consistent thing about the Canadiens

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The 2017-18 edition of the Montreal Canadiens has been underwhelming at best. The only thing that’s been consistent about them is their lack of consistency.

On some nights, they look like a team that should have no problem making the playoffs. Other times, they look like a squad that should be picking in the top five of next summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Through 31 games, they own a 13-14-4 record, but how they got there is the most interesting part.

Let’s forget the fact that five of those wins have come against the Sabres (three times) and Red Wings (twice). Hey, in the NHL, a win is a win. But the Canadiens have rarely not been on some kind of positive or negative streak this season.

After opening the season with an overtime win in Buffalo, Montreal went on to lose seven games in a row. They ended that skid at home against Florida, followed that up with a loss to the Los Angeles Kings and then went on to win five of their next contests.

That hot run came to an end with a 3-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild. In fairness to the Canadiens, they didn’t have Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin in that game. But after beating Buffalo in their next game, they went on to lose five in a row to Columbus, Arizona, Toronto (they were obliterated 6-0 in that one), Dallas, and Nashville before snapping the skid against (you guessed it) the Sabres.

The game against Buffalo was the night Carey Price returned to the lineup. Price’s return sparked the Canadiens and they went on to win their next four games over Columbus, Ottawa and they beat Detroit twice, including a 10-1 drubbing at the Bell Centre.

After the blowout win over the Wings, a lot of people thought they had turned the corner. Instead, they followed up the win over Detroit with home losses to St. Louis, Calgary and Edmonton. Saturday’s loss to the Oilers was beyond embarrassing, as they were totally dominated in front of their fans.

“Well, if I knew, I certainly would’ve done something about (the Canadiens’ streaky play),” head coach Claude Julien said after the loss to the Oilers. “It is frustrating. We had a good stretch there, but this week has been a tough week for us. At the end of the day, you have to be better than you were tonight.”

There’s a number of reasons for Montreal’s lack of consistency. They’ve dealt with injuries to key players like Drouin, Price, Weber, David Schlemko and Artturi Lehkonen, but every team goes through that.

Their goaltending was brutal early on, and that certainly didn’t help during their tough start to the year. Also, the fact that 5-on-5 scoring doesn’t come easy to them is another reason why they don’t produce with any regularity. They’re also lacking some mobility on defense, which isn’t exactly ideal for today’s NHL.

And, of course, the fact that their two streakiest scorers have been “off” more than they’ve been “on” has really hurt them. Both Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk haven’t scored nearly enough. Pacioretty has eight goals in 31 games, while Galchenyuk has seven goals in 31 contests. Both have scored 30-plus goals in recent reasons.

The one thing going for the Canadiens is that the third spot in the Atlantic Division is up for grabs. Yes, the Bruins currently have four games in hand on Montreal and a two-point lead in the standings, but those old rivals will be going head-to-head three times in just over a week during the month of January.

As ugly as the season has been at times, the Habs still in it.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL ON NBCSN: Lightning, Blues square off in battle of NHL’s best

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here.

The Lightning and Blue have consistently been two of the best teams in the NHL since opening night.

A healthy Tampa side has scored at will with a league-best 110 goals through 29 games and the Blues have been powered by Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and the now-injured Jordan Schwartz. Both teams have the fire power, but they also have played some very stingy defense, thanks to goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jake Allen.

The Blues enter Tuesday night’s game banged up and missing Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo, who was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, so depth will be tested. Schenn’s production may also be affected as Schwartz has assisted on half of his 16 goals. And as Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic pointed out this morning, St. Louis averaged 3 goals per game with Schwartz and 2.36 goals when he wasn’t in the lineup.

[WATCH LIGHTNING-BLUES LIVE ON NBCSN]

Tampa hits the road following an undefeated four-game homestand. Their last road trip away from Amalie Arena ended with a 1-3-0 record and only seven total goals scored. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper won’t have last change to get his preferred matchups on the ice, so will he find himself splitting up Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at times to spread out the offensive threat?

“We’ve done what we had to at home,” Cooper said via the Tampa Bay Times. “Now we have to do it on the road, and it’s much tougher with all the travel we have to do, especially where we are here. So, we have to learn from what we did on the road before, what we have to do to prepare, but this is a good way to jump-start that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson hits ‘reset button’ after healthy scratch

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The reset button has been hit and Cam Atkinson will return to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

Atkinson, who has six goals and nine points in 25 games this season, was made a healthy scratch on Saturday, three weeks after signing a seven-year, $40.25 million extension. John Tortorella’s decision to sit the forward who scored 35 goals last season wasn’t a hard one for the head coach, mainly because the player forced the issue.

“This isn’t to kick a player,” Tortorella said on Monday. “Cam Atkinson is a very important player, and especially for this coach. He’s in every situation, and that’s what I think of him as a player.”

It wasn’t an easy past couple of days for Atkinson. An embarrassing scratch not long after inking a big extension wasn’t an ideal way to show off his worth to the franchise. But on Sunday he received a text from Martin St. Louis, an off-season Connecticut golf buddy and someone who knows pretty well how Tortorella operates. For more than a half hour the former Tampa Bay Lightning star reminded the 28-year-old that he’s a good player and that the franchise has an incredible amount of confidence in him, as displayed by the contract they just handed him.

[Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson]

Since Saturday’s scratch, Atkinson had stayed on the ice after skates working on his shot and getting extra touches with the puck to try and restore his confidence. There was time spent watching video, too. And just as important, there was plenty of communication with Tortorella.

“It’s one of those things where once you go down that dark alley, one thing leads to another and it’s hard to get out of it,” Atkinson said. “It’s not so much pointing the fingers, but sometimes you tend to blame your teammates or linemates and that’s something you can’t do. It’s something I’ve tried not to do… Being a healthy scratch was probably the best thing for me.”

There’s more than one Blue Jackets player struggling at the moment, which Tortorella admits is a failure on his part to find a way to get them going again. To the head coach, scratching a player isn’t a form of punishment, it’s a way to help.

Atkinson has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the last four seasons, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause or being crushed under the weight of his extension. Now, after a night in the press box, he knows he needs to respond.

“Obviously, you never want to be a healthy scratch, but it gives you a chance to reassess and hit the reset button, realize where you are at that point in time in the season and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said.

“It’s a wake-up call. I take full responsibility. I know I need to be way better, and I will be.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Cooper’s reinvention; Pietrangelo on IR

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• How Jon Cooper helped reinvent himself and bring the Tampa Bay Lightning back to elite status. [Tampa Bay Times]

• Days after losing Jaden Schwartz for six weeks, the St. Louis Blues placed Alex Pietrangelo on injured reserved with a lower-body injury. The good news is that he’s expected back by early next week. [Blues]

• Six skaters on Russia’s Sochi Olympic women’s hockey team — including its captain and leading points scorer — were banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC. [NBC Olympics]

Drew Doughty on the Los Angeles Kings doubters: “Yeah, you know, obviously, people are still going to doubt us. There’s always going to be people who don’t believe in the success we’re having, but we’re not too worried about those other people.” [LA Daily Times]

• The New York Islanders unveiled their plans to develop land by Belmont Park race track, which includes an 18,000-seat arena. Bidding against MLS side NYCFC, it’s unknown when the winner will be announced. [Islanders Insight]

• How the returns of Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg will affect the rest of the Anaheim Ducks’ lineup. [OC Register]

• Don’t trade Erik Karlsson. No, really. Just don’t do it. [Silver Seven Sens]

• Canada’s World Junior entry got a big boost on Monday when the Montreal Canadiens announced they will be loaning the defenseman to the national team. [Canadiens]

• What to make of these Columbus Blue Jackets? [The Cannon]

• The New Jersey Devils have made the most out of having some very hard practices. [NJ.com]

• So you wanna rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks? Well, about that… [Second City Hockey]

• It’s not been the greatest season in Philadelphia, but Sean Couturier is certainly shining. [TSN]

• What do the Dallas Stars need to do to find more success on the road? [Defending Big D]

• Are smelling salts actually dangerous for players? [The Star]

• Would a transatlantic hockey league be a successful one? [British Ice Hockey]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.