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.

Trade: Kings get Rieder, Wedgewood from Coyotes for Kuemper

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With the trade deadline inching closer the Los Angeles Kings made their second trade in as many weeks on Wednesday evening.

Let us take a look at the deal!

The trade: The Kings acquire Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood from the Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. Arizona is also retaining 15 percent of Rieder’s salary. He will be a restricted free agent after this season.

Why the Kings are making this trade: Let’s check in with Kings general manager Rob Blake for his take on the deal.

“We continue to look for opportunities to improve our team speed and Tobias will bring that dynamic to our club.”

Okay, that’s actually pretty important. A few days ago I wrote about how the Kings needed to hit the reset button on how they play because the league seems to have passed them by. They are not overly skilled. They do not have a ton of speed. They could use more in both areas.

Rieder, though having a really down year, could help improve that. He certainly improves the speed dynamic for the team and he seems to have the potential for a bounce back in Los Angeles because he is capable of more production than he has shown so far this season.

Kuemper has been great in a backup role this season so it’s a little surprising to see the Kings make that swap, but Rieder is at least an interesting addition.

Why the Coyotes are making this trade: That’s actually … a little bit of a mystery?

One potential angle on it is that Antti Raanta is an unrestricted free agent after this season while Kuemper is signed for two more years at a pretty cheap salary cap hit. The Coyotes make it sound like they still plan on keeping Raanta, but if nothing else this provides them with a little bit of insurance in case they can’t.

Here is Coyotes general manager John Chayka.

“Darcy is a big, talented goaltender who is having an excellent year. You need great goaltending in this league in order to be successful and with Antti and Darcy, we are confident that we have an excellent tandem for the future.”

Who won the trade? I like what it does for the Kings because they need someone like Rieder to step into their lineup. Someone fast, someone that still has the chance to score a bit more than they have shown this season. With Jonathan Quick locked in place for the foreseeable future Kuemper was never going to be anything more than a backup there so they did not really have to give up a significant piece.

Did the Coyotes give up on Rieder too soon? We will see.

[Related: Kings get Dion Phaneuf from Ottawa Senators]

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

U.S. women back looking for Olympic gold vs. archrival Canada

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — To three-time Olympian Hilary Knight, the thought of finally hoisting the gold medal means giving women’s hockey a big boost in the United States.

How big?

Huge.

”The U.S. wants to be No. 1 in everything, and I think we’ve all been raised as awesome competitors so at the end of the day we want a victory,” Knight said. ”We want to win, and that would be winning a gold medal.”

That’s the only shade of medal that has eluded the Americans since 1998, the last time they won it all in Nagano when women’s hockey made its Olympic debut. They took home a disappointing bronze from Turin in 2006 and silver from the past two finals – no loss more crushing than in 2014 in Sochi when Canada rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win 3-2 in overtime.

Now the Americans have their latest chance at Olympic gold (Wednesday, 11:10 p.m. ET, NBCSN) against their archrival in a showdown Thursday that will include Marie-Philip Poulin, whose two goals snatched gold from U.S. hands in Sochi. She is back again as Canada’s captain.

”For me, it’s been a fairy tale for the last Olympics,” Poulin said. ”But it’s in the past now. It’s a new Olympics, and we have to bring our best game and go from there.”

This game once again features the only two nations ever to win Olympic gold.

Nothing less than a fifth straight gold medal is expected in the country that created the sport, and the Canadians have won the past four Olympic gold-medal games. Only the United States in basketball has dominated a women’s team sport more thoroughly with its streak of six straight golds.

The Canadians haven’t lost even a single Olympic game since the 1998 Nagano final won by the United States. Their streak stands at 24 consecutive games, including a 2-1 win over the United States to cap pool play a week ago. They’ve also won five straight over the Americans, including four exhibition victories in December prepping for the Olympics.

”Maybe I’m biased, but one of the best rivalries in sports and especially in our game,” said Canadian forward Emily Clark, who played college hockey at Wisconsin. ”So we obviously have a lot on the line, mostly pride. All of us are going to bring our best game.”

Yet the Americans have owned the world championships, winning the last four and eight of the last 10. That has only made the U.S. drought at the Olympics all the more noticeable and makes this game even more special.

”It’s been something I’ve been dreaming about since I was little,” said U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi. ”So it means a lot, and to be here with this group of girls and to be with them all year has really been an honor.”

The 10 Americans who lost the final in Sochi have left that game in the past. No need to waste energy dwelling on such a heartbreaker when the chance at history is at hand. Cameranesi is among 13 Americans on the roster at their first Olympics, so Sochi is just a game they may have watched on TV.

”We’re in South Korea, and it’s 2018 and you want a different result,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said . ”They’ve put a lot of energy and focus into transforming things that they needed to get better at, and that’s now. You drop the puck, see what happens.”

When the Americans and Canadians play, it’s essentially a heavyweight bout even if nobody drops the gloves.

”Every single time we play them, it’s a big game,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said. ”You know the crowds there, people. There’s always pressure every single time when you represent your country and you play best on best competition. I think it’s something that we’re used to.”

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Olympic sensation Tolvanen may make Predators even deeper

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Watch out NHL teams, Eeli’s coming. Eeli Tolvanen, that is.

At least, that appears to be the plan for the Nashville Predators, as assistant GM Paul Fenton told Craig Custance of The Athletic (sub required) that they expect to bring in Tolvanen once his KHL “out clause” kicks in following his season with Jokerit.

“We’ll have a contract in place to be able to execute and have him come over here,” Fenton said. “That’s the plan. Funnier things have happened. I don’t want to say 100 percent. I never do that in our business. Yes, our plan is to have him.”

Now, depending upon whom you ask, the “funnier things” might involve a trade … although the odds seem pretty low on that, as Custance notes:

OK, so let’s assume that Tolvanen isn’t the one who’s traded. There’s the possibility, mind you, that Tolvanen’s emergence and Mike Fisher’s hopeful return might force a bit of a logjam, or at least a theoretical one. Maybe GM David Poile would use that anticipated influx of even more depth to make an upgrade?

(Dobber Hockey discusses how Jokerit’s work in the KHL playoffs also complicates when Tolvanen might be able to arrive in North America. Short version: Predators fans will probably root against Jokerit for at least a few weeks.)

It’s dizzying stuff to jump into all of the possibilities, especially if you’re like TSN’s Travis Yost, who ponders potential reverberations in a possible Seattle expansion draft:

/Needs a second to sit down and allow brain to heal.

OK, so all of that is important, but let’s take a moment to bask in the gloriousness of what might be another talented player added to a fun Predators roster already brimming with depth and skill. (Custance describes the Predators as “salivating” over clips from Tolvanen at the 2018 Winter Olympics.)

The beautiful thing about the Finnish 18-year-old, who was almost instantly heralded as a steal as the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, is that he’s checking just about all the boxes.

While his Finnish team fell to Canada and were eliminated in the quarterfinal today, he was absolutely sensational. Quick reference: when you’re getting mentioned in the same breath as vintage Eric Lindros, you’re probably doing something very, very right.

Of course, five games is a small sample size, and the talent on hand during the 2018 Winter Olympics was a mixed bag.

The Predators must be heartened, then, to see Tolvanen produce in the KHL. He currently has 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points in 47 games. That ranks Tolvanen second on his team in scoring, just one point behind former Canucks and Rangers forward Nicklas Jensen, who’s collected his 35 points in 52 games.

He made quite the splash right off the bat, becoming the youngest player to net a hat trick in the KHL:

Ultimately, the Predators enjoy an embarrassment of riches, with the luxury of bickering over whether they should keep the promising prospect or move him in a Rick Nash trade. The stakes are high when you’re aiming for a Stanley Cup, yet it’s also remarkable just how loaded the Predators are from their roster to their farm system.

While Poile and the Predators giggle about the possibilities, the rest of the NHL lets out more of a nervous laugh. Or at least they probably should.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Amid Karlsson trade rumors, Ryan to return for Sens

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During Tuesday’s Insider Trading segment on TSN, Bob McKenzie noted that to trade for Erik Karlsson, a suitor might need to assume the mammoth contract of Bobby Ryan. Ryan, 30, hasn’t played since Feb. 1 and has been limited to 39 games this season because of hand/wrist injury issues that have been plaguing him for years.

Remarkably, a day after that report surfaced, it sounds like Ryan might make his return to the Senators lineup. The current plan is for Ryan to suit up for Ottawa on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, according to reporters including TSN’s Brent Wallace.

There are a number of remarkable things about this development.

Obviously, the timing stands out, as this comes on the heels of that report, not to mention less than a week before Feb. 26’s trade deadline. It’s even amusing that Ryan is slated to face the Lightning, a team that may very well decide that it’s worth it to go all-in and acquire Karlsson, even if it means taking on Ryan. Surely getting a look at him, up close and personal, wouldn’t hurt matters?

(Allow me to think out loud: if Ryan Callahan‘s $5.8 million was involved as well, would that grease the wheels a bit?)

There are a few ways things can go for Ryan.

LTIR bound?

For one thing, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that the once-potent sniper might go the way of the LTIR mainstay, much like Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, and others before him. The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson went into exhaustive detail regarding the rather confusing scenarios for Ryan possibly being LTIR material here (sub required).

Even if Ryan’s fated to go on LTIR – which might be a necessity for a contender that already has big commitments, considering the fact that his $7.25M cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22 – the Lightning or some other team might want to see what he can do now. Assuming they can make the cap hits work in 2017-18.

More in the tank?

It’s easy to forget that Ryan isn’t that far removed from some impressive goal-scoring days.

His last 20+ goal season came as recently as 2015-16, when he collected 22 in 81 games. He basically averaged 20 goals through his first three seasons in Ottawa, as Ryan totaled 63 from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

Ryan showed flashes of that brilliance during the Senators’ remarkable run within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He managed six goals and 15 points in 19 playoff games, including a brilliant OT-winner against the Penguins:

For once, the bounces were going Ryan’s way, as he enjoyed the best playoff work of his career and connected on 28.57 percent of his shots on goal. So, yes, those results were inflated … yet they came during the 2017 postseason. If healthy, is that unreasonable to imagine Ryan posting nice numbers in Tampa Bay and becoming more than just a throw-in? Could he help even if his injury luck continues to come and go?

If Ryan was forced to be part of a Karlsson trade, the dream scenario for the Lightning or another contender might be something like Clarke MacArthur‘s 2017 playoff run with Ottawa. Maybe Ryan contributes to a postseason push, then lands on LTIR?

One other thought

It’s important to note that trading Ryan wouldn’t necessarily be the best-case scenario for Ottawa. (It might be for owner Eugene Melnyk, mind you, as it’s basically an open secret that he’s very … cost-conscious at the moment.)

To accept Ryan’s contract – even at a discounted rate – a bidding team would likely give up less actual, beneficial pieces in a Karlsson trade. Perhaps ridding themselves off Ryan’s contract would cost the Senators a draft pick, prospect, or some other key piece? It’s certainly something to consider.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.