Under Pressure: Carolina’s blue line

“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, we pick…. their defense.

All of it.

The ‘Canes are one of the league’s most uniquely constructed teams. GM Jim Rutherford has built a quality top-six forward group — Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu and Jiri Tlusty — and locked up goalie Cam Ward (though to be fair, Ward could easily be Carolina’s candidate for Under Pressure this season).

Then, there’s the blue line.

It’s arguably one of the weakest and thinnest in the league and is now without its best asset in Joni Pitkanen, gone for the season after suffering a serious heel fracture.

As a stopgap measure, the ‘Canes inked veteran Ron Hainsey to a one-year, $2 million deal last week. While it’s not a bad signing (and decent value, given Hainsey made $22.5 million on his old contract) it was reflective of a larger theme — Carolina relying on guys with question marks.

Like, for example, Mike Komisarek. He barely played in Toronto last year, got bought out, then signed with Carolina and was pegged as a potential solution to the team’s penalty kill (ranked 28th last year, at 77 percent) by head coach Kirk Muller.

“All he has to do is worry about playing hockey, helping the penalty kill. He can play physical against teams we’re going to have to play against, bring his experience and attitude,” Muller told NHL.com. “I think [Komisarek’s] going to fit in great. He’s going to bring so much fun energy to the room that I think that’s going to be awesome.”

Another issue is Carolina’s lack of offense from the back end. Last year’s leading d-man scorer, Joe Corvo, walked in free agency. (Corvo set a dubious distinction in 2013 by leading with just 17 points. Only Colorado’s Tyson Barrie, with 13 points, led his team’s blueliners with fewer.)

With Pitkanen gone, there’s hope 21-year-old Justin Faulk can emerge as a 35-40 point guy, but he’s never scored more than 22 in a season.

In analyzing the D, we’d be remiss without mentioning Carolina’s longest-serving defenseman, Tim Gleason, who has been a good foot solider but might’ve already played his best hockey. Gleason, who’s been with the team since ’06, has seen his minutes dropped steadily over the last few years. Last season marked the first time since 2009 he averaged less than 20 minutes per night.

All this said, the ‘Canes do have some bright spots.

One is Ryan Murphy. The 20-year-old, taken 12th overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the most highly-touted prospects from a coveted defensive class that included New Jersey’s Adam Larsson, Boston’s Dougie Hamilton, Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin and Dallas’ Jamie Oleksiak.

Murphy actually made the ‘Canes out of his first NHL training camp, but failed to appear in a game before Carolina re-assigned him to OHL Kitchener.

From there, Murphy suffered a serious concussion while playing for the Rangers, but recovered sufficiently enough to be named Kitchener’s captain, earn a spot on Team Canada for the 2013 World Junior tournament and play four games for the ‘Canes last season, averaging over 21 minutes per.

For the ‘Canes D to succeed this year, Murphy will need to play beyond his years. They’ll also need their offseason pickups — Hainsey, Komisarek and ex-Sabre Andrej Sekera — to improve upon their 3.31 goals per game allowed last season, second-worst in the NHL.

Asking a lot? Probably. But that’s likely what it’ll take for the ‘Canes to get back to the postseason for the first time in four years.

Report: Golden Knights’ Subban ‘probably out weeks’ after injury versus Blues

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The Golden Knights won again on Saturday, but lost goalie Malcolm Subban to an injury in the third period.

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant, as is often the case immediately following a game in which an injury occurs, didn’t have an update on Subban’s condition. He called it a lower-body injury, and said he would know more by Sunday.

However, John Shannon of Sportsnet, citing a team source, reported that Subban will undergo an MRI on Sunday and is “probably out weeks.”

That isn’t good news at all for a Vegas team already without Marc-Andre Fleury, who is still on injured reserve after suffering a concussion.

The 23-year-old Subban, who was picked off waivers by Vegas following his training camp with the Bruins, had a promising start to the season since joining the Golden Knights. Since the injury to Fleury, Subban has played in three games, winning two of those and allowing six goals on 94 shots against. He allowed only one goal on 38 shots last night before leaving the game.

Oscar Dansk came off the bench last night when Subban was hurt, and stopped 10 of 11 shots faced as the Golden Knights picked up the overtime victory, despite getting outshot 49-22.

But any lengthy injury to Subban would really test the depth of the Golden Knights goaltending. Fleury has already been out for just over week. The 23-year-old Dansk made his NHL debut last night, and Vegas doesn’t have Calvin Pickard anymore, after he was traded to Toronto a few weeks ago. Maxime Lagace is still down with the AHL Chicago Wolves.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

 

Connor McDavid is great, but he can’t do it all for the Oilers

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers had the second best odds to win the Stanley Cup. Even with the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion and even after a wildly successful season that saw them come within a single game of the Western Conference Finals it still seemed to be a little too much, a little too fast.

First, for as good as the Oilers were last season a lot of it was dependent on Connor McDavid putting the team on his back and carrying them as far as he could. They also played Cam Talbot a ridiculous number of games and still don’t have anybody behind him that can be counted on to give him any kind of a consistent break. Add those two factors to a team that still doesn’t have a lot of depth and there are some reasons to maybe want to pump the brakes on the Stanley Cup talk.

It is still early in the season, but so far we are starting to see that play out on the ice.

After their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday the Oilers are now just 2-5-0 on the season and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

McDavid is doing what McDavid always does.

He is in year three of his career and is still a human highlight reel every single time he touches the ice. His speed is unmatched. His creativity is off the charts. He is, at times, an unstoppable force and is once again the single biggest factor driving the Oilers offense.

Right now he is the only factor driving the Oilers’ offense.

With eight points so far this season that means he has either scored or assisted on more than 57 percent of the team’s goals.

He has been on the ice for nine of them, which is more than 65 percent.

Through the first seven games of the season the Oilers have scored only five goals this season when McDavid has not been on the ice. That is not a trend that can continue if the Oilers are going to have any hopes of getting out of this early season slump, let alone competing for a Stanley Cup. There is no one single player in the NHL that can make that much of a consistent impact without some secondary help.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs were not just about superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. They were also about the complementary players and secondary scoring options that could step up and fill the back of the net when the top tier guys had their inevitable stretches where they would get shut down (and there always comes a time when the top players get shut down for a stretch. Sometimes in the playoffs, too).

Right now the Oilers do not have those secondary options, and if the offense is not coming from Connor McDavid, it is not coming from anybody.

To be fair, they have only had Leon Draisaitl, their second-most important offensive player, for only three games this season. But even a return from him is not a guarantee to be enough based on the makeup of the rest of the roster.

Over the summer the Oilers traded their third-leading scorer (Jordan Eberle) straight up for Ryan Strome, a player that has never had the single-season output that Eberle had a year ago in what was widely considered a down year for him. Strome has two points in seven games.

A year ago the Oilers had big — and mostly unexpected — seasons from players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu as they combined to score 43 goals, each of them setting new career highs. Together, they had a combined shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, a nearly five percent increase over their career averages. That increase in shooting percentage was probably worth an additional 10-12 goals between the two.

There is no guarantee they can duplicate that success.

The Oilers are probably not as bad as their early season record indicates, especially when Draisaitl is back. Even so, McDavid is still going to need more help than he is getting from his teammates if the Oilers are going to do anything close to what was expected from them at the start of the season. Whether or not they have the roster around him to do that remains to be seen.

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.

The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

Highlight of the night. 

For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

Factoid of the Night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

Misc.

— Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

— With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

Scores and recaps

New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

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.

Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

They had no other update.

After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.