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.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

Their struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.

Video: Friday night fights between Bolts and Red Wings

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Not much offense — actually, just one goal midway through the second period as of the writing of this post — between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday.

But there has definitely been some animosity between the two clubs.

Tempers flared late in the first period, with Adam Erne and Andreas Athanasiou getting involved in a spirited scrap — and Athanasiou unsuccessful in his attempt at the take-down.

The bad blood continued in the second period with Greg McKegg and Anthony Mantha getting involved in a fight, and Mantha — given the instigator — landing a couple of shots with McKegg on the ice.

 

NHL, MLB player unions support U.S. women hockey players’ boycott

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Unions representing NHL and Major League Baseball players are backing U.S. Women’s National Hockey team players’ decision to boycott next week’s world championships because of a wage dispute.

The NHL Players’ Association posted a note on its Twitter account on Friday saying it supports the U.S. players while panning USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements. The NHLPA says the decision to go with replacement players “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

Earlier in the day, the MLB Players Association encouraged all women hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Read more: USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage, as dispute with women’s national team continues

The Twitter messages were posted a day after USA Hockey announced it would begin gauging interest of replacement players to compete at the tournament, which opens next Friday in Plymouth, Michigan.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period.