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.

NHL On NBCSN: Senators, Canadiens meet in NHL 100 Classic

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The first outdoor game of the 2017-18 season takes place on Saturday night in at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa when the Ottawa Senators host the Montreal Canadiens.

Both teams are looking for some kind of a spark to break out of their early season slumps that have them starting to get buried in the Eastern Conference standings. Even with those slow starts there remains plenty of intrigue with this game.

Let’s start with the fact that both teams — both of which were in the playoffs just last season — are absolutely desperate for points right now.

[Live Stream: Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators]

The Senators, who were just one shot away from being in the Stanley Cup Final a season ago, have won just two of their past 14 games and find themselves in 15th place in the East, 10 points out of a Wild Card spot and seven points behind the Boston Bruins for the third spot in the Atlantic Division.

As if the problems on the ice are not bad enough, there is plenty of off-ice drama surrounding them. And it seems to keep getting worse.

The long-term future of their only superstar, defenseman Erik Karlsson, remains in doubt and with each passing day it seems as if his time in Canada’s capital city is coming closer and closer to ending. A free agent after next season, Karlsson has made it clear he is not looking to take a discount on his next contract. Then came the report that he was one of the many Senators that was asked to give his no-trade list.

As if all of that wasn’t ominous enough, team owner Eugene Melnyk spoke publicly on Friday, the day before what should be one of the highlights of the team’s 2017-18 season, and played the relocation card.

Other than all of that, everything is going wonderfully for the Senators.

On the other side of the ice we have the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens enter play on Saturday sitting just two points back of the Bruins for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, but have also played three additional games.

The Canadiens have been a difficult team to get a grasp on this season because they keep running so hot and cold.

After starting the season on a 1-6-1 run, they followed that up by going 7-3 over their next 10. Then they lost five in a row. Then they won five in a row. Which was then followed by a three-game losing streak. You never know which Canadiens team you are going to get on a given night or over a given period of time. The only thing consistent about them this season has been their inconsistency.

Now they enter play on Saturday night against a struggling Senators team that is dealing with plenty of drama off the ice.

Outdoor games always have a little extra appeal to them, but this one is especially big given how much the two teams need the points.

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.

Canada beats US 3-1 in women’s hockey Olympic tuneup

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Haley Irwin and Sarah Nurse scored in the second period, sending Canada to a 3-1 victory over the United States on Friday night in the latest Olympic tuneup between the world’s top powers in women’s hockey.

Marie-Philip Poulin also scored for Canada, and Ann-Renee Desbiens made 25 saves.

Brianna Decker opened the scoring for the U.S. with a power-play goal early in the second. Alex Rigsby stopped 33 shots in defeat.

Poulin made it 3-1 with her goal 55 seconds into the third.

It was the fifth of six meetings between the rivals as they prepare for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. They play again Sunday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

Canada has won four of the five recent matchups, after the Americans took the series opener Oct. 22 in Quebec City.

”We just have to be better in the red zones – that’s the difference between winning and losing,” United States coach Robb Stauber said. ”We’ll give some focus and energy to some things we think we can do better, and we’re going to go into Edmonton and see what that end result looks like.”

The last four Olympic gold medals in women’s hockey have gone to Canada, but the U.S. has won seven of the past eight world championships.

The Buzzer: Eichel hat trick, Schneider robbery, Gaborik’s 1,000th game

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Players of the Night: 

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres: Eichel ended a four-game goal-less drought with some authority on Friday. After scoring in the first period, Eichel watched as his Sabres blew a 2-1 lead to trail 4-2 with 10 minutes to go. Eichel then turned on overdrive, scoring twice in 10 seconds to tie the game and force overtime. Sadly, his efforts were in vain as the Carolina Hurricanes got the winner 2:15 into the extra frame. It’s Eichel’s first career NHL hat trick.

Brian Boyle, New Jersey Devils: What an inspirational story Boyle has been this year. On Friday, Boyle scored twice, including the game winner, to bring his goal total to eight on the season. His second of the night was also his 100th of his career.

Highlights of the Night:

Eichel showed a good bit of patience on his hat trick goal:

Cory Schneider committed robbery on this save:

Sam Gagner scored on a pretty backhand deke to give the Vancouver Canucks the win in overtime, ending a four-game losing streak:

Factoid of the Night: 

MISC: 

Scores: 

Hurricanes 5, Sabres 4 (OT)

Devils 5, Stars 2

Rangers 4, Kings 2

Red Wings 3, Maple Leafs 1

Canucks 4, Sharks 3 (OT)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Melnyk threatens to move Senators if ‘disaster strikes’

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If you’re looking for someone to spoil an upcoming function, you may want to give Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk a call.

On the eve of the Senators’ outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, and on the night when Ottawa’s greats from yesteryear took the ice with Parliament Hill as a backdrop, Melnyk did his best to steal the spotlight from the NHL 100 Classic on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters, Melnyk threatened to pull the plug in Ottawa and relocate the team if disaster struck.

“If it becomes a disaster, yes,” Melnyk said. “If you start not seeing crowds showing up, yes. But, for now, we are on the cusp of doing OK.”

The doom and gloom continued, with Melnyk suggesting he isn’t going to waste a “lifetime of working hard” to support the Senators.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “The bigger question is whether I’m prepared to blow all that money I made over many years in a different industry in a different country. How long can you underwrite a team?”

Melnyk reiterated that he’s not looking to sell the team, a statement he made earlier this week in the Ottawa Sun, and used McDonald’s as an example on Friday. 

“It won’t. It just won’t happen,” he said. “It’s a franchise. Imagine if you own a McDonald’s franchise, but you can move it. But why would you sell it? It’s something that’s very difficult to buy.

We’re doing OK here. Not great, but we’re doing OK. It’s just too much fun. What else do you do? I’m a Canadian. I’m a hockey fan, fanatically a hockey fan, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do.”

Melnyk said the Senators have “cut everything to the bone,” saying the Senators have one of the thinnest management groups in the league.

“We want to keep and maintain great players,” he said. “You can’t keep spending at the top end and getting the lowest revenues. It doesn’t work.”

According to CapFriendly, the Senators are at just over $73 million in projected cap space.

Melnyk called the Senators disaster on the ice this season a “crappy streak” that every team goes through.

“We have way too much talent with this team not to perform,” he said.

When asked if his comments on Friday could take away from the luster of the event taking place in Canada’s capital this weekend, Melnyk said no.

“It keeps the newspapers selling and the radio people listening,” he said.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck