HurricanesDefense

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.

Bruised Blackhawks will be without Seabrook, Toews vs. Rangers

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 13: Brent Seabrook #7 and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks
celebrate a second period goal by Seabrook against the Anaheim Ducks at the United Center on February 13, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Scott Darling isn’t the only member of the Chicago Blackhawks who will be asked to step up with key players out of the lineup.

The Blackhawks have already ruled out Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews for Friday’s game against the New York Rangers, as CSN Chicago notes.

This will mark the eighth consecutive game Toews is missing, although the bright side is that Joel Quenneville didn’t dismiss the possibility of Chicago’s captain playing on Sunday.

Seabrook is considered day-to-day after being shaken up by this awkward spill from Wednesday:

A few days ago, Patrick Kane called upon others to step up with Toews out. That message can now apply to Chicago’s defensemen with Seabrook banged up.

Pre-game reading: Laine better than Matthews?

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— Up top, Bob McKenzie talks NHL and the Olympics. The Board of Governors is meeting today in Palm Beach, but don’t expect any decision until January.

— TSN’s Gary Lawless believes Patrik Laine will end up being better than Auston Matthews. “Laine is the rarest of talents. Scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in the NHL and he is well ahead of just about every player in the world right now at the age of 18.” Yep, it’s basically Alex Ovechkin versus Sidney Crosby all over again. One’s a winger, the other’s a center. The prevailing hockey wisdom says the center is more valuable, because a center can make more of an impact at both ends of the ice. And, of course, Crosby’s backers can say he’s won two Stanley Cups. But Ovechkin has scored 537 goals in just 864 games, and that’s incredible in this day and age. We’ll have to wait and see who wins a Cup first between Laine and Matthews, assuming one wins one at all. Connor McDavid will probably have something to say as well. (TSN)

— Here’s Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill on why some NHL owners are reluctant to send players to the Olympics: “February is one of our biggest months and it’s hard to shut down for three weeks. First of all, you are shutting down your business. Period. And there is the risk of injuries and everything that goes with it. So it’s a tough situation. And the other part of it is, we’re not competing against the NFL at that time. We’re not competing against baseball at that time. It’s really just us and the NBA. So it’s really kind of our time. February, it’s hockey time in these types of markets.” (Postmedia)

— Another impassioned plea to change the NHL’s points system and award three points for a win. “A three-point regulation win gives coaches and teams much greater incentive to win in regulation, and discourages teams sitting back in the third period of close games playing just to guarantee their point and hope for two in the extra frame. This would immediately improve the 60-minute NHL product, especially in the third period of tied and close games.” We couldn’t agree more, but the league has shown no appetite for such a change, so don’t hold your breath waiting for it. (Metro)

Matt Duchene remembers former Avalanche teammate Marek Svatos, who died last month of a drug overdose. “Svats, I hope people don’t judge him on that because he was an outstanding guy. He had a tough go — a lot of injuries, a lot of surgeries. As an athlete, it’s hard to not be a little depressed at times. For him, the amount he went through, it’s sad and all I can do is send my condolences to his family and hopefully they can stay strong. We’re all praying for them.” (Denver Post)

— Sean McIndoe has a list of 10 lies all hockey fans tell themselves. We particularly enjoyed Lie No. 5: “Our prospect pipeline is stacked.” Because general managers are guilty of this too. The way the NHL is set up, it’s basically impossible to have zero prospects. Writes McIndoe: “Every team has prospects. Some of those, by definition, will even be the team’s best prospects. But it doesn’t mean they’re any good. And just pointing out that they exist doesn’t mean the future is bright.” (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

Price, Weber will be key to Canadiens’ survival without Galchenyuk, Desharnais

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 08:  Shea Weber #6 of the Montreal Canadiens congratulates Carey Price #31 for their victory over the Boston Bruins during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on November 8, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadiens were already starting to wobble. With just four wins in their last 11 games, now the Habs will be forced to play without centers Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais for the next six to eight weeks.

It’s a heck of a challenge for any team, let alone one that endured a horrendous collapse last season when Carey Price was lost to injury.

Galchenyuk is the big loss now. The 22-year-old is Montreal’s leading scorer with 23 points (9G, 14A). He’d developed great chemistry with Alex Radulov, who is likely to skate now with Tomas Plekanec on the first line.

To be sure, the Habs still have Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, and Andrew Shaw to provide scoring. Shaw can also play center. So can Phillip Danault, the 23-year-old who came to Montreal in February in a trade with Chicago.

But above all, they’ll need Price to be Price. The best goalie in the world (sorry, Bruce Boudreau), Price can keep the Habs in any and all games, even ones where they’re outshot badly.

Given the standings, the Canadiens just need to survive this next month or two without a full-on collapse. They’ve already built a nice playoff cushion. They don’t have to worry if they lose a couple here and there, which they’re bound to do given their situation.

This is also where Weber’s leadership will be tested. GM Marc Bergevin traded away a pretty popular player to get Weber, whom he called a “tremendous leader,” as well as a “complete and reliable defenseman.” Bergevin made that move for times like these, when the heat in that hockey-mad market goes way up.

Montreal starts a four-game home stand tonight against New Jersey. Looking ahead on the schedule, there’s a six-game road trip after Christmas, with stops in Tampa Bay, Florida, Pittsburgh, Nashville, Dallas and Toronto.

If they can survive that trip, they can survive anything.

It should be fascinating to watch them try.

Goalie nods: Oilers give Gustavsson shot at cooling off Flyers

EDMONTON, AB - OCTOBER 12:  Goalie Jonas Gustavsson #50 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up before the home opener against the Calgary Flames on October 12, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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With six straight wins, Philly is one of the NHL’s hottest teams — and tonight, the Flyers will look to make it seven as Edmonton and backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson come to town.

Gustavsson hasn’t been used much this season, but has fared well when called upon. He made 31 saves in a 2-1 OT loss to the Wild this past Sunday and, on the year, has posted a 2.00 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Of course, those numbers have come in a small sample size. The Monster has just five appearances this season, and only three of them were starts.

Now, he’ll be thrown into arguably his biggest test of the year at Wells Fargo. The Flyers are rolling, Steve Mason has been lights out and the team continues to get terrific production from Wayne Simmonds, who has four goals in his last two games (and 15 total on the year, to lead the club).

Of note, tonight is the first of a back-to-back for the Oilers — they play in Minnesota tomorrow — so Gustavsson goes in Philly, while regular No. 1 Cam Talbot faces the Wild on Friday.

Elsewhere…

Calvin Pickard gets his first start since Nov. 29 when the Avs take on the B’s in Boston. No word yet on a Bruins starter.

— The red-hot Jake Allen, who has won his last eight starts, will be in for the Blues. The Isles will counter with Thomas Greiss, who draws in after Jaroslav Halak performed well over the last three contests.

Roberto Luongo has lost three of his last four, despite posting a stellar .928 save percentage over that span. He’ll be in for the Panthers tonight as they host Pittsburgh. Matt Murray is in goal for the Pens.

Ryan Miller‘s back in goal for Vancouver, after Jacob Markstrom got last game in New Jersey. Miller will face Ben Bishop, who gets the nod for the host Lightning.

— Marquee matchup in Montreal, as Cory Schneider and the Devils take on Carey Price and the Habs.

Henrik Lundqvist gets a night off after starting four straight, as Antti Raanta will face the Jets. Winnipeg is likely to go with Michael Hutchinson, who occupied the starter’s net at practice this morning.

Pekka Rinne will look to beat the Stars for the second time this season. Dallas has yet to name a starter.

— To nobody’s surprise, Chad Johnson will be back in goal when the Flames take on the Coyotes in Arizona. Johnson has won seven of his last eight. For the Coyotes, Mike Smith is in goal.

Jeff Zatkoff, who made 25 saves in a win his last time out, looks to be the Kings starter. No word yet from the ‘Canes, but Cam Ward was in for last night’s 6-5 shootout loss to Anaheim.