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Swedes have shown well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg is having quite the spring for the Nashville Predators, setting franchise records with his eight goals and 15 points. He’s tied the team mark with at least a point in seven straight games.

Pontus Aberg scored the game-winning goal to put Nashville up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, while defenseman Mattias Ekholm, has been smothering top lines all postseason. Viktor Arvidsson has 10 points, and his plus-13 rating ties him with Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell for second-best this postseason — behind Forsberg (plus-17).

All five of these players are Swedish. It has been a sweet postseason for players from a nation whose players once were derided for being soft and not able to handle the rigors of the NHL. In all, general manager David Poile has six Swedes on Nashville’s playoff roster as the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 19-year history.

“I must admit we haven’t gone out of the way necessarily to get them to this point, but I’m thinking maybe we should,” Poile said. “They’ve certainly been key parts of our team.”

The Predators have lots of company in mining Sweden for talent. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of four Swedes playing for Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals, while former Nashville forward Patric Hornqvist is one of three for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A check of NHL rosters shows 79 skaters and 10 goalies from Sweden played during the regular season, with 40 appearing in at least one playoff game.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sweden has become a hockey power for a small country. Teammates with Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1976 in Toronto, Carlyle saw the abuse directed at both.

“That was a little bit more barbaric or archaic times of hockey,” Carlyle said. “But that’s how much the game has grown, and it has become a world-class game. And these players are world-class players and now you’re looking at their contribution and the numbers that are in the NHL, it’s all a tribute back to those two players.”

Because of the time zone difference, Rakell said, it was pretty tough to watch NHL games when he was growing up. The best chance to watch hockey stars came during national team tournaments in Europe. Rakell, now 24, started watching more of the NHL when he got to junior hockey, though he also had a favorite.

“I was growing up in the same hometown as Mats Sundin, and he was pretty big in that small town I grew up in,” Rakell said of the 13-year NHL center. “So he was one of the guys I was looking up to and watching highlight videos.”

Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday that it’s a very good time to be a Swedish hockey player, noting Sweden beat Canada 2-1 in a shootout Monday for the world hockey championship . Each NHL team seems have two or three Swedes on the roster.

Yes, they do keep track of their countrymen during the regular season. In the playoffs, all friendships are put aside.

“In the playoffs, you just play to win games,” Hagelin said.

Hagelin estimated a third of Sweden watched the world championship. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s much easier to watch the NHL these days.

“There’s a lot of people watching us back home,” Aberg said.

Penguins forward Oskar Sundqvist agreed: “I know a lot of my friends stay up basically the whole night and watch games. I think it’s growing every day in Sweden, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

Swedish hockey has become so strong that Carlyle said NHL scouts are visiting the country regularly. Making the jump to playing in North America has its challenges for young players. Pittsburgh drafted Sundqvist in 2012 when he was 19, and he stayed in Sweden for two full seasons before making his NHL debut last season. He spent much of this season at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and now is 23.

“It’s not like you’ve got a one-hour car drive and get home with mom and dad,” Sundqvist said. “I have a lot to thank Pittsburgh for letting me stay in Sweden one more year and prepare to get ready for everything that is over here.”

A Swedish teammate means being able to relax and talk with each other in the same language. It’s also a little easier to get tips on what to do and not do to ensure a long stay in the NHL.

“Everybody wants to play here and everybody wants to make the best out of it if you ever get the chance,” Rakell said.

Looking to make the leap: Haydn Fleury

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

The Carolina Hurricanes have built an impressive stockpile of young defensemen, arguably the best in the NHL.

Looking at their current NHL roster there isn’t one defensemen under contract for this season that is over the age of 26, while three of their best — and youngest — are all signed to long-term deals. Not only are they young, they are also already really, really good and just need a more stable goaltending situation behind them to help the Hurricanes take a big leap forward this season.

For as good and promising as that group already is, there is another young player in the pipeline that hasn’t even had a chance to make an impact yet in 2014 first-round pick (No. 7 overall) Haydn Fleury.

The 21-year-old Fleury is coming off of his first year of pro hockey, spending the 2016-17 season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Other than missing part of the season due to injury it was mostly a successful pro debut for the young rearguard, appearing in 69 games and scoring seven goals to go with 19 assists and showing considerable improvement down the stretch following a slow start.

The logjam of young defensemen already in Carolina is going to make it tough for Fleury to crack the lineup, but the No. 6 spot on the blue line does seem to be up for grabs between him and Klas Dahlbeck. Even if he doesn’t grab that spot at the start of the season it seems reasonable to assume that at some point during the season — whether it be due to injury, a trade, or just a lack of performance from somebody else — that he is going to make his NHL debut.

When he does it will be just another promising young player added to a defensive core that already boasts Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Given the contracts Faulk, Slavin and Pesce are signed to, and the fact Hanifin and Fleury are still on their entry level deals it gives the Hurricanes a ton of flexibility when it comes to constructing their roster. Any of them would be attractive pieces in trade talks to make improvements elsewhere, or they can be the foundation of the defense — and the team itself — for the next six or seven years for a remarkably affordable price.

Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

  • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
  • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

Goaltending.

They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.

Poll: Will the Hurricanes be a playoff team this season?

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It has been eight years since the Carolina Hurricanes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then they have gone through three coaches, numerous roster constructions and a still ongoing rebuilding effort.

For the past three or four years it seems as if the Hurricanes have entered the new season as a popular sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and things never quite seem to work out for one reason or another (recently goaltending has been a big reason). Those expectations are back once again this season.

They had a pretty strong finish to the 2016-17 season with an 11-5-5 mark down the stretch and have an impressive young core of players in place, mostly on their defense that is stacked with a ton of already good — and very underrated — players all under the age of 24, with several of them now locked in to long-term contracts. Up front Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, while Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask are looking like two of the best young forwards in the league. They attempted to complement that young core this summer with some pretty significant veteran additions, including Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling.

Their young players are still at an age where they have room to improve, and they made some significant additions around them (and do not forget Jordan Staal, who is still a really good player even if he carries a huge contract). Will those improvements be enough to help the Hurricanes make up eight points in the standings and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season?

Under Pressure: Bill Peters

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There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

“I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

  • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
  • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
  • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
  • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
  • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.