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NHL turns to Vegas expansion draft, unpredictable offseason

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The first expansion draft in the salary-cap era has even the most seasoned NHL general managers unsure of what is going to happen over the next few weeks.

“You expect the unexpected,” Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said.

The most unpredictable and fascinating offseason in more than a decade has arrived. Uncertainty runs from the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft next week through the New Jersey Devils’ decision with the top pick in the entry draft to a free agent market that hinges significantly on how much the salary cap goes up – if at all.

Trades could be coming fast and furious as Vegas GM George McPhee stockpiles assets in exchange for agreeing to select or not select players in the June 21 expansion draft. Teams have to decide who to protect – seven forwards, three defenseman and a goaltender or eight skaters at any position and a goaltender – and there should be some roster juggling around the league before protected lists must be submitted Saturday afternoon.

“I expect something to transpire and the expansions that I’ve been through in the past, it certainly does,” Lamoriello said. “When there are decisions that have to be made, you’d rather make them proactive rather than reactive. People are going to be trying to do things, whether they have one too many defensemen or whether they have one too many forwards or whether they have needs that they could possibly correct by taking a surplus off somebody else.”

The back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have to make a quick decision with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury ahead of the expansion draft because they can’t afford to lose 23-year-old Matt Murray , who’s 22-9 in consecutive title runs with a 1.95 goals-against average and .928 save percentage and is under contract for three more years. Fleury has a no-movement clause in his contract so he must agree to waive it to be traded or exposed in the expansion draft.

After talking to his colleagues around the league, McPhee said he believes the expansion draft will be more productive for the franchise’s future than he first thought.

“There are teams that really want to protect some people and protect their rosters and they are willing to pay a pretty fair price to get us to lay off certain people and go in a different direction,” McPhee said. “So in those instances we’ll be able to get young players or some draft picks that will help us down the road.”

The expansion draft is drawing so much interest that a group of University of Toronto researchers put together a tool they say shows the optimal protections and picks. Vegas, for its part, hired as a hockey operations analyst General Fanager founder Tom Poraszka, who made the first online expansion draft simulator.

Once all 30 protected lists are revealed on Sunday, Vegas has a 72-hour window to negotiate with any unprotected restricted or unrestricted free agents and make its selections, which will be announced June 21. McPhee wields a lot of power because of that, and it’s fair to wonder how he’ll put together an expansion roster from scratch.

“I’m not sure George is going to be willing to tell me what player he wants,” said Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, who was McPhee’s assistant for seven years. “It’s frustrating you’re going to lose a good player with the expansion draft and you’re going to have to react to it.”

The entire NHL is going to have to react to what Vegas does and to the salary cap, which could remain flat at this past season’s $73 million or go up, perhaps to roughly $77 million, depending on whether players elect to use their escalator clause to increase it by up to 5 percent. That’s a complicated issue and there is no guarantee players raise the cap as much as possible this time around, especially with a new team coming in.

That could alter free agency, which begins July 1. MacLellan acknowledged he would have a more legitimate chance to re-sign 30-goal scorer T.J. Oshie if the cap is at $77 million. And if not, Oshie could be among the most sought after free agents.

Some things to watch this offseason:

NICO OR NOLAN

With the top pick, the Devils are expected to decide between centers Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier or trade down. There’s no franchise-changing star in this draft like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, and Patrick’s injury-plagued season made this a debate to watch at the draft that begins June 23 in Chicago.

ONE MORE COACH

With the Florida Panthers hiring Bob Boughner, just one coaching vacancy remains: the Buffalo Sabres. Penguins assistant Rick Tocchet and Nashville Predators assistant Phil Housley are believed to be among the candidates, while Washington associate coach Todd Reirden is also in the mix.

FURIOUS MOVES

Because a lot of teams will wait to re-sign players until after the expansion draft, there could be a flurry of activity beginning June 22. Jaromir Jagr‘s status in Florida and Joe Thornton‘s in San Jose could be decided before either becomes an unrestricted free agent.

CONTRACT WATCH

Beyond this year’s thin crop of unrestricted free agents, led by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and wingers Patrick Eaves and Thomas Vanek, teams can begin re-upping potential 2018 free agents on July 1. That means the focus is on the New York Islanders with captain John Tavares, the Montreal Canadiens with Carey Price and the Oilers with McDavid.

CAPPED-OUT BLACKHAWKS

Even if Chicago gets the much-rumored deal done to let Vegas take defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk to shed the contract of center Marcus Kruger, the Blackhawks have to do some more maneuvering to get under the cap. That could mean the loss of a player perhaps even as good as Niklas Hjalmarsson.

THREE-PEAT

GM Jim Rutherford may have to get creative to help Pittsburgh try to become the first team to win the Cup in three consecutive years since the Islanders’ dynasty years from 1980-83. Among the Penguins’ free agents are Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Trevor Daley.

 

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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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

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.