Patric Hornqvist

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Hurricanes once again NHL’s most frustrating outlier

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For what seems to be the fourth or fifth year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2017-18 season as a popular pick to jump back into the playoff picture, finally taking that long awaited big step forward in their rebuild.

It is not hard to understand why there has been so much excitement about this team in recent seasons.

They have an outstanding young core of players. Jeff Skinner is one of the absolute best goal-scoring forwards in the league (that nobody ever talks about). Sebastian Aho looks like he has a chance to be a star. This summer they added Scott Darling, Justin Williams and Trevor van Riemsdyk to that young core.

In terms of their play they seem to pass the eye test by playing everyone close (they have already lost nine one goal games this season, including six in overtime or a shootout — they have only won three such games) and giving everyone fits.

Their analytics consistently rate them among the best in the NHL.

Defensively, they have been one of the four or five best teams in the league at suppressing shots against despite having one of the youngest blue lines in the league. They are consistently among the best possession teams in the league, finishing near the top of the league in shot attempt metrics.

But the results in the standings have not been there. At all. They have made the playoffs just once in the past 12 years, and in their most recent seasons have seemingly hit a glass ceiling that caps them in the mid-80s for points.

In 2014-15 they finished with 71 points in the standings even though they were third in the league in shots against and ninth in attempts percentage.

In 2015-16 it was 86 points despite finishing fifth and 11th respectively.

Last season? 87 points. Where they did they finish in those two shot based categories? Fifth (shots against) and sixth (shot attempts percentage).

You can probably guess what is happening in Carolina this season. Through their first 29 games the Hurricanes are allowing 29.5 shots on goal against per game, the third lowest total in the league. They are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts in their games, the highest mark in the NHL.

Their current point pace for the season? It is just 84.9.

New year, same story. A promising young team that seems to be doing everything right but is destined to finish somewhere in the middle of the league, just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The frustrating thing about this from a Hurricanes perspective is that they should be better than this. Teams that play the way they do, limit shots the way they do, and control possession the way they do not only tend to make the playoffs, they tend to do very well once they get there.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season there have been 29 teams that have finished the regular season allowing less than 29 shots on goal per game and finishing with a shot attempts percentage higher than 51 percent.

Those 29 teams finished with an average of 100 points in the standings. Twenty-two made the playoffs. Twelve won at least one series once they got there. Six advanced to the Conference Finals. Three reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Here are the seven teams that fit that criteria over that stretch and missed the playoffs.

You might notice a common name or two.

So, basically, the Hurricanes and Kings are the two biggest statistical outliers in the league over the past five years.

But at least the Kings’ formula has proven to be successful at one point or another with a lot of playoff appearances in between — they seem destined to return this season — and two Stanley Cup titles.

But the Hurricanes. Geez. The Hurricanes. Three times playing at a level that is on par with a contender and missing the playoffs every time. It seems at least possible, if not likely, that it will happen again this season.

So what in the world is happening here?

The most common target for blame has been their inability to find any sort of stability in net. To be fair, it has been a huge problem.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Hurricanes have finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in the league in team save percentage. So far this season they are 25th. Probably the biggest reason they do not finish lower in terms of goals against is the fact they do such a great job limiting shots against. It has not been any one goalie that has been the culprit because they have tried several different options, whether it be long-time starter Cam Ward, or any of the many recent successful backups they have tried to acquire to take over the starting job, ranging from Anton Khudobin, to Eddie Lack, to their recent attempt with Darling.

It is obviously far too early to write Darling off, but with a .902 save percentage in his first 20 appearances it is not exactly an encouraging start.

But for all of the issues they have had in goal, there is another one that seems to quietly slide under the radar: For all of their dominant possession numbers, and for all of the shots they are able to register for themselves … they don’t really score a lot, either.

So far this season the Hurricanes are 25th in the league in goals per game, and have consistently been in the bottom-10 over the aforementioned five-year stretch.

There is something to be said for the argument (recently put forward by Andrew Berkshire at the Sporting News) that as teams become more involved in analytics that stats like Corsi may not be as predictive as they once were. By now pretty much everyone in the league knows the value of keeping the puck, generating shots and preventing shots. It’s a lot harder to find an advantage there if everyone is in tune with that.

It could also be a matter of just overall talent and scoring ability.

I argued during the Stanley Cup Final that it was possible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to outperform their possession stats because their roster is made up of elite, high end talent. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel at the top of your lineup, not to mention Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel as complementary players, you have the ability to strike fast. You don’t always need sustained pressure or a lot of shots to score. Those guys can strike at any moment and from anywhere on the ice. To a lesser extent that might also be true for a team like this year’s Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t dominant territorially but has some of the top offensive players in the league.

The Hurricanes, for as good as their young talent is, especially on the blue line, do not really have that sort of talent.

Skinner is certainly on that level, and Aho could end up there, but that is pretty much it.

What they have is a lot of players that are great are driving possession but aren’t really game-breaking offensive players. Jordan Staal, their top forward in terms of ice-time, is a perfect example of this. Staal is a really good two-way player. He does a lot of things really well. He is a great defensive player, he can drive possession, he can play against other team’s top players. But he has never been a great playmaker. He has never been a player that will be a threat to score 35 or 40 goals.

Justin Williams has been a similar player for much of his career. Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask seem like they are trending in that same direction with their careers. Very good players. Players necessary for a winning team. But not players that can really break a game open offensively. That, too, is still a necessity.

All of this together makes the Hurricanes an incredibly frustrating team.

They have a lot of necessary ingredients. They seem to play the right way, and they can be pretty entertaining, too. But they seem to just always be a little bit short of being able to take that next step we keep anticipating.

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.

Rangers end Penguins winning streak in 4-3 win

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The Pittsburgh Penguins threw everything and then some at the New York Rangers in the dying moments of the third period.

But their efforts, valiant as they were for a Penguins team trying their darndest to push their winning streak to five games, came and went in vain in a 4-3 defeat on Wednesday night.

The Rangers simply stuck around in the game and pounced on their opportunities presented to them.

Pittsburgh appeared to get a favorable break on the night after it was announced Henrik Lundqvist would miss the game because of the flu. That left the Rangers to send out Ondrej Pavelec, the owner of just a single win this season and a save percentage well below .900.

But Pavelec stopped 41-of 43 en route to his second win of the season.

It appeared to be going well early for Pittsburgh, who took a 1-0 lead past not too long after the midway point in the first period, with Conor Sheary ending an eight-game goal-less run with his ninth of the season.

Rangers rookie forward Boo Nieves (one of the best nicknames in the league) scored his first NHL goal to tie the game 1-1.

Phil Kessel would restore the advantage for the Penguins in the second frame, scoring his fifth goal in his past six games to make it 2-1.

The Rangers would lead before the second period ended. Jesper Fast and Mats Zuccarello scored just under five minutes apart to take a 3-2 advantage into the final period.

The Pens tied it up 3-3 through Patric Hornqvist, who wired a wrist shot on a breakaway past Pavelec.

But Pavel Buchnevich would seal it for the Rangers just after the midway point of the period.

Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry lost his first start since taking over for Matt Murray, who suffered a lower-body injury last week.

Jarry had strung together two solid outings, allowing just one goal over both contests prior to Tuesday.


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

Sabres’ Scandella fined, not suspended, for slashing Penguins’ Hornqvist

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The NHL is cracking down on slashing with more penalties – at times to almost an extreme – but suspensions might not come from them. At least not yet.

That point seems clear enough based on the league’s latest decision, as Buffalo Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella was fined (but not suspended) for a pretty gnarly slash on Patric Hornqvist of the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be precise, Scandella received a $5K fine, while the league didn’t provide an explanation for the decision.

(Generally, slashes don’t get a video, and the league is most likely to produce a full-fledged explanation when a suspension occurs. There are exceptions, but that’s usually how it goes.)

Video of the slash isn’t easy to find, but here it is in GIF form, if you feel like cringing:

Also:

The Sabres have to be relieved that Scandella avoided sitting out a game or more, as their defense is already dilapidated with Rasmus Ristolainen among those injured. It doesn’t seem like Hornqvist suffered an injury from the slash.

Again, the lack of a suspension follows the general pattern of NHL decisions, but it was worth noting.

There were some testy moments from last night’s game, with the most memorable moment coming when Jack Eichel was eager to drop his gloves after Ian Cole landed a huge hit on Sam Reinhart. The Penguins ultimately got the last laugh by rallying for a 5-4 overtime win against Buffalo.

The Sabres’ next game comes against the Red Wings in Detroit on Friday. After that, they get an opportunity to make some gains, as they play six of their next seven games in Buffalo.

After Thursday’s game in Ottawa, the Penguins also enjoy a home-heavy schedule going forward.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Best NHL trade targets with Duchene off the market

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Fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, and other teams must feel a little left out after this weekend.

While those GMs either were afraid to pay the sticker price or weren’t in the conversation, the bottom line is that the Ottawa Senators got Matt Duchene, the Nashville Predators added Kyle Turris, and the Colorado Avalanche’s future looks brighter.

[Breaking down blockbuster Matt Duchene, Kyle Turris trade]

So, what’s next for teams hoping to add that missing piece?

As Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen told Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (sub required), “some stuff will always come up.”

With that in mind, let’s consider some of the best trade targets post-Duchene. For the sake of brevity, we’ll stick to forwards; maybe there will be a time to discuss the Keith Yandles of the world some other day. The likelihood of possible moves varies, and will likely change dramatically as the season goes along.

(Note: As usual, Cap Friendly was a glorious resource for this.)

Mandatory, especially unrealistic mentions

John Tavares: Even if they’re more worried about letting him go than they’re letting on, it’s very difficult to picture New York Islanders GM Garth Snow actually trading the face of the franchise and a guy who is, during the bleakest moments, the only bright side to look on.

Still, I’d have to turn in my blogger’s badge if I didn’t at least mention Tavares, because a team would offer up its vital organs if JT actually did go on the market.

The Sedin twins are unlikely as well, though in wildly different ways. Throw Joe Thornton here, too.

A bucket of Golden Knights

Even if the Vegas Golden Knights remain competitive heading into the trade deadline, GM George McPhee could be forgiven if he jumps on a good offer. It’s possible they can have their cake and eat it too, really.

  • James Neal: You can go in circles talking about the negatives (he’s 30, can sometimes go invisible for a while, takes bad frustration penalties), but getting a big, prime-ish-age sniper could be huge for a contending team. If Vegas decides he’s not a part of the future, why not sell high?
  • David Perron: A lot like Neal – they even both had stints with the Penguins – except a lower ceiling, one year younger, and a smaller cap hit. His slick mitts give him the potential to be a gamebreaker if a team doesn’t ask for too much.
  • Jonathan Marchessault: The 26-year-old carries just a $750K cap hit, and he’s at a fascinating fork in the road for his career. Vegas might want to keep him, but what kind of raise is coming? And what if a contender tight against the cap presents a war chest of assets for him, considering that cheap 2017-18 mark?

Lightning round

Alex Galchenyuk: Free Alex.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Could the latest $6M Oilers forward be gone?

Jesse Puljujärvi: Would Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers really cut ties with another high draft pick?

Patrick Maroon, Ryan Strome: Two guys on expiring contracts. Bargain-hunting GMs might as well keep Chia on their speed dial, right?

Phil Kessel: Ugh, it’s irksome to mention, but it feels required. There’s at least some merit to the murmurs.

Rick Nash: See more on how Nash could fit into a mini-Rangers rebuild here. Nash is tantalizing, but the Rangers would need to find a way to make things work for a trade partner considering his Nash-sized cap hit.

Evander Kane: Has his issues, but he’s a power forward in his prime, and the 26-year-old seems like he’s playing at a high level. Manageable cap hit at $5.25M, especially since the trade deadline tends to make guys like him easier to get under the ceiling.

Gabriel Landeskog: Tough to imagine the Avalanche making such bold moves in succession, but then again, why not at least gauge the market? With four years remaining at about $5.57M per, it would require a major undertaking. What if Sakic offered to take, say, Ryan Callahan‘s problem deal on for Landeskog in exchange for a boatload of assets? Just saying.

[Sakic’s patience pays off in Duchene trade]

Gustav Nyquist, various Red Wings: Gotta pull off the rebuild Band-Aid sometime, right? Maybe?

Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk: Two affordable Maple Leafs forwards who are likely to get lost in the shuffle when Auston Matthews & Co. burn through their rookie deals. JVR is a chronically underrated winger.

Patric Hornqvist: The scorer of the 2017 Stanley Cup-clinching goal is an old 30 considering all of his battles in front of the net. Maybe he’d go the other way if the Penguins wanted to make a move or a series of moves?

Tomas Plekanec, Thomas Vanek, etc.: There are a handful of aging, reasonably useful forwards on expiring deals. Imagine them all listed here; check Cap Friendly for even more options.

***

That’s quite the list, and some of those players are even worth trading for. Maybe Blue Jackets and Hurricanes fans can daydream about better days, too?

Feel free to add any names you believe are missing in the comments, emails, or via Twitter. You can even embrace the freedom to be more out-there than the idea of trading Tavares. Have fun.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Revenge denied: Penguins continue to get best of Capitals

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The Washington Capitals probably want to endure “close, but no cigar against the Pittsburgh Penguins” about as much as they want to hear about falling in the second round.

Wednesday brought back painful memories in both regards.

Much like the Nashville Predators in their bid to get at least a measure of revenge for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, the Capitals couldn’t beat the Penguins in their first chance in 2017-18. Instead, the Penguins narrowly prevailed by a score of 3-2.

With this result, both teams stand at 2-1-1 in this young season.

Powered by power play

When you look at the raw shot totals (36-22 in Pittsburgh’s favor), one might feel inspired to bash the Capitals for a poor effort. The even-strength numbers were actually quite even, however, as you can see via Natural Stat Trick.

The Penguins’ power play ultimately ended up being the big difference-maker. All three of Pittsburgh’s goals came on the man advantage, as they went 3-for-6 while the Capitals frequently lethal unit went 0-for-4.

Sidney Crosby ended the night with an assist while returning forward Patric Hornqvist generated two points.

First taste of Djoos

Christian Djoos‘ first-ever NHL game was as impressive as the puns related to his last name were cringe-inducing. (Maybe as if you were drinking an especially tart juice?)

It seems like the Starburst slogan was the main winner:

Djoos scored both his first NHL goal and first NHL assist. He had the primary helper on Alex Ovechkin‘s eighth goal of 2017-18. Not bad for a seventh-rounder (195th overall) from 2012.

If you’re going to throw blame around, Ovechkin probably isn’t the right target for such derision after this loss.

This time around, Matt Murray got the better of Braden Holtby, even if Holtby made a Hasek-like highlight reel stop in the first period.

***

None of that was good enough for the Capitals to manage a comeback against the Penguins, so they’ll need to wait until their next game (Nov. 10 in Washington) for their next crack at a team that just seems to have their number.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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