Scott Darling

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Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

 

Report: Skinner among leading candidates for Hurricanes captaincy

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The Carolina Hurricanes went last season without a captain. That will change once training camp is over, and, according to a recent report, Jeff Skinner is one of the prime candidates to possibly wear the ‘C’ for this season.

The Hurricanes selected Skinner seventh overall in 2010. He made an instant impact on the NHL club, scoring 31 goals and 63 points in his rookie season as a teenager. He’s been a valuable offensive weapon for Carolina ever since.

This past season, he scored 37 goals — a career best. Although the consideration to potentially make him the next captain goes beyond his skills around the opposing net.

From NHL.com:

“He’s a passionate guy and he’s a passionate player,” Peters said. “He’s a real good pro in the fact that he looks after himself, he trains properly and the guys have unreal respect for the way he looks after his body. The maturity shows. I know guys bring it up quite a bit.”

To that end, Peters said he was at a staff golf outing prior to the start of training camp with about 16 people, including members of the Hurricanes’ medical and strength training staffs, and he polled as many people about the captaincy candidates as he could.

“[Skinner’s] name came up in the conversation quite a bit, and they bring up that type of stuff, the way he looks after himself and the way he prepares,” Peters said. “He’s passionate about it and he’s hungry to win.”

The Hurricanes have, over the past few years, done a nice job of building a talented young roster that has shown signs of being able to compete in the Eastern Conference. They do, however, play in a difficult Metropolitan Division, which features the Blue Jackets, Penguins, Capitals and Rangers.

The biggest change in Carolina this offseason was in net, with the addition of Scott Darling, who was the capable back-up in Chicago but is now taking over the No. 1 role with the Hurricanes.

Another change is still upcoming. Eric Staal was the captain in Carolina for six years, but the team is expected to soon name a replacement. There are other candidates for the Hurricanes captaincy, as well, like Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal.

“Someone is going to wear one, for sure,” said Peters earlier this month, per TSN. “Our leadership group is fine and we’ve got real good candidates. They’ll all provide leadership whether they wear a letter or not.”

Cam Ward ready for backup role with Hurricanes

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For the better part of the past 12 seasons Cam Ward has been a constant in the Carolina Hurricanes’ net. He is the longest tenured member of the team and a Stanley Cup champion.

This season, however, his hold on the starting job seems to have finally come to an end with the arrival of Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hurricanes acquired Darling’s free agent rights in a trade, then acted quickly to sign him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract.

That is not a commitment you make to a player that you intend to sit on the bench, and Ward knows this.

In an interview with the News & Observer this week Ward talked about his new role with the team and how he is willing and ready to accept it after being a starter for more than a decade.

From the News & Observer:

“I’m realistic,” Ward said in an interview at Raleigh Center Ice. “I understand the situation. I know he was brought in here to sign a four-year deal for pretty good money not to be a backup.

“I know where I am in my career. … Certainly I’m a competitive guy and I still want to be able to play and I’ll do whatever I can to earn that ice time, but I’m hopeful he can make that next step. He deserves that.”

The unfortunate reality for Ward is that it is a move the Hurricanes had to make.

Goaltending has been one of the single biggest issues plaguing the Hurricanes in recent seasons, and Ward has been the key player at that position. He has not finished a season with a save percentage higher than .910 since the 2011-12 season. In the five years since then his .907 save percentage is 43rd out of 47 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games, ahead of only Ondrej Pavelec, Ben Scrivens and Jacob Markstrom.

The Hurricanes have been assembling a talented, young roster in recent seasons and finally look like a team that is on the verge of becoming a player in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They have an outstanding young defense that has already made them one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, as well as some young high-end forward talent up front. The only ingredient that has been missing has been more consistent play in net.

The Hurricanes have also taken chances on backups Anton Khudobin and Eddie Lack over the years in the hopes they could push Ward and help solidify the position. None of them worked out.

Darling is the latest top backup that they have tabbed to be their solution in net. He has been one of the best backup goalies in the league in recent seasons and will be getting his shot to be a starter this season.

Will Antti Raanta be the answer in net for the Coyotes?

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This post is a part of Coyotes day at PHT…

The Arizona Coyotes made some pretty drastic changes to their roster this offseason saying goodbye to some major veteran players (Shane Doan, Radim Vrbata, Mike Smith) and bringing in some fresh faces to replace them, including Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Antti Raanta.

Overall, the players coming in would seem to be — on paper anyway — upgrades over what they ended up letting go.

One of the more intriguing changes is going to be in net where Raanta is going to replace Smith, the Coyotes’ starting goalie for the past six years, and get his first opportunity to be a starting goalie in the NHL.

It is an opportunity he has earned over the past three years.

During that stretch Raanta has been one of the NHL’s top backups, playing behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and then Henrik Lundqvist in New York the past two years. There even came a point this past season where Raanta played so well (coinciding with one of the worst slumps of Lundqvist’s career) that he ended up getting the bulk of the playing time for nearly a month.

Over the past three years his save percentage has put him alongside some of the NHL’s elite goalies, but he has done that primarily as a backup where a goalie can get more favorable matchups and not have to deal with a starter’s workload.

How Raanta adjusts to being the No. 1 goalie will go a long way toward determining how good the Coyotes can be this season.

Shortly after he was acquired by the Coyotes I mentioned how a decent comparable for him and the Coyotes might be the player Cam Talbot has turned out to be for the Edmonton Oilers. Talbot was coming from a nearly identical situation (very good backup to Henrik Lundqvist in New York at a similar age) and has become an above average starter.

If the Coyotes can get that level of play from Raanta it would be a nice addition, and probably an upgrade over what they were going to get from Smith — not to mention at a better price.

The question is whether or not they can get that level of play.

In looking at goalies that have followed similar career paths in recent years the results have been somewhat mixed.

I went back over the past 15 years and looked at goalies that played between between 40 and 100 games through their age 27 season (an admittedly imperfect way of identifying “backups”) and how the most successful ones did when — and if — they became starters.

There were 45 goalies in the hockey-reference database that fit that criteria.

Twelve of them had a save percentage of .916 or better during that point in their career. The list includes Matt Murray, Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin, Andrew Hammond, Dan Ellis, Philipp Grubauer, Scott Darling, Alex Stalock, Ben Scrivens, Eddie Lack, Vesa Toskala, and, of course, Raanta.

It is an interesting list.

Murray and Grubauer don’t really fit the mold of what we are looking for here because they are both young players that were top prospects. Murray has already taken a starting job and excelled with it, winning two Stanley Cups before his 23rd birthday.

Grubauer probably could be a starter if wasn’t playing behind one of the top-three goalies in the world.

Darling is entering into an identical situation as Raanta this season where he is getting a chance to go from successful backup to full-time starter.

But the rest of that group is exactly what we are looking for here, and the results are not exactly encouraging because other than Talbot none of them really went on to have much success as starters. Lack and Khudobin both continued Carolina’s goaltending struggles that led to them trying to find another top backup this offseason (Darling), while Ellis, Hammond, Stalock, Scrivens, and Toskala never really panned out.

The one thing that Raanta and the Coyotes have going in their favor is that he has a larger body of work to go by, having already already played in 94 games at the NHL level. A lot of the players on the aforementioned list had less than 50 games at a similar point.

We will find out if that extra playing will make a difference.

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.