James O'Brien

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nick Shore, Mike Smith

Arizona Coyotes ’15-16 Outlook

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We’ve often seen that teams committed to suppressing offense can often survive even with a lack of traditional talent.

The Arizona Coyotes know that well, as their better days with Dave Tippett included a three-year postseason run that culminated with a loss in the 2012 Western Conference Final.

Of course, that feels like quite a while ago now, as the Coyotes have missed three straight postseasons.

As mentioned in an earlier post, GM Don Maloney believes they can “compete every night” thanks to Tippett’s game plan and subtle (perceived?) improvements to their roster.

Let’s not kid ourselves, either: the Coyotes conveniently shed some key players in what certainly seemed like a tanking attempt to outside observers. It might not always be pretty, but Tippett teams can at least grind their way to competence.

Heck, Mike Smith even managed a .934 save percentage in 12 games during the month of March, so a mild turnaround isn’t a totally outrageous thought.

Light at the end of the tunnel

That said, the real reason to look on the bright side comes in the team’s youth movement, a trend powered in part by the spoils of tanking.

While fans can bask in the glory of blossoming star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson right now, things could really ramp up in a few years. ESPN’s Corey Pronman forecasts a very different stylistic future for the franchise while ranking the farm system fourth overall.

The Coyotes have long been an organization known for its emphasis on defense and goaltending, but the Coyotes have built a truly elite foundation of young forwards coming up the pipeline. Dylan Strome, Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Brendan Perlini, Nick Merkley, and Christian Dvorak, among others, give the Coyotes a ton of projected firepower. Today, the team is known as a boring, trap-and-defend-style club. In five years, the Coyotes could be a run-and-gun team.

Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc backed up Pronman’s sentiment to Yahoo, saying that other league executives are “so envious” of the group they’ve amassed.

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Long story short, Arizona might be a little pluckier than its 2014-15 record may suggest.

There’s a bright side even if they flop again, though: that would allow them to beef up their already-impressive prospect pool. It’s as close to a win-win situation as this embattled franchise has seen in some time.

Carolina Hurricanes ’15-16 Outlook

Bill Peters
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As nice as it would be, you can’t hit the “snooze” button forever.

Even after making Ron Francis their GM, the Carolina Hurricanes basically replicated the same tired results: a mix of disappointing play and injury-fueled “What if?” questions ultimately resulting in a failed playoff bid.

One would think that the 2015-16 season will finally jostle this franchise from its coma … depending upon the choices Francis makes, of course.

Deadlines approaching

The Hurricanes cannot procrastinate much longer with longtime stalwarts Eric Staal and Cam Ward, as both Stanley Cup remnants need new deals as their old, disappointing ones expire. Everyone involved has been saying the right things about keeping the band together, yet one must ask if that’s really the best choice.

It’s not the only challenging call, either. Do you cut bait on concussion-ravaged young forward Jeff Skinner at 23? Would Jordan Staal stand his brother being traded (and is he worth keeping regardless)?

There’s even the question of do you welcome 2015 first-rounder Noah Hanifin into the lineup right away or do you let him get a little extra seasoning?

One thing’s clear: none of these decisions will be as easy as buying out Alexander Semin.

What to expect

Recent history suggests that the Hurricanes could very well be a lottery team once more in 2015-16.

Some of the big names on this roster do sort of rope you in, however. Better things could happen with improved injury luck, contract year motivation and growth from the youngsters. Perhaps the tandem of Ward and Eddie Lack might push each other to stellar years, too?

The smart money seems to pencil Carolina into another failed playoff bid, which would mark seven straight seasons without a postseason.

As painful as that may sound, the most important battles must be won by those wearing suits, not hockey sweaters in the next year or so.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

Edmonton Oilers v Carolina Hurricanes
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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite changing their head coach and general manager, the 2014-15 season was more of the same for the Carolina Hurricanes.

For the sixth season in a row (and eight of their last nine campaigns), the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs. Much like 2013-14, they were in the cellar of the East.

Granted, there are murmurs of hope; the Hurricanes subtly improved toward the end of the year and Carolina showed some signs of defensive improvement under head coach Bill Peters. Such patter sounds like baby steps in the grand scheme of things.

Despite some significant expenditures on that side of the puck, Peters identified scoring as a particularly glaring issue.

“We like where we are in terms of being able to take a step forward; it will depend on us having the ability to score,” Peters said, according to NHL.com. “We have to find a way to score more at 5-on-5.”

Off-season recap

GM Ron Francis faces tougher decisions soon, yet he was fairly busy this summer.

It was costly, but the organization cut ties with Semin via a pricey buyout.

In trading Anton Khudobin to Anaheim and acquiring Eddie Lack from Vancouver, Francis gives himself flexibility with Ward, as Lack could end up the No. 1 or even combine for a platoon situation. Swapping with Anaheim also netted an expensive upgrade to Carolina’s needy defense in James Wisniewski.

Optimists may cross their fingers that the Hurricanes will opt for a youth movement. Blueline prospect Noah Hanifin joins Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk, Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy as intriguing young talents who aren’t in limbo like Jordan Staal or Jeff Skinner.

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This time it really does feel like a fork-in-the-road season for the Hurricanes, even if it also seems like the organization has been procrastinating when it comes to making difficult (yet crucial) decisions.

Will things finally start to turn Carolina’s way in 2015-16?

Can the Bruins’ defense get up to speed?

150809 bruins
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It sounds like the Boston Bruins were taking notes when they watched mobile defensemen Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman square off in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

GM Don Sweeney isn’t asking his group to impersonate Bobby Orr next season, but it sounds like he’s asking for a more active approach, as the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa reports in this interesting piece.

Most obviously, he wants defensemen to skate a bit more with the puck in transition, easing things on the Bruins’ forwards.

“I think they have to,” Sweeney said. “At times, we probably got a little bit too stationary on our breakouts. We need to be in motion a little bit. That means our forwards will be in motion a little bit, because teams were able to smother the walls, pinch, and pre-pinch.”

Shinzawa provides a few additional sensory details about how such a modified scheme might work, at least ideally:

The tweaks are meant to shift the danger level away from the net. Defensemen will be more active, perhaps up the ice and closer to the walls. Forwards will not have to retreat as far to funnel pucks into favorable real estate. There will be greater challenges to zone entries, similar to how MBTA police close down on fare evaders. The goal, as Sweeney likes to say, is to create anxiety for opponents up the ice.

Let’s be honest, though: it’s reasonable to wonder if the Bruins really boast the personnel to make such a modernization work.

(This idea also turns the knife in a little deeper when it comes to losing Dougie Hamilton.)

Looking at the structure of this team, is it better to try to keep up with the Joneses or merely try to do what you do best? After all, there’s always the possibility that Claude Julien, Zdeno Chara and David Krejci will see better days after a bumpy season (which featured serious injury issues for Chara and Krejci).

Striving for a more modern approach is understandable, but sometimes sports teams lose their identity and gain little in return by trying to dance to the beat of someone else’s drum.

Either way, it’s an intriguing development to ponder in 2015-16. The full article is well worth a read, by the way.

(H/T to Kukla’s Korner)

Here’s what people think about NHL 16’s EASHL beta

eashl
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After missing features left a sour note for many upon the release of NHL 15, EA Sports is bringing some key modes back to NHL 16.

That meant giving the popular “EASHL” a test drive this past week via a beta released for Xbox One and Playstation 4.

Here’s the short version for those who see EASHL as a garble of letters: the mode – which stands for EA Sports Hockey League – allows you to play as a single, created player (instead of a team) with other people online. You can be a forward, defenseman or goalie, with a few templates like “sniper” and “power forward” to spice things up.

If you get lucky, 12 humans could be controlling the six individual positions per team in a single game.

Considering the potential there, people were upset that NHL 15 didn’t include the feature, but it appears to be back. So what kind of feedback did this trial run receive? Let’s take a quick look.

Game Informer was pleasantly surprised by how well the artificial intelligence handled things when a full team of human players wasn’t available (which is most common):

These non-player skaters are better than we anticipated. Defenders skillfully patrol the middle of the ice, intercepting passes and denying easy entry to the slot. If you pair a CPU defender with a human, it is smart enough to stay back should the player pinch or join the rush. On offense, we saw a few A.I. players put home juicy rebounds and successfully dislodge the puck from a defender during a forecheck.

This Hockey Writers post praises the customization options:

Even the team you create in NHL 16 is given more uniqueness with the new system. Now Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk have the ability to say the name of your team that is given by you when you create your EASHL team. From standard team names to ridiculous ones you and your friends can get extremely creative when you create your team and team name, while at the same time getting the name recognition on-screen from one of the best announcers in the National Hockey League.

Fansided postulates that NHL 16 is already better than NHL 15, even based on what amounts to a dress rehearsal.

The Vancouver Province’s detailed write-up concludes on a down note for EA Sports:

The problem I have right now with EASHL is that it just wasn’t fun for me. Everything felt like a grueling game of old Minnesota trap hockey, where each game left me drained after it was over, instead of jubilant after having played a game with some friends. It might be an issue of a learning curve, and maybe after more time I will learn to adapt to the new NHL 16 way of life. It’s just adapting to a certain game play doesn’t necessarily guarantee a fun hockey game for me.

Ouch.

The beta is running through August 10, allowing the developers to make some tweaks before the game’s release in about one month. It sounds like there may still be some work to do, although there was plenty of positive feedback, too.

(EASHL logo via EA Sports.)