RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes were working on their power play during practice when first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour pulled first-round draft pick Andrei Svechnikov aside for some quick one-on-one instruction.
”Andrei,” the coach said, ”be a shooter.”
The Hurricanes likely will need plenty of shots – and goals – from Svechnikov and fellow first-round draft pick Martin Necas if they’re to finally snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.
But the way Brind’Amour sees it, nobody’s asking either of those teenagers to will the team to the Stanley Cup – like he did in 2006 as the team captain. In fact, to even think of the pressure in this situation as being on either of those rookies is misguided.
”I kind of view it the opposite – the pressure’s on us,” Brind’Amour said. ”We’re, ‘Man, we really hope he can play.’ It’s not on him.”
The Hurricanes seem confident that the 19-year-old Necas and the 18-year-old Svechnikov can handle everything being thrown their way during a critically important training camp for a franchise that has undergone a massive overhaul during the past nine months.
”The first couple of days (of camp), everything was confusing because it was new, the guys were new, bigger guys and the game is faster,” Svechnikov said. ”But every day I feel better.”
They’ve changed owners, general managers and coaches while unloading some key players, including their most recent face of the franchise, popular forward Jeff Skinner. Of the top eight point-scorers from last year’s team – one that missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season – three were traded away during the offseason.
With Skinner (49 points) now in Buffalo and Elias Lindholm (44) and defenseman Noah Hanifin (32) shipped to Calgary , the scoring has to come from somewhere else – and the two teenagers figure to pick up at least some of that load along with 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who scored a team-best 29 goals last season and has been moved to center from a wing.
It’s still the preseason, but both players got off to a good start, with each scoring a goal in their preseason debuts this week and Svechnikov adding an assist.
”I don’t really think about” any pressure, Necas said. ”It’s important to not think about it, just play every game and try to play your best.”
Carolina spent the No. 12 overall pick in 2017 on Necas, a native Czech who played one game for the team last October before he was returned to his team back home to further polish his game as a playmaking center. Brind’Amour praised him after that successful debut, saying that ”when you give him a little time and space, he can make plays.
”It’s something that we’ve just got to keep teaching him,” he added.
The Hurricanes were among the winners at the NHL Draft’s lottery, falling into the No. 2 overall pick and using it on Svechnikov , a Russian winger and pure scorer who had 40 goals in 44 games for his junior team last season.
Their connection extends off the ice: Svechnikov says he and Necas are rooming together during training camp at a hotel, where they usually keep things low-key, going out to eat together or watching movies separately. Svechnikov says Necas plays more Fortnite than he does in those rare off hours, adding with a laugh that ”I don’t have time for that.”
On the ice, Svechnikov sure seems like a quick study so far – and that’s encouraging for his coach.
”I think for Andrei to be a successful player, the player we want, he’s got to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. ”That’s pretty obvious, stating the obvious, but at some point we know he’s going to be able to do that. It’s just, when? Can he do that as an 18-year-old? After (preseason) Game 1, you’d say there’s definitely promising things there, and he will be able to.”
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Early word of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Green dealing with fatigue issues in the preseason seemed unusual, but it turns out there’s a rather frightening reason why he might be dealing with energy issues.
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill announced that Green is sidelined indefinitely, as he saw an infectious disease specialist regarding “a virus that attacked his liver,” according to Dana Wakiji of the Red Wings website.
“(Green’s) not available right now,” Blashill said, via Wakiji. “He’s got a virus that attacked his liver, so he’s seen an infectious disease person today and we should know more here in the next little bit. I don’t know how long he’s going to be out. I don’t know the totality of it.”
Scary stuff. (You can read more about viruses that affect the liver here.)
Green is no stranger to injury issues, including ailments that plagued him during his offensively dominant days with the Washington Capitals. Not long ago, Green spoke in positive terms about how he was feeling coming off of neck surgery.
This is unsettling news for a defenseman who’s already dealt with tough injury luck during his career. Here’s hoping that Green and the Red Wings take every precaution before he returns to the ice.
One silver lining is that, with Green sidelined, the Red Wings can open the door for some defensive prospects to get a longer look than they might have received under different circumstances. In particular, Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek stand out as blueliners who could really benefit from some additional opportunities, while Libor Sulak and Joe Hicketts should also be in the mix.
GM Ken Holland acknowledged as much while discussing Green’s health challenges, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free-Press.
“Now we have five D, and we are probably going to start with seven,” Holland said. “Now, how long is Mike Green out? Certainly it appears he is going to be out for a little period of time. So probably we are going to start with two of these defense prospects – either Sulak or Hicketts or Cholowski or Hronek.”
One might argue that the Red Wings should already be taking measures to skew in a younger direction on defense, anyway. Getting more intel on Sulak, Hicketts, Cholowski, and Hronek would give them a better idea regarding how soon they might be able to contribute, or if they even figure into future plans.
Consider the ages of the Red Wings more settled defensemen. Green is 32, Jonathan Ericsson is pretty broken down at 34, Trevor Daley is 34, and Niklas Kronwall‘s nearing the end of his career at 37. It’s plausible that Nick Jensen and Danny DeKeyser (both 28) will be in a decline and/or out of the picture by the time the Red Wings wade out of the darkness, too.
The Red Wings have made some significant progress toward a rebuild – the Tomas Tatar trade was wonderful, and they followed it up with shrewd picks at the 2018 NHL Draft – yet there still seem to be moments where they’re too stubborn to fully embrace the growing pains. Bringing Green back felt a little bit like that, as there’s a strong chance that a healthy Green would provide better immediate returns than a Cholowski or Hronek. But, realistically speaking, would the upside be that strong?
Either way, here’s hoping there will be happier news for Green soon.
The first game out of the December holiday break for the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens won’t be your typical midseason meeting. After the Max Domi / Aaron Ekblad incident from Wednesday night, there will be some bad blood on display that Friday night at BB&T Center.
Domi spoke to the media on Friday for the first time since his five-game suspension was handed down for sucker-punching Ekblad, breaking the Panthers’ defenseman’s nose in the process. He apologized for his actions and respected the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to give him the rest of the preseason off.
“It’s a real tough situation, obviously, for everyone involved,” said Domi, who was given a match penalty and a a minor for roughing. “I feel bad about it. It’s not the way I wanted to handle that. It’s an emotional game. Obviously, I’m an emotional player. I’ve known Aaron for a long time, grew up playing against each other. Always played hard, always battled, whether it was minor hockey, junior, national level, and now the NHL, too.
“By no means did I want to hurt him, I feel bad about it. I hope he’s OK. But, you know what? I’ve got to suffer the consequences of it and it’s unfortunate. But it is what it is and I respect the league’s decision.”
The suspension is obviously a joke. Five preseason games is almost a gift for any NHL player who has a job already sewn up. Plus, add in the fact that Domi won’t have to forfeit any salary and it’s a nice little vacation.
The Panthers had some choice words following the game, with goaltender Roberto Luongo saying they won’t forget what happened and calling what Domi did “a gutless play.” Ekblad, who was also sporting a pair of black eyes, said on Friday that it was a “dumb” decision by the Canadiens forward and hinted at some retribution coming when they meet on Dec. 28.
“I think he’s stupid for doing it. In the end, it’s hockey,” Ekblad said via the Panthers. “That’s the way it goes. Scores will get settled at a later date.”
That’s going to earn a phone call from the league to try and calm things down.
“It looked like Max was frustrated,” added Ekblad. “He obviously wasn’t doing much in the game and thought it was the right way to take care of something. I’m not sure what there was to take care of, considering I didn’t do much on the ice. I was just floating around trying to find my legs and play hockey. That’s what you do in the preseason.”
When told of Ekblad’s comments, Domi responded, “It’s part of the game. It is what it is. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. That’s hockey. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
While it’s fair to warn against reading too much into NHL training camps, sometimes they indeed provide a helpful preview for the coming season. If nothing else, they present a worthwhile opportunity for coaches to experiment.
The Pittsburgh Penguins come into 2018-19 with slightly fresher legs, as their title defense fell short in two rounds. They also have some players to work into the mix, whether they landed them at the trade deadline (Derick Brassard) or through free agency and amid salty drama with their former team (Jack Johnson, Torts, and the Blue Jackets).
Tinkering with Brassard
Last year, the Penguins’ hated rivals from Philly yielded a rebound year from Claude Giroux, as he seemed to be revitalized by a move to the wing. Maybe a lot of that revolved around reduced defensive responsibilities, but it was enough of a success story that it makes sense for the Penguins to ponder such a possibility in hopefully getting more out of Derick Brassard.
Mike Sullivan discussed such experiments on Friday.
“We’ve given a lot of thought into it and it’s something that we’ll explore,” Sullivan said of trying Brassard out on the wing. “We know he’s a center by nature but we also know he’s a versatile player. It’s an option that’s on the table.”
With a fully staffed group of Penguins forwards, it’s somewhat challenging to picture how Brassard would work better on the wing than he would as – ideally – a third center who could leverage certain matchup advantages.
Of course, the Penguins know as much as any other team that injuries strike. Brassard himself missed the first week of camp due to a minor chest infection.
The Penguins might as well gather as much data as they can for how Brassard might work with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the event that their customary wingers suffer injuries. Via Natural Stat Trick, Brassard played just 7:01 of even-strength ice time with Crosby during the regular season, and he didn’t even reach two minutes with Malkin. (Phil Kessel was far and away his most common forward partner.)
In the flow of regular-season competition, it makes sense that the Penguins didn’t enjoy a ton of opportunities to tinker with different combinations for Brassard. Now’s the time to see what works, what does not, and what might merely need time to marinate.
The most important thing is that the Penguins are exploring avenues to get the most out of the veteran forward, rather than giving up on Brassard.
And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial season for the 30-year-old, as Brassard approaches 2018-19 as a contract year. Such drive could really manifest itself if he got the chance to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, and for all we know, the next phase of his career could be as a “winger to the stars.”
A formidable pairing
Penguins fans owe it to themselves to read this Johnson-related article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie for a host of reasons:
- An amusing slight of privilege regarding Johnson’s adjustment to Pittsburgh. Gasp in terror at the thought of Johnson not finding a good sushi joint and possibly suffering from a bad hair style.
- Enjoy a subtler form of shade at John Tortorella, as Johnson spoke about Torts’ grueling training camp, which apparently begins with a two-mile run that must be completed within 12 minutes. Johnson mostly dismissed such concerns, although it’s funny to see him describe the runs as activities that “don’t necessarily translate into how you’re playing or how hockey is.”
The most pertinent information, however, is that the initial plan is to pair Johnson with Justin Schultz.
That gnarly howl you just heard was analytics-minded people recoiling in terror, and possibly seeing their charts break. Seriously, Johnson – Schultz is a duo with the potential to get caved-in possession-wise at a level we rarely see.
One can only picture – again, maybe in horror – the sort of defensive misadventures such a pairing might endure. (Granted, the Penguins can mostly point to Schultz as a relative success story, and the two could at least bring something to the table from a transition standpoint.)
Maybe the Johnson tinkering has just begun, as Sullivan instead paired him with Olli Maatta today:
Frankly, it might be difficult to find the right fit for Johnson because … well, if his career so far provides any evidence, he carries some deep flaws in his own end, and his offensive contributions rarely make up for such issues. The deeper you dig into “fancy stats,” the worse Johnson tends to look, but even simple measures tend to be less-than-flattering.
The Penguins are dug in here, considering the jarring five-year, $16.25 million commitment they made to Johnson. For a team that’s perpetually tight to the cap ceiling, squandering $3.25M per season could be agonizing.
For what it’s worth, GM Jim Rutherford shook off analytics worries about Johnson (not to mention Matt Cullen and Derek Grant) in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.
“The same as any player, analytics play a role,” Rutherford said. “Our personal opinions and viewings play a role. And where they might fit into what we’re looking for. You look at different players in a different way. What are you looking for in your team? What are some of your needs and how do they fit? All those things. These are guys who fit for us.”
Of course, the risks with Cullen and Grant are pretty minimal, as each player’s only carrying a $650K AAV in 2018-19.
For a team that already struggles when it comes to turning the puck over in dangerous situations and allowing a ton of odd-man rushes, Johnson may only exacerbate such issues. It’s not surprising that management is resolute in defending the signing – what else can they say? – but there’s a strong chance Pittsburgh will regret this expensive reclamation project.
Then again, Schultz’s career was in a dire place when he was traded from Edmonton, so maybe the Penguins really do “see” something others do not? They’ve pulled off the unlikely before.
As much attention is lavished on stars like Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Kris Letang, the Penguins – and other contenders – need other players to step up.
When Pittsburgh landed Brassard, the expectation was that he’s provide that additional pop. Some NHL GMs outright groaned at the Penguins landing him, and Vegas GM George McPhee’s logic in helping to aid a trade to Pittsburgh revolved around keeping the center off of a West contender.
In the post-deadline rush, Brassard didn’t meet positive expectations. Meanwhile, the Penguins are gambling big-time that Johnson will defy pessimistic expectations.
Training camp tinkering will likely be forgotten in the long run, yet either way, it’s crucial for Pittsburgh to find the optimal lineups and strategies to contend after falling short last season.