Risk Factors: Minnesota Wild edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Minnesota Wild

1. Goaltending. Obviously. When the dust settled on a dysfunctional offseason — one that included Darcy Kuemper’s lengthy contractual impasse, Josh Harding busting his foot kicking a wall, and Ilya Bryzgalov — the Wild emerged with an unexpected tandem to start the regular season: Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom, with no clear message on who’s the No. 1.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Wild had hoped that Kuemper, still just 24 years old with 32 games of NHL experience, would be in AHL Iowa while veterans Harding and Backstrom backstopped the parent club. Granted, the Harding-Backstrom punch was far from a sure thing — both have a history of health concerns — but it gave Minnesota, at the very least, some depth and experience… not to mention the option of calling up Kuemper if things went sideways.

Now, that security blanket is gone.

And it’s left the Wild with a series of unknowns. Can Backstrom stay injury-free? Is Kuemper ready to play more than the 26 games he got last year? Will either emerge as the clear-cut starter? If not, can the Wild get consistent enough goaltending from a platoon situation?

Not even head coach Mike Yeo knows. Following a year in which five different goalies got games — Harding, Kuemper, Backstrom, Bryzgalov and John Curry — Yeo just wants some semblance of consistency in net.

“I would enjoy that a lot, that’s for sure,” Yeo said, per the Pioneer Press. “The one part I wouldn’t mind is if we have competition. If we have two guys — and we have had that in the past — pushing each other and both guys are performing at a high level where it’s a difficult decision as far as who you’re going to put in the net.

“If one guy were to really step up and win that position, there’s no question that makes our job a lot easier. But what I’m hoping for is that both guys are performing at a high level.”

2. Exhausted Ryan Suter. Earlier this summer, Brough asked if the Wild played Suter too much. It was a good and legitimate query; Suter, who turns 30 in January, averaged a league-high 29:24 TOI last season — overall he skated almost 200 more minutes than the second-most-deployed skater, Erik Karlsson, did for the Ottawa Senators.

It’s been this way since Suter landed in Minnesota two years ago. The organization seems to constantly teeter between two schools of thought: 1) We need to monitor his minutes and keep him from getting burnt out, and 2) We need him out there because he’s our No. 1 d-man and at his best when he plays a tonne.

Yeo adhered to the latter during last year’s playoffs.

“This is a guy that we’ve seen when he plays more, he plays better,” the head coach explained, per the Pioneer Press. “We’ll be aware of the schedule and we’ll make sure we’re managing him and his ice time how we need to in the games, but let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a great player.

“And when he’s fresh and we can have him on the ice, we want him there.”

There are inherent risks with playing Suter this much, of course. Fatigue is an obvious one, and so is injury — prior to starting last year’s opening-round series, the Avalanche made a point of saying they wanted to hit Suter as much and often as possible. During Game 3 of the Chicago series, Suter appeared to hurt his arm/shoulder in a tangle with Marian Hossa and while his minutes didn’t decrease in the following games, his performance did; Suter went minus-2 over the final two games of the series, recording just one hit and two blocked shots in the Game 6 OT loss.

3. Thomas Vanek’s bust potential. The former Golden Gopher did what everybody expected this summer by coming home to Minnesota, thanks to a three-year, $19.5 million deal signed on the opening day of free agency.

But is the homecoming a little too late?

Vanek is not, and I hate myself for using this term, a spring chicken. He turns 31 in January and is now five years removed from his last 40-goal campaign. The decline of goalscoring wingers as they get older is well documented, especially in Minnesota; Dany Heatley, who’s departure freed up the money to sign Vanek, experienced a sharp decline once he got on the wrong side of 30:

source:

At this point, it’s worth mentioning Vanek’s lacklustre playoff with Montreal. While some were quick to offer the Austrian a mulligan for last season given its volatile and unpredictable nature — he was traded twice and played for three different teams — that didn’t take away from the fact Vanek was average at the most crucial time of the season. Michel Therrien benched and called him out during the second-round series against Boston and after Montreal was eliminated by New York in the Eastern Conference Final, Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur blasted Vanek for disappearing under adversity.

The Wild can’t afford for Vanek to underwhelm. Aside from committing a significant amount of cap space to him, the team really needs someone to step up and score — Minnesota finished 23rd in the NHL in goals last season, with 207, and 59 of those came from two players (Jason Pominville and Zach Parise).

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

NHL
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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

Carolina Hurricanes
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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.