The 2016-17 season was a disappointing one for the entire Florida Panthers organization. A young team that seemed to be on the rise badly regressed, went through a tumultuous season on and off the ice, and struggled to keep some of its best players healthy. The offseason has left some pretty big question marks as well.
It was also a frustrating season on an individual level for one of the Panthers’ best young players, defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, Ekblad burst onto the NHL scene in his first two years in the league and looked to be quickly developing into one of the top young defenseman in the league. And to be fair, he still is. But the 2016-17 season was probably his worst one to date. Along with missing 14 games due to injury, his production dropped across the board when he was on the ice. He admitted no Wednesday that he may have “cruised” through his first two years a bit too much.
“The last year of my rookie contract was by far the year that I learned the most,” Ekblad said, referencing last season. “I may have cruised through my first two years a little bit too much. The real work began this summer. I truly believe that and I truly believe I’m the most confident and ready that I have ever been to play the game.”
He also acknowledged that a season like this past one is where a player fully begins to understand how difficult the NHL is.
It is important to keep in mind that even though Ekblad did regress a bit this past season he still had a decent season by NHL standards. He was on a pace to score 12 goals, come close to 30 points and he was a 52 percent Corsi player on a mediocre possession team. It’s not like his game completely fell off the map in just his third season. But there is still a higher level that Ekblad can play at (and he has shown it) and the Panthers are going to need him to be at that level. Not only because he is a former No. 1 overall pick that the team is relying on to be a top-pairing defenseman, but because starting this season they are starting to pay him like one.
The 2017-18 season will be the first year of his eight-year, $60 million contract extension and for that sort of investment to be worth it the Panthers are going to need to him to be closer to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Ekblad (and probably beyond it) than the 2016-17 Ekblad.
Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case
ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.
The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.
“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.
The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”
The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.
The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.
PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at email@example.com.
Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap
• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]
• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]
• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]
• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]
• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]
Other hockey links
• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]
• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]
• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]
• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]
• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]
Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.
Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners 4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation 8:45-13:00 Other return to play details 14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview 23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview
Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.
In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”
Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.
Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?
With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.
Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?
If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.
“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”
It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)
Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.
(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)
Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.
Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?
An unexpectedly crowded defense
During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.
The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.
On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …
“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.
(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)
So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:
Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).
Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.
But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?
More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects: