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Hurricanes once again NHL’s most frustrating outlier

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For what seems to be the fourth or fifth year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2017-18 season as a popular pick to jump back into the playoff picture, finally taking that long awaited big step forward in their rebuild.

It is not hard to understand why there has been so much excitement about this team in recent seasons.

They have an outstanding young core of players. Jeff Skinner is one of the absolute best goal-scoring forwards in the league (that nobody ever talks about). Sebastian Aho looks like he has a chance to be a star. This summer they added Scott Darling, Justin Williams and Trevor van Riemsdyk to that young core.

In terms of their play they seem to pass the eye test by playing everyone close (they have already lost nine one goal games this season, including six in overtime or a shootout — they have only won three such games) and giving everyone fits.

Their analytics consistently rate them among the best in the NHL.

Defensively, they have been one of the four or five best teams in the league at suppressing shots against despite having one of the youngest blue lines in the league. They are consistently among the best possession teams in the league, finishing near the top of the league in shot attempt metrics.

But the results in the standings have not been there. At all. They have made the playoffs just once in the past 12 years, and in their most recent seasons have seemingly hit a glass ceiling that caps them in the mid-80s for points.

In 2014-15 they finished with 71 points in the standings even though they were third in the league in shots against and ninth in attempts percentage.

In 2015-16 it was 86 points despite finishing fifth and 11th respectively.

Last season? 87 points. Where they did they finish in those two shot based categories? Fifth (shots against) and sixth (shot attempts percentage).

You can probably guess what is happening in Carolina this season. Through their first 29 games the Hurricanes are allowing 29.5 shots on goal against per game, the third lowest total in the league. They are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts in their games, the highest mark in the NHL.

Their current point pace for the season? It is just 84.9.

New year, same story. A promising young team that seems to be doing everything right but is destined to finish somewhere in the middle of the league, just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The frustrating thing about this from a Hurricanes perspective is that they should be better than this. Teams that play the way they do, limit shots the way they do, and control possession the way they do not only tend to make the playoffs, they tend to do very well once they get there.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season there have been 29 teams that have finished the regular season allowing less than 29 shots on goal per game and finishing with a shot attempts percentage higher than 51 percent.

Those 29 teams finished with an average of 100 points in the standings. Twenty-two made the playoffs. Twelve won at least one series once they got there. Six advanced to the Conference Finals. Three reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Here are the seven teams that fit that criteria over that stretch and missed the playoffs.

You might notice a common name or two.

So, basically, the Hurricanes and Kings are the two biggest statistical outliers in the league over the past five years.

But at least the Kings’ formula has proven to be successful at one point or another with a lot of playoff appearances in between — they seem destined to return this season — and two Stanley Cup titles.

But the Hurricanes. Geez. The Hurricanes. Three times playing at a level that is on par with a contender and missing the playoffs every time. It seems at least possible, if not likely, that it will happen again this season.

So what in the world is happening here?

The most common target for blame has been their inability to find any sort of stability in net. To be fair, it has been a huge problem.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Hurricanes have finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in the league in team save percentage. So far this season they are 25th. Probably the biggest reason they do not finish lower in terms of goals against is the fact they do such a great job limiting shots against. It has not been any one goalie that has been the culprit because they have tried several different options, whether it be long-time starter Cam Ward, or any of the many recent successful backups they have tried to acquire to take over the starting job, ranging from Anton Khudobin, to Eddie Lack, to their recent attempt with Darling.

It is obviously far too early to write Darling off, but with a .902 save percentage in his first 20 appearances it is not exactly an encouraging start.

But for all of the issues they have had in goal, there is another one that seems to quietly slide under the radar: For all of their dominant possession numbers, and for all of the shots they are able to register for themselves … they don’t really score a lot, either.

So far this season the Hurricanes are 25th in the league in goals per game, and have consistently been in the bottom-10 over the aforementioned five-year stretch.

There is something to be said for the argument (recently put forward by Andrew Berkshire at the Sporting News) that as teams become more involved in analytics that stats like Corsi may not be as predictive as they once were. By now pretty much everyone in the league knows the value of keeping the puck, generating shots and preventing shots. It’s a lot harder to find an advantage there if everyone is in tune with that.

It could also be a matter of just overall talent and scoring ability.

I argued during the Stanley Cup Final that it was possible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to outperform their possession stats because their roster is made up of elite, high end talent. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel at the top of your lineup, not to mention Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel as complementary players, you have the ability to strike fast. You don’t always need sustained pressure or a lot of shots to score. Those guys can strike at any moment and from anywhere on the ice. To a lesser extent that might also be true for a team like this year’s Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t dominant territorially but has some of the top offensive players in the league.

The Hurricanes, for as good as their young talent is, especially on the blue line, do not really have that sort of talent.

Skinner is certainly on that level, and Aho could end up there, but that is pretty much it.

What they have is a lot of players that are great are driving possession but aren’t really game-breaking offensive players. Jordan Staal, their top forward in terms of ice-time, is a perfect example of this. Staal is a really good two-way player. He does a lot of things really well. He is a great defensive player, he can drive possession, he can play against other team’s top players. But he has never been a great playmaker. He has never been a player that will be a threat to score 35 or 40 goals.

Justin Williams has been a similar player for much of his career. Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask seem like they are trending in that same direction with their careers. Very good players. Players necessary for a winning team. But not players that can really break a game open offensively. That, too, is still a necessity.

All of this together makes the Hurricanes an incredibly frustrating team.

They have a lot of necessary ingredients. They seem to play the right way, and they can be pretty entertaining, too. But they seem to just always be a little bit short of being able to take that next step we keep anticipating.

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.

Roundtable: Best hub cities for NHL’s Return to Play

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Which two potential hub cities would be the best options for the NHL?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m going to rule out Canadian cities because … frankly, Canada is (broadly speaking) taking a more cautious approach. That’s positive for the greater good, but not those who want to hand out a 2020 Stanley Cup. That said, if the NHL was willing to comply with 14-day quarantines and the like, that would be a different ballgame.

But I’ll go with two cities in the U.S. to try to be more realistic.

My choices:
• Las Vegas, NV
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Look, you’re not going to find “perfect” options. But, after looking at the CDC’s listings for states/jurisdictions with the least and most infections, Nevada and Minnesota seem like decent bets. Of course, a lot can change in a few weeks, which is the timeline Gary Bettman discussed while pondering potential “hub cities.”

Personally, I’d be weighing safety far and away more than other factors, which is why I leaned (tentatively or not) toward Las Vegas and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In all honesty, the low infection rates of places like North Dakota make me wonder if ND really does rank among the best options. But oh well?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it some more: the NHL’s going to really need to show some finesse in threading the needle of actually pulling this off.

[Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I agree with James on the Canadian options. Given the current government mandates, if the NHL wants these two hub cities decided on in the next few weeks, I can’t see Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto having the time to appease the league’s desires.

The one clear front-runner is Vegas, for obvious reasons. Hotel capacity, transportation, rinks, low COVID-19 case rates. The Nevada summer heat is one worry I have, which will give Dan Craig and his team plenty of work to do to ensure the sheets are up-to-par.

Columbus or Pittsburgh would make sense if you want that East/West mix for TV. If the schedule is going to be something similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the Columbus/Pittsburgh side would start their games at noon ET and we’d have hockey all day with the Vegas games ending the night.

Both have key factors in their corner: multiple ice sheets, hotel proximity, and have been flattening the curve when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: From the outside, it would seem the top considerations for hub city destinations are the COVID-19 conditions, and whether the infrastructure is sufficient to execute a tournament of this scope. The former is a variable that involves expert opinion and decision making, so I won’t attempt to weigh the cities based on that. The latter is something the league had time to evaluate before it announced the 10 candidates, so one would assume that all the “finalists” meet whatever minimum standard is required to host.

My initial thought from the very beginning was that Las Vegas should be a lock, and the details of what that might look like were described in a recent report from The Athletic. Vegas seems uniquely equipped to create the most controlled environment for these purposes. That’s got my first vote.

With that in mind, my second hub city choice is Pittsburgh, for a few reasons:

First, geographical balance is important considering that, at least at the very beginning, there figure to be several games per day across the two sites. This Olympic-style format would work best on TV if there were staggered start times to accommodate audiences in every time zone. That rules out Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Second, it’s unclear to what extent the US-Canada border situation will influence the final decision, but given where things stand at this exact moment, it seems more practical to have both sites in the US. That rules out Edmonton and Toronto.

That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. I’ve got no good reason for picking Pittsburgh except: why not give a carrot to the team that has to go up against Carey Price (who was the overwhelming choice for best goalie in this year’s NHLPA Player Poll) and the Montreal Canadiens (who effectively had a zero percent chance of making the playoffs when the season paused)?

There you have it. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The Marc-Andre Fleury bowl.

MORE:
NHL announces return-to-play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

Russia hires Bragin as men’s national hockey team coach

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hired Valery Bragin as coach of the men’s national hockey team on Friday as it gears up to defend its Olympic title in 2022.

Bragin moves up from his longtime role in charge of the Russian under-20 team, which he led to the silver medal at this year’s world junior championships.

The Russian Hockey Federation didn’t say for how long Bragin’s contract runs. Bragin said his main aim was to prepare the team for next year’s world championships with a focus on players from outside the NHL.

Bragin replaces former Toronto Maple Leafs player Alexei Kudashov, who moves into a consultant role with the national team after 11 months as head coach.

Bragin also takes over from Kudashov as head coach of club team SKA St. Petersburg, whose operations are tightly intertwined with those of the national team. Roman Rotenberg is the general manager for both teams and holds vice president roles in both the club and the federation.

Rotenberg said in a statement that Kudashov “cannot currently put his full focus on coaching work.” He did not elaborate further.

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Igor Larionov replaces Bragin in charge of the junior team.

Russia’s players won the men’s hockey gold medal at the 2018 Olympics under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” name after the country was officially barred from the games for doping offenses.

PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

Willie O'Ree racism in hockey
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

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.

NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.