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Goaltending will once again make or break the Hurricanes season

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So far this offseason is taking shape the same way as the previous four or five for the Carolina Hurricanes

There is the yearly talk that forward Jeff Skinner is on the verge of being traded without — to this point — actually being traded.

We have also now reached the point of the summer where we look at the roster, perhaps after some kind of a trade, free agent signing, or draft pick (in this case the selection of Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick along with the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames), and try to convince ourselves that this is going to be the season where the Hurricanes put it all together and are good again … if only they can just get some decent goaltending. 

As much as it all sounds like a broken record, there is a lot of truth to that statement.

[Related: Beyond Karlsson: Five Players Who Could Be Traded This Summer]

Over the past four years the Hurricanes have allowed fewer shots on goal than every team in the NHL with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings. Despite they rank 20th in terms of goals against, a shocking disparity when you look at the rest of the league. You can talk about shot quality and scoring chances, but teams that are so strong when it comes to shot suppression usually — usually! — fare well when it comes to preventing goals. Teams that are bad at shot suppression are usually bad at giving up goals. It is not exactly rocket science here.

The biggest part of scoring a goal in the NHL is actually getting the puck on net. The more it happens, the more are going to end up in the net. The fewer you get on net, the fewer you in the net.

Just look at the top-10 and bottom-10 teams in terms of giving up shots on goal over the past four seasons and where they also rank in goals against.

The Hurricanes are the only team in the top-seven in terms of shots allowed that ranks lower than ninth in goals against during that stretch. The only other two outliers in the top-10 (Calgary and Dallas) are two other teams that have well documented issues finding consistent goaltending.

The only outliers on the right side are, really, the New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist masks a lot of flaws) and Florida Panthers (Roberto Luongo masks some flaws, too). Maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets, too (they have a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in their net).

With the additions of Hamilton and Calvin de Haan in free agency that defense is going to be just as strong, if not better, than it has been the past few years, and that hat will still be true whether or not they trade Justin Faulk.

The issue, again, is going to be whether or not they have anybody in net that can give them even average play in net.

For years it was Cam Ward that had a stranglehold on the position, and for the better part of the past six or seven years was one of the least productive goalie in the league. At different times they have brought in successful backups to perhaps push Ward and maybe even take the job away from him and perhaps solidify the position, including the likes of Anton Khudobin and Eddie Lack. None of them succeeded.

The latest attempt came last offseason when they traded a third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Scott Darling and then immediately signed him to a four-year, $16 million contract extension.

Year one of the Darling era was … well … more of the same in the Carolina net as Darling’s .888 save percentage was 32nd out of 32 goalies to appear in at least 40 games. It was also one of the 10 worst performances over the past 20 years (again among goalies that played in at least 40 games). It had to be a large disappointment for the Hurricanes, not only because the investment they made did not produce immediate results, but also because Darling had been really good in Chicago as Corey Crawford‘s backup. Then as soon as they get him in Carolina everything completely fell apart in his first attempt at being a regular starter (or at least as a semi-regular starter).

Despite that tough debut the Hurricanes seem willing to stick with him and give him another shot, especially after letting Ward go in free agency and only signing Petr Mrazek (who was, to say the least, not good for the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers this past season) to push him for playing time.

The net, it seems, still belongs to Darling.

His attempt at bouncing back — as well as everything that led to his down year in 2017-18 — was the subject of an in-depth article this week by Luke DeCock at the News & Observer where he details Darling’s work to improve his physical conditioning and attempt to show up at camp in better shape than he did a year ago. Given the season Darling had a year ago, it certainly can not hurt.

If you are a Hurricanes fan there are a couple of things that should give you cause for optimism even after a decade of the same story over and over again.

For one, there is every reason to believe the shot numbers and underlying numbers this team has produced are an accurate reflection of what it is capable of defensively. It is a good defensive team, and it has good players on the blue line, and it added even more of them this summer.

There is also a pretty striking parallel here with another perpetually mediocre team that always seemed to be just a goalie away from competing — the Winnipeg Jets.

For years the Jets stuck with their same core of players, they stuck with the same goalie, they would have consistently good underlying numbers, and they would always lose because their goalies, for lack of a better word, stunk. Then one year they got a chance to draft a superstar goal-scorer with the No. 2 overall pick (Patrik Laine) to bring everything together up front, and then they finally found a competent goalie in Conor Hellebuyck. The result: An organization that had made the playoffs just once in the past 10 years and had never even won a playoff game was in the Western Conference Final, just a handful of wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.

Are the Hurricanes, as presently constructed, really that far away from where the Jets were heading into the 2017-18 season? While the Jets were built around a group of talented forwards, the Hurricanes have built their core around the blue line — and it is excellent. The point, though, is that there is a young, talented core in place here that could be capable of competing this season. How quickly Svechnikov is able to develop will play a big role in the outcome of the season, but the biggest issue will once again be in net.

They do not need him to be a savior. They do not need him to be Henrik Lundqvist or even a top-five goalie But if Darling is able to be the goalie the Hurricanes thought he could be when they traded for — and signed — him a year ago, an average to maybe slightly above average starter, they could be a lot better than anyone expects them to be, and a lot sooner than any expects them to be, too.

Related

Hurricanes Continue To Strengthen Defense With Calvin de Haan Signing
Hurricanes Get Dougie Hamilton From Calgary Flames

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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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.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Vegas Golden Knights, U.S. Army agree to end trademark dispute

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The Vegas Golden Knights and the U.S. Army have called an end to their trademark battle regarding the usage of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name.

Owner Bill Foley announced on Thursday that the two sides have entered into a trademark coexistence agreement where the U.S. Army will continue using the ‘Golden Knights’ marks and names with its parachute exhibition team. The Golden Knights will continue to use ‘Vegas Golden Knights’ and ‘Golden Knights’ in regards to the hockey team.

“We are pleased that we have agreed to coexist regarding the use of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name,” said Foley in a statement. “Our discussions with the Army were collaborative and productive throughout this entire process. We are appreciative of their efforts and commitment to reaching an amicable resolution.”

The U.S. Army filed a notice of opposition in January against against Black Knight Sports and Entertainment over the use of the name ‘Golden Knights.’ Foley is a graduate of West Point and originally wanted to name the team the Black Knights (after the Army sports teams) but decided against it.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.