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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.

Berube’s coaching style well-suited to Blues’ roster

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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 defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

It’s not often that an interim coach is handed the keys to a last-place team and ends up winning the Stanley Cup in the same season.

Not impossible, as Craig Berube proved last season. Just incredibly unlikely.

Berube was as much of an X-factor for the Blues as, say, Jordan Binnington. Without Berube, who knows where the Blues would have ended up. The man known as a ‘Chief’ brought a disjointed team together and began sprinting toward the finish line at a fervent pace.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The decision to hand Binnington the reins, an 11-game winning streak that followed suit, and a renewed camaraderie amongst the players all happened under Berube’s watch after Mike Yeo was handed his walking papers near the end of November.

“Craig made an enormous impact on our team when he took over last November,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said after the team stripped the interim tag and handed Berube a three-year deal. “He restored our identity and provided our players with a clear sense of direction.”

If that’s not X-factor material, I don’t know what is.

Berube is now tasked with maintaining the team culture he created with, by-and-large, the same contingent of players that he led to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

It’s a tall order.

Nothing was really expected from Berube when he took over. Sure, Blues fans and brass alike would have wanted to see things pointing in the right direction, but never could they have imagined what took place from Jan. 7 onward.

Ask any Blues player and they’ll say it was Berube that was the team’s catalyst as they reversed their fortunes.

Berube, as Armstrong said, instilled an identity and within a month or so, it began to take shape on the ice.

Berube showed that you don’t have to have a flashy team with many superstars to get the job done. And he’ll have another go at proving that is, indeed, the case.

He’ll have the “Stanley Cup hangover” to contend with an, perhaps, a pinch of complacency, even if it is only early on.

The biggest thing the Blues can do is get off to a good start. Stave off any of those hangover effects by stringing a few wins together to begin the season.

You won’t find the impact of a coach in a simple math equation (or a complex one, either.) But simply having a team believe in your cause is a massive boon to any bench boss. The players can now attest that Berube’s direction works, so they can certainly get behind his next installment as he develops the team into the rugged, hard-to-deal-with type that never gave up in last season’s playoffs.

There will be no surprises from the Blues this year. No underestimations from unsuspecting teams.

It will be on Beruble to navigate through that and more.

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


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

Blues’ Binnington faces whole new world in 2019-20

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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 defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Come out of nowhere, steal the No. 1 job, win a Stanley Cup and get a nice payoff all inside six or so months.

It seems hardly believable. Impossible, really.

Yet there stands Jordan Binnington, a 26-year-old formerly journeyman goalie who, prior to puck drop in a Jan. 7 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, was simply a nobody in the NHL world.

Two-and-a-half hours and 25 saves later, Binnington had his first NHL win in his first NHL start and his first NHL shutout all under his belt. A flash in the pan? Far from it, apparently.

Binnington would feature in 29 games in the second half of the season for the Blues. His 24-5-1 record with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts during that span would pull the Blues all the way from the league’s murkiest spot in the basement to third-place in the Central Division.

And from there, he’d start all 26 games the St. Louis Blues played in the playoffs on their magical run to the Stanley Cup. Binnington would set rookie records for wins in a postseason and, ultimately, lift Lord Stanley with a 16-10 record, including a 32-save, .970 performance in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to cement the Blues worst-to-first achievement.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three questions | X-Factor]

These things simply don’t happen, and yet Binnington willed it into existence with a ‘Do I look nervous to you?’ attitude that was only backed up on the ice.

Binnington’s emergence earned him a two-year, deal worth $4.4 million annually, making him the highest-paid goalie on the Blues (a mere $50,000 more than Jake Allen) and No. 1 status between the pipes heading into the 2019-20 season.

He’s earned it. And now the hard work begins.

There was no pressure on Binnington last season. Every win was met with awe, not expectation. If he had come in and failed, he wouldn’t have been labeled as a bust. If he had crashed out in the first round of the playoffs, he still would have been considered a success.

Winning the Stanley Cup? It’s still hard to fathom, really.

But now Binnington has some statistics to his name. The bar he set for himself is in the realm of the NHL’s elite. And somehow, he has to now make that translate into a full slate of NHL starts — perhaps as many as 60 next season.

That’s where the pressure lies.

Binnington is unproven as a full-time NHL starter, like Carter Hart in Philadelphia. Both had great seasons, but both only played half the year. So questions remain.

There’s nothing, at least at the moment, to suggest that Binnington can’t handle it. Sure, his save percentage dipped in the playoffs, but he handled the pressure of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final with apparent ease.

He appears to be a true iceman when it comes to that.

Nevertheless, he’s now playing for a bigger payoff in two years after having bet on himself over the next two seasons. His long-term financial gain also hangs in the balance.

Binnington gave fans what they craved and now they’re only going to want more.

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


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

Can Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

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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 defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Blues.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. Can they do it all over again?  

If winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest thing to do in hockey, then winning it two years on the trot is that much more difficult.

One team in the salary cap era has been able to pull off a repeat and they had some guy named Sidney Crosby on those teams. The point is that it’s uber-difficult, but a question that every Cup champion faces.

This is the challenge the Blues now face with more or less the same team they won the Cup with this past June. Not much has changed in St. Louis since Alex Pietrangelo hoisted Lord Stanley for the first time in franchise history.

But can a team that was in last place in January and now feeling the effects of the Stanley Cup hangover do it all over again?

The NHL’s tightest-knit group has all the chemistry one could ask for and it’s largely intact from a season ago. And now they have all of that experience to lean upon, as well. But the Central Division is no push-over and several teams have strengthened their squads while the Blues have chosen to rely on what’s within.

It’s certainly a tall order.

2. Will Alex Pietrangelo’s lack of a contract extension be a distraction? 

He’s the team’s captain, talisman and one of the best defensemen in the NHL. And he’s (at this point) entering the 2019-20 season with a year left on his current deal and unrestricted free agency waiting for him next summer.

If you go back to December of last year, you’ll find a lot of ink was spilled where the best trade destinations for Pietrangelo would be. The Blues were an awful team at that point and the Blues, perhaps, could have capitalized on such an intriguing asset. They didn’t and were rewarded in the playoffs with a special performance.

His play during the Stanley Cup run will only have upped his asking price on the free-agent market. And the Blues need to decide on what to do before a John Tavares-like scenario becomes their own reality.

3. Is Jordan Binnington for real? 

We’re going to cover this in a separate post, but it bears mentioning here.

Binnington should probably have won the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s best rookie after he won 24 of 30 decisions he figured in with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts. The most impressive part of all of this is he didn’t start a game until early January.

Now, he could face a schedule with a workload double what he played last season. Those are uncharted waters for 26-year-old.

Binnington made the most of his opportunity when handed one last year. There were no expectations then, however. Now, they’re higher than ever.

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


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

It’s St. Louis Blues Day at PHT

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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 defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

2018-19 

45-28-9, 99 points (3rd in the Central Division, tied for fourth in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup

IN:
Nathan Walker
Derrick Pouliot
Jake Dotchin
Andreas Borgman

OUT:
Jordan Schmaltz
Adam Musil
Nikita Soshnikov
Jakub Jerabek
Patrick Maroon

RE-SIGNED
:
Jordan Binnington
Joel Edmundson
Jordan Nolan
Samuel Blais
Zach Sanford
Robby Fabbri
Oskar Sundqvist
Carl Gunnarsson
Nolan Stevens

[MORE: Three questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2018-19 Summary

Well, that went pretty well, didn’t it?

No matter how many times you hear it, it’s still unbelievable to see the NHL standings on Jan. 3, 2019 and the Blues at the very bottom — 31st overall. Fast forward 160 days and they were hoisting the Stanley Cup celebrating the franchise’s first championship.

It was quite a season for the Blues, who fired head coach Mike Yeo on Nov. 20 after a 7-9-3 start. General manager Doug Armstrong turned to assistant coach Craig Berube to right the ship as the organization planned for a coaching search that would go far and wide.

Under Berube, the Blues didn’t improve much, going 9-10-1 in their first 20 games under the interim bench boss. But then came Jan. 7 and a game at Philadelphia featuring goaltending Jordan Binnington making his first NHL start, which ended with a shutout. Two weeks later they began a franchise-record 11-game winning streak that powered them up the Central Division standings. The winning ways continued through the end of the regular season as St. Louis earned 65 out of a possible 90 points in their final 45 games to finish tied for second in the division and fourth in the Western Conference.

Riding their red-hot goaltender and being led offensively by their summer acquisition in Ryan O’Reilly, the Blues took care of the Winnipeg Jets in six games, then the Dallas Stars in a memorable seven-game series before topping the San Jose Sharks in six games to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Their final foe, the Boston Bruins, needed seven games to be defeated, with O’Reilly winning Conn Smythe Trophy honors.

Through the unforgettable ride, the Blues adopted the 1981 Laura Branigan song “Gloria” as their theme after several players heard it in a Philadelphia bar in January. The DJ kept playing the song at the request of a customer and the players decided it would be played in the dressing room following wins.

“Play Gloria!” soon became the rallying cry and took over the city. Also becoming an important part of the Blues’ season was retiring anthem singer Charles Glenn, who continued performing as he battled multiple sclerosis, and 12-year-old Laila Anderson, who was diagnosed with a rare disease called Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocystosis. She became friendly with several players and was well enough to attend several games during the season and playoffs, including the team’s Game 7 victory over the Bruins in the Cup Final.

It’s interesting to think what would have happened had Armstrong not had the patience with the roster that he did and chose to blow up the team’s core before things changed. He stayed the course, chose the right coach to replace Yeo, and rode a hot Binnington to an unforgettable finish.

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

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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.