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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.

Golden Knights sign defenseman Engelland to one-year deal

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights signed defenseman Deryk Engelland on Tuesday to a one-year deal for the upcoming season.

The contract includes a $700,000 base salary and incentives that could bring the total value of the deal to $1.5 million.

The 37-year-old Engelland played in 74 games last season and finished with 12 points and 18 penalty minutes. He set career-marks with 152 blocked shots and 165 hits.

The Knights took Engelland during the 2017 expansion draft.

The team also acquired goaltender Garret Sparks from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward David Clarkson and a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NHL entry draft.

Trade: Clarkson contract back to Toronto; Vegas opens up space

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Nostalgia is in the air, as “The Lion King” remake is in theaters, so maybe it’s time to cue “The Circle of Life.”

In a peculiar bit of salary cap management, David Clarkson – er, David Clarkson’s contract – and the Toronto Maple Leafs are back together again. While Garret Sparks goes to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs receive a fourth-round pick for their troubles.

Maple Leafs get: Clarkson’s contract ($5.25M for one more season), Vegas 2020 fourth-round pick.

Golden Knights receive: Cap relief even though they were going to send Clarkson to LTIR; a decent goalie consideration with Garret Sparks.

This is all about cap and asset management for both teams.

Clarkson was headed to LTIR whether his contract stayed in Vegas or matriculated to Toronto, and now his deal can be neighbors with Nathan Horton after they were exchanged. The Maple Leafs still have some work to do, naturally, as they need to fit Mitch Marner into the mix. The numbers might melt your brain a bit.

The Golden Knights still need to sort out their own issues with Nikita Gusev lingering as a fascinating RFA, and that resolution hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, or maybe instead, the Golden Knights took advantage of extra wiggle room to bring back veteran (and Vegas-loving) defenseman Deryk Engelland for a cheap deal.

Depth goaltending also buzzed around these moves.

Again, Sparks represents an interesting consideration for Vegas, as Malcolm Subban hasn’t been an unqualified solution as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup. Perhaps Sparks would end up prevailing after both of their contracts expire following the 2019-20 season?

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs opened up room for a depth option as well, as they confirmed that Michal Neuvirth has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

It kind of makes you want to dig up that Charlie Kelly mailroom conspiracy board to try to cover all the ins and outs, but the bigger picture takeaway is that the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights continue to work on their cap conundrums, and this trade was really just another step in the process.

At least it was a pretty odd and funny step, though.

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.

Predators are being bold with term; are they being smart?

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If nothing else, the Nashville Predators aren’t afraid to be bold.

In a vacuum, the Colton Sissons signing isn’t something that will make or break the Predators’ future. That seven-year, $20 million contract has inspired some fascinating debates, but the most interesting questions arise around GM David Poile’s larger team building, and his courageous decisions.

As we’ve seen, Poile doesn’t just lock up obvious core players to term, he frequently gives supporting cast players unusual security, too.

This signing seems like a good excuse to dive into the Predators’ biggest offseason decisions, and also ponder maybe the biggest one of all: what to do with captain Roman Josi, whose bargain contract will only last for one more season.

The interlocking P.K. Subban, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi situation

By any reasonable estimate, the Predators got hosed in getting such a small return for Subban in that deal with the Devils.

Of course, the Predators’ goal wasn’t necessarily to get a great return for Subban, but instead to get rid of Subban’s $9M to (most directly) sign Matt Duchene, and maybe eventually provide more leeway to extend Josi.

There was some argument to trading away Subban, as at 30, there’s a risk that his $9M AAV could become scary.

The thing is, the Predators only seemed to expose themselves to greater risks. It remains to be seen if Matt Duchene will be worth $8M, even right away, and he’s already 28. Roman Josi turned 29 in June, so if Josi’s cap hit is comparable to Subban’s — and it could be a lot higher if Josi plays the market right — then the Predators would take even bigger risks on Josi. After all, Josi’s next contract will begin in 2020-21, while Subban’s is set to expire after 2021-22.

So, in moving on from Subban to Duchene and/or Josi, the Predators are continuing to make big gambles that they’re right. Even if Subban really was on the decline, at least his deal isn’t going on for that much longer. Nashville’s instead chosen one or maybe two even riskier contracts at comparable prices, really rolling the dice that they’re not painting themselves into a corner.

There’s also the scenario where Josi leaves Nashville, and things could get pretty dizzying from there.

Even if you look at it as a Matt Duchene for P.K. Subban trade alone, that’s not necessarily a guaranteed “win” for Nashville. It’s all pretty bold, though.

[This post goes into even greater detail about trading Subban, and the aftermath.]

Lots of term

Nashville doesn’t have much term locked in its goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, which is wise, as goalies are very tough to predict. Those risks are instead spread out to a considerable number of skaters, and Poile’s crossing his fingers that he’s going to find the sweet spot with veterans, rather than going all that heavy on youth.

The long-term plan has frequently been fruitful for the Predators, as Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25M for five more seasons) and Filip Forsberg ($6M for three more seasons) rank as some of the best bargains in the NHL. Josi’s $4M is right up there, though that fun ride ends after 2019-20.

Your mileage varies when you praise the overall work, though, because some savings are offset by clunkers. It stings to spend $10.1M in combined cap space on Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino, especially since $16M for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen ranks somewhere between “the price of doing business” and “bad.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So that’s the thing with locking down supporting cast members. It’s nice to have a defensive forward who seemingly moves the needle like Colton Sissons seems to do …

… Yet is he a bit of an extravagance at $2.857M per year? Again, that’s a matter of debate.

The uncomfortable truth is that, if the Predators are wrong about enough of these deals, then it’s that much tougher to wiggle your way out of mistakes. Yes, maybe the Predators can move Sissons if he slides, but you risk falling behind the pack if you lose value propositions too often.

Will that be the case with the Predators? We’ll have to wait and see, and the most fascinating test cases come down the line. If it doesn’t work out next year, in particular, then things could pretty uncomfortable, pretty quickly.

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.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


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