Musing about Hamilton’s slow start with Hurricanes

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When the Carolina Hurricanes traded for Dougie Hamilton, it felt like a near-perfect match. The Hurricanes needed (and maybe still need) finishers to round out a puck-dominant offense; Hamilton’s career has been frustrating in that it feels like he hasn’t always reached his potential.

That frustration is continuing very early on during Hamilton’s first few games with the Hurricanes.

With 39 shots on goal over nine games, Hamilton’s fired the fifth-most pucks on net so far in 2018-19. Hamilton’s generated more SOG than volume-shooters Jack Eichel, David Pastrnak, and Patrik Laine so far this season – not to mention leading all NHL defensemen – and yet he doesn’t have a single goal to show for it.

For a prolific defenseman like Hamilton, his overall stats are frustrating: zero goals and three assists through nine games.

The good news is that the Hurricanes are off to a strong start overall, as they lead the up-and-down Metropolitan Division with 11 points in nine games (5-3-1). While that edge is a little misleading – again, it’s early, and there’s a disparity between games played – it’s a positive sign that Carolina’s been able to shake off frustrations that can come with generating a barrage of chances without finishing many of them. They’re buoyed, for instance, by the continued rise of budding star Sebastian Aho, Forward Version.

Still, Rod Brind’Amour will ultimately be judged by getting the most out of this Hurricanes talent, and optimizing Hamilton stands as one of the greatest opportunities.

So far, irritations from other stops have carried over.

You could argue that Hamilton’s simply the odd-man out. Carolina is brimming with other quality choices as far as right-handed defensemen go, as Hamilton must tussle with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, and Trevor van Riemsdyk for different opportunities.

Perhaps that explains why, after averaging a career-high 21:32 TOI last season with Calgary, Hamilton’s down to 19:41 per night with the Hurricanes. (That average oddly matches his mark from 2016-17, and is very close to his 19:46 average from 2015-16.)

Again, the Hurricanes are loaded with defensive talent, so Brind’Amour can pick and choose who he wants to roll out in which situations. Pesce, for instance, would likely be the best guy for tougher defensive assignments.

The point of debate comes on the power play, as would-be perfect minutes are being eaten up by Faulk, a right-handed defenseman many expected to see traded to break up this logjam in Carolina.

Through nine games in 2018-19, Faulk is easily the power-play minutes leader, quarterbacking the top unit while averaging 3:37 PP TOI per game. Hamilton isn’t even the Hurricanes’ second-ranked defenseman, as his 2:18 comes up a bit short compared to Jaccob Slavin‘s 2:26 per contest. Hamilton’s down from his power-play average from 2017-18 with Calgary, and that’s with a Norris-level defenseman in Mark Giordano leading the way.

Brind’Amour and his staff should be asking this question: “Are we leaving goals off the table by putting Faulk on the top unit instead of Hamilton?”

With a 12.1-percent success rate, the Hurricanes currently own the fourth-least efficient power play in the NHL. They were the 10th-worst group last season. That’s not all on Faulk, yet the American-born defenseman also topped all Hurricanes in power-play ice time last season. His modest recent totals (Faulk took until Carolina’s last game to find the net, and only generated 31 points last season) make you wonder if he’s better suited for the secondary unit.

Now, sure, keeping Faulk as the power play QB gives Carolina the opportunity to try to pump up his trade value, if that’s the wider aim. And it’s not like Faulk is terrible he ranked sixth among defensemenin such a role; with 48 goals from 2014-15 through 2016-17.

When you look at per-minute stats from sites like Corsica Hockey, it’s enticing to ponder what Hamilton might be able to accomplish if a team truly unleashes his potential over great opportunities.

Maybe Brind’Amour will look at zero goals and three assists over nine games and believe that Hamilton isn’t delivering. And it’s fair to call this disappointing, particularly if you drafted Dougie high in your fantasy leagues.

The Hurricanes owe it to themselves to give Hamilton more of a chance, especially on the man advantage. The pay-off could be significant: combining this team’s stout even-strength work with, ideally, a power play that isn’t in the bottom-third of the league.

That’s even scarier than dealing with Hamilton’s one-timers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.