How to heat up ice-cold Hurricanes

To an extent, it’s the same old story with the Carolina Hurricanes.

They’re “heating up their Corsi” like always this season (thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal), yet that quantity isn’t always translating to quality.

That’s especially true lately. Carolina’s managed just four goals total during the past four games, winning once and grabbing an overtime point as they slipped to a middling 12-10-4.

So, what gives? This post examines a few things that are working, some facets that are not, and proposes some potential solutions.

Quantity over quality, or quantity and quality?

Again, the Hurricanes are “heating up their Corsi” as usual, thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal. Despite easily topping all NHL teams with 38.7 SOG per game, they’re only averaging 2.5 goals per contest, the third-lowest total in the league.

To some extent, that might be the nature of the beast for this team.

Here’s the thing: while heating up of said Corsi numbers might present something of a mirage, it’s likely still a sign that they’re hogging the puck in a way that gives them a good chance to win.

After all, there is some element of quality to go with all of that quantity. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes generate 57.19-percent of high-danger chances at even-strength, second only to the Minnesota Wild.

Is it frustrating to dominate the shot clock and not always reap the benefits? Sure, but I’d argue that the Hurricanes are putting themselves in a better position than, say, the Anaheim Ducks (who suffer a barrage of shots and generally hope that John Gibson can save them, over and over again).

Finding a fix?

Interestingly, goaltending – the Hurricanes’ biggest headache for ages – has been alleviated, at least in the short-term.

Claiming Curtis McElhinney has worked gloriously well so far. Through 10 games, the 35-year-old is 7-2-1 with a tremendous .930 save percentage. By Hurricanes terms, McElhinney has been vintage Dominik Hasek with a side of non-irate Patrick Roy.

As you might guess, counting on McElhinney to be “the guy” all season would be tenuous. Obviously, there’s the age factor. He’s also only carried a semi-reasonable workload twice (28 games in 2013-14 and 32 in 2014-15 with Columbus), and was only in the teens the past five seasons.

That said, his career .910 save percentage is quite competent by the standards of a journeyman backup, and the Hurricanes might just be able to create a nurturing-enough atmosphere to make things work … enough.

With Petr Mrazek‘s continued struggles and the waiving of Scott Darling in mind, McElhinney is clearly the option right now.

This post mainly focuses on how Carolina can improve, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room: the goaltending could collapse once again, possibly erasing any gains made through these suggested tweaks.

So, maybe the Hurricanes need to keep an eye out for other goalies on waivers, or even trade options? Sure, McElhinney could save the day, yet they’d be foolish not to be on the lookout for Plan … D? E? Z?

Putrid power play

On Oct. 24, I took a deeper look at Dougie Hamilton‘s disappointing start with the Hurricanes. My takeaway was that, for whatever struggles he was enduring, Carolina was leaving production on the table by not deploying Hamilton with the top power play unit. Simply put, Justin Faulk‘s production since at least 2017-18 has been disappointing, and the Hurricanes’ power play numbers argued that point further.

Well, very little has changed since that post was published. (Sheesh, the Hurricanes have the gall to ignore free advice. How rude.)

Faulk remains their top power play minutes man, despite managing a paltry eight points in 26 games. Faulk only managing two of those points on the power play is, honestly, a little alarming. Hamilton, meanwhile, ranks slightly behind Jaccob Slavin as their third-most-used PP defenseman, and he’s low down the order overall.

That would be acceptable if Carolina’s power play was scoring in buckets. After all, plenty of good power-play units leave talented players out of the mix, as there are typically only five spots.

The Hurricanes power play is not very good, though. They’re connecting at 15.9-percent success rate, eighth-worst in the NHL (and very close to being bottom-five).

Earlier in the season, playing Faulk in that position made sense to me for a more cynical reason: pumping up his trade value. It’s unclear if that was ever actually the plan, but either way, it clearly isn’t working.

To the credit of Rod Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes staff, Left Wing Lock’s latest listings indicate that they’ve at least realized that, at 37, Justin Williams probably isn’t top power-play material any longer. It’s not ideal that he came into Tuesday with the same (2:42 per game) average as a far more spry Teuvo Teravainen, but this stands as a step in the right direction.

This isn’t to say that Williams cannot play. He’s still a heady winger who manages strong possession numbers, even on a team brimming with guys who keep the puck going in the right direction. It’s simply to say that it might be more appropriate to pass the torch to those with more potential, such as …

Unleash Andrei

Look, it’s understandable why teams want to ease players into the NHL. This is a young man’s league nonetheless, so it’s becoming increasingly clear that Andrei Svechnikov deserves more reps.

Really, the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft hasn’t looked out of place. Svechnikov has 12 points in 26 games so far, and could have more considering his 8.7 shooting percentage. He’s not getting buried in the lineup (14:10 per game), but I’d like to see him deployed even more often. They could always scale back his minutes if the burden ends up being too heavy for him to carry.

The deeper you dig, the more it becomes clear that Svechnikov might have more to offer.

Why not see if this sleeping giant could enjoy a monster rookie season? Why wait? Hurricanes fans have been asked to be patient for long enough, right?

Management should also keep an eye on the progress of Martin Necas. He was demoted to the AHL after seven middling games, but it might be worth burning a year off of his rookie deal if it seems like he can give them a shot in the arm later this season. As Jordan Staal showed many moons ago in helping the Penguins make the playoffs with 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks.

Shake things up?

We’ve seen quite a few “lateral trades” lately, and such a thought might make sense for the Hurricanes.

For one thing, there’s Faulk, whose contract ($4.8M cap hit) expires after next season. Carolina’s rife with right-handed defensemen, especially with Brett Pesce possibly coming back soon. Maybe it’s time to break up that logjam?

Victor Rask is another player who might need to relocate. Rask is only getting minimal ice time (11:49 per game) and has only scored a goal in his six games this season. His $4M cap hit could at least be close to the sweet spot to get a deal done, particularly for a team that has a similar player who’s getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe he could rebound to his respectable 40-plus point form after getting a clean slate?

***

The Hurricanes can be frustrating, and not just because they tend to dominate the shot clock without doing the same on the scoreboard. This feels like a team that’s failed to take that next step, instead finding themselves as the perpetual wallflower at a grade school dance.

You can’t control every bounce, and Carolina’s goalie worries linger not very far off in the distance, but this team has a lot going for it. Few NHL squads can compare to Carolina’s depth on defense, and this is still a franchise brimming with young talent.

If they can survive in net, then improving that power play and giving more ice time to skilled players like Hamilton and Svechnikov might just make the difference.

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.

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.