Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

Can the 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]

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]

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

————

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.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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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 San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.