The Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs

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To understand the excitement and emotion Carolina Hurricanes fans were feeling on Thursday night as their team clinched its first playoff berth since 2009, you first have to try to understand just how long it has been since they have had an opportunity to experience that sort of moment.

Chances are, you can’t.

You can’t because there is a very good chance your favorite hockey team, no matter who it is, has never gone through the type of drought the Hurricanes went through.

That is not really any kind of an exaggeration, because Hurricanes’ drought was reaching historic levels that was nearly unmatched in the history of the league.

[Related: Hurricanes clinch playoff spot]

It was the spring of 2009 when the Hurricanes were last in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending with a clean four-game sweep out of the Eastern Conference Final. It was a bittersweet ending to a strong season that came just three years after the team had won its first Stanley Cup. Even though the team had missed the playoffs in the two years between, they were still competitive and right in the thick of the playoff race each of those years.

They may not have been a consistent powerhouse, but they were competitive and they had success. A lot of success.

Surely nobody in Carolina figured it would be nine years before they would get back to the playoffs, let alone have a chance to even think about competing for a championship.

Nine years is a long time in the NHL, especially when we are talking about simply making the playoffs, something that more than half of the league does every season.

It is so long that only three other franchises have ever gone through a similar postseason drought at any point in their history (The Edmonton Oilers went 10 years between 2006-07 to 2015-16; the Florida Panthers went 10 years from 1999-00 to 2010-11; the New Jersey Devils went nine years from 1978-79 to 1986-87).

Think of how bad the past few years have been for a team like the Buffalo Sabres. Their current drought only reached eight years this year.

It is so long that only five players from their 2008-09 roster are still active in the league today.

It is so long that their current head coach, Rod Brind’Amour, was a player on their most recent playoff team, and then played one more season in the NHL after that. Some of the other key names on that roster included Joni Pitkanen, Niclas Wallin, Chad LaRose, and Sergei Samsonov, a wonderful collection of “hey do you remember that guy?” players. A 19-year-old Zach Boychuk made his NHL debut on that team, nearly a decade before he embarked on his current career of following and unfollowing hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter.

There were 137 different players to wear a Carolina Hurricanes sweater during the nine seasons between playoff appearances. There were four different head coaches. There were multiple changes in the front office from the general manager to, most recently, the owner. 

What had to make it all the more frustrating was just how the entire nine-year process went because they were rarely, if ever, actually close to making the playoffs.

Only three times in the nine years did they finish a regular season within 10 points of a playoff spot, and only once (all the way back in the 2010-11 season) were they closer than eight points (they missed by two points that year).

They were constantly an afterthought in the playoff race despite the fact they never really had a scorched earth rebuild that completely gutted the roster. The Hurricanes attempted to rebuild during that time, sure, but they never really went into an all-out tank mode to chase after high draft picks like so many other teams have done. Only once during the nine years did they select higher than fifth in the draft, and that was this past year when they selected Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick. And even that was because they had some serious luck in the draft lottery, moving up nine spots in draft position, and not necessarily because they were bad.

Because of that constant futility it would eventually become difficult for the team to draw fans or generate interest, both locally and nationally.

There is no fate worse in professional sports for a team than perpetual mediocrity, and the Hurricanes were stuck in it for nine years.

If you’re going to be bad, be bad because fans might at least get excited about the prospect of a franchise-changing talent at the top of the draft. If you’re going to be competitive, be great because fans have an unquenchable thirst for championships, or at least the illusion of competing for a championship.

Mediocrity is what gets people to stop caring, and no reasonable person should ever blame a fan that stops caring after nearly a decade of sustained mediocrity like the Hurricanes went through.

Slowly but surely, though, you could see the change starting to build up.

They found a top-end star in Sebastian Aho in the second round of the draft.

They stole Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago as payment for taking on a salary dump.

They started to assemble a talented, young defense and locked them all up early to long-term contracts and allowed them to grow together in the NHL.

Eventually the process started to show itself. For years they would be everyone’s preseason “sleeper” pick to do something special because of their consistently dominant possession numbers, only to always end up right back where they started. Either because the goaltending failed them again, or because they didn’t have enough finishers at forward, or because of some combination of the two. It was always something that held them back.

But this year everything surrounding the team started to charge.

Tom Dundon immediately set a high bar with his expectations. They went after high-end talent by acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames before the season, and even before they were guaranteed a playoff spot swung the blockbuster trade to land Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. Most importantly, they finally got consistent enough goaltending.

They play a fun, fast, exciting style of hockey and are constantly all over their opponents, and they created a fun atmosphere with the Storm Surges, and then embraced — for lack of a better description  — the villain role when outsiders complained about something that was supposed to excite their fans, and only their fans. If you’re not a Hurricanes fan and you don’t like it, that’s fine. Because it’s not for you. And if you’re not a Hurricanes fan, chances are you can’t relate to the frustration they went through and the apathy that sort of run can create.

Sometimes you need something extra to bring you back.

It has been a long time coming for Hurricanes fans to get back to this stage. And this team, with this roster, with this approach both on and off the ice was the perfect one to get them back.

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.

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.