The Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs

2 Comments

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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

Getty Images
2 Comments

BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

1 Comment

When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Penguins, Lightning on two different paths

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As two of the NHL’s best teams over the past five years there is always a championship expectation for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. With both coming off of similarly disappointing postseason exits in 2019 (combined postseasons win between the two teams: zero) there was no doubt plenty of additional pressure on both teams at the start of this season.

For the Penguins, it is about regaining the identity that helped make them a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion and trying to maximize the remaining window they have in the careers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. You only get players of that caliber for so long, and you owe it to them — and the franchise — to put them in the best possible situation to win. Anytime you do not win, and especially when you lose like they did to the New York Islanders, it is going to feel like a missed opportunity.

For the Lightning, it is about shaking the bad memories of so many recent postseason disappointments and finally breaking through with a championship for what is probably the league’s most talented roster on paper. After blowing 3-2 series leads in two different Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 2-1 series lead in a Stanley Cup Final, the 2018-19 season seemed like it was finally going to be the year for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman as they rolled through a 62-win regular season. What followed was the most disappointing of their postseason shortcomings, losing four consecutive games to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So far this season the two teams have been on slightly different paths in their quest to reach the top, even if there isn’t much difference in their overall records.

The Penguins entered the season with several questions, ranging from the state of their defense, to their forward depth, to how the power play would look without Phil Kessel following his offseason trade to Arizona. As if that wasn’t enough, the team has been dealt a brutal hand with early injuries as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and Brian Dumoulin have all been sidelined for a total of 38 man-games due to injury. Despite that, they have not only managed to win the majority of their games, they have carried the play more often than not, even in defeat. Even their two most recent losses (Vegas and Florida) probably had more to do with some bad puck luck than bad play.

They are playing smart, they are limiting odd-man rushes against, they are playing sound defensively, and they have received strong goaltending from the duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Add in more dominance from Crosby and they are keeping pace with the rest of the top teams in the Eastern Conference with a lineup that has been pieced together through call-ups.

There is an argument to be made that they have probably overachieved given the circumstances.

It’s been a slightly difference experience so far for the Lightning.

Other than Brayden Point, who missed the first three games of the season as he continued to recover from offseason hip surgery, they have been 100 percent healthy from the start and have had the roster they have wanted to have at their disposal. Despite that, neither the results nor the process are what they want to be.

Entering Wednesday’s game they have won just four of their first eight games and they are probably fortunate to have won as many as they have. At times they have looked like a fraction of the team that dominated the regular season a year ago. In one early game against Carolina they recorded just three shots on goal over more than 40 minutes of hockey. In another, they were dominated by an Ottawa team that has just one win on the season (the win against the Lightning).

Overall there is nothing about their performance that is close to being up to their level of expectation.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled in goal, their penalty kill is among the worst in the league, and their overall 5-on-5 performance has at times just simply been bad. Entering play on Tuesday they are 26th in the league in shot attempt percentage and 24th in scoring differential, both signs that they are not yet carrying the play in those situations. Given the roster they are returning it has been a rather underwhelming start.

Wednesday seems like a great opportunity to get things trending back in the right direction.

They are rested, they are at home, and they are playing a banged up, tired Penguins team that just dropped a 4-2 decision on Tuesday night against Florida.

It is still too early to be too worried, but at some point they would probably like to start playing closer to their level of expectation. Everything is set up for them to start getting there on Wednesday. If they can not take advantage of the situation in front of them it might be another red flag in a start that has already had too many of them.

NBC Sports will showcase a group of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients that are being recognized by the Tampa Bay Lightning in pre-game ceremonies as part of its Wednesday Night Hockey coverage. Jeremy Roenick will interview Medal of Honor recipients during pre-game and game coverage on Wednesday night, and NHL Live will air a feature with interviews of both current Lightning players and Medal of Honor recipients.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Jeremy Roenick will report on-site from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Penguins-Lightning.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Sabres’ hot start; Coaches on hot seat

Getty
Leave a comment
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.

Matt Dumba and Haydn Fleury got a tattoo to honor a friend that committed suicide. (NHL.com)

• Players and coaches deserve credit for the Buffalo Sabres hot start. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Former NHLer Chris Joseph is still fighting for the victims of the Humboldt bus crash. (The Hockey News)

Ryan O'Reilly will need to be more selfish if he wants to find the back of the net more often. (In the Slot)

• Seattle hockey fans will have to pay a high price to watch their team play in person. (Seattle Times)

• Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog sat down for a Q & A with ESPN.com. (ESPN)

Patrick Kane believes, Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome can build chemistry together. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent Nicklas Backstrom still feels young. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sam Gagner is still trying to stick in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Canadian NHL markets have seen their attendance numbers drop early on this season. (Sporting News)

• How long can the Penguins continue playing the way they’re currently playing and how will they integrate their injured players back into the lineup? (Pensburgh)

• Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted that he steals from each one of the coaches in the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Here’s how the zamboni changed the game for ice rinks all over the world. (Smothsonianmag.com)

• Which coaches are on the hot seat right now? (Scotty Wazz)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.