Capitals vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
• Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins

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.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.

Flames’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

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In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

UPDATE: The Flames announced in an update that Brodie has been discharged and is doing well in recovery at home with his family.

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.

Islanders place Andrew Ladd on waivers

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New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello announced that the team put forward Andrew Ladd on waivers on Thursday, and from the sound of things, it’s unclear if we’ll see Ladd in the NHL again.

That said, Ladd’s $5.5 million AAV doesn’t expire until after 2022-23(!) so it’s possible that this saga may not be over.

For now, the Islanders are putting Ladd on waivers with the plan of assigning him to the AHL. Ladd had been on a conditioning stint while on LTIR as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in March, and Lamoriello said that the Islanders hadn’t seen enough from that conditioning stint to have him resume playing. Setting such a standard would always make sense, really, but especially so with the Islanders humming along with an impressive 13-3-1 record so far in 2019-20.

Ladd’s longer-term future is fuzzy, and Lamoriello didn’t want to speculate about his chances (or lack thereof?) to play in the NHL again.

Newsday’s Andrew Gross clarifies that Ladd won’t need to be taken off LTIR to make this happen, which is relevant considering the whole $5.5M thing.

Ladd’s signing ranks as one of the many cursed 2016 free agent contracts, joined by Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo (the player he essentially replaced for the Islanders), David Backes, Loui Eriksson and more.

To be fair, Ladd had some utility if you looked beyond disappointing numbers for the money at times with the Islanders, but again, it’s hard to get too thrilled about such positives when the price tag was so steep. Still, he had some aptitude, particularly defensively, during his first two seasons for the Islanders, as illustrated by this Hockey Viz heat map:

Looking at Ladd’s contract structure at Cap Friendly, there’s the remote chance that the Islanders might be able to move that $5.5M cap hit (LTIR-bound or not) as the deal goes along. Ladd’s actual salary slips to $4M from 2020-21 through 2022-23, and it’s split up by a $3M signing bonus and $1M base salary each year. Maybe a team hoping to hit the cap floor might be willing to eat that cap hit to inflate their numbers for assets after the signing bonus is already paid, even if that would most realistically be able to happen heading into 2022-23? Perhaps the Islanders could bribe the Seattle expansion franchise to eat that deal, much like Vegas ended up doing with David Clarkson‘s contract?

Ultimately, those details are mostly the concerns of whoever is handling the Islanders’ cap situation in the future, and perhaps other teams hoping to squeeze every ounce of value out of an offseason.

Unfortunately, whether Ladd ever plays for the Islanders (or any other NHL team) again, it’s clear that the Islanders didn’t get much value from signing the former Winnipeg Jets captain.

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.