Roundtable: Slowing the Hurricanes; players ready to shine

What is the biggest obstacle the Bruins face in slowing down the buzzsaw that is the Hurricanes?

SEAN: Getting shots through. The Hurricanes did a phenomenal job against the Islanders in limiting their chances, while at the same time making the most of out of their own. The Bruins averaged 36 shots on net against the Blue Jackets and certainly possess the offensive weapons to make Carolina’s defense and goaltenders stay busy. Boston dominated possession against Columbus, but we know how good the Hurricanes are at retaining possession at 5-on-5.

The Bruins will also have to worry about the secondary scoring Carolina has been coming up with. Through two rounds 11 different players have scored for the Hurricanes and when it’s not Sebastian Aho or Teuvo Teravainen stepping up, it’s Jordan Staal or Warren Foegele contributing.

JAMES: With Boston’s core aging, and not shockingly often injured, their biggest limitations are their bodies. Consider the Hurricanes the stack of bodies Jon Snow needed to navigate in a memorable “Game of Thrones” battle, then: even when hurt, Carolina can send waves and waves against the Bruins. Both teams have a lot going for them, but the physical toll may prove challenging for the Bruins.

ADAM: Getting through that Carolina defense. It has been an underrated and overlooked group for a couple of years now, mostly because the goaltending behind it always wasted it and the forwards in front of it weren’t good enough for it to matter. No longer the case this season! The Hurricanes finally have some finishers up front and enough goaltending to not squander their great defensive efforts. This has been one of the best shot-suppression teams in the league for four or five years now and they are keeping it going in the playoffs. They are just a tough group to get through. They can skate, they can more the puck, they are great at taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes, and they just do everything you want to see from a modern-day NHL defense group.

JOEY: I think the biggest challenge for Boston will be literally slowing down the Hurricanes. Carolina is arguably the quickest team the Bruins have faced in the first three rounds of postseason, so it might be a little challenging for them to adapt to their newest opponent. Unlike Toronto and Columbus, the Hurricanes don’t play a gritty style. As Rod Brind’Amour pointed out during their first-round series against Washington, Carolina isn’t interested in going toe-to-toe with their opponents. They’ll be aggressive on the forecheck, but they aren’t going to beat up the opponent physically. Handling that speed won’t be easy for the Bruins. 

SCOTT: The Pressure. No one has more puck possession in these playoffs that the Carolina Hurricanes. And the speed. And the shot suppression. The Bruins have the most 5-on-5 shots in these playoffs while the Hurricanes have limited teams to 225, the least among teams remaining. That comes back to the relentless pace the Rod Brind’Amour demands of his players, and it works. The Bruins need to be able to deal with that. They’re going to be facing the quickest team they’ve seen yet and need to find a way to move the puck quickly to get around the forecheck, one that knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champions and one that made mincemeat out of the New York Islanders.

RYAN: Stepping up in PNC Arena will be the Bruins’ biggest challenge. Carolina held Washington to just three goals over the Hurricanes’ three home games and they earned back-to-back 5-2 wins against the Islanders at home in Round 2. Of course, the Hurricanes will have to win a game in Boston for it to matter, but that’s far from an impossible task if Carolina’s defense and goaltending continues to perform as it has.

Are the Blues this season’s team of destiny considering where they were at the start of January?

SEAN: I think they’re the Western Conference version of the Hurricanes. Both teams took different routes to get the conference finals after spending the first half of the season near the bottom of the NHL. In fact, since January 3, the Blues (65) and Hurricanes (62) were two of the league’s top three point-getters, with the Tampa Bay Lightning sandwiched between them. They’re both great stories in their own way: The Blues turning things around after firing their head coach in November and Jordan Binnington playing incredible after making his debut in January, and then the Hurricanes with their “Storm Surges,” feud with Don Cherry, and phenomenal team that’s put them in yet another conference final. It would make for a superb Cup Final matchup if they can win four more games.

JAMES: I’d look at the Blues more as a sleeping giant awoken. We’ve seen teams fail to convert on possession dominance early in seasons, only to erupt when things start to come together. The Kings won two Stanley Cups and zero division titles that way. The Penguins seem to make a habit of it. Honestly, it was perplexing that St. Louis wasn’t putting it together earlier this season … until they did. And then some.

(Honestly, the Islanders were the team of destiny, in my opinion. The destination just happened to be Round 2.)

ADAM: They sure seem like it. Watching them play and watching the way they play gives off the same sort of vibe I got from watching the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings and the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Definitely not as dangerous offensively as that Penguins team, but just in the sense that they control the puck so well and just look so dominant at times when they have it. They just look like a really solid team from top to bottom, and the way they close out that Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars was impressive. They completely dominated Games 6 and 7, even though the latter needed double overtime. They were clearly the better team in that game from the opening puck drop.

JOEY: I don’t know about all that. Were the Golden Knights the team of destiny last year? It probably seemed that way heading into the Western Conference Final last year, but they eventually lost in the Stanley Cup Final. Don’t get me wrong, the Blues are the story of the season in my mind, but I don’t think they’re the team of destiny. Let’s just appreciate the work Craig Berube has done with this group. He totally revamped the way they play and turned them into a contender over night. 

SCOTT: By default, I suppose. Getting past Winnipeg in the manner they did was impressive, but I wasn’t sold on Dallas and they struggled at times in that series. That said, take nothing away from their ability to get the job done. When push came to shove in Games 6 and 7, the Blues showed a cohesiveness that most teams just don’t have because most teams don’t go through all the ebbs that the Blues did.

That camaraderie will serve them well in the Western Conference Final, but I don’t think it’s enough to skewer the Sharks. The Sharks have their own brew of team connectedness. The Sharks haven’t exactly had the easiest road to get to where they are, here they are. And they’re just more talented, with myriad options when it comes to who can take over a game. The Blues have been a great story, but this round is likely their final chapter.

RYAN: I think the Blues were a good team from the start that just took a while to get going. It certainly helped that Jordan Binnington came in and became a dominant force from January onward. I don’t see them as a team of destiny though. I see them as a team that was perhaps, due to their bad start, underrated, but not to the extent that I would pick them to win the Cup. Of course, they’ve gotten this far so anything is possible.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

What under-the-radar player will shine this round?

SEAN: Jaccob Slavin really shouldn’t be considered “under-the-radar” considering his body of work since entering the NHL, but maybe now that the spotlight is greater more eyes will be opened to just how good he is at both ends of the ice. He currently leads the Hurricanes in points with 11 assists, is well into the positives when it comes to possession (55 percent Corsi), and is among the top defensemen this postseason in allowing the fewest shots on goal per 60 minutes when he’s on the ice.

JAMES: When Jake DeBrusk isn’t tormenting Nazem Kadri into a lethal suspension, he’s seemingly hitting a post per game. DeBrusk has been limited to two goals and five points in 13 playoff games, but that’s on just 5 percent shooting (40 shots on goal). He strikes me as due, although to be fair, I also thought the same way about Jamie Benn, who then missed Game 7 overtime-winner by a breath, so DeBrusk might not want my seal of approval.

ADAM: Am going to go with Robert Thomas in St. Louis just because he was starting to take on a bit of a bigger role in Round 2 and was really making an impact. He was great in Game 7 and has four points and is a plus-five in his past five games. To win a Stanley Cup you sometimes need a young player like this to emerge in the playoffs, and he might be the one this year.

JOEY: Kevin Labanc failed to pick up a point in San Jose’s second-round series against Colorado. He’s an important part of the Sharks power play so it wasn’t surprising to that unit struggle against the Avs. I think the points will start coming for Labanc in the Western Conference Final. The Sharks are deep enough that he doesn’t have to be the focal point of their offense, but he should be able to chip in with some valuable secondary scoring against the Blues. 

SCOTT: I picked Oskar Sundqvist last round and that was a dud, so let’s go curse another player. Coming off an injury that’s cost him a lot of time, the return of Micheal Ferland could be a big boost for the Hurricanes. Ferland can make an impact offensively and he’s a massive threat physically, which is something the Hurricanes are going to have to contend with from the Bruisin’ Bruins. Assuming he’s back, and reports suggest he’s on track to start Game 1, Ferland can rattle the Bruins in more than one way.

RYAN: Kevin Labanc certainly isn’t seen as one of the Sharks’ stars and he wasn’t a major factor in Round 2. He had 56 points in the regular season though and is someone who can step up in the Western Conference Final.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
Hurricanes/Bruins series preview

PHT Conference Finals predictions

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.