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

What is the Wild’s long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Minnesota Wild.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Wild are kind of drifting toward that middle ground where they are not a true contender and they are not exactly awful, either. They have good players, but they also have some pretty significant flaws.

One of the biggest might be the fact they have a lot money tied up in players that are on the wrong side of 30. Mikko Koivu is a free agent after this season, and no one really knows what his future is at this point, but Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Devan Dubnyk are some of their biggest contracts beyond this season and Spurgeon is the only one younger than 32 years old. It is not a stretch to believe that every single one of those players has already played their best hockey. Parise was also the subject of trade rumors on deadline day with the New York Islanders, something that could be revisited later.

Beyond that, the Wild do have some intriguing younger players making up a second-wave of talent.

Kevin Fiala has been an outstanding pickup and is having an outstanding year, while Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek are other younger players the Wild are hoping can become bigger contributors.

The most intriguing young player in the organization, though, has yet to even play a game in North America. That player is Kirili Kaprizov, the 22-year-old winger that has dominated the KHL for the past few seasons. He was a fifth-round pick by the team a few years ago and his arrival in Minnesota has been anticipated for some time now.

Long-Term Needs

Really what the Wild need is a difference-maker. A game-changing forward that can be the focal point of the offense and carry it. A franchise cornerstone to build around both in the short-and long-term.

They do not really have that player right now, and the ones that most closely resemble that player on the roster right now are older and on the downside of their careers. They are also not really well positioned to get one without a lot of luck going their way in the draft lottery. It is a tough spot to be in.

Their biggest hope for that sort of presence might be with the aforementioned Kaprizov. For as intriguing and exciting as his potential is, it is still just exactly that — potential. Even if he does eventually become that top-line standout player, it may not happen as soon as he arrives next season. There could be some growing pains and an adjustment period along the way.

Long-Term Strengths

When they are all healthy their defense has some intriguing players and can be really good with Suter, Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, and Jonas Brodin are all signed through the end of next seaon, with the former three names all being signed to long-term deals. When it comes to scoring chances against and expected goals against the Wild have been one of the league’s top teams this season. The only thing that has held them back from being an elite defensive team has been inconsistency in net.

The addition of Cale Addison in the Jason Zucker trade also adds another intriguing blue-liner to the long-term outlook.

If Fiala can duplicate his 2019-20 performance he could also turn into a pretty big strength. He has been one of the league’s most productive 5-on-5 players on a per-minute basis this season and is still signed for another year at a very manageable salary cap hit.

The presence of him, Kaprizov, a still productive Zuccarello and hopefully improvements from players like Kunin, Greenway, and Eriksson Ek could give the Wild a formidable group of forwards.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild surprises and disappointments so far

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Kunitz puts Penguins in Cup Final

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NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour continues this week with matchups featuring unsung heroes.

Chris Kunitz opened the scoring in the second period of Game 7, his first goal in over three months. After regulation, tied at two goals apiece, Kunitz recorded his third point, and second goal of the game, in double overtime to send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire called the matchup from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, April 8
• Senators vs. Penguins (2017 Eastern Conf. Final, Game 7, Chris Kunitz) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL: Pause and Rewind – 6 p.m. ET

Thursday, April 9
• NHL: Pause and Rewind (Encore) – 5 p.m. ET
• Rangers vs. Kings (2014 Stanley Cup Final, Game 5, Alec Martinez) – 6 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: EPISODE 1 – NHL BROTHERS – TUESDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
Kathryn Tappen and Sportsnet host David Amber will co-host a 30-minute program about brothers in the NHL. The three sets of brothers interviewed and featured in the program are Eric, Jordan, and Marc Staal; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; and Quinn and Jack Hughes.

NHL: PAUSE AND REWIND – WEDNESDAY, 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
The premiere of a one-hour special, NHL: Pause and Rewind, will take a look back at this past NHL season as well as how players are spending their time off in the current league hiatus. Highlighted segments will include a look at the current top five teams in each conference, reflecting on the season’s milestones, including Alex Ovechkin’s historic 700 goal accomplishment, as well as revisiting the Blues’ improbable Stanley Cup victory last season.

NBC Sports commentators conducting player interviews and sharing #HockeyAtHome social content will also be featured throughout the program.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Wild long-term outlook

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.