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Goaltending, Lucic’s role among biggest questions facing Flames

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

Let’s take a look at three big questions for the Calgary Flames for the 2019-20 season.

1. Who is going to stop the puck?

There is probably no question that will impact the Flames more than this one.

Goaltending has been a constant struggle for nearly a decade now as the team has not finished higher than 15th in save percentage since the 2011-12 season, and hasn’t finished higher than 20th since the 2013-14 season. That is simply not championship caliber goaltending, and it was probably the single biggest weakness the team had this past season.

David Rittich was a nice surprise, but he struggled down the stretch and is still a bit of an unknown entering this season. Challenging him for playing time will be Cam Talbot who was brought in on a one-year deal to replace Mike Smith.

The Flames have elite, high-end forwards and a strong defense that is carried by Norris Trophy winning blue-liner Mark Giordano.

That core at forward and defense is good enough to compete for a championship right now and maybe even win one if everything goes right. Goaltending, however, is going to be the biggest “make-or-break” aspect of this team and if things do not dramatically improve in net it is going to be an impossible obstacle to overcome.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | Under Pressure: Treliving | Talbot the X-Factor]

2. What can they get out of Milan Lucic?

James Neal‘s brief tenure with the Flames did not go as anyone could have planned it, so it is not really a surprise they were willing to part ways with a 32-year-old winger coming off of a down year.

What is a surprise is that they traded him for Milan Lucic, a player that is regarded to have one of the worst contracts in hockey.

How badly has Lucic’s career deteriorated in recent years? He scored just 16 goals over the past two years and has looked like a player that is simply not built for the modern day, faster paced NHL.

If the Flames think they can rejuvenate his career or that his size and physical presence is going to dramatically alter the success they are likely setting themselves up for disappointment. They didn’t get upset in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche because they weren’t big enough or physical enough — they lost because they were outplayed by a faster team that is quickly emerging as a powerhouse in the Western Conference. Giving Lucic a significant role and assigning him to be the muscle to “protect” their stars as a deterrent is only going to hold them back.

If they play him in the bottom-six role he should be in they are committing $6 million in salary cap space to a player that isn’t going to give them that sort of a return on their investment.

Maybe they had to trade Neal, but trading him for a worse player with a worse (and buyout proof!) contract doesn’t seem to move the needle much in the right direction.

3. Will Johnny Gaudreau‘s playoff luck finally change?

Gaudreau has blossomed into a superstar for the Flames and is one of the league’s most dynamic offensive game-changers. He is the definition of an impact player and one that can take over a game on any given night, and he has consistently done that for the better part of the past three seasons.

The problem: It has not yet happened for him in the playoffs.

In his past two playoff appearances Gaudreau has scored zero goals in nine games while managing just three assists. Not great for a player that has been one of the best point producers in the league.

It’s easy (and lazy) to write that off as him “not being a playoff player” or being “too small.”  It is most likely a lot of bad luck. It is not as if Gaudreau has lacked chances in those playoff games. He still generated shots and he still created chances — he just hasn’t had the puck go in the net. That is not an uncommon development for any player. Pick out any superstar in the league and look at their postseason careers and you will find extended stretches over multiple postseasons where they did not consistently score goals.  Gaudreau is too good, too talented, and too productive to be shut down in the playoffs.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Golden Knights introduce AHL affiliate: Meet the Henderson Silver Knights

Henderson Silver Knights
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The Vegas Golden Knights revealed their AHL affiliate’s name and logo on Thursday night.

Introducing the Henderson Silver Knights!

“Today is a momentous day for our organization, the City of Henderson and the entire Southern Nevada community. After years of planning and preparation, we finally get to welcome the Henderson Silver Knights home,” said Henderson Silver Knights owner Bill Foley. “When we started our initial ticket drive to bring hockey to Vegas and create the team we now know as the Golden Knights, it was obvious this community had all the makings of a great hockey city. That being said, the passion and enthusiasm our fans have shown us over the past three years is greater than anything we could have imagined. Now our fans can watch more hockey right in their backyard and keep a close eye on our players’ journeys as they advance through our ranks with the intention of achieving the ultimate goal: Becoming a Vegas Golden Knight.”

The Golden Knights purchased the San Antonio Rampage in February in order to move them to Henderson, Nevada. The sale was approved by the AHL Board of Governors later that month.

The Silver Knights will begin play with the 2020-21 AHL season at the Orleans Arena. In August, workers are expected to break ground on an $80 million, 6,000-seat arena set to open with the 2022-23 season. That project was approved earlier this month.

According to Foley, the Silver Knights already have 7,600 season-ticket deposits and jerseys will be revealed in a few months.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hurricanes agree to arena lease extension through July 2029

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes have reached a five-year lease extension to remain in PNC Arena through July 2029.

Arena owner Centennial Authority and Hurricanes parent company Gale Force Sports and Entertainment announced the agreement Thursday. The current lease agreement runs through the end of June 2024.

The News and Observer of Raleigh reported that deal provisions include an agreement by the Hurricanes not to relocate during the current lease, as well as eliminating rent payments following the 2020 fiscal year.

In a news conference, team president and general manager Don Waddell said the new deal comes after more than a year of discussions along with talks about about facility upgrades and more development in the surrounding property.

”The authority believes that the Hurricanes are very important to the community, and that’s why we worked really hard to try to keep them here,” said Tom McCormick, Centennial Authority board chairman.

The Hurricanes have played in the arena since its 1999 opening and shares it with the North Carolina State men’s basketball team.

”This extension gives us the flexibility and time to make sure we make the best long-term decision for the Hurricanes and the Triangle – whether that means a major renovation, development around this arena or a new arena,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in a statement. ”We have a great place to play, but there are things we need to address based on the age of the facility, the arena’s amenities and the area around the building.”

PHT Morning Skate: Neely on Return to Play; NHLers on extended downtime

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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.

• Bruins president Cam Neely on the Return to Play format: “With what the team was able to accomplish in the first 70 games and then the point spread we had — not only with the teams in the league, but also with the teams in our division and conference — to kind of have three games dictate where we fall in the conference standings is somewhat disappointing.” [NBC Sports Boston]

• Why did St. Louis fail to land on the NHL’s list of potential hub cities? [Post-Dispatch]

• The NHL and NHLPA will be pushing back the June 1 signing date for players whose contracts begin next season. [TSN]

• NHL players look to manage uncertain injury risks after extended downtime. [Sporting News]

• This playoff will allow the Avalanche a real good chance to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL.com]

• Columbus’ strong defensive DNA will be important to slow the Maple Leafs’ offense. [Sportsnet]

• The expanded playoff format will only be “a one-time thing.” [The Hockey News]

• How USA Hockey hopes to bring kids back to the ice after the pandemic. [ESPN]

• When free agency opens, the Coyotes should be bold in improving their roster. [Five for Howling]

• Finally, here are the five worst players in EA Sports’ NHL series, according to Operation Sports:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.