Mrazek’s workload, Williams’ return among questions facing Hurricanes

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 Carolina Hurricanes.

Let’s ponder three questions for the Hurricanes heading into the 2019-20 season…

1. Can Petr Mrazek handle a full-time workload as the starter? 

Which starting Mrazek will the Hurricanes get this season? The .921 save percentage one in 49 starts in 2015-15 or the .901 save percentage version in 44 starts from the following year?

There’s no Curtis McElhinney this year to share the load with. Instead, the Hurricanes have James Reimer and the jury is out on how well he can perform. Reimer hasn’t put up horrible numbers, per se, but he was far from an adequate backup last year in Florida, and he saw a bunch of time due to injuries to Roberto Luongo.

Both Alex Nedeljikovic and Anton Forsberg will also compete for that backup role, but Reimer has the experience if nothing else.

It’s important to note that Nedeljikovic was named the American Hockey League’s best goalie last season

Mrazek, meanwhile, put up an exceptional 10.03 goals-save above average and a healthy .931 save percentage at 5v5 in 2018-19.

The tools are there for him to be a bona fide starter. The question remains if he can pick the right ones for the job.

2. Will Justin Williams return to once again lead the team? 

Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, remains an unrestricted free agent at the moment.

The 38-year-old defied Father Time last season, scoring 23 goals and reaching the 50-point mark. Moreso, his possession numbers have been nothing short of elite in recent years, including a 57.89 Corsi last year. Williams has never had a season below 50 percent in that category and on top of that, he’s durable having missed just three games in the past six seasons.

[MORE: X-factor: owner Tom Dundon | 2018-19 in review | Hurricanes under pressure]

Off the ice (and on it, of course) he’s the consummate leader and a mentor for guys like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov.

Normally, teams wouldn’t be worried about losing an aging 38-year-old, but Williams is different, a guy you’d like to lock down on a one-year deal.

3. Can Carolina repeat it all over again? 

Getting there is one thing, staying is another challenge altogether, one the Hurricanes know all-too-well.

Since they moved from Hartford to Raleigh at the turn of the century, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons just once in those 21 seasons.

While their turnaround last season wasn’t the same as the one in St. Louis, it’s notable nonetheless. On Dec. 31, the Hurricanes were three points out of the basement in the Eastern Conference.

Their run-in from there included a 30-12-2 record, one of the best in that time frame as the Hurricanes found their identity, ‘bunch of jerks’ and otherwise.

The thing is, they play such a high-possession game that eventually it should turn into perennial success. Only one team (Montreal) in the top 10 best Corsi teams didn’t make the playoffs last year, and the ones who did were at or near the top of their respective divisions and conferences.

Carolina was the second-best team in terms of possession but only the 18th in goals-for at 5v5 despite the third most shots taken. Assuming they keep up that same style of play that’s become their trademark of sorts, they shouldn’t have much issue at least making it through the back door once again.

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

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

Lightning get a steal with Brayden Point’s new 3-year contract

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The Tampa Bay Lightning not only managed to get restricted free agent Brayden Point re-signed before the start of the regular season, they did so for what appears to be an incredibly team-friendly contract.

The Lightning re-signed Point to a three-year, $20.25 million contract on Monday afternoon that will carry a $6.75 million cap hit.

“We are very pleased to re-sign Brayden today,” general manager Julian BriseBois said in a team statement. “He is the consummate professional with an unwavering commitment to team success, growing as a player and improving every day. It is that mindset that makes him an outstanding role model, teammate and person, on and off the ice. We look forward to getting Brayden back on the ice with his Lightning teammates as soon as possible.”

In the short-term this is an amazing bargain (even with the Florida tax break) for the Lightning when you consider how good Point already is, and how Toronto just committed more than $10 million per year to a very similar player in Mitch Marner. Anytime a Stanley Cup contender can save a few million under the cap with one of its top players it makes building around them and maintaining a championship caliber roster just a little bit easier.

He will still be a restricted free agent at the end of this contract, while his actual salary in year three will be $9 million. That will significantly impact his next qualifying offer from the Lightning.

Assuming Point continues on his current career path his next deal should be a massive one, but for a bridge deal this is great value for a Lightning team that looked like it was going to have a tight salary cap crunch this offseason. They not only managed to get through it relatively unscathed, they still had room to re-sign one of their most important young players.

Point, 23, has increased his offensive production each of his first three years in the league and is coming off of a massive 41-goal, 92-point season. What makes him even more valuable is that along with the offense he is also an outstanding defensive player and has finished in the top-10 in Selke Trophy voting in each of the past two seasons.

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.

Predators target Cup with Matt Duchene, improved power play

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have had plenty of time to look in the mirror. They still like what they see, but they did tweak the roster that had been good enough to win back-to-back Central Division titles.

Now they want more. Much more after Nashville’s earliest playoff exit since 2015.

Center Ryan Johansen believes the Predators need to realize they have something special. He sees a group very capable of playing for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

”Our expectations as a group are extremely high,” Johansen said. ”We all know that and we all believe we are a team that can compete for a Stanley Cup.”

In case anyone thought a first-round loss to Dallas in six games was OK, general manager David Poile made clear it wasn’t in June when he traded away defenseman P.K. Subban. That move cleared up enough salary cap space for Nashville to finally sign center Matt Duchene.

Captain Roman Josi says Nashville has so much talent on its top lines that nobody will be happy with another first-round exit.

”The expectations are high in the whole organization, and I think rightfully so,” Josi said.

WHO’S HERE

Duchene finally is in Nashville and not just checking on the property he owns in Music City. He signed a seven-year, $56 million deal with the Predators in free agency. ”He’s such a great player, and especially for me as a defenseman playing against him, he’s really hard to play against,” Josi said of Duchene. ”He scores goals. It’s going to be fun. He’s really skilled.”

New assistant coach Dan Lambert (lam-BAIR) was hired to help fix the NHL’s worst power-play unit of last season. Forward Mikael Granlund now has had a whole offseason and training camp to settle in with a team that traded for him last February.

WHO’S GONE

Subban was traded to New Jersey, shedding a salary of $9 million a season. Forwards Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle, pickups before the trade deadline, also are gone. Simmonds joined Subban, signing with the Devils. Boyle remains unsigned.

KEY PLAYERS

Goalie Pekka Rinne, who turns 37 in November, has to hold off Juuse Saros in net and keep the Predators in the mix in the Central Division. Coach Peter Laviolette has enough talent for two top lines, which will allow him to mix and match around Duchene and Johansen. Nashville has experimented with center Kyle Turris at wing, and both need Turris to bounce back after scoring only 23 points last season.

Dante Fabbro, 21, played all of 10 games last season including all six in the playoffs. Now he must help fill the hole left when Poile traded away a former Norris Trophy winner in Subban to keep Nashville’s top four defensemen among the NHL’s best.

OUTLOOK

How the Predators fare with the man advantage will be watched closely from the first power play, and they must avoid a sluggish start on the power play to fend off a sense of deja vu. They piled up 100 points last season despite a power play that had fans begging Nashville to decline penalties. The plan to park Duchene in front of the net and use four forwards could provide the lacking scoring punch. Josi’s contract status will be monitored closely with both sides insisting they want a new deal. Rinne has been the backbone of this franchise for so long, but he knows his play and not his past will earn him the net.

PREDICTION

The Predators didn’t have enough scoring power past their top line last season to do more than win a second straight Central Division title. They finished 47-29-6 to hold off Winnipeg and St. Louis in the division, then went 0-for-16 on the power play in that playoff loss. Poile traded away a top defenseman for the second time in three years trying to push the franchise further. This time, he signed Duchene looking for more goals, and that could put the Predators back in the Western finals for the first time since 2017.

Game on: Women’s hockey union takes 1st tangible step

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TORONTO (AP) — The reality of what the new women’s pro hockey union was launching didn’t resonate with Brianne Jenner until she came out of the locker room and saw the crowd – many of them young girls – in the stands of the 700-seat arena.

The leap of faith taken by the Canadian national team forward and more than 200 other top players – a pledged in May to not compete professionally in North America this season while demanding a single economically viable league – took its first tangible step in Toronto over the weekend.

The stars played in the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association “Dream Gap Tour” stop, which featured some 80 Canadian players split over four teams for a two-day tournament.

“I think going into today I underestimated how special it was going to be, being on the ice and when you felt the crowd,” Jenner said after the team named after her defeated Team (Rebecca) Johnston 4-3 in the opening game.

“I think the cheers that we heard were something bigger than just a hockey game. There was a lot of passion in that rink,” she added. “Last spring, when we had the announcement of the (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) folding, I don’t think too many of us thought we’d have this kind of event put together in the short time that we did. So to see the talent out there, to see the fans supporting us, it was a pretty special day.”

Historic, perhaps as well, Jenner added, because it provided players validation that they just might be on to something.

“It’s knowing what we’re doing is something that’s bigger than ourselves,” said fellow national team member Kacey Bellamy. “And 50 years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Wow, we started this.'”

Though it might be premature for anyone to get ahead of themselves, the tour got off to a solid start.

The game began with a ceremonial faceoff featuring Hockey Night in Canada television fixtures Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, and PWHPA executive and Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford. And it ended with Jenna McParland stuffing in a rebound to break a 3-3 tie with 3:20 remaining.

Just as important was the turnout, both games were played in front of a mostly packed arena with single-game tickets costing $15.

More impressive was the large collection of corporate sponsors the union assembled to not only pay for the players’ travel, lodging and food, but also outfit them with jerseys and track suits emblazoned with the PWHPA logo.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, served as the title sponsor, and has also committed to paying for the four Canada-based teams’ practice times. Adidas provided the clothes. Budweiser was on board, while also offering up a lounge for fans. The NHL Players’ Association provided enough of a commitment to have its logo placed on the upper right chest of the jerseys.

Other sponsors included Secret, Bauer, Tim Hortons and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The “Dream Gap” name of the barn-storming tour represents the missing link for young girls who fear being limited to competing in college or the Olympics while never having a shot to play professionally.

The PWHPA is also made up of U.S. and European players and has already scheduled tour stops in New Hampshire and Chicago next month with more in the planning stages. American players also made their union debuts this weekend by playing games against Boston College and San Jose Sharks alumni.

Hefford, who served as the CWHL interim commissioner when it folded last spring, estimated the PWHPA has already attracted more financial support from sponsors than the Canadian league did in its final year.

“Companies are coming on I believe because they’ve come to understand the current circumstance of the game where you have a player like Marie-Philip Poulin or a Hilary Knight making $3,000 a year. People didn’t understand that,” Hefford said.

The players’ movement was borne out of the CWHL’s demise after a 12-year run in which it out-grew its limitations in relying on volunteers and how much it could pay players under Canadian tax laws. Another issue was players accepting the status quo of little-to-no compensation, with players spending their own money on everything from tape to airport parking for away games.

Sarah Nurse was dismayed by the playing conditions during her one CWHL season after completing her four-year college career at Wisconsin. She noted Badgers players were treated far better than the pros.

“When I came to the CWHL and I saw everybody so satisfied with what they had, it shocked me and it made me sad because it was like, ‘You guys, we’re so much better than this,'” Nurse said. “So when the CWHL folded it was honestly just the kick in the butt we needed to really put this thing in motion.”

What remains unclear is what the women’s pro hockey landscape will resemble a year from now, and whether the PWHPA can generate enough momentum to gain the attention of the game’s stakeholders, in particular Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the NHL. Another question is the stability of the five-team, U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League, which is embarking on its fifth season without many of its most high-profile players.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to be viewed as “a bully” in pushing a women’s league out of business. He’s also said the NHL doesn’t believe in either of the league’s business models. Though the NHL provides funds to the NWHL, the league is mostly backed by private investors.

The players are pushing for the NHL to step in because it can provide them stability and the necessary infrastructure – from marketing to man-power – to promote and grow women’s hockey.

“It’s not about them just doing us a favor,” Hefford said of the NHL. “We bring content. We bring diversity and inclusion. We bring some entertainment value that people love.”

Though Jenner said every option is on the table, the NWHL isn’t considered a realistic option with players having already gone through the disappointment of the CWHL folding.

“It’s not about someone coming in and saying, ‘I have $20 million. I want to start a pro league, beautiful'” Hefford said. “That’s not what these players want. They want something that they know in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the road is going to be there, and it’s going to continue to grow and it’s going to be strong. So to me, you need that infrastructure and we never had that with the CWHL.”

In Q They Trust: With Quenneville, Panthers eyeing playoffs

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — It was April 8, the first Monday after the NHL regular season. As 16 teams were getting ready for the playoffs, the Florida Panthers – as usual – were getting ready to begin an offseason. And as workers were smashing the team’s home ice to get the arena floor ready for summer, players were gathered in a big conference room.

They were listening to Joel Quenneville speak as Florida’s coach for the first time.

His message could not have been clearer: Going forward, things must be different.

”I want every one of you guys to remember where you’re at right now and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said. ”Next year, we want to be coming off the ice right now with our skates on and preparing for our first-round opponent.”

Playoffs or bust.

It is a most interesting marriage – a team that hardly ever goes to the playoffs, and a coach who hardly ever misses them. Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups as a coach, his 890 wins are second-most in NHL history and he’s inheriting a Florida core that has seen its potential touted for years but still has yet to contend for a title.

”He’s energetic, easy to talk to and he means business,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said. ”He came in, is setting a precedent early and he’s getting the guys’ attention – which is great.”

Quenneville’s hiring in Florida reunited him with Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. Together, they put together the bulk of a team that would win three Stanley Cups in Chicago. Tallon wasn’t around for those hoistings after being let go by the Blackhawks, though Quenneville insists he should be considered a massive part of those titles.

In Florida, they’re looking to rekindle that magic and they have one of the NHL’s best top lines to lead the way in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.

”It’s a special line,” Quenneville said. ”They do a lot of things well together. They know where each other are around the ice. Their patience and play-recognition is high-end. They had such a strong year together and did some good things on the power play as well. So it works.”

Quenneville’s hiring was just one of many big moves by the Panthers in the offseason – with the biggest player splash being the signing of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who’ll replace the now-retired Roberto Luongo as Florida’s No. 1 netminder.

Tallon said he thinks Bobrovsky is the best goalie in the game.

”We’re happy to have him,” Quenneville said.

Here’s what to know about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers:

WHO’S HERE

Coach Joel Quenneville, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Anton Stralman, F Noel Acciari, F Brett Connolly.

WHO’S NOT

G Roberto Luongo (retired), G James Reimer (traded to Carolina), coach Bob Boughner (fired after two seasons).

KEY PLAYERS

The hope for change hinges mainly on Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal and will carry the load in net. Florida’s top six scorers last season – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle and Frank Vatrano – all set career-highs for points, and it still wasn’t enough for a postseason berth. The Panthers will need their offense, and perhaps even more.

OUTLOOK

The first 20 games might tell the story. Over the last 19 years, the Panthers have averaged only 17 standings points in the first 20 games – meaning they almost always fall back in the chase for playoff positioning early, and hardly ever recover. This year, 13 of Florida’s first 20 games are against teams that are coming off trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Survive those, and the Panthers could be off and running.

PREDICTION

The Panthers went out and got who they consider the best coach in Quenneville, who they consider the best goalie in Bobrovsky, added more scoring and figure that they shored up a defense that was too porous too often last season. No more excuses. Not only will Florida get to the postseason for just the third time in the last 19 seasons, the Panthers will actually win a series for the first time since 1996.