Which slow-starting Stanley Cup contender can turn it around?

3 Comments

One month into the NHL season and there are a lot of things in the standings that are upside down.

Teams like Buffalo, Edmonton, and Vancouver that were expected to be in the basement are all near the top, while Stanley Cup contenders like Tampa Bay, Toronto, and San Jose have stumbled.

It is a long season and the early surprises still have to prove they have staying power, while the the disappointments have time to turn things around. We have seen the latter happen over the past few years with the 2019 St. Louis Blues and 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins overcoming brutal starts to win the Stanley Cup. Not every team is that lucky, and both of those examples needed to go undergo significant in-season changes to their roster and coaching staff to reach the top.

Is there a preseason contender off to a slow start this year capable of such a turnaround?

Let’s look at three of the big ones.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Confidence in a turnaround: Fairly high

The pressure is on for this team to do something significant this season and so far they are not really doing much to inspire confidence that this team will turn out any different than the past three. They can score a lot of goals, they give up a lot of goals, and as of Thursday have won just six of their first 14 games of the season. It is one of the worst 14-game stretches they have had over the past three years, being topped only by their 14-game stretch to end the 2018-19 season (when they won only four games down the stretch).

If you’re looking for a positive in Toronto it’s that for all of the struggles they have had so far there are signs that they can easily get this turned around.

For one, they are going to be getting John Tavares back soon. That’s a big add to the lineup.

And for as much as they have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, a lot of that is related to the play of their goalies. They still have their share of flaws defensively, but they are the second-best shot attempt differential team in the league and while they still give up a lot of shot attempts, they have  cut that number down from where it was a year ago. The biggest issue is in goal where Frederik Andersen has not yet played up to his expected level and backup Michael Hutchinson has given them literally zero chance in the four games he has started.

There is reason to believe Andersen will be better based on his track record, and a backup goalie can be fixed with a trade. Better goaltending can fix a lot of these early problems.

Whether that is enough to get by the Boston Bruins or to actually do something in the playoffs remains to be seen. But they will be there and have the chance.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Confidence in a turnaround: High, but with some caution

Always bet on talent, and the Lightning are still the most talented team in the league on paper. That is the good news.

Here is my concern: Do you remember about a decade ago when the Washington Capitals were the best regular season team in the league every year, won the Presidents’ Trophy with 54 wins, and then got bounced in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Montreal team that would have had no chance in beating them if not for a super-human goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak? And then the Capitals responded by trying to fix themselves by changing what they did and the way they played only to self-sabotage themselves and take about two steps backwards?

I fear the Lightning have hit that phase.

It is not just the fact that they are not winning as regularly as they have that is concerning. It is the way they are playing. They are getting out-shot, out-attempted, out-chanced, and out-everything during 5-on-5 play. They have one of the worst shot attempt differentials in the league through 12 games and are simply not generating as much as they did a year ago. They are still scoring goals, but they are relying heavily on the power play to do it and not carrying play at even-strength. No one seems to be afraid of the team that put the fear of god into every opponent for 82 games just one year ago.

Is it a matter of simply working through some new ideas? A slow start with some needed adversity? Or a concerning trend that is maybe an overreaction to (an admittedly horrible) postseason defeat?

[Related: Lightning fighting through some early season adversity]

San Jose Sharks

Confidence in a turnaround: Not without a major change or two. 

The goaltending is still a major issue, but we already knew that. They also do not seem to have any interest in trying to fix it, something else that should have been obvious after the way last year unfolded.

But that is not the only thing broken here. The whole system seems broken. This has been, quite simply, the worst 5-on-5 team in the league this season by pretty much any objective measure you want to look at it. You want to look at underlying numbers like shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, or expected goals? All among the worst in the league and down near the potential lottery teams.

You want to look at something more basic like simply goals for and against? Worst in the NHL at 5-on-5, getting outscored by a 37-19 margin. That is goals-for percentage of just 33 percent. The next worst team in the league in that category is Detroit at 40 percent (20 for, 29 against). There is no way to sugarcoat that, it is just bad with a capital B-A-D.

There was a point last year where the Blues were playing the right way, doing everything well defensively, and still losing because they couldn’t get a goalie to make a save. All they needed was somebody to solidify that position to turn things around. The Sharks still need that, too. But what’s even worse is that they also need the rest of the team to get its act straightened out as well.

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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

1 Comment

ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

1 Comment

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

Leave a comment

Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

Leave a comment

Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.