Pandemic Punts: Will patient Hurricanes finally get in a hurry in 2020-21?

Pandemic Punts: Will patient Hurricanes finally get in a hurry in 2020-21?
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

Hurry, Hurricanes

Following some truly lean years when their former playoff drought began in 2009-10, the Carolina Hurricanes then became a fashionable dark horse pick, year after year. For a while, the Hurricanes couldn’t quite convert those fancy stats into playoff berths. Then, they took another step with two straight playoff appearances, but fell well short against the Boston Bruins each time.

That “close, but no cigar” feeling hangs over these Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe it gnaws.

Consider that, during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, things were skin-tight between the Hurricanes and Bruins early on. A tight 2-1 series that easily could’ve been locked up 2-2 spiraled out of control starting with a groaner of a Jake DeBrusk goal against James Reimer:

From there, the Bruins turned that Game 4 around, and ultimately punted the Hurricanes out of the playoffs in five games.

If the Hurricanes eventually go on to big and better things, then these setbacks can be part of the “learning process” medley for their championship DVD(s).* That if lingers like a toothache, though.

Sometimes good teams do incrementally improve to great ones. Put together enough baby steps, and maybe you take a leap. But there are also sports teams that seem like they’re going to knock on the door, only to miss their window for bigger things altogether.

For the patient Hurricanes, one must ask: how much longer must fans wait for this team to break through? If the 2020-21 Hurricanes end up having to punt on their season, who gets flushed out?

* – Do sports teams still make those? Save me the Google search.

With key decisions looming, Hurricanes were very quiet in offseason

With less than $1 million in cap space according to Cap Friendly, you could argue that the Hurricanes were boxed into a corner when it came to trying to improve during the offseason.

Besides, supporters would argue that the Hurricanes have been aggressive with recent and semi-recent moves. They brought in Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, and Brady Skjei via trades during the past couple seasons. That trio accounts for more than $15M in AAV. Not exactly “standing pat.”

Still, we’ve seen seemingly cap-strapped teams get creative to improve. Look at the Vegas Golden Knights, a franchise that’s made bold move after bold move to take that next step.

Granted, not every Golden Knights move seems perfectly wise. Then again, you can say the same for the Hurricanes adding Brady Skjei, the type of defenseman who doesn’t exactly fit their analytics-friendly reputation. (Did Don Waddell squeeze that one in during a retreat when Eric Tulsky wasn’t in attendance, like when Paul Fenton wiggled the ill-fated Niederreiter trade into existence for Minnesota?)

Fair or not, it’s frustrating to see the Hurricanes ask for the check instead of indulging in the goalie buffet in free agency. Yes, Reimer (32, $3.4M cap hit) and Petr Mrazek (28, $3.125M) are under contract through 2021-22. But what if you could’ve bribed a team to take one of them off of your hands, then pursued, say, Corey Crawford?

Amid the Hurricanes’ many successes as a team-builder, their shaky goaltending frequently dilutes such advantages. And at about $6.5M AAV, it’s not as though the Hurricanes are killing it in value in that category, either.

It all sets the stage for a crucial 2020-21 season for Hurricanes

Generally, smart teams take a zen approach to improvement. Wait until those seams open. Take what the defense gives you; don’t throw into double coverage.

Maybe that’s how the Hurricanes view seeking out goaltending upgrades? Or the next big move? Going bolder could’ve meant forcing it.

Either way, the 2020-21 season may dictate key aspects of this Hurricanes team.

There’s still plenty of time to hash out both situations. When it comes to RFA extensions, there have been successes in being proactive, but also waiting until the last minute. Sebastian Aho, for example, is on a pretty Hurricanes-friendly deal despite being the target of an ultra-rare offer sheet. So the Hurricanes don’t need to extend Svechnikov, necessarily.

(I’d still do it ASAP if I were in their shoes, though.)

With Hamilton, it’s fair to realize that teams can sometimes regret extending the contract of an older defenseman. While Hamilton is leaps and bounds better than former Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk (in my opinion), the Hurricanes may note how bad the Faulk extension looks for the Blues.

The biggest potential Hurricanes punts for 2020-21 are those goalies, Reimer and Mrazek. Theoretically, the Hurricanes could move things around at the trade deadline. Maybe they could swap one of those two out for a goalie on an expiring contract, like Antti Raanta, Tuukka Rask, or Marc-Andre Fleury?

Being that several mid-level forwards are also on expiring contracts (Ryan Dzingel, Jordan Martinook, etc.), there’s also room to punt if the Hurricanes’ 2020-21 season goes sideways.

Rather than taking a step back, big strides forward would be the ideal for the Hurricanes in 2020-21. Whether the Hurricanes get in a hurry or not.

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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.