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.
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?
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
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:
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:
But it’s a good first step and allows us to talk hockey for the first time in a few months. The Qualifying Round will kick things off with eight series with lengths that are currently undetermined.
In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look at the top storylines a round with some interesting matchups.
1. Non-playoff teams given second life
Thanks to the RTP format, the Canadiens and Blackhawks, two teams more than six points out of a wild card spot were given a second life. Could they have made a run in the final month of the regular season? Sure, so could the other teams that were out of a playoff spot at the time of the March 12 pause.
“That was a huge issue in putting the format together, trying to figure out numbers, who deserves to be in, who deserves maybe a handicap and whatnot, but ultimately there’s just no way,” said Oilers forward and Return to Play Committee member Connor McDavid. “I mean, we’ve beaten this thing to death, there’s just no way to handicap those teams. This maybe isn’t the most fair way but I think the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is still going to be intact.”
But now? Everything is reset and a hot goaltender plus a possible short series could mean an upset.
Say what you will about teams like Montreal and Chicago getting in — if they somehow become champions, they will definitely have earned it.
“Let’s say a team like Montreal beats Pittsburgh and does go on to win the Stanley Cup,” McDavid added, “I think they’re a very deserving team. If they’re going to win five rounds and go through some really good teams, then maybe they do deserve it. There’s never going to be a perfect scenario.”
2. Who is most vulnerable in a potential short series?
As we noted, while the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final will be best-of-seven, it’s yet to be determined whether the Qualifying Round, First Round, and Second Round will be best-of-five or the usual best-of-seven.
With the amount of time off and the possibility that only three wins could be needed to advance, which higher seeds might be most at-risk?
The Blue Jackets, after a season of filling their trainers’ room every week, should be close to full-health. They’ve been playing with a chip on their shoulders all season and have succeeded after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Maple Leafs will enter the series with the pressure of winning given their star-studded lineup and dangerous offense. As if John Tortorella needs anything more to add to the “underdog” mantra.
Every playoff team dreads facing the “hot goalie.” All it takes is one 2010 Jaroslav Halak and Cup dreams can come to an end. Is it a stretch to see Carey Price providing issues for the Penguins or Corey Crawford shutting down McDavid and Leon Draisaitl or Igor Shesterkin further cementing his place as New York’s No. 1 by ending the Hurricanes’ season?
At least each team’s pro scouting department will have more than enough time to pick apart the opposition.
Any goalie decision is an important, and the wrong one could swing a series, especially in a possible best-of-five.
A goaltender’s success or struggles before the pause may be erased given the amount of time off. History against a specific team (Henrik Lundqvist dominance over Carolina, for example) or experience can play in a coach’s decision on who to start. That will make training camp performance vital for those who don’t necessarily have the No. 1 job locked down.
4. Stars getting healthy
Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton, Conor Garland, Jacob Markstrom and Jake Guentzel are a few names in the Qualifying Round who should be back on the ice when play resumes. With nearly four months between games, this round will allow teams to be healthier than usual. It will also put a further importance on training camp leading up to puck drop.
Hamilton, for example, hasn’t played since mid-January, and Jones’ ankle took him out of the lineup in February. Camp will be valuable time not only for those them to get back into hockey mode but also ensure no setbacks when it’s time for contact.
Those players will be among the names in the Qualifying Round who switched teams this season, but didn’t get a ton of time to settle into their new digs. Toffoli (6-4-10–10 GP), Zucker (6-6-12–15 GP) and Galchenyuk (3-4-7–14 GP) have had strong starts and will be needed in their individual series.
Meanwhile, Taylor Hall had a longer run with the Coyotes and in 35 games put up 27 points.
In a number of cases — Zucker, Skjei, Pageau, Trocheck, etc — the players have term remaining on their contracts. But then you have the pending unrestricted free agents. The Canucks gave up a good package to add Toffoli; Arizona is hoping to entice Hall to stay; Toronto is relying on Kyle Clifford to bolster their bottom six in what’s going to be a grind-it-out series vs. Columbus.
These players will get time during July training camps to get acclimated with their new teammates and further educate themselves on their new systems. Disappointing outputs could have a big effect on their next contracts.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has an expiring contract and has hinted his days in Minnesota could be coming to an end. Could GM Bill Guerin value his leadership enough for a one-year deal or will the forward choose to end his playing career at home in Finland?
Is there a spot somewhere in the NHL for Jason Spezza next season? “I’m just enjoying coming to the rink every day, trying to get better day to day,” he said in February. “I can’t say I’ve been too nostalgic at all, kind of going in and out of places. I hope to have a good year and keep going.”
A tighter salary cap could squeeze out a number of veterans as teams look for cheaper, younger alternative already in their systems. Will any get to have their Ray Bourque moment?
With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.
For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.
Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.
At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.
How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).
The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.
It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.
Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.
Injured players who could return
Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.
This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…
Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?
(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers
Regular season recap
It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.
New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.
The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.
Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.
Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.
Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.
He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.
Storylines to watch
Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?
Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.
Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.
If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.
That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.
Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.
The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.
(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets
Regular season recap
The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.
Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.
Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.
The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.
Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.
On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.
There are a lot of very intriguing pieces in place here and a lot to like about where this team can go in the very near future.
Artemi Panarin is a superstar, while Mika Zibanejad (still signed for two more years after this one) has proven to be a perfect complement for him on the top line.
Kaapo Kakko may have experienced some growing pains in his rookie season, but he still has star potential and they have two outstanding young defensemen in Anthony DeAngelo and Adam Fox to be the foundation of the defense. DeAngelo is a restricted free agent this summer and has played his way into a raise, but the in-season trade of Brady Skjei should give them enough flexibility under the salary cap to easily get a new deal completed with him.
Add in the return of Chris Kreider and a couple outstanding young goalies in Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev and they have some of the most important pieces of a contending team in place — top-line players, including a handful of already elite (and potentially elite) players.
Those are the most difficult pieces to find in any rebuild, and the Rangers have them. They definitely have some work to do around the edges with the depth, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find the complementary pieces than it is to find the core pieces.
It mostly comes down to depth. At forward, center depth could still be a concern in the short-term if Ryan Strome is unable to duplicate his offensive performance this season.
Defensively, they have some big question marks after Fox and DeAngelo.
Marc Staal remains a fraction of what he used to be and still has a fairly significant salary next season. Jacob Trouba was supposed to be a big addition, he was a disappointment this season and still carries a huge salary cap hit for the next six years with a no-movement clause that will kick in this summer. They need him to be significantly better than he has been for that $8 million price tag he carries.
It would also be a huge boost to their long-term outlook if Kakko became a star. That would be a game-changer for them to have another elite winger to help take some of the pressure off of the top-line and give opponents another big-time scoring threat to worry about.
Goaltending is a potentially intriguing one due to the presence of Shesterkin and Georgiev. If you are going to phase out a legend the way the Rangers did this season, you better have one hell of an option already in place. As it turns out, the Rangers might have two of them.
Goalie is always the X-factor position in the NHL and can be the biggest difference-maker on the ice. It would be foolish to expect Shesterkin to maintain the .932 save percentage he has had in his first 12 appearances, but the upside is there for both of them to be outstanding NHL goalies. If it plays out that way, the Rangers could have the position set for the next decade.
They also have one of the league’s best offensive players in Panarin to serve as their franchise player, and the potential of Kakko to join him in that class.
Looking even further ahead, they also have two first-round draft picks in the 2020 draft class.
With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the New York Rangers.
New York Rangers
Record: 37-28-5 (70 games), seventh in the Metropolitan Division, Out of the playoffs
Leading Scorer Artemi Panarin – 95 points (32 goals and 63 assists)
In-Season Roster Moves:
• Traded Vladislav Namestnikov to the Ottawa Senators for Nick Ebert and a 2021 fourth-round pick
• Acquired Julien Gauthier from the Carolina Hurricanes for Joey Keane
• Traded Future Considerations to the Philadelphia Flyers for J-F Berube
• Acquired a 2020 first-round pick from the Carolina Hurricanes for Brady Skjei
The Rangers are just a couple of seasons into their rebuilding plan, but they made significant progress throughout the 2019-20 campaign. The season didn’t get off the greatest of starts though. After winning their first two games, they found themselves riding a five-game losing skid.
Things seemed to stabilize as season the progressed. They weren’t spectacular, they weren’t terrible. They just seemed to be a middle of the pack team in the Eastern Conference. But things started to change in February.
A team that seemed destined to miss the playoffs was making a serious push for a Wild Card spot.
The Rangers went on a four-game winning streak between Feb. 9-14. After a home loss to Boston, New York rattled off five consecutive victories. But they eventually cooled off in March, as they dropped five of their final seven games before the pause.
Overall, the Rangers took a step forward in their rebuild. Adding Artemi Panarin in free agency was like adding gasoline to the rebuilding fire. It’s a move that definitely accelerated the process. Also, Mika Zibanejad showed that he could be an elite number one center in the NHL (he had 41 goals and 75 points in just 57 games). The Rangers also decided to re-sign Chris Kreider instead of trading him away as a rental.
Despite trading Brady Skjei to Carolina, they still have a number of quality defensemen on the roster. Tony DeAngelo had a major breakout season, while Adam Fox was a terrific young player in his first professional season.
The Rangers’ biggest positional strength is between the pipes.