Brett Pesce

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Thoughts on surging Hurricanes’ OT win vs. Lightning

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Early on in the 2019-20 season, it’s proven difficult to protect leads against the Carolina Hurricanes. Probably because they always have the puck.

Sunday’s eventual 4-3 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning began in a way that feels fitting to a Hurricanes team that’s been haunted by a good news/bad news situation for a while now. The good news is, again, Carolina hogs the biscuit with overflowing greed. The bad news is that their goalies maybe fall asleep a bit as a result. When Sunday’s game was 1-1, the Hurricanes had fired seven shots on goal, while Tyler Johnson beat Petr Mrazek for Tampa Bay’s goal on what was, to that point, the Bolts’ first SOG.

Speaking of shots on goal, the Lightning couldn’t muster a single one during the second period. Overall, Carolina generated 44-13 SOG advantage on Sunday.

Maybe you shouldn’t sit on leads against Carolina?

The difference between the 2018-19 Hurricanes (plus, so far, the 2019-20 version) and the teams that suffered through an interminable playoff drought is that the latest, Rod Brind’Amour-led rendition “finds ways to win games.”

One wouldn’t fault the Hurricanes if they were a little frustrated after the first period of Sunday’s game. Despite generating a 17-11 SOG advantage (and more than doubling Tampa Bay in stats like Corsi For at 35-17) during the first period, the Lightning finished the first 20 minutes with a 3-1 lead.

Carolina kept at it, though, getting a power-play goal in each of the second period (via Erik Haula) and third (Dougie Hamilton) before Jaccob Slavin fired home the overtime game-winner:

The Hurricanes are now 3-0-0 despite falling behind in all of their first three games …

  • Again, Carolina was down 3-1 in the first period, only to roar back against Tampa Bay to win 4-3 in OT on Sunday.
  • The Hurricanes entered the third period of Saturday’s game against the Capitals down 2-0, yet Carolina ended up winning 3-2 in overtime thanks to Jake Gardiner‘s game-winner.
  • During Thursday’s season-opener, Carolina saw a 2-0 lead devolve into a 3-2 deficit against the Habs through the first 40 minutes. A Haula goal sent that contest to overtime, and then Dougie Hamilton potted the shootout-winner.

Much like in that opener, the Hurricanes broke out the “Storm Surge.” At this pace, they might need to pay Justin Williams to be a consultant on celebrations, because they can only lean on the classic cele for so long …

That defense is getting it done

Defensemen have scored the decisive goals in Carolina’s three wins so far: Hamilton for the shootout victory, Gardiner’s sneaky OT goal on Saturday, and Slavin on Sunday night.

That production extends beyond the most clutch moments, too. Hamilton is tied with Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen for the team lead with four points. Slavin has scored two goals so far in this young season, while Hamilton, Gardiner, and Brett Pesce all have one apiece.

Naturally, they’re doing great work in suppressing chances against, as they’ve doubled opponents in the high-danger scoring chances category at even-strength so far at 38-19 (according to Natural Stat Trick).

A great Haula

Gardiner isn’t the only Hurricanes addition who is paying early dividends.

Haula has three goals in as many games, and big ones at that. Ryan Dzingel got his first assist of the season on Sunday. If James Reimer finds his game this season the way Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney did in the nurturing cocoon that is the Hurricanes’ system, then that would make for another shrewd move. Considering how unrelenting Carolina can be at times, would anyone be that surprised if Reimer ends up rejuvenated?

Hogging that puck

Even Jackson Pollock might think that the Hurricanes are heavy on the paint:

via Natural Stat Trick

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

After short summer, Hurricanes optimistic to start camp

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Defenseman Brett Pesce and the Carolina Hurricanes zipped up and down the ice again, less than four months after wrapping up last season way later than usual.

For a team that suffered through plenty of long summers, they can get used to these quick turnarounds.

The Hurricanes opened preseason camp Friday looking to build off the momentum they generated during last season’s run to the Eastern Conference final – their first playoff appearance since 2009.

All those years of missing the postseason meant plenty of Aprils and Mays away from the rink. But of course, they’re happy to trade that extra recovery time for deep playoff runs.

”You play the game not to have long summers, right?” Pesce asked.

The Hurricanes are hoping a few changes lead to even better results.

”We’ve got to find those eight extra wins,” second-year coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

Carolina, one of the NHL’s hottest teams during the second half of last season, upset Washington in a seven-game series and swept the New York Islanders in the second round before the Hurricanes themselves were swept by Boston in the conference final series.

”It was a good experience for all of us to get the playoff run and to get close to doing something special,” forward Teuvo Teravainen said. ”I like this team a lot, so I feel like even with a shorter summer, the guys are pretty young – a lot of young players who have taken care of their bodies and are ready for this year.”

Sebastian Aho was here – and the 22-year-old forward probably will be here for a while after the Hurricanes matched the $42 million offer sheet extended to him by Montreal. So was veteran defenseman Jake Gardiner, who last week signed with Carolina for four years after spending much of the summer looking for a deal.

”Another great piece to our club,” Brind’Amour said. ”The sooner he can feel comfortable, then he’s going to be at his best.”

Defenseman Justin Faulk was there, too, once again as the subject of trade speculation brought about by the acquisition of Gardiner and the salary cap concerns it created. Faulk said his preference is to stay with the Hurricanes.

”It happens. I’m not the first person in the league to see their name’s thrown out there,” Faulk said. ”I’m still here and ready to work and show up and do my thing.”

The most noticeable absence: Justin Williams. The captain of last year’s group drug out his decision for this season into September before deciding to “step away” from the sport to start the year, leaving the door open to a possible return eventually. The move could leave a leadership void in a still-young dressing room.

While players and coaches have insisted they’re proceeding as though Williams won’t be back, reminders of him remain at PNC Arena: A larger-than-life photo of Williams remains affixed to the glass outside one entrance.

”I’m sure he’s enjoying himself,” Brind’Amour said with a smile, ”and happy not to have to grind it out right now.”

Does Gardiner signing make Hurricanes the NHL’s best defense?

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Jake Gardiner’s four-year deal with a $4.05 million AAV is such a great bargain — health pending — that the rest of the NHL should almost feel robbed by the Carolina Hurricanes.

(It really is imperative to note the risks with his back before we pat the Hurricanes on their backs … but that’s exactly what is happening here.)

While Gardiner isn’t getting any richer beyond a break in state taxes (he carried a bargain $4.05M cap hit with the Maple Leafs, too), the overarching narrative is that the rich got richer. To be more direct: a Hurricanes defense that already ranked among the NHL’s best in 2018-19 now enjoys an upgrade, as Gardiner is, for my money, even better than the underrated Calvin de Haan. He’s also about $500K cheaper.

So, yeah, the rich got richer.

It brings some interesting questions to mind, including: does this make the Hurricanes’ defense the absolute best in the NHL?

Few can even compare to the Hurricanes from a value standpoint. Consider:

  • Some expected Gardiner to make somewhere in the $7M or $8M range, so it must be stated again and again that this is a remarkable steal.
  • The best bargain of this group might be Jaccob Slavin, who has mostly been a strong top pairing guy (if not No. 1 defenseman) at $5.3M, which is his rate through 2024-25. Then again, maybe you prefer Brett Pesce, another gem who costs just a $4.025M cap hit through 2023-24. It’s honestly ridiculous that the Hurricanes are getting four years or more of Gardiner, Slavin, and Pesce for about $13.5M combined. Pesce and Slavin move the needle in a variety of ways, as you can see from this RAPM even-strength comparison for the last three seasons from Evolving Hockey.

  • Infomercial voice: “But that’s not all!”

While Gardiner, Pesce, and Slavin have contracts that indicate that they should be around for quite some time, the Hurricanes have two other prominent defensemen in less certain situations. Dougie Hamilton is a highly useful blueliner with significant offensive talent, and carries a reasonable $5.75M cap hit for two more seasons. It’s true that I’d argue Justin Faulk has sometimes been pressed into situations where he was a little over his head (Carolina should go with Hamilton or Gardiner as their power play QB, for example), he’s quite useful, and cheap for one more season at $4.833M.

The Hurricanes have already spoken about possibly embracing having a boatload of right-handed defensemen with Faulk, Hamilton, and Pesce battling for minutes, and Gardiner gives them a capable lefty to replace De Haan. This group might be so deep that it forces someone like Faulk out, but at the moment, those five defensemen at under $25M is pretty absurd.

  • Even if Faulk gets shipped out, the Hurricanes have a chance to maintain a luxurious and elite defense.

They have some interesting prospects to consider in Haydn Fleury (seventh overall pick in 2014) and Jake Bean (13th overall from 2016), so they may be able to counter trade-related losses or injuries. Naturally, Fleury and Bean are also cheap as they’re currently on rookie contracts.

***

The Hurricanes have long been analytics darlings because they hog the puck like few other teams, only to see leaky goaltending let them down. That changed in 2018-19, as they got enough goaltending and scoring to supplement that sturdy defense, making it all the way to the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.

Gardiner is arguably a step behind De Haan defensively, but overall likely brings more value thanks to considerable offensive skills.

Carolina’s defense seems well-suited to prop up Petr Mrazek or whoever else might be in net on a given night, and we’ll see if this ends up being a winning formula. Let’s ponder the question in a poll to wrap things up, then: does Carolina now have the NHL’s best defense? Feel free to share arguments for other blueline groups in the comments.

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

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.

Hurricanes upgrade defense with stunning Gardiner bargain

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Honestly, Jake Gardiner going into September without a contract made it feel like something fishy was going on. Were teams scared off by his back injury? Was he waiting for some contender, possibly even the Maple Leafs, to clear up some salary cap space, somehow?

Hmmm … maybe not?

In surprising news, the Carolina Hurricanes signed Gardiner on Friday, and the deal is even more surprising: a four-year pact with a paltry $4.05 million cap hit. Not only is that a stunning bargain, it’s actually the same $4.05M cap hit he carried on his last contract.

Few would have predicted that Gardiner, 29, would have signed for such a paltry sum. In fact, you could almost guarantee that the Maple Leafs were expecting him to command a higher salary, as remarkably, Gardiner is set to make less than Cody Ceci(!), who will cost $4.5M in 2019-20.

While Gardiner presents some risks if that back issue persists, this is one heck of a value on paper for Carolina, considering how much teams paid for lesser defensemen, including Tyler Myers (who carries a bloated $6M on a longer five-year contract with Vancouver). Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t need to be on a Hurricanes defense that already ranked among the NHL’s best.

[MORE: Does Gardiner signing make Hurricanes the NHL’s best defense?]

You just don’t get many cracks at a defenseman of Gardiner’s caliber, so it remains surprising that this all came together … unless he really just isn’t healthy.

Carolina parted ways with Calvin de Haan this summer, but Gardiner represents an upgrade (again, “solid first or second pairing defender” is pretty nifty at $4.05M). He joins Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce as Hurricanes defensemen with considerable term, while Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are also prominent blueliners whose futures are currently unsettled.

Gardiner gets a measure of control over his future with a no-trade clause, but even then, Carolina has some flexibility:

This move makes a great defensive group even better, and may theoretically help them boost a power play that has struggled for quite a while with Faulk as its QB. (I’ve been shouting from rooftops about Hamilton being the better option than Faulk for almost a full year now, but if the team just doesn’t want Dougie to run the point, now Gardiner gives them another option).

Either way, it’s a head-shaker that other NHL teams didn’t jump at the chance to sign Gardiner to this deal. It’s a cap value, and the term is the perfect mix: covering a need for four years, while mitigating some of the risks that come with signing a 29-year-old player who might hit the aging curve soon.

Again, it’s impossible to ignore Gardiner’s back issues, but that’s about the only part of this that isn’t a huge win for Carolina.

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

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.