Dougie Hamilton

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

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For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

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.

Armstrong, Sweeney, Waddell are 2019 GM of the Year finalists

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Last but not least in the list of major NHL awards to be handed out next month in Las Vegas is the 2018-19 General Manager of the Year.

Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins, and Don Waddell of the Carolina Hurricanes are the three finalists for the award, which was first handed out in 2010.

Voting was conducted by the NHL’s 31 GMs, a panel of League executives, and print and broadcast media following the end of Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Doug Armstrong: After firing Mike Yeo in November, he promoted Craig Berube from the organization’s AHL affiliate, and later did the same with Jordan Binnington as Jake Allen struggled in net. Both moves defined the 2018-19 season for the Blues, who went from being dead-last in the NHL in early January to reaching the Western Conference Final. Berube is now a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, while Binnington is up for the Calder Trophy. Also contributing to this Blues’ turnaround, and were moves made by Armstrong, are Ryan O'Reilly, who was acquired from Buffalo over the summer, and Game 7 hero Patrick Maroon, who was signed during free agency. Having won the GM of the Year Award in 2012, Armstrong is looking to be the first to win the award multiple times.

The Case For Don Sweeney: The Bruins finished third overall in the NHL with 107 points and are back in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013. Injuries forced the team to use 37 players, with production from their depth being a major contributing factor for their success this season. Some of that depth came via trades Sweeney made before the February deadline with Marcus Johansson (via New Jersey) and Charlie Coyle (from Minnesota) coming in and making impacts during their playoff run.

The Case For Don Waddell: The former Atlanta Thrashers boss is in his first season as Hurricanes GM and helped guide them to their best performance (99 points) since 2005-06 when they won the Stanley Cup. Following his hiring in May 2018, Waddell signed key pieces Petr Mrazek and Calvin de Haan in free agency; acquired Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Nino Niederreiter via trade; and picked up Curtis McElhinney on waivers in October. Each players has played a big role in helping get the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in a decade.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Calder Trophy
Jack Adams Award
Hart Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Rask’s roll has Bruins a win away from Stanley Cup Final

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Tuukka Rask is stopping just about any puck playoff opponents can shoot his way – even the ones he doesn’t see.

The goaltender has been dominant in the Boston Bruins’ six-game postseason winning streak that has them on the doorstep of the Stanley Cup Final. Just don’t expect him to make any grand declaration of being ”in the zone” as he makes stop after stop in these playoffs.

He’s confident and comfortable. Leave it at that.

”I’ve felt good for many, many months,” Rask said. ”It’s just the way when you’re seeing the puck, when you feel comfortable. It’s about timing and patience and all that. I think experience helps that. … The way I usually want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big and maybe even tough chances, try to make it look easy kind of.

”So if that’s in the zone, then so be it. But I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”

That’s exactly what Rask has been doing, too, in helping the Bruins to a 3-0 lead on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final. Boston goes for the sweep Thursday night in Raleigh.

The 32-year-old Finnish netminder has stopped 85 of 90 shots in the first three games of the series with the Hurricanes, who have just been unable to solve Rask even when getting a handful of open-net chances. He’s allowed nine goals amid 205 shots in the six-game streak, good for a .956 save percentage and a 1.5 goals-against average.

Overall, he’s second in the playoffs for save percentage (.939) and goals-against average (1.96) while posting a playoff-best 11 victories in 16 games.

”He looks super calm right now,” said Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who spent three seasons as Rask’s teammate with the Bruins. ”We have to do a better job of getting in his face and making it harder on him. I mean, if he’s going to see it, he’s going to stop it, so we’ve got to get some sloppy stuff around the net.”

Yet it didn’t matter what the Hurricanes did Tuesday night in an all-out attack on Rask to start the game. They couldn’t zip or slip one by him.

Rask stopped 20 first-period shots – 20! – and ensured the Bruins went into the first intermission in a scoreless game despite the Hurricanes carrying play in front of a rowdy crowd that had helped Carolina go 5-0 at home in the postseason to that point.

That included one sequence roughly three minutes in when Rask stopped Nino Niederreiter‘s tip, Micheal Ferland‘s putback at the crease and Justin Williams‘ follow-up try despite Rask losing his stick. There was another Williams rebound that wasn’t officially counted as a shot on goal,, too. It was a harrowing few seconds for Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who quipped: ”I might have had my eyes closed for three of them.”

”He’s been dialed in” since the start of the playoffs, Cassidy said. ”He’s been excellent. He really hasn’t had a poor night. He’s had a couple that were, I’d say, above average and the rest have been very good. Tonight the first period was excellent.”

That gave the Bruins a chance to regroup, then come out and score twice in the second period to take control.

Sure, Rask caught a break when Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen missed a wide-open net in the opening minute when the goalie fell trying to slide across the crease. And Rask said there were shots that he never spotted until the puck hit him.

”There’s a couple of chances I didn’t see in the first period,” he said. ”A lot of times, if you don’t see it and don’t move, you’re going to have a better shot at saving it than if you would move too much.”

Then again, when a goaltender is playing as well as Rask is, sometimes he makes his own luck.

”He’s always given us a chance to win,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. ”That being said, right now he’s definitely in the zone and doing some amazing stuff.”

NOTES: Cassidy said fourth-line winger Chris Wagner has returned to Boston for further testing and will not play in Game 4. Wagner, who scored the Bruins’ first goal in Game 3, hurt his right arm while blocking a shot late in the third period. … Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said Curtis McElhinney would ”probably” make his second straight start in goal. Petr Mrazek started the Hurricanes’ first nine playoff games but allowed 10 goals in the first two games of this series.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

One tweak for Blues’ putrid playoff power play

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Teams might look at power-play goals as a luxury, at least during the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins, aka owners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ only active unit that’s actually regularly productive, can attest. Despite investing in Tomas Kaberle during the 2011 trade deadline, the Bruins’ power play struggled to the point that people wondered if Kaberle should be benched … but the Bruins won the 2010-11 Stanley Cup nonetheless.

Blues hitting sour notes on power play

Still, every goal counts with things as tight as they are in this postseason, so the St. Louis Blues have to be concerned about their chances of winning a 1-1 series against the San Jose Sharks with a power play that’s ice cold heading into Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here).

You can dice up their numbers in a lot of ways, and most of them are disturbing. The Blues won Game 2 by a score of 4-2 on Monday despite a power play that went 0-for-5, and also allowed a Logan Couture shorthanded goal. After being productive against the Jets in Round 1, St. Louis has gone just 2-for-28 since their tight series against the Stars, and haven’t scored in their last 18 opportunities. The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford notes (sub required) that the Blues have only managed a 7-5 shots on goal advantage against the Sharks so far on the PP.

Sometimes it’s best to zoom out a little bit and look at the sheer totals, and that’s not pretty either. Overall during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues have scored seven power-play goals, while allowing three shorthanded tallies. Not ideal to only manage a +4 differential on the PP two games into Round 3.

The question, then, is: what should the Blues do?

Overall, it’s best not to panic, so head coach Craig Berube’s “just chill out” comments aren’t totally off base.

“Yes, the power play overall — it can be frustrating,” Berube said, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But the key is, I do not believe that it frustrated our team. And it can’t. You can’t let it happen. They have a great penalty kill over there. They’ve had a real good penalty kill for years.”

Brayden Schenn and others also weighed in on the subject.

Rutherford and Justin Bourne provided a detailed breakdown of some of the Blues’ struggles in that article for The Athletic, and it’s worth a look — for those interested, and even the Blues as a whole.

Move that Tank

But, when I see a struggling power play, I try to take a K.I.S.S. approach of simplicity, and look at who’s shooting, and from where.

Nothing seemed too outrageous when breaking down the Blues’ advanced special teams stats at Natural Stat Trick, and the Blues are smart enough to realize that Vladimir Tarasenko should be firing the puck the most, as he leads the team with 22 PP SOG, blowing away Ryan O'Reilly, who’s in second place with just seven. This isn’t a situation where a team is leaning too much on shots from defensemen (see: Nashville) or making a personnel decision that baffles me every time (Carolina using Justin Faulk on its top unit instead of Dougie Hamilton).

There is one adjustment I’d strongly consider making: get Tarasenko closer to the net, rather than having him running things from the point.

Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tarasenko prefers playing the role of power play QB. His passing ability won’t get the same shine as his lethal shooting, but he has strong instincts in that regard. There are less outrageous ideas than “get the puck on Tank’s stick more often.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Still, when a power play is struggling, I wonder if the high-danger shooters aren’t getting enough high-danger chances, and I’d wager that Tarasenko would be more of a threat if he was closer to the net, more often. My instinct would be to have him hovering around the right faceoff dot, essentially giving him the photo-negative of Alex Ovechkin shooting from his “office” at the left circle, but honestly, those details are negotiable. The point is that, in my opinion, Tarasenko’s skills would be best used in a spot where it’s that much harder for his shots to be blocked.

The Blues have some nice options on the point, even without Tarasenko. Whether it’s Alex Pietrangelo‘s strong hockey IQ or Colton Parayko‘s rifle of a shot, it’s not as though St. Louis would be totally lost if they weren’t as prone to putting Tarasenko on the point.

This isn’t to say that the Blues don’t let Tarasenko approach the net in these situations, but my advice is simply to get him there more often. Like, preferably all the time.

It might mean that Tarasenko gets fewer actual shots on net, but a lot of times on the power play, it’s about quality over quantity. At this point, it’s tougher for the Blues to argue that the current setup is working, as they haven’t been getting the right quantity of goals on the power play.

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So, again, there’s value in at least debating smaller tweaks. I could see an argument for an elevation of Robert Thomas, who’s coming into his own as a young forward (Berube didn’t seem to like that). Heck, you could make a case for the other Rob: Robby Fabbri, who for all of his struggles – injuries and overall – is the sort of creative player who might be able to make plays on what sometimes feels like a static power play.

(Granted, Fabbri makes more sense to me as a second PP unit specialist, if he can get back into the lineup.)

But, really, the Blues are probably closer than it might seem to being successful. All they really might need to do is bring Tarasenko closer to the net.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

Why Hurricanes have embraced ‘bunch of jerks’ moniker

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“Young men expressing themselves for joy of winning. You don’t do this thing in professional hockey. What are these guys? Jerks or something?”

“I know what I’m talking about. You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks as far as I’m concerned. Imagine Justin Williams doing stuff like that.”

Don Cherry is known for his colorful suits that he wears every Saturday during Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner” segment. Who knew he’d be the inspiration for one of the best-selling fashion designs in the state of North Carolina?

Taking to his pulpit on February 16, Cherry railed against the Carolina Hurricanes’ post-win celebrations, also known as the “Storm Surge.” The brainchild of team captain Justin Williams, they were quickly embraced by Hurricanes fans and around the hockey world. 

“Listen, things are changing,” Williams told NBC last week. “This isn’t a historic hockey market, it’s relatively fresh. We obviously won a Stanley Cup here, but it’s relatively fresh. This team got here in 1997. It’s not like the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadians or the Boston Bruins, an ‘Original Six’ who had decades and decades of hockey history.”

Following Cherry’s yelling at clouds, the Hurricanes acted fast and teamed up with BreakingT to create the “Bunch of Jerks” t-shirts, which sold well and sold out fast. The team store inside PNC Arena is constantly running out of inventory. (An update to the shirts was made after Cherry doubled-down on his criticism by labeling the fan base as “front running.”)

They weren’t popular just with fans, though.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Curtis McElhinney’s dad ordered a handful and shipped some to his son. Warren Foegele’s friends back home in Markham, Ontario hit him up asking if he could get them a few.

The Hurricanes embracing the “jerks” really blew up the entire “controversy” and emboldened the team and fan base even further.

“I think what I love about it is it could have went a different way when you get criticized for what you’re doing,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “But the guys, they didn’t. They took it and they ran with it in a positive light and the fans took it and ran with it in a positive light.  

“It’s not about everyone else, it’s about our team, it’s about our community, it’s about our fans and we’ve enjoyed this year. That ‘little bunch of jerks,’ whatever you want to call it, has kind of brought us together in a way that’s unified the fans and the players even that much more, which was already a pretty strong bond.”

As the Hurricanes pursued their first playoff berth since 2009, the extracurricular activity excited a fan base that had been patiently waiting for turnaround and helped create a new legion of supporters in the process.

“You know, I think we’ve been kind of irrelevant for a while here in Carolina and that was kind of one way to maybe boost some people in the stands, and obviously get people to think of us of a team that was playing really good hockey throughout the season,” said forward Jordan Staal.

The excitement isn’t contained to solely inside PNC Arena. Dougie Hamilton has noticed he’s been recognized more at dinner or out on the street this season. There’s been a buzz around Raleigh this season as the Hurricanes made their march to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then knocked out the defending champion Washington Capitals in seven games in Round 1.

From the night Cherry entered “bunch of jerks” into the lexicon to the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes were tied for the third-most points (33) in the NHL with a 16-7-1 record. They could have hit back at the longtime commentator, but instead, as they’ve done all season long, they leaned into the negativity and embraced it.

“I don’t want an apology,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in February via the News and Observer. “He can say what he wants to say. I should thank him. It was good for us.”

Game 3 of Hurricanes-Bruins is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Watch the live stream here).

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.