Eric Staal

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Hurricanes need to fill leadership void after Justin Williams steps away

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes once again are looking for leadership – and maybe another captain.

Veteran forward Justin Williams’ decision to step away from the sport leaves them with questions about their captaincy heading into a season in which they will try to build upon their run to the Eastern Conference final.

That means an organization that has gone without a captain – and, for one season, used two of them – must again figure out what it will do with the ”C” this year.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour says he’s not in a rush to hand out a letter.

”It will be a tough hole to fill, but as of now, we’re moving on from Willie as our captain,” forward Jordan Staal said Wednesday, ”and we’ll see where it takes us.”

One of the key questions that hung over the Hurricanes this offseason was whether Williams – a 37-year-old three-time Stanley Cup winner and unrestricted free agent – would re-sign for a 19th NHL season, or if he would retire.

Now that will linger well into the season.

He said earlier this week that he is taking a break from the NHL to start the year because of his ”current indecision” about whether he has the mental and physical commitment to keep playing.

”Be perfectly clear on it: He’s not part of the group. We’re moving on as if he’s not going to be here,” Brind’Amour said. ”If he comes to us in January or February and says, ‘Maybe I want to come back,’ he’ll have a month of practice but it’s not going to catch us by surprise. He’s earned the right to make that decision and for us to somewhat leave that door open, I guess, is a way to look at it.”

That’s the latest twist for Carolina’s drama-filled captaincy that dates back to the Eric Staal trade in February 2016.

The Hurricanes didn’t have anyone wearing the ”C” until 2017-18, when they had defenseman Justin Faulk and Staal share the job with each holding the title for half of what was coach Bill Peters’ final season. After Peters left for Calgary last summer, Brind’Amour tapped his teammate from the Hurricanes’ 2006 Cup-winning team to take the top leadership role and made those two alternates.

Williams thrived in that spot, with his teammates praising the way he held them accountable and engaging fans – and riling up critics – by masterminding the ”Storm Surge” postgame victory celebrations on home ice. Along the way he tallied 23 goals and 30 assists while playing all 82 regular-season games and helping Carolina earn its first playoff berth since 2009.

The Hurricanes upset Washington in their first-round series – with ”Mr. Game 7” assisting on the winning goal in the second overtime of Game 7 – and swept the New York Islanders before they were swept by Boston in the conference final.

This season sets up as a critical crossroads for them. They hope to prove their reconstruction project has staying power and that they weren’t one-year wonders who rode a late-season hot streak into the playoffs.

And with Williams gone for an undetermined amount of time – perhaps permanently – they hope some other players have developed leadership skills that will provide a similarly positive influence over a mostly young team.

”I think as a core, as a group, we’ve got a lot of good kids and a lot of good leaders,” Staal said. ”Usually, as a captain, there’s a lot of guys beside him that are helping him out. I think Willie was a great leader, but as a core, I think there were a lot of great guys that showed up every day ready to work and came into camp (in good) shape and all the stuff that you have to do to create a team that’s going to be competitive every night.”

Getting another chance: Wild, Guerin good match a year later

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Interviewing for the same job twice in as many years is a rare occurrence in any profession, yet there was Bill Guerin going to Minnesota once again this summer as a candidate for the general manager vacancy.

As the Wild delved deeper this time, burned by their previous pick, Guerin kept emerging from the vetting as their best choice. The obvious hope from both sides was that this unexpected second chance will serve as the genesis of an eventual championship.

”I knew more what to expect. I was always comfortable,” Guerin said. ”The interview part was enjoyable because of the questions they asked. The whole process, I enjoyed it. The hard part was waiting.”

When Wild owner Craig Leipold phoned Guerin at home earlier this week, ready to offer him the position, he was first checking to simply find out if he would be available for a call about 3+ hours later. The delay was agonizing, as Guerin told his wife and daughter that day.

”I said, ‘I’m more nervous now than I was before Game 7 against Detroit in ’09,”’ said Guerin, who had an 18-year career in the NHL as a player.

Pittsburgh won that elimination game of the Stanley Cup Final that year, the second of four titles that Guerin has contributed to and reveled in. The last two came with the Penguins, too, in 2016 and 2017 while he was their assistant general manager.

Though Guerin served five seasons in that role for one of the league’s premier franchises, Leipold initially declared his preference to hire a replacement for Paul Fenton with previous experience as an NHL general manager.

The further Leipold, team president Matt Majka and executive adviser Mike Modano went into the search, the more Leipold realized that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. The fact that Guerin learned from Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who’ll be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame later this year, cemented his place at the top of the list of candidates.

”There’s something about having a clean slate that is helpful. So then we kind of moved away. We felt there were other candidates who filled what we were looking for. As we talked to more people, we learned more things, we learned things that were even more important in this process, and one was leadership, one was presence, and one was passion,” Leipold said. ”We think we found it in Billy.”

He added: ”I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason. It didn’t work out last time. It’s working out this time, and for the space we’re in right now he’s the perfect candidate.”

Guerin, who was introduced at a news conference at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday, befriended Modano when they were teenagers on the U.S. national junior team. Modano, who was hired by Leipold three months ago, added the valuable perspective of a former player to the evaluation. Fenton, who was fired three weeks ago after just 15 months on the job, never played in the NHL.

”I give Matt and Craig a lot of credit. They peeled back the onion very deep just to figure out what type of guy he is, how he’s going to handle different situations. His answers were spot on. He nailed it,” Modano said.

Goalie Devan Dubnyk, center Mikko Koivu, defenseman Jared Spurgeon and center Eric Staal were among the players who attended, sitting on either side of coach Bruce Boudreau.

After a tense, unfulfilling season followed by the surprise firing of Fenton, there was a clear sense of excitement to have such an accomplished, popular and prominent figure in the sport now in charge of the team in addition to the opportunity to prove they’re still a legitimate contender for the playoffs.

”Knowing that he’s won four Cups. Knowing that he’s not overly far removed from being a player. That was important too,” said Boudreau, who will begin his fourth season on the Wild bench. ”You know what the players feel like.”

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

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

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.

Replacing Fenton, Spurgeon’s future among biggest questions for Wild

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild.

1. Who will replace Paul Fenton as general manager?

Even though Paul Fenton’s reign of error as Minnesota Wild general manager lasted just one forgettable season it was still long enough to do plenty of damage to the organization.

Among the missteps and blunders during those 14 months…

  • He traded Nino Niederreiter, one of the team’s best players, at what was his lowest possible value for Victor Rask in what might be the NHL’s worst one-for-one trade since Hall for Larsson.
  • He alienated Jason Zucker, one of the team’s other top players and an extremely popular member of the community, by repeatedly trying to trade him (why?!) and allowing the details to leak publicly every time.
  • He never seemed to have a clear long-term direction for the team, trading established veterans with term remaining on their contracts for younger, cheaper players, while simultaneously trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players (trying to trade for Phil Kessel; signing Mats Zuccarello). It was impossible to tell if it was a team trying to rebuild or still trying to compete.

Those were just some of the bigger issues, and now the new general manager has to clean up the mess that was left behind.

But who will that new general manager be?

Will owner Craig Leipold be willing to hire another first-time general manager after the Fenton debacle? If so, Bill Guerin, Tom Fitzgerald, and Bill Zito would seem to be the top names.

Or will he go to the NHL’s recycling bin and bring in a more established GM with experience? If so, Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi have been mentioned, as has Peter Chiarelli despite his horrendous run with the Edmonton Oilers.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Will any of the new young players take a big step forward?

None of the Wild’s top-eight scorers during the 2018-19 season were under the age of 26 while three of their top-four (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter) were 34 years old. It is definitely an older team at the top of the lineup, and the addition of a soon-to-be 32-year-old Zuccarello only adds to that.

There are still some intriguing young players on the roster and in the organization and it would be pretty helpful for the Wild if one or two of them emerged as a key player this season.

At the top of that list are Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, two of the players acquired by Fenton just prior to the trade deadline this past season.

Donato had a very promising start with the Wild after arriving in the Charlie Coyle trade (the one in-season Fenton trade that had an immediate positive return) and it wasn’t really the result of percentage-driven luck. He was legitimately good and hasn’t looked out of place in his brief NHL career.

Fiala, acquired in the Mikael Granlund trade, is still only 23 years old and has shown 20-goal, 50-point ability in the NHL but regressed a bit last season, especially after the trade. His ability to bounce back from that would be a significant development for the Wild.

3. Will they get Jared Spurgeon re-signed?

Spurgeon may not be one of the biggest names among NHL defenders, but that’s not his fault. He is an outstanding top-pairing defender and should be the team’s biggest priority when it comes to their next long-term contract.

The 29-year-old defender is coming off of a career year offensively (14 goals, 43 points) and has been a rock on the team’s blue line since becoming a regular more than eight years ago. He plays big minutes against other team’s top players, stays out of the penalty box, and is consistently on the positive side of the shot, scoring chances, and goal differentials. If he hits the open market after this season he could be one of the top players available in 2020 free agent class.

He is the Wild’s best all-around defender and keeping him should be a must.

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

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.

Boudreau needs to get Wild turned around quickly

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

Most head coaches in the NHL don’t get to stay on the job longer than two of the organization’s general managers, but Bruce Boudreau clearly isn’t “most head coaches”. Boudreau, who was hired by former GM Chuck Fletcher in May of 2016, got to stay on staff when Paul Fenton took over in the front office last summer.

Now, Fenton’s gone and the Wild are still looking for their next general manager. We know that GMs will typically bring in their own head coach, but it would be mildly surprising to see the next person replace Boudreau with someone else so deep into the offseason. That doesn’t mean that the next GM will hesitate to fire the veteran coach if the team gets off to a bad start in 2019-20.

Based on what we saw from Minnesota last season, it’ll be difficult for them to get themselves on track quickly. The Wild finished outside of the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season and they were also last in the Western Conference’s Central Division.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The other thing that won’t play into Boudreau’s favor, is his lack of playoff success since taking over in Minnesota. Since he took over behind the bench, the Wild have not made it beyond the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (they were eliminated by the Blues and the Jets in five games). Combine that with the Wild’s recent difficult campaign and their search for a new general manager, and you can easily understand why Boudreau is very much on the hot seat.

So what has to happen for them to become one of the eight best teams in the West?

“Our lack of scoring was probably the biggest difference I think, from the two previous teams we’d had,” Boudreau told NHL.com last week. “It wasn’t any one thing. You can take Jason Zucker and say he had an off year production wise, but he had as many chances as he’s had in the previous years, he just hit 13 more posts than he did the year before. Things just weren’t going in and that happens.

“A lot of people are counting us out, and that’s great. I’m really happy they are counting us out because I think we’re going to come more mad and with a chip on our shoulders. We’ve got a lot to prove to a lot of people and I think we’re going to do it.”

Technically, he has a point. The Wild ranked 11th in the NHL in CF% and third in high danger CF% behind the Vegas Golden Knights, who made the playoffs, and the St. Louis Blues, who won the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately for them, their high danger GF% was 46.39 percent, which was 24th best last season. So they clearly didn’t convert on their high number of high danger chances.

When their backs are against the wall, a lot of coaches prefer to rely on veteran players and that’s exactly what Boudreau will be able to do during the pressure-packed time. Whether you think it’s good news or not, Minnesota has a long list of veteran players that they’ll have to rely on this season.

Mats Zuccarello, who was their big free-agent acquisition this summer, will be 32 next month. They also have Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, and Devan Dubnyk, who are all at least 33 years old right now. Whether or not that helps them remains to be seen, but this is an older group with some injury concerns. How will Koivu look once he returns from a knee injury? Can Parise stay healthy? Are the Wild good enough? Can Boudreau survive a slow start?

Those questions are all legitimate (the PHT team will tackle them throughout the day).

We don’t know how things will shake out in Minnesota this year, but they’re definitely a team to keep an eye on right now.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.