Erik Haula

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Other NHL teams could learn from Hurricanes’ great offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t perfect (points to Petr Mrazek and James Reimer), but the rest of the NHL could learn a thing or two from their masterful offseason.

On the heels of signing Jake Gardiner at a surprising discount, let’s take a look at some of the key decisions, and how other GMs and front offices can learn from Carolina’s impressive blend of patience and opportunism.

The biggest job was done for them: While big names like Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point remain in contract limbo, the Hurricanes have Sebastian Aho locked down at what will almost certainly be a team-friendly rate of $8.454 million per year, all thanks to Marc Bergevin’s perplexingly modest offer sheet.

Hey, sometimes you just get flat-out lucky.

The power of patience: Instead of bidding on free agents on July 1, when asking prices are at their highest, the Hurricanes instead played hard to get, and remarkably found ways to potentially improve in areas of weakness.

It might be strange to view July 12 as exceedingly late, but it must have felt like an eternity for Ryan Dzingel, and the Hurricanes took advantage of a tepid market and that urgency to sign Dzingel for chump change (two years, $3.375M cap hit). Dzingel isn’t perfect, yet he could bring some finishing touch to Carolina, which is noteworthy because while the Hurricanes have a reputation for hogging the puck, they’ve sometimes lacked the sniping skills to put that puck in the net at the same rate as the NHL’s deadliest teams.

Gardiner is the most obvious example of the Hurricanes being patient, as his contract situation somehow lingered into September, and the Hurricanes exploited that for big gains. Gardiner could provide a potential boost to one of the Hurricanes’ other areas of concern, too: the power play.

Striking at the right moment: The Hurricanes weren’t just playing hard to get. Sometimes they seized the moment, and the results were promising.

Carolina wisely took advantage of the Golden Knights’ cap crunch to get Erik Haula for a pittance in a trade. If Haula works out — there are some health concerns — then he’s another forward who could help Carolina score goals, supplementing that sniping alongside Dzingel.

To be continued: It remains to be seen if Carolina was wise in taking on Patrick Marleau’s contract in exchange for a first-round pick.

Either way, the Hurricanes deserve credit for being proactive in trying to identify value, and they really could have set a template for teams like the Red Wings and Senators to accrue assets. (Ottawa and Detroit did not get the memo, at least not yet.)

Valuing flexibility: The Hurricanes could have panicked and overpaid to feel more secure about their goaltending situation, but considering the very limited options on the market beyond Sergei Bobrovsky (and how expensive Bob ended up being), Carolina could have made a big blunder.

Instead, they played it safe, and found a way to move on from the Scott Darling era of errors.

Interestingly, while the Gardiner addition arguably gives Carolina the league’s best defense, it’s not certain that we’re done seeing them make changes. Most pressingly, Justin Faulk is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes may understandably go the trade route to solve that riddle.

Either way, the Hurricanes are in a position of rare luxury: they can do something there, but they don’t have to. Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane notes when you have to do something, “you’re screwed.” Other NHL teams know that pain all too well.

***

The Hurricanes are on a short list of the smartest NHL teams alongside the Sharks because they consistently find value in a variety of ways. They’re patient when they should be, but not passive, showing the ability to jump on opportunities when other teams might get trigger shy.

Many other NHL teams are so behind the curve that they come across as downright dull, yet the Hurricanes look cutting edge. We’ll see if that pays dividends with more big steps forward in 2019-20, but it’s impressive stuff either way.

(Oh yeah, and their drafting also drew rave reviews. That team is just on fire lately.)

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.

How will Vegas manage Marc-Andre Fleury’s workload?

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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 Vegas Golden Knights. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Golden Knights:

1. How will Gerard Gallant manage Marc-Andre Fleury‘s workload? 

It has to happen at some point, right? Father Time catching up with Vegas’s beloved second son.

Fleury will be 35 before the season is two months old. He had 61 starts last season and it’s quite likely that he receives just as many this season, barring injury.

It just seems that the team isn’t ready to given Malcolm Subban more work. They used him heavily in March and Fleury got some much-needed rest before the playoffs began, but Subban didn’t set the world on fire with his play.

Finding the right workload will still winning games will be a test for Gallant, who hasn’t been as worried in the past about all the starts Fleury has gotten.

But consider this: only two goalies have ever started 60 games and won a Stanley Cup. Fleury, ironically, was one of them, but that was more than a decade ago now.

2. Can they mitigate some of their losses? 

Nikita Gusev, Colin Miller, Erik Haula, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare… all gone.

Gusev stands out for the mere fact of the hype train that followed him. The Golden Knights went out of their way to pluck him from the Kontinental Hockey League where he was regarded as one of the best players — if not the best — not playing in the NHL.

Unable to work out a deal that worked under the tight salary cap in Vegas, he was shipped off to the New Jersey Devils.

Speaking of moves relating to the cap, Colin Miller and all his great puck possession skills were traded off to Buffalo in an effort to find cap relief. Miller is an excellent puck-moving defenseman that will be missed on the blue line.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factorUnder Pressure]

And then there are bottom-six guys in Erik Haula and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Haula’s injury-riddled season limited him to just 15 games. In 2017-18, however, he has 29 goals and 55 points. Bellemare was a solid fourth-liner, meanwhile.

3. Speaking of bottom six, what will that look like? 

Alex Tuch had a career year with 20 goals and 32 assists and will be counted on to provide that secondary scoring outside of Vegas’s stacked top two lines.

Where the other pieces fall into place will be decided at training camp, although it’s probably a safe bet that Cody Eakin will center that third line, at least to start. That would allow for Cody Glass to work his way into the NHL fold on as the team’s fourth-line center.

But you probably don’t want Glass, a very skilled prospect, on the same line as Ryan Reaves.

If Glass has a solid camp, perhaps Eakin gets pushed down to the fourth line and Glass is given Tuch on his right and one of William Carrier, Valentin Zykov or Brandon Pirri to his right.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Vegas Golden Knights Day at PHT

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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 Vegas Golden Knights. 

2018-19
43-32-7, 93 points (3rd in the Pacific Division, 7th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in Game 7 of Round 1 against the San Jose Sharks.

IN:
Jaycob Megna
Garrett Sparks

OUT:
Nikita Gusev
Colin Miller
Erik Haula
Ryan Carpenter
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Maxime Legace

RE-SIGNED:
Deryk Engelland
Malcolm Subban
Brandon Pirri
Tomas Nosek
William Karlsson

2018-19 Summary

Could they have done it all over again, or even one-upped their magical inaugural season with a Stanley Cup banner in just their second season in the NHL?

Ultimately, the answer to both of those questions was no. It wasn’t because they didn’t put themselves in position to take another run at Lord Stanley. Despite putting up 16 fewer points than they did when they won the Pacific Divison crown in 2017-18 the Golden Knights, plagued by injuries at times, still managed a third-place showing to secure a second playoff spot in as many years.

And in Round 1, they seemed to be cruising with a 3-1 series lead against the San Jose Sharks.

Seemed.

After dropping Games 5 and 6, the Golden Knights appeared to regroup. They held a 3-0 lead in the third period, and barring disaster, would be heading off to face the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2.

Instead, disaster ensured.

A five-minute major to Cody Eakin for a phantom who-knows-still-to-this-day roughing call handed the Sharks a lifeline. And it would be used to maximum effect as the Sharks rattled off four goals in four minutes during the extended power play to lead the game.

The Golden Knights forced overtime but it only delayed the inevitable as Barclay Goodrow completed one of the zaniest comebacks in NHL history.

Heartbreak in Year 1. Hearts torn out in Year 2.

It was always going to be a tough act to follow for the Golden Knights.

Vegas set the bar for expansion teams so high in their inaugural season in 2017-18 and were tasked with following up a Stanley Cup Final appearance in just their second year.

They certainly looked well on their way prior to the season kicking off, having added Paul Stastny in free agency and Max Pacioretty via trade.

[MORE: X-factor | Three QuestionsUnder Pressure]

But both players battled injuries at different points during the season, including Stastny’s, which limited him to 50 games.

Vegas wasn’t the same 109-point team from the year prior, but they announced their ‘win-now’ intentions at the trade deadline to not only acquire Mark Stone from Ottawa, but also agree to a big-money, multi-year extension.

The pieces were in place until their epic collapse watched it all go out the window.

It’s been a much quieter offseason in Vegas this time around, and the biggest news has been the players who have left the club, including Nikita Gusev, Colin Miller and Erik Haula.

Gusev is considered by some to be the best player outside of the NHL. The Golden Knights signed him this past spring but couldn’t work out a deal.

Other subtractions have come with the reality of the salary cap setting in on The Strip. The scrap bin was only available for a limited time. Guys need to be paid and you can’t keep everyone.

A healthy start to the season for Stastny should improve their early-season prospects. Having Stone in the mix for a full training camp with his new club can only be a good thing, too.

And there’s no reason to suggest that the Golden Knights won’t be a playoff team for a third consecutive season.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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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 Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

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.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes Day at PHT

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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 Carolina Hurricanes.

2018-19
46-29-7, 99 points (4th in Metropolitan Division, 7th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in the Eastern Conference Final in four games against Boston

IN
James Reimer
Erik Haula
Ryan Dzingel
Gustav Forsling
Anton Forsberg

OUT
Scott Darling
Curtis McElhinney
Calvin de Haan
Adam Fox
Nicolas Roy
Aleksi Saarela

RE-SIGNED
Sebastian Aho
Petr Mrazek
Brock McGinn
Haydn Fleury

2018-19 Season Summary

The past 18 months or so have been a bit of a whirlwind for the Carolina Hurricanes, who’ve gone about a massive shakeup from the top down.

A new owner (Tom Dundon), a new general manager (Don Waddell), a new head coach (Rod Brind’Amour) began the process early last year of re-vamping a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009.

By the time summer rolled around, it didn’t look promising that they’d break out of that funk during the coming season.

[MORE: X-factor: owner Tom Dundon | Three Questions | Hurricanes under pressure]

Losing names such as Cam Ward, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin and Jeff Skinner during the offseason didn’t inspire much confidence that the Hurricanes could reverse their playoff misfortunes.

Even moving up from 11th to second in the 2018 NHL Draft (taking Andrei Svechnikov with the pick) wasn’t supposed to put them over the playoff line, nevermind into the Eastern Conference Final.

Then again, not every team is ‘bunch of jerks.’

And so despite Don Cherry’s best efforts to get under their skin, and flying in the face of expectations that didn’t offer much hope of closing a 14-point gap from the previous year, the Hurricanes turned in one of the more exciting seasons and a deep playoff run no one really expected.

Goaltending certainly helped their cause. The team got a solid 1-2 punch in the crease from Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, the latter who was picked up on the eve of the season from the waiver wire — and a move that would play a pivotal role when Mrazek got injured in November (and then again in the playoffs.)

An in-season trade that brought in Nino Niederreiter at the expense of Victor Rask was a shrewd move that immediately paid off and the Hurricanes took the fight down the stretch and won, claiming a seventh-place finish and a date with the Washington Captials in Round 1.

You’d have forgiven the Hurricanes for crashing out after a hard-fought run-in. Instead, the team rallied around one another, used that playoff-style hockey they played in the final month to their advantage and eeked out a win against the defending Stanley Cup champs in seven games.

Those gale-force winds only intensified in Round 2, with the Hurricanes pulling off another shocking upset, this time in emphatic fashion with a 4-0 series win against the defensive-minded New York Islanders.

It’s only when the storm reached Boston did the winds fade into a near-still breeze. The Hurricanes forced their way into the Eastern Conference Final, only to be shown the door after four games.

On one hand, it was a disappointing end to a rollercoaster ride. On the other, it was a massive period of growth that Carolina could take into the offseason as they looked for continued growth.

And they’ve done so with the addition of Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel, who should provide a goal-scoring boost to a team in the middle of the pack in that department.

Mrazek will have to shoulder most of the load this season with McElhinney’s departure to Tampa Bay.

The Montreal Canadiens helped sort out Sebastian Aho’s contract with the first offer sheet since 2013. Other than the anxiety that brought, it’s been a good offseason for the Hurricanes, who will look to make it consecutive seasons in the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck