Jaccob Slavin

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

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?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

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:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • 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:

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 is the long-term outlook for the Hurricanes?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

This has the potential to be one of the best long-term situations in the league given their collective age (one of the youngest teams in the league), the talent and potential on the roster, as well as the fact that so many of the key players are already signed to long-term deals.

The Montreal Canadiens did them a huge favor this offseason by signing Sebastian Aho to an easily matchable offer sheet, locking him in place for the next five years.

Meanwhile, Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce are all signed to long-term deals for at least the next two seasons. Several of them signed beyond that, while only two of those players (Aho and Staal) count more than $5.5 million against the salary cap individually.

Add in the fact that Dougie Hamilton is signed for another year, while Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas are both still on their entry-level deals and will not be eligible for unrestricted free agency for another six seasons and all of the most important players are locked in place.

Out of that core group, Staal is the only one over the age of 30 (currently 31), while the majority of them are still age 26 or younger. That means they are all either in the prime of their careers right now, or are just about to reach their prime years in the coming seasons.

Aho, Svechnikov, and Necas are already outstanding players, and all might still have their best days ahead of them.

Long-Term Needs

Goaltending has been the single biggest question mark for this team for almost a decade now, and that still might be the case.

That is not meant to be a knock on the current duo of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. They have been solid this season when healthy, and a team could certainly do worse than having those two as their regular goalie tandem.

Given the overall strength of the team — and especially the defense when it is healthy — they do not need a game-saving superstar between the pipes to give them a chance. They simply need solid, steady, consistent play. They are getting that.

The question comes from the fact that I just do not know if either one is a true long-term solution in net, and if they have that solution somewhere else in their organization right now.

Both players are signed through the end of next season.

Other than maybe finding a potentially better long-term option in net, there are not a lot of truly pressing needs here. As mentioned above, their core group is locked in place and the addition of Trocheck from the Florida Panthers just before the trade deadline adds what could be an ideal long-term fit in the second-line center spot.

Long-Term Strengths

This current core has been built around its young defense, and that is still by far the team’s biggest strength both now and in the immediate future.

Slavin, Pesce, Skjei, and Gardiner are all signed through at least the 2022-23 season, while the former three all go through the end of the 2023-24 season. Add in Hamilton, who is signed through the end of next season, and that is as good of a top-five as you will find in the NHL right now. They are all in the prime of their careers, they are all outstanding players that fit the modern NHL game with their mobility and puck skills, and they are the backbone of what has been one of the league’s best teams when it comes to limiting shots and scoring chances over the past four years.

If they can manage to get Hamilton re-signed that would be another major piece in place.

Along with the defense, they also have what look to be two of the most important pieces for any contending team already in place with the duo Aho and Svechnikov — impact forwards that can carry the offense.

Aho is already a sensational player and a top-line star, while Svechnikov might end up being the best of the bunch. Aho’s contract could end up looking like a steal over the next four years, while Svechnikov still has one more year on an entry-level contract, giving them a huge advantage when it comes to adding pieces next season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Hurricanes
Hurricanes surprises and disappointments
• John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

Carolina Hurricanes: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Carolina Hurricanes.

What happened to Nino Niederreiter‘s offense?

From an overall performance standpoint this might be the single biggest disappointment for this year’s Hurricanes team.

The Hurricanes acquired Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild a little over a year ago for Viktor Rask, and it looked like an immediate steal. At the time he seemed to be an ideal bounce-back candidate and made an instant impact on the Hurricanes’ lineup during the stretch run of the regular season. He’s been a dependable two-way player for several years and along with strong defensive play and an ability to drive possession, he’s also been a near lock for 20-25 goals and around 50 points every season.

This season, though, his offense took a dive off the cliff.

While his underlying numbers remain outstanding, he managed only 11 goals and 29 points in 67 games. That put him on an 82-game pace for just 13 goals and 35 points. Just for comparisons sake, In 36 games with the Hurricanes a year ago after the trade he recorded 14 goals and 30 points. Given his career track record, as well as the fact that he is still an elite possession-driver, it’s possible that it’s just an outlier of a season driven by some bad luck and a poor shooting percentage. He seems to be a good bet to bounce back next season, but the overall production was still a bit of a disappointment.

Andrei Svechnikov takes a big step toward stardom

I don’t know if this is technically a “surprise” as much as it is the expectation, but the second-year forward (and 2018 No. 2 overall pick) looks like an emerging superstar for the Hurricanes.

After scoring 20 goals as a 18-year-old rookie, he came back in his sophomore season and was on track to hit the 30-goal mark while playing an advanced all-around game for his age.

As if that was not enough, he also brought the Lacrosse goal to the NHL. Not once, but twice.

Dougie Hamilton loses his shot at the Norris Trophy

This is one of those disappointments that is simply the result of bad luck. Nobody is to blame here.

In mid-January Hamilton was playing at a level that almost no other defenseman in the league could match and was starting to emerge as one of the leading contenders for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. He was leading the Hurricanes’ offense from the blue line, driving possession, and helping to form one of the league’s best defense pairings alongside Jaccob Slavin.

Then a broken bone in his leg sidelined him for months and not only robbed the Hurricanes of one of their best players, it took away his opportunity and winning a major piece of hardware to finally cement his status as one of the league’s best blue-liners.

Justin Williams returned and made an immediate impact

Williams was not with the team at the start of the season as he contemplated his future, but it always seemed inevitable that he was going to return at some point before the playoffs.

The question was always going to be how much he would have left in the tank at age 38 and after missing half of a season.

The answer: A lot.

In his 20 games after re-joining the team Williams played like he never took any time off. He scored eight goals, scored shootout winners, and was the same outstanding all-around player he has been for his entire career. It was like getting a significant in-season trade addition without having to give up anything and made an already deep roster just that much better.

The Jake Gardiner question

The Hurricanes added Gardiner to their roster just before the start of the season, signing him to a four-year, $16.2 million contract to add even more depth to an already loaded defense.

But has it really worked out as hoped or planned?

The traditional box score numbers paint a rather uninspiring picture. His offensive production is down from where it has been at its peak despite getting decent power play time, he is a team-worst minus-24, and has mostly played a third-pairing role in terms of his usage. Probably not what you want from a $4 million per year blue liner.

He has looked a lot better from the analytical side of things where his possession, scoring chance, and expected goal differentials are all quite strong. None of that is a new development for his career.

Gardiner has always been a polarizing player because the analytics always seem to like his performance more than the eye test does. That creates some strong extremes in the narrative surrounding his career and allows him to become either extremely overvalued or undervalued depending on which side of the fence you reside on.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Hurricanes
Hurricanes long-term outlook
John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

NHL Power Rankings: The most underrated players

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus to individual players. Specifically, the most underrated players in the NHL right now.

We are trying to keep this to players that are legitimately underrated, overlooked, and do not get the proper amount of attention they probably deserve.

So we are just going to put this out here at the front front: You will not see Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom or Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov on this list. They are staples on every underrated list or ranking that is compiled and both have reached a point where everyone knows exactly how great they are (pretty great).

Who does make this list?

To the rankings!

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. While everyone falls all over themselves to talk about how underrated Barkov is, the Panthers’ other star forward is actually still fairly overlooked. Especially when you consider just how productive he has been, and for how long he has played at that level. Huberdeau has been a monster offensively for four seasons now and one of the league’s top scorers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season he’s in the top-15 among in points per game among all players with at least 100 games played, and has climbed into the top-10 over the past two seasons.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s probably a lot of people that would put him at the top of a most overrated list, and it’s truly one of the more baffling narratives in the league right now. Nylander is a constant lightning-rod for criticism and is always the first player that gets mentioned as being dangled as trade bait. What makes it so baffling is that he is an outstanding hockey player. Outside of the 2018-19 season (disrupted by his RFA saga) he has been a possession-driving, 60-point winger every year of his career, is still only 23 years old, and is on pace for close to 40 goals this season. Here’s a hot take for you: His $6.9 million salary cap hit will look like a steal before the contract expires. 

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have a pretty good core of players that get their share of recognition — Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler specifically. Even Conor Hellebuyck is getting the proper level of respect this season and is going to be a Vezina Trophy front-runner. But Connor just quietly slides under the radar casually hits the 30-goal mark every season. His pace this season would have put him close to the 45-goal mark.

4. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators. Ellis is underrated in the sense that he seems to be generally regarded as a really good defenseman and another in a long line of outstanding defenders to come through the Nashville pipeline. He is much more than that. He is actually one of the best all-around defensemen in the entire league.

5. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Over the summer I thought the Canucks were insane to trade a future first-round draft pick for Miller given where they were in their rebuild. It is not looking all that crazy right now. If anything, it is looking pretty outstanding. He was always a good player with upside in New York and Tampa Bay, but Miller has blossomed in Vancouver and become a bonafide top-line player.

6. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. As if the Lightning were not already dominant enough, they had another young talent come through their system to make an impact. Cirelli is only 22 years old and is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards while also showing 25-30 goal, 60-point potential.

7. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars. Klingberg is an interesting case because he’s received some serious Norris consideration on occasion (sixth-place finish two different times), but he still probably doesn’t get enough recognition for how good he has consistently been in Dallas. He is one of the top offensive-defensemen in the league and is much better defensively than he tends to get credit for. Heck, he’s better in every area than he tends to get credit for.

8. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Slavin might be starting to get into that Backstrom-Barkov area of underrated where he’s referred to as “underrated” so often that he is no longer underrated. But he is not quite there yet. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard or put up huge offensive numbers, but he is one of the best pure shutdown defensemen in the league.

9. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. Gallagher is generally viewed as a pest, but he is also on track for his third straight 30-goal season, is strong defensively, and is always one of the best possession players in the league. You may not like him when he plays against your team, but you would love him if he played for it.

10. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. He is a recent No. 1 overall pick and just signed a huge contract extension so there is a certain level of expectation that comes with all of that. Maybe you think he has not matched it. But that is probably setting an unfair bar. Not every top pick is going to immediately enter the NHL and become a superstar at a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid kind of level. Sometimes it takes a few years. In the short-term, Hischier has already proven to have 20-goal, 50-point ability while playing a strong defensive game. There’s a lot more upside here, too. Don’t let the draft status and contract term trick you into thinking he hasn’t been good. He has been. He is also only going to get better.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Petry (Montreal Canadiens), Brian Dumoulin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Evgenii Dadonov (Florida Panthers), Tomas Tatar (Montreal Canadiens), Roope Hintz (Dallas Stars), Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals), Torey Krug (Boston Bruins), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars), Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild)

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Hurricanes on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game will be the second of a back-to-back for Flyers, who beat the Capitals in D.C. Wednesday night. Philadelphia heads into the stretch on a season-long seven-game win streak, their longest since winning eight straight from mid-Jan. to early Feb. last season.

After the Canes topped the Flyers in OT in their most recent meeting on Jan. 7, the Flyers sat behind Carolina in the standings. Since then, the Philly has taken off and played as well as any team in the league, while Carolina has faltered as they look to get back to the postseason. The Flyers are seeking their first division title since the 2010-11 season. They’ve alternated missing and making the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons with three postseason appearances (all Round 1 exits).

Philadelphia has earned 50 points at home this season (23-5-4), tied for the 3rd-most points at home in the NHL. They have won 5 straight home games coming into this one, and 8 of their last 9 at Wells Fargo Center overall.

Sebastian Aho saw his career-long 14-game point come to an end in the loss to Montreal Saturday. He had 21 points (12G-9A) during his streak, which was the 3rd- longest in the NHL this season (Eichel – 17 / Kane – 15). Aho is in the midst of a breakout season. He leads the team with 36 goals and 62 points. His 36 goals are a career high and rank fifth in the NHL. The last Hurricane to reach 40 goals in a season was Eric Staal, who had 40 in the 2008-09 season.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Carolina Hurricanes at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Thursday, March 5, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Hurricanes-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

HURRICANES
Nino Niederreiter – Sebastian Aho – Teuvo Teravainen
Ryan DzingelJordan StaalJustin Williams
Andrei SvechnikovVincent TrocheckMartin Necas
Warren FoegeleJordan MartinookBrock McGinn

Joel EdmundsonJaccob Slavin
Haydn FleuryBrady Skjei
Jake GardinerTrevor van Riemsdyk

Starting goalie: Alex Nedeljkovic

FLYERS
Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesTravis Konecny
Joel FarabeeDerek GrantTyler Pitlick
Michael RafflNate ThompsonNicolas Aube-Kubel

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimPhilippe Myers
Robert HaggJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call the contest from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Scott Hartnell.

***

NBC Sports will utilize an all-female crew to broadcast and produce game coverage of Sunday’s Blues-Blackhawks game, coinciding with International Women’s Day and marking the first NHL game broadcast and produced solely by women in the U.S.

Kate Scott (play-by-play) will call the action alongside U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) and AJ Mleczko (analyst) from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Game production will be led by producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer.