Jake Gardiner

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Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

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.

Last season, the Hurricanes became a “bunch of jerks.” In 2019-20, they’re now a bunch of people under heightened pressure.

Rather than going with one single person, here are a few of the Hurricanes who must wrestle with heightened expectations next season.

Sebastian Aho: For those who follow how much players get paid, particularly ones who are potential faces of franchises entering the mere beginning of their primes, Aho is a ludicrous steal at $8.454 million per year.

But then, there are those sharks who circle any sports situation that might loosely be termed a “disappointment.” When those sharks smell blood, they usually also seek out the richest targets, even if those players aren’t really at fault for a team’s letdowns. (See: basically Phil Kessel‘s entire stay in Toronto.)

If the Hurricanes falter, don’t be surprised if their newly minted most expensive player ends up being the scapegoat, whether that ends up being fair or not.

… On the other hand, hey, at least Aho’s already got paid.

Justin Faulk: Faulk, on the other hand, enters a contract year with a lot of money that could be earned or lost.

At least, potentially he does. The Hurricanes could also decide to sign the 27-year-old to a contract extension, something that was at least hinted at somewhat recently.

If Faulk enters 2018-19 with his situation unsettled, he’ll enter a year with a lot on the line, though. The free agent market rarely sees quality right-handed defensemen become available before they’re 30, and sometimes teams go the extra 26.2 miles and overpay guys like Tyler Myers. At the same time, injuries can cool the market for a UFA blueliner, as we’ve seemingly seen with the perplexing Jake Gardiner situation.

You don’t even need to look at defensemen to see how much a season can swing how teams view a UFA. Faulk merely needs to look at his former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, a forward who was traded for precious little in the summer of 2018, only to have such a strong season that he was handed a lengthy contract with a $9M AAV one summer later.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | X-factor: Hurricanes owner]

Petr Mrazek: Honestly, Mrazek’s under less personal pressure this season than he was in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, years where he was merely trying to prove that he was worthy of maintaining an NHL career, at least one beyond a backup or even third goalie role. Getting two years at a $3.125M AAV represents more stability than Mrazek’s experienced in quite some time.

Still, if the Hurricanes fail this season, don’t be shocked if it’s because the goaltending that finally worked out in 2018-19 reverts back to the problem that kept Carolina out of the playoffs for a decade. A lot of Carolina’s hopes still hinge on Mrazek, and James Reimer, who comes in with a higher cap hit but lower expectations.

Rod Brind’Amour: During his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes made the playoffs. That’s great, but it also sets a new bar in the eyes of fans and owner Tom Dundon, so a big drop-off might inspire critics to be a bunch of jerks to Brind’Amour.

Whoever is the GM: If too many of the above situations don’t work out, a GM might be tasked with finding fixes — and if Dundon isn’t interested in spending much money to make those fixes, it could require some serious creativity.

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.

One month into NHL free agency, who’s left on the market?

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The NHL free agent market opened one month ago today and there was plenty of cash thrown around and faces headed for new places. While there were 126 signings of different varieties on July 1 there have been 167 total in the 30 days since.

Even with all those contracts signed, there are still plenty of potentially helpful unrestricted free agents available on the market. We know how strong the restricted crop that’s left is, but that’s a different story altogether.

Let’s take a look at some of the UFAs still unsigned.

HOME OR RETIREMENT
Niklas Kronwall, 38
Patrick Marleau, 39
Joe Thornton, 39
Justin Williams, 37

Don’t expect any of these four to join new teams. In the case of Marleau, he’d be going home after a few years in Toronto and very quick stop as a member of the Hurricanes. Either these players will return to the teams they’re most identified with on one-year deals or they will hang up their skates.

HEADED FOR A PTO?
Scott Darling, 30
Ben Lovejoy, 35
Marc Methot, 34
Dion Phaneuf, 34
Cam Ward, 35

Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, all teams must dress at least eight “veterans” for any preseason game. A veteran is a in this sense is considered forward or defenseman who played 30 games in the previous season, a goaltender who dressed in 50 games or played in 30 the previous season, or any player who has 100 or more career NHL games under their belt. That’s why we see lot of veterans on tryout deals in training camp, so these five players, given their ages and on-ice struggles would be placed in the “possible PTO” folder. In some cases a team can bring them in to create competition at a position in order to get the most out of the players currently under contract before ultimately releasing them.

FORWARDS

Brian Boyle, 34 – The feel-good story from the 2017-18 season needs a new home and anyone looking for a bottom line center who can help your penalty kill could get a bargain here. Between the Devils and Predators last season he scored 18 goals and recorded 24 points.

Derick Brassard, 31 – It’s been a weird few years for Brassard after he scored 46 goals and recorded 118 points in his final two seasons with the Rangers. He was shipped to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad and then moved to Pittsburgh before spending last season with the Penguins, Avalanche and Panthers. He’s shown he can still be productive at the NHL level, but this past season was one to forget.

Patrick Maroon, 31 – He took a discount to come home and helped St. Louis win its first Stanley Cup. It will be hard for Maroon to top what happened in 2018-19, but he showed that his physical style can make a difference on the right team. He may be hoping for a multi-year deal, which could be the reason for the delay in signing.

Jason Pominville, 36 – A solid depth addition, Pominville put up a second straight 16-goal season with Buffalo in 2018-19. He also averaged 1.68 points per game at even strength per 60 minutes over the last two seasons, according to Corsica.

Tobias Rieder, 26 – Like Boyle, Rieder can help your penalty kill, but he saw a sharp drop off in production last season with the Oilers. In 67 games, the forward went goalless and recorded 11 points. Before last season, he had reached double digits in goals in each of his four NHL seasons with the Coyotes and Kings. Rieder looks like a real bounce-back candidate in 2019-20.

DEFENSEMEN

Jake Gardiner, 28 – He may not win any Norris Trophies, but he can play 20 minutes a night, be a power play quarterback, and provide production from the blue line. And at this point in time, his contract demands have likely dropped, so there could be a potential bargain here. Gardiner scored three goals and record 30 points in only 62 games last season with the Maple Leafs. He won’t be any team’s No. 1 right now, but he would definitely bolster a blue line.

Ben Hutton, 26 – Hutton will help a team’s power play and penalty kill and be able to give a team over 20 minutes a night. He tied his career high in goals last season with the Canucks with five and tallied 20 points, the second-highest total of his young career

Other notables: Andrew MacDonald; Dan Girardi; Thomas Vanek, Val Nichushkin; Riley Sheahan; Dmitrij Jaskin; Devante Smith-Pelly; Chad Johnson; Troy Brouwer; Drew Stafford; Marko Dano; Matt Read; Zac Rinaldo.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Neal’s history with Tippett; Chiarelli in Wild GM mix?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• This can only end in disaster. (Edmonton Journal)

• Where are the 30 players taken in the Vegas expansion draft now? (Sportsnet)

James Neal‘s history with Dave Tippett is fueling optimism after his move to Edmonton. (NHL.com)

• The NHL salary cap is here to stay. (Featurd)

• Senators won’t be competitive until they prioritize talent over finances. (Sportsnet)

• Why the Toronto Maple Leafs should be Stanley Cup favorites. (Editor in Leaf)

• Lafreniere laughing all the way to the NHL. (Featurd)

• Are the latest Jake Gardiner rumors about the Montreal Canadiens? (A Winning Habit)

• It’s a made-for-Hollywood story, and NHL nails it with video showcasing Cup champion Blues. (St. Louis Today)

• Can you make a competitive lineup solely out of the Leafs’ draft picks? (Pension Plan Puppets)

Chris Kunitz reflects after announcing retirement. (Penguins)

• ‘I paved the way’: The story of Fred Sasakamoose’s historic rise to the NHL. (The Daily Press)

• Arizona Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson attacked by family dog, hospitalized. (AZ Central)

• The Andrei Vasilevskiy contract is risky business. (Raw Charge)


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

PHT Power Rankings: Early look at 2020 NHL free agent class

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The 2019 NHL free agent class has mostly been picked over and is now down to the bargain bin of reclamation projects (and, for some reason, Jake Gardiner).

So let’s start taking a look to the summer of 2020 and the list of names that could be available next summer.

There is a pretty extensive list of big names entering their contract year, including the captain of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, a recent NHL MVP, and two core players for the Washington Capitals.

Will all of them end up hitting the free agent market? Of course not, they never do because teams do not let their core players get away. But some of them will hit the open market, and it is never too early to start looking at the potential options.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take an early look at the list of potential 2020 free agents.

To the rankings!

1. Nicklas Backstrom Still one of the best all-around centers in the NHL. He is entering the final year of a 10-year, $67 million contract that proved to be an absolute steal for the Capitals given how much Backstrom has contributed over the past decade. The only potential flaws with Backstrom as a free agent: He will turn 33 years old in his first year of a new contract, so you will definitely not be getting the best hockey of his career, and, quite honestly, the Capitals are probably going to keep him.

2. Taylor Hall The 2017-18 NHL MVP is one of the best wingers in the league and contract talks between him and the Devils seem to be slow. If the team does not take a big step forward this season it might be all the incentive he needs to hit the open market. He lost most of this past season to injury, but he is still an impact, top-tier player and a big comeback year will only boost his value even more.

3. Jared Spurgeon This may seem a little high considering some of the other names potentially available next offseason, and especially on defense, but do you know what? Jared Spurgeon is really, really, really good. He may not put up the biggest offensive numbers among defenders in this class, but he is a darn good player that logs a lot of tough minutes, doesn’t get sheltered, and still manages to help his team finish on the plus side when it comes to goals, shots, and scoring chances when he is on the ice. He is a top-pairing defender and a great all-around player and the Wild seem to understand that. If we are to believe the words of general manager Paul Fenton this summer, they intend to re-sign him. Odds he actually hits the open market: Low.

4. Alex Pietrangelo Pietrangelo is an outstanding player, but you can be sure there is going to be a Stanley Cup tax attached to his next contract. Meaning, when you are the captain of a recent Stanley Cup winner your value immediately skyrockets even more. Given how important he is to the Blues (he is their best defender and one of their top players) they will probably be the team paying it.

5. Roman Josi Josi’s contract has been an unbelievable steal for the Predators for the past six years, counting just $4 million against the salary cap since the start of the 2013-14 season. During that time he has had four top-10 finishes in Norris Trophy voting and been one of the most productive defenders in the league, scoring at least 12 goals every season and currently sitting in fourth in total points and sixth in goals among defenders.

6. Braden Holtby Along with Backstrom, the Capitals also have to deal with a contract for their starting goalie. That is two significant core players whose contracts are expiring at the same time, and that is going to present a lot of challenges. If the Capitals have to choose to let one go, Holtby might be the smart choice. The Sergei Bobrovsky contract in Florida is probably the measuring stick for what Holtby can — and will — get, and that just may not be the best use of cap space for the Capitals.
Holtby can still be dominant, but he has shown signs of slowing down over the past two years.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

7. Torey Krug Krug doesn’t look the part of a top-pairing defender and he doesn’t play the toughest minutes in Boston, but there is still a ton of value in an offensive, puck-moving defender that can help drive possession and offense. The problem for the Bruins in keeping him is going to be that they have a lot of contracts to juggle over the next year, including one major contract this summer with their best defender, Charlie McAvoy.

8. Tyson Barrie It is going to be interesting to see what happens to his production in Toronto. He has always been an outstanding and productive defender, and now he gets to feed the puck to a deep, talented group of forwards. Given Toronto’s salary cap situation, as well as the fact one of their other top-defenders, Jake Muzzin (more on him in a second) is also an unrestricted free agent after this season, they are going to have to let someone go.

9. Jake Muzzin — One of the most underrated defenders of his era because he was always overshadowed by Drew Doughty in Los Angeles. Muzzin is an outstanding defensive player but can also move the puck and chip in some offense.

10. Evgenii Dadonov Since returning to the NHL Dadonov has been one of the most productive forwards in the league. He will be 31 at the start of the next deal so you have to be prepared for some decline.

11. Justin Faulk Faulk has been the subject of trade rumors for years now, and he may finally be nearing the end of his time with the Hurricanes one way or another. He is not a perfect player, but he brings a lot to the table offensively and given how tight Carolina’s salary cap situation is starting to get as its young players get better and more expensive, it may not be possible to keep him.

12. Mikael Granlund His debut with the Predators after the trade probably did not go as planned for him or the team, but that’s a ridiculously small sample size and shouldn’t — and doesn’t — outweigh what he has done over the past few years. He is a top-line scorer and should still have a few years of top-line play ahead of him.

13. T.J. Brodie Everything about Brodie’s resume looks great, but there is one big concern that is a bit of a red flag — He is a different (and not as good) player when he is not on the ice next to Mark Giordano. They will not be going as a package deal.

14. Chris Kreider Given the Rangers’ rebuild and what is a reasonable future expectation for Kreider, the Rangers would be wise to consider trading him right now. As long as he does not lose his speed he should still be a good player for a few more years, but there is no guarantee he maintains his current level of play.

15. Mike Hoffman He is a bit of a one dimensional player, but the one dimension is a useful one. He can score. A lot. He is coming off of a huge season in Florida and another big season could price him out of the Panthers’ cap situation, especially if they want to also keep Dadonov.

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.

Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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