James Reimer

It’s Florida Panthers 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 Florida Panthers. 

2018-19
36-32-14, 86 points (5th in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Sergei Bobrovsky
Noel Acciari
Anton Stralman
Brett Connolly
Joel Quenneville – coach

OUT:
Roberto Luongo – retired
James Reimer
Troy Brouwer
Jamie McGinn
Derek MacKenzie
Riley Sheahan

RE-SIGNED:
MacKenzie Weegar
Jayce Hawryluk
Sam Montembeault
MacKenzie Weegar

2018-19 Season Summary

If you’re a Florida Panthers fan, do you even care about last season at this point?

You’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten already.

Florida’s offseason began with the hiring of Joel Quenneville, one of the NHL’s most successful and respect coaches of all-time, and it only kept gaining speed.

The Panthers added Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari up front and Anton Stralman on the backend. And then they signed perhaps the biggest piece that’s been missing, a stud No. 1 goaltender.

[More: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

We can debate back and forth about the merit of a seven-year, $70 million deal all day. What you can’t argue is the fact that the Panthers have taken a massive step toward competing with the big boys in the Atlantic Division.

It makes yet another season of playoff-less hockey a little easier to stomach after how aggressive Dale Tallon has been. It’s had pretty much become a given that the Panthers wouldn’t make the playoffs over the past two decades. They’ve reached the postseason just twice in the past 18 years, an undesirable trend in a market that struggles to put butts in seats.

It’s tough to get anything done with inconsistent goaltending and lackluster team defense, two lowlights of Florida’s fifth-place showing the Atlantic last season.

Even with the ninth-best goals-per-game as a team, the Panthers couldn’t outscore their problems from the blue line backward. They collectively allowed the 28th most goals out of the league’s 31 teams.

Stralman coming in should help that, as should the system Quenneville installs along with Bob’s goaltending.

Up front, the Panthers really just need more of the same from guys like Aleksander Barkov, Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau. All three hit the 30-goal plateau.

There’s also plenty of secondary scoring off the sticks of Evgenii Dadonov, Vincent Trocheck and Frank Vatrano. All three could conceivably reach the same mark. Trocheck had 31 the year before but was limited to 55 games because of injury last season. Dadonov was two shy with 28 and Vatrano had 24. Brett Connolly, too — and if healthy — showed he can reach at least 20 after playing 81 games last season. He hadn’t played more than 71 in any of his previous seven seasons prior.

And Connolly, a Stanley Cup winner with the Washington Capitals two seasons ago, adds playoff experience, along with Stralman (two Stanley Cup Final appearances) and Acciari (one Cup Final appearance.)

The days of perennial losing in Florida might just be over.

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

Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

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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.

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.

Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon remains a bit of a mystery

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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.

We simply don’t see NHL teams without GMs into August, yet that’s where the Minnesota Wild are at. It’s highly unusual that the Minnesota Wild are looking for a GM as late as August 6. Technically, they’re not the only NHL team without an official GM, though, largely thanks to the way Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon operates.

Making a strange occurrence even stranger, acting Hurricanes GM Don Waddell has been interviewing for that Wild GM position, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required). He can interview for that gig because, simply put, Waddell isn’t under contract with the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes fans don’t necessarily need to panic, particularly with what seems to be a strong and beneficial analytics influence coming from Eric Tulsky. This situation does underscore another notion, though: this team’s outlook hinges on Dundon’s own.

Now, that’s true with just about every NHL team. After all, the owner writes the checks, arranges arena deals, and hires the GMs who do the rest. Even by those standards, Dundon stands out as an owner to watch.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | Hurricanes under pressure]

At the moment, it seems like the NHL is still testing out how much of an X-factor Dundon might be.

By most standards, the Canadiens’ offer sheet to Sebastian Aho was almost comically weak. Indeed, Aho at $8.454M is such a steal that it’s already listed as one of the best contracts in the league.

While I believe the offer sheet was as much Habs GM Marc Bergevin doing some PR work, the structure including a $21M signing bonus served as a test. After Dundon’s curious investment in the failed AAF, would he balk at paying Aho a bunch of money up front?

The Hurricanes ended up answering that question by emphatically matching the Aho offer sheet, and even sending out a sassy tweet or two.

It doesn’t totally erase doubts, though: what happens when the Hurricanes are asked to spend money on less-obvious players than a true, young star like Aho?

After all, they might be pinching pennies with Waddell, seemed to do so in allowing reigning Calder Cup-winning AHL coach Mike Vellucci to walk, and may have even skimped marginal dollars with their former radio announcer.

Crucially, none of those decisions guarantee major losses for the Hurricanes. Really, the Hurricanes might as well name analytics darling Eric Tulsky their GM at this point, and it’s possible that strong prospects drove the success of the Charlotte Checkers as much as any schemes or speeches from Vellucci. The Hurricanes have spent money to get an edge, too, including going off the beaten path by buying out Patrick Marleau to gain Toronto’s first-rounder.

So we’ll need to wait and see if Dundon spends at key times.

With Justin Faulk entering a contract year and Dougie Hamilton two years away from a new deal, will Carolina be able to maintain its sterling surplus on defense, which was the biggest factor in their 2018-19 success? If Petr Mrazek and James Reimer don’t get it done as their goalies over the next two years, will the Hurricanes make bolder investments in net? What happens if Andrei Svechnikov ends up proving he’s at an Aho-like level after playing out the next two years of his rookie contract?

The Hurricanes are off to a strong start with Dundon as owner, and there are factors that point to that continuing. Still, it remains to be seen how this team — and its intriguing owner — ends up weathering the inevitable storms that come in both hockey and sports.

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.

Mrazek’s workload, Williams’ return among questions facing Hurricanes

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.

Let’s ponder three questions for the Hurricanes heading into the 2019-20 season…

1. Can Petr Mrazek handle a full-time workload as the starter? 

Which starting Mrazek will the Hurricanes get this season? The .921 save percentage one in 49 starts in 2015-15 or the .901 save percentage version in 44 starts from the following year?

There’s no Curtis McElhinney this year to share the load with. Instead, the Hurricanes have James Reimer and the jury is out on how well he can perform. Reimer hasn’t put up horrible numbers, per se, but he was far from an adequate backup last year in Florida, and he saw a bunch of time due to injuries to Roberto Luongo.

Both Alex Nedeljikovic and Anton Forsberg will also compete for that backup role, but Reimer has the experience if nothing else.

It’s important to note that Nedeljikovic was named the American Hockey League’s best goalie last season

Mrazek, meanwhile, put up an exceptional 10.03 goals-save above average and a healthy .931 save percentage at 5v5 in 2018-19.

The tools are there for him to be a bona fide starter. The question remains if he can pick the right ones for the job.

2. Will Justin Williams return to once again lead the team? 

Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, remains an unrestricted free agent at the moment.

The 38-year-old defied Father Time last season, scoring 23 goals and reaching the 50-point mark. Moreso, his possession numbers have been nothing short of elite in recent years, including a 57.89 Corsi last year. Williams has never had a season below 50 percent in that category and on top of that, he’s durable having missed just three games in the past six seasons.

[MORE: X-factor: owner Tom Dundon | 2018-19 in review | Hurricanes under pressure]

Off the ice (and on it, of course) he’s the consummate leader and a mentor for guys like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov.

Normally, teams wouldn’t be worried about losing an aging 38-year-old, but Williams is different, a guy you’d like to lock down on a one-year deal.

3. Can Carolina repeat it all over again? 

Getting there is one thing, staying is another challenge altogether, one the Hurricanes know all-too-well.

Since they moved from Hartford to Raleigh at the turn of the century, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons just once in those 21 seasons.

While their turnaround last season wasn’t the same as the one in St. Louis, it’s notable nonetheless. On Dec. 31, the Hurricanes were three points out of the basement in the Eastern Conference.

Their run-in from there included a 30-12-2 record, one of the best in that time frame as the Hurricanes found their identity, ‘bunch of jerks’ and otherwise.

The thing is, they play such a high-possession game that eventually it should turn into perennial success. Only one team (Montreal) in the top 10 best Corsi teams didn’t make the playoffs last year, and the ones who did were at or near the top of their respective divisions and conferences.

Carolina was the second-best team in terms of possession but only the 18th in goals-for at 5v5 despite the third most shots taken. Assuming they keep up that same style of play that’s become their trademark of sorts, they shouldn’t have much issue at least making it through the back door once again.

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 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