John Carlson

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Sabres cleaning house reaction; NHL Awards talk

Liam McHugh, Patrick Sharp, and Keith Jones address the big news out of Buffalo, as GM Jason Botterill and numerous others in the hockey operations department were let go. Can the new regime under Kevyn Adams finally build a winning team around Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin? Plus, the guys pick their winners for the Hart, Vezina, Calder, Jack Adams, and Norris trophies – a discussion that includes Jonesy calling John Carlson “miles ahead” of any other d-man.

Start-12:45 Breaking down the front office overhaul in Buffalo
12:45-16:35 What will life in the “bubble” be like?
19:10-22:50 Discussion on potential hub cities as the official announcement nears
22:50-34:30 Handicapping some of the major awards

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.

Capitals’ Carlson, Wild’s Staal share thoughts on possible NHL return

Chances are, if the NHL can return to action for 2019-20 in some form, it won’t leave everyone happy. Doing so sounds borderline impossible. With that in mind, it’s interesting to gain some perspective from different players in different situations, including Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson and Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal.

Both Carlson and Staal focus on family regarding possible NHL return

Carlson, 30, and Staal, 35, are both veteran players (each with a Stanley Cup ring) who are in different positions in their careers. Their teams are in different situations, too.

Yet, if there’s a unifying factor for Staal and Carlson regarding an NHL return, it’s the importance of family.

Carlson spoke with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” about what really worries him about COVID-19. To Carlson, it’s not as much of a worry about contracting the virus. Instead, Carlson’s more concerned about possibly spreading the infection to a family member less equipped to handle such an illness.

While Carlson seems worried about how interacting with family and friends might go, it sounds like Staal is more concerned about a lack of interaction.

The pandemic pause allowed Eric Staal to support close family while a member sadly lost a battle with cancer. Being isolated from loved ones in a “hub city” setup would be a challenge for Staal, who has a wife and three kids.

“To me, family is everything,” Staal told Dan Myers of the Wild website. “It was good for me to be there for my wife and my kids and my mother-in-law. Playing definitely is a little more challenging with travel and being there in moments, but with everything that’s gone on, we were able to do that and go through that grieving process.”

Both understand the challenges facing the league

Staal spoke of the NHL having “so many hoops, so many hurdles” to get through to make it all work.

“I think this is really hard to see how this is going to finish,” Staal said. “But I know they are still trying to game-plan it and figure it out. We’ll see. They’ll make decisions as time moves on.”

As PHT noted earlier on Thursday, the NHL and NHLPA are reportedly discussing a 24-team playoff format that would include both the Capitals and Wild (their teams in italics):

EASTERN CONFERENCE
1. Bruins
2. Lightning
3. Capitals
4. Flyers

PLAY-IN
Penguins (5) vs. Canadiens (12)
Hurricanes (6) vs. Rangers (11)
Islanders (7) vs. Panthers (10)
Maple Leafs (8) vs. Blue Jackets (9)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. Blues
2. Avalanche
3. Golden Knights
4. Stars

PLAY-IN
Oilers (5) vs. Blackhawks (12)
Predators (6) vs. Coyotes (11)
Canucks (7) vs. Wild (10)
Flames (8) vs. Jets (9)

In the event that such a format would be approved, the Capitals would play through preliminary games while awaiting the winner of Hurricanes vs. Rangers. The Wild would hope to beat the Canucks in a play-in series, then face the Avalanche.

Of course, a lot can change with that format, and other factors.

Regardless, Carlson shared his thoughts on that idea, admitting that 24 teams sounded like a lot. One would think that some of the higher-seeded teams would agree. Interestingly, while Taylor Hall would naturally love for his Coyotes to play meaningful games, Hall also told Tirico that he’d understand if the NHL instead went with a format such as 20 teams.

(You can learn more about Carlson’s feelings in the video above this post’s headline.)

Carlson, Staal, and others seem willing to work with the NHL, ultimately

While Carlson appeared hesitant about a 24-team format, he also didn’t seem rigid, acknowledging that “logistics” might trump his concerns about the ideal competitive situation.

Can the NHL find the right mix between balancing concerns from those like Carlson and Staal, while also avoiding critics calling it a “COVID Cup,” as Matt Duchene fears? It doesn’t sound like an easy task, but at least players seem willing to work toward solutions.

MORE:

• Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
• NHL hopes extended U.S.-Canada border closing won’t hurt return to play chances
• NHL may skip rest of regular season, jump to 24-team playoff format
• Crosby also worried about integrity of games, prefers 24-team format to “March Madness” style

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.

Long-term outlook for Washington Capitals: Key cap questions coming

Long-term outlook Washington Capitals Ovechkin Holtby
Getty Images
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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 Washington Capitals.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Barring two very big names (which we’ll discuss in the next section), the Capitals have a lot of their name-brand players signed long-term.

It remains to be seen if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how each integral player ages. Nicklas Backstrom is already 32, making a five-year extension with a $9.2M AAV pretty scary. Looking at other players with term, T.J. Oshie is 33, Lars Eller is 30, and John Carlson is 30.

Of course, Carlson looks like a steal at $8M so far, and those players have aged like fine wine — at least at this point.

If this group sustains reasonably well as they hit 30 and beyond, then the Capitals should be able to put puzzle pieces together to compete. At some point, you’d expect the run of division titles to end. Then again, like Alex Ovechkin scoring all of the goals, it just seems to keep happening.

Long-term needs for Capitals

I hesitated ever so slightly to put Ovechkin in the core section because, frankly, his future is a little bit unsettled.

The 34-year-old sees what felt like a lifetime contract end after 2020-21. Will the Capitals ask Ovechkin to take a pay cut from $9.54M? Would Ovechkin demand even more money? He’d certainly have options in the hard-to-imagine scenario where the situation gets sticky.

But there are certainly a number of scenarios where this plays out poorly for the Capitals and/or Ovechkin. Including if he stays, but steeply declines with an aging team.

The Capitals also need to settle their situation in net. It’s difficult to shake the impression that pending UFA Braden Holtby might be out. The 30-year-old’s best chance at a big payday likely lies somewhere other than D.C.

I mean … I think. The Capitals have shown an eagerness to keep key players together, sometimes producing some surprises. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with Backstrom, and I also was mildly surprised when they brought Oshie back. None of this is to say that the moves were foolish; it’s just sometimes difficult to tell when a team might make the painful, cap-forced decision to let a cherished player walk away.

Because the danger is that the Capitals might squeeze out a much-needed injection of youth if they try to wrangle everyone. At his current trajectory, 24-year-old Jakub Vrana sure looks like he’ll be in line for a massive raise from $3.35M after 2020-21.

Letting Holtby go — and maybe getting lucky to shake loose a problem contract to Seattle — might be key in replenishing the ranks.

The Capitals either need to get creative to stay younger, or they might need to search for the Fountain of Youth.

Long-term strengths for Capitals

No doubt about it, the aging curve worries me for Washington. That said, it might not be ominous at the “guillotine hanging over your head” level.

For one thing, players like Backstrom could conceivably age well. He distinguishes himself as much for his hockey IQ as he does for his talent, so maybe Backstrom will parallel, say, Patrice Bergeron over the years.

Ilya Samsonov also represents a possible solution. He could end up being better than Holtby going forward, and as a 23-year-old who would be an RFA after 2020-21, the Capitals may also be able to extend Samsonov for a team-friendly price.

OK, the Capitals might be forced into such a scenario by cap realities. But, when you look at, say, the Blue Jackets waving goodbye to Sergei Bobrovsky and getting a better deal with young, cheap netminders, it’s certainly not a given that Washington won’t come out of the situation as winners.

In all honesty, Capitals management has earned a solid level of trust.

Yes, the Capitals’ farm system isn’t the greatest, as Scott Wheeler ranked it 29th back in January (sub required).

But considering how infrequently they’ve picked even as high as the teens in drafts, they’ve been able to unearth some gems here and there. And Brian MacLellan isn’t even trading them away as perilously as the Capitals once did with Filip Forsberg.

My guess is that the “bill is coming” for years of win-now approaches, so maybe that shrewdness will only go so far. Still, this franchise has consistently found ways to stay in the picture, and there’s some reason to believe that the party might go a few years longer.

MORE ON THE CAPITALS:

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.