Wednesday Night Hockey: McDavid’s Oilers mirroring Lemieux’s early days with Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Barring some kind of a miraculous late-season turnaround it is looking like the Edmonton Oilers are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in the first four years of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. If that turnaround is going to happen, it is going to have to start quickly, and collecting two points against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that will be without Evgeni Malkin (suspension) and Olli Maatta (shoulder injury) on Wednesday Night Hockey would probably be a good place to start.

Given that the Oilers are entering the Wednesday having lost seven out of their past eight games, and have only won six of their previous 22 games overall, nothing is going to come easy for them.

If the Oilers do end up missing the playoffs again it is going to be an incredibly disappointing start to the McDavid era in Edmonton.

Over the past decade the only sustained success the Oilers have had was winning No. 1 overall picks in the draft lottery. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov all arrived in Edmonton with the hope and anticipation that a top pick can help rebound a franchise, but none of them came close to matching the McDavid hope. He was supposed to be the guy that would change the fortunes of the franchise and be the player that would lift them out of the doldrums of the league. Overall, he has probably been even better than anticipated and right now in year four is the most dominant, game-changing offensive player in the world. Offensively speaking, he is off to one of the best starts offensively in NHL history.

It is that development that makes the Oilers’ lack of success with him so shocking, and it remains an indictment of the organization around him that they haven’t been able to piece together a consistent winner.

The word “waste” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to McDavid’s early career and the Oilers. But I don’t think we truly grasp just how bad it has been.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In the history of the league there have only been 16 players who have played at least 200 games and averaged at least 1.28 points per game through their first four NHL seasons. McDavid is one of those 16 players, while he is one of only three (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin being the other two) who saw their careers begin after the 1995 season.

Take a look at the list and the number of playoff appearances and playoff games they had played in through their first four years (sorted by total playoff games).

Again, this is not an indictment on McDavid or his career personally. This is a statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around him. It is fair to point out that a number of these players began their careers in the 1980s when a far higher percentage of the league made the playoffs, so that might skew this a little bit. But even when you look at the more recent players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Forsberg, Lindros, Selanne) there is still a pretty sizable gap in terms of success.

Ovechkin’s Capitals, for example, missed the playoffs in his first two years. By year four, they had made consecutive appearances in the postseason, were in a Game 7 in the second-round following a 50-win regular season, and came back the next season to win 54 games and the Presidents’ Trophy on their way to being one of the most dominant teams in the league.

By year four, Crosby’s Penguins were playing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final … and winning it.

Does anyone think the Oilers are a year away from winning 54 games, the Presidents’ Trophy, or the Stanley Cup?

What’s even worse for the Oilers is that when the the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective teams, they had far less impact talent around them than the Oilers did when McDavid joined them. They didn’t even really have anyone that was comparable to the young trio of recent top picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle that was already in place in Edmonton (Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until the year after Crosby; Nicklas Backstrom didn’t join the Capitals until the next year, while Mike Green only played in 20 games in Ovechkin’s rookie year). There should have been a solid foundation in place to build around.

Really, the only comparable to what McDavid and the Oilers have experienced so far is what happened with the Penguins and their franchise-saving player, Mario Lemieux, in the mid-1980s.

The early Lemieux era Penguins were so poorly constructed that even with a player that was on a Gretzky-ian level, and in a league where 16 of the 21 teams (76 percent) made the playoffs, they were unable to get there even once in his first four season. It wasn’t until year five that Lemieux made his first ever playoff appearance.

They were so hapless in the early stages of Lemieux’s career that this situation (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) unfolded at the tail end of year four with the team trying to get No. 66 what would have been his first-ever playoff appearance.

The Oilers haven’t been quite that bad, but the fact that team is the situation they are most comparable to in the early stages of a generational talent’s career is problematic.

A lack of playoff games is also probably not the early career comparison to Lemieux that McDavid wants.

If you’re an Oilers fan reading this and looking for positives it’s that the Penguins eventually got their act together and over the next few years assembled an arsenal of Hall of Famers around Lemieux, won two Stanley Cups, and were one of the league’s elite teams for more than a decade. But given how much work there seems to be needed around McDavid, the Oilers seem like they are several years away from getting there.

Even this year, in a season where McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career and on pace for 123 points, and in a year where the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field is as mediocre as it has ever been, the playoffs are still falling out of reach. Of the 20 players who have topped 123 points since 1990, only two of them played on teams that missed the playoffs.

One player alone can not make a team in the NHL because they only impact a third of the game.

But history still shows it is awfully hard to squander an offensive player this dominant.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

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.

Hurricanes the team to watch as trade deadline approaches

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The Carolina Hurricanes are a team worth watching right now for a lot of reasons.

By winning eight of their past 11 games they have inched their way back into the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference. At least enough to be considered on the bubble. Yes, five points back in mid-January is still a pretty big hill to climb, but they’re making a run at it.

They also have the Storm Surge celebrations after wins on home ice as they add a little excitement to the league. Great stuff.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

One of the other reasons you should be keeping an eye on them is they are one of the most intriguing teams in the league when it comes to the upcoming Feb. 25 trade deadline because of the contract situations, the makeup of their roster, and their position in the standings.

The contract and roster situations include…

  • Almost all of their long-term commitments being on the blue line. All of their regular NHL defenders are signed through at least the end of next season, while four of them run through at least 2021 (and two of them go beyond 2024).
  • Their only goalie under contract beyond this season is Scott Darling … who is currently buried in the American Hockey League. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are both unrestricted free agents after this season.
  • Almost all of their forwards are some kind of a free agent after this season. The only forwards under contract beyond this season are Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, and Lucas Wallmark. The latter three are still on their entry-level deals. They have four potential unrestricted free agents (including captain Justin Williams) and five restricted free agents, including two of their top offensive players in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Then there is the place in the standings. Like a lot of the teams in the Western Conference wild card race, the Hurricanes have to figure out exactly what they are this season — a team that has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs and might want to add something, or at least stay the course as currently constructed? Or are they a team that is too far back and needs to go into “sell” mode, especially with its current crop of free agents?

One thing is certain, the Hurricanes have a lot of intriguing players when it comes to potential trade chips.

For one, they still have a ton of depth along the blue line and could still flip one of their defenders for help elsewhere around the roster. Justin Faulk‘s name was all over the rumor mill during the offseason (especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton) but remained with the team. There was also a rumbling in recent weeks that they might — might — be willing to listen to offers on Hamilton, but that seems like a real long-shot given that they are barely a half of a season into it and they would probably be dealing him at his lowest possible value. The best bet there is to hold on to him and trust that he regains the form and production he has shown throughout his career.

The forwards are where the real intrigue comes in because, again, so many of them are on expiring contracts.

It is probably pretty safe to say that Aho and Teravainen are not going anywhere. Not only are the team’s two best forwards, they are both young and just now entering their primes. Even if you assume the Hurricanes are not going to be a team that spends to the salary cap they still have all the flexibility in the world to get them signed.

The most likely player to get moved would seem to be forward Micheal Ferland (the other part of the Hamilton trade) who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is probably in line for a fairly substantial raise from his current $1.75 million salary. He would also probably be able to get that on the open market because he’s the type of player that appeals to pretty much everyone in the league. He has size, is physical, is probably going to be a 20-goal, 40-point player for the second year in a row and once again has strong underlying numbers. He’s a good player that a lot of teams would want — especially around playoff time.

The other variable in all of this is just where the Hurricanes sit in the standings as we get closer to the deadline.

They have been a patient team that has always kept the long-term goal in mind, and even with the recent surge they really haven’t picked up that much ground in the standings when it comes to wild card positioning. It’s still asking a lot for them to get in or to expect them to try and actually add to this roster this season by giving up younger, future assets.

But it is also a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, and if they can stack a few more wins together and keep staying afloat in the race it might change how much they are willing to trade or sell off in the short-term.

There are a lot of different directions this can go in the coming weeks, and a lot of it will probably depend on how long they can keep up this recent strong play.

More: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

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.

How to heat up ice-cold Hurricanes

To an extent, it’s the same old story with the Carolina Hurricanes.

They’re “heating up their Corsi” like always this season (thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal), yet that quantity isn’t always translating to quality.

That’s especially true lately. Carolina’s managed just four goals total during the past four games, winning once and grabbing an overtime point as they slipped to a middling 12-10-4.

So, what gives? This post examines a few things that are working, some facets that are not, and proposes some potential solutions.

Quantity over quality, or quantity and quality?

Again, the Hurricanes are “heating up their Corsi” as usual, thus leading the NHL in possession numbers as well as by simpler terms such as shots on goal. Despite easily topping all NHL teams with 38.7 SOG per game, they’re only averaging 2.5 goals per contest, the third-lowest total in the league.

To some extent, that might be the nature of the beast for this team.

Here’s the thing: while heating up of said Corsi numbers might present something of a mirage, it’s likely still a sign that they’re hogging the puck in a way that gives them a good chance to win.

After all, there is some element of quality to go with all of that quantity. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes generate 57.19-percent of high-danger chances at even-strength, second only to the Minnesota Wild.

Is it frustrating to dominate the shot clock and not always reap the benefits? Sure, but I’d argue that the Hurricanes are putting themselves in a better position than, say, the Anaheim Ducks (who suffer a barrage of shots and generally hope that John Gibson can save them, over and over again).

Finding a fix?

Interestingly, goaltending – the Hurricanes’ biggest headache for ages – has been alleviated, at least in the short-term.

Claiming Curtis McElhinney has worked gloriously well so far. Through 10 games, the 35-year-old is 7-2-1 with a tremendous .930 save percentage. By Hurricanes terms, McElhinney has been vintage Dominik Hasek with a side of non-irate Patrick Roy.

As you might guess, counting on McElhinney to be “the guy” all season would be tenuous. Obviously, there’s the age factor. He’s also only carried a semi-reasonable workload twice (28 games in 2013-14 and 32 in 2014-15 with Columbus), and was only in the teens the past five seasons.

That said, his career .910 save percentage is quite competent by the standards of a journeyman backup, and the Hurricanes might just be able to create a nurturing-enough atmosphere to make things work … enough.

With Petr Mrazek‘s continued struggles and the waiving of Scott Darling in mind, McElhinney is clearly the option right now.

This post mainly focuses on how Carolina can improve, but we must not ignore the elephant in the room: the goaltending could collapse once again, possibly erasing any gains made through these suggested tweaks.

So, maybe the Hurricanes need to keep an eye out for other goalies on waivers, or even trade options? Sure, McElhinney could save the day, yet they’d be foolish not to be on the lookout for Plan … D? E? Z?

Putrid power play

On Oct. 24, I took a deeper look at Dougie Hamilton‘s disappointing start with the Hurricanes. My takeaway was that, for whatever struggles he was enduring, Carolina was leaving production on the table by not deploying Hamilton with the top power play unit. Simply put, Justin Faulk‘s production since at least 2017-18 has been disappointing, and the Hurricanes’ power play numbers argued that point further.

Well, very little has changed since that post was published. (Sheesh, the Hurricanes have the gall to ignore free advice. How rude.)

Faulk remains their top power play minutes man, despite managing a paltry eight points in 26 games. Faulk only managing two of those points on the power play is, honestly, a little alarming. Hamilton, meanwhile, ranks slightly behind Jaccob Slavin as their third-most-used PP defenseman, and he’s low down the order overall.

That would be acceptable if Carolina’s power play was scoring in buckets. After all, plenty of good power-play units leave talented players out of the mix, as there are typically only five spots.

The Hurricanes power play is not very good, though. They’re connecting at 15.9-percent success rate, eighth-worst in the NHL (and very close to being bottom-five).

Earlier in the season, playing Faulk in that position made sense to me for a more cynical reason: pumping up his trade value. It’s unclear if that was ever actually the plan, but either way, it clearly isn’t working.

To the credit of Rod Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes staff, Left Wing Lock’s latest listings indicate that they’ve at least realized that, at 37, Justin Williams probably isn’t top power-play material any longer. It’s not ideal that he came into Tuesday with the same (2:42 per game) average as a far more spry Teuvo Teravainen, but this stands as a step in the right direction.

This isn’t to say that Williams cannot play. He’s still a heady winger who manages strong possession numbers, even on a team brimming with guys who keep the puck going in the right direction. It’s simply to say that it might be more appropriate to pass the torch to those with more potential, such as …

Unleash Andrei

Look, it’s understandable why teams want to ease players into the NHL. This is a young man’s league nonetheless, so it’s becoming increasingly clear that Andrei Svechnikov deserves more reps.

Really, the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft hasn’t looked out of place. Svechnikov has 12 points in 26 games so far, and could have more considering his 8.7 shooting percentage. He’s not getting buried in the lineup (14:10 per game), but I’d like to see him deployed even more often. They could always scale back his minutes if the burden ends up being too heavy for him to carry.

The deeper you dig, the more it becomes clear that Svechnikov might have more to offer.

Why not see if this sleeping giant could enjoy a monster rookie season? Why wait? Hurricanes fans have been asked to be patient for long enough, right?

Management should also keep an eye on the progress of Martin Necas. He was demoted to the AHL after seven middling games, but it might be worth burning a year off of his rookie deal if it seems like he can give them a shot in the arm later this season. As Jordan Staal showed many moons ago in helping the Penguins make the playoffs with 29 goals as a rookie in 2006-07, sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks.

Shake things up?

We’ve seen quite a few “lateral trades” lately, and such a thought might make sense for the Hurricanes.

For one thing, there’s Faulk, whose contract ($4.8M cap hit) expires after next season. Carolina’s rife with right-handed defensemen, especially with Brett Pesce possibly coming back soon. Maybe it’s time to break up that logjam?

Victor Rask is another player who might need to relocate. Rask is only getting minimal ice time (11:49 per game) and has only scored a goal in his six games this season. His $4M cap hit could at least be close to the sweet spot to get a deal done, particularly for a team that has a similar player who’s getting lost in the shuffle. Maybe he could rebound to his respectable 40-plus point form after getting a clean slate?

***

The Hurricanes can be frustrating, and not just because they tend to dominate the shot clock without doing the same on the scoreboard. This feels like a team that’s failed to take that next step, instead finding themselves as the perpetual wallflower at a grade school dance.

You can’t control every bounce, and Carolina’s goalie worries linger not very far off in the distance, but this team has a lot going for it. Few NHL squads can compare to Carolina’s depth on defense, and this is still a franchise brimming with young talent.

If they can survive in net, then improving that power play and giving more ice time to skilled players like Hamilton and Svechnikov might just make the difference.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

This looks like the season Sebastian Aho becomes a household name

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With a middling 5-3-1 record so far this season, the Carolina Hurricanes haven’t stormed out of the gate yet in 2018-19. Despite some big roster changes and a dramatically different front office, they feel like the same team: promising, puck-hogging, yet at times snake-bitten.

(The goalies? They remain a question mark, yet have been good enough so far.)

For some time, these critical darlings have felt like a herd of solid players. Jordan Staal – a very, very impressive defensive forward with a certain ceiling on offense – felt like a microcosm of the Hurricanes. They lacked that game-breaking star.

It’s dangerously early, but so far, Sebastian Aho looks like he’s going from “the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a star” to … simply, a star.

Through nine games, the 21-year-old center has four goals and 10 assists for 14 points. Two of his goals have been game-winners, including an overtime-clincher.

Aho was incredible in that game, scoring two goals and two assists. His 14 points put him in a tie for seventh place in scoring with the likes of Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane. Yeah.

Now, sure there’s been a bit of puck luck involved. Aho scored his four goals on 24 shots on net, making for a 16.7 shooting percentage that’s likely to fall at least a bit (his career average points to some shooting skill, though, at 13-percent).

That’s not a everyone-doubting-William-Karlsson-type shooting percentage, though. There should be some drop-off, yet Aho’s unlikely to be fool’s gold.

As much as the flashier numbers bring Aho much-deserved attention (three multi-point games already this season), his consistency is as exciting as anything else. The Hurricanes star hasn’t failed to score in a game yet in 2018-19, and he aims to extend his season-opening point streak to 10 games on Friday as the Hurricanes take on their puck-hogging twins, the San Jose Sharks.

It hasn’t taken long for Dougie Hamilton to note that Aho boasts the sort of skill set that really fits with the way the game is played these days.

“He can get going really fast and still make plays while picking up speed,” Hamilton said, via the Athletic’s Craig Custance (sub required). “That’s the dynamic part of his game. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”

Aho’s also getting the green light from new Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

The Finnish forward has been on a steady incline during his short time in the NHL, scoring 24 goals and 49 points in his rookie season (16:47 TOI in 2016-17), while taking another step forward with 29 goals and 65 points as a sophomore (17:55 TOI in 2017-18). Another promising sign for Aho’s climb up the ranks of the elite is that he’s carrying a clearer first-line workload so far in 2018-19, averaging an impressive 19:10 TOI.

Here’s hoping nothing gets in that way, then.

Aho’s possession stats are generally strong, with them only looking iffy relative to his puck-magnet teammates. There’s mild concern over some turbulence regarding his work at center, if he hits a cold streak. As recently as late September, there were rumblings about Aho struggling at center, and maybe face-off wizard Rod Brind’Amour will chafe at the Finn’s hit-or-miss work at draws (46.9-percent winning percentage this season, 46.3 for his career).

Ideally, Brind’Amour would see that the good massively outweighs the bad for Aho, and it’s plausible that the young forward will improve his all-around game with experience. There’s still plenty of time for improvement at 21.

That’s a scary thing for opponents, especially since Aho’s found such early chemistry with Teuvo Teravainen and Micheal Ferland.

One wouldn’t expect Aho to maintain his current 127.5-point pace, yet it’s also more than fair to expect a healthy jump from last season’s 65 points. That leap might just be enough to end Carolina’s nine-year playoff drought.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

What’s behind Hurricanes’ early-season success?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a mighty fine start, eh?

A 4-1-1 record, with their lone regulation loss coming against the Winnipeg Jets in a game they thoroughly dominated but lost on a late third-period hiccup. The Hurricanes have been a pleasant surprise in the NHL in the infancy of the 2018-19 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed out last week, the team is young, fun and worth watching.

They are all three of those things, and they’re doing so in such dominant fashion thus far. Case and point: Over the past two games, Carolina has logged a whopping 100 shots on goal. They peppered Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild into submission on Saturday night, finally winning the game in overtime on sheer volume alone on their 57th shot.

On Sunday night in Winnipeg, a team playing the second game of a back-to-back put up 43 more against a team that’s touted as a Stanley Cup contender. The Hurricanes enjoyed 61 percent of the possession in the game, producing 34 scoring chances, with 14 of those being of the high-danger variety.

Their loss on vs. the Jets was bad luck more than anything. Winnipeg didn’t deserve to win the game. The Hurricanes didn’t deserve to lose.

And while the ‘L’ might be a sobering reminder that life isn’t always fair in the NHL, Carolina’s play as a whole has put the league on watch.

The Hurricanes roll four lines that control the game’s shot share. Here’s a handy-dandy chart to explain:

Source: Natural Stat Trick

Carolina has been overwhelming teams thus far and it’s coming from everywhere. There’s little drop off no matter who’s on the ice.

There’s a disclaimer here and that is that the season is young. These are far from concrete numbers over the course of an 82-game season, but what they do show is how well the Hurricanes are clicking together amongst their four lines and how it’s having a direct effect on their results, even with the small sample size.

Are these numbers likely to regress? Yes.

But while they may fall closer to the earth going forward, they could get covered off if Carolina’s goaltending improves. Petr Mrazek was sensational against the Jets, and Curtis McElhinney has allowed eight goals in three starts. That’s good. But with the Hurricanes controlling so much of the offense, they’re giving up just 25 shots per game. Their team save percentage is sitting at .886 through six games, which is hardly world-beating.

The return of Scott Darling at some point could help that if he’s the re-invigorated man he claimed to be over the summer. And while regression will set it at some point, league-average goaltending would go a long way into mitigating its effects.

For now, the Hurricanes sit atop the NHL in possession, tied with the San Jose Sharks. They’re sixth in goals-for percentage, which is simply the percentage of goals-for vs. goals-against, third in scoring chances for, second in high-danger chances for, which is shots that occur in the slot in front of the net, and first in high-danger goals for, meaning goals scored from those high-danger areas.

In layman’s terms: The NHL’s most exciting team is also one of its most dangerous.

And the plan is for that to continue.

“We’re going to continue to try to play like that,” said forward Jordan Staal Sunday night. “It’s been our aggressive style. Obviously, we’re a quick team and we’re trying to play that way and create turnovers. Our [defense] has been really good with good gaps and creating a lot of shots, too, to kind of create seconds. We’re going to continue to try and pepper goalies and try to get some more goals.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 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