Justin Williams

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Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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 Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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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.

Dzingel adds speed, scoring to Hurricanes lineup

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The Carolina Hurricanes have added some speed and scoring to their lineup, as they’ve inked forward Ryan Dzingel to a reasonable two-year, $6.75 million contract.

“Ryan has proven that he can be an impact player offensively, putting up bigger numbers over each of his three full-time NHL seasons,” Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said in a release. “His speed, skill and vision make him an excellent fit for our forward group and our style of play. At 27, he’s just entering his prime and certainly had options coming off a 26-goal season, so we’re happy he’s chosen to be a part of the Carolina Hurricanes.”

The 27-year-old split last season between the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets. He had 22 goals and 22 assists in 57 games with the Sens and he added four goals and 12 points in 21 games with the Jackets after the trade deadline.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Dzingel struggled to adjust to his new team after the trade and he also served as a healthy scratch in the playoffs on a couple of occasions. The Hurricanes are banking on him fitting in to their young, fast lineup. The question is whether or not they can get another couple of 25-goal seasons out of him before this contract expires.

Carolina has already lost Micheal Ferland to Vancouver in free agency and Justin Williams remains unsigned, so it’s unclear if he’ll be returning to the team at this point. That means that Dzingel will play a significant role on this team going forward.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.