Micheal Ferland

Maturing Hurricanes eye second-straight playoff berth

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes ended a nine-year postseason drought last season.

This year, their goal: to end an even longer one.

The Hurricanes are looking to reach the postseason for a second straight year – something they haven’t done in 18 years.

Carolina advanced to the Eastern Conference final last season before Boston swept the Hurricanes. That deep run gave a largely young team a taste of the postseason, after only a handful of players had any playoff experience entering that first-round series with Washington.

”It’s a whole new year, so what’s done is done,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said, ”and you’ve got to move on and you’ve got to find a way to be that much better.”

And find a way to avoid the playoff hangovers that have plagued this team in the past.

In the three seasons that followed their three most recent playoff appearances – 2003, ’07 and ’10 – Carolina’s point total has dropped by an average of 26.7 points. The Hurricanes finished last in the old Southeast Division the year after making the 2002 Stanley Cup final, and wound up third in the five-team division after both the 2006 Cup title and the run to the 2009 conference final.

WHO’S HERE

The Hurricanes didn’t make many flashy acquisitions during the offseason, instead sprinkling some solid veterans throughout the roster. They re-signed free-agent goalie Petr Mrazek to a two-year contract, picked up James Reimer as his likely backup, brought in center Ryan Dzingel for two years and gave defenseman Jake Gardiner a four-year deal shortly before camp.

Their most significant move was keeping one of their young stars – Sebastian Aho. Less than 24 hours after Montreal tendered him a $42 million offer sheet, they matched the deal and signed the 22-year-old restricted free agent to a front-loaded, bonus-heavy contract that locks him up through 2023-24.

”I think we assembled another solid team, and I think had some good additions,” forward Jordan Staal said. ”I think we’ll be a team that’s, obviously with Roddy, going to be one of the hardest-working teams, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got every game, and that’s going to give us an edge.”

WHO’S NOT

Justin Williams – for now, anyway. The captain of last year’s team said he was taking a break from the sport to start this season, but left the door open to the possibility of a midseason return. Carolina also traded defenseman Calvin de Haan to Chicago and let forwards Micheal Ferland (Vancouver) and Greg McKegg (New York Rangers) and goalie Curtis McElhinney (Tampa Bay) leave via free agency. They also cut ties with Scott Darling, sending him to Florida in the Reimer trade.

KEY PLAYERS

All eyes will be on Aho, especially during the opener – which, coincidentally, comes against the very same Canadiens team that tried to pry him away. He isn’t worried about handling the pressure that comes with that big contract won’t be a problem, and says he doesn’t set his goals in terms of goals or points: ”I just want to be a better player,” said Aho, who had team highs of 30 goals and 83 points last season.

Keep an eye on Reimer, too. Mrazek and McElhinney were almost interchangeable last season, pairing to give the Hurricanes a solid one-two combination in both the regular season and playoffs. A key question: Can Reimer seamlessly slide into that No. 2 role while bouncing back after a season in which he matched his career worst save percentage (.900)?

OUTLOOK

It’s been a challenge over the past two decades for the Hurricanes to build upon their successes. A key to doing so this season might come with the man advantage. Carolina scored on less than 10% of its postseason chances on the power play – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. Dzingel, Erik Haula and Gardiner should help with that.

PREDICTION

The Hurricanes went 46-29-7 last season and their 99 points ranked second in team history only to the 2006 Cup champions, and their 31-12-2 regular season record after Jan. 1 was no fluke. Aside from Williams, the core of that team – chiefly Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, star-in-waiting Andrei Svechnikov and virtually the entire defensive unit – is back and a year more mature. It might be too much to expect another run to the East final, but a second straight playoff berth is very much within reach.

Canucks’ biggest question: What exactly is the plan here?

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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 Vancouver Canucks.

Three big questions for the 2019-20 Vancouver Canucks.

1. Seriously, what is the plan here?

There is really no other way to ask it. I spent five minutes looking at this roster and this is the only question that kept entering my head.

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are dynamite. Bo Horvat and J.T. Miller are pretty good. Quinn Hughes has the potential to be a cornerstone player on defense. But then what? What else is happening here that should make Canucks fans feel good about the direction of the team for this season and beyond?

Jim Benning is entering his sixth season running this ship as the team’s general manager and after a playoff appearance in year one is in danger of giving the Canucks the first ever five-year playoff drought in franchise history. Outside of the five players mentioned above, the roster is full of veteran depth players that aren’t difference-makers and are for some reason signed to long-term contracts (bad idea!).

The highest paid players on the team are a 34-year-old Loui Eriksson, a 33-year-old Alex Edler, and Tyler Myers.

For all of this, the Canucks just rewarded Benning with a three-year contract extension earlier this month.

Given the moves over the past two offseasons (long-term contracts for Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Tyler Myers; trading a first-round pick for Miller) it almost looks like Benning and the front office is simply in a job-saving mode and trying to luck their way into a playoff spot instead of putting together a coherent long-term plan that can result in sustained success.

The result instead is a team that is not anywhere near good enough to make the playoffs and not anywhere near bad enough to get the best draft lottery odds. That is a brutal cycle to try and get out of.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Brock Boeser’s contract 

This is kind of related to the first question, but the Canucks are one of the many teams in the league dealing with a big-time restricted free agent that remains unsigned.

The problem is the Canucks, as currently situated against the cap, probably do not have enough salary cap space to actually sign him at the moment.

Because they have so much money invested in depth players on long-term deals they are now in a position where they have just a little more than $5 million in salary cap space remaining and will probably have to do one of two things to get him under contract for this season. Either play hardball and attempt to short-change their second best player, or try to make a desperation trade to create a little more salary cap space to sign him.

Boeser averaged more than .42 goals per game so far in his career (35 goals per 82 games) and is almost certainly deserving of a contract worth more than $5 million per season.

3. Will any other young players make an impact?

Other than Pettersson and Boeser there really isn’t a lot to be excited about up front in the short-term (2019 top pick Vasily Podkolzin is probably two years away from making his NHL debut), so that leaves the blue line where the Canucks have top prospect Quinn Hughes and 2016 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) Olli Juolevi. Hughes seems to be a lock for the roster, while Juolevi, coming off an injury-shortened and losing out on a numbers game on the depth chart will probably have to start the season in the American Hockey League.

The other intriguing player is goalie Thatcher Demko. Jacob Markstrom has been solid, but is probably only a stop-gap solution for right now. Demko only appeared in nine NHL games this past season but handled himself well and has a strong track record of performing at both the NCAA and AHL levels. He is still only 23 years old and should be considered a strong prospect with a chance to eventually take over the position.

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.

It’s Vancouver Canucks 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 Vancouver Canucks.

2018-19
35-36-11, 81 points (5th in the Pacific Division, 12th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
J.T. Miller
Jordie Benn
Oscar Fantenberg
Tyler Myers
Micheal Ferland

OUT:
Ryan Spooner
Luke Schenn
Markus Granlund
Ben Hutton

RE-SIGNED:
Thatcher Demko
Alex Edler

2018-19 Summary

The expectations for the Canucks heading into last season weren’t very high. After all, this was/is a team made up of young players that clearly wouldn’t figure into the playoff picture. As expected, they missed the postseason, but in some way, they were probably a lot more competitive than many observers expected.

The fact that they finished with 81 points (nine out of a playoff spot) and exceeded some people’s expectations tells you a lot about where this franchise was coming into the season. The good news for Vancouver is that they seem to have found a couple of all-star forwards during their rebuild.

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser have become must-see TV. In his first NHL season, Pettersson put up an impressive 28 goals and 66 points in only 71 games. Once the 20-year-old fills out a little more, he should be able to get those numbers even higher.

“I feel like at the end of the season a lot of teams were making a push to make the playoffs, so definitely they were tougher games at the end of the season,” Pettersson told Sportsnet earlier this month. “And also for myself, I felt like I didn’t have 100 per cent energy coming into every game, so that’s been a big thing for me. That I have better conditioning, I have more strength and power in my legs, and just trying to get stronger and faster.

“It was my first year in the league and you just learn from it. Always have it back in your head that you want to play good even when you have a tough day.”

Just having an older and stronger Pettersson will make the Canucks better this season.

[MORE: Pressure’s on Tyler Myers | Three Questions | X-Factor]

As for Boeser, getting him back to full strength will also help the organization on the ice. The 22-year-old has yet to play in 80-plus games per year during his first two seasons in the NHL, but he’s been as productive as anybody on the roster. Last season, he had 26 goals and 56 points in 69 contests.

The key to Vancouver’s success will be to get these guys healthy. They both helped the organization take a step forward last year, but now it’s all about making progress.

Despite acquiring players like Miller, Benn, Myers and Ferland this summer, the Canucks still have some holes on their roster.

Will the goaltending hold up? At what point does Demko overtake Jacob Markstrom?

Markstrom played in 60 games last year and had some good showings, but he’s probably not the future in goal for the organization. The 29-year-old had a respectable 28-23-9 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage last season. As for Demko, he only got nine games last season.

The reason the Canucks added to their blue line is because they felt that was an area they needed to get better in a hurry. Last year, they were led by Edler, Troy Stecher, Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, Chris Tanev and Erik Gudbranson and Alex Biega.

Their blue line was underwhelming enough in 2018-19 that they decided not to bring back Hutton, Pouliot, Gudbranson (he was traded at the deadline). They did sign Edler to a new two-year deal, but clearly they’re banking on their newcomers delivering better performances. Also, top-10 draft pick Quinn Hughes should help them transport the puck from the back end.

Overall, we should see a more exciting Canucks team this season. Will it be enough to get them into the playoffs though?

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

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.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

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.

Canucks give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

Update: The Canucks made it official … on Tuesday. OK, then.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

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.