Nino Niederreiter

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Hurricanes might just keep Faulk, extra defensemen

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In a salary cap era, teams really do need to wonder if they can have too much of a good thing. After all, when scarcity is involved, too much of a good thing can mean not having enough of different, needed thing.

That sure seemed to be the case heading into 2018-19, as the Dougie Hamilton trade gave the Carolina Hurricanes three viable right-handed defensemen in Hamilton, Justin Faulk, and Brett Pesce. (Actually, four, if you think reasonably highly of Trevor van Riemsdyk.)

For a long time, it seemed like something had to give. After all, for as strong as the Hurricanes’ defense corps was, they couldn’t score enough goals, and their goalies couldn’t stop enough pucks.

… And then their goalies did start to make those saves, and after the Nino Niederreiter trade, the offense finally started to get the bounces they needed to generate those precious goals. While Carolina ran out of steam against Boston in Round 3, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs served as a display for their strengths on defense, as much as anything else.

So maybe the Hurricanes shouldn’t mess with a good thing?

That’s the interesting thought that crops up as The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun notes (sub required) that the Hurricanes have already reached out to Faulk’s representatives about a possible contract extension.

Faulk, 27, will see his bargain $4.833 million cap hit expire after the 2019-20 season, so the Hurricanes are in a spot where they’d certainly like to determine the veteran defenseman’s future. If both sides want to stick together, then why not hash out that cost certainty as soon as possible?

Again, if you walked out of a time machine and told me about this development in, say, October 2018, I would have been surprised. My feeling was that Hamilton would push Faulk out as the Hurricanes’ top power play QB, and that Faulk’s short contract term would make Carolina anxious to get a return, likely for a top-six forward.

Much of that turned out to be incorrect. For better or worse, the Hurricanes stuck with Faulk as their PP QB, and Hamilton still managed to score 18 goals in 2018-19.

Perhaps the Hurricanes simply don’t like the potential value they’d get back for Faulk, even though it’s easy to envision a swap where, say, Faulk would go to the Florida Panthers for sniper Mike Hoffman. As just one example.

But maybe that’s the path for Dougie Hamilton, instead?

Hamilton’s 25, and his $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. If Faulk gets some term, he’d join a group of locked-up defensemen in Jaccob Slavin (25, $5.3M cap hit through 2024-25), Calvin de Haan (28, $4.55M through 2021-22), and Brett Pesce (24, $4.025M through 2023-24). Maybe the Hurricanes would settle on those four as their true core – along with, perhaps a prospect like Haydn Fleury or two – and Hamilton could eventually be lost in the shuffle?

Again, having too many good defensemen is an incredibly rare “problem” in the NHL, and the Hurricanes’ 2018-19 season argues that it’s not really a problem, at all. The Hurricanes could even just by themselves time it so that they can make the most beneficial, and least panic-soaked, deal possible, whether that meant trading Hamilton, Pesce, Faulk, or someone else.

And, really, the Hurricanes can’t even officially extend Faulk until July, and things could change between now and then, particularly since NHL teams love making trades during draft weekend (June 21-22).

Overall, it’s a pretty interesting team-building situation to watch. If you were running the Hurricanes, how would you approach these situations? Is Faulk worth keeping around? Answering these questions correctly could be key in Carolina making sure that they don’t enter another playoff drought after emphatically ending their last one with that run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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.

Kessel rumor paints strange picture for Wild’s offseason path

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The first big trade rumor of the offseason (it is currently the offseason for 29 NHL teams) was centered around a potential blockbuster that would have reportedly seen the Pittsburgh Penguins send Phil Kessel to the Minnesota Wild in a deal that was thought to have included Jason Zucker (with the possible inclusion of a Jack Johnson for Victor Rask swap).

The rumored deal was reported by several outlets, including both the Minnesota and Pittsburgh chapters of The Athletic.

It now seems likely that the deal is not going to happen, seemingly because Kessel does not want to waive his no-trade clause to go to a Wild team that is probably pretty far away from a championship.

Based on everything that has come out of Pittsburgh in the aftermath of its Round 1 sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, there is going to be some change this summer and a Kessel trade will likely be a significant part of that. At this point it is just a matter of when it happens and where he ends up going. It is not a surprise to hear his name in trade speculation, and it should not be a surprise when he eventually goes.

The surprise is that it was the Wild that came the closest to making a deal.

[Related: Can the Penguins win a Phil Kessel trade?]

There is no denying that Kessel could probably help them because for all of his flaws he is still an elite offensive player.

He can still score goals, he is still an exceptional playmaker and passer, and any team’s power play could run through him and be better for it. Given that the Wild were 28th in the NHL in goals scored and 14th on the power play this past season he is, in theory, the type of player they could use.

But these types of situations do not exist in a vacuum. What is so strange about the Wild making a play for Kessel is that it seems to run counter to everything they did in the second half of last season when they started to strip their team of core players, trading Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle, none of whom were pending free agents or needed to be traded when they were.

The return on that trio was mainly Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala, a sequence of transactions that shed some salary off their cap and made the team slightly younger. The Rask, Donato, and Fiala trio is, on average, three years younger than than the Niederreiter, Coyle, and Granlund trio.

It seemed to be a sign that the Wild were looking to turn the page on a core that hadn’t really won anything, seemed to have reached its ceiling, and was looking to get younger and cheaper. General manager Paul Fenton again emphasized the team’s desire to get younger in his end of the season press conference. Whether or not the moves they made were the right ones remains to be seen (the Niederreiter trade was definitely not the right one) but it was probably a path that had to be taken at some point.

Throwing their hat into the Kessel ring, however, obviously runs counter to all of that.

The rumored trade, assuming it also included the Johnson-Rask swap, would have only saved them $500,000 against the cap and it would have made the team significantly older. Even if a team is looking to rebuild or retool (or whatever they want to call it) it still needs players to put a team on the ice, and you never want to turn down the opportunity to acquire good players when the opportunity presents itself.

But the Kessel pursuit, even if it ultimately failed, creates a number of questions for where the Wild are headed this summer.

Among them…

  1. Is this team, as it is currently constructed, a 32-year-old Phil Kessel away from being a contender in the Western Conference, and especially in a Central Division that includes Nashville, Winnipeg, an emerging power in Colorado, and a current Stanley Cup Finalist in the St. Louis Blues? If it is not, what are you trying to make that type of splash more for? And if you can not get him, are you going to pursue another comparable player?
  2. If you think it is just one of those players away, why the sudden rush to trade a player like Niederreiter (at what was probably his lowest possible value at the time) for an inferior player in Rask, or to make any of the moves you made at the trade deadline? What changed your mind in these past couple of months that you went from selling veteran players under contract to suddenly deciding you need to go get another veteran winger that can score?
  3. Beyond all of that, the most important question might be what this all means for Zucker’s future in Minnesota, as he once again found himself at the center of another trade rumor and another trade that almost happened? Why is one of your best two-way players burning such a hole in your pocket that you are seemingly desperate to trade him or try to use him as a trade chip?

When everything is put together it just seems to be a team that is kind of lost in what it wants or where it wants to go.

On-the-fly rebuilds do not usually work, especially when it is a team that is already lacking high-end talent at the top of the lineup. That path almost always seems to end up resulting in a complete rebuild anyway, only just a couple of years after it should have already started (see, for example, the Los Angeles Kings).

Not only are the Wild lacking in impact players, just about all of their top returning scorers from a year ago (Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu) are going to be age 35 or older this upcoming season. Their best days are definitely far in their rear-view mirrors.

Trying to re-tool around mediocrity or aging and declining talent only extends the mediocrity and leaves you stuck somewhere in the middle of the NHL.

Successfully acquiring Kessel might have made the team slightly better (at least offensively), but probably not enough to have moved the needle in a meaningful way. It just would have added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has too many players like that.

But what it really would have been is just another strange, questionable transaction after a season full of strange, questionable transactions that didn’t seem to be necessary.

Where the Wild go from here this summer will be seen in the coming weeks, but the continuing trend of questionable transactions should be a cause for concern for the team’s fans when it comes to this new front office.

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.

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

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For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

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.

Armstrong, Sweeney, Waddell are 2019 GM of the Year finalists

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Last but not least in the list of major NHL awards to be handed out next month in Las Vegas is the 2018-19 General Manager of the Year.

Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins, and Don Waddell of the Carolina Hurricanes are the three finalists for the award, which was first handed out in 2010.

Voting was conducted by the NHL’s 31 GMs, a panel of League executives, and print and broadcast media following the end of Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Doug Armstrong: After firing Mike Yeo in November, he promoted Craig Berube from the organization’s AHL affiliate, and later did the same with Jordan Binnington as Jake Allen struggled in net. Both moves defined the 2018-19 season for the Blues, who went from being dead-last in the NHL in early January to reaching the Western Conference Final. Berube is now a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, while Binnington is up for the Calder Trophy. Also contributing to this Blues’ turnaround, and were moves made by Armstrong, are Ryan O'Reilly, who was acquired from Buffalo over the summer, and Game 7 hero Patrick Maroon, who was signed during free agency. Having won the GM of the Year Award in 2012, Armstrong is looking to be the first to win the award multiple times.

The Case For Don Sweeney: The Bruins finished third overall in the NHL with 107 points and are back in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2013. Injuries forced the team to use 37 players, with production from their depth being a major contributing factor for their success this season. Some of that depth came via trades Sweeney made before the February deadline with Marcus Johansson (via New Jersey) and Charlie Coyle (from Minnesota) coming in and making impacts during their playoff run.

The Case For Don Waddell: The former Atlanta Thrashers boss is in his first season as Hurricanes GM and helped guide them to their best performance (99 points) since 2005-06 when they won the Stanley Cup. Following his hiring in May 2018, Waddell signed key pieces Petr Mrazek and Calvin de Haan in free agency; acquired Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Nino Niederreiter via trade; and picked up Curtis McElhinney on waivers in October. Each players has played a big role in helping get the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in a decade.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Calder Trophy
Jack Adams Award
Hart Trophy

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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.

Rask’s roll has Bruins a win away from Stanley Cup Final

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Tuukka Rask is stopping just about any puck playoff opponents can shoot his way – even the ones he doesn’t see.

The goaltender has been dominant in the Boston Bruins’ six-game postseason winning streak that has them on the doorstep of the Stanley Cup Final. Just don’t expect him to make any grand declaration of being ”in the zone” as he makes stop after stop in these playoffs.

He’s confident and comfortable. Leave it at that.

”I’ve felt good for many, many months,” Rask said. ”It’s just the way when you’re seeing the puck, when you feel comfortable. It’s about timing and patience and all that. I think experience helps that. … The way I usually want to play, I want to play calm and make myself look big and maybe even tough chances, try to make it look easy kind of.

”So if that’s in the zone, then so be it. But I just try to be focused and give us a chance.”

That’s exactly what Rask has been doing, too, in helping the Bruins to a 3-0 lead on the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final. Boston goes for the sweep Thursday night in Raleigh.

The 32-year-old Finnish netminder has stopped 85 of 90 shots in the first three games of the series with the Hurricanes, who have just been unable to solve Rask even when getting a handful of open-net chances. He’s allowed nine goals amid 205 shots in the six-game streak, good for a .956 save percentage and a 1.5 goals-against average.

Overall, he’s second in the playoffs for save percentage (.939) and goals-against average (1.96) while posting a playoff-best 11 victories in 16 games.

”He looks super calm right now,” said Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who spent three seasons as Rask’s teammate with the Bruins. ”We have to do a better job of getting in his face and making it harder on him. I mean, if he’s going to see it, he’s going to stop it, so we’ve got to get some sloppy stuff around the net.”

Yet it didn’t matter what the Hurricanes did Tuesday night in an all-out attack on Rask to start the game. They couldn’t zip or slip one by him.

Rask stopped 20 first-period shots – 20! – and ensured the Bruins went into the first intermission in a scoreless game despite the Hurricanes carrying play in front of a rowdy crowd that had helped Carolina go 5-0 at home in the postseason to that point.

That included one sequence roughly three minutes in when Rask stopped Nino Niederreiter‘s tip, Micheal Ferland‘s putback at the crease and Justin Williams‘ follow-up try despite Rask losing his stick. There was another Williams rebound that wasn’t officially counted as a shot on goal,, too. It was a harrowing few seconds for Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who quipped: ”I might have had my eyes closed for three of them.”

”He’s been dialed in” since the start of the playoffs, Cassidy said. ”He’s been excellent. He really hasn’t had a poor night. He’s had a couple that were, I’d say, above average and the rest have been very good. Tonight the first period was excellent.”

That gave the Bruins a chance to regroup, then come out and score twice in the second period to take control.

Sure, Rask caught a break when Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen missed a wide-open net in the opening minute when the goalie fell trying to slide across the crease. And Rask said there were shots that he never spotted until the puck hit him.

”There’s a couple of chances I didn’t see in the first period,” he said. ”A lot of times, if you don’t see it and don’t move, you’re going to have a better shot at saving it than if you would move too much.”

Then again, when a goaltender is playing as well as Rask is, sometimes he makes his own luck.

”He’s always given us a chance to win,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron said. ”That being said, right now he’s definitely in the zone and doing some amazing stuff.”

NOTES: Cassidy said fourth-line winger Chris Wagner has returned to Boston for further testing and will not play in Game 4. Wagner, who scored the Bruins’ first goal in Game 3, hurt his right arm while blocking a shot late in the third period. … Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said Curtis McElhinney would ”probably” make his second straight start in goal. Petr Mrazek started the Hurricanes’ first nine playoff games but allowed 10 goals in the first two games of this series.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap