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Carolina looks for big things from rookies Necas, Svechnikov

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes were working on their power play during practice when first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour pulled first-round draft pick Andrei Svechnikov aside for some quick one-on-one instruction.

”Andrei,” the coach said, ”be a shooter.”

The Hurricanes likely will need plenty of shots – and goals – from Svechnikov and fellow first-round draft pick Martin Necas if they’re to finally snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

But the way Brind’Amour sees it, nobody’s asking either of those teenagers to will the team to the Stanley Cup – like he did in 2006 as the team captain. In fact, to even think of the pressure in this situation as being on either of those rookies is misguided.

”I kind of view it the opposite – the pressure’s on us,” Brind’Amour said. ”We’re, ‘Man, we really hope he can play.’ It’s not on him.”

The Hurricanes seem confident that the 19-year-old Necas and the 18-year-old Svechnikov can handle everything being thrown their way during a critically important training camp for a franchise that has undergone a massive overhaul during the past nine months.

”The first couple of days (of camp), everything was confusing because it was new, the guys were new, bigger guys and the game is faster,” Svechnikov said. ”But every day I feel better.”

They’ve changed owners, general managers and coaches while unloading some key players, including their most recent face of the franchise, popular forward Jeff Skinner. Of the top eight point-scorers from last year’s team – one that missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season – three were traded away during the offseason.

With Skinner (49 points) now in Buffalo and Elias Lindholm (44) and defenseman Noah Hanifin (32) shipped to Calgary , the scoring has to come from somewhere else – and the two teenagers figure to pick up at least some of that load along with 21-year-old Sebastian Aho, who scored a team-best 29 goals last season and has been moved to center from a wing.

It’s still the preseason, but both players got off to a good start, with each scoring a goal in their preseason debuts this week and Svechnikov adding an assist.

”I don’t really think about” any pressure, Necas said. ”It’s important to not think about it, just play every game and try to play your best.”

Carolina spent the No. 12 overall pick in 2017 on Necas, a native Czech who played one game for the team last October before he was returned to his team back home to further polish his game as a playmaking center. Brind’Amour praised him after that successful debut, saying that ”when you give him a little time and space, he can make plays.

”It’s something that we’ve just got to keep teaching him,” he added.

The Hurricanes were among the winners at the NHL Draft’s lottery, falling into the No. 2 overall pick and using it on Svechnikov , a Russian winger and pure scorer who had 40 goals in 44 games for his junior team last season.

Their connection extends off the ice: Svechnikov says he and Necas are rooming together during training camp at a hotel, where they usually keep things low-key, going out to eat together or watching movies separately. Svechnikov says Necas plays more Fortnite than he does in those rare off hours, adding with a laugh that ”I don’t have time for that.”

On the ice, Svechnikov sure seems like a quick study so far – and that’s encouraging for his coach.

”I think for Andrei to be a successful player, the player we want, he’s got to make plays,” Brind’Amour said. ”That’s pretty obvious, stating the obvious, but at some point we know he’s going to be able to do that. It’s just, when? Can he do that as an 18-year-old? After (preseason) Game 1, you’d say there’s definitely promising things there, and he will be able to.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Carolina hopes strong defense brings end to playoff drought

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have assembled quite a crowd on defense.

The Hurricanes brought in two established defensemen this offseason – trading for Dougie Hamilton, and signing Calvin de Haan. That means seven players for six spots on game nights, and they hope the strength in those numbers will finally end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

And while No. 2 overall draft pick Andrei Svechnikov and 2017 first-rounder Martin Necas will draw much of the attention, the strength of this team could be a defensive unit that ranks among the best in the Eastern Conference.

”Being able to play with some of the talent on that back end was going to make my life a lot easier,” de Haan said Tuesday. ”And hopefully they can say the same thing about me one day.”

Carolina was the only team in the league last season to allow fewer than 29 shots on goal per game, but they were just 22nd in the league in goals allowed (253).

The additions of Hamilton and de Haan strengthens a young defensive group centered around Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, both of whom last year signed long-term deals that will keep them with the Hurricanes well into the 2020s, and a series of offseason transactions left 26-year-old Justin Faulk as the group’s longest-tenured player.

”I’m the grayhair on the back end,” de Haan said, ”and I’m only 27.”

Carolina picked up Hamilton from Calgary in a five-player trade at the draft that cost the Hurricanes another young defenseman – Noah Hanifin – and signed former New York Islander de Haan to a four-year free-agent contract in July. All seven of the defensemen are under contract for the 2019-20 season, too, except for former first-round pick Haydn Fleury – who will be a restricted free agent, giving Carolina the right to match any offer he receives.

”I think we’re going to have a really young group of guys,” Hamilton said, ”and it’ll be fun to see where we can take it.”

Hamilton, who shared the NHL lead among defensemen with 17 goals last season and has had four straight seasons with at least 42 points, gives the Hurricanes some offensive punch from the blue line. Carolina’s top-scoring defenseman last season was Hanifin, who had 32 points. Meanwhile, de Haan looks to step right in and replace Hanifin on the left side.

Those two would appear to join Pesce and Slavin as the top four, with Faulk – whose plus-minus rating was a career-worst minus-26 and whose 31 points were his worst since 2012-13 – slipping to a lower rung along with Trevor van Riemsdyk or Fleury.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to bring an end to that pesky playoff drought.

The Hurricanes have made the playoffs just once – in 2009 – since they won the Stanley Cup in 2006. If they miss the postseason again this year, they’ll tie the NHL record for consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, a dubious mark set by Florida from 2001-11 and matched by Edmonton from 2007-17.

Carolina has ”a lot of talented, young guys in the system, and the guys we brought in are great players, so that will be exciting, make everybody better and push one another,” van Riemsdyk said. ”I think our D-corps looks really good, and it’s an exciting time to be in Raleigh and hopefully we can make that step and make the playoffs and make some noise this year.”

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

MORE HURRICANES COVERAGE:
2017-18 review
Under Pressure: Scott Darling
Three questions

Signing Laine and other Jets cap challenges after Wheeler extension

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The Winnipeg Jets answered a big question on Tuesday by signing captain and star winger Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 million extension. That removes a huge item from the franchise’s to-do list, yet they face plenty of challenges in keeping this talent-packed roster together for the long haul.

Much of the future worries come down to extending Patrik Laine, but there are other considerations that can make an impact on this loaded team’s ability to contend.

Winnipeg’s cap questions are pretty involved, so let’s go step by step.

(Note via Cap Friendly’s numbers: Winnipeg has about $10.24M in cap space as of this writing. They have about $52.48M committed to 11 players heading into 2019-20, which would give them a bit more than $27M to work with in the unlikely event that the cap would remain at $79.5M.)

More Morrissey

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces one more big obstacle for 2018-19: hashing out a contract with RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Right now, the tone seems to be “don’t panic,” even though training camp is rapidly approaching.

The Jets are running some risky business when it comes to their young defensemen.

Jacob Trouba may just become hockey’s answer to Kirk Cousins: a player either forced to or willingly choosing to make short-term bets on himself with the goal of a big payday in the future. Winnipeg is lucky enough that, despite that arduous arbitration hearing, Trouba would only be considered an RFA if he makes it to next summer without a deal. Still, it’s tough to shake the impression that the situation will end with Trouba eventually playing for a different NHL team, much like Cousins ultimately left Washington.

Winnipeg must walk a fine line with two young defensemen (Trouba’s 24, Morrissey is 23). It’s easy to see why Morrissey would prefer a “bridge” contract, particularly considering the defensemen who may be forced out with the cap crunch.

Beyond the Trouba turmoil, Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after 2018-19, with both of those defensemen carrying $5.5M cap hits. Morrissey could goose his numbers by naturally earning more minutes next season, but especially so in the likely event that Myers can’t fit under the cap.

Then again, the added security of term could be quite appealing if the Jets decide that Morrissey is worthy of a Noah Hanifin-ish commitment.

(Goalie Eric Comrie is also an RFA in need of a deal.)

While Morrissey’s situation is unsettled, the Jets made substantial investments in other players, for better or worse:

Long-term commitments: the very good, and the troubling

Whether they end up being wise or imprudent investments, Cheveldayoff committed to some serious term in recent (and semi-recent) situations.

Wheeler’s cap hit goes from $5.6M next season to $8.25M starting in 2019-20. As of this writing, he’s a bargain at both rates, but the unavoidable concern is for regression, considering that the American-born forward is already 32. (He’ll be 33 right before his extension kicks in.)

The Jets also made an interesting bet on young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, handing the 25-year-old a six-year contract that carries a $6.167M AAV. It says a lot about how perception can change in a year, as the Jets signed Steve Mason to a fairly healthy two-year, $8M deal heading into 2017-18 thanks to the uncertainty they still faced in net. If Hellebuyck replicates (or at least produces work close to) his strong, steady season, then that cap hit could be a nice bargain. Goalies are risky, though, and the Jets ended up regretting Ondrej Pavelec’s rancid contract for basically its entirety. Maybe the Hellebuyck contract is “the price of doing business,” but that bill could create some buyer’s remorse if last year was a mirage.

Overall, the Jets boast eight lengthy commitments (three years or more) at significant rates* as of this writing: Wheeler, Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, and Adam Lowry.

Scheifele’s $6.125M ranks on the shortlist of the absolute best bargains in the NHL, especially since it runs for six more seasons. If the Jets manage to wade through this jungle of cap challenges, credit that Scheifele bargain and also locking down Ehlers at an affordable (and potentially steal-worthy) $6M long-term as two key developments.

Some of the veterans might provide problems, though. Little’s been a hidden gem through even the Atlanta Thrashers days, yet the 30-year-old’s $5.292M cap hit already looks dicey, and it runs through 2023-24. Little’s contract may force out a valuable-yet-not-essential player like Perreault, who virtually always shines from an analytics standpoint, and does so at a reasonable $4.125M clip.

Winnipeg’s cap crunch could force out some combination of Little, Perreault, or Lowry, while Dmitry Kulikov may force some LTIR shenanigans.

(Hey, at least other contenders have set a template for how Winnipeg could … “bend some rules.”)

* – Sorry, Tucker Poolman, whose name will forever sound like a fake handle for someone in a fantasy league.

Aiming for raises

All of the situations above bleed into the Jets’ biggest worries: what’s next to come.

Patrik Laine’s rookie contract expires after next season, and Winnipeg can sign him to an extension at any time. Laine already scored 80 goals and 134 points in just 155 games, and it’s tough to imagine his standing in the league falling after 2018-19. The Jets essentially have to hope that Laine will fall in line with other rising stars who’ve signed for relative discounts, as his RFA status only means so much.

Laine is the biggest ticket item, but far from the only player who could rake in big bucks.

Kyle Connor represents a potentially tricky situation. After a minimal, truncated rookie season (5 points in 20 games in 2016-17), Connor broke through last year, managing 31 goals and 57 points.

If you’re Winnipeg, you probably would prefer to sign him to a reasonable extension instead of letting him flirt with even bigger totals in 2018-19, considering that only seven of his 31 goals came on the power play. (Though, to be fair, Connor received pretty healthy reps.)

With Trouba’s situation merely postponed for a year and Morrissey possibly only getting a bridge deal, the Jets could still face some big calls with key players. That’s especially true if management views re-signing Tyler Myers as a necessity rather than a luxury.

***

Overall, the Jets need to try to find value in the next deals for Laine and Connor, while making the right calls with Morrissey and Trouba.

While contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that you can get out of a bad deal or two, they’ve also cemented the notion that you might end up regretting being loyal to the wrong players. The Jets handed out no-trade or no-movement clauses to veterans such as Wheeler, Byfuglien, Little, Kulikov and Perreault, which may only complicate matters.

For a GM who inspired puns about “taking the day off,” Kevin Cheveldayoff sure has his work cut out for him.

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.

How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?

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Earlier today, the NHL announced a 20-game suspension for Nate Schmidt, a decision that both the player and team disagreed with.

Schmidt’s strongly worded statement indicates that the sides have already gone through the appeal process, so barring any other twists, it seems like he’ll be suspended through the first 20 games of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2018-19 season.

The Golden Knights – and everyone else involved – stated that they won’t have any further comments regarding the suspension itself, but what about how the team will deal with the loss of Schmidt? Because, as much as Vegas’ defense succeeded – to some extent – by committee, the former Capitals defenseman topped Vegas in time on ice during both the regular season and playoffs. He is, to put it mildly, very important, and losing him for about a quarter of the campaign hurts.

We might get more insight on how reigning Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant will handle the loss (and if reigning GM of the Year George McPhee might also react), so stay tuned at PHT. That said, for those who want some early insight into the impact of this loss, let’s consider multiple factors.

Golden Knights lose a go-to guy

Schmidt averaged 22:14 TOI during 76 regular-season games, then saw his ice time climb to 24:25 per night during the playoffs. Again, both of those averages topped all Golden Knights skaters, with the regular season margin being healthy at about two minutes per game (Shea Theodore came in second with a 20:21 average, with Deryk Engelland right behind him at 20:17), a margin that was similar – yet more pronounced – during the postseason (Theodore averaged 21:48, Engelland at 21:40).

So, while Schmidt didn’t average the bonkers ice time of a Ryan Suter during the regular season, he clearly was the No. 1 guy in Gallant’s eyes. With 2:13 shorthanded TOI and 2:25 on the power play during the playoffs and comparable special teams numbers during the regular season, Schmidt was used as an all-situations guy.

(Schmidt’s most common even-strength defensive partner was Brayden McNabb, according to Natural Stat Trick.)

Beyond Schmidt, Theodore and Colin Miller were logging plenty of time on the man advantage, while Engelland and McNabb were steady penalty killers. Schmidt bridged the gap between those two specialists, in a way, so Vegas loses versatility first and foremost.

Who might step up? Should Vegas dip into the market?

Those previous numbers imply that, possibly, Schmidt’s minutes might just be dispersed between Miller, Engelland, Theodore, and McNabb. Gallant might just lean on all four evenly in their specialized roles. That seemed to be the case during four games in early March when Schmidt was out of the lineup; yes, that’s a small sample size, but Schmidt played in 76 of 82 games.

[These bans are rare, but here are three recent histories of such suspensions]

If those four players can mostly match their work from 2017-18, that’s not the most dire scenario. As with sports, you might expect slippage; after all, Engelland’s generally solid work came as a surprise, while Miller and McNabb are now enjoying the security of long-term deals. (Theodore, meanwhile, still needs a deal as an RFA and probably opened a champagne bottle after seeing Noah Hanifin get paid.)

Vegas didn’t see those key guys leave in free agency, but they didn’t exactly break the bank for reinforcements on defense, either. Nick Holden, 31, is the most noteworthy addition, while they got rid of fading veterans Luca Sbisa and Jason Garrison.

Holden stands as a modest upgrade over some of the lowest-end guys, but probably not much more than that.

It makes you wonder if maybe McPhee should consider bringing in some additional depth. No, there aren’t a ton of promising options on the UFA defensemen market, but Cody Franson seems like a low-risk, OK-reward signing, one who could make sense as a bottom-pairing guy or injury insurance even after Schmidt’s suspension ends.

Those 20 games

It doesn’t hurt to glance at Vegas’ opening schedule and try to gauge how difficult life will be. Take a look at the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season (four of which air on NBCSN):

Thu, Oct 4 vs Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 6 @ Minnesota
Mon, Oct 8 @ Buffalo
Wed, Oct 10 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 11 @ Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 13 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 16 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 20 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Fri, Oct 26 vs Tampa Bay
Sun, Oct 28 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 30 @ Nashville
Thu, Nov 1 @ St. Louis
Sat, Nov 3 vs Carolina
Tue, Nov 6 @ Toronto
Thu, Nov 8 @ Ottawa
Sat, Nov 10 @ Montreal
Sun, Nov 11 @ Boston
Wed, Nov 14 vs Anaheim
Fri, Nov 16 vs St. Louis

The Golden Knights may end up missing Schmidt most during that early five-game road trip, along with that stretch of six of seven games away from home spanning Oct. 30 – Nov. 11.

It’s not all bad, though. There are only two back-to-back sets, and while they have fewer home (nine) than road (11) games, it’s not by an enormous margin. Vegas has a decent shot to navigate that quarter-season without its ice time leader from 2017-18.

Contract year uncertainty for Schmidt

Schmidt was already coming into 2018-19 on a cheap deal, as his cap hit is just $2.25 million with a $2.3M salary. Now he’s expected to lose almost $500K (via TSN’s Frank Seravalli), and the biggest cost might be how this situation affects his next contract.

With a nice 36-point output and top pair duty, Schmidt already raised his standing in the NHL, and it seemed like he might join Ryan Ellis and other defensemen cashing in before they hit 2019 free agency. Schmidt loses out on 20 games to cement his status as a top-pairing defenseman, possibly even increasing his standing in the eyes of NHL executives.

Now, who knows? It’s a disappointing situation for the defenseman, to put things mildly.

***

While there have been other 20-game suspensions for performance-enhancing substances, every other instance was a player who wasn’t a significant part of a team (with all apologies to 2015-16 Shawn Horcoff).

The Golden Knights were already facing a serious challenge in showing that their incredible first season in the NHL wasn’t a fluke. Their second season hasn’t even begun and they’ve already lost Schmidt, their leading defenseman from last season, for 20 games.

How will Vegas adjust, and how will Schmidt perform once his suspension is over? Those are fascinating questions, and serious hurdles for the player and team.

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.

Risk, reward: Hanifin’s deal; future of Flames

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When word surfaced that the Calgary Flames bet big – but not necessarily recklessly so – on Noah Hanifin with a six-year deal that comes in just a hair under $5 million per year, my personal reaction was “Well, that is … fascinating.”

Let’s break down the ins and outs of not just the Hanifin deal, but GM Brad Treliving’s general vision for the Flames.

Assessing Hanifin

Hanifin, 21, inspires some pretty interesting banter. One thing just about no one can deny is that the 2017-18 season was by far his most promising in the NHL.

[For an in-depth breakdown of his breakthrough, check this post]

That said, it’s only so useful to compare 2016-17 Hanifin to last year’s model, at least when you’re trying to gauge if he’ll be valuable during the six years of his contract.

The good: Hanifin checks out as the speedy type of player who fits into the “modern” style of NHL game. Plenty of metrics indicate that, even as he struggled in other areas of the defensive gig through the early years of his still-young career, he was strong in transition.

You could project bigger offense from him in the future, too. Hanifin didn’t just explode (by his previous standards) with 10 goals and 32 points; he also managed nine of those goals at even-strength. If he starts getting more opportunities, might he put up eye-popping offense? It’s at least plausible.

The bad: Hanifin was sheltered early in his NHL career, and Bill Peters, the same coach who sheltered him (and possibly didn’t trust him?) in Carolina, is now in Calgary.

His peak ice time with the Hurricanes came last season, yet he averaged 18:52 minutes per night, a pretty modest total for a guy who’s now making $5M-ish per year. Hanifin also began 63 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone last season, the most sheltered of what’s been a very sheltered career.

Overall, the jury’s out on what kind of player Hanifin is, but Calgary is clearly projecting bigger things for him. It’s easy to forget just how young he is, after all.

Brad Treliving is developing a reputation for witty one-liners, and he nailed that sentiment when discussing the fact that Hanifin already has 239 regular-season games of NHL experience despite being just 21.

“We’re talking about a 21-year-old guy who has played three years in the NHL,” Treliving said, via Postmedia’s Kristen Anderson. “I don’t buy into that, ‘Oh, he’s not where he should be.’ Most guys his age are learning to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Good stuff.

Personally, this tweet from The Athletic’s Kent Wilson falls in line with my take on Hanifin, and Hanifin’s contract: there may be some reasons to question his true value, but this contract could end up being a nice deal for Calgary. Look at the Predators as an example: they signed guys like Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis before they matured to their highest levels, and have enjoyed bargain contracts as a result. You ultimately need to trust your staff’s ability to project players and assign proper value for players. The Flames could have a gem if they’re right about Hanifin.

And it could still be mostly OK if he’s, well, just mostly OK.

Big, but mostly reasonable, gambles

To some extent, the overall price tag of trading away Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland for Hanifin and Elias Lindholm shows the perks of locking up star players Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan for term and very reasonable prices. It gives you the luxury to pay up for other players, betting on greater returns from youthful talent (ideally) just about to enter primes.

When you consider the Flames’ big-picture situation, it mostly looks reasonable, with some tantalizing upside:

Not awful even if you don’t love every player, right?

On the other hand, another point is clear: this team is committed to Treliving’s vision, for better or worse.

The bottom line is that, for all of the high-end skill of Gaudreau-Monahan, Mark Giordano, and “The 3M Line,” the Flames missed the playoffs last season. They really haven’t put all of that on-paper promise together, yet they’ve continued to make costly investments.

When a GM gets fired, they’ll either leave behind a fairly clean slate (which has its drawbacks, in that the next person will need to do all the building) or a ton of commitments. If things don’t work out with Treliving, the following GM will probably struggle to make a mark on this franchise. Treliving is locking the Flames down with several lengthy deals, and the nightmare scenario is that Calgary could end up being stuck much like the Minnesota Wild (who boast some talent but generally a ton of headaches).

Hanifin’s contract doesn’t feel like it is the sort that can submarine a franchise. The low end seems to be an overpay, rather than an albatross.

It’s still risky, especially when you look at the Flames’ summer overall. After missing the postseason, Treliving pledged $18.675M to Hanifin, Lindholm, James Neal, and Derek Ryan, with the latter two players being 30 and 31-years-old respectively. Treliving changed to head coach Peters and decided to part ways with Hamilton and Ferland.

***

Hanifin could suffer by comparison to Hamilton, and this overall vision could look grim instead of promising if things go wrong in 2018-19.

The good and bad news is that, rather than standing pat, Treliving is rolling the dice. Will these bets look smart in hindsight? It should be fascinating to watch and find out.

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.