Patrik Laine

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.

Tarasenko takes over, Blues snag Game 1 vs. Stars

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If you needed a star player to score a big goal in a playoff game, who would you pick?

Most hockey fans would tab Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and other players who’ve already won at least a Stanley Cup. Maybe you’d lean toward Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, or Nikita Kucherov, if you wanted to mix things up.

St. Louis Blues fans would insist that Vladimir Tarasenko should be on the tip of your tongue, and in a tight 3-2 Game 1 win (and 1-0 series lead) for the Blues against the Dallas Stars, he added to his robust big-game resume.

(Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday; stream here.)

While Ben Bishop will be haunted by allowing the Blues 1-0 goal early in Game 1 via Robby Fabbri, you wonder if there’s only so much anyone could do to stop Tarasenko on both of his goals. In particular, Tarasenko showed why his nickname is “Tank” on his second goal, as he absolutely powered his way past Miro Heiskanen and roofed a fantastic goal by Bishop. Tarasenko simply would not be denied:

At the time, Tarasenko’s second goal of Game 1 made it 3-1, but with Jamie Benn scoring a strange 3-2 goal that survived a goal review after an ill-timed whistle, the Blues needed every one of those Tarasenko tallies. Tarasenko’s nicest goal of the evening ended up counting as the game-winner.

With this result, Tarasenko now has an outstanding 26 goals in his last 50 playoff games. That ties Tarasenko with Sidney Crosby for the fourth-most postseason goals since 2013-14, and Crosby hit that mark in 82 playoff contests. None of that is meant to insult Crosby; instead, the point is that Tarasenko’s been an absolute superstar in the postseason.

Interestingly, Tarasenko was pretty quiet in Round 1, only managing two goals in six games against the Winnipeg Jets. The Blues were carried by other players like Jaden Schwartz with Winnipeg’s top line carrying the way, but on Thursday, it was the Tarasenko show.

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While it was a tough night at times for Bishop (who took a scary puck to the head), Jordan Binnington was a mix of brilliant and a touch scrambly. Binnington also felt some content during Game 1, as this scuffle began when the rookie goalie was bumped by Blake Comeau:

Binnington gave up a juicy rebound or three in Game 1, yet he really locked it down when Dallas tried to wage a comeback; Binnington stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the third period alone.

This loss stings, but the Stars can feel comfortable that they weren’t merely facing a struggling Predators team. Dallas was absolutely able to hang with a St. Louis squad that was a buzzsaw at times down the stretch this season, and honestly, the Stars sometimes looked flat-out better.

The Blues found a way to win Game 1, which in this case, meant riding Tarasenko’s dominant scoring and Binnington’s brilliant netminding. If this one was any indication, more wins against Dallas won’t come easy, so the Blues might need more of that from their biggest star, and their rising star in net.

The Stars will try to even up the series against the Blues as Game 2 takes place at the Enterprise Center on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET (NBC; stream here).

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Leafs need more from Marner; questions for Predators

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for April 23

• “Bruins notify NHL about Maple Leafs’ ‘skate bump’ tactics” [Boston Globe]

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have been in this situation before, but they’re not looking at the past. [TSN via CP]

Mitch Marner is one player who needs to bring his ‘A’ game tonight. [Leafs Nation]

• Don’t expect any changes for the Boston Bruins in Game 7. [WEEI]

• What the San Jose Sharks need to do to win… and lose Game 7 vs. the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

• Smiling Tomas Hertl on his winning shot in Game 6: “If you don’t try, you never know.” [Mercury News]

• “For those who abide by the gospel of concepts like series momentum, Vegas is damned. Luckily for Golden Knights’ fans, those factors tend to be overstated.” [Las Vegas Sun]

• Why the Golden Knights will come out of top in Game 7. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• There are plenty of questions to be answered for the Nashville Predators in the wake of their first-round exit. [Tennessean]

• Another obstacle cleared for the Dallas Stars. [Dallas Morning News]

• “Right call, bad rule: Ovechkin’s disallowed goal shows the ridiculous standard of goalie interference” [NBC Washington]

• Patrik Laine says he dealt with a back injury and groin injury for most of the 2018-19 season. [NHL.com]

• Over 5,000 Columbus Blue Jackets fans showed up Monday to watch the team play an intrasquad scrimmage as they await their Round 2 opponent. [Dispatch]

• Jaden Schwartz found his scoring touch at the right time for the St. Louis Blues. [NHL.com]

• Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are few of the sentimental favorites to win the Stanley Cup/ [The Hockey News]

• How climate change is affecting hockey. [Sports Illustrated]

• Kris Versteeg has signed a one-year AHL contract with the Rockford Ice Hogs. [Ice Hogs]

• A look at what’s ahead for Connor McDavid as he recovers from an injured PCL. [ESPN]

• Finally, here’s episode 4 of “Puckland” as the ECHL’s Maine Mariners’ scrimmage against Worcester has some big consequence for cut day”

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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.

Blues advance, Jets dumped from playoffs with a thud

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Yes, there were red flags for the Winnipeg Jets late in the regular season, yet even pessimists weren’t expecting a flat finish like this.

With the Jets’ season on the line, they offered up a largely flat effort against the Blues (PHT’s Scott Billeck nailed it when he compared Winnipeg’s urgency to that of a grazing cow), falling 3-2 in Game 6. With that, St. Louis wins the series 4-2, and will move on to Round 2 to take on the winner of the Nashville Predators – Dallas Stars series.

[The Stars looked stout in taking a 3-2 lead in that series.]

Chalk it up to the Blues’ suffocating defense, the exhaustion that comes with playoff hockey, the devastation of losing Game 5 in the waning seconds, or a number of other factors, but whatever’s at the root of this problem, the Blues removed them from the postseason like an unsightly weed.

Speaking of Game 5, the closing-moments hero Jaden Schwartz carried over his hot hand, scoring a goal per period to grab a hat trick, and give the Blues a 3-0 lead. While Schwartz’s work is absolutely worth heralding, you can expect the headlines in Winnipeg to revolve around a shockingly listless second period. The Jets sure didn’t look like a team with its season on the line – a team that wanted its season to end, perhaps – as the Blues controlled the shots on goal at 16-1 in the second period, and 27-6 through the first 40 minutes.

(You’d probably not be shocked to learn that one SOG in a period sets a new franchise-low for the Jets.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Jets a bit of life in making it 3-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, and Mathieu Perreault added a dash of very-late intrigue to make it 3-2 in the waning seconds. Patrik Laine even got a dangerous shot with just a few seconds remaining, but ultimately that final Jets was a case of too little, too late.

Winnipeg will now stagger into an off-season that isn’t likely to be easy, what with Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, and Kyle Connor requiring new contracts, and management needing to find some answers. On Saturday, the main question was ” … What happened?”

The spotlight will shine on the Jets’ blemishes after this effort, no doubt, but when a team struggles, there’s usually a reason for it beyond [insert some sort of cliche about “lacking fortitude”]. The Blues steamrolled into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where they almost wrestled away home-ice advantage in Round 1, and also came close to snaring the Central Division title.

One of the major stories of this postseason is teams carrying strong finishes from the regular season over into the games that matter the most, and you could argue that the Blues ended 2018-19 as hot as any team in the NHL. From a strong system, some great players like Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, to nice depth particularly with Schwartz, and a Cinderella story that might just be legit in Jordan Binnington, this Blues team has a lot going for it.

Did anyone really see this coming when the Blues fired Mike Yeo and seemed to be headed toward a troubling summer, while the Jets’ biggest question was whether they could win the division and go on a deep run? No, not really, but it would be foolish to doubt this Blues squad any longer.

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.

Connor provides OT magic as Jets even series vs. Blues

Associated Press
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All sorts of questions surrounded the Winnipeg Jets when they dropped two close games — both in the third period — to begin their Western Conference First Round series with the St. Louis Blues.

Those third-period struggles had followed them into the playoffs and doubts about their ability to wash away those sins only intensified.

But an emphatic 6-3 win in Game 3 quelled some of those fears on Sunday, and when Kyle Connor jammed home a loose puck at 6:02 of overtime on Tuesday to give Winnipeg a 2-1 lead, and more importantly, a clean slate in the best-of-7 series that is now all tied up 2-2, several more layers of question marks released their hold on the team.

Indeed, when the series shifts back to Bell MTS Place on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET; USA), it will be the resolve of the Blues that will be the focal point.

The best-of-7 is now a best-of-3, and Winnipeg gets two games at home, although the home team has yet to emerge with a victory so far in the series.

Regulation found two teams that weathered the storms each other brought. Winnipeg held the fort in the first and St. Louis stood tall in the second.

In the third, St. Louis struck first, with Vladimir Tarasenko scoring early on the power play. The Jets would respond, with a centering pass from Kyle Connor finding the stick of Mark Scheifele, who produced one of the deftest deflections you’ll see to finally crack Jordan Binnington.

Both Binnington and his counterpart Connor Hellebuyck were remarkable in the game. Binnington, the rookie sensation, ended with 37 saves while Hellebuyck stopped 31.

Who might take Game 5? These games (outside of Game 3) have been incredibly close. Winnipeg has finally started to hit its stride, and their physical game appears to be wearing on St. Louis. Paul Maurice made some adjustments ahead of Game 3, including reuniting the line with Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

It was a logical move to make given the Jets needed more offensive zone time, and it’s paid off in spades. The line has dominated in the past two games.

And then there’s Patrik Laine, who didn’t score for a fourth straight game but punished the Blues on the walls. Laine, 20, has made massive strides in four games now in becoming a power forward. He’s all over the place and is throwing his large frame around. A Laine that can snipe like he does and be dominant physically won’t be easy for anyone to handle moving forward.

Quick note: the Jets won their first playoff overtime game in franchise history. They were 0-2 heading into Tuesday’s game.


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