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Three questions facing Carolina Hurricanes

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

For more on the Hurricanes’ outlook for 2018-19…

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off breakthrough]

1. Who is going to score the goals?

While so much gets made of the Hurricanes’ goaltending issues over the years they have also had a problem when it comes to putting the puck in their opponent’s net, having finished in the bottom-10 in goals scored in each of the past five seasons.

Then this offseason they finally traded the best pure goal-scorer on the roster (Jeff Skinner) without any proven NHL goal-scorers coming back in return to replace him in the lineup.

Could be a problem.

The Hurricanes do have some nice young talent led by Teuvo Teravainen, Victor Rask, and the outstanding and underrated Sebastian Aho, as well as some really good two-way veterans in Jordan Staal and Justin Williams. Despite that crop of forwards, they are still lacking a go-to difference-maker that could be a franchise changing player at forward.

They are hoping they have found that at the top of the draft in No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov, a monster of a prospect with superstar potential.

Along with Svechnikov, they also have 23-year-old forward Valentin Zykov who is coming off of a great year in the American Hockey League (33 goals in 63 games) and a strong first impression with the big club, recording seven points (including three goals) in 10 games.

How good Svechnikov and Zykov can be — and how quickly they can make an impact — will go a long way toward determining how good the Hurricanes’ offense can be.

They could also probably use a bounce back year from Rask after his production regressed a bit this past season.

2. Will Justin Faulk finish the season in Carolina?

With Skinner traded to the Buffalo Sabres, all eyes are now focussed on defenseman Justin Faulk when it comes to potential trades. Faulk’s name has been thrown around in trade speculation for more than a year now, and the offseason additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan only seemed to increase that.

Given his ability offensive he could be an attractive trade chip for teams looking to add some firepower to their blue line, and perhaps be used to help the Hurricanes deal from a position of strength (defense) to address their shortcomings offensively.

Or they could keep him and continue to build on what is already an outstanding young defense.

3. Did the Hurricanes do enough to end their playoff drought?

Even after losing Skinner in a trade to the Sabres there is still reason to believe the Hurricanes improved their outlook for the upcoming season.

The defense is significantly better with the additions of Hamilton and de Haan. It would be almost impossible for Scott Darling to be worse than he was a year ago so they should get some improvement there almost by default. Svechnikov and Zykov are unproven, but their potential is exciting.

Still, is that enough to end what is currently a nine-year playoff drought before it reaches a full decade without a single postseason game being played by the organization? Especially in a division that has the past three Stanley Cup champions and both Eastern Conference wild card teams from this past season? And especially after we seem to try and convince ourselves every summer that this season is the one where they finally they did enough to get back in the playoffs?

One of these years it has to happen … right?!

They need to make up a 14-point gap in the standings from this past season to do it, and while that is not going to be an easy task, it is also definitely not impossible. Especially if they can get adequate goaltending from Darling to fully take advantage of the young, talented defense they have assembled over the years and get a couple of breakthrough offensive performances from their prized prospects Svechnikov and Zykov.

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.

Under Pressure: Scott Darling

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

So far in our team of the day series goalies have been a popular pick for the “under pressure” look, and honestly, that is probably very fitting. Goaltending can make or break a team’s season unlike any other position in the sport, and there is perhaps no team in the NHL that has come to know that more than the Carolina Hurricanes. Especially when it comes to the “break” part.

The Hurricanes have been trying to solve their goaltending issues for years, and it is a position that has probably done more to keep them out of the playoffs than any other on the team. They finally moved on from Cam Ward this offseason and will be sticking with Scott Darling as their likely starter. He might get a bit of a push from the newly signed Petr Mrazek, but make no mistake, this is probably going to be Darling’s spot to lose.

He still has a lot to prove.

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough | Three Questions]

Darling arrived in Carolina prior to the 2017-18 season and immediately signed a four-year, $16 million contract. Year one with his new team — and his first as a player expected to help carry the workload over the course of a full season — turned out to be a complete disaster.  Among the 32 goalies to appear in at least 40 games his .888 save percentage was last in the NHL, and one of only two goalies (Craig Anderson being the other) to finish with a sub-.900 mark. His even-strength save percentage of .897 was also last, and the only goalie to finish below .900. Just speaking strictly from a numbers perspective, he was the least productive regular goaltender in the NHL.

Simply put, the Hurricanes need more from him, and given the additions the team made on the blue line in front of him there really can not be any excuses if his play does not improve.

The Hurricanes were already one of the best shot suppression teams in the league (and have been for several years) and only added to their blue line by acquiring Dougie Hamilton, one of the best defenseman in the league and a legitimate top-pairing playing, and signing Calvin de Haan in free agency away from the New York Islanders.

There also is not much of a safety net in place for the Hurricanes should Darling once again falter as his top backup is going to be Petr Mrazek. After a promising start to his career in Detroit, Mrazek’s play has badly regressed the past two years. Unless his career does a complete 180 upon his arrival in Carolina the Hurricanes’ success or failure is largely going to depend on what Darling can give them in net.

Given all of that there is no player in Carolina under more pressure for a big season than their starting goalie.

Related: Goaltending will once again make or break Hurricanes’ season

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.

Three questions facing Calgary Flames

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

Want to chew on more than three questions? Check these posts, too.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Is Bill Peters a better coach than Glen Gulutzan?

Your mileage will vary on Bill Peters, a coach who served as one of Mike Babcock’s assistants in Detroit before getting his first head gig with the Hurricanes.

On one hand, the Hurricanes were analytics darlings and seemed perpetually on the cusp of greater things. While talent on hand naturally helps to push the puck in the right direction, a coach’s systems also can make a big difference when it comes to dominating possession.

Still, there’s also a chicken-and-the-egg discussion regarding Peters’ work and the Hurricanes horrendous run of goaltending. How much of it is on the talent in net – let’s not forget that Scott Darling carried fantastic numbers into Carolina – versus possibly being a matter of his system putting goalies in a tough spot? Goalie nerds undoubtedly love chewing on those questions, whether there are concrete answers or not.

The bottom line is that the Hurricanes never made the playoffs under Peters’ watch, while the Flames frequently underwhelmed under Glen Gulutzan’s tutelage. Peters stands as Flames GM Brad Treliving’s second hire, so there’s a lot on the line.

2. Did the Flames improve this off-season?

As mentioned in this post, the Flames saw significant changes to their roster this summer – not just their coaching staff – with Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox traded away, Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin coming back, and James Neal signed to a hefty contract. Naturally, there were also some tweaks in depth positions, while the Flames decided to stick with Mike Smith as their likely workhorse (more on that in a moment).

The question Brad Treliving’s job may ride on is: did the Flames get better? Is it possible they’re merely in the same position or even got worse? You’re likely to hear plenty of differing opinions across the hockey world.

To venture some guesses, the Flames should probably improve on offense. Barring Neal hitting age 30 hard, he’s pretty much a rich man’s version of Micheal Ferland, at least right now. Elias Lindholm is a 50-point-or-so guy, and that outlook could change dramatically if he lands with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

On paper, the Flames offense is more capable, and could possibly boast the depth they’ve sorely been lacking in their bottom-six. Of course, some of that depends upon how Peters deploys forwards, and how restricted they are in being creative versus playing it safe.

Calgary’s defense is another interesting riddle, as the analysis hinges on how you feel about Hanifin and Hamilton. If nothing else, Hanifin is much younger than Hamilton, and should be hungry to seek his first postseason berth.

And then there’s the goaltending …

3. What kind of goaltending will they get in 2018-19?

Considering his health challenges last season, it might be tempting to assume that the Flames would otherwise be in a great place with Mike Smith if you could merely turn injuries off like in “NHL 19.”

Let’s not forget that the towering 36-year-old has been through a lot during his career, and not just happy moments.

Smith began his career as a promising Stars backup before flubbing his first opportunity as No. 1 guy with the Lightning. After that, Smith’s lengthy stay with the Coyotes included a big contract, a Cinderella run to the 2012 Western Conference Final, and plenty of nights facing a barrage of shots on an aimless Arizona squad. Smith’s career and confidence was on the line at least once; as you may remember, he discussed his work with a sports psychologist in October 2015.

(Side note: it would actually be refreshing if more athletes, not just struggling ones, decided to address their mental health in similar ways. That might take some time, judging by the fact that Smith said he was initially “offended” by the Coyotes’ suggestion.)

It’s quite possible that Smith will carry over the best moments from 2017-18 (before the All-Star break, Smith generated a dazzling .926 save percentage in 41 games), and defy age by being a strong workhorse for Calgary.

The scary thing is that it sure seems like the Flames are essentially depending upon that to work out.

Granted, the Flames aren’t short on interesting goalie prospects, as Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons are all on the organizational radar. Gillies and Rittich received some NHL reps last season, for better and worse.

Are any of those goalies really ready if the bottom falls out for Smith? If not, would Treliving manage to pull off a trade that wouldn’t just pull the Flames deeper into the quicksand?

The good news is that the Flames boast a lot of talent. There’s an ideal scenario, one that’s not too far-fetched, where it all comes together for Calgary and they go from missing the playoffs to a deep run. That’s especially true if Treliving ends up being correct about Peters.

The Flames are swinging with power rather than accuracy here, though, as there are some considerable gambles taking place. We’ll find out next season if this team laughs its way to the bank or opens the door for even more instability.

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.

Under Pressure: Carter Hutton

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

The pressure on Carter Hutton won’t be coming from the money the Buffalo Sabres paid for his services on July 1.

No, general manager Jason Botterill did the team a solid by signing Hutton to a deal where he makes less than $3 million per season to be a starting goaltender in the NHL.

The risk, financially, is low.

The pressure here is solely cemented in performance. If Hutton strays too far from the career-best numbers he posted this past season in St. Louis, then trouble will be afoot in Buffalo.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Building Off a Breakthrough]

Taking gambles on serviceable backup goalies, hoping that they turn into sufficient starting netminders, doesn’t always pay off (see: Scott Darling).

But with Robin Lehner not panning out, Buffalo needed to make a change. With Lehner becoming a restricted free agent (with no intention of qualifying him) and with Hutton available for the taking as an unrestricted free agent, the Sabres took the leap, as did Hutton.

Hutton comes into a Sabres team that looks vastly different from the team that gave up the third most goals-against in the league last year and the team that put up the least run support in the NHL.

Rasmus Dahlin’s arrival certainly helps on the backend, and the addition of Jeff Skinner should help out up top. More goals-for and perhaps a little more shot suppression will go a long way in Buffalo, if Hutton can perform in the task he’s been handed.

“I think for me my main goal right now is going in to win hockey games,” Hutton told NHL.com after he signed. “I’d love to get into the higher end of [50 starts] just to really give myself a goal. I think I play better when I get more minutes.”

Hutton posted a .931 save percentage last season in 32 games. It was his best season as a backup by far, posting a 17-7-3 record. They’re stellar backup numbers, for sure. But can they translate when you double the number of games played?

Hutton isn’t a proven workhorse, nor is it known how he will adjust to not having exceptional defending in front of him.

The Sabres, despite what they’ve built in front of Hutton, could be in serious trouble if he can’t.

Sure, Hutton’s contract is cheap for a starting netminder, but they have nothing proven behind him if this new marriage doesn’t work out. Linus Ullmark could very well be the future and is slated to come up from Rochester to be Hutton’s backup, but there’s no one to steady the ship should it hit turbulent waters.

All that aside, Hutton has one heck of an opportunity in front of him and if he can take those reins and run with them, he’ll be the steal of this offseason’s UFA class.


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

Under Pressure: Antti Raanta

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes.

Yes, you could make a fair argument that Antti Raanta was under greater pressure last season.

After serving as one of the NHL’s sturdiest backup goalies, Raanta was set to finally receive a chance to prove that he could be a No. 1 guy in 2017-18. The steady Finnish netminder also entered the season in a contract year, ultimately setting himself up to sign a three-year, $12.75 million extension in April.

Yet, with all that in mind, it sure feels like Raanta has a lot to prove.

If forced to grade his work last season, it would be foolish not to give him high marks. He managed a decent record (21-17-6) and a fantastic .930 save percentage on a team that was mediocre at best. As it stands, Raanta seems like he could end up being a bargain at $4.25M per season.

Still, there’s a gut instinct to grade him as “Incomplete,” at least as a starter.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Three Questions | Building Off a Breakthrough]

After all, he only played 47 games last season. Raanta dealt with injury headaches early in 2017-18, and the Coyotes dug themselves too deep a hole for his strong work to matter, at least beyond ending a disappointing season with optimism.

The contract factors heavily into expectations, or at least it should.

Role-wise, yes, Raanta was already the No. 1 last season. Still, it was somewhat on a “trial” basis. While acquiring Raanta cost the Coyotes assets, you could also square away some of those costs as part of the price for Derek Stepan. With that in mind, his $1M cap hit in 2017-18 made it seem silly to be too critical of any missteps.

While I believe that $4.25M is a very fair price, and could easily stand as a steal, it unquestionably raises the stakes. If Raanta falters, he could very well draw moderate Scott Darling-type comparisons. (Hey, both stood out as Blackhawks backups before signing multi-year deals in the $4M neighborhood …)

And, let’s be honest. you could probably argue that virtually every starting goalie has at least an argument for “under pressure” status. Despite being an unpredictable position production-wise, a goalie can make or break just about any team, and the Coyotes are no exception. If Raanta can be outstanding and a workhorse, Arizona could accelerate its rise. If he flops, the Coyotes might feel like they’re more in quicksand than in a rebuild.

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.