Sebastian Aho

What is the long-term outlook for the Hurricanes?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

This has the potential to be one of the best long-term situations in the league given their collective age (one of the youngest teams in the league), the talent and potential on the roster, as well as the fact that so many of the key players are already signed to long-term deals.

The Montreal Canadiens did them a huge favor this offseason by signing Sebastian Aho to an easily matchable offer sheet, locking him in place for the next five years.

Meanwhile, Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce are all signed to long-term deals for at least the next two seasons. Several of them signed beyond that, while only two of those players (Aho and Staal) count more than $5.5 million against the salary cap individually.

Add in the fact that Dougie Hamilton is signed for another year, while Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas are both still on their entry-level deals and will not be eligible for unrestricted free agency for another six seasons and all of the most important players are locked in place.

Out of that core group, Staal is the only one over the age of 30 (currently 31), while the majority of them are still age 26 or younger. That means they are all either in the prime of their careers right now, or are just about to reach their prime years in the coming seasons.

Aho, Svechnikov, and Necas are already outstanding players, and all might still have their best days ahead of them.

Long-Term Needs

Goaltending has been the single biggest question mark for this team for almost a decade now, and that still might be the case.

That is not meant to be a knock on the current duo of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. They have been solid this season when healthy, and a team could certainly do worse than having those two as their regular goalie tandem.

Given the overall strength of the team — and especially the defense when it is healthy — they do not need a game-saving superstar between the pipes to give them a chance. They simply need solid, steady, consistent play. They are getting that.

The question comes from the fact that I just do not know if either one is a true long-term solution in net, and if they have that solution somewhere else in their organization right now.

Both players are signed through the end of next season.

Other than maybe finding a potentially better long-term option in net, there are not a lot of truly pressing needs here. As mentioned above, their core group is locked in place and the addition of Trocheck from the Florida Panthers just before the trade deadline adds what could be an ideal long-term fit in the second-line center spot.

Long-Term Strengths

This current core has been built around its young defense, and that is still by far the team’s biggest strength both now and in the immediate future.

Slavin, Pesce, Skjei, and Gardiner are all signed through at least the 2022-23 season, while the former three all go through the end of the 2023-24 season. Add in Hamilton, who is signed through the end of next season, and that is as good of a top-five as you will find in the NHL right now. They are all in the prime of their careers, they are all outstanding players that fit the modern NHL game with their mobility and puck skills, and they are the backbone of what has been one of the league’s best teams when it comes to limiting shots and scoring chances over the past four years.

If they can manage to get Hamilton re-signed that would be another major piece in place.

Along with the defense, they also have what look to be two of the most important pieces for any contending team already in place with the duo Aho and Svechnikov — impact forwards that can carry the offense.

Aho is already a sensational player and a top-line star, while Svechnikov might end up being the best of the bunch. Aho’s contract could end up looking like a steal over the next four years, while Svechnikov still has one more year on an entry-level contract, giving them a huge advantage when it comes to adding pieces next season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Hurricanes
Hurricanes surprises and disappointments
• John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Carolina Hurricanes

Record: 38-25-5 (68 games), Fourth place in Metropolitan Division; first Wild Card spot in Eastern Conference
Leading scorer: Sebastian Aho 66 points (38 goals, 28 assists)

In-season roster moves

  • Acquired defenseman Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils for Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional 2020 fourth-round draft pick.
  • Acquired defenseman Brady Skjei from the New York Rangers for a 2020 first-round draft pick.
  • Traded for Vincent Trocheck by sending Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen, and Chase Priskie to the Florida Panthers.
  • Veteran forward Justin Williams returned mid-season after using the first half of the season to contemplate his future.

Season Overview

After their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final during the 2018-19 season, expectations were sky high for the Hurricanes at the start of this season.

The results so far have been a bit of a mixed bag.

At the time of the NHL’s hiatus the Hurricanes occupied the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference but were in the middle of an intense fight alongside the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Florida Panthers for those two playoff spots. They still seem to have the inside track for one of them, but the overall results may not be exactly as good as they hoped given their success last year and the improvements they attempted to make to the roster in the offseason (additions of Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel) and internal improvements from young players like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas.

One of the biggest things that has held them back — injuries.

Specifically, the injuries to top defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce.

Prior to breaking a bone in his leg in mid-January, Hamilton was not only having a Norris Trophy caliber season, he may have been the best all-around defensemen in the NHL this season. It was a completely dominant performance and one that was not going to be easy to replace.

When Pesce was injured a month later — along with James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, the teams top two goalies — it put a pretty significant dent in their greatest overall strength.

They attempted to address the defense at the trade deadline by acquiring Vatanen and Skjei in separate trades, while also adding another potential impact forward in Trocheck. The latter joins an already impressive core of forwards that includes Aho, Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen.

Assuming everyone on defense is healthy, that is a potentially imposing roster.

Highlight of the Season

What else could it be other than 42-year-old David Ayres, a zamboni driver by day, entering a game and getting the win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

MORE:
Hurricanes’ biggest surprises and disappointments
Hurricanes long-term outlook
John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

What Hurricanes should expect from Justin Williams

Hurricanes
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Now that Justin Williams is officially back with the Carolina Hurricanes the waiting game is on for when he makes his season debut. Coach Rod Brind’Amour isn’t putting a timeline on it and just wants to make sure the 38-year-old winger is up to speed.

Once that happens he has the potential to be a significant addition and make an already talented, deep Hurricanes roster even better.

Let’s take a look at what they can — and should — expect from him once he makes his debut.

Even at 38 Williams has not slowed down

If there is a concern with Williams at this point it has to be the fact that he is going to be one of the oldest players in the league, having just turned 38 back in October. There are only four other players in the league age 38 or older this season (Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Ron Hainsey).

The thing that should give the Hurricanes a lot of optimism about Williams’ ability to produce is the fact his game never really showed any sign of slowing down in recent seasons. Everything about his level of production has remained remarkably consistent.

Durability? He has that, having missed just three regular season games since the start of the 2011-12 season, and none during his two most recent seasons in Carolina.

Production? Still very much there. He has yet to shown any sign of dropping off, averaging 20 goals and 50 points with fairly strong shot rates in each of the past four seasons.

While it is inevitable that every player will slow down as they get deeper into their 30s, there are some decent comparable players to Williams that suggest he could still have another year of similar production.

Dating back to the start of the 2000-01 season, Williams is one of five forwards that averaged between 0.60 and 0.70 points per game between the ages of 34-37 (minimum 300 games during that stretch).

The others: Patrick Marleau, Andrew Brunnette, Luc Robitaille, and Keith Tkachuk. Marleau and Brunnette came back in their age 38 seasons and maintained a very similar level of production. Robitaille missed his age 38 season due to the 2004 lockout, and came back at 39 and scored 15 goals in 65 games. Tkachuk retired.

Great value beyond just offense

What makes Williams such a big addition is that his game is far more than just offense. It always has been. Williams is an ice-tilter. When he is on the ice you know the puck is going to be at a certain end of the ice and that his team is going to be in control.

He has consistently been one of the best possession players in the league, and even the past two years in Carolina had some of the best defensive metrics not only among Hurricanes forwards, but also the entire league.

There were 350 forwards that played at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey the past two full seasons. Williams ranked among the top-20 in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, and expected goals share (via Natural Stat Trick). Defense doesn’t slump, and the type of high hockey IQ that Williams has had throughout his career doesn’t go away. So even if his finishing ability and offensive production slides a little, he is still going to be able to provide a lot of value.

The Hurricanes get even deeper 

When the Hurricanes’ roster gets discussed a lot of the focus tends to fall on their blue line, and for good reason. They are loaded on defense with young, impact players that are some of the best in the league. But their forwards are nothing to sleep on, either.

That group is also better than it was a year ago, even before the addition of Williams.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are bonafide top-line stars. Andrei Svechnikov is turning into a superstar. They added strong depth players like Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula (an outstanding player when healthy) over the summer. Martin Necas is blossoming into good, young NHL player. They have good options on every line, and that doesn’t even include Nino Neiderreiter who can still be better than he has shown.

Now they just added a top-six caliber winger without giving up anything in return.

With Williams having a half season to rest and coming in fresh with no wear and tear, combined with his all-around play, he could be one of the most significant additions an Eastern Conference team makes before the trade deadline.

Related: Hurricanes sign Williams to 1-year contract

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.

 

Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

Matthews Pastrnak Richard race
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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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.

Five most underrated stars heading into 2020

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Like in all sports, the NHL has some players that are both overrated and underrated. Players might fall into either category because of where they play, which players they play with or their personalities both during interviews and on social media.

Today, we don’t want to focus on calling out players for being overrated, so we’ll stick to pointing out who some of the less appreciated superstars are across the league. Keep in mind, these players may be appreciated in their own market, but they could stand to get a little more attention league-wide.

Jonathan Huberdeau – LW – Florida Panthers

Only now is Huberdeau starting to grab major headlines across the league. The 26-year-old probably had one of the quietest 90-plus point seasons you’ll ever see last year (he had 92 in 82 games), and he’s on pace to smash that number at the midway point of this season.

It wasn’t too long ago that teammate Aleksander Barkov would’ve been at the top of this list, but he’s received enough national love that he’s appropriately considered to be one of the premiere two-way centers in the game. Now, it’s Huberdeau’s turn to get some love.

The Panthers forward currently has 17 goals and 55 points in 40 games, which puts him on pace to score 113 points this season. That’s a big number. Will he hit it? Time will tell, but he’s off to an amazing start. As of right now, only five players have more points than Huberdeau. They are: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. That’s it.

In his case, the reason he’s so underrated is probably because of the market he plays in. No disrespect to Florida, but a lot of their players will fly under the radar because it’s not a traditional hockey market.

Mark Scheifele – C – Winnipeg Jets

In terms of their home hockey markets, Huberdeau and Scheifele couldn’t be in more different situations. We’ve touched on Florida already, but Winnipeg is just the opposite. The fans in Winnipeg are loud, passionate and plentiful. Scheifele is likely rated appropriately in Winnipeg, but he seems to fly under-the-radar compared to some of his teammates.

For instance, when you think of the Jets, the first current player that pops into your mind in probably Patrik Laine. They also have Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. In previous seasons, they’ve also had Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien. So it’s easy to see why Scheifele might not get as much attention as he deserves.

The 26-year-old has been a point-per-game player in each of the last three seasons. This year, he’s on pace to have the best offensive season of his career. He’s already accumulated 19 goals and 46 points in just 41 games. If you project those numbers over 82 contests, you get 38 goals and 92 points. Not too shabby.

Jake Guentzel – LW – Pittsburgh Penguins

Again, this is a situation where the people in Pittsburgh probably realize how good Guentzel has been this season, but there’s still a lot of fans out there that think he’s only a product of Sidney Crosby‘s success.

Before suffering a shoulder injury earlier this week that ended his regular season, Guentzel was lighting it up for the Pens. It took the 25-year-old just 39 games to hit the 20-goal mark and he was also on pace to have the first 90-plus point season of his career. Oh, by the way, he put up a lot of those numbers while Crosby was injured.

How many people realized that he had 40 goals last year? He was on pace to surpass that number, too.

Playing with Crosby has helped pump up other players’ numbers in the past, so it’s easy to understand why some would be skeptical about Guentzel’s abilities without him. The reality is that he’s morphed into a very important player for his team and hopefully he’s able to make a full recovery from his surgery in four-to-six months.

This is a classic case of being underrated because of the superstars around you.

Teuvo Teravainen – C – Carolina Hurricanes

Teravainen is on this list because of the market he’s in. The Hurricanes hit a grand slam when they acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks along with Bryan Bickell. In exchange, all they gave up was second and third-round draft picks.

Since joining the ‘Canes, Teravainen has seen his point totals increase every year and he’s on pace to do that again in 2020. He went from having 42 points in year one to 64 points, 76 points and he’s picked up 40 points in his first 40 contests. His advanced numbers are even more impressive. When he’s on the ice, his team controls 59.94 percent of the shot attempts, 55.51 percent of the expected goals for and 55.05 percent of the high-danger scoring chances.

Understandably, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov will grab more of the headlines because of their scoring ability, but Teravainen is a huge part of Carolina’s success. He’s also averaging a career-high 19:22 of ice time this year.

He has four years remaining on a contract that will pay him $5.4 million per season. That’s a bargain.

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty had some terrific seasons in Montreal despite never playing with an elite center. The 31-year-old managed to put up seasons of 33, 39, 37, 30 and 35 goals while with the Habs, but his last two seasons haven’t lived up to expectations. Now, in his second year with Vegas, he appears to have found his groove.

Now, he’s playing with the best linemates he’s ever had (Paul Stastny and Mark Stone) and his numbers are starting to reflect that he’s comfortable in his second year with the Golden Knights. Pacioretty has picked up 18 goals and 43 points in his first 44 games. That puts him on pace for a career-high 81 points.

As his tenure with the Canadiens came to a close, it was clear that wearing the “C” in hockey-mad Montreal was weighing on him. The fresh start in Vegas has done wonders for his career.

Whether you realized it or not, he was one of the best goal scorers of the last decade.

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.