Sebastian Aho

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

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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.

***

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Rask an early Conn Smythe favorite; Should all goals be reviewable?

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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 May 16

• Following the Blues’ loss in Game 3 after a missed hand pass call, Benjamin Hochman argues that all goals and the plays leading up to them should be reviewable. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The reaction from the Sharks and Blues to the call was naturally different. Joe Thornton took issue with an earlier decision not to call a delay of game penalty on David Perron in the second period. (CSN Bay Area)

Tuukka Rask is looking like a Conn Smythe favorite:

• Derek Boogaard’s mother is fighting to keep the memory of her son alive. Derek passed away eight years ago due to accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. (The Hockey News)

• Charles Glenn, 64, has been singing the national anthems at St. Louis Blues’ games for 19 years, including nearly eight years since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s been getting increasingly difficult and he decided back in January that this would be his last season, but thanks to the Blues’ turnaround and postseason success, he’s got to extend his final run for longer than anticipated. (ESPN)

Brad Marchand seems to have succeeded in getting in Justin Williams‘ head. (CSN Boston)

• The Bruins’ fourth line played a major role in their Game 3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. (WEEI)

• After winning the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery, would it make sense for the Rangers to prioritize pursuing Erik Karlsson over Artemi Panarin, should both of them end up as unrestricted free agents? (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Sharks are partnering with local tattoo shops to offer free Sharks tattoos during each Western Conference road game. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Although his playing days are long over, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour is still dedicated to his own personal fitness to the point that Sebastian Aho thinks their bench boss can “outlift everyone in the whole league.” (USA Today)

• There are connecting threads between the underdog stories of the St. Louis Blues and Carolina Hurricanes. (Sports Illustrated)

• Islanders assistant Lane Lambert could end up as a head coach for the 2019-20 campaign. At a minimum, the Anaheim Ducks have offered him an interview. (Anaheim Calling)

• A look at 10 potential buyout candidates. (Sportsnet)

Andreas Johnsson isn’t one of the Maple Leafs’ bigger names, but he played a valuable role for the squad in 2018-19. (EP Rinkside)

• It seemed like Ralph Krueger might be done with the NHL in a coaching capacity, but talking with Sabres GM Jason Botterill and the talent on Buffalo’s roster convinced him to become their new head coach. (Buffalo News)

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Hertl’s contract already looking like bargain for Sharks

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Tomas Hertl has been one of the biggest stars for the San Jose Sharks this postseason, and that is helping to make him one of the biggest steals in the NHL under the salary cap.

Entering Game 2 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), Hertl finds himself near the top of the playoff leaderboards in goals and points while also scoring several season-saving goals for the Sharks, including a Game 6 overtime winner in Round 1 and two of the Sharks’ three goals during their third period Game 7 comeback.

That performance has also made him one of the current front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP (though he might have a tough time surpassing his teammate, Logan Couture, if the Sharks win it all) and comes on the heels of a breakout regular season performance that saw him take a massive step forward in his development and realize pretty much all of his potential.

It also happened in the first year of a four-year, $22.5 million contract that is well below what other comparable players are pulling in right now.

First, just look at the season that Hertl had.

He finished with a career high in goals (35), total points (74), while also recording a 54 percent Corsi percentage. The Sharks not only controlled the pace of play when he was on the ice, but he helped put the puck in the back of the net. A lot. Even better, he did the bulk of that damage at even-strength, not needing to rely only on a ton of power play production to boost his numbers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That performance across the board put him in some pretty exclusive company among the NHL’s elite forwards.

Consider the following…

  • There were only 16 forwards in the entire NHL, including Hertl, that topped the 30-goal, 70-point, 53 percent Corsi marks this season. When you look at the salaries of those players, Hertl pretty clearly outperformed his contract.
  • Out of the 16 players in that group four of them (Sebastian Aho in Carolina, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado, Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary, and Auston Matthews in Toronto) were still on their entry-level contracts and making less than $1 million per season against the cap.
  • Among the remaining players that were beyond their entry-level deals there were only two of them that made less than $6 million per season against the cap — Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, and Hertl. The average salary cap hit for those remaining players (not including Hertl) was $6.9 million per season. Hertl counted just $5.25 million against the Sharks’ cap.
  • It is also worth pointing out that the four entry-level players are all going to see significant bumps in their pay this summer that will put them well above the $6 million mark. Matthews already signed an $11 million per year deal, while Aho, Rantanen, and Tkachuk are all in a position to demand — and get — significant money.

In hindsight it is easy to look at that and think, wow, Hertl really sold himself short on that deal. If he continues to perform at the level he has shown throughout the regular season and playoffs he is definitely going to be playing on a well below-market contract.

But it was not that easy to see at the time of the deal.

When Hertl signed that contract this past summer he had not yet seen his play — or role — blossom the way it did this season. He was obviously a talented player with a lot of upside, and a pretty productive one. He was a fairly consistent 20-goal, 45-point player, and at that level of production was probably doing fairly well for himself at $5.25 million per season.

A lot of things went right for Hertl and the Sharks since then.

For one, he saw a pretty significant increase in his ice-time and went from being what was mostly a 16 or 17 minute per might player, to a 19-minute per night player. An extra two or three minutes per game over the course of a full season adds up, especially for a skilled player that is going to get more chances as a result of it.

He was also entering his age 25 season, which is usually when scorers tend to hit their peak level of production.

And then there was the fact he absolutely shot the lights out all year, scoring on 19.9 percent of his shots during the regular season and 16.4 percent of his shots in the playoffs. That is a significant jump for a player that is usually more of a 10-12 percent shooter. That spike in shooting percentage probably added another 10-12 goals to his total for the season. That number is also probably to regress next season, but even if it does the Sharks are still going to have what should be a 25-30 goal, 60-65 point, possession driving winger in the prime of his career on what still might be a below market contract.

Getting a top-line player for a million or two below the cap isn’t a total franchise-changing move, but every additional dollar helps when building the rest of your team around them. Especially when you are a team like the Sharks that has to deal with some pretty significant free agency questions this summer with Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski.

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.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Fresh teams pave way for new breakout stars

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When Rod Brind’Amour watched pregame shows during the regular season, he didn’t think much thought was put into analyzing his Carolina Hurricanes.

”They’d look at the stat sheet and they’ll say: ‘Oh, Sebastian Aho is a good player. Watch for him,”’ Brind’Amour said recently.

Now that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference final as part of a fresh final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is among the breakout stars who are now in the limelight. Boston’s Brad Marchand, San Jose’s Logan Couture and Brent Burns and St. Louis’ Ryan O'Reilly are a bit more established, but they’ve replaced the stars of NHL playoffs past like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who aren’t playing anymore.

Even with a lot of hockey’s household names gone, there’s still plenty of star power and story lines for those who look a little closer.

”The more kind of crazy the playoffs get, the more interest is driven, and that’s really exciting,” NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said. ”There’s so many great story lines going on in the playoffs right now, and I feel like it really piques everybody’s interest. It’s great for the game. ”

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen dazzled for two rounds, Columbus winger Artemi Panarin showed why he deserves a massive July 1 payday, and Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop put himself back in the conversation among the best in the league. But those guys are gone now, too.

Still in the playoffs, Couture leads all scorers with 11 goals and 17 points. His 45 playoff goals since making his debut in 2010 trail only Ovechkin over that time, and his all-around game has him as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday. ”He plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your centerman is like that, he drives the guys around him to play as honest a game as that.”

Couture isn’t driving the Sharks by himself, of course. Brent Burns, who two seasons ago won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, is second in the playoffs in scoring and standing out with more than just his offensive acumen.

”He’s always been a good defensive player,” goaltender Martin Jones said. ”He’s always been tough to play against in the D-zone. He’s a big guy, chews up a lot of ice. He swarms you.”

One of the Sharks’ biggest challenges in the West final against St. Louis is containing O’Reilly, who hasn’t put up the points as much as he did in the regular season, but was among the best players on the ice in Game 1. O’Reilly is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and said he’s re-energized by this playoff run after missing the postseason each of the past four years.

”It brings back that life and that excitement, for sure,” said O’Reilly, who has 10 points in his first playoffs since 2014. ”This is what it’s all about: playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s what you train for in the summer and every time you touch the ice the goal is to get to playoffs and compete for it.”

No one on the Blues’ active roster has won the Cup, and Jones – as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 – is the only Sharks player with his name on the trophy. That’s not true for several core Bruins players who are still around after winning it in 2011.

That includes Marchand, who might be known more outside hockey as the player who licked an opponent last year but is making waves with his play and mostly staying out of trouble now. There was that time against Columbus that he stepped on Cam Atkinson‘s stick and broke it, but there is also an Eastern Conference-best 15 points through 14 games.

”He’s been in these big games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”He’s a Stanley Cup champion, so he understands maybe a little more than meets the eye sometimes. There’s a time and a place where you really have to be disciplined.”

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, like Jones, has a Cup ring as a backup and is trying to earn one as a starter. His .938 save percentage is best among playoff goalies who have been in at least four games.

Incredibly in a sport where the aim is to score goals, Carolina’s biggest breakout star is Slavin, who hasn’t scored one. But he does lead the Hurricanes with 11 points – all assists – and averaged over 26 minutes a game while also drawing the toughest defensive matchups.

Slavin is no slouch, and the Hurricanes have known for a while what he’s capable of. Now the rest of hockey is seeing it and lavishing some much-deserved attention on him.

”It’s part of the game,” Slavin said. ”Anyone would be lying if they said it’s not nice, but I’ve still just got to go out there and play well and obviously play for the team.”