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Hurricanes once again NHL’s most frustrating outlier

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For what seems to be the fourth or fifth year in a row the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2017-18 season as a popular pick to jump back into the playoff picture, finally taking that long awaited big step forward in their rebuild.

It is not hard to understand why there has been so much excitement about this team in recent seasons.

They have an outstanding young core of players. Jeff Skinner is one of the absolute best goal-scoring forwards in the league (that nobody ever talks about). Sebastian Aho looks like he has a chance to be a star. This summer they added Scott Darling, Justin Williams and Trevor van Riemsdyk to that young core.

In terms of their play they seem to pass the eye test by playing everyone close (they have already lost nine one goal games this season, including six in overtime or a shootout — they have only won three such games) and giving everyone fits.

Their analytics consistently rate them among the best in the NHL.

Defensively, they have been one of the four or five best teams in the league at suppressing shots against despite having one of the youngest blue lines in the league. They are consistently among the best possession teams in the league, finishing near the top of the league in shot attempt metrics.

But the results in the standings have not been there. At all. They have made the playoffs just once in the past 12 years, and in their most recent seasons have seemingly hit a glass ceiling that caps them in the mid-80s for points.

In 2014-15 they finished with 71 points in the standings even though they were third in the league in shots against and ninth in attempts percentage.

In 2015-16 it was 86 points despite finishing fifth and 11th respectively.

Last season? 87 points. Where they did they finish in those two shot based categories? Fifth (shots against) and sixth (shot attempts percentage).

You can probably guess what is happening in Carolina this season. Through their first 29 games the Hurricanes are allowing 29.5 shots on goal against per game, the third lowest total in the league. They are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts in their games, the highest mark in the NHL.

Their current point pace for the season? It is just 84.9.

New year, same story. A promising young team that seems to be doing everything right but is destined to finish somewhere in the middle of the league, just on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The frustrating thing about this from a Hurricanes perspective is that they should be better than this. Teams that play the way they do, limit shots the way they do, and control possession the way they do not only tend to make the playoffs, they tend to do very well once they get there.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season there have been 29 teams that have finished the regular season allowing less than 29 shots on goal per game and finishing with a shot attempts percentage higher than 51 percent.

Those 29 teams finished with an average of 100 points in the standings. Twenty-two made the playoffs. Twelve won at least one series once they got there. Six advanced to the Conference Finals. Three reached the Stanley Cup Final.

Here are the seven teams that fit that criteria over that stretch and missed the playoffs.

You might notice a common name or two.

So, basically, the Hurricanes and Kings are the two biggest statistical outliers in the league over the past five years.

But at least the Kings’ formula has proven to be successful at one point or another with a lot of playoff appearances in between — they seem destined to return this season — and two Stanley Cup titles.

But the Hurricanes. Geez. The Hurricanes. Three times playing at a level that is on par with a contender and missing the playoffs every time. It seems at least possible, if not likely, that it will happen again this season.

So what in the world is happening here?

The most common target for blame has been their inability to find any sort of stability in net. To be fair, it has been a huge problem.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season the Hurricanes have finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in the league in team save percentage. So far this season they are 25th. Probably the biggest reason they do not finish lower in terms of goals against is the fact they do such a great job limiting shots against. It has not been any one goalie that has been the culprit because they have tried several different options, whether it be long-time starter Cam Ward, or any of the many recent successful backups they have tried to acquire to take over the starting job, ranging from Anton Khudobin, to Eddie Lack, to their recent attempt with Darling.

It is obviously far too early to write Darling off, but with a .902 save percentage in his first 20 appearances it is not exactly an encouraging start.

But for all of the issues they have had in goal, there is another one that seems to quietly slide under the radar: For all of their dominant possession numbers, and for all of the shots they are able to register for themselves … they don’t really score a lot, either.

So far this season the Hurricanes are 25th in the league in goals per game, and have consistently been in the bottom-10 over the aforementioned five-year stretch.

There is something to be said for the argument (recently put forward by Andrew Berkshire at the Sporting News) that as teams become more involved in analytics that stats like Corsi may not be as predictive as they once were. By now pretty much everyone in the league knows the value of keeping the puck, generating shots and preventing shots. It’s a lot harder to find an advantage there if everyone is in tune with that.

It could also be a matter of just overall talent and scoring ability.

I argued during the Stanley Cup Final that it was possible for the Pittsburgh Penguins to outperform their possession stats because their roster is made up of elite, high end talent. When you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel at the top of your lineup, not to mention Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel as complementary players, you have the ability to strike fast. You don’t always need sustained pressure or a lot of shots to score. Those guys can strike at any moment and from anywhere on the ice. To a lesser extent that might also be true for a team like this year’s Winnipeg Jets, a team that doesn’t dominant territorially but has some of the top offensive players in the league.

The Hurricanes, for as good as their young talent is, especially on the blue line, do not really have that sort of talent.

Skinner is certainly on that level, and Aho could end up there, but that is pretty much it.

What they have is a lot of players that are great are driving possession but aren’t really game-breaking offensive players. Jordan Staal, their top forward in terms of ice-time, is a perfect example of this. Staal is a really good two-way player. He does a lot of things really well. He is a great defensive player, he can drive possession, he can play against other team’s top players. But he has never been a great playmaker. He has never been a player that will be a threat to score 35 or 40 goals.

Justin Williams has been a similar player for much of his career. Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask seem like they are trending in that same direction with their careers. Very good players. Players necessary for a winning team. But not players that can really break a game open offensively. That, too, is still a necessity.

All of this together makes the Hurricanes an incredibly frustrating team.

They have a lot of necessary ingredients. They seem to play the right way, and they can be pretty entertaining, too. But they seem to just always be a little bit short of being able to take that next step we keep anticipating.

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.

Report: Blackhawks sign Franson to PTO

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Two years ago, Cody Franson didn’t get a contract signed until Sept. 10,  finally inking a deal with the Buffalo Sabres.

On Thursday, with the summer once again almost completely over and one week remaining until training camps open up, the 30-year-old defenseman signed a professional tryout with the Chicago Blackhawks, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, which added that Franson turned down offers from other clubs in favor of this opportunity with the Blackhawks.

Playing on a two-year deal worth a total of $6.65 million for the Sabres, Franson had three goals and 19 points in Buffalo last season. He had 17 points the previous season.

With the losses of Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Johnny Oduya, there has been significant change to the Blackhawks blue line throughout this offseason.

That said, there will be competition for spots on defense.

Prospect Gustav Forsling looks to maintain a full-time position on the roster after impressing during camp and splitting his time last season between the NHL and the minors. Same goes for Jan Rutta, who has spent the last few years playing professionally in the Czech Republic before he made the decision to come to North America.  He signed with Chicago in June.

Poll: Will the Hurricanes be a playoff team this season?

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It has been eight years since the Carolina Hurricanes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then they have gone through three coaches, numerous roster constructions and a still ongoing rebuilding effort.

For the past three or four years it seems as if the Hurricanes have entered the new season as a popular sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and things never quite seem to work out for one reason or another (recently goaltending has been a big reason). Those expectations are back once again this season.

They had a pretty strong finish to the 2016-17 season with an 11-5-5 mark down the stretch and have an impressive young core of players in place, mostly on their defense that is stacked with a ton of already good — and very underrated — players all under the age of 24, with several of them now locked in to long-term contracts. Up front Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, while Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask are looking like two of the best young forwards in the league. They attempted to complement that young core this summer with some pretty significant veteran additions, including Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling.

Their young players are still at an age where they have room to improve, and they made some significant additions around them (and do not forget Jordan Staal, who is still a really good player even if he carries a huge contract). Will those improvements be enough to help the Hurricanes make up eight points in the standings and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season?

Under Pressure: Bill Peters

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

“I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

  • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
  • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
  • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
  • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
  • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice