Hot streak helps Hurricanes surge into playoff contention

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have skated their way out of being tied for last place into playoff contention – all in just six weeks.

They have been the NHL’s best team since Dec. 30, going 14-5-1 in that stretch while making an improbable push to snap the league’s longest active postseason drought.

The Hurricanes entered Thursday night’s games three points out of a playoff spot with 25 games remaining, a stretch run that starts Friday night when Edmonton visits.

”The important thing is, playoff teams get it,” captain Justin Williams said Thursday. ”We’re doing what’s necessary right now. We know where we are. All we need to do is keep winning and not worry about what’s going on above us.”

As much progress as the Hurricanes have made lately, there’s still so much further to go to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009 and only the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Not long ago, they seemed destined to set an NHL record for futility by going 10 straight seasons without making the playoffs.

And they still might. But at least for now, they’ve made things interesting.

They were tied with New Jersey and Philadelphia for last in the division on Dec. 30 with 35 points, and were one point better than Ottawa for last in the Eastern Conference.

In a relatively short period of time, though, the Hurricanes have figured things out and have become pretty tough to beat. They’ve earned 29 points in that time span, one more than the New York Islanders and two more than St. Louis.

And most recently, they went 4-1 on a five-game road trip. The last time that happened was in 1998, when PNC Arena was still under construction and the Hurricanes were playing their home games in Greensboro.

”It was a big road trip, and we’re doing what we need to do right now,” Williams said, ”which is banking wins and seeing what happens.”

The offense appears to have found its scoring touch, with an NHL-best 76 goals over that 20-game span. Sebastian Aho has 25 points – nine goals, 16 assists – during the team’s hot streak while linemate Teuvo Teravainen has 22 – nine goals, 13 assists.

And Nino Niederreiter has fit right in with his new team, racking up 10 points in 11 games since he was acquired from Minnesota in a trade for Victor Rask.

And with the league’s trading deadline Feb. 25, the big question remains whether the Hurricanes will be buyers or sellers.

Micheal Ferland, acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade with Calgary, is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, so naturally, trade rumors have surrounded him. But it might be worth it to Carolina to keep the hard-hitting forward with 15 goals and 16 assists for the stretch run – and perhaps try to sign him to a contract extension.

”I’d like to get a deal done, obviously,” Ferland said. ”We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, trying to get into the playoffs. I’d like to stay here and help this team.”

Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge

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For most of the 2018-19 NHL season the Carolina Hurricanes have been making headlines for what they have done after games.

Their Storm Surge celebrations after home victories has produced a wide range of responses from excitement locally and in the locker room, to some outrage and anger mostly north of the border.

After their 4-0 win in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, arguably the Hurricanes’ best and most complete effort of the season, I asked forward Jordan Martinook what it would take for them to do a Storm Surge on the road, an act that would probably produce the most boiling hot takes hockey has ever seen (while also being wildly entertaining). He quickly responded with “that will not happen. I’m just putting that out there right now. We will not do that on the road. Only for the home fans.”

Hey, it never hurts to ask.

While the Storm Surges are fun thing to talk about and watch, and have definitely helped put a young, improving team in the spotlight more than it otherwise would have been, it is time we started to pay attention to what this team is doing during games.

Because it, too, is worth watching right now.

What they are doing is playing their way back into playoff contention.

They enter Thursday’s massive game against the Buffalo Sabres three points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and actually tied with the Sabres in the standings, making it a huge four-point game. A win in regulation would be a massive swing for either team in their quest to snap what is a lengthy postseason drought for both teams.

Lately, these are two teams trending in very different directions.

While the Sabres are in a bit of a freefall after a white-hot start that included a 10-game winning streak, the Hurricanes have been steadily climbing the standings thanks to an 11-4-1 run over their past 16 games.

One of the biggest developments for the Hurricanes in recent weeks has been the acquisition of forward Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Victor Rask.

For years the Hurricanes have been a team that’s been a sleeper pick because of their ability to dominate the shot charts and the possession game, but they’ve always fallen short of making the playoffs because their two biggest weaknesses have been goaltending and a lack of true finishers on the roster. If you can’t stop the puck and you can’t put the puck in the other team’s net you’re probably not going to win many games.

Rask’s 2018-19 season (and his 2017-18 one for, that matter) was pretty emblematic of the first weakness. For as good as he may have been helping to drive possession and making plays in the neutral zone he was never going to be somebody that was going to consistently finish or put the puck in the net.

Niederreiter will, and in his first couple of weeks with the Hurricanes has been one of their most productive offensive players having already scored five goals (along with an assist) in his first six games with the team. There is an argument to be made he has already been the difference in two wins during that stretch with a pair of two-goal efforts. It was a perfect addition for the Hurricanes because he not only gives them the type of player they needed right now in the short-term, but he is still signed for three more seasons after this one and is young enough to still be a part of this core that is built around Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and what is still a very young, talented defense.

While Niederreiter has given the offense a much-needed boost, the other big question that will determine how far this team goes is what they are able to get out of their goaltenders

Veteran Curtis McElhinney has, quite surprisingly, emerged this season as their best goaltender and carries a .918 save percentage into Thursday night after shutting out the Penguins. Whether or not he’s able to continue that level of play remains to be seen. He’s played well over the past few years in limited action, but he has only played more than 30 games in a season one time in his career and that was four years ago.

The Hurricanes have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league for several years now but always seem to get burned because they haven’t had even adequate goaltending in net. They don’t need Carey Price or Andrei Vasilevskiy to be a top-tier defensive team.

Even decent, league average goaltending what probably give them that and help put them back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In his limited action this season McElhinney has given them that level of play.

If he can continue to do so that development, combined with the addition of Niederreiter and continued development of Aho and Teravainen into top-line players, might at least give them a shot to make that happen this 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.

 

Should Koivu injury push Wild to be trade deadline sellers?

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Mikko Koivu‘s season-ending injury is a brutal blow to the Minnesota Wild in 2018-19. There’s no getting around that. But it also might provide the push this franchise needs to make lasting changes that might make their future brighter.

Up to this point, the Wild have been middling at best.

To Bruce Boudreau’s credit, they’re a team that essentially grinds opponents to paste, limiting chances against and playing suffocating defense, allowing them to overcome what’s been a low-key disappointing season for Devan Dubnyk. It hasn’t been pretty to watch (their -4 goal differential captures the small margin for error), but it’s worked — enough. It flies in the face of the golden era of Boudreau’s love of ice cream and offense with the Capitals, but the Wild look likely to squeak into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Is just making the playoffs good enough for the Wild any longer, though?

[Koivu suffers tear to MCL, ACL]

Sometimes a bad break can actually force a team to do some soul-searching, and the truth is that Koivu’s injury should inspire new GM Paul Fenton to perform some roster surgery. As it is constructed, this team had a decent run, but this might just be nature’s way of forcing change.

(Considering all his mileage at age 35, you could glumly argue this was bound to happen for Koivu.)

Things to remember

The Wild currently don’t have picks in the fourth or fifth rounds of the 2019 NHL Draft, while they have an extra sixth-rounder.

Former GM Chuck Fletcher (understandably) sold off picks here and there to try to compete. In cases like the Martin Hanzal trade, it cost the Wild picks as valuable as a 2017 first-rounder. They lacked a first or second-rounder in 2017, didn’t draft in the second or third round in 2016, and so on.

A younger version of this core group didn’t make a big surge despite that spending, and the returns seemed to be diminishing even before Koivu’s season abruptly ended. And, it’s early, but the Nino NiederreiterVictor Rask trade argues that the Wild might not be best served going for “lateral” trades.

It’s time to sell.

Trade targets both reasonable and bold

Let’s fire off some suggestions for Fenton, then.

  • Eric Staal (34 years old, $3.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19): Considering that Staal scored 42(!) goals and 76 points last season, there’s a scenario where Fenton would have been bolder, and put his stamp on this team by trading him heading into this season.

That would have been riskier, but it also would have been an example of selling higher.

Now it’s tougher, because they’d likely get less for the veteran center, and they also “need” him that much more in the context of this season. But, considering his age, the Wild’s middling station, and his expiring contract, it would be foolish not to try to get something for Staal.

It might hurt, because he’s not far removed from honestly underrated work. Staal’s also still a hearty possession player. But if the Nashville Predators were willing to cough up a second-round pick for Brian Boyle, imagine what a scorer with Staal’s two-way abilities might fetch, even in what’s been described as a crowded market? And, hey, Staal’s budget-friendly at $3.5M, and could be even more appealing if Minny decided to retain part of that cap hit.

  • Zach Parise and Ryan Suter (both 34, both about $7.54M cap hits, both through 2024-25): I don’t think the Wild would do this, I’m not sure another team would fall for a sales pitch on either player, and both players sport no-movement clauses, in part to sign with a team close to home.

Still, if I’m Fenton, I’d at least float the idea as tactfully as possible. Those contracts have terms that are scarier than wondering through a dark hallway in “Resident Evil 2,” and there may never be a more palatable time to hit the reset button. Parise’s had a resurgent season (46 points in 52 games), and teams might be willing to look past Suter’s term in a desperate search for a minutes-eating defenseman.

Can’t hurt to ask/beg, particularly if they’re convinced they’d be able to contend elsewhere.

  • Younger players like Charlie Coyle (26, $3.2 million, expires after 2019-20)

The pressing question any rebuilding team needs to ask when it comes to prime-age players is, “How long will it take us to contend?”

It’s a question that demands a high level of self-awareness, so the good news is that Fenton isn’t tied to years of decisions like Fletcher was. Where Fletcher might think to himself “if I cut ties with this player, it means I was wrong,” Fenton won’t have that same crisis of confidence.

So, how important is a player like Coyle to the rebuild? The Wild only get him for cheap, for sure, for one more season after this one. If teams really covet his versatility, potential, and manageable cap hit, then the Wild might want to make another tough decision.

If Minnesota decides they want to move Coyle, they should do it by this deadline, so they could sell the “two playoff runs” argument that worked well with Derick Brassard, and was squandered with Erik Karlsson.

Other moves to consider

The Wild really shouldn’t leave any stone unturned.

If Devan Dubnyk wants out, maybe that would be for the best. He’s had a rough season, but less observant GMs might not have noticed, especially since Dubnyk had a great All-Star performance.

(Seriously, there are probably a few GMs who would just remember the All-Star thing and ignore his more troubling recent numbers, such as a considerable drop in even-strength save percentage.)

Boudreau’s one of the best coaches in the NHL, yet it might get to the point where this resembles someone gripping sand as hard as they can, only to lose more and more.

As much as Fletcher boxed the Wild in with bold moves that provided middling results (and serious problem contracts for Parise/Suter), Fenton still has some room to maneuver. That won’t mean it will be easy, but then again, didn’t Fenton wait all this time for a challenge?

The status quo hasn’t really worked for the Wild, so the potential sweetness from the bitter Koivu injury is that they might be forced to make some changes.

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.

Pro Hockey Talk’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for all completed deals. The 2019 NHL trade deadline is Monday, Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET.

Feb. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Edmonton Oilers:
Sam Gagner
Vancouver Canucks: 
Ryan Spooner

Feb. 15, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers: Cam Talbot
Edmonton Oilers:
Anthony Stolarz

Feb. 12, 2019
New York Rangers: 2020 seventh-round pick
Vancouver Canucks: 
Marek Mazanec

Feb. 11, 2019
Columbus Blue Jackets: conditional seventh-round 2019 pick
Pittsburgh Penguins: Blake Siebenaler

Feb. 11, 2019
Montreal Canadiens: Nate Thompson, 2019 fifth-round pick
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fourth-round pick

Feb. 9, 2019 (PHT Analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers: Dave Schlemko, Byron Froese
Montreal Canadiens: Dale Weise, Christian Folin

Feb. 8, 2019
Arizona Coyotes: Emil Pettersson
Nashville PredatorsLaurent Dauphin, Adam Helewka

Feb. 6, 2019
Nashville Predators: Cody McLeod
New York Rangers:
2020 seventh-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Nashville Predators: Brian Boyle
New Jersey Devils: 2019 second-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Christophe Beaudin
Colorado Avalanche: Max McCormick

Feb. 1, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins: Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann
Florida Panthers: Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, 2019 second-round picks and two 2019 fourth-round picks

Jan. 30, 2019
New Jersey Devils: Ryan Murphy
Minnesota Wild: Michael Kapla

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Muzzin
Los Angeles Kings: Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi, 2019 first-round pick

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins: 2019 fourth-round pick
Dallas Stars: Jamie Oleksiak

Jan. 24, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fifth-round pick

Jan. 21, 2019
Minnesota Wild: Brad Hunt, 2019 sixth-round pick
Vegas Golden Knights: 2019 conditional fifth-round pick

Jan. 17, 2019
Buffalo Sabres: Taylor Leier
Philadelphia Flyers: Justin Bailey

Jan. 17, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild: Victor Rask
Carolina Hurricanes: Nino Niederreiter

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Michael Del Zotto
Vancouver Canucks: Luke Schenn, 2020 seventh-round pick

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Derek Grant
Pittsburgh Penguins: Joseph Blandisi

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild: Pontus Aberg
Anaheim Ducks: Justin Kloos

Jan. 14, 2019
New York Rangers: Connor Brickley
Nashville Predators: Cole Schneider

Jan. 14, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Devin Shore
Dallas Stars: Andrew Cogliano

Jan. 11, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks: Slater Koekkoek, 2019 fifth-round pick
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jan Rutta, 2019 seventh-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Arizona Coyotes: Jordan Weal
Philadelphia Flyers: 2019 sixth-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Cody Goloubef
Boston Bruins: Paul Carey

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Morgan Klimchuk
Toronto Maple Leafs: Gabriel Gagne

Jan. 3, 2019
Winnipeg Jets: Jimmy Oligny
Vegas Golden Knights: Futures

Jan. 3, 2019
St. Louis Blues: Jared Coreau
Anaheim Ducks: Futures

Jan. 2, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Anders Nilsson, Darren Archibald
Vancouver Canucks: Mike McKenna, Tom Pyatt, 2019 sixth-round pick

PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

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.