James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

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.

Breaking down Erik Karlsson’s playoffs with Sharks

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Heading into an eventual Game 3 win against the St. Louis Blues, Erik Karlsson was due.

OK, now he wasn’t due for something along the lines of scoring an overtime game-winner after fellow Sharks player Timo Meier got away with a hand pass, but Karlsson was due.

Through 16 games during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Karlsson had not been able to score a goal for the San Jose Sharks. Few would complain about his overall production, what with his 13 assists in those 16 games, but even acknowledging that defensemen take lower-percentage shots, you had to think that Karlsson was starting to get at least a little bit frustrated.

Karlsson ended up with two goals during the Sharks’ controversial 5-4 overtime win against St. Louis, and you wonder if the goals will really start to flow in now, starting with Friday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream). If so, the Sharks stand a great chance to improve on their 2-1 lead in Round 3.

That goal-drought-breaking Game 3 serves as a nice excuse to take a look at Karlsson’s overall work during his first – and possibly only – playoff run with the Sharks.

Health questions

Karlsson literally limped into this postseason, so it was only natural to wonder how effective he could really be for the Sharks. After San Jose’s Game 1 win, Karlsson explained to Pierre McGuire that things definitely started rough for him, but that his health has improved as the postseason’s gone along.

Despite Karlsson’s assurances, there have been times when it’s been really difficult to shake the impression that the star defenseman isn’t at 100 percent. It’s something that Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos and others speculated about, and while some of that might merely be speculation, it’s tough not to read too much into any slow pivot, seemingly timid approach, and other bit of body language.

Not needing to be Superman

Remember Karlsson’s epic playoff run from 2016-17, when Karlsson nearly willed the Ottawa Senators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, with help from friends like Mark Stone and Craig Anderson? Plenty of hockey fanatics already knew that Karlsson can be otherworldly at his peak, yet for those who stubbornly stood by as naysayers, it was eye-opening and mouth-shutting.

Interestingly, when you look at the simplest numbers of all, Karlsson’s not that far off from that run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2016-17, Karlsson generated two goals and 16 assists for 18 points in 19 games. During this run, Karlsson has two goals and 13 assists for 15 points in 17 games.

But it’s clear that the Sharks aren’t asking him to shoulder the same burden as he did with Ottawa. Most obviously, Karlsson’s seen his ice time shrink from 28:08 per night during that Senators run (when he seemed to be dealing with a lower-body injury as well), to a still-impressive but less Ryan Suter-like 25:34 TOI average with San Jose.

Brent Burns is the big reason why Karlsson’s numbers are robust, but not outrageous … and the Sharks are really leaning on Burns, whose ice time average is at a startling 28:53 per night, up significantly even from his work during previous playoff runs.

When the Sharks landed Erik Karlsson in that trade, the tantalizing thought was that, as two right-handed defensemen, Peter DeBoer could have one of Burns or Karlsson on the ice during almost every shift of a game. That’s pretty close to coming to fruition during this deep run.

Ups and downs

Back during his Ottawa days, Karlsson looked impressive from a possession standpoint, and outright outrageous when you considered his stats relative to his teammates.

He often fit that bill during the regular season, yet Karlsson’s fancy stats have been a little less fancy during the playoffs. According to certain metrics at Natural Stat Trick, Karlsson’s actually been on the wrong end of chances more often than on the positive side.

That’s really not such a bad thing overall, though.

For one thing, Karlsson and Burns are facing tough competition, and by logging such large minutes, they’re keeping lesser players from getting swamped in ways that could really put the Sharks in a bind. So maybe Karlsson hasn’t always been off-the-wall amazing like he’s been in the past – quite plausible if he’s nursing an injury – but, to put things mildly, he’s worth the rare mishap.

***

Overall, Karlsson’s been a gem for the Sharks. Perhaps they might grumble at the occasional mistake, emotional flare up, or bit of detached-looking body language when Karlsson’s on the ice for an opponent’s goal, but they’re likely ecstatic with the ultimate results.

Now, if you’re a team pondering a long-term deal with Drew Doughty-type money? Then maybe you’re more concerned by every wince and slow turn.

That’s not the Sharks’ problem, and if Karlsson really heats up, he could create even bigger headaches for the Blues.

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.

Pietrangelo remains under-the-radar star for Blues

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The playoffs set the stage for unlikely heroes, and also for superstars to be superstars. Sometimes, there are also those moments when someone more under-the-radar draws more mainstream attention.

Strangely enough, St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo‘s postseason work seems to fit in his larger story of an All-Star-level player whose strong play deserves more attention.

Through 15 games, Pietrangelo has two goals and 10 assists for 12 points. Jaden Schwartz (13 points) is the only player on the Blues who’s generated more, and Ryan O'Reilly (11) ranks as the only other St. Louis player in double digits.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Pietrangelo doesn’t overpower opponents like Brent Burns, but he’ll be a key part of the Blues’ efforts to win Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here) in a Round 3 series that’s currently tied 1-1. Pietrangelo’s bringing potent offense and a capable possession game to the table, and Pietrangelo’s been a workhorse, comfortably leading the Blues in ice time with 25:35 minutes per contest.

And, hey, he’s bringing a fire to the ice, as you can see when he broke his stick following Logan Couture‘s shorthanded goal from the Blues’ eventual Game 2 win:

Circling back to Pietrangelo’s ice time for a minute, it seems like the rise of another defenseman is also helping him find another gear, as Pietrangelo’s rising with big blueliner Colton Parayko.

Earlier during Pietrangelo’s playoff career, he was probably called upon to do too much. Pietrangelo averaged more than 28 minutes per game during the Blues’ last two playoff runs, and Pietrangelo peaked at 30:15 minutes per night during the Blues loss in a six-game series against Chicago back in 2013-14.

As another strong right-handed defenseman, Parayko’s allowed the Blues to relax Pietrangelo’s minutes, and also his matchups. Checking Natural Stat Trick’s 5-on-5 numbers, Parayko was the one drawing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin more often in the Stars series, and Blake Wheeler‘s line more often against Winnipeg. Those matchups have been a little more unpredictable so far against the Sharks, but it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Craig Berube tries to deploy Parayko more in defensive situations and Pietrangelo more when there’s a scoring opportunity.

(Although the Sharks’ depth makes hard matching less lucrative – Tomas Hertl or Logan Couture is a pick your poison proposition – and Parayko can bring some offense to the table, too.)

Overall, the Blues have some issues. Their power play needs fixing. Jay Bouwmeester logging 22:37 per night in 2019 isn’t … ideal. And, even if everything is clicking, the Sharks are the type of opponent who can make strengths look like weaknesses.

Pietrangelo remains a difference-maker, whether people notice or not, especially when you can rotate him with Parayko, another defenseman worthy of greater recognition.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

One tweak for Blues’ putrid playoff power play

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Teams might look at power-play goals as a luxury, at least during the playoffs.

The Boston Bruins, aka owners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ only active unit that’s actually regularly productive, can attest. Despite investing in Tomas Kaberle during the 2011 trade deadline, the Bruins’ power play struggled to the point that people wondered if Kaberle should be benched … but the Bruins won the 2010-11 Stanley Cup nonetheless.

Blues hitting sour notes on power play

Still, every goal counts with things as tight as they are in this postseason, so the St. Louis Blues have to be concerned about their chances of winning a 1-1 series against the San Jose Sharks with a power play that’s ice cold heading into Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here).

You can dice up their numbers in a lot of ways, and most of them are disturbing. The Blues won Game 2 by a score of 4-2 on Monday despite a power play that went 0-for-5, and also allowed a Logan Couture shorthanded goal. After being productive against the Jets in Round 1, St. Louis has gone just 2-for-28 since their tight series against the Stars, and haven’t scored in their last 18 opportunities. The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford notes (sub required) that the Blues have only managed a 7-5 shots on goal advantage against the Sharks so far on the PP.

Sometimes it’s best to zoom out a little bit and look at the sheer totals, and that’s not pretty either. Overall during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blues have scored seven power-play goals, while allowing three shorthanded tallies. Not ideal to only manage a +4 differential on the PP two games into Round 3.

The question, then, is: what should the Blues do?

Overall, it’s best not to panic, so head coach Craig Berube’s “just chill out” comments aren’t totally off base.

“Yes, the power play overall — it can be frustrating,” Berube said, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But the key is, I do not believe that it frustrated our team. And it can’t. You can’t let it happen. They have a great penalty kill over there. They’ve had a real good penalty kill for years.”

Brayden Schenn and others also weighed in on the subject.

Rutherford and Justin Bourne provided a detailed breakdown of some of the Blues’ struggles in that article for The Athletic, and it’s worth a look — for those interested, and even the Blues as a whole.

Move that Tank

But, when I see a struggling power play, I try to take a K.I.S.S. approach of simplicity, and look at who’s shooting, and from where.

Nothing seemed too outrageous when breaking down the Blues’ advanced special teams stats at Natural Stat Trick, and the Blues are smart enough to realize that Vladimir Tarasenko should be firing the puck the most, as he leads the team with 22 PP SOG, blowing away Ryan O'Reilly, who’s in second place with just seven. This isn’t a situation where a team is leaning too much on shots from defensemen (see: Nashville) or making a personnel decision that baffles me every time (Carolina using Justin Faulk on its top unit instead of Dougie Hamilton).

There is one adjustment I’d strongly consider making: get Tarasenko closer to the net, rather than having him running things from the point.

Now, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tarasenko prefers playing the role of power play QB. His passing ability won’t get the same shine as his lethal shooting, but he has strong instincts in that regard. There are less outrageous ideas than “get the puck on Tank’s stick more often.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Still, when a power play is struggling, I wonder if the high-danger shooters aren’t getting enough high-danger chances, and I’d wager that Tarasenko would be more of a threat if he was closer to the net, more often. My instinct would be to have him hovering around the right faceoff dot, essentially giving him the photo-negative of Alex Ovechkin shooting from his “office” at the left circle, but honestly, those details are negotiable. The point is that, in my opinion, Tarasenko’s skills would be best used in a spot where it’s that much harder for his shots to be blocked.

The Blues have some nice options on the point, even without Tarasenko. Whether it’s Alex Pietrangelo‘s strong hockey IQ or Colton Parayko‘s rifle of a shot, it’s not as though St. Louis would be totally lost if they weren’t as prone to putting Tarasenko on the point.

This isn’t to say that the Blues don’t let Tarasenko approach the net in these situations, but my advice is simply to get him there more often. Like, preferably all the time.

It might mean that Tarasenko gets fewer actual shots on net, but a lot of times on the power play, it’s about quality over quantity. At this point, it’s tougher for the Blues to argue that the current setup is working, as they haven’t been getting the right quantity of goals on the power play.

***

So, again, there’s value in at least debating smaller tweaks. I could see an argument for an elevation of Robert Thomas, who’s coming into his own as a young forward (Berube didn’t seem to like that). Heck, you could make a case for the other Rob: Robby Fabbri, who for all of his struggles – injuries and overall – is the sort of creative player who might be able to make plays on what sometimes feels like a static power play.

(Granted, Fabbri makes more sense to me as a second PP unit specialist, if he can get back into the lineup.)

But, really, the Blues are probably closer than it might seem to being successful. All they really might need to do is bring Tarasenko closer to the net.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

Maple Leafs extend Shanahan’s contract through 2024-25

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The Toronto Maple Leafs announced an important contract extension on Tuesday, but no, it’s not for Mitch Marner.

Instead, it’s for the man behind the plan to bring in players like Marner. The Maple Leafs handed Brendan Shanahan a six-year extension as team president (and alternate governor), which means that extension runs through 2024-25.

It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of the contract squabbles involving Marner and William Nylander, and two straight postseason defeats to the Boston Bruins, and forget that the Maple Leafs have come a long way since bringing in Shanahan in April 2014. The team’s press release does a nice job of quickly summarizing that success:

The 50-year-old native of Mimico, Ontario first joined the club in April 2014. Since then, the Maple Leafs have earned three consecutive playoff berths (2016-17 through to 2018-19), while recording their most points in a single season (105 in 2017-18) and consecutive 100-point seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19) for the first time in franchise history.

The “Shanaplan” involved bringing in Mike Babcock as head coach and convincing Lou Lamoriello to come aboard, and then eventually pass the torch as GM to Kyle Dubas. During that time, the Maple Leafs have made some significant moves, most notably landing John Tavares in free agency.

Of course, the biggest tests lie ahead.

The Maple Leafs must solve the riddle of the Marner contract situation, and the salary cap crunch that is likely to result. Who will they trade to make room for the bigger names, or will this situation demand that the Maple Leafs trade a big name to make it work? Dubas likely carries the heaviest burden in making all of that work, but Shanahan’s almost certain to have some say, even if it’s more of a big picture outlook.

Dubas did what he could to squash rumblings about Babcock’s future, explaining that the Maple Leafs “are all in on Mike, and Mike is all in on us.” Still, the perception is out there that the head coach and GM diverge on some key matters when it comes to running a hockey team, and those rumblings will grow louder during every inevitable rough patch in 2019-20, and possibly beyond.

[Babcock did what he could to clear the air during a volatile time in March.]

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe also hovers in the background, in part because he might buy into Dubas’ vision more than Babcock, but also because other NHL teams might try to snatch him up as their next head coach.

So, basically, Shanahan faces difficult challenges both on the ice with cap management and behind the scenes with managing people. This has largely been a success when it comes to rebuilding a lump of clay (or worse) into a consistent playoff team, yet it’s arguably even more difficult to make the leap from “good” to “great.”

There could be many more growing pains along the way, but overall, it’s easy to see why the Maple Leafs have so much faith in Shanahan, and the Shanaplan.

(We might be getting to the point where it’s time to retire Shanaplan, though, as great as that word splice is.)

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.