Cam Ward

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Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another 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.

Hurricanes have knack for making most of rare playoff runs

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In that magical run to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup victory, the Washington Capitals finally broke a cycle of fantastic regular seasons followed by heartbreaking finishes. Finally, the Capitals made good, in part because they consistently gave themselves a chance by winning division titles, if not the Presidents’ Trophy.

The Carolina Hurricanes introduce some really fun contrasts to the Capitals, including being the analytics darling while Washington often transcends those numbers.

But an even more tantalizing narrative is a “David vs. Goliath”-type underdog story, as the Hurricanes haven’t tasted the postseason since 2008-09.

(For some perspective: the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once [in 2013-14] since 2007-08.)

Give the Hurricanes this much, though: they have an uncanny knack for making the most of their rare playoff runs. It’s something to think about as the series begins with Game 1 in Washington on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET (USA; live stream).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This is just Carolina’s sixth playoff appearance since moving from Hartford and becoming the Hurricanes in 1997-98, yet they conjured some magic in their last three appearances. Consider those three stretches, from oldest to newest:

  • In 2001-02, the Hurricanes made it to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final, falling 4-1 to the Detroit Red Wings. With 91 points during the regular season, Carolina beat out the Capitals for the Southeast Division title, but the team nonetheless felt decidedly scrappy. Current coach Rod Brind’Amour was an alternate captain.
  • After that run, the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs for two straight seasons, before the 2004-05 season was canceled because of a lockout. The Hurricanes then won the Stanley Cup during the zany 2005-06 season. Many remember this as a weak team for a champion, but some forget that they finished the season with 112 points, the second-highest total in the East that season. Eric Staal topped all scorers with a breakthrough 100-point season, Brind’Amour was the captain and two-way beast, and Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe.
  • The Hurricanes then missed the playoffs for two straight seasons before returning to the postseason in 2008-09, their last appearance until the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Carolina won two playoff rounds before being swept by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Brind’Amour was … still captain.

So, in the Hurricanes’ last three playoff runs, they’ve won nine playoff series, and lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions both times they failed to win it all. That’s pretty good bang for your buck, huh?

It’s also worth noting that Brind’Amour has been involved in those three runs, which … *arches eyebrow*

None of this is to say that the Hurricanes will go deep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they’re considerable, justifiable underdogs against the defending champions in Round 1, just to begin. Still, it’s remarkable how this franchise has made the most of these appearances in the past.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 1 from Capital One Arena will be Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network. You can stream it here.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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.

Cam Ward delivers an all-time own goal (video)

Fox Sports Carolinas
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We’ve seen some pretty interesting own goals throughout NHL history, and now Cam Ward has staked his claim for one of the strangest.

The Carolina Hurricanes goaltender scored on himself in one of the most bizarre plays ever seen in the NHL.

The puck, as you can see, hops into the skate of an unknowing Ward as the veteran netminder went out to play a puck that was rimmed around the boards.

Ward, does what he would normally do after trotting out behind his net, and gets back into his crease. Unsure of where the puck is, he drops into the butterfly. The problem is the puck is stuck in his right skate, which goes over the goal line.

It’s hard to explain, so let’s roll the footage:

The play-by-play man on Fox Sports Carolinas had a good point: Why wasn’t the play blown dead? Even if the ref has his eye on the puck, there was no way of Ward knowing what he was about to do.

Is there even a rule for that?

Either way, one of the strangest goals in recent memory counted in a game few were probably watching to begin with.

It’s probably safe to assume Ward (and goalies around the NHL) are going to find some way as to not let that happen again.

Update:

Ward admitted that giving up a goal like that bothered him.

“I’ve had some bad bounces throughout my career but I think certainly that tops the list,” Ward said, per the Charlotte News & Observer. “I can sit here and pretend it didn’t bother me but it did bother me.

“I mean, you battle all season long, you compete, and then a bounce like that happens (and) it doesn’t seem fair at the time. But the guys competed and capitalized on our opportunities. It wasn’t exactly a goaltending battle, both ways, out there.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Cam Ward keeping Hurricanes in playoff hunt as Scott Darling struggles

AP Images
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It seemed simple enough for the Carolina Hurricanes after last season: Find a goaltender and the upward climb should finally begin with the young talent on the roster.

So when general manager Ron Francis traded for Scott Darling’s rights and signed him a four-year deal, it seemed like a problem solved. Darling did an admirable job backing up Corey Crawford with the Chicago Blackhawks and now was his opportunity to take the reins as a regular NHL No. 1 goalie.

Boy, it hasn’t gone well at all.

Darling is currently sporting a .896 even strength save percentage and was in net for all eight goals during last Tuesday’s drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (How soon until head coach gives him the Eddie Lack treatment?)

“It’s been kind of an up-and-down season for me,” Darling told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News after the loss. “Great game, not-so-great game. I can’t really put my (finger) on it. It’s still just goaltending, right? So I don’t really know why I’m having consistency issues. Maybe it’s just the adjustment to a new team, new city, new everything. My whole life is different now, so I’m sure all that stuff factors into it.”

In fact, it’s gone so poorly for Darling and the Hurricanes that Cam Ward, whose play the last few years led to Francis making the trade, has the job again while helping Carolina win his last four starts.

“I’m just enjoying it. You have a newfound appreciation for the game when you see you’re not playing as much and try to take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given,” he said after Saturday’s win over the Buffalo Sabres.

We’ll see how long this Ward renaissance lasts, but the end game is to get Darling right because he’s signed through the 2020-21 season at a $4.15 million cap hit. The Hurricanes need that to happen because as Adam Gretz noted earlier this month they’ve finished 18th, 28th, 29th and 26th in team save percentage over the last four seasons. Many have been expecting this team to finally turn the corner and be on the rise, but their production from between the pipes has really been holding them back.

Plus, besides there being a lack of quality options on the market, there’s plenty of competition around the league is trying to shore up their goaltending. The Pittsburgh Penguins would like to add someone. Maybe Garth Snow is close to fully losing his patience with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Plenty want to buy but the goods just aren’t available at the moment.

If Ward, who will start Wednesday vs. Montreal, comes back down to earth, and it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later, Darling’s play needs to match up with the expectations laid upon him after the Hurricanes made the deal. It’s a tight squeeze in the Metropolitan Division and Carolina is currently sitting three points out of a wild card spot (thanks, loser point!).

Losing out on extra points due to goaltending isn’t an ideal plan, so whether it’s Ward or Darling for the long-run here, that position can’t sink the Hurricanes once again.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Hockey fans celebrate National Dog Day

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

It’s looking more and more like Eric Staal and Cam Ward will enter the Carolina Hurricanes’ training camp without new contracts. (News & Observer)

Armed with a tryout contract, Tom Sestito hopes to earn a job with the Pittsburgh Penguins out of training camp so that he can “deter a guy from taking a run at the 90,000 stars on the team.” (Penguins.nhl.com)

The ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors have changed their name to the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Their new logo features a rabbit who is wielding a mix between a hockey stick and carrot. (Greenville Online)

The Edmonton Oilers might be a significantly different team with a new bench boss, substantially changed front office, and a new hope in Connor McDavid, but one thing Andrew Ference doesn’t expect to change is his position as the team’s captain. (Edmonton Journal)

Ryan Johansen threw out the first pitch for Cincinnati on Monday and that event gave him a chance to talk with the Reds players about the differences and similarities between the two sports. (Bluejackets.nhl.com)

Finally, it was National Dog Day on Wednesday and that involved a lot of hockey-themed pictures. Here are some of the highlights: