Curtis McElhinney

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.

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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.

The Wraparound: Hurricanes need to solve Rask to avoid sweep

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

This is it for the Carolina Hurricanes. Either they win tonight against the Boston Bruins or their Cinderella story ends in an Eastern Conference Final sweep (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

After Boston scored 11 goals over the first two contests, the Hurricanes decided to switch from goaltender Petr Mrazek to Curtis McElhinney for Game 3. McElhinney performed admirably, stopping 29 of 31 shots, but Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has gotten better and better over the course of the 2019 playoffs. Only Calvin de Haan was able to get the puck by Rask on Tuesday en route to 2-1 victory for Boston that put the Bruins up 3-0 in the series.

After his strong performance, McElhinney will probably be in the net again tonight, though Hurricanes Rod Brind’Amour declined to said anything definitively.

“You never know,” Brind’Amour said, per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston

Despite dropping the contest, the Hurricanes took some silver linings from Game 3. Obviously they’re in a terrible position, but they do feel that they played better on Tuesday and are hoping if they carry that into tonight’s action, they’ll get a better result.

“We’ve been hit three times here, it takes four to knock us down,” Justin Williams said, per the News & Observer. “We’re just going to keep showing up and see what happens.”

The Hurricanes need to solve Rask. Ultimately, he’s the single biggest obstacle in their way. In particular, it would certainly help if Nino Niederreiter could step up. Niederreiter has just a goal and four points in 14 playoff games and has been held off the scoresheet in the Western Conference Final.

That’s in stark contrast to the regular season. Niederreiter scored 14 goals and 30 points in 36 contests after being acquired by Carolina to help the Hurricanes make the playoffs in the first place.

Teuvo Teravainen is another forward they could use more from. He had six goals and nine points in 11 playoff contests going into the series, but he’s been limited to a single point so far in the Eastern Conference Final. He logged 22:58 minutes in Game 3, but didn’t record any shots on goal.

Carolina also desperately needs to capitalize on their power-play chances. The Hurricanes were 0-for-5 on the power play in Game 3, dropping them to 1-for-12 in the series.

Even if the Hurricanes breakthrough Rask, the odds are still stacked heavily against them. Having up to four chances to close out the series is a huge luxury for Boston. Still, Carolina has no choice but to focus exclusively on this game and worry about the future only if they create one.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WEDNESDAY’S SCOREBOARD
Sharks 5, Blues 4 (OT) (Sharks lead 2-1)

The Buzzer has more on Wednesday’s action

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT roundtable
• Hurricanes/Bruins series preview
• PHT Conference Finals predictions

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.

Hurricanes turn to Curtis McElhinney for Game 3

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The Carolina Hurricanes are making a change in net.

After dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins with Petr Mrazek, coach Rod Brind’Amour has decided to go with Curtis McElhinney for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night.

Ever since Sunday’s 6-2 loss in Boston there had been plenty of discussion as to whether or not the Hurricanes should make a switch. Even though Brind’Amour acknowledged it was a possibility he refused to admit whether or not he was actually going to do it, even as recently as the morning skate on Tuesday.

But after McElhinney led the Hurricanes out on to the ice for warmups before Game 3 it became clear a change was going to happen.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

McElhinney picked up three wins for the Hurricanes in their Round 2 series sweep against the New York Islanders (McElhinney started two of the games, after picking up his first win in relief of an injured Mrazek) and will be making his third career postseason start.

The two goalies split the playing time throughout the regular season, so it’s not like the Hurricanes aren’t used to playing in front of both goalies.

In his first three appearances in these playoffs McElhinney has a .947 save percentage, stopping 71 of the 74 shots he has faced.

After giving up 10 goals in the first two games of the series, Mrazek’s save percentage has dipped down to .894 in the playoffs.

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.

Goaltending defining Eastern Conference Final

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There are few worse times to be embroiled in a goaltending controversy, but here we are.

The Carolina Hurricanes could very well face a series-defining decision ahead of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Tuesday night at PNC Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream). The Hurricanes return home with some extra baggage in the form of an 0-2 series deficit and a big question mark between the pipes.

Should Rod Brind’Amour pull the trigger and promote Curtis McElhinney ahead of Petr Mrazek? Will it make a difference against the Boston Bruins team armed to the teeth with firepower? Does a young coach have much of a choice? He wasn’t going to reveal his decision Tuesday morning.

“I can’t be that guy who does that,” Brind’Amour said. “Sorry.”

Brind’Amour let Mrazek eat six goals against in Game 2 as his playoff save percentage plummeted to .894. Blaming Mrazek for all 11 of the goals against in the first two games wouldn’t be fair. The Hurricanes haven’t been the same ‘Bunch of Jerks‘ that captured the attention of the hockey world through the first two rounds. Penalty woes, defensive breakdowns — they’ve all led to goals.

And yes, Mrazek has been to blame for a few as well.

The 35-year-old McElhinney has featured already in these playoffs. The latter half of Carolina’s 1A-1B tandem went 3-0 with a .947 save percentage before Mrazek returned (perhaps too early?) from a lower-body injury that forced him out of Game 2 of Round 2 against the New York Islanders.

Brind’Amour has to be taking a long look at McElhinney’s shining numbers. It’s must-win territory for the Hurricanes, who have been re-introduced to what a good offense entails after having a pretty easy time with the Islanders lackluster group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It might be a hot take, but it feels that the only way that Tuukka Rask emerges from the shadow of Tim Thomas is if he can lead the Bruins to the second Stanley Cup in eight years. Rask came close to having similar immediacy to his success in 2013 but the Bruins came up short in the lockout-shortened year against the Chicago Blackhawks.

With a little more rest this season, Rask seems reinvigorated and it’s putting himself in a position to create his own shadow.

While Rask’s job hasn’t appeared in jeopardy in these playoffs, starting out 2-3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs was far from ideal. Facing elimination may have been the best thing to happen to the Finn, however. It’s been ‘Tuukka Time’ ever since.

Rask is 8-2 dating back to Game 6 of Round 1, allowing 1.72 goals-against and stopping 94.4 percent of the shots he’s faced. He’s only become better as the playoffs have aged. During Boston’s five-game winning streak, Rask has dropped that GAA to 1.60 and upped the save percentage to .953.

The last time Rask played this good, ironically, was during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Two riddles to solve for Carolina, one at each end of the rink, and so little time to solve them.

MORE:
Should Hurricanes make goalie change for Game 3?
Why Hurricanes have embraced ‘bunch of jerks’ moniker
• PHT Conference Finals predictions

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

Why Hurricanes have embraced ‘bunch of jerks’ moniker

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“Young men expressing themselves for joy of winning. You don’t do this thing in professional hockey. What are these guys? Jerks or something?”

“I know what I’m talking about. You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks as far as I’m concerned. Imagine Justin Williams doing stuff like that.”

Don Cherry is known for his colorful suits that he wears every Saturday during Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner” segment. Who knew he’d be the inspiration for one of the best-selling fashion designs in the state of North Carolina?

Taking to his pulpit on February 16, Cherry railed against the Carolina Hurricanes’ post-win celebrations, also known as the “Storm Surge.” The brainchild of team captain Justin Williams, they were quickly embraced by Hurricanes fans and around the hockey world. 

“Listen, things are changing,” Williams told NBC last week. “This isn’t a historic hockey market, it’s relatively fresh. We obviously won a Stanley Cup here, but it’s relatively fresh. This team got here in 1997. It’s not like the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadians or the Boston Bruins, an ‘Original Six’ who had decades and decades of hockey history.”

Following Cherry’s yelling at clouds, the Hurricanes acted fast and teamed up with BreakingT to create the “Bunch of Jerks” t-shirts, which sold well and sold out fast. The team store inside PNC Arena is constantly running out of inventory. (An update to the shirts was made after Cherry doubled-down on his criticism by labeling the fan base as “front running.”)

They weren’t popular just with fans, though.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Curtis McElhinney’s dad ordered a handful and shipped some to his son. Warren Foegele’s friends back home in Markham, Ontario hit him up asking if he could get them a few.

The Hurricanes embracing the “jerks” really blew up the entire “controversy” and emboldened the team and fan base even further.

“I think what I love about it is it could have went a different way when you get criticized for what you’re doing,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “But the guys, they didn’t. They took it and they ran with it in a positive light and the fans took it and ran with it in a positive light.  

“It’s not about everyone else, it’s about our team, it’s about our community, it’s about our fans and we’ve enjoyed this year. That ‘little bunch of jerks,’ whatever you want to call it, has kind of brought us together in a way that’s unified the fans and the players even that much more, which was already a pretty strong bond.”

As the Hurricanes pursued their first playoff berth since 2009, the extracurricular activity excited a fan base that had been patiently waiting for turnaround and helped create a new legion of supporters in the process.

“You know, I think we’ve been kind of irrelevant for a while here in Carolina and that was kind of one way to maybe boost some people in the stands, and obviously get people to think of us of a team that was playing really good hockey throughout the season,” said forward Jordan Staal.

The excitement isn’t contained to solely inside PNC Arena. Dougie Hamilton has noticed he’s been recognized more at dinner or out on the street this season. There’s been a buzz around Raleigh this season as the Hurricanes made their march to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then knocked out the defending champion Washington Capitals in seven games in Round 1.

From the night Cherry entered “bunch of jerks” into the lexicon to the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes were tied for the third-most points (33) in the NHL with a 16-7-1 record. They could have hit back at the longtime commentator, but instead, as they’ve done all season long, they leaned into the negativity and embraced it.

“I don’t want an apology,” Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon said in February via the News and Observer. “He can say what he wants to say. I should thank him. It was good for us.”

Game 3 of Hurricanes-Bruins is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN (Watch the live stream here).

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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.