Curtis McElhinney

Get ready to learn a lot about the Lightning

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With a cursory glance at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s upcoming schedule, it was tempting to predict that the team will look like a juggernaut again very soon.

After beating the Predators in overtime in an unexpectedly nasty game in Nashville, the opportunity is indeed there to enjoy some home cooking. The Lightning play:

  • Their next three games at home.
  • Seven of their next eight games in Tampa Bay.
  • Could be set for a big December overall with 10 of their next 12 games at home.

Yet, when you dig a little deeper, the situation is even more interesting because a hot streak isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for Tampa Bay. While it’s dangerous to read too much into any month in the marathon that is an NHL regular season, it’s fair to say that we should get a better idea of what kind of team the Lightning might be in 2019-20.

Bumpy start

Chalk it up to a hangover from that jarring sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, Brayden Point limping into the early part of the season, or any other number of factors, but it’s clear that something’s been a bit off about the Lightning in 2019-20.

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect the Lightning to duplicate 2018-19’s regular-season magic, but it’s still jarring that, as of Dec. 4, Tampa Bay is not in a playoff position.

Now, sure, some of that is misleading. After all, the Lightning have only played in 25 games, the lowest total in the NHL. Still, a 13-9-3 record feels closer to a drizzle than a thunderstorm.

It’s a tad bit unnerving that Tampa Bay’s record is closer to “meh” than dominant when you consider that a decent number of things are going right for the Lightning.

Their power play is still humming along with a robust 29.3 percent success rate, third-best in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov isn’t on another 120-point pace, he’s still a dangerous scorer, and the Lightning are getting strong production from Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman (remarkably, 23 points in as many games), and Brayden Point. Beyond the usual suspects, they’re also seeing an even-more-revitalized-than-expected Kevin Shattenkirk (not far behind Hedman with 20 points in 25 GP), and some nice contributions from rising players like Anthony Cirelli.

The Lightning’s even-strength PDO (1.017) ranks seventh-highest in the NHL, a quick reference that indicates that they aren’t suffering from particularly terrible puck luck.

While their goaltending hasn’t been great (Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney share matching .908 save percentages), it hasn’t been a full-fledged disaster.

So … it’s fair to wonder if this Lightning team might fall closer to good than great. But, again, this stretch will tell us quite a bit about their ceiling — not everything, but quite a bit.

Another look at this home-heavy stretch

Here’s that span of 12 games, with road contests in italics:

Dec. 5: vs. Minnesota
Dec. 7: vs. San Jose
Dec. 9: vs. Islanders
Dec. 10: at Florida
Dec. 12: vs. Boston
Dec. 14: vs. Washington
Dec. 17: vs. Ottawa
Dec. 19: vs. Dallas
Dec. 21: at Washington
Dec. 23: vs. Florida
Dec. 28: vs. Montreal
Dec. 29: vs. Detroit

While the Senators and Red Wings stand as games the Lightning absolutely should win, and there are matches against teams who have been up and down (Wild, Sharks, Stars), it all looks like a set of challenges as much as this is a golden opportunity.

After all, the Lightning are only 6-4-1 so far at home this season, and that’s with that trip to Sweden mucking things up a bit.

***

It’s hyperbolic to say that this is a do-or-die stretch for the Lightning, but it’s still one of the more significant spans of their season.

Consider it the equivalent to an animal storing fat for in preparation for a difficult winter. From Dec. 31 through Feb. 1, the Lightning face what could be a treacherous run of away games: four in a row to begin 2020, 12 out of 15 games on the road. While that set of opponents is softer (at least on paper), it would likely help if they entered that run on a high note.

Do you think the Lightning can take advantage of December to prove that they’re still truly among the elite, or will they continue to face peaks and valleys?

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.

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.

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