Petr Mrazek

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Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

Last season, the Hurricanes became a “bunch of jerks.” In 2019-20, they’re now a bunch of people under heightened pressure.

Rather than going with one single person, here are a few of the Hurricanes who must wrestle with heightened expectations next season.

Sebastian Aho: For those who follow how much players get paid, particularly ones who are potential faces of franchises entering the mere beginning of their primes, Aho is a ludicrous steal at $8.454 million per year.

But then, there are those sharks who circle any sports situation that might loosely be termed a “disappointment.” When those sharks smell blood, they usually also seek out the richest targets, even if those players aren’t really at fault for a team’s letdowns. (See: basically Phil Kessel‘s entire stay in Toronto.)

If the Hurricanes falter, don’t be surprised if their newly minted most expensive player ends up being the scapegoat, whether that ends up being fair or not.

… On the other hand, hey, at least Aho’s already got paid.

Justin Faulk: Faulk, on the other hand, enters a contract year with a lot of money that could be earned or lost.

At least, potentially he does. The Hurricanes could also decide to sign the 27-year-old to a contract extension, something that was at least hinted at somewhat recently.

If Faulk enters 2018-19 with his situation unsettled, he’ll enter a year with a lot on the line, though. The free agent market rarely sees quality right-handed defensemen become available before they’re 30, and sometimes teams go the extra 26.2 miles and overpay guys like Tyler Myers. At the same time, injuries can cool the market for a UFA blueliner, as we’ve seemingly seen with the perplexing Jake Gardiner situation.

You don’t even need to look at defensemen to see how much a season can swing how teams view a UFA. Faulk merely needs to look at his former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, a forward who was traded for precious little in the summer of 2018, only to have such a strong season that he was handed a lengthy contract with a $9M AAV one summer later.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | X-factor: Hurricanes owner]

Petr Mrazek: Honestly, Mrazek’s under less personal pressure this season than he was in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, years where he was merely trying to prove that he was worthy of maintaining an NHL career, at least one beyond a backup or even third goalie role. Getting two years at a $3.125M AAV represents more stability than Mrazek’s experienced in quite some time.

Still, if the Hurricanes fail this season, don’t be shocked if it’s because the goaltending that finally worked out in 2018-19 reverts back to the problem that kept Carolina out of the playoffs for a decade. A lot of Carolina’s hopes still hinge on Mrazek, and James Reimer, who comes in with a higher cap hit but lower expectations.

Rod Brind’Amour: During his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes made the playoffs. That’s great, but it also sets a new bar in the eyes of fans and owner Tom Dundon, so a big drop-off might inspire critics to be a bunch of jerks to Brind’Amour.

Whoever is the GM: If too many of the above situations don’t work out, a GM might be tasked with finding fixes — and if Dundon isn’t interested in spending much money to make those fixes, it could require some serious creativity.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Mrazek’s workload, Williams’ return among questions facing Hurricanes

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

Let’s ponder three questions for the Hurricanes heading into the 2019-20 season…

1. Can Petr Mrazek handle a full-time workload as the starter? 

Which starting Mrazek will the Hurricanes get this season? The .921 save percentage one in 49 starts in 2015-15 or the .901 save percentage version in 44 starts from the following year?

There’s no Curtis McElhinney this year to share the load with. Instead, the Hurricanes have James Reimer and the jury is out on how well he can perform. Reimer hasn’t put up horrible numbers, per se, but he was far from an adequate backup last year in Florida, and he saw a bunch of time due to injuries to Roberto Luongo.

Both Alex Nedeljikovic and Anton Forsberg will also compete for that backup role, but Reimer has the experience if nothing else.

It’s important to note that Nedeljikovic was named the American Hockey League’s best goalie last season

Mrazek, meanwhile, put up an exceptional 10.03 goals-save above average and a healthy .931 save percentage at 5v5 in 2018-19.

The tools are there for him to be a bona fide starter. The question remains if he can pick the right ones for the job.

2. Will Justin Williams return to once again lead the team? 

Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, remains an unrestricted free agent at the moment.

The 38-year-old defied Father Time last season, scoring 23 goals and reaching the 50-point mark. Moreso, his possession numbers have been nothing short of elite in recent years, including a 57.89 Corsi last year. Williams has never had a season below 50 percent in that category and on top of that, he’s durable having missed just three games in the past six seasons.

[MORE: X-factor: owner Tom Dundon | 2018-19 in review | Hurricanes under pressure]

Off the ice (and on it, of course) he’s the consummate leader and a mentor for guys like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov.

Normally, teams wouldn’t be worried about losing an aging 38-year-old, but Williams is different, a guy you’d like to lock down on a one-year deal.

3. Can Carolina repeat it all over again? 

Getting there is one thing, staying is another challenge altogether, one the Hurricanes know all-too-well.

Since they moved from Hartford to Raleigh at the turn of the century, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons just once in those 21 seasons.

While their turnaround last season wasn’t the same as the one in St. Louis, it’s notable nonetheless. On Dec. 31, the Hurricanes were three points out of the basement in the Eastern Conference.

Their run-in from there included a 30-12-2 record, one of the best in that time frame as the Hurricanes found their identity, ‘bunch of jerks’ and otherwise.

The thing is, they play such a high-possession game that eventually it should turn into perennial success. Only one team (Montreal) in the top 10 best Corsi teams didn’t make the playoffs last year, and the ones who did were at or near the top of their respective divisions and conferences.

Carolina was the second-best team in terms of possession but only the 18th in goals-for at 5v5 despite the third most shots taken. Assuming they keep up that same style of play that’s become their trademark of sorts, they shouldn’t have much issue at least making it through the back door once again.

MORE:
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Goalies sign: Islanders choose Varlamov; Mrazek sticks with Hurricanes

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Apparently, when the post-Sergei Bobrovsky goalie dominoes fall in free agency, they fall fast.

Along with the Chicago Blackhawks taking a one-year flier on Robin Lehner, we have two other significant decisions.

[More on Chicago adding Lehner]

The New York Islanders decided to hitch their future to Semyon Varlamov, whom they signed to a four-year, $20 million contract. The Islanders are rolling the dice with a 31-year-old who hasn’t enjoyed his strongest work lately. Clearly, the organization believes in his potential. This is a medium-sized gamble, if not a big one.

Varlamov started 49 games last season and saw his even strength save percentage dip from .923 to .916. Injuries opened the door for Phillip Grubauer to assume the No. 1 role and put an end to Varlamov’s eight-season tenure with the Avalanche.

The battle for the net on Long Island will be between Varlamov and Thomas Greiss after negotiations with Lehner failed to end with an agreement.

“It’s really tough to see Robin go,” said Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello. “We’re all disappointed it didn’t work out but we wish him nothing but the best in Chicago, he’ll do great there.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes brought back Petr Mrazek, the 27-year-old goalie who helped them break their playoff curse. It’s for $6.25 million over two years, which translates to a $3.125M cap hit in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Between Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, who inked a two-year deal with the Lightning, the pair helped solve an issue for the Hurricanes this past season and helped them reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in a decade. Mrazek boasted a .927 even strength save percentage in 40 starts.

“Petr took a chance on himself with the deal he agreed to here last summer, and we were all rewarded with the tremendous season he put together,” said Hurricanes GM Waddell said in a statement. “This solidifies our options at the goaltending position moving forward.”

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.