Ryan Dzingel

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Other NHL teams could learn from Hurricanes’ great offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t perfect (points to Petr Mrazek and James Reimer), but the rest of the NHL could learn a thing or two from their masterful offseason.

On the heels of signing Jake Gardiner at a surprising discount, let’s take a look at some of the key decisions, and how other GMs and front offices can learn from Carolina’s impressive blend of patience and opportunism.

The biggest job was done for them: While big names like Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, and Brayden Point remain in contract limbo, the Hurricanes have Sebastian Aho locked down at what will almost certainly be a team-friendly rate of $8.454 million per year, all thanks to Marc Bergevin’s perplexingly modest offer sheet.

Hey, sometimes you just get flat-out lucky.

The power of patience: Instead of bidding on free agents on July 1, when asking prices are at their highest, the Hurricanes instead played hard to get, and remarkably found ways to potentially improve in areas of weakness.

It might be strange to view July 12 as exceedingly late, but it must have felt like an eternity for Ryan Dzingel, and the Hurricanes took advantage of a tepid market and that urgency to sign Dzingel for chump change (two years, $3.375M cap hit). Dzingel isn’t perfect, yet he could bring some finishing touch to Carolina, which is noteworthy because while the Hurricanes have a reputation for hogging the puck, they’ve sometimes lacked the sniping skills to put that puck in the net at the same rate as the NHL’s deadliest teams.

Gardiner is the most obvious example of the Hurricanes being patient, as his contract situation somehow lingered into September, and the Hurricanes exploited that for big gains. Gardiner could provide a potential boost to one of the Hurricanes’ other areas of concern, too: the power play.

Striking at the right moment: The Hurricanes weren’t just playing hard to get. Sometimes they seized the moment, and the results were promising.

Carolina wisely took advantage of the Golden Knights’ cap crunch to get Erik Haula for a pittance in a trade. If Haula works out — there are some health concerns — then he’s another forward who could help Carolina score goals, supplementing that sniping alongside Dzingel.

To be continued: It remains to be seen if Carolina was wise in taking on Patrick Marleau’s contract in exchange for a first-round pick.

Either way, the Hurricanes deserve credit for being proactive in trying to identify value, and they really could have set a template for teams like the Red Wings and Senators to accrue assets. (Ottawa and Detroit did not get the memo, at least not yet.)

Valuing flexibility: The Hurricanes could have panicked and overpaid to feel more secure about their goaltending situation, but considering the very limited options on the market beyond Sergei Bobrovsky (and how expensive Bob ended up being), Carolina could have made a big blunder.

Instead, they played it safe, and found a way to move on from the Scott Darling era of errors.

Interestingly, while the Gardiner addition arguably gives Carolina the league’s best defense, it’s not certain that we’re done seeing them make changes. Most pressingly, Justin Faulk is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes may understandably go the trade route to solve that riddle.

Either way, the Hurricanes are in a position of rare luxury: they can do something there, but they don’t have to. Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane notes when you have to do something, “you’re screwed.” Other NHL teams know that pain all too well.

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The Hurricanes are on a short list of the smartest NHL teams alongside the Sharks because they consistently find value in a variety of ways. They’re patient when they should be, but not passive, showing the ability to jump on opportunities when other teams might get trigger shy.

Many other NHL teams are so behind the curve that they come across as downright dull, yet the Hurricanes look cutting edge. We’ll see if that pays dividends with more big steps forward in 2019-20, but it’s impressive stuff either way.

(Oh yeah, and their drafting also drew rave reviews. That team is just on fire lately.)

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

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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.

Blue Jackets still have reasons for optimism after free agency exodus

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

The 2018-19 season was the most successful one in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise.

They went all in at the trade deadline to load up for a postseason run, made the playoffs for the third year in a row (first time they have ever done that), and then upset the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a stunning four-game sweep to advance to Round 2 for the first time in team history. While the end result was not what they wanted, it was still the first time fans of the team had ever had something to be truly excited about. Management paid a heavy price to reach that point (trading several draft picks and prospects) and then watched over the summer as a free agency exodus saw the departure of Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Those exits have left some significant holes on the roster, especially in net where they have no proven replacement for a two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie.

It is possible — if not likely — that the team regresses this season, especially in a Metropolitan Division where every team is loading up on talent.

Even with all of that working against them, there are still reasons for Blue Jackets fans to have some cautious optimism about the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Among them…

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing

The Blue Jackets may have lost All-Stars at forward and in net, but they still have two of them on their blue line. The Werenski-Jones duo has been one of the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. During that time they have played more than 3,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey with the Blue Jackets outscoring their opponents by 16 goals and controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. Jones turns 25 at the start of the season while Werenski will only be entering his age 22 season, meaning both of them should still be on top of their game for the foreseeable future with still room to improve. The rest of the blue line might need some work, but finding even one defender of this caliber is a difficult task. The Blue Jackets have two of them.

Cam Atkinson is better than you might realize

He may not be a star or total point producer on the level of Panarin, but Atkinson has been one of the league’s best goal-scorers for the past four years and is coming off of a career-high 41-goal effort during the 2018-19 season. While he might be due for a slight regression from that mark, only 11 players have scored more totals goals than him since the start of the 2015-16 season. Only nine have scored more even-strength goals. A lot will be made over what they lost this summer, but they still have some good veterans returning and Atkinson is at the top of that list.

Gustav Nyquist looks like a strong addition

Is he going to completely replace what the Blue Jackets are losing in Panarin? No he is not. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a great pickup, especially at that salary cap hit. You know every year he is going to give you 20 goals, 50 points, and help drive possession. He is an excellent all-around player.

They have a ton of salary cap space to play with

Even when taking into account the money they will need to re-sign Werenski this summer, the Blue Jackets have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the NHL, meaning they have the flexibility to make in-season additions to help fill weaknesses, whether they be in net or on the wing.

Pierre-Luc Dubois could be their next star

He is our X-factor for the Blue Jackets this season. Dubois is trending toward becoming an impact player in the middle of the Blue Jackets’ lineup and could be on the verge of a monster season based on what he has done over the first two years of his career. If he continues on that trajectory and takes a big leap in his development it will go a long way toward helping the Blue Jackets replace what they have lost over the summer.

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

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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.

Werenski’s contract, goaltending are top questions for Blue Jackets

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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 Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.

1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?

This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.

Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.

Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.

Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Who is going to emerge as the starting goalie?

This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.

Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.

Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.

The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.

3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?

Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.

That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.

Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.

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

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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.

Dzingel adds speed, scoring to Hurricanes lineup

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The Carolina Hurricanes have added some speed and scoring to their lineup, as they’ve inked forward Ryan Dzingel to a reasonable two-year, $6.75 million contract.

“Ryan has proven that he can be an impact player offensively, putting up bigger numbers over each of his three full-time NHL seasons,” Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said in a release. “His speed, skill and vision make him an excellent fit for our forward group and our style of play. At 27, he’s just entering his prime and certainly had options coming off a 26-goal season, so we’re happy he’s chosen to be a part of the Carolina Hurricanes.”

The 27-year-old split last season between the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets. He had 22 goals and 22 assists in 57 games with the Sens and he added four goals and 12 points in 21 games with the Jackets after the trade deadline.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Dzingel struggled to adjust to his new team after the trade and he also served as a healthy scratch in the playoffs on a couple of occasions. The Hurricanes are banking on him fitting in to their young, fast lineup. The question is whether or not they can get another couple of 25-goal seasons out of him before this contract expires.

Carolina has already lost Micheal Ferland to Vancouver in free agency and Justin Williams remains unsigned, so it’s unclear if he’ll be returning to the team at this point. That means that Dzingel will play a significant role on this team going forward.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL Free Agency: Five UFAs who could provide value

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The dust has settled on free agent frenzy and many of the best players on the board are now off it.

But there are always some stragglers, players who are quite good at their craft who haven’t signed with a team just yet. Whether it be term, money, or doubt, or a combination of all three, several players remain ready to be plucked off the board.

Below is a list of five players who would provide teams with solid players. Not all of these players come out of the bargain bin, but all would make teams better in the right environment. Some have been left out entirely, guys like Joe Thornton who is probably only going to re-sign in San Jose, or Patrick Marleau, who seems to only have one team in mind. Ditto for Niklas Kronwall.

Honorable mentions: Derrick Brassard

5. Patrick Maroon

Ah, yes. The prototypical “room guy.” The one who plays the role of a hype beast and can also bring it on the ice. Maroon is that guy. He was a centerpiece of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup run, combining timely on-ice contributions with off-ice stuff that equally important, according to his teammates. He’s been a pretty decent possession player over the course of his career and puts up some OK points. He’s reliable. He boosts his team’s morale. He’s a perfect fit for St. Louis in that he’s the hometown guy, but not a perfect fit given the salary cap.

4. Ryan Dzingel

Dzingel is coming off a season where he recorded career highs in goals (26), assists (32) and points (56) but has yet to be signed by a team. Perhaps recency bias is playing some part in that. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire once traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the deadline. For a player who averages a little over a half-point per game, he was around that with 12 points in 21 regular season games. He was basically invisible in the playoffs, however, scoring just once in nine games. His possession numbers don’t jump off the page, but he played on a very bad Senators team. He hovered around 50 percent on a good Senators team from a couple of years ago.

Evolving Wild’s salary projection has him signing a four-year deal worth $4.25 per annum. Dzingel’s issue, at this point, is that teams who might want him may not be able to pay that. Still, teams like Chicago and Edmonton could certainly use a top-six guy like that with a little finagling.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

3. Micheal Ferland

Ferland is an interesting player, one who still combines a physical game with one is also tailored to the modern way of playing. In short, he’s an increasingly rare specimen that possesses the puck well, scores goals and will take your head off if afforded the opportunity. Ferland’s knocks are his durability. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule. And he can be inconsistent. He had 11 goals by the third week of November last season and then went 11 games without one. He closed out the regular season without scoring in the final 17 games he played. He then went goalless in the playoffs — seven games — and was also injured for a time as the Hurricanes marched to the Eastern Conference Final. Much like Dzingel, recency bias could be playing a part here. Evolving Wild has him making $4.1 million per year over a four-year deal. It’d not outlandish money, but there’s some risk attached to it.

2. Justin Williams

The 37-year-old isn’t getting any younger, but even at his age, he’s still producing 20-goal and 50-point seasons with relative ease. If you’re looking for durability, he’s your man having missed just three games in the past six years. If you’re looking for leadership, he’s got that, too. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup winner and has a Conn Smythe Trophy bearing his name. His possession numbers are incredible as well — elite over the past two years, including a 57.89 CF% last season. Since 2007 (as far back as Natural Stat Trick goes, Williams has never had a season below 50 percent.) Nearly 1,250 games into his NHL tenure, Williams isn’t aging the same way many do.

Evolving Wild’s metric has Williams signing a three-year contract worth just shy of $6 million a season. It seems absurd for a man of his age, but the numbers don’t lie. He puts up Kevin Hayes points and possession numbers rivaled by few others, boosting his teammates along the way. It works in Carolina and it seems as if Williams is Hurricanes or retirement at this point.

1. Jake Gardiner

Yes, there’s a top-four defenseman still on the list of UFAs yet to have a deal. That ugly playoff game from a couple years back became old news when the Maple Leafs were without Gardiner for 20 games last season. His absence showed that they missed him and his 50-point capabilities and 50-point defensemen earn many millions of dollars in today’s NHL. Perhaps that’s holding up proceedings. It shouldn’t be. Over the past three seasons, Gardiner has only become a better defenseman. His goals above replacement during that span is ninth in the league in all situations at 35.6 (fifth at even strength)

There are many more graphs and other things that show that Gardiner is a solid player. He’s looking for $7 million a season, according to reports. It’s probably a sticking point that shouldn’t be, but cash-strapped teams like the Winnipeg Jets, who might otherwise be interested in replacing Jacob Trouba with a player that’s showed just as well, are priced out unless they commit to some serious (and further) roster surgery. Perhaps the New Jersey Devils should make a play. Already having traded for P.K. Subban, Gardiner would only make that backend more formidable.

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