Sami Vatanen

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
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With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
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During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.

Islanders, Hurricanes slide leaves playoff door open for Rangers

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Thanks to Mika Zibanejad‘s five-goal performance on Thursday night, the New York Rangers were able to pick up a huge win against the Washington Capitals to snap what had been a three-game losing streak.

Combined with regulation losses by the Carolina Hurricanes (against Philadelphia) and the New York Islanders (against Ottawa) on Thursday, the results helped the Rangers inch a little bit closer to a potential playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The odds are still stacked against them, but the fact they are even in the race at this point is a remarkable accomplishment and a minor hockey miracle.

As of Friday the Rangers are two points back of the Islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Hurricanes, and two points ahead of the Florida Panthers.

Here is how the current Wild Card race shakes out, including every team’s current pace.

Given their current paces you can see the Rangers still have some work to do to catch either the Columbus Blue Jackets or Islanders and stay ahead of the Hurricanes, but this is still a dramatic change from what we saw as recently as one month ago.

Go back to the start of February and the Rangers were 10 points back of the Islanders and seven points back of both the Hurricanes and Panthers. Today, they have pretty much drawn even with the Hurricanes, moved ahead of the Panthers, and climbed to within striking distance of the Islanders. Those are significant gaps to close in that period of time. It is remarkably rare for teams to make up even a four-or five-point gap at the halfway point of the season, and the Rangers are currently in the process of closing 7-10 point gaps in just a little more than a month.

It’s been the perfect storm of the Rangers getting white hot and quite literally every team in direct competition with them starting to crumble for a variety of reasons.

Columbus, a team that has been completely devastated by injuries this season, has lost 11 out of its past 13 games (six of those losses have come in overtime or shootout, though).

The Islanders still have a decent hold on a Wild Card spot, but have been one of the league’s worst teams (no exaggeration) since that early-season point streak came to an end in late November. In 45 games since Nov. 25 the Islanders own only a .489 points percentage, 24th in the league during that stretch. Most recently, they have won just two of their past 11 games and take a five-game losing streak into Saturday’s game with the Hurricanes.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, their current injury situation is really starting to catch up with them.

They are still playing without both of their regular goalies (Petr Mrazek and James Reimer) and have lost four in a row since they exited the lineup. The most recent Hurricanes goalie to record a win was David Ayres. Even more concerning the goalie situation is the fact they are now without Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. That puts an absolutely massive dent in their blue line, and for as good as trade deadline acquisitions Brady Skjei and Sam Vatanen are, neither one is an upgrade over the two injured players and Vatanen has still yet to appear in a game due to his own injury. They are just 8-7-1 since Hamilton went out of the lineup, and remain winless since Pesce went out.

That’s not to say the Rangers don’t have their own concerns right now.

Igor Shesterkin, who had overtaken both Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist as the team’s no No. 1 goalie, remains out of the lineup due to injuries sustained in a car accident just before the NHL trade deadline. Chris Kreider, meanwhile, is going to miss most — if not all — of the remaining games in the regular season due to an ankle injury. In the meantime, they are going to need to keep leaning on the duo of Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin to keep carrying the offense, and hope that the Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets continue the recent slides that have helped close the gap.

It’s asking a lot, and any extended slump by the Rangers or any winning streak by the Islanders, Blue Jackets or Hurricanes could render all of this meaningless. But the Rangers have at least given themselves a chance and a reason for their fans to pay close attention to the stretch run of the regular season.

Related: Western Conference Wild Card race is still not clear

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.

Flyers continue ascension with eighth straight win

The Philadelphia Flyers have flown under the radar this season but now sit atop the Metropolitan Division alongside the Washington Capitals.

The Capitals lost in overtime to the New York Rangers but currently own the tiebreaker due to one additional victory in regulation and overtime. Each team has 87 points to date in 67 games this season.

Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Sean Couturier scored 26 seconds apart in the third period and the Flyers extended their winning streak to eight games after a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes Thursday.

Ivan Provorov and Michael Raffl also scored as Philadelphia swept a set of back-to-back games against divisional opponents.

Justin Williams netted the Hurricanes’ lone goal, but they fell for the fourth consecutive game. Carolina trails the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders for the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.

Newly acquired Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei turned the puck over behind his own net and Aube-Kubel took advantage to expand the Flyers’ lead to 3-1 early in the third period. Shortly after, Couturier buried a rebound to put the game out of reach.

Alex Nedeljkovic made 28 saves in his second start of the season for the Hurricanes.

Provorov opened the scoring when he collected his own rebound and deposited a backhand 18:23 into the first period. Flyers defensemen have scored an NHL-best 44 goals this season.

Raffl doubled the Flyers’ advantage midway through the second period. Scott Laughton picked up his second assist of the night on the play.

Injuries piling up

Prior to the game, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell announced Brett Pesce underwent surgery on his right shoulder. The defenseman is expected to be sidelined for the next four to six months.

He originally injured his shoulder against the Toronto Maple Leafs February 24.

In addition to Pesce, Sami Vatanen had a setback Thursday morning and is not expected to make his debut for Carolina in the near future.

“This is a tough injury. He came off (the ice early); that’s not good,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour told reporters this morning. “We were hoping to get him closer to playing. Now it looks like he’s further away.”


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

NHL Power Rankings: Teams that improved the most at trade deadline

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the teams that did the most to improve at the 2020 NHL trade deadline.

We have the teams ranked in a handful of tiers from the potential playoff teams that made significant moves, to the teams that got worse in the short-term to maybe get better in the long-term, to the teams that do not seem to have a plan.

This is not a ranking of current team ability or play. It is simply a ranking of how each team did at the NHL trade deadline.

How did your team do?

To the rankings!

Teams that made significant moves

1. Washington Capitals. Brenden Dillon is the practical addition and gives them exactly what they need. Ilya Kovalchuk might seem like a luxury but they could actually use a little help on the power play and he might still have something left to offer.

2. Vegas Golden Knights. It remains to be seen as to how much he will play, but Robin Lehner will do more to improve their playoff chances than the coaching change did. Now Marc-Andre Fleury has someone to give him a break and the Golden Knights have a safety net if they need it.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning. They paid a steep price in terms of draft picks Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but neither first-round pick should be very high. Both players are signed through next season on cheap contracts and Coleman in particular is an outstanding player.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Still not sure about giving up Dominik Kahun, but they wanted to add depth at forward and they did exactly that. Jason Zucker will make the biggest impact, but Patrick Marleau, Conor Sheary, and Evan Rodrigues will greatly improve their bottom-six forwards.

5. Edmonton Oilers. They didn’t add a star, but they definitely made their lineup better. Connor McDavid and Andreas Athanasiou might be the fastest duo in the league if they play together.

6. New York Islanders. Adam Pelech‘s injury made an Andy Greene type addition a must, and while I am hesitant to pay a player having a career year in a contract year, Jean-Gabriel Pageau is a good player and a strong pickup. Even if a costly one.

7. Boston Bruins. I love the idea of Ondrej Kase and the potential he brings both now and in the future. They just need him to be healthy and stay healthy.

8. Carolina Hurricanes. They did what they needed to do given the circumstances on defense. Sami Vatanen‘s health will determine how that trade works, but I do wonder where Brady Skjei fits when everyone is healthy in future seasons. Vincent Trocheck is the addition to be really excited about here.

9. Vancouver Canucks. On one hand I don’t know if the Canucks are in a position to give up significant assets for a rental. On the other hand, have you seen the Pacific Division? Why not try something?

Teams that made small improvements

10. St. Louis Blues. Marco Scandella‘s name won’t steal a lot of headlines, but he’s a solid addition to the Blues defense and for a decent price.

11. Colorado Avalanche. Little surprising to see the Avalanche not utilize all of their salary cap space and go for a blockbuster addition (that is not to say they did not try), but Vladislav Namestnikov brings some versatility and skill to the bottom of their lineup.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs. Adding a backup goalie like Jack Campbell was a must. Kyle Clifford and Denis Malgin are fine bottom of the lineup additions, but aren’t going to change much. And you know what? That’s fine. This situation isn’t as dire as Toronto is making it seem.

13. Calgary Flames. Erik Gustafsson‘s success or failure in Calgary will depend on how they use him. He will give you offense. He will not give you much defense.

14. Buffalo Sabres. Trading for Wayne Simmonds in their situation is weird, but it didn’t cost much. Kahun is a sneaky good pickup. 

15. Philadelphia Flyers. Derek Grant could be an okay pickup as long as he keeps scoring on 18 percent of his shots. I do not know if Derek Grant can do that.

You got worse now, but it might pay off in the future

16. New Jersey Devils. This season turned out to be a mess and they traded a ton of talent off the roster, but they at least positioned themselves well in terms of draft picks. They now have three first-round picks this summer.

17. Ottawa Senators. With Pageau now off to Long Island, the only players remaining on the roster that played in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final are Bobby Ryan and Craig Anderson. They do have a ton of draft picks. Good draft picks.

18. Minnesota Wild. That rumored Zach Parise trade would have been interesting to see, but they did do well in the Zucker trade. Cale Addison is a strong prospect.

19. New York Rangers. I don’t hate the Chris Kreider contract. They are on the right track and could be a playoff team as soon as next season, and Kreider will still be a part of that. I don’t know that Skjei was worth that contract and they not only dumped it, they picked up a first-round pick for it. That said, it still creates another hole on defense they have to fill.

20. San Jose Sharks. They managed to get a first-round pick back (they were without one due to the Erik Karlsson trade) for Goodrow and collected a second-round pick and two conditional thirds (one of which could become another second-round pick). Maybe they can flip some of those picks this summer for a goalie.

21. Los Angeles Kings. They traded the players they needed to trade and have 11 picks in the 2020 class, including eight in the first four rounds.

22. Detroit Red Wings. Pretty much a similar situation to the Kings. Did they what they needed to do and got some draft picks. They still have a massive undertaking ahead of them over the next several years.

23. Anaheim Ducks. There was a lot of deck chair shuffling here, but trading Kase was a big move. I just wonder if they got enough for a talented player and for taking on a bad contract (David Backes). If Kase excels in Boson it will not look good for Anaheim.

Teams that mostly stayed the same (teams 24-28 — rank them in any order)

Arizona Coyotes. They made their big trade deadline addition in December when they got Taylor Hall.

Dallas Stars. There was a brief rumor that might be in on Joe Thornton but nothing ever came of it.

Nashville Predators. Getting a healthy Ryan Ellis back will do more for them than any trade could have done.

Winnipeg Jets. They did add Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin, but their playoff chances will still rest on the pads of Conor Hellebuyck.

Columbus Blue Jackets. They had almost no draft pick capital to trade, so mostly standing pat makes sense. What they really need is for the injuries to stop.

What’s the plan here?

29. Chicago Blackhawks. I’m just having a hard time seeing how this team, as constructed, gets significantly better before it gets significantly worse.

30. Montreal Canadiens. Here is what should concern Canadiens fans: This team isn’t very good, and I am not sure Marc Bergevin is aware of that reality.

31. Florida Panthers. Why spend all that money to hire Joel Quenneville and sign Sergei Bobrovsky only to give them a crappy defense, do nothing to improve the defense, and then trade one of your core players at what might be his lowest value for a quantity over quality return? What are you doing? What. Are. You. Doing?

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.

Trades: Hurricanes get Vatanen from Devils, Brady Skjei from Rangers

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The Carolina Hurricanes were one of the busiest teams at the NHL trade deadline on Monday, and given their current injury situation they probably needed to be.

With defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce both sidelined longer-term with injuries, the Hurricanes added Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei in separate deals with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

In exchange for Vatanen, the Hurricanes are sending a conditional 2020 4th round pick, forward prospect Janne Kuokkanen, and Fredrik Claesson to New Jersey.

Vatanen, who has been injured for the past couple of weeks, is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

For Skjei, the Hurricanes sent a 2020 first-round pick to the Rangers.

The Hurricanes have two first-round picks in the 2020 class (their own and Toronto’s) and will send the lesser of those two picks to the Rangers.

Skjei is signed for five more years at a salary cap hit of $5.25 million per season. He joins Jaccob Slavin, Jake Gardiner, and Pesce as defensemen on the roster that are signed through at least the 2022-23 season. Hamilton is still signed through the end of next season.

The Hurricanes also added Vincent Trocheck in a blockbuster deal with the Florida Panthers earlier on Monday.

While all of these moves either address significant short-term needs (Vatanan and Skjei) and add potential impact talent to the roster (Trocheck) the biggest question for Carolina down the stretch will be the health of their two goalies, James Reimer and Petr Mrazek.

Both were injured on Saturday night in the Hurricanes’ 6-3 win against Toronto, resulting in emergency goalie David Aryes entering the game and getting the win. Both goalies are expected to be sidelined due to their injuries and there is currently no timetable for their returns. With no trade for a goalie completed before Monday’s trade deadline, that leaves the Hurricanes with a goalie duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg. The performance of those two for however long the Hurricanes need to rely on them will do more to impact the team’s playoff chances than any trade made on Monday.

The Hurricanes next game is on Tuesday against the Dallas Stars.

They enter the week in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 74 points. They are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for that spot but still have two games in hand. They are also just two points back of the New York Islanders for the first wild card spot, and three points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

 

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

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.