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Monday, August 10, 2015

Who Fills Out That Final Power Play Spot?

The Capitals power play has been really, really, really good for quite some time now.

Last year? They ranked first in power play percentage, converting on 25.3 percent of their opportunities. Year before that? They were tied for first with the Pittsburgh Penguins at 23.4 percent. And the year before that? Yup, you guessed it. First at 26.8 percent.

The Capitals power play just works because they have the most lethal shooter in the NHL, accompanied with two left-handed playmakers and a puck moving defenseman.

The Caps run a 1-3-1 formation on the power play, an extremely aggressive/risky formation to run. In order for it to succeed, the players on the ice need to keep the puck on their stick and move the puck around intelligently. If they fail to do so, or give up a silly turnover, it could quite easily spring an odd-man rush for the penalty kill.

Now, why is this formation so successful and so deadly? It creates a ton of options for everyone on the ice.

Take a look at this.


The Capitals really spread out their version of the 1-3-1, and they generally bring it in close to the net, because each player is very comfortable with the puck. But why is it so successful? Because look at all of the options it creates. Here's the passing options for the three main puck handlers on the power play: The defenseman up top, the forward on the half bard and the forward behind the net.

If the defenseman has the puck:


The defenseman can feed the puck down to the forward on the half board, or he can feed it over to the forward hanging out by the face off dot for the one timer. The defenseman could also step in for a shot, or carry it towards the middle of the blue line. This is where John Carlson normally plays on the power play

If the forward on the half board has the puck.


The forward on the half boards has a lot of options. He can drop it back to the defenseman, throw it behind the net, or look for the player in the slot. If the guy in the slot is down low on the crease, he could even look towards the opposite face off dot for the one timer. That guy on the half boards? It's normally Nicklas Backstrom.

And, finally, the forward behind the net.



If the guy behind the net gets the puck, his first look needs to be in the slot for an easy goal opportunity. If not, his safest bet is right back to the forward on the half board. If the guy on the face off circle cheats in towards the net, the backdoor one timer opportunity could be available. This is normally Marcus Johansson's spot.

Now, it should be obvious who we want to shoot the puck the most often. The main guy is hanging out around the left face off dot. Any guess as to who that might be? It's Alex Ovechkin.

But the guy that should have the second most opportunities is hiding right in that slot. Who played that position last season? It was mostly Troy Brouwer. Second on the depth chart for power play slot was Joel Ward.

Both those guys aren't on the team anymore. And now, there is a vacant spot on the Caps power play.

In order to successfully play in this slot position on the power play, you need to possess several different qualities. First, you need to be right-handed. The way this formation is set up requires a right-handed player to play in front of the net. If the player is left-handed, it cuts back on the one timer opportunities, and just makes everything a bit more difficult.

Second, you need to be strong. If you're playing down right on the crease, you're going to be up against several large defensemen, constantly trying to knock you out of position. You also need to be willing to, you know, stand in front of a net to set screens and grab juicy rebounds.

Third, well, you obviously need to be able to score.

So, who are the possible replacements on the power play for Brouwer and Ward?

If it were up to me, I'd look at three players as likely candidate: T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Tom Wilson.

Now, right off the bat, we can determine one thing: They are all right-handed. 

The second criteria is a little bit more difficult to determine. Wilson is definitely physical and strong enough to play in the slot. At 6'4", 210 pounds, Wilson is one of the strongest forwards in the NHL. Oshie isn't quite as large at just 5'11" and 189 pounds, and Williams isn't all too much larger at 6'1" 189 pounds.

But what is really critical in determining who could possibly succeed in the slot on the power play is actual offensive production.

With the St. Louis Blues last season, Oshie averaged about 2:38 minutes of power play time per game. And with the Los Angeles Kings, Williams averaged just under two minutes per game at 1:59. Their time gives us enough of a sample size to look at how much they were able to produce on the power play. However, Wilson played just four seconds per game on the power play, so there is absolutely no way we can judge him on his power play time. For Wilson, we would just have to purely speculate. He certainly has the body type to succeed in the slot on the power play. But does he actually have that offensive touch that the Capitals originally thought he had?

We do know that Wilson has recorded a low shooting percentage in the beginning parts of his career, scoring on just 4.9 percent of his total shots. That is simply not going to cut it as a power play player. If Wilson can find that scoring touch that he had in his last year with the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL (he scored 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games).

But we know a lot more about what Oshie and Williams could potentially do on the power play. Last year, Oshie had three goals and 10 assists on the power play. Williams had four goals and nine assists.  Brouwer had eight goals and six assists, and Ward had five goals and five assists. Brouwer may have had the most goals and points, but he technically wasn't the better power play player. Both Williams and Oshie had more points on the power play per 60 minutes of play than Brouwer.

Why else did Brouwer succeed on the power play? Because he was playing in the slot. The slot is right in front of the net, or a "high danger" zone on the ice. This area gave Brouwer the best possible chance to score a goal. Just look at how much more high danger shots Brouwer was able to take on the power play in comparison to Oshie and Williams (and, for an added bonus, Brouwer had a lot of power play time against less-competitive competition).

Via War On Ice

Brouwer had 28 high danger scoring chances on the power play. Williams had 11. Oshie had four. And even though Brouwer had significantly more high-danger opportunities than both Williams and Oshie, Brouwer converted on 18.6 percent of his shots. Oshie? 13.64 percent. And Williams recorded a 13.79 percentage.

So, if Oshie was in Brouwer's position last year, with a 13.64 shooting percentage on the power play, Oshie would have added another three goals to his power play total output. And we could reasonably predict that Oshie's shooting percentage would be even higher if he had more high-danger scoring chances!

So all those people who have been pointing out to you that Brouwer had more goals than Oshie did last season? Sure, of course he did. He was given a premium position on the power play, given ample opportunities to score against weaker competition than Oshie did. And Oshie still just finished with two goals less than Brouwer.

If both Oshie and Williams were to play in the slot position on the 1-3-1 Capitals power play, we could reasonably assume both would out-perform Brouwer on the power play.

Between Williams and Oshie, the Capitals couldn't go wrong with sliding either in the slot position on the power play. And both players actually have experience down low in the slot. Here's how many high-danger opportunities each of them had during even-strength five on five play.



Whether it's Williams, Oshie or Wilson, it is almost a certainty that they will score more goals this season than they did in the past. And if it's Oshie or Williams, they will almost certainly outperform Brouwer this season.

Oshie would be the best bet to play in the slot, as he's the more offensive player and has a high shooting percentage. Williams is a close second, and he may be built more for the position than Oshie. And we don't really know what Wilson is capable of just yet.

But what we do know is that the Capitals power play will continue to hum along just fine.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Look at The Metropolitan: The New Jersey Devils

New Jersey Devils 2014-15: 7th in the Metropolitan Division with 78 points

Team Additions: Forwards Kyle Palmieri (Ducks), Defenseman John Moore (Coyotes).

Departures: Forward Joe Whitney (Islanders), Dainius Zubrus

Other Currently Unsigned FA's That Saw NHL Time This Year:  Martin Havlat, Scott Gomez, Steve Bernier, Scott Gomez, Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser, Tim Sestito

2015 NHL Draft Picks: Forward Pavel Zacha (6th overall), Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (42nd overall), Forward Blake Speers (67th overall), Defenseman Colton White (97th overall), Forward Brett Seney (157th overall).

Ray Shero hired as the Devils general manager, replacing Lou Lamoriello. John Hynes hired as the Devils head coach.

Cap Situation: $14,016,669 in cap space with 20 NHL contracts. Very good cap situation.

Caps Play The New Jersey Devils Four Times

Since 2012, six different teams have made it to the Stanley Cup Final: The Chicago Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings, the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New Jersey Devils.

Long gone are Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Long gone are David Clarkson and Petr Sykora.

Technically, Patrik Elias is still here, but long gone is his elite-level offensive capabilities.

The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils are a shell of that Stanley Cup team. This current team lacks that past team's offensive flair. This team lacks that solid blue line that that past team thrived on. 

This team has a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2015-16 season. Did they improve on their 78 point performance of last season? Who knows, but what we do know is this: The New Jersey Devils team will thrive on lots, and lots, and lots of experimentation.

Forwards

The vast majority of that experimentation starts with the forward unit, and no player is immune to that experimentation. Even Adam Henrique could find himself in a couple of different positions throughout the season. New coach John Hynes sees Henrique as both a center and a wing, via The Bergen Record:

"It seems as though he can play both and has played well at both and I think that's something you want to really talk to the player about, but also just decide over the course of time," Hynes said. "Rather than plug him in right now (to one spot), just kind of get a real feel for him."

Henrique finished with 16 goals and 43 points, equaling his point output the year before. Expectations were high for the 25-year-old, who has accomplished so much before he has even reached his prime. Henrique finished third in Calder Trophy voting in his 2011-12 rookie year, scoring 51 points and playing a critical role for the Devils in the playoffs. But Henrique hasn't been able to get past that 43 point mark since his rookie year. Should the New Jersey Devils begin to lose faith in a guy they had so much invested in?

Absolutely not. Henrique could have potentially surpassed his totals if it wasn't for a nagging wrist injury that required surgery in the offseason. Henrique had two torn ligaments in his left wrist that he claims had been bothering him since around January. Henrique battled through the injury, despite having difficulty shooting and controlling the puck on his stick. But it understandably could have had an effect on his overall game.

Newcomer Kyle Palmieri will have an opportunity to step into a top six role with the Devils, something he wasn't able to do during his time with the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks are a very deep team, and the Devils simply are not. Despite playing just 14:05 minutes a night in Anaheim, Palmieri managed to score 14 goals in just 57 games. Palmieri should have a much more prominent role with the Devils, and should even see more than the 1:42 minutes per game he saw with the Ducks on the Devils power play. Plus, when Palmieri steps out onto the ice in New Jersey, he brings along a pretty neat storyline: Palmieri grew up playing with the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club, and his youth jersey hangs in the Prudential Center.


Patrik Elias
The other sure-thing top six players on this team are Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri and Patrik Elias. Zajac is the number one center on this team. He is a very good defensive forward, but the team would absolutely love to add a bit more offense to his game. Zajac scored just 11 goals and 25 points last season. The primary focus for Hynes during the season needs to be on Zajac, and he needs to turn him into a point-producing top line player. Last year's Cammalleri signing proved to be an excellent one. He scored 27 goals, and, even at 33, it's almost a certainty he will get you 20 goals every year. Elias' game regressed quite a bit last season. His 34 points was 19 points fewer than he finished with the year prior. At 39, Elias may be more effective on a third line role, but with this team, he is forced into a role he may not be suited for anymore.

This is where it gets a bit sticky for the Devils. Who is that other top six player? If he's healthy, it's Ryane Clowe. But in the last two seasons, Clowe has played in just 56 games, and has consistently battled through concussions. The most recent update is...well....there is no recent update. It unfortunately doesn't sound like Clowe is going to be able to play for quite some time.

Let's assume Clowe isn't able to play this season. This is where that whole "experimentation" comes into play. There is lots of experimentation because the Devils are going to roster guys that might be better off in the AHL further developing their game. And they're not only going to roster them, they are going to throw them into roles they may not be ready to play just yet.

The main guys that fall into this category are Stefan Matteau, Sergey Kalinin and Reid Boucher. One of them may be forced into a top six role, and the other two, whether they are ready or not, may just be the Devils' third line, where Jacob Josefson will more than likely find himself this upcoming season as the center.

Matteau and Boucher are both just 21-years-old. Last year, Boucher played in 11 games. Matteau played in just seven. Both have been just okay AHL players last season. Matteau finished with 12 goals in 61 games and Boucher had 15 in 62. The Devils really need to hope both of these guys are NHL-caliber players. If they are, can they step into a relatively important role on the team and perform? If the team decides to put Matteau on the NHL roster, they really have no choice but to let him stay there. Matteau is no longer waiver exempt, and he was bounced between the NHL and the AHL five times last season.

Kalinin is that other guy they are going to have to experiment with this upcoming year. He signed with the Devils in May, coming over from the KHL. Kalinin captained his Avangard Omsk team, scoring 12 goals and 25 points in 58 games last season. He definitely has an NHL-level body at 6'3", and has played professionally for the last five seasons, but can he jump right into a starting role on this team?

The Devils forward unit is honestly a mess. It's incredibly difficult to predict because there are so many forwards the Devils could potentially just force onto the team. Would Matteau and Boucher be better off playing in the AHL this year? Sure, but who else could possibly play for the Devils? 

This situation could even get a little more nuttier if the Devils opt to sign Pavel Zacha to an entry-level deal. If they sign him up before Aug. 18 at 5:00 p.m., he would be eligible to play in the NHL. If not, he's heading back to the Sarnia Sting in the OHL. The Devils would have to decide what would ultimately be better for his development. If they believe Zacha is ready for the NHL, and decide to put him on the team, they should put him in a top-six role. There's no need to give him to play bottom six minutes every night when he could be the primary player in the OHL for the Sting. Personally, I don't see the rush in putting him in the NHL. There's a pretty low chance the Devils will be in contention for a playoff spot this year. Why waste a year of Zacha's entry-level contract? Let him dominate and build confidence in the OHL.

Defensemen

The future is now for this blue line. 

There's no more Marek Zidlicky. There's no more Mark Fraser. There may not be another Bryce Salvador, who is still trying to decide if he will play another year or not. Salvador is recovering from a bulging disk and played in just 15 games last season. He's currently an unrestricted free agent, so if he decides to play one more season....why would the Devils even want him back? Is it just the polite thing to do? A common curtesy? 

For now, let's say the Devils decide to not retain Salvador, even if he wants to play. So why is the future now for the Devils' blue line?

They have Andy Greene, who is 32.

The next oldest defenseman signed to the Devils that is projected to see some NHL time is John Moore. His birthday is Nov. 19, 1990.

It's an incredibly young group of defensemen, but there are still several bright spots within the grouping. 

The top pairing will easily be Greene and Adam Larsson. Greene is hands down the best defenseman on the team, and he will be leaned on heavily in virtually all game situations. Pairing him up with the more offensive-minded Larsson allows Larsson to jump into the offense with a bit more confidence. Larsson, who just signed a six-year, $25 million deal this offseason, led the Devils defensemen with 21 assists, but only managed to score three goals on the year. Despite seeing 20:57 minutes per game last season, Larsson took just 91 shots on the year. But, last season, Larsson was utilized far more often as a defensive player than an offensive weapon. No defenseman on the Devils had more shifts start in his defensive zone than Larsson last season. That's unfortunate, because Larsson does have a bit of offensive skill. Larsson would easily produce more points if the Devils gave him a bit more offensive opportunities. That being said, if the Devils truly want a shutdown defensive pair, Greene and Larsson fit the bill more than any other defenseman on the roster.

So who steps in as the offensive defenseman every team desperately needs? Eric Gelinas. Gelinas led all Devils defensemen in shots with 112. He also led New Jersey defensemen with six goals on the year. Gelinas serves as the primary defenseman on the power play, so that certainly helps his offensive numbers. Gelinas plays well defensively. So why doesn't he slide into the top pair with Greene? It may have something to do with his handedness; both Greene and Gelinas are left-handed, Larsson's right. Damon Severson could see time alongside Gelinas on the second pairing at just 20 years old. Sverson saw a lot of ice time in his 51 games last season, and he performed quite well, doing a great job at driving possession.

One of the more underrated signings of the entire season was the New Jersey Devils locking up Moore on a three-year, $5 million contract. Moore had played the last three seasons with the New York Rangers before being sent in a trade along with Anthony Duclair, a 2015 second-round pick and a 2016 first-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for Keith Yandle, Chris Summers and a 2015 fourth-round pick.  In 19 games with the Coyotes, Moore thrived, and the Coyotes were ecstatic with his play. Coyotes coach Dave Tippett put Moore on the Coyotes power play, and appeared to really believe in him, at one point having this to say: 

"(Moore's) forte is moving the puck. He handles the puck well, but, at the same time, he has a great deal to learn. Like all of the new players, we look for him to grow and mature."

In keeping a close eye on the Arizona Coyotes after the trade deadline, helping with the Coyotes coverage for FOX Sports, I saw absolutely no indication that Moore wouldn't return with the Coyotes, and Moore would further cement the fact that the Coyotes absolutely robbed the Rangers in that trade. Moore was a restricted free agent, and didn't even receive a qualifying offer from the Coyotes. That's very bizarre.

Moore will absolutely thrive on a third pairing in the NHL. He could even step into a second-pairing role if needed. It's crazy that this guy has bounced around to four different teams at this point in his career, even though he played 67 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets at the age of 21. We'll have to wait until he plays full time with the Devils for a season or two, but I'd be willing to bet the Devils will be absolutely thrilled with that signing.

Jon Merrill, who played in 66 games for the Devils last season, should come in as the sixth defenseman. He's entering the final year of his contract, which is always a strong reason for any player to have a big year. Merrill will look to earn a relatively decent bridge deal, as he's a restricted free agent next offseason. Seth Helgeson, Vojtech Mozik and Raman Hrabarenka could all potentially be a seventh defenseman for the Devils. All could see NHL time next season, but none will ultimately be a game changer.

Goaltending

The Devils should obviously head into the 2015-16 season with a lot of concerns, but if there's anything they shouldn't be concerned with, it's their goaltending situation.


Cory Schneider
In the last several years, there have been few goaltenders who have been as good as Cory Schneider. Last season was Schneider's first true season as a number one goaltender, and he absolutely embraced it. His .934 save percentage at even strength five on five was fifth-best in the league among goaltenders who played at least 50 games. And his save percentage in high danger shooting areas at even strength five on five was .854, better than Pekka Rinne. Better yet, his adjusted save percentage, which takes into account where the opposition is shooting the puck from, was .940, third highest among goaltenders with at least 30 games, behind only the Philadelphia Flyers' Steve Mason and the Montreal Canadiens Carey Price. Schneider even performed very well on the penalty kill, recording a .908 adjusted save percentage, fourth best in the league.

Schneider's outstanding. His backup....well....he didn't really have a chance to be outstanding. 

Keith Kinkaid only played in 19 games, and didn't even get to start in one until Dec. 9. He was perfectly healthy...it's just that the Devils decided to roll with Schneider in the first 28 games of the season, a new Devils goaltending franchise record (take that Martin Brodeur!).

The Devils should play Kinkaid far more than they did. In his 19 games, Kinkaid managed to record a .939 save percentage at even strength five on five, which was actually better than Schneider's save percentage. Kinkaid also recorded a better save percentage on high danger shots, recording a .888 save percentage at even strength five on five, besting Schneider's .854. Kinkaid also faced 30.01 shots per game, more than Schneider's 28.6 per game.

Don't be silly. Kinkaid is not a better goalie than Schneider. Kinkaid simply didn't have nearly the appropriate amount of sample size to compare him to Schneider. And, in fact, Kinkaid got burned by Schneider when it came to shorthanded numbers: Kinkaid recorded a terrible .831 save percentage when he was a man down.

But, at the very least, the stats suggest that Schneider doesn't have to play as often as he did last season. Kinkaid can hold his own, and he might even surprise you by stealing a game or two. And Schneider could use a few breaks next season. He played in the fourth-most games last season.

Prospects

When Zacha was drafted, he quite easily became the most promising Devils forward prospect, and it's really not even close. At 6'3", 210 lbs., Zacha has the size to jump into the NHL right away. As previously mentioned, there is really no reason to do that just yet, but it's important to know that he could. Zacha finished his first OHL season with the Sarnia Sting with 16 goals and 34 points in 36 games. He has a bit of a mean streak, and was suspended two different times within the OHL this season for two different hits. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but he obviously needs to be a bit smarter about that if he brings that kind of tenacity to the NHL. He definitely doesn't have to, as he can quite easily rely on his deadly shot and passing abilities to succeed in the NHL. Zacha might be better off returning to the OHL for another season, and then participating for the Czech Republic in the World Junior tournament, but you really can't blame the Devils if they want to throw a Devils sweater on him right away.

The Devils are lucky they even have John Quenneville. Queeneville was selected with the 30th overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft. The Devils weren't supposed to have a pick in the first round of the 2014 draft. They were supposed to have the pick taken away as punishment for the cap circumvention attempt in the signing of Kovalchuk. The punishment was instead reduced to simply giving the Devils the last pick of the first round. Where were the Devils supposed to pick? 11th. The Devils could have potentially gotten any number of forwards with a bit of a higher upside than Quenneville. That's really not meant to be a knock on Quenneville, who is the second cousin of Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and the nephew by marriage of New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk. It's just, you know, true.

Quenneville actually didn't perform quite as well as expected last season in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. His goal, assist and point totals were all down from his draft year. He finished with 17 goals and 47 points in 57 games last season. But Quenneville became a man possessed for the Wheat Kings in the playoffs, scoring 10 goals and 19 points in 19 games in route to the WHL final. The Wheat Kings would ultimately get swept by a stacked Kelowna Rockets team, but Quenneville's run was impressive nonetheless.

The Devils may have gotten very lucky with their January signing of Joseph Blandisi. Originally drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 draft by the Colorado Avalanche, Blandisi was not signed by the June 1 deadline date in 2014, and effectively became a free agent. The Devils scooped him up, and he absolutely dominated this year. In 68 games, Blandisi had 52 goals and 112 points for the Barrie Colts in the OHL. That's 62 more points than he had the previous season. Not getting that contract either really, really, really made him angry, or it was a fluke year. Either way, the Devils signed him to a three-year entry-level contract with virtually no risk attached to it. What's the harm?

Forward Miles Wood will finally play for Boston College this season. He was supposed to last season, but Wood instead returned to Noble and Greenough School (Dedham, Massachusetts) after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL draft. Yes, a relatively promising prospect played for a boarding school last season in a high school league. He understandably dominated, scoring 17 goals and 35 points in 17 games. Wood also participated in the World Junior Championship for Team USA, appearing in five games, recording no points. He's a really intriguing prospect, and it will be interesting to see how well he does against competition he's capable of playing against.


Steve Santini
Steve Santini leads a relatively strong blue line prospect pool. He's a really fun player to watch. The soon to be third-year Boston College defenseman is incredibly intelligent, and just has a really smooth approach to the game. His positioning is excellent, and he thrives on playing lots and lots of minutes. He's got good size and 6'2", 210 lbs., but doesn't have to rely on a physical game, as he's very excellent in his defensive zone. Santini missed a chunk of his season after undergoing wrist surgery on Oct. 28. Unfortunately, that same complication caused Santini to miss the World Junior Championship. He would have played a huge role for Team USA's blue line. Santini will return to Boston College, and is expected to have another big year.

Reece Scarlett is another promising defenseman in the waiting for the Devils. Scarlett has played with the Albany Devils in the AHL for the past two seasons. He has proven to be a solid puck mover from the blue line, recording 23 assists in 53 games last season. He was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year, then missed a handful of games following a lower-body injury after playing just five games. Scarlett has quite a few players ahead of him on the depth chart, but if he has a strong training camp, he may earn himself a bit of NHL time this season.

There are two relatively strong goaltending prospects that the Devils can more than likely count on. Scott Wedgewood has been playing in Albany full-time for the last two seasons. He hasn't blown anyones socks off, recording a .903 save percentage and a 2.74 goals against average last season. He's more than likely third on the Devils' goaltending depth chart. His ceiling with the Devils may just be as a serviceable backup. This year's second-round draft pick, MacKenzie Blackwood, has much more potential for the Devils. Blackwood was rated as the second-overall goaltender in this years draft, behind only Capitals draft pick Ilya Samsonov, and the top goaltending prospect in North America. Blackwood has good size at 6'4", and he's a very calm, butterfly-style goaltender. Blackwood should have a strong year with the Barrie Colts, and should be one of the goaltenders selected for Team Canada in the 2016 World Junior Championship. Goaltender Anthony Brodeur is a fun story for the Devils, but he is just not a realistic future option for the Devils at the moment.

Player to Watch

Sergey Kalinin. No one is quite sure what the Devils are getting in Kalinin. Is he capable of playing as a first-line wing? Second-line scoring threat? Third-line checker? Is he even an NHL-caliber player?

New Devils GM Ray Shero isn't quite sure just yet either, but he knows the Devils are getting a player with a bit of potential.

"The kid is 24 years old. He's played at a high level and his team won a gold medal in the World Junior Championships," Shero told NJ.com's Rich Chere. "He captained his team in Omsk (in the KHL0, which is coached by Raimo Summanen, a former NHL player. So there is potential upside and little risk in terms of the player wanting to do this."

Hynes should test him out in virtually every different situation he possibly can over the course of the beginning of the season. It's going to take time for Kalinin to acclimate to the NHL, and the Devils will have to be patient with the young Russian forward.

Kalinin is expected to be available to play as soon as training camp starts. Shero confirmed to Chere that Kalinin has a "clean bill of health." This is, of course, in reference to Kalinin's scary head injury suffered in March. Kalinin was hit in the head against the boards, and fell to the ice as his helmet flew off his head during Game Six of Omsk's first-round playoff series. Kalinin began to convulse on the ice. Kalinin suffered a closed craniocerebral injury on the hit. Here's a link to the hit (Warning, it may be a bit graphic to some viewers).

Final Analysis

It's definitely not a playoff team. Their goaltending will keep the Devils in more games than they should be in, but they simply don't have an NHL-caliber roster to succeed this season. They have too many "what ifs" for both the forwards and the defensemen. I do think the Devils defensemen grouping has the potential to be good this year, but I just don't think they will be able to generate enough offense. The fact that the Devils are relying so much on so many inexperienced players is a bit strange, and it almost leads me to believe that they aren't quite done adding players to their roster just yet. Whether they look towards free agency or trades, they could easily use two or three more players on the roster with NHL experience. That allows them to further develop guys like Matteau or Boucher in a more appropriate way. But if the Devils do decide to roll with the current roster they have, the best thing that could happen for them is those young, inexperienced players do as well or better than expected, but it still won't be enough.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Look At The Metropolitan: The Columbus Blue Jackets

Columbus Blue Jackets 2014-15: 5th in the Metropolitan Division with 89 points

Team Additions: Brandon Saad (Blackhawks), Gregory Campbell (Bruins), Alexander Broadhurst (Blackhawks), Defensemen John Ramage (Flames) and Michael Paliotta (Blackhawks).


Departures: Artem Anisimov (Blackhawks), Jeremy Morin (Blackhawks),  Marko Dano (Blackhawks), Corey Tropp (Blackhawks), Mark Letestu (Oilers), Luke Adams (Rangers), Sean Collins (Capitals), Brian Gibbons (Rangers).


Other Currently Unsigned FA's That Saw NHL Time This Year: Ryan Craig, Jack Skille, Frederic St. Denis, Dana Tyrell


2015 Draft Picks: Defenseman Zach Werenski (8th overall), Defenseman Gabriel Carlsson (29th overall), Forward Paul Bittner (38th overall), Forward Kevin Stenlund (58th overall), Forward Keegan Kolesar (69th overall), Defenseman Sam Ruopp (129th overall), Defenseman Veeti Vainio (141st overall), Defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov (159th overall), Defenseman Markus Nutivaara (189th overall).


No significant management changes in Columbus


Cap Situation: $3,728,693 in cap space with 23 NHL contracts, per General Fanager. Very comfortable.


Caps Play The Columbus Blue Jackets Four Times


Last year's Columbus Blue Jackets team was far better than their point totals indicated. Why were they on the outside looking in on a playoff spot? Injuries. They had lots and lots of injuries. How many? According to mangameslost.com, the Blue Jackets led the league in total man games lost, with 508. Second highest? The Colorado Avalanche with 495. And third highest? Buffalo with 368.


No team was injured as often as the Blue Jackets, and it quite simply cost them a playoff spot. With career years from both Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, the Blue Jackets deserved a far better outcome on their season.


Now, the team looked to make a statement in the offseason, and show that they really were one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. They showed they weren't messing around with one big acquisition that no one saw coming. But did the Blue Jackets improve their overall team?


Forwards


No forward may have had a more surprising year in all of the NHL than Foligno. Last season, Foligno was 159th in the league in scoring. This year, he bumped up to 10th in the entire league, smashing his previous career highs. He finished his year with 31 goals and 73 points. His previous high? 47 points. The standout season earned Foligno an All Star appearance, a six-year $33 million contract and the Blue Jackets captaincy.


What caused Foligno's massive jump in offensive production? Initially, anyone would understandably think he was pretty lucky, relying on a high shooting percentage. He did, in fact, have a pretty high shooting percentage, scoring on 17 percent of his total shots (well above his 11.3 career shooting percentage). His PDO this season, a measurement used to determine a players "puck luck," was 102.3 at even strength five on five, the highest rating he's had in his career, and well above the "average" amount of puck luck of 100. In fact, this season marked the third straight year Foligno posted a PDO score over 101.5 at even strength five on five. However, Foligno was a strong possession player this season, finishing with a 4.5 relative Fenwick percentage at even strength five on five. So while Foligno may be considered a "lucky" player, he controls the puck enough where he can still reasonably produce solid numbers.

Nick Foligno

So why did he have such a large jump in his overall play? It might have been because of a confidence booster from his Blue Jackets coach, Todd Richards. According to Aaron Portzline's article featured in The Hockey News, Richards told Foligno he was more than capable of becoming a 30-goal scorer, something Foligno had never been told at the NHL level. So Foligno started shooting the puck a bit more, setting a career high this season with 182 shots. But now that he has earned that first line money after producing as a top line player, will he begin to regress, or will he continue battling for more?


Foligno won't be the only guy producing goals. In fact, with new arrival Brandon Saad, Foligno may not even be the top point producer on his team next year. Saad, of course, arrived to Columbus from Chicago, after the Blackhawks feared they wouldn't be able to afford their prized young forward if he was to sign an offer sheet. Saad didn't have to be the point-scoring man in Chicago, he had plenty of playmakers all around him to do just that. At just 22, Saad put up 23 goals and 52 points. He will have great playmakers in Columbus, but not quite at the same level as Chicago. Was Saad a product of a strong system? Possibly, but he certainly has the opportunity to become the star of this team, and all signs point to him being able to do so.


As a part of that Saad trade, the Blue Jackets lost a bit of scoring depth in both Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano, but if there is anything Columbus doesn't lack, it's scoring depth among their forward unit. The Blue Jackets had four different players who scored 20 or more goals: Foligno, Scott Hartnell, who finished with 28, Johansen, who had 26 and Cam Atkinson, who finished with his second straight 20 or more goal season with 22. Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Matt Calvert were all well on pace to finish with 20 goals, had they played a full season. Throw in Saad, and that's eight players capable of scoring 20 or more goals. Will all guys be able to score 20 next season? No, certainly not, but offense should be flowing through, at the very least, the top three lines.


Alexander Wennberg had a respectable rookie season, finishing with four goals and 20 points in 68 games. He certainly has the potential to crack the top-six, but Columbus' forwards are just so deep, and Wennberg might serve the team better with a bottom-six role. 


Also, don't forget, David Clarkson now plays for the Blue Jackets. He only appeared in three games in a Blue Jackets sweater this season before an oblique tear sidelined him for the rest of the year. Clarkson is not a bad hockey player. He's just a very, very overpaid player. Can he find success on the third line? Of course. He could quite easily succeed on the third line for a team like the Blue Jackets. His only issue is, you know, he's vastly overpaid.

Defensemen


What the Blue Jackets have in their forward unit certainly doesn't translate to their defensemen corps.  Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen had stated he was looking to add some defensemen to provide depth.


He didn't.


Kekalainen should have not only looked at adding some depth to the blue line, he should have looked to improve it altogether. (But, hey, it's not too late to do just that...we'll get to that in a little bit).

David Savard

The Blue Jackets currently lack a true number one defenseman. This season, the Blue Jackets relied on David Savard and Jack Johnson to eat the most minutes, each averaging over 22 minutes a game. Both players excel at moving the puck. Johnson finished the season with 32 assists (good for third on the team) and Savard finished with 25 (good for fifth on the team).


That's excellent, and good teams have good players on the blue line that can generate some offense. But in order for those players to succeed, they absolutely need to be paired with a more defensive-minded defenseman.


Pairing these two together would certainly result in a quick paced, puck moving nightmare for the opposition, but should they puck be in their own defensive zone, Blue Jackets fans should be sweating bullets. Savard is a bit more responsible in his defensive zone than Johnson, but neither guy can be considered a true, bonafide two-way defenseman. Savard certainly has a bit of time to develop into a more defensively-responsible defenseman, and it would serve Columbus well if he matured into a true defenseman.


Fedor Tyutin, the team's highest paid defenseman with a $4.5 million AAV, is the closest thing the Blue Jackets have to a defensive-minded top four defenseman. Pairing Tyutin with Johnson would allow Johnson to jump into the offense with a bit more comfort than if he was to play with Savard.


The other sure-fire defenseman for this team is Ryan Murray, the former second-overall pick in the 2012 draft. Well......maybe "sure-fire" is the wrong word...... 


Murray was one of those injured guys for the Blue Jackets last year, appearing in only 12 games this year after missing a great deal of time recovering from knee surgery and then had to battle through a high ankle sprain. A couple of seasons ago, he was held out of several Everett Silvertips games in the WHL with a shoulder issue. In his young, promising career, Murray has played in just 78 games. That ranks him behind Hampus Lindholm (156), Morgan Rielly (154), Jacob Trouba (130), Cody Ceci (130) and Olli Maata (98) in games played in defensemen that were selected in the 2012 draft.  Murray absolutely needs to stay healthy for the Blue Jackets to succeed this year.


The third pairing would involve some combination of Dalton Prout, Kevin Connauton and Cody Goloubef. All serviceable, none will be game changes.


This blue line unit is average at best, but it is really one legitimate blue liner away from being a pretty good grouping. Who could that one defenseman be?


That was in tweeted on July 15, and Christian Ehrhoff still hasn't signed with a team just yet. Last year, Ehrhoff signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Why so cheap? The Buffalo Sabres bought him out, and are paying him $857,143 every year until 2028 to not play for the Buffalo Sabres. Could the Blue Jackets squeeze Ehrhoff into their plans with the roughly $3.7 million they have in cap space? It's certainly a possibility.

What's the most recent development on this situation? We'll again refer to Mr. Portzline.

Hey, the Blue Jackets aren't out of that race just yet.

Doesn't matter what Johansen or Dubinsky tweet....this team could have really used Mike Reilly.

Goaltending

Statistically, Sergei Bobrovsky had his worst season as a Blue Jacket.

Fortunately, Bobrovsky's worst is still not all that bad.

Bobrovsky posted the second-lowest even-strength five on five save percentage of his career with a .924 save percentage. That put him just behind Marc-Andre Fleury among starting NHL goaltenders, who recorded a .926 save percentage.

Bobrovsky is still, quite easily, a franchise goaltender. He may never win a Vezina Trophy ever again, but the Blue Jackets should feel more than confident each time he is between the pipes. 

Was his season that was below-Bobrovsky standards a sign of things to come? Probably not. Just because it was a down year doesn't mean it was a bad year. At his worst, he was still comparable to Fleury.

On the flip side of Columbus goaltending, Curtis McElhinney had one of the best years of his career. He finished his season with a career-high 32 games, and a .913 save percentage at even-strength five on five. McElhinney proved that he can be relied on as a backup, and was even capable of occasionally stealing a win or two.

Goaltending is not an issue for the Blue Jackets at all. And if that defensemen unit improves, just imagine how much better the goaltending would be.

Prospects

Within the past several drafts, the Columbus Blue Jackets have been absolutely loading their prospect pool. And they aren't just snagging talent from the first round in each draft, they are striking gold on some later-round gems as well.

The most promising and most impressive prospect may in fact be forward Oliver Bjorkstrand. A third-round pick in 2013, Bjorkstrand has absolutely exploded as one of the WHL's top players, if not the top player, over the past couple of seasons. Bjorkstrand led the entire WHL with 63 goals and 118 points in just 59 games this season. And Bjorkstrand was equally impressive in the World Junior Championship for Denmark. Denmark didn't win a single game in the tournament (Correction: Denmark did actually win a game in the shootout), but both Bjorkstrand and Winnipeg Jets prospect Nikolaj Ehlers stood out as two of the best players in the tournament. Bjorkstrand finished the tournament with four goals and five points in five games. The right-handed winger will more than likely start out with the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters (the new AHL affiliation for the Blue Jackets, who were formally the Springfield Falcons) this season, but if the Blue Jackets run into the injury bug again, Bjorkstrand could get a call up.


Sonny Milano
Sonny Milano is another exciting forward in the Blue Jackets prospect pool. Milano was originally a Boston College commit, but instead opted to go with the OHL route. He finished his first OHL season with 22 goals and 68 points in 50 games with the Plymouth Whalers. He is an extremely talented puck handler, and was one of the more entertaining players to watch for Team USA at the World Junior Championship. He has the ability to beat players one on one, and has tremendous vision. Milano will play another season within the OHL for the Flint Firebirds (nope, he didn't get traded. Plymouth relocated to Flint).

Kerby Rychel saw five games of NHL time this season, but there may not be any room for him on the NHL roster this year as a consistent player. Rychel is a tough, power forward type that isn't afraid to throw his weight around. He's the son of Warren Rychel, the former NHL tough guy and current Windsor Spitfires franchise owner and GM. Thankfully for the Blue Jackets, Kerby Rychel has a bit more offensive flair than his father. Rychel finished with 12 goals and 33 points in 51 games in his first AHL season. It's hard to tell if that point production will translate to the NHL level, but, at the very least, the Blue Jackets can expect Rychel to be a feisty power-forward type that's not afraid to get under his opponents skin. He could more than likely serve as, at the very least, a tough fourth liner that can chip in a goal here or there, and he could even probably succeed at doing just that next season, should he get the opportunity.

If Rychel's power-forward game doesn't make a lasting impression on the Blue Jackets, there's always a chance 2015 second-round pick Paul Bittner will. Bittner is a big body, standing at 6'4", 203 lbs. He had a big season in the WHL with 71 points in 66 games. Another late-round bloomer Columbus may have gotten lucky with its Nick Moutrey selection, who quietly put up 62 points in 62 games for the Saginaw Spirit and the North Bay Battalion in the OHL. Much like Bittner, Moutrey is big, at 6'3", 220 lbs. William Karlsson, brought over from the Anaheim Ducks in the James Wisniewski trade, has a legitimate shot at cracking the full-time NHL roster this year.

*Deep breath* We haven't even gotten to the defensemen yet!

The biggest prize of the bunch is obviously Zach Werenski, Columbus' first-round pick in this year's draft. Werenski was a stud for the National Team Development Program, and went on to not only become the University of Michigan's top defenseman as a freshman, but also became one of the top defensemen in all of NCAA hockey. He'll likely bake for another year at Michigan, though the two defensemen selected before him in the draft, Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes and Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia have already signed entry-level deals. Werenski is a smoothe-skating defenseman that is capable of generating offense by moving the puck quickly and intelligently.

What do some of the other top Blue Jacket defensemen prospects have in common? Size. Lots of size. The other first-round pick this year, Gabriel Carlsson is 6'4" and plays a strictly defensive game. Dillon Heatherington appeared in three AHL games this season for the Springfield Falcons, but he did most of his damage in the WHL with the Swift Current Broncos. The 6'4" Heatherington also played a significant role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship, winning the gold medal. Ryan Collins performed well in his first year with the Minnesota Gophers, recording 8 assists and 9 points in 32 games. When the 6'5" defenseman was drafted in the second round of last year's draft, the Blue Jackets knew he was going to be a project defenseman. He's not the greatest skater in the world, but he is slowly learning how to use his size to his advantage. He is still several years away from even having a crack at NHL time, but the Blue Jackets would certainly love to put a sweater on him.

The two primary goaltenders of the future are Anton Forsberg and Oscar Dansk. Forsberg appeared in five games for the Blue Jackets, surrendering 20 total goals. Yeah...he's not quite ready yet. But, what's encouraging for Forsberg is that he will be the primary goaltender for the Lake Erie Monsters. In his 30 games this season with the Falcons, Forsberg recorded a .927 save percentage and a 2.01 goals against average. Where does Dansk fit in? After an underwhelming AHL/ECHL debut this season, Dansk was loaned to Rogel-BK, a first division team in the Swedish hockey league. Dansk will have the opportunity to clear his head a bit and gain a little bit of confidence after it was clearly rocked in America (.880 save percentage in 21 games with the Falcons, .889 in 11 games for the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings).

Player to Watch

Ryan Murray. A lot of the Blue Jackets' worries on the blue line can simply go away if Murray can stay healthy for a full season. He's a former second-overall pick that dominated at the junior level with an elite-level two-way game. 

How important is Murray's health to this teams' success? Kekalainen had this to say:


Ryan Murray
"To me, getting him healthy would be the best addition any team has made this summer. It would make a huge difference for us."

Of course it would. If Murray can reach his full potential this season, the Blue Jackets will essentially add a consistent top-four, and possibly a top-two defenseman, right to their lineup.

If I was Richards, and I knew at the beginning of the season I would have a healthy Murray to work with, I would pencil him right in as a part of the top defensive pair. I'd put him against the oppositions top forwards each and every night. I not only think Murray needs to see top competition to jumpstart his growth as an elite defenseman, I think he can handle it.

Murray can do it. Murray needs to prove that he can do it. After this season, Murray becomes a restricted free agent. Wouldn't he love to head into the offseason knowing he just finished up his year as a top-two defenseman instead of sitting out for 80 percent of the year?

If the Blue Jackets are going to succeed this year, Murray needs to succeed this year. This is Murray's year.

Final Analysis

This is a very good team, and it is most certainly a playoff-bound team (if they can, of course, all stay healthy). The Metropolitan is a gauntlet of teams filled with scoring forwards top to bottom, and the Blue Jackets certainly have just that. They are one of the few teams that can have three lines that could potential hold a 20-plus goal scorer. But what is making this team a "good" team and not a "great" team is its blue line. They are really one piece away from being that "great" team within this division. If Murray steps up and becomes a bonafide, stalwart defenseman, they are really close to becoming a "great" team. If that happens and they add a guy like Ehrhoff to the lineup, they become that "great" team within this division. That's far easier said than done. And, hey, there's no rush. The Blue Jackets could potentially find that blue liner they need at the trade deadline. Will this team make the playoffs? Yes. Can they win it with the team they have now? Probably not. Can they win it if they add a piece or two here and there? Sure, why not? 

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Look At The Metropolitan: The Carolina Hurricanes

Now that July 1 is long past, most trades have already happened, hockey rosters are 90-ish percent completed and it's 100 degrees outside where you are, there is not much going on in the hockey world. At all.

Sure, we will have some arbitration hearings happen. Sure, we will see a few more signings. And, sure, we might see another trade and Claude Giroux might touch another butt, but it's really not enough to entertain the average hockey fan.

I peruse Twitter, desperately looking for some sort of newsworthy thing to talk about, desperately searching to insert myself into someone else's disagreement to be some stupid voice of reason. But for the most part, it's nothing. Hockey news has ceased to exist. Instead the hockey-sphere is blowing hot air on the latest hot take on "so and so" heading to "such and such, "snapping a photo of their hot beach views, or arguing over whether a hot dog is a sandwich or not.

It's what happens when you have a lot of time on your hands. So to pass time, why don't we educate ourselves on the teams around us?

I believe it's important to know your competition. It's one thing to know your own team inside and out, but it's another thing to know other team's inside and out.

Believe me, I will dive into the Capitals at some point when I'm 100 percent certain what the team will look like. I'll create post after post of the most optimal possible lineup for Washington. But for now, for the sake of passing some time, why don't we take a look at some other teams?

Let's dive right into the Metropolitan Division, starting with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Carolina Hurricanes 2014-15: 8th in the Metropolitan Division with 71 points

Team Additions: Defenseman James Wisniewski (Ducks), Goaltender Eddie Lack (Canucks).

Departures: Forwards Alexander Semin (Currently UFA), Ben Holmstrom (Islanders), Goaltender Anton Khodobin (Ducks).

Other Currently Unsigned FA's That Saw NHL Time This Year: Brody Sutter, Brett Bellmore, Patrick Dwyer, Jack Hillen.

2015 NHL Draft Picks: Defenseman Noah Hanifin (5th overall), Forward Sebastian Aho (35th overall), Goaltender Callum Booth (93rd overall), Forward Nicolas Roy (96th overall), Forward Luke Stevens (126th overall), Forward Spencer Smallman (138th overall), Defenseman Jake Massie (156th overall), Forward David Cotton (169th overall), Forward Steven Lorentz (186th overall).

No significant management changes in Carolina.

Cap Situation: Seventh-most cap space in the league, with 21 NHL contracts on the roster. Very comfortable.

Caps Play The Carolina Hurricanes Four Times (Six, If You Include Preseason)

During the NHL draft, the NHL crew mic'd up Noah Hanifin, the standout freshman defenseman from Boston College, who was selected fifth overall by the Carolina Hurricanes. As Hanifin made his way to the draft table, he was met by Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, who shook Hanifin's hand and said "We're going to build something special here. You're going to be a big part of that."

Will they, though? This is a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2009, and the fifth-overall selection was their highest pick since 2005. Is Hanifin the mark of a brand new beginning for Carolina? Are they just now entering a "rebuild" phase? If so....what have they been doing for the last six years?

Well, for starters, Jim Rutherford had been at the helm as the Hurricanes GM for the majority of those dark years. His time with Carolina began to grow stale, and he thankfully went to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now, Ron Francis has taken control of this team. And if we are to believe that Carolina is about to "build something special," he's going to have to make things a bit ugly. And, thankfully for Carolina, he's already part of the way there.

Forwards

$26.975 million was divvied up last season to four forwards. Those same four forwards scored 53 total goals last season.

One of those forwards was Alex Semin, who earned $7 million last season and scored a total of six goals in 57 games. The Hurricanes opted to buy Semin out of his remaining three years, forcing themselves to pay $2,333,333 (which counts against the cap) each year until the 2020-21 season.

The other three forwards in that grouping, Eric and Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, are all still on the team, but a couple of them may not be on the team for much longer.

Eric Staal is entering the final year of his seven-year, $57.75 million contract. He's just 30-years-old, and is more than capable of chipping in 50-60 points a season. Should the Hurricanes look to trade him during the 2016 trade deadline, Staal would surely be the most sought after acquisition of the bunch. And given the going rate of playoff rentals at the deadline (Ex. Antoine Vermette,  Keith Yandle), the Hurricanes can quite easily get a large return on their captain.

The other Hurricanes forward that has been cast into the trade rumors this offseason is Jeff Skinner. Skinner recorded 18 goals and 31 points this season, good for second and fifth on his team, respectively. The 23-year-old is an excellent skater and has a lot of skill with the puck, but he has battled through quite a few concussions in recent years. Could this be the concern the Hurricanes have with their 2010 first-round pick? Is it really worth it to trade away a guy capable of 20-30 goals a year, with a cap-friendly contract at the age of 23?

Elias Lindholm
Eric Staal and Skinner should both be with the team at the start of the year, and they provide the biggest threat offensively. But the Hurricanes do have a couple of rising stars that could see a bit more ice time next season. Elias Lindholm's second NHL season was a success. He played against top competition and saw a lot of ice time with Eric Staal. Lindholm recorded 17 goals and 39 points this season, and the 20-year-old will surely get better as he matures. Victor Rask also had a successful rookie year with 11 goals and 33 points. He should expect a bit more than his 16:20 of ice time he got this season next year.

But what kills this team is their complete lack of depth. Sure, having guys like Lindholm, Eric Staal, Skinner and even Rask helps out your team, but where is the rest of the scoring on this team? Only one other forward scored at least ten goals this season, and that was Nathan Gerbe, who finished with exactly 10. A team can't possibly expect to succeed with such poor depth on their forward units.

The Carolina Hurricanes didn't add a single forward to their weak unit. You can expect another lackluster year from the forwards, especially if the Hurricanes do decide to trade away Eric Staal.

Defensemen

The lone bright spot within this organization is their blue line....well, maybe not just yet (we'll get to that a bit later). 

Justin Faulk has established himself as one of the better offensive-minded defensemen in the NHL. He finished second on Carolina in points, with 49, including 15 goals. Carolina managed to lock him up with a six-year, $29 million ($4,833,333 AAV), which is an absolutely outstanding deal. He will play a critical part in whatever amount of success the Hurricanes have next season, and he is a major part of Carolina's future.

The Carolina Hurricanes gave up 226 goals this season, good for 20th in the league. But did that have to do more with the blue line itself, or more with goaltending?

I don't think it was the blue line. I think the defensemen on this team are relatively underrated. I'm primarily talking about both Ron Hainsey and John-Michael Liles. Whether both of them are utilized as a second pair together with one another or if one drops down to the third pairing, they will fit in to the lineup well. Both are 34, both are left-handed shots, and both saw a lot of ice time this past year. Liles, who finished with 20 assists this year, is a better puck mover than Hainsey, and he may be a better pairing with the goal-scoring Faulk on the top line.

The Canes added James Wisniewski to the mix, which was an excellent signing. With eight goals and 34 points last season, Wisniewski provides another offensive punch to the line. He's right-handed, so if the Hurricanes would like to go lefty-righty on their defensive pairs, he fits in perfectly on the second pairing.

Ryan Murphy
Where things get interesting is with the bottom pairing, with several guys fighting for a position. Ryan Murphy, Danny Biega, Michal Jordan and Rasmus Rissanen all saw a bit of NHL time this year,  though none played more than 40 games. All 25 or younger, there is no clear-cut top two among the group. Of the four, Murphy is the most promising and the most likely to earn a full-time spot of the group. The Hurricanes 2012 first-round pick has been eased into the NHL. He finished with four goals and nine assists in 37 games this year. He's a bit undersized, but he is great with the puck and projects as an offensive-minded defenseman. Between the final spot, it's a battle between those three.

Or is it? You notice I didn't even mention Noah Hanifin? Or even Haydn Fleury for that matter?

Goaltending

Remember how I kind of hinted that the goals against Carolina may have been more because of goaltending and not so much because of the blue line? Yeah....look no further than Anton Khudobin and Cam Ward.

Khudobin's .900 unadjusted save percentage was the second-worst among goaltenders with at least 30 games played, according to WAR on Ice.  Ward's wasn't much better, finishing just ahead of Ray Emery in the category.

Khudobin was shipped off to the Anaheim Ducks. And Ward is entering the final year of absurd six-year, $37.8 million ($6.3 AAV) contract. Yup, absurd. Ward has recorded a season with a save percentage higher than .916 just once in his career.

Insert Eddie Lack, the new hope for the Hurricanes in the goaltending department. The Swedish goaltender recorded a .921 save percentage in 41 games this year with the Vancouver Canucks, and now the quirky goaltender finally gets to be the premier net minder on his team. No Roberto Luongo in the way. No Ryan Miller in the way. It's his.

Can he handle it? Sure. When Miller went down with a groin in late February, it was Lack who stepped in and essentially carried the Canucks to a playoff spot. Lack was then given the reigns for the playoffs. His four games were pretty sub-par, but his run over the course of the end of the year proved that he can in fact lead a team.

And look at who the Canucks have shipped off recently. Cory Schneider, a pretty good goalie for the New Jersey Devils. Roberto Luongo, a pretty good goalie for the Florida Panthers. Can Lack join them as a pretty good goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes? Of course he can.

Prospects

This is why I'm a fan of that Hurricanes blue line. They are very, very deep when it comes to their blue line prospects.

Noah Hanifin
No team has a better defenseman in waiting in their prospect pool than the Hurricanes do with Hanifin. Have you seen him play? He wasn't just Boston College's best blue liner, he was quite possibly Boston College's best player as a freshman. Despite being a year under the age group, he excelled at the World Junior Championships. He's a stud defenseman that has been compared to Drew Doughty. He is equally talented on both sides of the puck. He's intelligent both on and off the ice. The guy has "future NHL captain" written all over him.

But there's another high-end prospect to get excited about if your a Carolina Hurricanes fan in Fleury.  Fleury is big at 6'3" and has a bit of physicality to his game. He doesn't quite have the offensive mind that Hanifin has, but he certainly projects as a solid top-four defenseman. This is a guy who was selected as the second-overall defenseman in his class, behind some buy named Aaron Ekblad.

Those aren't even the only two good defensemen the Hurricanes have in waiting. At the deadline, they were able to add Roland McKeown in the Andrej Sekera trade with the Los Angeles Kings. Selected in the same draft as Fleury, McKeown has served as the stalwart captain for his Kingston Frontenacs. He may be a ways away from seeing full NHL time, at least more so than both Hanifin and Fleury, but he could have an NHL career in front of him.

While they have serious prospects in waiting among their defensemen unit, the Hurricanes lack a bonafide forward. Lucas Wallmark looked pretty good for Sweden at the World Junior Championship this year, finishing with four goals and six points in seven games. Phil Di Giuseppe could see a bit of NHL time this year. He scored 11 goals and 30 points in 76 games in the AHL this year with the Charlotte Checkers. This year's second-round selection, Sebastian Aho, has a lot of promise, but Aho is certainly a long ways away from NHL time. But the most intriguing forward prospect by far for the Hurricanes is Sergei Tolchinsky. Tolchinsky was an un-drafted free agent at the Hurricanes Camp in 2013. He's just 5'9", but he put up 30 goals and 95 points this year in the OHL for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, finishing 11th in the league in points. Oh, he was also a human highlight reel at this year's development camp.

In goal, Alex Nedeljkovic is the prospect in waiting with the most NHL promise. The 2014 second-round pick is a bit small for NHL goaltenders at today's standards, standing at just 6'0", but he is very athletic and quick on his feet. Nedeljkovic regressed a bit from his draft year numbers, and while he made the final roster for Team USA for the World Junior Championship, Nedeljkovic didn't suit up.

Player to Watch

Picking Hanifin as the player to watch this year is just a bit too easy. In my opinion, there are two Hurricanes who are primed to breakout this year. Murphy has a chance to step into a bit of a bigger role. If the Hurricanes don't fully feel comfortable with giving Hanifin NHL time just yet, Murphy could see a lot of ice time. He projects as a bottom-pairing defenseman at the moment, but if the Hurricanes want to add a bit more offense, they should pair him on the second pairing with Wisniewski, and bump Hainsey down to the third pairing. Hainsey at 34 makes a good to below-average second pairing defenseman, but he makes a great third pairing defenseman. And with Murphy's ability to move the puck, united with Wisniewski's ability to move the puck could make a deadly second-pairing. If Murphy's smaller frame is up to the task this year to play a bit more difficult minutes, he could be an exciting player to watch.

The other player to watch is Lack. As previously mentioned, he is finally diving into a situation where the net belongs to him. At 27, and entering the final year of his contract, he has an awful lot to prove. Can he handle it, or will the new added pressure break the high-spirited goalie?

Final Analysis

While it is clear that both the blue line and the goaltending improved this year for the Hurricanes, the forward unit certainly did not. They simply do not have the scoring depth needed to be a successful NHL team. And should Carolina decide to trade away Eric Staal, and even possibly Skinner, for future assets, they will only get worse offensively. Lindholm and Rask simply don't have want it takes yet to be relied on as top line players for a contending team. Could a guy like Tolchinsky be inserted into the lineup at some point and add a bit of a spark to a team that would certainly need it? Sure, but he ultimately won't be enough. And what if Lack doesn't live up to his expectations? Then what does Carolina do?

Remember, Peters told Hanifin that Carolina is "going to build something special here." The building has just begun. This is a team that will once again find it's way towards the bottom, and they could certainly hit rock bottom if they choose to let go of Eric Staal. But, it should be made clear: It won't be because of the defensemen.