Hockey

The last time Stan Bowman came out to open his mouth and find out with the rest of us what would come out of it, and a continuing theme the Hawks have hid behind, is that the price for “going for it” every season there for a bit cost them their future. Which is what we’re living with now. And it seems reasonable, but I thought I’d go a little more into it than just taking it by word.

I’m going to start with 2015, even though that season ended with a Cup and no one’s complaining at least about Antoine Vermette. Before that was six years ago, and even picks the Hawks gave up then would be veterans now that the Hawks likely wouldn’t be able to afford anyway. This is also going to assume that the Hawks would have nailed even any of these picks, much less all of them. But we will see who might have ended up as a Hawk if they still were making those pick. So let’s review:

2015

Antoine Vermette – Acquired for Klas Dahlbeck and 1st round pick (30th)

Coyotes drafted: Nick Merkley

Players that followed immediately: Christian Fischer, Travis Dermott, Sebastien Aho, Brandon Carlo

Clearly, Merkley never became anything. And again, the Hawks won the Cup that year, so this is what you sacrifice. But clearly, any of the four taken directly after Merkley would have been a huge help to the Hawks going forward. Even Dermott would have been the best defensive prospect they’ve produced other than Boqvist. Aho…d’oh.

Kimmo Timonen – Acquired for 2015 2nd round pick (61st) and 2016 2nd round pick (52nd)

Maple Leafs drafted (2015): Jeremy Bracco 

Players that followed immediately: Kyle Copabianco

Flyers Drafted (2016): Wade Allison

Players that followed immediately: Filip Hronek, Dillon Dube

Not as damaging as what came before. In 2016, Hronke would have definitely made this Hawks roster and showed some promise, while Dube probably could have been a useful bottom-sixer. Or he would have gotten the Dylan Sikura treatment for no reason other than the Hawks didn’t see him fight the one night they were scouting Rockford. Who knows?

2016

Andrew Ladd – Acquired for Marko Dano, 1st rounder in 2016 and conditional pick in 2018

Pick later traded to Flyers, drafted: German Rubstov

Players that followed immediately: Henrik Borgstrom, Max Jones, Tage Thompson, Brett Howden

Didn’t miss out on much here, but Howden would have been nice.

Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann – Acquired for Phillip Danault and 2018 2nd round pick

Canadiens Drafted: Alex Romanov

Player that immediately followed: No one

So Bowman can bemoan going all in all the time cost them the future, but this trade is more than that. It’s just bad. Fleischmann and Weise weren’t as valuable as Danault was that season, let alone what would come after. And deep down, we knew that at the time. This was splurging for the sake of splurging. And from the draft that they gave up a pick from, they didn’t really miss anything, although Howden’s future looks promising, except he hasn’t done much in the NHL yet. So he wouldn’t really be pulling the Hawks out of their current spot, just promising a better future than they have now.

2017

Johnny Oduya – Acquired for Mark McNeill and 2018 4th round pick

Dallas Drafted: Adam Mascherin

Players that immediately followed: No one

The Hawks didn’t really go all in at this deadline, as they were in first and felt pretty good about themselves, even if it felt like it was all on stilts at the time. McNeill never went on to be anything, and there’s no one from the fourth round of the 2018 draft who has mattered yet.

So looking back on all this, on the surface it seems like the Hawks sacrificed a lot to win in ’15 and try again the next two years. But the only cost really was that 1st round pick for Vermette. Now, maybe the Hawks would have taken Sebastien Aho, and things would look awfully different right now. Even Brandon Carlo would have changed the trajectory a bit. But how much?

At this point, this is deflection from the front office. The Danault trade was just bad. That wasn’t a sacrifice, that was idiocy. Extending Anisimov immediately to try and justify giving up a fan favorite in Brandon Saad for him wasn’t a sacrifice, it was idiocy (coming from on high). That cost you Teuvo Teravainen.

And the players Stan did draft, as the Hawks haven’t been bereft of picks, have been hit and miss. They’re not exceptionally good at it, but they’re not bad at it either. Still, on this current team, only Boqvist, Dach, and Debrincat look like Hawks draft picks that will make a difference for the Hawks. That’s just not good enough. That’s not about sacrifice, at least not entirely.

Again, this is Stan hiding while trying to justify his continued employment. And it looks thinner and thinner every day.

 

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Canes 12-7-1   Hawks 9-7-4

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

REMEMBER, NORTH CAROLINA GAVE US TRUBISKY: Canes Country

In the ashes of the Bears demise, some hope has risen about the Hawks. They’re playing well, or at least they’re getting results. They’ve taken some scalps off teams that either used to give them a ton of headaches (Knights, Preds) or have name recognition (Leafs). They’re scoring goals. However, this week is when we’ll see just how much the Hawks can handle opening up the throttle. The Canes start it off and are still one of the best possession teams in the league. The Lightning are scuffling but also have the biggest collection of scoring around and throat-fucked the Hawks twice last year. The Stars are the hottest team in the league. The past two weeks has seen the schedule cut the Hawks some favors, as all of the Knights, Leafs, Preds, and Sabres have been fighting it of late. Not so much here.

The Canes kick it off, rolling into town on the back of three straight wins, though two were in OT over the just-vanquished Sabres and the simply unfortunate Wild. Before that, the Canes had some ugly losses to the Senators, Rangers, Flyers, and Devils, which are not teams the Canes should be losing to. It’s a bad look. This will also be the end of a mini road trip for the Canes, so the Hawks might catch them already thinking about the flight home.

As always with the Canes, they are a dominant even-strength team. They rank first in team Corsi-percentage, third in expected-goals percentage. And this time around, they’re only having problems at one end of the ice turning all that into actual results. The Canes are 8th in the league at 3.45 goals per game, and have spread it around nicely with seven guys having four goals or more. Erik Haula on their third line has eight, to give you some idea. Their power play has actually been a threat too, ranking eighth in the league at the moment.

But as is the Canes’ way, they keep buying into illusions of a goaltender. They got a remarkable run from Petr Mrazek last season, doubled down, and now stand gobsmacked that he suddenly turned back into Petr Mrazek. He has an .886 in November. He’s not this bad, but he’s also probably not last year’s .914 either. He’s been all over the map in his career, so it’s hard to guess. James Reimer was brought in to at least stabilize the backup spot and provide something of a safety net if Mrazek went to the dogs again. That hasn’t really worked out yet and suddenly the fear that last year’s flop in  Florida portends to a career-downturn are real. The Canes aren’t really getting saves, but filling the net at the other end to make up for it while limiting attempts and chances against so their goalies can’t torpedo them completely.

Again, this feels like a real test for the Hawks’ rediscovered UP AND AT THEM ways. They’ve passed the other ones to be fair to them, with the help of some shoddy goaltending at the other end. They may get that tonight as well. But the Canes defense is probably the best in the league and among the most mobile. They won’t be fearing getting caught with forwards behind them, and can pinch more aggressively in the Hawks zone because they can recover. The speed the Canes have at forward as well should be an utter nightmare for the Hawks’ defense, who will have less escape routes.

But again, the Hawks don’t have to break even on attempts and chances. They have the better goalie who is playing better (Lehner), and they have higher quality finishers. Stay in the neighborhood, as the Hawks have been doing, and they can rack up some more points. On the flip side, the Canes have utterly destroyed the Hawks the last three times they’ve played, because they just play at a higher pace than the Hawks can manage.

We’ll see how far this new “style” goes tonight against a team that’s been doing it better and for years longer. Get the feeling this one will have some goals in it.

 

Hockey

If you’ve followed us for a few years, or really paid attention to any analytic-inclined coverage of the Canadian Disease, you’ll know that the Carolina Hurricanes have been something of a darling for a while. Only last year did the results on the ice match the metric-love (great Prince EP), as the Canes finally made the playoffs and then streaked to the conference final after that. Before, they weren’t even much of a nearly team, as they didn’t come close to the playoffs often and hadn’t actually made them since 2009. So the crusty portion of hockey coverage could always scoff at them, because at the end of the day, it is about where you finish and not really how you got there.

The Canes were actually the inverse of what we talked about yesterday with these Hawks. They were a football team that could really move the ball between the 20s. But hockey games are decided at what happens at the ends of the ice. And the Canes couldn’t get a save, and they couldn’t get goals consistently. In the past five seasons, the Canes have never had a team shooting-percentage over 7.3%, and have finished in the bottom-10 of that category every year. So even if they were generating a ton of shots, or certainly way more shots than they were giving up, who gives a fuck if you can’t get the puck to go in enough to make it count?

The Hurricanes entire history is filled with a lack of true goal-scorer. Since moving to Carolina, the Canes have three 40-goal seasons. That’s in over 20 seasons now, keep in mind. Two of them were from Eric Staal, and one was from Jeff O’Neill somehow. In that same span of time, though playing eight less seasons, Alex Ovechkin has nine. So it’s been something of an issue.

In recent years, especially since they set Eric Staal free, they haven’t really had a player to even threaten that kind of finish. Jeff Skinner got to 37 a few years ago, but as we stated on Sunday, Skinner specializes in scoring goals that don’t matter. Sebastien Aho proved to be the genuine top line talent they’d been missing since Staal the Elder got old, but he’s more of a playmaker than finisher. Even if his 30 goals certainly played well last year. We know our Finnish Baby Jesus is also in the playmaking, two-way winger type.

The hope is that’s where Andrei Svechnikov comes in.

Svechnikov is off to a flier this year, with nine goals in his teams first 20 games, which would put him on pace for 37 for the year, which would tie for fourth-highest in Carolina history. The question is if this is what Svechnikov is. He’s shooting 17%, which is way over the 10.6% he put up last year. But top tier finishers live in the 15%-17% range, so maybe this is what he is?

Perhaps what will make Canes observers a little tentative is that all his measures from last year are down, in terms of the chances and attempts he’s getting off. Most of his good work has come on the power play, where he already has four goals and is shooting 21% so far. His PP time has been boosted by a full minute per game, perhaps soaking up the time Justin Williams would have taken, and he’s firing off a ton more shots, even if they’re not resulting in that much of a bigger likelihood of scoring.

“Svech” was drafted second overall because the Canes think he can be the finisher they haven’t had, off of scoring 40 goals in 44 games in his one season in the OHL. He won’t turn 20 until the end of March, and the list of players to break 35 goals at age 19 in the past 20 years isn’t very long. In fact, no one’s on it. The best mark as a teenager was Skinner’s tally of 31 in 2011. The Canes are probably hoping for better long-term than that.

If the Canes plan on taking another step, and that’s if their goaltending holds up which looks pretty shaky, they’ll need to fire themselves past the Perfection Line in Boston or the bevy of scoring in Tampa or DC or maybe all of them. At some point the collective isn’t enough and you need stars to drag you over the line. The Canes hope that Aho and Svechnikov are their answer.

Hockey

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

Shift Charts

 

Well, it was better? I’m not sure what else to say. If effort was indeed the problem on Thursday, and you won’t convince me that’s the only answer, the effort was better here. But teams that bitch about effort, and then think effort will cure all, simply don’t have enough talent. Look across the ice. The Hurricanes were barely out of second gear all afternoon, and they were never threatened. They never looked like this game would be a contest for them. The Hawks did work hard, and did about everything they could. They didn’t score.

Usually in these recaps, I would point to the possession-share and point out the Hawks had the better of it. Or that the second period was pretty good, as they controlled the play pretty well. But we are in an age now where we’re moving beyond that, and we now know that the Hawks’ possession wasn’t worth shit. They didn’t create many chances, and even with limited time the Canes created better ones, hence their advantage in the expected goals count and of course, the real goals.

The Hawks just don’t have enough dash. We haven’t even gotten to the defensive problems, but at the other end, who really is going to conjure something? Especially with DeBrincat fighting it and Kane not at his best either. Saad and Kampf and Dach are doing their best, but one’s a second line winger at best, one’s a checking center, and one’s barely beyond puberty in his fourth NHL game.

Anyway, there’s more I want to get to so let’s get to the bullets, shall we?

The Two Obs

-Let’s start here: Can anyone tell me what in the ever living fuck this means?

And credit to Ben Pope for the long-forgotten art of a follow-up question.

It seems odd that after he made a special point of ranting after Thursday’s loss that the line combos weren’t to blame, he immediately switched them. Did the players ask for this? Did he not believe his own words? I don’t know, but the whole thing smacks of someone who is out of answers. If he had them in the first place.

-And while the combos were better and the top six really has needed Brandon Saad (and really Kubalik too) to start to open space for people, that doesn’t mean they were perfect. Then again, with this roster, there probably isn’t a perfect set-up. What I do know is that Dylan Strome has done nothing to deserve being demoted to a fourth-line winger, and the Hawks offensive woes aren’t going to be solved like that. That’s not why the Hawks lost, and it borders on minor, but it’s still weird.

-And none of this matters, because Brent Seabrook was on the ice for all four goals, and you could argue he was responsible for three of them. No, he didn’t take the penalties. But on the first goal, yes Maatta is in the way too (and that honeymoon is over), Seabrook comes out past the circles. That’s needless. But he then lets Svechnikov find a lane that’s the opposite one from where Crow was looking, leaving the shortside all the way open and one a sniper like Svechnikov isn’t going to miss. It’s dogshit defending.

The second goal was the same goddamn thing. Yes, he was tired after an extended shift after losing his stick. Yes, Maatta should have never passed him the puck to start the scramble. But again, Crow is covering the far side of the net because from his view, Seabrook is in the lane anywhere else. A simple move fakes Seabrook out of most of his gear, now the whole thing is open, and Crow has to slide to cover the shortside quickly that he thought was covered. Niederreiter isn’t going to miss that either.

The fourth one, well he simply loses a battle behind the net to Aho, who either batted Seabrook’s stick so that he ended up making a perfect centering pass to Svechnikov again, or Seabrook did it under pressure, Either way, it’s not strong enough.

The third goal is Maatta, who goes chasing out to the corner on the kill and leaving that passing lane open for Staal to charge through.

Brent Seabrook is not an NHL player anymore. Olli Maatta is no more than a third-pairing d-man, and I question that as the Penguins just made a get-the-fuck-off-my-roster trade of Erik Gudbranson, whom they played ahead of Maatta last year. We’ll call this season a win if the Hawks realize this by the end of it.

-Speaking of defending, here’s another thread for you…

This happens every game. The Hawks aren’t always punished for it. I don’t know if the message is getting through or the players are just ignoring it, but it’s not good enough.

-Let’s do some pluses before we move on with our Saturdays. Kirby Dach was very effective, though it’s still bewildering how he doesn’t get a look on the 2nd power play unit. Unlike most of his teammates, Dach seems to get that the game is about taking the puck and getting up the ice as soon as possible. He’s not afraid to carry into and through the neutral zone and make a man miss to open up things. At least in the first half of the game, he made an effective play pretty much every shift.

The only debate about whether he should stay has to do with what the Hawks actually think this season is about, not what they’re telling you it’s about. If it’s just about him, it’s clear he’s good enough to develop here.

-Alex Nylander also was very straight-lined today, which is good. The Hawks need more of it.

I don’t know how it gets better. It might not.

Onwards…

 

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Hawks 2-4-2   6-3-1

PUCK DROP: 12pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago

HE HIT THE FUCKIN’ BULL: Canes Country

Well now that the coach has laid down the gauntlet, how will his players respond? That’s the question facing the Hawks this weekend, as they face their first back-to-back of the year. They could have picked better opponents than the Carolina Hurricanes. You’ll recall that Jeremy Colliton‘s first game was against the Canes. It was 4-0 after one period. Colliton appears to be trying to reset his team’s focus. Here come the Canes again…falling on our head like a memory…

We’ll start with the Hawks, who were called out by their coach after their totally limp-dick performance against the Flyers. That saw them get one shot in the second period (but man what a shot it was!). The Hawks never created much outside Saad’s goal, and though they didn’t give up an avalanche of shots or chances, they gave away something like 143 odd-man rushes with shoddy puck management and some wayward positioning. It was ugly, and not the kind of thing the Hawks wanted to cap off their homestand with.

And the problem here is they only got one regulation win in seven games at home. That’s simply not good enough. They can argue hey were unlucky against the Caps and especially the Knights, but at the end of the day it’s about the points you got and the ones you didn’t. And the Hawks didn’t get enough of them, and now they’ll face eight of the next 12 on the road.

The most likely scenario here is the Hawks will look to have a little more verve this weekend, but that could just as easily be professional pride as much as responding to their coach whom they have debatable respect for. The real fear is that after going to the “Air Them Out In The Press” lever, what if the Hawks don’t respond at all? Well, there wouldn’t be anywhere left to go for coach Kelvin Gemstone, would there?

Because Colliton made it clear he didn’t think there was a problem with the lines, we can expect the same look to start, along with Corey Crawford in net. That doesn’t mean the lines will finish that way, because quite simply the top two lines haven’t produced enough. In the third period on Thursday we saw Brandon Saad and Dominik Kubalik shifted up to try and give both the top six lines a forecheck and puck-winner. It had some effect but not total.

One change you might see is Erik Gustafsson‘s ass seated in the pressbox for Dennis Gilbert. Gustafsson not only has been awful all season, but he’s a low-hanging target for the coach who can make an example of him without angering anyone on the team who really matters. But he might give Gus a chance to come good after a public peepee slapping.

To the Canes, who have hit something of a skid. They started the year with five straight wins, though only two were in regulation. But they’ve lost four of their last five, including to the Jackets twice and the Ducks once. Some of that is goaltending, as Petr Mrazek hasn’t given them too many saves and James Reimer has been ok.

System-wise, this is still the possession and metric monster it’s been for years, ranking second in the first category and on top in the second. You would have thought losing Justin Faulk would have harmed their possession ways, but Dougie Hamilton has been on one and Brett Pesce has used the free safety of Joel Edmundson to really accent his transition game. The Canes have been using seven D of late, with Jake Gardiner rotating in with Haydn Fleury and his missing letter along with TVR. Whoever they toss out there in the back has some serious get up and go, as they always have.

Sebastien Aho might be their only true top-liner, but as you know by now there’s a fleet of nifty, fast forwards here who don’t need a map in either end. Erik Haula has really taken to Carolina’s ways and has seven goals already. Teuvo Teravainen and Jordan Staal have been doing the same things as Kampf and Saad here, barely getting any offensive zone starts hut having metrics in the 60% range. They play fast and smart… all the things the Hawks can’t do.

The kind of effort the Hawks put forth against the Knights is going to be needed here. Which means short shifts, and your ass hair on fire when you’re on the ice. The Hawks have to be smart with the puck, which means getting it up and out of the zone as quickly as possible. Any dawdling or considering options is going to see the puck-carrier swallowed up by the quick and irritating forwards. Move it forward and move it quick.

Jeremy Colliton has played the biggest card he’s got. Let’s see if it wins him the hand.

 

Everything Else Football

Content Warning: Self-Harm

I got a text at 11:45pm this last Monday from my main football watching homie that just said “I can’t do it anymore, thank you for always being real. Love ya.”

I wake up at 5am for work so I was asleep and therefore missed it, but as soon as I saw it I messaged him until he woke up. Turns out he was drunk and sad and lonely and in a very very dark place, and had no recollection of sending me that text message. I told him if he ever tried to hurt himself I would beat him to death with my own hands.

My guy has been there for me since I was 17, so pretty much exactly half my life. We’ve lived together and helped each other out, and if I had a “real” wedding, he’d be the best man for sure. Football is a big part of that bond, as I’m sure it is for a lot of the people reading this and their friends. It takes a special kind of friendship to be able to sit there in silence for hours except for the occasional snarky comment or mention of how awful your fantasy team is looking this week.

You know the old adage: “If horseracing is the sport of kings, then surely football is… a very good sport as well.” What makes sports so great for me, my buddy, you reading this: the escape. Fuck your dead-end job or your overdue car payment, and that term paper can wait until Sunday night, because it’s Bears football. The thing you grew up watching. The team that means so much to you even though there’s no logical reason to explain why.

That Sunday time is a sort of collective unwinding time for those of us lucky to not be at work, leaving us (hopefully) recharged for the next week of new or repeating nightmares. It’s for that reason that I stopped being so emotionally invested in the outcome of Bears games and just love the experience of watching “My Team” play on Sundays, regardless of what the final score reflects.

Writing “The Vault” has become one of my favorite assignments during the week, because as I’m looking at box scores and game notes and trying to remember how to spell player names, I’m also going back to old memories. I can remember where I was when so many of these games happened, from the couch I sat on to what I ate to how it felt watching Johnny Knox damn near break in half.

My friend was there for so many of those afternoons or nights. The amazing second half comeback against Arizona in 2006. The entire Super Bowl run, when we looked at each other after Devin Hester’s opening kickoff touchdown and knew this was the year without saying a word. We were horribly wrong and smoked the saddest blunt when we got home.

I knew he was lonely and depressed, but one of the hardest things to break out of is the mask of masculinity that we all wear, especially when a lot of the time you spend with someone is spent watching hours of the most bro sport in existence.

Sometimes it doesn’t get any deeper than “what should we get for lunch?”, but I need to do a better job. We all need to do a better job. Maybe it isn’t a good time to ask if someone is doing okay emotionally when the Broncos go ahead late with a 2-point conversion, but football brings us closer together and I hope we can use the bonds we’re strengthening with every yell at the television to notice when our football friends aren’t acting like we’re used to. Prince Amukamara posted the picture and caption on Instagram that I used for the banner image this week, presumably to let his friend Roquan Smith know that he has his back no matter what, and that, combined with my friend’s scary text on Monday really changed how I wanted to do this piece today.

As I sat down to write this, I looked back at the 2015 Bears/Raiders game, and I watched highlight videos. I looked up how to spell Sebastian Janikowski, I looked at how open Marty Bennett got for a Jay Cutler pass, and I got sad. All I could think about is how hard it would be to reminisce on these games if I lost the friend that I spent so many weekends watching them with. So I hope you’ll understand if today’s Vault is more of a reflection on why it is that Bears football means so much to me, and also a plea to you, the reader: check in with your friends, because okay doesn’t always mean okay.

Hockey

’18-’19: 46-29-7 (99 points) – Lost in Conference Final

2.98 GF/G (16th)  2.71 GA/G (6th)

17.6 PP% (2oth)   81.6 PK% (8th)

54.6 CF% (2nd)   56.4 xGF% (1st)

Something of the feel good story of last season, the Carolina Hurricanes are essentially going to try and run it back again, counting on maturing from youngsters and what is still the best blue line around. There have been a couple smaller additions, a loss of captain, and what feels like a real missed opportunity for the big splash that would have put this team over the top. But hey, their owner sunk an entire football league just to benefit himself, so is anyone really surprised?

Let’s see what’s under the hood here.

Goalies: The Canes have moved on from their partnership of last year, where they alternated between riding the hot streaks of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, and have given the job to Mrazek full-time. That might be a little strange considering that Mrazek’s performance in the playoffs was something you dug out of your ear, but it’s something of Carolina tradition to have a whatsit in goal. Mrazek was very good in the regular season, certainly the best goaltending the Canes have gotten in eons. Mrazek also put up a great season in Detroit once, but there are four seasons of mediocrity in three different places between that and last year, so who is he really?

Mrazek came in over his expected-save-percentage last year (.914 to .916 at evens), and what might be most important is he does that while cheap. Mrazek has only a $3.1M hit, and that matters to Carolina. It’s a shame they didn’t spend it elsewhere that much, though. Still, the Canes make it about as easy as a team can for goalies, as they have the puck all the time. They’ll be counting on that again.

There is a more than decent insurance policy here though in James Reimer. Optimus Reim has an off-year in Florida last season, but had racked up league-average SV%s or better the previous three seasons. He has been a plus-backup for the back half of his career, and the kind that can usurp the top job for a stretch when he gets hot/the starter goes to the zoo for a bit. He has made over 39 starts each of the past three seasons, either due to Luongo’s injury problems or just taking the job, so there is a safety net in net for the Canes. Pretty shrewd here, really.

Defense: Still the team’s strength, even with the subtraction of Calvin de Haan and the addition of Gustav Forsling (assuming he ever gets out of Charlotte, which he shouldn’t). The Canes still roll a top four of Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk, Dougie Hamilton, and Jaccob Slavin (and his superfluous c). You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that can match that top four anywhere, and if the bottom pairing becomes a septic tank accident through some combo of Forsling, Haydn Fleury (and his missing e), Trevor van Riemsdyk and his missing talent, or kid Jake Bean, they can just run the top four out there between 40-45 minutes a night and not get too worried about it.

There will be some drama around Faulk this year, as he enters the last year of his deal and the whole will-he-or-won’t-he be traded or re-signed thing. Considering what the Canes could accomplish this year it would be near farce for them to trade Faulk, but one wonders what the actual budget is here for this team and we know how teams are loathe to lose players for nothing, even if they have everything to gain here. Still, it’s not that hard to make a case for the Canes to be division favorites now, and you don’t maintain that status by losing Faulk in the middle of the season.

That behind us, this unit can do just about everything, whether it’s pushing the play and supporting the offense or locking things down. You wish the Hawks took notes.

Forwards: In a dream world, the Canes would have already offer-sheeted Mitch Marner for $12M a year, and gotten ready to be the East favorite. They thought smaller however, signing Ryan Dzingel and trading for Erik Haula, who is just about the perfect Hurricane. They’ll also get a full season out of Nino Neiderreiter this time, another perfect Cane, and maybe the production they get from those three is enough to offset the retirement of Justin Williams as well as boost an offense that needs to be a touch better.

They’ll also expect a leap forward from Andrei Svechnikov and possibly Martin Necas, who was excellent in the AHL last year. They still seem intent on using Jordan Staal as a #2 center, and that’s simply not what he is anymore and likely never was. He’s a checking center and should be used as such. When the Canes go deadline-shopping, another center probably should be top of the list.

Sebastien Aho is now locked down and flourished moving to the middle last season. Our Dear Sweet Finnish Boy is still here to break our hearts. I’ve never been totally sold on Dzingel, who didn’t do much in Columbus last year after a trade there and his goal-scoring in Ottawa screams “production because someone had to score.” They look a little short on the wing as well, with only Turbo Targaryn, Nino, and Svechnikov feeling like genuine top-six wingers and none really being genuine top-line wingers for a Cup-contender. Marner would have been perfect here, just as Tavares would have been the year before.

Outlook: This is still a great team coached very well by Rod The Bod. It’s hard to see where the goaltending will completely sink them as it has in years past, and there’s no reason to think their possession numbers are going to go anywhere given the defense they sport. The only thing that’s going to nab them is a lack of frontline scoring, and Svechnikov has a chance to remedy that (but not by himself). With the Penguins and Capitals having to be in decline, the Islanders being run by Nosferatu, and the Rangers, Flyers, and Devils still in a rebuild, and the Jackets a complete mess, there’s little reason the Canes can’t take the Metro crown away from the Caps for the first time in eleventy-billion years or whatever it is. They were only five points short of that last year, and that gap is going to shrink if not disappear. There should be no boundaries for this team.

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Boston – Tonight, 7pm

Game 2 in Boston – Sunday, 2pm

Game 3 in Raleigh – Tuesday, 7pm

Game 4 in Raleigh – Thursday, 7pm

If you were privy to the private conversations we have here at the lab…well, you’d never read this blog again but I digress. What I meant to get to was over the past two or three seasons, there’s been a general feeling of mystification about the Boston Bruins. They look like one line and David Krejci, and a pretty good goalie and nothing else. And yet their metric numbers are always among the best, they always seem to rack up 100 points, so a first conference final appearance since that wonderful spring of 2013 seems like it’s overdue in some ways. They’ll be favored by everyone simply due to pedigree, but this is stiffest test they’ve seen yet.

Goalies: This would be easier if we could pin down who exactly is playing for Carolina. Petr Mrazek has returned to practice, so it stands to reason he’ll take his normal post…between the posts (that could be better). Curtis McElhinney did close out the Islanders from the third period of Game 2 on, but that was the Isles and their Trotz-inspired offense-allergy. The Bs come with far more firepower, and McElhinney also suffers from a serious case of being Curtis McElhinney. Mrazek has been killing it since February, and if he’s healthy there’s no reason to think he won’t at least be representative.

Sadly for Carolina, representative is probably not going to cut it, as Tuuke Nuke’Em has been excellent all playoffs long. He’s got a .938 over 13 games, and let just 11 goals in against the Jackets over six games. This is probably the best he’s played since that ’13 run to 17 seconds (he was .940 that spring), and in this kind of form he can win a series by himself. And it’s not like the Canes are loaded with deadly snipers here. This is Boston’s biggest edge no matter who dons the gear for the Canes.

Defense: And here’s Carolina’s biggest edge. The Isles trap was dealt with much more effectively by the Canes than the Penguins because they have a puck-mover on the ice all the time. In addition, Jaccob Slavin is setting himself up for Norris candidacies in the future and if the Canes make it to the Final he’d have a serious case for the Conn Smythe. While Dougie Hamilton took a fair share of grief for his dealings with Ovechkin, he’s been tearing opponents apart where it mattes, i.e. getting the puck up the ice. Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk aren’t far behind, and though they’ll mostly only play five with Calvin de Haan joining in as TVR is on the shelf for good, they’ve had basically a full week off and they’ll get an extra day between Games 1 and 2. If the series goes long that five-man rotation could bite them, but we’ll run that kitten over when we get to it.

This is where I just don’t get the Bruins. Zdeno Chara looked AWFUL against the Jackets, and there were some rushes outside of him that made me think of Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.) at the end of his career trying to go first-to-third on a single and really scared every bone in his body would just come spilling out through his heels. The entire corps is below water when it comes to possession and expected goals, and given that McAvoy looks like a busted pool toy in his own zone (when he’s not suspended) and they’re facing a dominant possession team here, it could be a real issue. I expect the Boston defense to try and be really physical with the small Carolina forwards, but they’re going to have to catch them first. And that didn’t really work out for the Capitals either.

Forwards: Normally, you’d say this is a star power vs. depth kind of thing. The Canes don’t have any front-line scorers, but they have a raft of really good forwards who keep the puck. The Teravainen-Staal-Neiderreiter (tear) line has been utterly destroying all in its path, and then you still have Sebastien Aho’s line to deal with. The Canes have gotten contributions from down the lineup as well, and they’ll probably need to keep doing that to get out of this. The Canes are kind of like the Itchy and Scratchy version of Fantasia, when Scratchy chopped up Itchy into vapor but then the vapor just became thousands of tiny Itchys and destroyed him from the inside.

The Bruins will stake a claim to being more than one line, and they’ve gotten help from Charlie Coyle, Marcus Johansson, and Jake DeBrusk at times. But when they win, it’s because Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak-Krejci score. When they don’t, they likely lose. The Canes don’t have anything that can match those four, but they don’t depend on anyone like that either. While Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are good, they aren’t what Slavin is right now along with Hamilton. Sure, Marchand is going to try and annoy the piss out of Dougie, but I don’t know that there’s getting to Dougie, especially if he’s pushing the play. This is probably where your series is decided. If Slavin and Hamilton, or Pesce and Faulk in Boston, can keep Boston’s top line at least somewhat controlled, then Carolina’s raft of foot soldiers probably take this. If the Bs glitterati go off, the Canes probably can’t match.

Prediction: Probably more with my heart than my head here, but the way Slavin is playing makes me think the Canes can be the first team this spring to keep Boston’s top line under wraps. Rask is a big challenge, but then so was Lehner before the Canes got to him. Same goes for Holtby. Something about this Canes team. Also, fuck Boston. Canes in 6. 

Everything Else

This spring will prove to most who need it to be true that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs. All you have to do is get in. The Hawks are already pumping this narrative, preparing the ground for a less than stellar summer and the distinct possibility of a 90-95 point team next year. The Kings of ’12 are always held up as this, and unless the Sharks or Bruins carry it all the way to the end, most likely this year’s Cup winner will be touted to prove the unpredictability of the NHL’s spring ninja course.

But this isn’t really the case. If you were around in 2012, you’ll remember that the Kings were preseason favorites, and spent a good portion of that season fucking around and thumbing their own ass. They fired a coach, got their ass in gear in March or so, and romped through the playoffs, which a lot of people saw coming. Some favorable matchups didn’t hurt their cause either (hi there, St. Louis, Arizona, and New Jersey).

Carolina looks poised to be this team. They’re a game away from the East Final, and having already kneecapped the Capitals, they won’t have much fear of either the Bruins or Jackets, especially if those two are hurling themselves at each other violently for seven games. And it’s true that the Canes don’t really have any stars. Sebastien Aho is bordering on one, our love for Teuvo will be the main reason cited when we are hauled off to somewhere inaccessible forever by top men one day, and Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are really good too. But there’s not really anyone here that NBC is grabbing to do those weird promos in the lights on ice in September, basically.

But yet, if you were paying attention, it was clear that the Canes are one of the best even-strength teams around. And they have been for a few years now. Whatever category you want–attempts, shots, chances, or expected-goals–the Canes rank no lower than #3. As always, it was finishing and goaltending that kept the Canes down, as has always been the case, and when evaluating who is the best team in the league you can’t ignore those factors.

But then the Canes got goaltending, they finished a little better, and since the middle of the season they’ve collected just about as many points as anyone, including the Lightning. As someone who wants to see the best teams in the later rounds and then win it, the Canes count. If they’re talent matched their process, they’d probably have a points total in the same zip code as the Lightning did. That talent would also boost a power play that was barely meh.

While the Penguins didn’t have the energy or desire to really work through a Trotz team, the Canes are perfectly built to do it, even if they rode their luck a bit in Game 2. They have a mobile defense and pretty much every point, and can get up the ice and through the Isles’ trap. Trotz teams only work when they have an abundance of finish to not be undone by the small margins he plays on, like last year’s Caps. It’s fine if you don’t control possession or attempts and keep things tight when you have Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, and others to maximize what chances you do get. When Josh Bailey is your #1 sniper, you are up against it.

Because they didn’t get Fleury ’18 goaltending, and they don’t play in Vegas where everyone wants a free trip to, the Canes don’t come with the ballyhoo of last year’s Knights. Except it’s kind of the same deal, just more sustainable. There’s no William Karlsson banking a quarter of the shots he takes or James Neal putting in one last year before dying. This is who the Canes are, and if they were to add another forward or two, or a goalie, in the summer (assuming Aho’s raise doesn’t completely wash away cap space) with the $30M in space they have or so, the Canes are going to be here for a while.

Of course, this being the NHL people will try and glean what the message is and copy. Not too many other teams are going to be able to assemble the talent on the blue line the Canes have, but an increasingly fast defensive corps would seem to be paramount in a league that keeps getting faster and faster. But the thing is, anything can work for a season. We’ll need a few years more on the Canes before we know if this is a real thing. My hunch is that it is.

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in Brooklyn – Tonight, 6pm

Game 2 in Brooklyn – Sunday, 2pm

Game 3 in Raleigh – Wednesday, 6pm

Game 4 in Raleigh – Friday, 6pm

Well this wasn’t the matchup you saw coming. For the first time since 2015, the Metro Division Final won’t be contested by the Penguins and Capitals. And since the NHL went to this format in 2014, this is the first time that neither the Caps or Penguins will appear. Which is really quite something when you think about it. For comparison’s sake, EVERY team in the Central has appeared in the second round since this format came into being (technically the Avs are in the Pacific and never the Central but let’s just go with it). So the national audience may not be familiar with these teams, but there’s a lot to get through here.

Goalies: This is a clear advantage for the Islanders, and when you have a big advantage in net in the playoffs, sometimes that’s enough. Mrazek was barely ok against the Caps, with a .899 SV%. And that’s with giving up only three goals in the three home games the Canes had. The Isles don’t come with near the firepower the Capitals do, which will help Mrazek, but you would be shocked if he wins this for Carolina. He’s most likely going to be just fine, and the margins in this one are going to be so tight that fine may or may not be enough. The Isles can’t get him moving like the Caps did, they don’t have the skill or the interest. So maybe that helps just enough?

Meanwhile, Robin Lehner was throwing a .956 at the Penguins, and really not having to work all that hard to do it. He only saw an absurd number of shots in Game 1, and that was an overtime game, and Trotz teams keep him protected. But he might not even need the protection, such is the form he’s in. The last three game saw him give up three goals on 92 shots. That’s a .968. So even if the Canes might actually be better equipped to get through the Trotz minefield, getting past Lehner is going to take more than a smile.

Defense: While the Capitals might make fun of Dougie Hamilton, and he wasn’t particularly good against the Caps, the rest of the defense of the Canes was dominant. Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin carried a 58+% possession rate and just about the same in expected goals, and probably were the main reason the Canes are where they are. If you can believe it, de Haan and TVR on the third pairing were also very good. The depth here has always been the Canes strength. Also, if Dougie isn’t broken, they have three trap-busters in Hamilton, Faulk, and Pesce, though Pesce and Hamilton tend to play together. Rod Brind’Amour would be wise to get them all on separate pairings so they can always navigate the booby traps Trotz and the Isles set up, but with two pairings that should be 40-45 a night. It’s when TVR thinks he’s Paul Coffey that they’ll run into problems. If you were to design a defense to deal with a Trotz team, this is it.

You would be hard-pressed to pick the Isles defense out of a police lineup, but they’re well sheltered by they system and forwards. If the Canes can somehow open this up more than the Pens did, they Isles are in trouble. Nick Leddy has been iffy all season, and the Isles don’t have a proven puck-mover beyond that. But Trotz teams don’t get opened up on. They’re well-drilled and they do what they do, it’s just not terribly exciting.

Forwards: Of all the four second-round series, this one has by far the least amount of star power up front with either team. Sebastien Aho is wonderful, and so are Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey, but they don’t move the needle much. And all of them might be the best second-line players in the league. The Islanders aren’t asked to do much other than work hard and be on the right side of the puck and find the goals when they present themselves. The Canes grunted through and got just enough goals throughout the lineup.

The Canes forwards will depend on their defense getting through the muck of the Isles in the neutral zone. If they do that, there’s probably just enough dash with Aho, Our Special Boy, Nino Neiderreiter, and Justin Williams (and if Svechnikov returns), and enough graft with Foegele, Staal, Martinook, and one or two others. But that’s a big if. You’d feel more confident of them busting through here with just a touch more life on the front end.

The Isles can match a top six, maybe even the whole corps. They just don’t do the same things. This is basically a push. If the Canes get as loose defensively as they were at times against the Caps, Bailey and Barzal and Co. aren’t as lethal but they can make them pay. And we know the Isles won’t be loose.

Prediction: This one’s hard to call. I feel like the Canes are built to deal with this, I just wonder if they can do so at the first time of asking and with this forward group. And the Isles will be no softer than the Caps were, and maybe even smarter about it instead of running around like kindergarten recess. It’s not going to be pretty. The Isles have the edge in net. Feels like this one goes the distance too, and I’ll decide to punish the Isles for playing this in Brooklyn instead of Nassau.

Canes in 7.