Carolina Hurricanes hope changes lead to another playoff run

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The past three seasons have seen the Carolina Hurricanes end a long postseason drought, become an every-year playoff team and win their first division championship in 15 years.

They figured they needed changes to accomplish even more.

Carolina has revamped its goaltending position and other pieces around the core led by young stars Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov along with top defenseman Jaccob Slavin for the 2021-22 season.

“We have a lot of good players,” said coach Rod Brind’Amour, last year’s Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s top coach. “It’s just a matter of fitting the pieces together.”

The Hurricanes’ three-year playoff run is a first for the franchise since relocating to North Carolina from Hartford, Connecticut, in 1997. They have won at least one playoff series each time — reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 — since ending a nine-season playoff drought.

But last year’s Central Division winner lost to reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay in a five-game second-round series, the first stumble in a steadily upward recent trajectory.

Changes followed. The Hurricanes didn’t re-sign offensive-minded defenseman Dougie Hamilton or winger Brock McGinn, and traded winger Warren Foegele. They traded Alex Nedeljkovic while letting fellow netminders Petr Mrazek and James Reimer leave in free agency.

The Hurricanes signed goaltender veterans Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen. They acquired defenseman Ethan Bear from Edmonton in the Foegele deal. They took a one-year shot on defenseman Tony DeAngelo despite his multiple disciplinary issues, and signed restricted free agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi – the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2018 – away from Montreal.

“That culture is set in stone and so all the new guys coming in are coming into a team that’s well-grounded in who they are and how we play the game,” Slavin said. “They’re not necessarily playing catch-up (in preseason camp) but they’ve kind of got to jump on the ship and move forward with us as we continue to move towards sour goal.”

Some other things to know about the Hurricanes for the 2021-22 season:

THE TOP LINE

The Hurricanes continued locking up their young talent by reaching an eight-year deal in August with Svechnikov, the No. 2 overall draft pick from 2018.

The 21-year-old, who was a restricted free agent, has become a fixture on Carolina’s top line with Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Both Aho (24) and Teravainen (27) are under contract through the 2023-24 season.

RETURNING TOP DEFENSEMEN

Slavin won last year’s Lady Byng Memorial trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct while playing on the top pairing with Hamilton. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei handled major ice time in the playoffs when Slavin was out with a lower-body injury.

IN NET

Raanta, 32, battled injuries last year with Arizona but had a .921 save percentage in 2019-20 and won 21 games with a .930 save percentage two seasons earlier. Andersen, 31, went 13-8 last year in Toronto with an .895 save percentage.

“You see all these guys how they work out, how they practice, what they do on the ice, off the ice,” Raanta said of his new teammates. “It’s just try to match that level and get to their level and bring something to the table every day.”

NEW ARRIVALS

Brind’Amour said he expected the 21-year-old Kotkaniemi would play on the wing with the Hurricanes’ center depth of Aho, Vincent Trocheck and captain Jordan Staal.

Carolina added two defensemen with offensive upside in the 24-year-old Bear and the 25-year-old DeAngelo after Hamilton signed a seven-year deal with New Jersey.

The DeAngelo signing is a one-year, $1 million gamble on a polarizing player who is one year removed from posting 15 goals and 53 points in a 68 regular-season games.

He was sent home by the New York Rangers last season following an undisclosed incident, went unclaimed by the rest of the league on waivers and had the final season of his contract bought out.

SCHEDULE WATCH

The Hurricanes open the regular season at home against the New York Islanders on Oct. 14 and close at Pittsburgh on April 29.

Noteworthy stretches include: playing 10 of 13 games on the road in November, playing 16 of 25 games at home after coming out of the Olympics break in late February, and playing six of eight on the road to close the schedule.

Dylan Larkin senses optimism others do not with Red Wings

DETROIT (AP) — The Detroit Red Wings have been mired in a long, painful rebuild and the end doesn’t seem to be in sight from outside the organization.

The last time they made the playoffs five years ago, Dylan Larkin was a rookie. When the captain and center looks at the reshaped roster, he doesn’t have to feign optimism.

“It’s exciting, more so than any of my training camps in the past,” Larkin said. “We’ve had more competition at every part of our lineup.”

General manager Steve Yzerman, entering his third season in charge of the front office, also sees more talented players vying for playing time and yet still sounds as if he’s asking for more patience.

“I think we’re making progress, but it may not necessarily relate into wins and losses,” Yzerman said.

The Red Wings can help their chances if they start the season healthy and stay that way for their first 82-game season in two years. Larkin is recovering from a neck injury that limited him to 44 games last season. Tyler Bertuzzi is coming back from having back surgery in April.

“They’re a pair that I’d like to keep together all season if I can,” said coach Jeff Blashill, who was given a contract extension despite a career record of 177-221-62 in Detroit.

Minutes into his first practice at training camp, forward Jakub Vrana hurt his shoulder to pose a potential problem for a team that has struggled to score in recent years.

NO SHOT

Bertuzzi does not plan on being vaccinated, citing his freedom of choice.

The 26-year-old forward might end up losing more than $450,000 in salary for not playing the team’s nine games in Canada, where he will not being able to cross the border without a two-week quarantine.

The Red Wings will likely be at a disadvantage in Canada playing without a wing capable of a 50-point year if he played the entire season.

“Certainly for those games, we’ll be missing a piece of the puzzle,” Blashill said.

BACK END BOOST

Detroit drafted Moritz Seider with the No. 6 pick overall two years ago and the 6-foot-4, 197-pound German is expected to be a key player as he makes his NHL debut.

“He’s big, he’s smart, he’s got confidence,” Blashill said. “He’s got some toughness to him. He’s got the opportunity to be a really good player and we’re going to give him that opportunity to do that and then he’s got to grab it by the horns.”

SLICK MOVES

Detroit dealt the rights to pending free agent netminder Jonathan Bernier and the No. 94 pick overall in the draft to Carolina for goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and gave him a $6 million, two-year deal. As a rookie with the Hurricanes, he led all goaltenders with at least 22 games with 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

Yzerman signed Pius Suter to a $6.5 million, two-year deal after his promising rookie season in Chicago. The Swiss forward had 14 goals and 13 assists in 55 games with the Blackhawks.

IT’S TIME

Detroit’s turnaround is tied to its draft picks producing and the franchise needs two of them to provide more of a return on its investment.

Michael Rasmussen, drafted No. 9 in 2017, has just 30 points points in 102 games over two years. Filip Zadina, the No. 6 pick overall three years ago, just 37 points in 86 games over three seasons.

THE SLATE

Detroit will find out in its season-opening game how it stacks up with the best, hosting the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 14. The Red Wings play their first four games at home and are at Little Caesars Arena for nine matchups within the first month of the season, potentially giving them a chance to get off to a solid start.

Flyers count on offseason pickups to lead them to playoffs

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The sounds of Philadelphia in the fall are familiar at this time of season: the bellyaching from talk radio to chirping tweets on the Eagles’ poor start. The cheers of nearly 30,000 fans imploring Bryce Harper to bring October baseball back to Philly. The explanations and potential plans on how the 76ers will handle Ben Simmons.

Lost in the shuffle of the pennant race and trade rumors, the Philadelphia Flyers mosey about with little fanfare and less expectations headed into a season where a return to the playoffs would be a success. Even in a funky pandemic season, when crowds were allowed back at the shared arena, the Sixers packed the place, while the Flyers limped along with a couple of thousand fans and frittered away a once intimidating home-ice edge.

It’s not necessarily bad to be bad in Philly — especially when drama creates clicks.

But irrelevance?

That’s where the Flyers are stuck in the city sports landscape, though general manager Chuck Fletcher’s offseason roster overhaul could provide the boost that jets them out of that malaise and into the land of playoffs and packed crowds.

“We have an older team and I think guys we brought in have a lot of experience,” team captain Claude Giroux said. “Some guys feel like they have something to prove and as a team we definitely feel like we have something to prove.”

The Flyers got to work after a 25-23-8 record (58 points) and dumped former stars or key contributors Nolan Patrick, Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere. They gave out rich contract extensions to Joel Farabee, Carter Hart and an eight-year, $62 million deal to Sean Couturier. Fletcher acquired defensemen Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen and signed Keith Yandle and Derick Brassard. The Flyers also signed backup goaltender Martin Jones and traded for forward Cam Atkinson.

“Ultimately, what happened last year wasn’t a singular thing where it was just one piece,” forward James van Riemsdyk said. “It was a lot of parts of our game that were not very consistent, and I think that showed up over the course of the season. Again, we let in too many goals, but to just pinpoint that on goaltending would be unfair.”

Ah yes, the regression of goalie Carter Hart was a sticking point last season and his production will be the deciding factor if the Flyers can become a top-three team in the Metro Division — where Carolina and Washington are the top contenders — or miss the playoffs for the second straight season under coach Alain Vigneault.

HART STOPPER

Hart signed a three-year, $11.9 million contract, a sign the Flyers still believe in the one-time franchise goalie. Hart finished with a 9-11-5 record and a 3.67 goals-against average in 27 appearances, including 25 starts. He allowed four or more goals 13 times, and missed the final 12 games with a sprained left knee. That was a significant drop-off from the previous season in which Hart went 24-13-3 and led the Flyers to the playoffs.

“I like his face right now and his demeanor. He’s smiling,” Vigneault said. “He does look bigger with his shirt on and real fit. The fact that he was able to have a normal summer of training with other players and his goaltending coach, I think it was a real good summer for him and for the rest of our group.”

HAYES OUT

The Flyers lost veteran depth with center Kevin Hayes being sidelined another month after abdominal surgery. Hayes scored 12 goals and had 31 points in 55 games last season in his second year with the Flyers. Without Hayes, the Flyers could turn to 22-year-old Morgan Frost to take his spot and strengthen the team in the middle.

“With Hayes going down, it gives him a quick opportunity to show what he can do and what’s supposed to be his skill set,” Vigneault said. “He’s supposed to be a top-six forward, in theory, so I’ll give him that opportunity. I don’t know how long that is going to last.”

DEFENSE IMPROVEMENT

The Flyers are counting on Ellis, Ristolainen and Yandle to shore up the blueline. Ellis will be paired on the top line with Ivan Provorov.

Van Riemsdyk was right, the blame can’t entirely be placed on the goalies. The Flyers allowed 197 goals last season (3.52 per game), including a stretch of giving up 15 straight goals over two games to the New York Rangers.

“The game is a lot easier when everyone knows what the next guy is going to do,” Ellis said.

SCHEDULE

The Flyers open the season Oct. 15 at home against Vancouver and former coach Dave Hakstol returns with the expansion Kraken on Oct. 18 as a four-game homestand. They hit the road Oct. 27 at Edmonton.

“I think we’re built really for a long, successful future,” Flyers chairman Dave Scott said.

Ottawa Senators: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Ottawa Senators.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 23-28-5 (51 points); sixth place in North Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Tyler Boucher with the 10th pick.
• Offensive leaders: Brady Tkachuk (36 points), Connor Brown (21 goals)

• Free Agent AdditionsNick Holden (trade from Golden Knights), Zach Sanford (trade from Blues), Pontus Aberg, Dillon Heatherington, Kole Sherwood, Scott Sabourin
• Free Agent Subtractions: Evgenii Dadonov (traded to Golden Knights), Logan Brown (traded to Blues), Vitaly Abramov (KHL), Marcus Hogberg (SHL), Artem Anisimov, Jonathan Davidsson (Sweden), Micheal Haley, Cody Goloubef, Matthew Peca (Blues), Ryan Dzingel (Coyotes), Derek Stepan (Hurricanes)

Biggest question for Senators

• The rebuild is “done.” Now what?

The time for collecting prospects and developing them for the near-future is over for the Senators. It’s no longer about what’s coming; it’s about what’s here. 

After years of high draft picks and stockpiling talent, general manager Pierre Dorion declared at the start of training camp that the rebuild was “done” and it is time for winning days to return to Canada’s capital.

“This is going to be the fun part. The rebuild is done,” Dorion said. “Now we’re stepping into a different zone I would call it.”

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

There’s plenty for Senators fans to be excited about. Sure, the Brady Tkachuk negotiations are taking much longer than anyone would want, but it’ll get done. Once he’s in camp, he’ll join a lineup loaded with promising and currently productive players all under the age of 24 like Tim Stützle, Shane Pinto, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot, among others.

Playoffs is not an expectation just yet for this group. It would be nice, but where the Senators are at right now if you’re Dorion you want to see those next steps in development taking place. You want to see the pieces fall into place. 

The rebuild is over. It’s to finally see some progress.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Dorion’s summer was spent keeping key pieces like Drake Batherson, Artem Zub, Victor Mete, and Filip Gustavsson in the fold. Tkachuk still needs an extension, but even after that Dorion will have plenty of room to work with should he need to add.

As Tkachuk waits on a new deal, the Senators are a little over $22 million below the ceiling, per Cap Friendly. There’s more than enough room there to add a piece or two if the “Why not us?” mantra leads to them in the mix for an Atlantic Division playoff spot later in the season.

shane pinto
André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Breakout Candidate

• Shane Pinto

Their second-round pick in 2019, the 20-year-old center played 12 games with the Senators last season. He recorded seven points in that brief stint, showing promise after a productive NCAA career with North Dakota.

Pinto played all over last season, earning time on both the power play and penalty kill units. The question will be if the Senators feel there’s room for him on the opening night roster, or if he will start in the AHL and be brought in later in the season. He didn’t waste much time getting the 2021-22 season off to a good start:

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Senators

The kids are all right. The youthful mixture of talent, plus a happily re-signed Tkachuk, results in a 2021-22 Senators team that is competitive and not an easy two points. There is opportunity back in the Atlantic Division take make a run at a Wild Card spot, but it will be reliant on the rebuild actually being “done” and not extended by another year.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Senators

Steps are taken back and not forward, and goaltender Matt Murray does not bounce back from a forgettable first season in Ottawa. He’s on the hook with a $6.25 million cap hit through 2023-24, but Filip Gustavsson is waiting in the wings to take over.

What would really derail a potential season of promise is a prolonged Tkachuk negotiation. Likely the next captain of the franchise, he’s already missed the start of camp and unless progress is made soon, regular season games could be threatened.

PointsbetOttawa Senators’ Stanley Cup odds

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL suspends Capitals’ McIlrath, Senators’ Greig

The NHL handed out two suspensions related to preseason games on Monday.

  • The biggest punishment went to Capitals defenseman Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath was suspended four games (two in the preseason, two in the regular season) for an illegal hit to the head on Bruins forward Steven Fogarty.

You can watch McIlrath’s hit on Fogarty in the video above, which also includes the NHL’s explanation for the four-game suspension. During the preseason game itself, McIlrath received a match penalty for that hit on Fogarty.

  • Senators forward Ridly Greig received a two-game suspension (one preseason, one regular season) for cross-checking Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Here’s the explanation video for Greig’s suspension:

Sportsnet notes that Dubois needed 15 stitches from that Greig cross-check. Even so, Dubois understood why it happened.

“I don’t think he did it on purpose,” Dubois said. “I think he just got scared, threw his stick up. He saw me coming and threw his stick up to defend himself, which is obviously against the rules for an obvious reason. It is what it is.”

Luckily, Dubois was able to return to the Jets’ preseason game against the Senators.

It’s worth noting that the NHL hopes to address cross-checking during the 2021-22 season, and that include an increase in related suspensions. For more details on how that may change, check out this deep dive by Scouting the Refs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

New York Islanders 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Islanders.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 32-17-7 (71 points) fourth place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Lost in Conference Final in seven games to Tampa Bay Lightning
• Offensive leader: Mathew Barzal (55 games, 17 goals, 28 assists, 45 total points)

• Free Agent Additions: Richard Panik (trade with Detroit Red Wings), Zach Parise, Zdeno Chara
• Free Agent Subtractions: Nick Leddy (trade with Detroit Red Wings), Andrew Ladd, Jordan Eberle (Seattle Kraken), Travis Zajac (retirement)

Biggest question facing the New York Islanders?

• Will Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara have enough left to help put them over the top?

The Islanders are bringing back largely the same roster from the past couple of seasons, and it is a roster that has had its share of success. While the regular season results have not always been great, they have been good enough to get in the playoffs, and once they get to the playoffs they have caused havoc for almost every team in the Eastern Conference.

Since the start of the 2019 playoffs they have won five postseason series and 28 total playoff games, the second most in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning, of course, being the team that has stood between them and the Stanley Cup Final the past two seasons.

This Islanders roster doesn’t have a ton of star power beyond Mathew Barzal, but it also does not really have a weakness. Every line can contribute. There are no true liabilities on defense. Both goalies are sensational when healthy.

But they still just need a little more to get by teams like the Lightning. Their biggest offseason moves saw them bring in Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. If this was 2016 those additions would seem significant. Now? It is a matter of whether or not they can fit into complementary roles and make an impact. The Islanders do not need them to be superstars. But anything they have left could be potentially significant. Add in a full season of Kyle Palmieri, the return of a healthy Anders Lee and it is a fairly deep roster.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Islanders are pressed against the upper limits of the salary cap, even after shedding Andrew Ladd’s salary to Arizona.

They do not have any really mega contracts, but they have a lot of significant contracts in the $5-8 million range.

Ryan Pulock is going to need a new deal after this season as a pending unrestricted free agent, while Mathew Barzal only has two years left on his current bridge deal before he is due a mega contract. So there is some work to be done here and not a lot of long-term flexibility under a mostly flat cap.

Breakout Candidate

Oliver Wahlstrom

Wahlstrom did not have a huge role with the Islanders for most of the 2020-21 season, but he did show a ton of promise and make quite an impact when he got an opportunity. Despite playing just 12 minutes per game he still scored 12 goals in 44 games and posted strong possession numbers in his first real taste of NHL action. He is still only 21 years old and is the best young player on the team outside of Barzal and has a real chance to be a top-line scorer given his talent and shot. A breakout season from him could be a game-changer for an Islanders team that needs another impact player.

Best-Case Scenario

At this point we should know what to expect from this Islanders team. They are going to get strong goaltending, they are going to be tough to score against, and they are going to frustrate a lot of teams on their way to 3-2 and 3-1 wins. The best case is that they keep doing what they do, get back in the playoffs, get a breakout from Wahlstrom, Parise and Chara find the fountain of youth, and they finally get the best of Tampa Bay in a seven-game series. This is a Stanley Cup contender. The expectation should be to go far.

Worst-Case Scenario

If anything happens to the goalies, injury or sudden lack of performance, that would be a problem for a team that is fairly dependent on them. They do not score a ton of goals and while they are great at limiting chances, they do have a tendency to give up a fair number of shots. Any slip in goaltending could be the difference between home ice in the playoffs or an earlier than expected playoff loss. It is hard to envision this team missing the playoffs at this point, but it is a competitive division with a lot of really good teams that are not separated by much.

PointsbetNew York Islanders Stanley Cup odds

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New Jersey Devils 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New Jersey Devils.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 19-30-7 (45 points) seventh place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; Drafted Luke Hughes with the No. 4 overall pick
• Offensive leader: Pavel Zacha (50 games, 17 goals, 18 assists, 35 total points)

• Free Agent Additions: Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves (trade with Colorado), Jonathan Bernier
• Free Agent Subtractions: Nick Merkley, Will Butcher

Biggest question facing the New Jersey Devils?

• Are the offseason additions enough to put them into playoff contention?

Since reaching the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Final the New Jersey Devils have been taken up residence near the bottom of the NHL standings. They have qualified for the playoffs just one time in the past nine years, and have finished in last place in their division four different times. A couple of years ago they had a big offseason that was highlighted by the addition of a big-name defenseman (P.K. Subban) and a couple of other additions that would hopefully get them back closer to the playoffs.

It did not work out at all. They tried it again this offseason.

The Devils made one of the biggest free agent signings of the summer when they signed Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year, $63 million contract.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

They also attempted to bolster their defense with a trade for Colorado’s Ryan Graves, while also signing Jonathan Bernier to split goaltending duties with Mackenzie Blackwood.

At forward, Tomas Tatar joins what is one of the youngest forward groups in the league to hopefully give some offensive support to franchise players Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

Individually, all of those moves are solid and should make the Devils a better team. Especially the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and Bernier when it comes to goal prevention.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Devils enter the season with more than $12 million in salary cap space and only two long-term commitments on their books: Hischier, who is signed for six more years at $7.25 million per season, and Hamilton who is starting his seven-year, $63 million contract.

Other than that? No other player on the roster is signed more than two years down the road, while P.K. Subban ($9 million) is the only other player on the roster with a salary cap hit more than $5 million. His contract expires after this season.

So for now they have a lot of room and even more money coming off the books (Subban) this offseason.

They do, however, have a significant number of restricted free agents that are going to require raises very soon, including Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and the most significant of them all, Jack Hughes.

As of now they are projected to have roughly $35 million in salary cap space to work with next offseason, so they should have enough room to get all of those contracts taken care of and still make more additions to the roster. So the cap situation is very good.

Breakout Candidate

• Jack Hughes

It has to be Hughes. He took a major step forward in year two, but it was not quite a breakout season. That is still ahead for him, and it could happen this season. And by breakout we do not just mean showing more improvement from year two to year three, we mean legitimate breakout to superstardom. He nearly doubled his offensive output (on a per game basis) from year one to year two, and perhaps most importantly took a major step forward in terms of controlling the game. During his rookie season the Devils attempted just 45 percent of the total shot attempts when Hughes was on the ice during 5-on-5 play. In year two, that number skyrocketed to 55 percent, on a team that did not typically control possession. All of the ingredients are there for a true breakout season for Hughes.

Best-Case Scenario

If the Devils are going to make the playoffs a few things have to go right. For starters, Hughes has to have that breakout year. They need a full, healthy season from Nico Hischier. They also need a couple more young players to step forward (Yegor Sherangovich, Zacha, Bratt, Michael McLeod). With improved defensive play due to the additions of Hamilton, Graves, and a full season of Jonas Siegenthaler, as well as the goaltending performing to expectations, there could be a path for this Devils team to compete for a wild card spot. On paper they are not quite at that playoff level just yet, but they should be getting closer.

Worst-Case Scenario

Honestly, it would probably just be more of the same where they struggle to make progress and finish another year at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. That happens if nobody other than Hughes makes a big jump forward and the goaltending does not shine. The disappointing thing for Devils fans is a finish near the bottom of the division and outside of the playoffs is probably the most likely outcome, even if the team does improve. It is simply a matter of them being in a tough division full of contenders. The Devils are young, they have talent, they improved the roster. But are they better than Carolina? Washington? The Islanders? A healthy Penguins team? The Flyers? Even the Rangers? Tough division to be in.

PointsbetNew Jersey Devils Stanley Cup odds

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NHL says it will have ‘tighter standard of enforcement’ for cross-checking this season

The NHL has had a cross-checking problem for some time now. Not just the fact that it happens on a consistent basis and can result in injury, but that it has not been consistently enforced by the league’s on-ice officials. Especially when it comes to battles for positioning in front of the net.

The league claims it is looking to change that this season.

As the 2021-22 season approaches, the NHL has said there will be a tighter standard for the enforcement of rule 59 (the cross-checking rule) in the hopes of calling more penalties and giving offensive players a better opportunity to shine.

On Friday, the league sent out a video highlighting some of the plays that will be penalized this season.

By the wording of the rule, all of them should have been penalized in previous years.

The NHL has seemingly always operated under the assumption that cross-checking is just one of those things that happens around the net. While it does get called fairly regularly, there are probably even more infractions that go uncalled over the course of any random game.

In previous years the NHL has tried to crack down on other infractions and call them more frequently, including interference and most recently slashing.

There is no doubt that early in the season we will see an increase in cross-checking calls and more power plays.

They key is going to be how long that continues.