PHT Report Card

PHT Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Penguins, Predators advance; West second round set

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2017 Stanley Cup Finalists move on

Penguins 8, Flyers 5 (Penguins win series 4-2)

Despite Evgeni Malkin missing Game 6 and Sean Couturier playing through a torn MCL, these two teams still provided plenty of fireworks including big goal totals, some controversial/nasty moments, and ultimately the end of the series. Jake Guentzel ended up scoring four consecutive goals to erase the Flyers’ lead and then give the Penguins enough of a cushion to close things out.

After beating their in-state rivals, the Penguins await another familiar foe, whether that ends up being the Blue Jackets or the Capitals. The Penguins have to breathe a sigh of relief that they avoided a Game 7, as that was far from a foregone conclusion for much of Sunday (despite the odd final score).

See for yourself:

Predators 5, Avalanche 0 (Predators win series 4-2)

While there was plenty of drama before the Penguins advanced, the Predators turned Game 6 into a formality pretty early on. Former Penguins forward Nick Bonino scored a goal and two assists, Austin Watson continued his strong postseason, and some usual suspects (Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson) put the game out of reach. Pekka Rinne only needed to make 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Read more about Nashville’s Game 6 win here.

West second round is set:

Nashville Predators [Central first seed] vs. Winnipeg Jets [Central second]

Vegas Golden Knights [Pacific first seed] vs. San Jose Sharks [Pacific third]

PHT will provide schedule and TV information when it becomes available.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins – At one point, the Flyers were up 4-2 during the second period. Patric Hornqvist made it 4-3, then Guentzel went on a dizzying tear where he scored four unanswered goals. Guentzel also grabbed an assist on that Hornqvist goal, so the 23-year-old generated four goals and one assist to help Pittsburgh advance (and thus avoid a Game 7 against Philly). He was a +5 in Game 6, too.

Guentzel’s clutch credentials continue to climb; he now has 19 goals and 34 points in just 31 career playoff games. Wow.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – You could make a very strong argument that Couturier deserves the first star, but the tie goes to the runner/guy whose team won. If the regular season didn’t serve as a convincing coronation for Couturier to go from a very good player to a bonafide star, then this postseason should remove any doubt.

Generating a hat trick and two assists with your team’s season on the line is already a ridiculous accomplishment. To do so with a torn-up knee is jaw-dropping. And, hey, Couturier drew penalties, and probably should have drawn another one on what ended up being Guentzel’s game-winner:

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators – Sidney Crosby deserves an honorable mention, as both Crosby and Bonino generated one-goal, two-assist games in helping their teams advance to the second round.

Bonino collected assists on the first two goals for Nashville, then he found the net for his first goal of the night/second tally of the series. This marks the first three-point game of Bonino’s postseason career, which is really something considering how much success he enjoyed with Crosby, Guentzel, and the Penguins during his two Cup runs with Pittsburgh.

Factoids

Guentzel’s night was special in many ways. Here’s one historical angle:

The Predators aren’t the only team going for their first Stanley Cup. But you already knew the Golden Knights haven’t won one yet, of course:

Monday’s games

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)

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.

Predators hammer Hammond, close out Avalanche

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Andrew Hammond hamburgled a Game 5 win for the Colorado Avalanche, but the Nashville Predators ended Colorado’s Cinderella season in rancid way by a score of 5-0 on Sunday.

The Presidents’ Trophy winners flexed their muscles in Game 6, and it must be a huge relief to avoid a Game 7. That’s especially true since the scary-good Winnipeg Jets await them in the second round as a rested bunch.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Early on in Game 6, a toss-up of a goalie interference call didn’t go Nashville’s way. That ended up being a mere footnote, however, as Mattias Ekholm made it 1-0 about 16 seconds later. Ekholm’s goal ended up standing as the game-winner, though the Predators eliminated any doubt about the outcome pretty quickly on Sunday.

After channeling the magic of his “Hamburglar” run with Ottawa in 2014-15 thanks to a 44-save performance in Game 5, Hammond suffered in Game 6. The journeyman goalie might lose some sleep over some of the Predators’ goals, including a deflating 3-0 tally by Filip Forsberg.

Credit the Avalanche for making the Predators sweat overall, even if Nashville made things look pretty easy in Game 6.

It would have been prettier for Nashville to dispatch Colorado casually via a sweep or a quick five-game series, but the Predators may get some value from being tested. They also won games in different ways:

  • Nashville advanced despite a disappointing showing from its second line, with Kyle Turris (just one assist in six games) and Kevin Fiala (one goal, one assist in series) being especially quiet. That’s mostly a bad thing, but it also shows that the team can withstand a cold spell from some notable players.
  • The Predators enjoyed some strong work from supporting cast members including Austin Watson and Colton Sissons. Both players generated at least a point-per-game against the Avs, with Watson contributing four goals (including a key tally in Game 6). Nick Bonino was also fantastic in support for Nashville, generating his first three-point playoff game with a goal and two assists. Depth is a calling card for the Predators, and that came through in the first round, although the specific supporting cast standouts might surprise some.
  • Pekka Rinne experienced ups and downs, yet he seems to be heating up lately.

While the Avalanche’s season ended with a whimper in Game 6, they gave the Predators a tougher fight than many expected. There’s a lot of room to improve, but this scrappy bunch has something to build on during the summer.

That said, the Predators showed their higher gear during the last two games in particular, and Hammond could only steal one game for the Avs.

This was a solid squabble to warm Nashville up for the postseason, but the Predators will need to play at a very high level if they want to cool the Jets. After holding off the underdog Avs, the Preds must steel themselves for a heavyweight bout against Winnipeg.

It should be fun … at least for those of us who get to watch. For those on the ice, the second round is expected to feel more like the main event.

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.

Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

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No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4.

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

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In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

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.

Sean Couturier played through torn MCL, still had hat trick in Game 6 loss

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Sean Couturier was the Philadelphia Flyers’ best player in Games 5 and 6 of their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the former, he was a beast on the penalty kill and scored the game-winning goal with a minute to play in regulation. In the latter, he had a hat trick and five total points (factoring in to every single one of the Flyers’ goals) in their 8-5 defeat. He did everything he could have possibly done to try and force a Game 7 in the series.

He did all of that while playing on a torn MCL.

Had this been the regular season that sort of injury probably would have sidelined him for at least four weeks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Couturier revealed the nature of his injury following the loss on Sunday. He was injured in practice before Game 4 of the series when he was involved in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas. It kept him out of the lineup in what would be a 5-0 loss for the Flyers. He returned for Game 5, and even though he was obviously limited he still played an incredible game.

He was even better on Sunday.

This was a breakthrough season for Couturier as he doubled all of his previous career highs offensively, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points.

He is also a finalist for the Selke Trophy which is awarded to the NHL’s top defensive forward. It is the first time he is a finalist for the award.

Related: Guentzel scores 4 goals as Penguins, eliminate Flyers in Game 6

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.