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NHL Power Rankings: Mid-season Stanley Cup contenders and pretenders

Now that we are officially into the second half of the 2017-18 NHL season we are going to start rolling out our PHT Power Rankings on a weekly basis instead of the bi-weekly basis we had been doing in the first half.

After looking at the top trade deadline candidates that could be available a week ago, this week we are going to take a look at the top Stanley Cup contenders … as well as the teams that are pretenders. Plus, the teams that need to just start looking ahead to next season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects and expected teams at the top of the list. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators are all there, and thanks to their recent surge over the past month or two, as are the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Also there: The Vegas Golden Knights, a team that just keeps getting better.

So let us get to it and take a look at where we have everybody sitting right now.

Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have the most talented roster in the league and seem to be in a position to make a significant move at the trade deadline. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They are getting stronger and better as the season progresses. They are becoming a dominant possession team, they are outshooting everybody they play every night, they have great offense, and a Stanley Cup winning goalie. This team is for real. They are a threat.

3. Boston Bruins — They have the best line in hockey and Tuukka Rask seems to be back to being an elite goaltender. They have been borderline unbeatable with him in the lineup.

4. Nashville Predators — They are finally fully healthy and finally the team that David Poile constructed. Where is the weakness? There does not seem to be one.

5. Washington Capitals — They are back on top of the Metropolitan Division even though some of their top players have been a little quiet offensively in recent weeks. When those guys get going again, watch out. The roster on paper may not be as impressive as the past two years, and they may not win the Presidents’ Trophy, but they are still good. Really good.

6. Winnipeg Jets — They have a couple of significant injuries right now with Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba on the shelf, but what a powerful offense. With the Jets a lot of it comes down to whether or not they can keep getting the same level of goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are back. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are taking over games, they are starting to figure out the lineup, and they are probably one move away from really putting a scary team on the ice.

8. St. Louis Blues — Like the Jets I feel like a lot of this story is going to be decided by goaltending. Jake Allen has been okay, Carter Hutton has been great but he’s hardly played. Good defensive team, couple of high-end offensive players and some solid depth especially now that Jaden Schwartz is back.

9.  Toronto Maple Leafs — They can score with anybody in the NHL but they still need to make a tweak or two to their defense.

Could Go Either Way

10. New Jersey Devils — I feel like this might be a little high, but it also feels right. This is a pretty good team, but maybe not quite a true contender yet.

11. Los Angeles Kings — The Kings are still the Kings. Dominant possession team, tough to score against, kind of a mediocre offense. I don’t think they are truly a “contender” at this point, but they are also still a team that could be dangerous. Or they could miss the playoffs entirely. It is a bizarre team.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They have really slid recently, but they still have a lot of talent. They really need Sergei Bobrovsky to solve his postseason demons though.

13. San Jose Sharks — I might have them a little bit higher if they still had Joe Thornton, but that is a huge blow at the moment and one that is going to be difficult to overcome. He is still the engine that drives them.

Pretenders

14. Dallas Stars — They’ve spent a ton of money on a team that is just … kind of good?

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Are the Flyers good? It really just depends on the day. Sometimes they look great. Sometimes they look awful. They have a pretty dominant top part of the lineup. The bottom of the lineup leaves a lot to be desired.

16. Minnesota Wild — A healthy Nino Neiderreiter and Zach Parise in the lineup together might make a difference, but it still feels like a pretty mediocre team overall.

17. Calgary Flames — They have been one of the bigger disappointments in the league this season. If you had told me at the start of the year Mike Smith would have a .922 save percentage I would have figured this would be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Mike Smith has that, but they are not even a lock to make the playoffs.

18. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries just keep devastating this team this season. Every time it feels like they are getting healthy, somebody else goes out of the lineup. John Gibson is currently banged up now.

19. New York Islanders —  That offense can be great, but it is almost impossible to see them winning much in the playoffs — assuming they even get there — with that goaltending situation. Is there anybody available at the trade deadline that could make that much of a difference?

20. New York Rangers — They are still very much in the playoff race but it seems pretty clear they are ready to start selling off pieces before the trade deadline.

21. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Nathan MacKinnon for a few weeks could be a season-altering (perhaps season crushing?) blow to a team that has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL this season.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Goaltending and a lack of finishing ability on offense failed them again.

See you Next Season

23. Chicago Blackhawks –– Yeah, I am giving up on them this season. Corey Crawford might come back at some point and that could help if he is healthy and able to keep playing like he was earlier this season, but as of Monday they are still six points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. That is a tough gap to make up this late in the season.

24. Florida Panthers — There is still a young core here you can win with. But do they have the right people in place to build around it?

25. Detroit Red Wings — Given the roster and the salary cap situation it is going to be a while before this team is a factor again.

26. Vancouver Canucks — Why are you trying to re-sign Erik Gudbranson? Is that really what you need to continue this rebuild?

27. Montreal Canadiens — Will they tear it down at the trade deadline or maintain the status quo of mediocrity?

28. Edmonton Oilers — How does a team with Connor McDavid on his entry level contract end up this bad? This team is simply one of the greatest coaching and front office failures in recent NHL history.

29. Ottawa Senators — There is just nothing to be excited about here. The team stinks, the best player will probably be gone within the next two years and the owner is a jerk that seems to hate his own fans.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jack Eichel has been great and everything the Sabres could have hoped. The rest of the rebuild has been a spectacular failure.

31.  Arizona Coyotes — They are one of the youngest teams in the league that is still lacking talent in a lot of key areas. It is just an impossible situation for this season.

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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.

Trade: Penguins reportedly land Derick Brassard

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Last year, Derick Brassard was battling the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Game 7 overtime with a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final on the line. Now he’ll hope to join them in a bid for an extremely rare threepeat.

The Penguins went big to land Brassard, sending a package that includes a first round pick to the Ottawa Senators, who maybe quieted the Erik Karlsson trade talk … for a millisecond.

The Trade: Penguins receive Derick Brassard; Senators get a first-round pick, Ian Cole, and intriguing goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, via TSN’s Darren Dreger.

Note: substantial aspects of this trade could change. For instance, the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that a third team might be involved in some way to alleviate cap concerns. This post will be updated to reflect changes once final confirmation surfaces.

Update: There may be some twists and turns before this all gets approved. Stay tuned.

Why the Penguins made the trade: It’s been no secret that the Penguins have been looking for center help since losing Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino. Brassard fits that bill, and honestly, stands as a nice upgrade.

At 30, Brassard is still at or near his prime. The Penguins get Brassard for two playoff runs, as his $5 million cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Brassard’s quietly enjoyed a strong season in Ottawa, as he has 18 goals and 38 points in 58 games. He’s just one point shy of tying his 2016-17 total, even though that came in 81 contests. The former Rangers forward is battle-tested in the postseason, too.

No doubt about it, this is a contending team being aggressive to try to win a third straight Stanley Cup. Brassard makes an already-impressive offense that much deeper.

The inclusion of Cole helps make the money work for the Penguins, even if it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh still has some questions on defense.

Why the Senators made the trade: The Senators are in liquidation mode, and to start, this trade helps Ottawa get a first-rounder back after giving one up in the Matt Duchene trade. Granted, the Penguins’ first-rounder could be very low – they’d love it to be the 31st selection – but it’s a key return for the rebuilding Sens.

Gustavsson, 19, isn’t just a throw-in, either. He was a second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft. With Craig Anderson already 36, the Senators need to look to the future, and Gustavsson has a chance to be a part of the picture in net.

You can argue that Ottawa’s returns aren’t fully documented yet, as they might move Cole for even more futures:

Who won the trade?

Senators fans are unlikely to be happy with the team cleaning house, particularly with players who helped them make a deep playoff run remarkably recently. Still, they’re diving in with a reset, if not a rebuild, and this is a decent return. Getting a bit more for Cole could help, and Gustavsson’s development will play a significant role in how this move is viewed in hindsight.

The Penguins are going for it, as they have been for some time. Brassard fills a serious need, and while defense is an issue for Pittsburgh, Cole found himself as a healthy scratch and obviously on the way out at times.

This is all about the present for Pittsburgh, and it’s easy to justify such a thought process. Let’s not forget that Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel are 30 while Evgeni Malkin is 31. You never know when the championship window might slam shut.

Your excitement regarding the Penguins’ side hinges on how much you like Brassard. Not everyone is blown away by what he brings to the table.

This is an obvious case of two teams going in different directions, and thus looking for very different returns. Which team got the best value out of the deal, though?

Finally, enjoy this timely Getty photo:

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

There are “can’t beat them, join them” jokes made about Brassard, but that feeling sort of goes both ways.

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.

Trades fantasy hockey owners should root for

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Trades can really liven things up for a sport, so here’s hoping that the intriguing Michael Grabner to Devils move is the catalyst for a memorable stretch of swaps.

While there’s always the risk that a player will struggle to get acclimated to a new city and new teammates, trades can also provide a boost in fantasy hockey. As we wait for more deals to trickle in, it might be fun to picture changes of scenery. Here are some moves fantasy owners should root for.

[More on the Grabner trade.]

Elephants trotting around the room

Look, asking the Senators to trade Erik Karlsson is asking a lot.

It could be quite a late-season boon for owners who’ve been burned a bit by a season that’s not up to his honestly ridiculous standards. Complaining about a defenseman generating 42 points in 55 games is silly, but considering that Karlsson often goes in the first or second round, and fantasy sports are kind of silly by nature, well …

Anyway, a move to a contender could really help him. Maybe he’d enjoy short-term puck luck (his shooting percentage this season is 3.4 percent, half of his career average of 6.8). Considering his puck dispersal skills, setting up teammates who are likely more skilled and more motivated at this point in the season could really be electric.

Max Pacioretty also stands as interesting.

With a 7.7 shooting percentage, “Patches” is also lacking when it comes to lucky bounces. More than that, it has to be a drain on him to lose so often, particularly in a hockey-obsessed market like Montreal. Being “one of the guys” on a contender could really do him good.

Also, it’s been noted, yet it must be said: Pacioretty’s really never played with a great center. Imagine what he could accomplish with a legitimate No. 1? With his contract expiring after 2018-19, the motivation should be there, too.

Some others worth noting in this category:

  • Evander Kane has dealt with injuries and the frustrating knowledge that he’s never suited up in a playoff game in his career. With an expiring contract at age 26, you could argue that Kane has the most on the line of just about any of the most realistic trade targets in the NHL.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, yet with comparable sniping skills, you have Rick Nash. Much like Pacioretty, Nash is getting his goals now after a prolonged slump. While Kane has never tasted playoff play, Nash surely would like to show that he’s more “clutch” than his critics believe.
  • Mike Green got roasted a bit in this PHT roundtable, but that’s based on real-life play. From a fantasy perspective, Green could be fascinating. That said, he plays a huge role in Detroit, and might actually see a downgrade if traded. So maybe he’s a coin flip?
  • Ryan McDonagh and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are both defensemen who will likely be affected by what happens with Karlsson, as they do too see contracts expire after 2018-19. McDonagh seems more likely to move than OEL, yet both could really thrive on better/more driven teams down the stretch.

[Dion Phaneuf: better in fantasy than reality.]

Lightning round

OK, now onto a handful of names that might not come up much/at all, but would be a lot of fun.

  • Goalies with more fuel in the tank: Sorry, Antti Niemi, but there are better options out there for goalie rentals, even with Petr Mrazek off the market. The Coyotes might want to keep Antti Raanta around, but it would be intriguing to see what he could do for, say, the Hurricanes. Raanta’s save percentage is up to .922 this season. Since 2014-15, Raanta is tied with Carey Price and Corey Crawford for the NHL’s best save percentage at .923.

Raanta would be the gem in my eyes. Still, there are some other interesting considerations. Would the Sabres trade sneaky-good Robin Lehner? Could Jaroslav Halak help someone if the Islanders decided they’ve had enough?

  • I’ve stated that the Coyotes would likely lose if they traded Max Domi. Domi’s fantasy owners and new team could enjoy modest-to-significant gains, however.
  • This is more tangential: Jeff Carter might be nearing a return. With that in mind, the Kings might actually be a more beneficial landing pad for a player than maybe they’d seem. It sounds like they’re happy to get Tobias Rieder, though.
  • As always, root for the Oilers to trade skilled players (note: they’re saying they are leaning toward tweaks this time, for what it’s worth). You may very well see that player burn them for making such a move, possibly right away.

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.

Canadian defenseman sorry for removing medal during ceremony

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Canadian defenseman Jocelyne Larocque apologized Friday for taking off her silver medal almost immediately after it was placed around her neck at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Larocque, a two-time Olympian, then held onto the medal during the medal ceremony following the United States’ 3-2 shootout victory over Canada on Thursday. Canada had won the previous four gold medals in women’s hockey.

She issued a statement through Team Canada apologizing to the IOC, International Ice Hockey Federation, the Pyeongchang Olympic Organizing Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Hockey Canada and her teammates and fans. She says she meant no disrespect but her emotions took over.

”Please understand this was a moment in time that I truly wish I could take back,” Larocque said. ”I take seriously being a role model to young girls and representing our country. My actions did not demonstrate the values our team, myself and my family live and for that I am truly sorry.”

Melody Davidson, general manager of Canada’s national team programs, said she talked to Larocque, who did not mean to be disrespectful.

”She is very remorseful and takes responsibility for her error,” Davidson said. ”Emotions run high at the Olympic Games, and never more so than in a gold-medal game, but at all times we expect our program to act professionally and demonstrate sound sportsmanship. I would like to congratulate the United States on their victory.”

Josh Bailey uses career season to cash in with $30 million extension

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The New York Islanders announced on Friday that they’ve extended one of their most productive forwards.

No, not John Tavares, but rather one of his wingers, Josh Bailey, who inked a six-year deal to stay with the only NHL organization he’s known.

“Josh has become one of the core members of the New York Islanders,” said Islanders president and general manager Garth Snow in a statement. “He has developed within our system for several years and it’s exciting to see him mature into the player we always had confidence he would become. To come into the past few seasons and see Josh set new career highs each year, has been impressive and we’re excited to see him continue to do that with the organization as we move forward.”

Per TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Bailey’s deal is worth $30 million, meaning he’ll carry a $5 million cap hit through the 2023-24 season.

Bailey, 28, in the middle of career year, is third on the Islanders in scoring with 62 points and is second on the team in assists with 47. He does lead them in power play points with 28. A first-round pick in 2008, he probably could have earned a bit more on the open market if he went to unrestricted free agency this summer, but he was clearly willing to take less to stay on Long Island with his family.

This deal could have an affect on what Tavares, who can become a UFA on July 1, decides over the next few months. Bailey has been a regular linemate for the Islanders captain for the last several years and now knowing that he’s locked up until at least 2024 should be good news in the sense of some familiarity going forward. (It must also be nice for Tavares to see one of his wingers being kept after watching Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo leave through trades/free agency.)

There are a couple of other pending UFA and restricted free agents for Snow to deal with this summer like Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Pulock, but obviously Tavares is of primary concern. This deal could go a long way to keeping the captain with the organization.

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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.