Johnny Gaudreau

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NHL Power Rankings: The Predators are starting to roll

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The Nashville Predators have not only built a powerhouse team in the Western Conference, they have done it in such a way under the salary cap that they not only have their core locked in for the foreseeable future, they still have enough salary cap space to add players like Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino on long-term deals.

Those additions have helped make an already strong team one of the absolute best in the NHL, and they only seem to be getting better.

They not only enter the week with one of the best records in the league, they are starting to look better than the team that was in the Stanley Cup Final just a few months ago.

Entering play on Monday the Predators 13-2-2 in their past 17 games.

Since acquiring Turris in that blockbuster three-team trade with the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators they are 10-2-2 while Turris himself has already recorded 13 points.

What is perhaps scariest about this team for the rest of the Western Conference is they have not really been fully healthy yet this season. Ryan Ellis, a key part of their defense, which is the backbone of their team, has yet to play this season. Bonino missed a significant chunk of the season and they are currently dealing with injuries to Johansen and Scott Hartnell. When totally healthy this team is going to be an abslute nightmare matchup for just about any team in the NHL with that defense and newfound center depth.

Their current run has them fourth in our power rankings.

Here is a look at where everybody else fits in.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They still have the NHL’s top two scorers, the NHL’s best goal differential, and the NHL’s best points percentage. Kind of hard to put anybody else on top of the league at this point, right?

2. St. Louis Blues — Losing Jaden Schwartz is just another injury added to the list this season for the Blues, but they keep finding ways to power through and keep winning. It helps that Brayden Schenn is on his way to a career year offensively.

3. Los Angeles Kings — They had a rough stretch where they lost seven out of eight games, but then they followed it up by winning eight in a row. They are once again at the top of the NHL’s goals against leaderboard and have started to find some offense. Anze Kopitar is making a very strong early season MVP case for himself. He is third in the league in scoring, playing a ton of minutes, and dominating in all three zones the way he did when he was the focal point of a two-time Stanley Cup winning team.

4. Nashville Predators — The roster is not only better than the one that went to the Stanley Cup Final, they also just simply look like a better team, too.

The Rest Of The Best

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They. Won’t. Stop. Winning. And now they are getting Marc-Andre Fleury back, the player that was supposed to be the cornerstone of their inaugural season. Quite a story that is developing here.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they can be when Cam Atkinson, a healthy scratch over the weekend, starts scoring goals again.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — It’s not just that the Maple Leafs have a superstar like Auston Matthews at the top of their lineup that makes them so dangerous and exciting offensively. It is the fact their lineup is just incredibly deep overall. Every line is capable of scoring goals on any given shift.

8. Washington Capitals — With wins in eight of their past 10 games, while also averaging 3.6 goals per game during that stretch, they are climbing the standings and starting to look like the Capitals again.

9. New York Rangers — As I said two weeks ago, winning just one of their first eight games put them in a hole that will be tough to climb out of in the standings. They are doing their best to make sure they do, in fact, climb out of it. They are 13-4-0 in their past 17 games.

10. Winnipeg Jets — They have cooled off a bit recently, but let’s not panic just yet. That offense is still great.

Stuck In The Middle

11. New Jersey Devils — A little bit of a fall from where they were two weeks ago, but the young talent on this team is still worth watching and giving Devils fans a lot of reason to believe, both for this season and the future.

12. Boston Bruins —  With wins in eight of their past 10 games the Bruins are really starting to put it together. David Pastrnak is becoming a star and looking to improve on his 34-goal, 70-point performance from a season ago.

13. New York Islanders — After scoring 34 goals a season ago Anders Lee is doing everything he can to show it was no fluke. With 17 goals in his first 34 games entering the week he is now on pace for 41 goals this season.

14. San Jose Sharks — If you like goals, their games are not the games to watch. The enter the week 26th in the league in goals scored and second in the league in goals against.

15. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau‘s brilliance has kind of overshadowed the fact that Sean Monahan is having a career year offensively (he has five more goals than Gaudreau) and is also starting to post dominant possession numbers.

The Mystery Teams: Are They Good Or Not? 

16. Minnesota Wild — Are they good or not is a question that we seem to be able to ask about the Minnesota Wild every season.

17. Chicago Blackhawks — An aging team that is pretty dependent on its goaltender at this point. Sometimes they look great. Sometimes they don’t. Is this the new normal for the Blackhawks?

18. Dallas Stars — After what was a mostly up-and-down 2016-17 season John Klingberg looks like he has back to being one of the NHL’s most dynamic and dominant defensemen.

19. Pittsburgh Penguins — On any given night they can look like the team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. They can also look like a team that has no idea what it is doing.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Whether the Canucks maintain their early season success and actually make the playoffs is secondary to the fact the two best players on this team are under the age of 23 and look to be like legitimate building blocks.

21. Montreal Canadiens — The ultimate “are they good or not?” team this season. One night they are winning 10-1. Another night they are getting routed by the Oilers. Who knows what team is showing up when the puck drops.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — They are once again breaking hockey math.

23. Philadelphia Flyers — They snapped their 10-game losing streak by rolling through Western Canada, beating the Flames, Oilers and Canucks by a combined score of 13-5. Jakub Voracek is very quietly putting together a dominant season offensively, at least as far as his playmaking is concerned.

24. Anaheim Ducks — Adam Henrique has been pretty outstanding since coming over in the big trade with the New Jersey Devils. Given their injury situation down the middle it has been a much-needed addition.

25. Florida Panthers –– Losing Roberto Luongo could be a devastating blow to a team that really can not afford one. He has been spectacular when in the lineup while his backups have been … well … anything but spectacular.

The Basement

26Colorado Avalanche — They overachieved for a while at the start of the year but with losses in 10 of their past 15 games they are starting to become the Avalanche again.

27. Edmonton Oilers — The deeper we get into the season the more likely it seems they are going to miss the playoffs and waste one of Connor McDavid‘s prime years. That remains astonishing.

28. Detroit Red Wings — In the past week they’ve lost games by scores of 10-1 and 6-1. They’ve also lost seven out of eight overall and are quickly falling down the standings. There just is not a lot to be excited about here.

29. Ottawa Senators — Not only is the team on the ice losing games with regularity, Erik Karlsson‘s future with the team has never been more in doubt. Other than that everything is great.

30. Arizona Coyotes — The travel schedule has not been kind to them. The good news? Ten of their next 12 games are at home. The bad news? Three of those first four games are against the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

31. Buffalo Sabres — The Sabres had a stretch where they were shutout three games in a row and were about 10 minutes away from a fourth. Since November 1 they have played 18 games. They have scored more than one goal in only nine of them.

Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

Stamkos, Subban, Ovechkin and McDavid have early lead on All-Star voting

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The first week of voting for the 2018 NHL All-Star game is complete, and so far the leading vote-getters are Steven Stamkos (Atlantic Division), Alex Ovechkin (Metropolitan Division), P.K. Subban (Central Division) and Connor McDavid (Pacific Division).

The 2018 game will be played in Tampa Bay on Sunday, Jan. 28.

The top vote-getters from each division, regardless of position, will be named as captains for their teams. This will be the third consecutive year the NHL will play a 3-on-3 mini-tournament made up of teams from each of the four divisions.

Here are the top-five vote-getters from each division.

Atlantic Division
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Central Division
1. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
3. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
5. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Metropolitan Division
1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders
4. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Pacific Division
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
2. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
3. James Neal, Vegas Golden Knights
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
5. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

It is not a huge surprise that Stamkos and Kucherov are leading the voting in the Atlantic Division. The game is in Tampa and that duo has been driving the Lightning’s success this season as they have been one of the best teams in the league. Kucherov and Stamkos are the top-two point producers in the NHL as of Thursday.

Ovechkin, leading the Metropolitan Division, has the league lead in goals while McDavid is the league’s reining MVP and scoring champion. Subban is one of the most popular and marketable players in the league while also being the face of a Predators team that is one of the best in the NHL.

Probably the biggest surprise on any of the lists is Marc-Andre Fleury being fourth in the Pacific Division, mainly because he has only played in four games this season. Still, he remains a wildly popular player in two different cities (in Vegas with his current team as well as in Pittsburgh with his previous team).

Here are the PHT staff picks for each team’s captain.

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.

Let’s go deep on Flyers’ 10-game losing streak

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When fans are booing you out of the building and management is straining to defend you, things can start to get out of hand.

The Philadelphia Flyers will either end their current 10-game losing streak or see it go to 11 games on Monday as they take on the Flames in Calgary. PHT will monitor that contest, but in the meantime, it might be entertaining, informative, and yes, a bit frustrating to see how the wheels came off.

Will there be some themes to this 10-game skid? Yes, it seems there will be.

Games 1 and 2: Shutout losses to the Wild (1-0 at home on Nov. 11; 3-0 in Minnesota on Nov. 14)

For Wild fans, Devan Dubnyk‘s shutout streak probably feels pretty distant right now. Still, his hot run really cooled off the Flyers, as Dubnyk stopped 32 and 30 shots for those goose eggs.

[More on Dubnyk’s hot streak here.]

Game 3: 3-2 shootout loss to the Jets.

One theme, at least early on, of this losing streak is blown leads. In the case of this contest against Winnipeg, the trio of Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, and Claude Giroux helped the Flyers build a 2-0 lead through the first period, with that second tally coming about five minutes into the opening frame.

The Jets’ second goal really had to sting, as Mark Scheifele sent the contest into overtime with less than a minute remaining in regulation.

Game 4: Flames 5, Flyers 4 (OT).

Another game where a substantial first-period lead eventually dissolved into a defeat.

In this case, Philly went up 1-0 and then 3-1 in the opening frame. Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, and the Flames turned the game on its head in the second period, which included Monahan’s first NHL hat trick:

Game 5: Canucks win 5-2.

The Flyers scored first in this one, but that lead only lasted for 1:12 before things quickly went off the rails. Brock Boeser scored twice and Daniel Sedin had a rare strong night during a fading season with two points.

Game 6 and 7: Two OT losses against the Islanders.

On Nov. 22, the Flyers saw leads go away, and then John Tavares ended the game with this outstanding combination of will and skill:

The second contest probably generated more unrest, as the Flyers squandered a 4-2 lead heading into the third period, ultimately seeing Nick Leddy‘s OT goal extend the misery.

Game 8: The temperature rises another level with another squandered lead, and an OT loss to the hated Penguins.

While Pittsburgh generated a 1-0 lead through the first 20 minutes, the Flyers exploded for three goals to make it 3-1 entering the final frame. Even with things crumbling, they shook off the game being tied 3-3 to take one more advantage at 4-3, only to see Jake Guentzel send it to overtime with a late tally.

Then, to turn the knife in deeper, it was Sidney Crosby who scored the game-clincher:

And tweets like these started to surface.

Game 9: Boos and votes of confidence.

With a 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks for their ninth in a row, things were getting pretty ugly in Philly.

[Ron Hextall gives Dave Hakstol the vote of confidence]

Game 10: After losing 3-1 to the Sharks, the Flyers dropped a 3-0 defeat to the Boston Bruins.

***

Basically, the Flyers have either been shut out/blown out of games or given up significant leads during this 10-game skid, generating five standings points in the process. Really, this slump could probably be traced back longer; Philly began 2017-18 with a 5-3-0 record, yet now they find themselves at 8-11-7. Yes, that means 15 losses in their last 18 contests.

Maybe Hextall is correct in believing that this team hasn’t played poorly as of late, but they also haven’t played particularly well. It might just be that this squad, as constructed – or with its current coach, or both – simply stands in hockey purgatory.

Monday presents another opportunity for the Flyers to end this streak, as they take on the Flames in Calgary to begin a three-game road trip. If they don’t get it together, we’ll once again learn that votes of confidence only mean so much.

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.

Alex DeBrincat is defying your expectations

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No one expected this from Alex DeBrincat.

He was passed over 38 times by 25 teams in the 2016 NHL Draft.

He was undersized, his linemates were the reason for his successes in junior hockey and he wasn’t very good at the World Juniors.

The excuses for his pending failure were already laid out for him. He just had to walk the path.

Instead, DeBrincat went in a different direction, one where the questions about his stature and teammates have shifted to a singular query: ‘How good can DeBrincat become?’

Chicago Blackhawks fans have the luxury of salivating over the thought of DeBrincat’s ceiling.

The 19-year-old has been all the rage in Chi-Town and across the NHL after he notched his first career hat trick on Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks, an outing that catapulted him (if he wasn’t already there) into the same conversation as fellow rookies Clayton Keller in Arizona, Matthew Barzal in New York (Islanders) and Brock Boeser in Vancouver.

With 10 goals and 18 points in 24 games, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman may just have the steal of the 2016 draft in DeBrincat. The Michigan native is on pace for over 30 goals, which would easily have his name in the conversation for the Calder Trophy — if not engraved on it — if he can keep it up.

As mentioned above, DeBrincat’s size may have been the main reason he slid to the Blackhawks in the second round.

He’s listed at a diminutive 5-foot-7 (two inches shorter than Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames) and weighs in at only 165 pounds, numbers that don’t add up to elite talent in the eyes of many.

He’s certainly no heavyweight, but he has the ability (like Gaudreau) to use his small size as an advantage when it comes to being elusive and hard to contain.

It would have been foolish, too, to overlook what he was able to achieve offensively at the junior level. It should come as no surprise to anyone that DeBrincat can score. A lot.

DeBrincat was an elite-level goal scorer and point producer with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League, and while junior success doesn’t always equate to the same in the NHL (just ask Eric Fehr), it doesn’t hurt either.

Here’s the breakdown of DeBrincat’s three-year junior career:

  • 191 games played
  • 167 goals
  • 165 assists
  • 332 points

Compare that to Connor McDavid’s three-year junior career with the Erie Otters:

  • 166 games played
  • 97 goals
  • 188 assists
  • 285 points

DeBrincat is, of course, not McDavid. But those are some bloody impressive numbers, regardless.

But there’s an argument that he always played with great players. From teammates in McDavid to Dylan Strome in Erie to Auston Matthews with Team USA, DeBrincat has been blessed with some exceptional talent as linemates.

But they’re not pulling the trigger for him. That knack for putting pucks in the back of the net is DeBrincat’s best trait.

And he makes it look pretty effortless.

Now, DeBrincat has the advantage of not being the guy who has to be leaned upon heavily in Chicago. He doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting yet, and that will aid in his development.

“He does all the things that scorers do,” coach Joel Quenneville said on Tuesday. “How good he’s going to be, it’ll be fun to watch that play out because he has the makings of being a special player.”

Indeed.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck