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Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Tampa Bay Lightning locked up a playoff spot before April even began, and the only real drama they faced boiled down to whether or not they’d win their division. The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, scratched and clawed their way to their last game of the season.

Maybe that lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s fatigue conspired to make the Bolts’ finish to 2017-18 a little less than inspiring? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as just one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.

The Lightning still finished atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54-23-5 for 113 standings points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the East’s final wild card, generating 97 standings points on a 44-29-9 record.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with a less-than-spectacular finish to the season, the Lightning are heavy favorites. Tampa Bay ranks among the biggest favorites of any team in the first round on account of its strengths and the Devils’ perceived weaknesses.

Beyond the momentum angle, the Devils might pin their hopes on sweeping the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey matches up well with Tampa Bay?

Let’s break this series down.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Lightning: It’s easy to look at the Lightning as just the one-two punch of a successfully returning Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his wildly underrated career. The frightening part is that it’s not even just about them, nor J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov‘s old spot.

This series might clue in casual hockey fans that Brayden Point is a rising star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, doing so in sometimes spectacular ways:

Yanni Gourde would also receive way more Calder Trophy buzz in a normal season, as he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also have some other nice forwards, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. It should be noted that, while Palat only scored 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.

The biggest injury question revolves around Stamkos, who missed some late-season games. Will he be 100 percent either by Game 1 or merely sometime in this series?

Devils: It’s well-publicized but true: the drop off from Taylor Hall (93 points) to the second-best Devils scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is drastic.

Hall deservedly gets Hart Trophy buzz, and he’s the single player who could will the Devils to upset victories against the Bolts in his first-ever visit to the postseason.

It’s unfair to say that he’s the only weapon for New Jersey. Despite being limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri continues to be an under-the-radar gem, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon has been a boon via the trade deadline, collecting 13 points in 17 games with the Devils. Michael Grabner‘s been quiet, but his speed and skill could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of a contract year hanging over his head.

AdvantageLightning. Few teams possess the arsenal that Tampa Bay boasts.

DEFENSEMEN

Lightning: Victor Hedman may very well win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue over who deserves that nod, but he certainly earned the right to be in the discussion, generating 63 points in 77 games while playing great defense.

Mikhail Sergachev might be a work in progress, yet his offense is already formidable, as the rookie collected 40 points this season despite modest ice time (15:21 minutes per game). They can enjoy the best of both worlds as they protect him and then deploy him for scoring situations.

Ryan McDonagh is still adjusting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him for, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He’s joined by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning probably want to limit Girardi’s exposure (even after a relatively decent season).

Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper, but credit the Devils with adding some talent in that area.

Sami Vatanen is developing into a workhorse for the Devils, averaging 22:44 per game while scoring 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has a ways to go in his own end, but he already generated 44 points in his first NHL season.

Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and John Moore are among those blueliners who can prove that they’re worth more of a look with a strong playoffs.

Advantage: Lightning, by a significant margin.

GOALIES

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy may still be a Vezina finalist, and it’s easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage, and eight shutouts. He’s also proven himself in postseason play before, generating that same .920 save percentage in 12 career playoff appearances.

His recent play is the elephant in the room, as he admitted himself to fatigue late in 2017-18. Consider that he generated a brilliant .931 save percentage in 41 games before the All-Star break, only to slide to a bad-backup-level .902 save percentage in 24 games after the break.

Louis Domingue hasn’t really inspired any confidence as his backup.

Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly at a career crisis, the Devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved unexpectedly sturdy for New Jersey, producing a four-game winning streak to help them lock down that playoff spot, and also generating a .913 save percentage over 41 appearances.

AdvantageLightning, even though Vasilevskiy’s energy comes into question.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: The Bolts’ power play ranks among the NHL’s deadliest, boasting a 23.9-percent success rate on 66 power-play goals and just three shorthanded goals allowed. Their penalty kill struggled, however, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for).

Devils: New Jersey connected on 21.4 percent of its power plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They excelled on the PK, tying for seventh in the NHL by killing 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 power-play goals allowed, 12 shorthanded goals scored).

Advantage: Devils, as they mix a very nice power play with one of the better PK units, especially when you consider how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. That said, the Lightning’s power play is so dominant, it might make that balance irrelevant.

X-FACTORS

Lightning: Is Vasilevskiy going to be anywhere close to his best self or his tank truly empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but bad goaltending can submarine even the strongest teams.

Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It’s a great story, and there’s a solid chance that he’ll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in New Jersey’s favor?

PREDICTION

Lightning in five games. The Bolts possess the top-heavy talent to nullify Taylor Hall, and even if they lose that battle, they’re likely to dominate from a depth perspective. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage in net … at least on paper.

If you’re a Devils fan grumbling right now, consider this: New Jersey seems to thrive on defying the odds. Why not do it in the first round, too?

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.

Biggest contract years for NHL playoff teams

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Technically speaking, NHL players only get paid for the 82-game regular season, aside from the pocket change that comes from certain bonuses for playoff wins.

In reality, a player can make a living off of a magical postseason run or two.

A strong couple of months could end up being costly in contract negotiations, yet greed can also be good in helping a team in the short run. Let’s take a look at the biggest contract year situations for all 16 of the teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In several cases, it’s not as much about deals that will expire after this season, but instead core players lining up for their first cracks at extensions in July.

It only seems fair to begin with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, even if their concerns are minor …

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

West

Nashville Predators

Biggest contract year: Nashville’s biggest concerns come down to the guys whose contracts end after 2018-19: Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne.

Still, there are a couple of RFAs who could mop up. Ryan Hartman needs to prove his value after being traded from the Blackhawks, while Juuse Saros could break the bank if something happens with Rinne and he goes on a big run.

Colorado Avalanche

Biggest contract year: Jonathan Bernier is at quite the fork in the road in his career.

The 29-year-old played a key role in keeping things going for the Avalanche earlier this season when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury, to the point that he probably did enough to earn another backup role. If he can author a big playoff run, then who knows what sort of offer he might be able to command?

With Varlamov’s own deal expiring after 2018-19, a red-hot run from Bernier could even force questions about a changing of the guard.

Winnipeg Jets

Biggest contract year: Connor Hellebuyck is a pending RFA who just broke the single-season wins record for an American goalie, going 44-11-9(!) with a fantastic .924 save percentage. If the Jets make a long-awaited but easy-to-imagine deep run, Hellebuyck will inspire many “buck”-related headlines.

The Jets also have Jacob Trouba and Paul Stastny to consider, while this playoff run will play a role in Patrik Laine‘s extension. Tough to imagine Winnipeg going through the summer without a new deal for Laine, whose rookie deal ends next season.

Minnesota Wild

Biggest contract year: Jason Zucker blew away career-highs in goals (33) and assists (31) this season, generating 64 points. He doesn’t have a huge body of work of scoring at this level (Zucker’s 47 points from 2016-17 were easily his best before this season), so proving it in the postseason could help him earn even more of a boost.

Matt Dumba generated a sneaky-great season of his own, scoring 14 goals and 50 points. The Wild are very lucky that these two players are RFAs.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vegas Golden Knights

Biggest contract year: The Golden Knights cleared up some concerns, such as handing Jonathan Marchessault a team-friendly extension. Even so, the Golden Knights may lead in greed.

William Karlsson is a pending RFA after leading the Golden Knights in scoring. Some of their biggest names are soon to be UFAs, including James Neal and David Perron. This team has a lot to prove and a lot to gain in the postseason.

Los Angeles Kings

Biggest contract year: For better or worse, most of this Kings team is locked in place. Tobias Rieder could be one of those “flavor of the month” types if he rides some high percentages.

Anaheim Ducks

Biggest contract year: Depth youngsters are looking to earn new contracts in Ondrej Kase and Brandon Montour.

Really, John Gibson might be the guy shooting for the most money in Anaheim. His dirt-cheap $2.3 million cap hit expires after 2018-19, so the Ducks will get their first shot at extending the underrated goalie in July. If he can get healthy and lead a surge, Gibson could drive up his price.

San Jose Sharks

Biggest contract year: Evander Kane generated 14 points in 17 games since being traded to the Sharks, and that includes a three-game drought at the end of the season. Few players had as much to gain or lose as Kane did coming into 2017-18, and that remains true entering the postseason.

Tomas Hertl also approaches free agency as an RFA.

[Want to follow the action? Here’s the full schedule, including where to watch.]

East

Tampa Bay Lightning

Biggest contract year: J.T. Miller could really market himself if he can produce alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

The Lightning stand out as one of the teams with the most interest in how this might grease the wheels for extensions, though. Kucherov’s due for an enormous raise over his almost-insulting $4.767M cap hit, while Ryan McDonagh‘s similar mark also runs out after 2018-19.

New Jersey Devils

Biggest contract year: There are quite a few depth players on expiring deals in New Jersey, yet the most interesting names are imports from the trade deadline in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.

So far, Maroon has been especially useful since being traded to the Devils, as he has 13 points in 17 games with New Jersey. It could really help him to prove that he can score without Connor McDavid‘s help.

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Boston Bruins

Biggest contract year: “Ri-Nash needs cash.” Both Rick Nash and Riley Nash are in contract years, with each forward set to be UFAs. Rick Nash probably grades out an “Incomplete” so far in Boston, as he’s only scored six points with the B’s, yet he’s been limited to 11 games played.

Considering how snakebitten Rick Nash has been, it would be pretty funny if he went on a tear in the playoffs. The Bruins wouldn’t mind, even if it would mean that his time would be short with Boston.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Biggest contract year: The Maple Leafs decided to keep rather than trade James van Riemsdyk, even though a lot of signs point to JVR moving on after this season.

For the second time in his career, he passed the 30-goal mark, collecting a career-high 36 goals. Still, this has been far from a fluke, as he’s scored 29 and 27 during other campaigns and has been a reliable 50+ point guy when healthy.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of deal he’ll command, and that’s doubly true if he helps the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins.

There are other notable names (Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Leo Komarov especially), but JVR is the contract year player to watch for Toronto.

Washington Capitals

Biggest contract year: John Carlson‘s long been a solid scorer for Washington, generating 37 points three times and even hitting 55 once. His contract year’s been one to note, though, as he topped all NHL defensemen with a whopping 68 points, including a career-high of 15 goals.

Carlson is poised for a big raise over his near-$4M cap hit. Piling on big postseason numbers would inflate that even more.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Biggest contract year: Boone Jenner fits the mold of a guy who could blow up for a playoff run, as right now, it’s really tough to truly gauge the value of a one-time 30-goal scorer who only managed 32 points this season.

Thomas Vanek and Jack Johnson both have a lot to play for, even though they’re in supporting roles for CBJ.

The biggest situations to eye are players whose deals run through 2018-19. Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski both could get extensions during the off-season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Biggest contract year: Some of the bigger concerns fall after 2018-19, although Jamie Oleksiak might be the latest member of The Justin Schultz Club: players who landed with Pittsburgh and then revitalized their careers (and paychecks). Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan also need to earn some dough.

Philadelphia Flyers

Biggest contract year: None of the Flyers’ goalies are locked up for all that long. Petr Mrazek‘s deal is expiring this summer, while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both see their contracts run out after 2018-19. Philly’s goalies pose plenty of questions, yet you’d think that motivation won’t be lacking.

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.

Lundqvist, rebuilding Rangers brace for rough road ahead

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WASHINGTON — Henrik Lundqvist got an early glimpse into the New York Rangers’ rebuilding future.

It’s not pretty.

Lundqvist roiled with frustration after a rookie defensemen left an opponent wide open for a tying goal that led to New York’s 44th loss of a lost season. As Zen-like as he was earlier in the day about the new organizational direction toward youth and away from trying to win now, the face of the franchise for more than a decade was bothered by a mistake caused by inexperience that’s sure to be repeated over the coming years.

”So frustrating,” Lundqvist said.

When general manager Jeff Gorton committed the Rangers to a roster refresh that laid waste to 2018 playoff hopes and set the stage for pain that could last longer than Lundqvist’s prime, the star goaltender battled his own internal conflict. The 36-year-old from Sweden had never played in an NHL game with no chance of making the playoffs.

”As a competitor, you want to win, and I never experienced that before where you’re like, ‘We can’t go for this,”’ Lundqvist said Wednesday, hours after the Rangers were eliminated from contention but several weeks since it became clear they wouldn’t make the postseason. ”It was definitely a new experience. But we’re all on board in this.”

Lundqvist and his veteran Rangers teammates have two choices: get on board or be tossed overboard. When it became apparent this team didn’t have the stuff to compete for the Stanley Cup, Gorton traded captain Ryan McDonagh and forwards Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner before the deadline and set a course for the future.

With three years left on Lundqvist’s contract at $8.5 million per season, how far away that future is remains painfully unclear. After 11 playoff appearances and a trip to the final with Lundqvist as the backbone, the Rangers may not get within reach of the Cup in his prime or even his career – but even current players see the need for change.

”I think it’s good for this organization to get some fresh air and some new young players and go from there,” 30-year-old winger Mats Zuccarello said. ”But it’s going to be a process.”

The process began last summer with the trade of veteran center Derek Stepan to Arizona for the seventh overall pick that turned into Lias Andersson and the selection of Filip Chytil later in the first round. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Brady Skjei are young building blocks already in place, and there’s hope that free agent addition Kevin Shattenkirk and trade acquisition Vladislav Namestnikov become part of the long-term solution.

When the Rangers played at Washington on Wednesday night in their first game with no hope of playoffs since 2004, they dressed 15 players age 26 and younger. New York’s future is its present, which can mean blunders like Neal Pionk‘s missed assignment in front, along with the excitement and potential of prospects like the 22-year-old defenseman, Andersson and Chytil.

”When you see the progress of the group, especially the young players, that gives you hope for what’s ahead of us,” Lundqvist said.

With a full no-movement clause and the equity he has built up with the Rangers, Lundqvist can choose his future. Others, like Zuccarello and coach Alain Vigneault, aren’t so fortunate.

In February, when he announced plans to go young, Gorton didn’t want to answer a question about whether Vigneault would be back next season other than to praise his coaching and say, ”We’re all responsible in some way here for what we’re seeing.” This spring will be the first time in a decade Vigneault hasn’t coached in the playoffs, a tough turn for the 56-year-old who almost certainly will be behind an NHL bench somewhere next season.

”A tough decision was made for the long-term future of this organization and you have to respect it and you have to do your jobs,” Vigneault said Wednesday. ”That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what my staff is trying to do and that’s what the players are trying to do.”

Try as they might to focus on the final few games of the season, the Rangers feel the threat of drastic change that hangs over them. Lundqvist said ”now is not the time” to talk about the bumpy road ahead.

Describing one of the most successful runs in franchise history, Zuccarello used words like lucky, fortunate and even spoiled. In a sport with a salary cap, it’s difficult to remain among the top teams for even this long, and now everyone is bracing for the uncertainty of what’s next.

”This is a new situation for most of the guys that have been here for a while, but you have to buy in, you know?” Zuccarello said. ”It is what it is. It’s nothing you can do about it. … Hopefully I have some good years – five, six good years – left and can be part of the rebuild and come to the good times again.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Which trade deadline acquisition has made the biggest impact so far?

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It has been nearly one month since the NHL trade deadline came and went, so let’s check in with how some of the key acquisitions are doing for their new teams.

Obviously this is a pretty ridiculously small sampling of games, and a lot can still happen over the next few weeks and months (and over the next several years!) but we can still get an idea as to which moves have made an immediate impact and which ones have not.

First, a bunch of numbers involving all of the key players traded between Feb. 20 and the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

So … how about Ryan Spooner?

Included as part of the trade that sent Rick Nash to Boston, Spooner has taken full advantage of his increased role with the rebuilding Rangers and made a pretty significant impact with his new team and has already recorded five multiple point games. He only had four with the Bruins before the trade.

It is going to create an interesting dilemma for the Rangers heading into the offseason as Spooner will be a restricted free agent and eligible for a new contract. Do they re-sign him for what will probably be at least $3 million per season (keep in mind he already makes $2.85 million this season) or try to capitalize on what is a pretty obvious hot streak and see if they can flip him for more assets around the draft?

The biggest concern at this point is that his possession numbers have plummeted with the Rangers (some of that has to be the result of going from Boston, one of the best teams in the league, to whatever is left of the Rangers) and there is no way he is going to maintain that sort of assist pace. But he has a track record of at least being a 40-50 point player the past few years without getting huge minutes, so there might be something there the Rangers can work with if they choose to.

Just below him is one of the players the Rangers shipped out of town as part of their roster purge, forward J.T. Miller.

With injury limiting defenseman Ryan McDonagh to just two games with the Lightning, the other player acquired in that trade has already made quite an impact recording at least one point in five of his first seven games with the team, including his first career hat trick.

Meanwhile, in San Jose, Evander Kane has been a shots on goal machine for the Sharks and finally had a breakout game on Friday night when he scored four goals in a huge 7-4 win over the Calgary Flames. It is doubtful that he will be anymore more than a rental for the Sharks, but he has made a pretty significant impact so far and is probably going to get them into the playoffs, and they really didn’t give up all that much in terms of future assets to acquire him.

Probably the biggest surprise trade of the season came when the St. Louis Blues, still very  much in the playoff race, traded Paul Stastny to Winnipeg to help make an already powerful Jets offense even better. That trade has not disappointed for the Jets. Stastny has recorded at least one point in all but one game he has played with his new team while the Jets are 5-2-1 with him in the lineup.

At the other end of the spectrum the Devils have not really received much production from Michael Grabner. He went eight games without a point before recording a goal and an assist in their big win over Vegas. Still, he brings an element of speed to a lineup that is suddenly one of the faster ones in the league. He can still be a dangerous, impactful player even if he is not scoring goals.

Vegas gave up a lot of draft assets to get Tomas Tatar and he has not really produced a ton yet, but he has proven to be a pretty consistent 25-goal winger in the NHL and is signed through next season, something that could be important if the Golden Knights are not able to re-sign James Neal or David Perron after this season.

Tomas Plekanec, going from Montreal to Toronto, is the only key player moved during deadline week that is still pointless with his new team. He has played less than 10 minutes in each of the Maple Leafs’ past three games.

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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.

 

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the nonsensical Minnesota Wild

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Take a look at the NHL standings and look at the top-four teams in each conference. Do it right now. Here they are. Go look. Take a look at the teams you see in those groups.

A lot of the ones you expect to see, right? A lot of the teams we have talked about all season.

Nashville. Tampa Bay. Boston. Vegas (yes, Vegas). Winnipeg. Pittsburgh. Toronto. Teams like that.

Then there is the Minnesota Wild. A team that almost nobody is talking about or has talked about it, mostly because they are decidedly average in just about every major category, sitting with one of the 10 best records in the league.

Nothing about their actual play on the ice really points to a team that should be that high in the standings.

They are one of the worst teams in the league in shot attempt percentage during 5-on-5 play.

They are in the bottom 10 in shots on goal for and shots on goal against per game. They are a middle of the pack team on the power play and the penalty kill. They are getting okay goaltending, but not really the type of out-of-this world performance that typically lifts a mediocre team this high up in the standings.

They do have a fairly decent shooting percentage (both overall and during 5-on-5 play) but like the goaltending it is nothing so out of the ordinary that it should lead to such a significant bump in the standings.

Along with all of that they really haven’t been a terribly healthy team this season and have had to deal with some pretty significant injuries to some pretty significant players. Nino Niederreiter has missed 19 games. Zach Parise has missed 39. Charlie Coyle has missed 16. Mikael Granlund has missed five.

Even with all of that here they are with one of the better records in the league.

None of it makes sense. Based on everything mentioned above they should probably be one of the worst teams in the league.

The two things they have going for them this season are the fact they have, for whatever reason, been nearly unbeatable at home with a staggering 24-5-6 record at the Xcel Energy Center.

They also have a couple of key forwards in Eric Staal, Jason Zucker (two of the top forwards that have been healthy all season) and Mikael Granlund having some huge years offensively.

Staal remains a remarkable story based on the way his career has rebounded since arriving in Minnesota before the start of the 2016-17 season. He looked like he was a shell of his former self during his last year in Carolina, but after a nice bounceback season a year ago he has come back this season and producing the way he did in his prime when he was one of the best players in the league.

Zucker has already shattered his previous career high in goals, and has once again helped form a pretty strong duo with Granlund when they have been used together. Since the start of last season Zucker and Granlund have spent more than 1,400 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together (via Natural Stat Trick), during which time the Wild have outscored teams by a 74-45 margin and controlled more than 51 percent of the shot attempts (an impressive number considering how bad the rest of the Wild’s possession numbers are).

Those three players deserve a ton of credit for the Wild’s current standing.

They are are also another nice reminder that sometimes a lot of what happens in the NHL in any given season can be completely random and not make any sense. It is the beauty of the sport sometimes. No other sports lends itself to that sort of performance for teams the way hockey can.

On to the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games entering the week and have no weakness on paper or on the ice. The best team in hockey.

2. Boston Bruins — They fact the have won six of their past seven games and are averaging more than five goals per game during that stretch without Patrice Bergeron for all of those games and Charlie McAvoy for five of them is remarkable. A scary team in the Eastern Conference.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning — Speaking of scary teams in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay is 9-0-1 in its past 10, has already hit 100 points on the season, and has two of the top scorers in the league. Honestly, any of these top three teams have a legit argument to be in the top spot.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Patrik Laine has 15 goals in his past 11 games. That is an absurd run. The Jets have a lot of great offensive weapons. He is the most dangerous.

The Rest Of The Contenders

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They have cooled off a little bit recently but enter the week having won three out of four on their current road trip.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have not always looked great, but they enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division, have won three out of four, and are still playing without their starting goalie.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — They had a pretty miserable four-game road trip recently but returned home with a big win over Pittsburgh. Given the number of shots they give up their playoff success will still largely be determined by how well Frederik Andersen plays in net.

8. Minnesota Wild — Not really sure how they are doing it, but they have one of the top records in the league. Eric Staal is getting most of the attention for his season, but let’s not overlook Jason Zucker’s 28 goals.

The ‘could go either way’ group

9. Philadelphia Flyers — Being a fan of this team has to be quite a trip. So far this season they have lost 10 games in a row, won six in a row two different times, and then lost five in a row over the past week and a half before snapping out of it by shutting down one of the best offensive teams in the league over the weekend.

10. Florida Panthers — They have the inside track for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter the week on a nine-game point streak and have been on a roll for a couple of months now. I wonder what the narrative surrounding this team and its front office changes the past two seasons would look like had they not lost Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Nick Bjugstad for more than 114 man-games a season ago. Think that had something to do with their decline? Think their healthy this season has something to do with their improvement?

11. Washington Capitals — If Braden Holtby does not get back to playing like Braden Holtby it could be an awfully short spring in Washington. Shorter than usual, that is.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are starting to pick it up at the right time but they still have very little margin for error in that race with New Jersey and Florida.

13. San Jose Sharks — Brent Burns is on track to finish in the top-three in shots on goal for the third year in a row. For a defenseman that is unheard of. Bobby Orr used to do that. That is about it.

14. Colorado Avalanche — If you are going to lose, lose in overtime. The Avalanche have lost five of their past 10 games. Not great. But four of those losses have come in overtime or a shootout which means they’ve earned 14 of a possible 20 points over that stretch. That will keep you in the playoff hunt.

15. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall is still doing amazing things but he needs some help. The Devils have lost six out of 10 entering the week and are still waiting for trade deadline acquisition Michael Grabner to record his first point with the team.

16. Anaheim Ducks — When healthy Ryan Getzlaf is still an incredible talent. He has 50 points in 44 games this season. With a healthy lineup they would not be a fun first-round matchup in the playoffs for anybody.

17. Dallas Stars — They are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. They still have a hold on a playoff spot and at the moment would sneak into Pacific Division playoff bracket as the first wild card team, avoiding a first-second round gauntlet that could include Winnipeg and Nashville. So … a strategic tank? Doubtful, because it still seems like something is holding them back, but it could work out that way.

18. Los Angeles Kings — Just when it looked like they were going to make a nice little push they get obliterated at home by a Blues team that had been falling apart.

19. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith‘s absence was a big problem for them. His return did not go well for him or the Flames as they dropped a big game to an Islanders team that had lost eight in a row.

20. St. Louis Blues — The only reason they are not firmly in the lottery at this point is because they had such a great start to the season. They have been awful for weeks, though.

Hope the ping pong balls go your way

21. Edmonton Oilers — They are 7-4-0 in their past 11 games, mostly because Connor McDavid has gone from “best player in the world” to “superman” mode.

22. New York Rangers — Ryan Spooner has 12 points in seven games since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade. He is a restricted free agent after the season and making a nice argument to be a part of the Rangers’ immediate future.

23. Chicago Blackhawks — Not sure I fully understand the front office’s apparent plan to stick with the same defense that has, for the most part, stunk this season.

24. Carolina Hurricanes — Maybe next year will be the year it all comes together for them, he said for the eighth year in a row.

25. Arizona Coyotes — They might still have the worst record in the league but they are not playing like the worst team in the league at the moment, and have not for several weeks. The schedule has softened up a bit but they have still beaten some really good teams during this stretch (Minnesota twice, Anaheim, San Jose).

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser‘s unfortunate injury means there is literally no reason for anybody to watch their games for the rest of the season, unless you are contractually obligated to.

27. Buffalo Sabres — It is still inexcusable they are this bad this far into their rebuild, but at least they have won a couple of games recently.

28. New York Islanders — I put them at No. 31 a week ago mainly because they had just been on such an unspeakably bad run and looked so awful for so long. I didn’t really think they were the worst team in the league. But I am not sure they are far from it, either. They have allowed 50 shots on goal in six different games this season. Since the start of the 2015-16 season no team in the NHL has allowed more than 50 shots in a game three times. In nearly three full years. The Islanders have doubled that in less than 70 games this year.

29. Ottawa Senators — The fans deserve a break and if they are going to lose Erik Karlsson this summer (or next summer) I hope for their case they get some good fortunate in the draft lottery and get a chance to pick Rasmus Dahlin to one day (hopefully) replace him. The owner probably does not deserve that same good fortune, though.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg is a Hall of Fame talent that played on some of the best teams of the modern era. Now he is going out on this team. It seems to be getting to him. How could it not?

31. Montreal Canadiens — They have only won five of their past 20 games and I am not sure I trust Marc Bergevin to dig the franchise out of the hole he has helped put it in.

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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.