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PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the early standings

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October is a magical time in the NHL.

Teams haven’t yet figured out how to play defense, goaltenders can be a little rusty, goal scoring briefly spikes and the season is still so young that we can’t really get a firm grasp on what teams are going to look like.

Which team off to a fast start is for real? Which slumping team is truly doomed? Should we pay attention to any of this so far because the early season results can lie to us.

That’s what we attempt to look at in our first installment of the PHT Power Rankings: Which teams are as good as they look, which teams are as bad as they look, and which teams have played better than their early terrible records.

At the top of the rankings we have the Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of four out of their first five and the highest scoring team in the league. Is Mike Babcock satisfied with the fact they are giving up nearly as many goals and chances as they score? Probably not. But these young kids can flat out fly and once they get turned loose there are not many defenses in the league that can slow them down.

From there, we break the 31 NHL teams down into four tiers: Teams as good as they look, teams likely to fall, teams likely to rise, and the teams at the bottom that are exactly what they look like.

As good as they look

1. Toronto Maple Leafs — Auston Matthews is better than the pre-draft hype. We knew he was a slam-dunk No. 1 pick. We knew he had All-Star potential. He is still better. And not by a little, either. Five goals and eight points in his first five games to start the season and a 58.6 percent Corsi mark. Just a dominant, dominant, dominant player.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Injuries, especially the season-ending one to Steven Stamkos, decimated this team a year ago. Fully healthy this is still a Stanley Cup contender.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is showing that he doesn’t need Patrick Kane next to him to produce and that is great news for the Blue Jackets. They needed a game-breaking forward up front, and now they have one.

4. Chicago Blackhawks — It has been the Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad show in Chicago this year. Just when you think the Blackhawks might start to slow down or that their run as one of the NHL’s top dogs was starting to come to an end, they find a way to stick around.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Is it possible that they just needed a new voice, a new system and a new approach? I have my doubts, but it is hard to argue with the results thus far … both the record and the underlying numbers.

6. Calgary Flames — If Mike Smith can give them competent goaltending (and so far he has!) this team could be a serious threat in the Western Conference, especially with that top-four on defense.

Fast start, but not as good as they look (Teams likely to fall)

7. St. Louis Blues — Pretty amazing start given the injury situation, but they have been absolutely crushed on the shot chart and you have to wonder how long they can withstand that.

8. New Jersey Devils — Nico Hischier gets all of the headlines as the No. 1 overall pick, but don’t sleep on defenseman Will Butcher. He already has eight assists in his first five games. An improved team for sure, but probably not one that is as good as its early record.

9. Ottawa Senators — The most confusing team in the league? Their run to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago was a shock. They were a double-overtime Game 7 on the road away from being in the Stanley Cup Final, but it wasn’t really a team that made you think they could do it again. Now, they have started the season with eight out of a possible 10 points without getting a single minute of play from Erik Karlsson. Stunning. They also have the second worst shot attempt numbers in the league. Not an encouraging sign for future play.

10. Detroit Red Wings — After missing the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades expectations were near an all-time low for the Red Wings this season. They are off to a great start, but this roster is still problematic.

11. Colorado Avalanche — That defense will not hold up. It just won’t. Have to be encouraged by Nail Yakupov’s start up front though.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — One of the best starts ever by an expansion team, but how long is it going to last? The best thing about James Neal’s start is what it is doing to his trade value for the deadline.

EDMONTON, AB – OCTOBER 04: Connor McDavid #97, who had a hat trick, celebrates with goaltender Cam Talbot #33 of the Edmonton Oilers, who posted a shutout against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Place on October 4, 2017 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Slow start, but better than they look (Teams likely to rise)

13. Edmonton Oilers — Making them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season is premature. Also premature? Writing them off after a slow start. They are the top possession team in the NHL and they still have Connor McDavid.

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — After dropping their first two games (where they gave up 15 goals!) they have won three out of their next four and seem to be starting to get back on track a little. They still need to make another move or two to fix that center depth.

15. Washington Capitals — Are they going to win the Presidents’ Trophy again? No. But they have three of the top offensive players in the NHL and Alex Ovechkin is still the best pure goal scorer in the league.

16. Nashville Predators — Filip Forsberg looks like he is well on his way to another 30-goal season and Scott Hartnell has looked like a steal of a pickup.

17. Montreal Canadiens — They have some question marks, but they have played significantly better than their early season record indicates. A true test of process vs. results. If the same process continues, the better results are going to come.

18. Minnesota Wild — They have earned at least one point in three of their first four games and Nino Niederreiter, arguably their best two-way player, has yet to hit the score sheet. He will be fine and so will they.

19. Boston Bruins — They are a top-heavy team, but the guys at the top of the roster can be some of the best in the league. Let’s see how they look when Patrice Bergeron and David Backes get back in the lineup.

20. Philadelphia Flyers — There is a lot of young talent on this team and they can be really good, really fast … if they get the goaltending.

21. Florida Panthers — Their possession numbers look fantastic so far and having a full season of a healthy Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov will be game-changing for them. Last season might have been the fluke.

22. Carolina Hurricanes — Only three games to go by at this point, but the roster looks good, the young talent seems to be for real. If they do not contend for a playoff spot this season something is very, very wrong.

23. San Jose Sharks — Four games into the season and Brent Burns and Joe Thornton have combined for only two assists. That will not continue.

24. New York Rangers — The results (1-5-0) are lousy, but like Montreal and Edmonton ahead of them they have played much better than that record indicates. Mika Zibanejad has been a real bright spot so far, already scoring five goals.

25. Anaheim Ducks — I know, they were in the Western Conference Finals. They have had back-to-back 100-point seasons. But they have just looked lousy so far. That can not continue, can it?

Exactly what they look like

26. Dallas Stars — Still not entirely sold on this team, even after another offseason of blockbuster moves. Sometimes you need to actually just win.

27. New York Islanders — Once John Tavares starts to get going things will get better, and Joshua Ho-Sang can be a fascinating player if they turn him loose. But after that it’s a pretty dull team.

28. Winnipeg Jets — This should be a good team. This looks like a good team on paper. They have great individual talent up and down the lineup But it never materializes on the ice.

29. Vancouver Canucks — Rebuilding team that isn’t really rebuilding and doesn’t have anybody that is truly exciting as a long-term building block. Bo Horvat is good, but with all due respect to him and his ability if he is your player and top scorer that is probably not a good situation to be in.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Five games into the season and an eight-year contract and Jack Eichel is already frustrated with losing. That is not a promising start.

31. Arizona Coyotes — Better days are ahead, but when you have a team with his many young players and so many new faces there are going to be some pretty fierce growing pains along the way. The Coyotes are experiencing that so far this season. First-year coach Rick Tocchet already had to apologize to the fans.

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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.

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The Buzzer: Backstrom dominates, another shutout for Anderson

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Player of the night: Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Before the Washington Capitals took the ice in New Jersey on Friday night there was some doubt as to whether or not Nicklas Backstrom would play after he left warmups after taking a puck to the head (he was initially listed as a scratch).

He not only played, he absolutely dominated in the Capitals’ 5-2 win.

Backstrom finished with four points, scoring a goal and adding three assists to help the Capitals bounce back from a tough loss on Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all tied for the league lead in points (10) after Friday’s game.

The Capitals may not have the depth that they did a year ago, especially after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt over the summer, but they still have some elite players that are going to carry them a long way.

Highlight of the night. 

How can it be anything other than Artemi Panarin‘s first goal as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets? It is a thing of beauty.

Factoid of the night. 

Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson recorded the 39th shutout of his career. That puts him in the top-five among American-born goaltenders.

Misc.

— The Vegas Golden Knights have lost a game. With their loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, as well as the New Jersey Devils’ loss to the Washington Capitals, there are now no more unbeaten teams in the NHL.

— Speaking of the Vegas-Detroit game, Henrik Zetterberg was magnificent for the Red Wings with four points. James Neal also continued his incredible start for Vegas with his sixth goal of the season.

Mike Smith had a brutal night for the Calgary Flames, getting benched after giving up five goals on 22 shots.

— The Colorado Avalanche … dominated? Yeah. They did. Not only did they beat the Anaheim Ducks, 3-1, to improve to 4-1-0 on the young season but they also outshot the Ducks by a 39-18 margin. Has to be concerning if you are a Ducks fan. This game was a classic Randy Carlyle game on the shot chart.

Scores and recaps

Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, New York Rangers 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, Anaheim Ducks 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Calgary Flames 0

Detroit Red Wings 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

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.

McLellan sends a message to Oilers after back-to-back losses

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About a year ago, after a particularly brutal loss to Buffalo, Todd McLellan ripped into his team.

It was early in the season, but the Edmonton Oilers coach saw something he didn’t like in his team’s effort that night and he moved quickly to address it.

Fast forward to the end of the first week of the 2017-18 season.

Led by Connor McDavid, the Oilers completely outplayed the Calgary Flames in the season opener. The result was a 3-0 win, which could’ve been bigger if not for the performance of Flames goalie Mike Smith. Since then, however, Edmonton has lost to the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets.

McLellan once again had a message for his team, with reports out of Edmonton showing a highly intense skate on Wednesday.

“We started at training camp on Day 1 trying to remind the players how hard it is to win, and part of solving that puzzle is work ethic,” said McLellan, per the Edmonton Journal on Wednesday.

“I thought we were really outworked the other night. We tried to do a lot of things the easy way. Today was a reminder that we have to get back to work.”

Last season, the Oilers snapped a lengthy — and frankly embarrassing — playoff drought and then came within one victory of qualifying for the Western Conference Final. They also went on a five-game winning streak immediately following McLellan’s sharp public criticism.

Loaded with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl up front and after a sensational year in net from Cam Talbot, expectations surrounding this Oilers team have risen significantly.

They don’t play again until Saturday, when they host the Ottawa Senators. It might be early in the season, but McLellan has once again wasted little time in trying to grab the attention of his team after subpar performances.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Connor McDavid put on a show with historic hat trick vs. Flames

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Welcome to the new season of the Connor McDavid Show.

The 20-year-old phenom was sensational in the Edmonton Oilers’ season opener Wednesday, once again putting on display that ridiculous combination of speed and ability to make skilled plays while in full flight.

Against the rival Calgary Flames, McDavid scored the hat trick and the Oilers scored a 3-0 win.

As you can imagine, what McDavid did has the hockey world buzzing at the beginning of a new season.

For his second goal of the night, McDavid gathered the puck in his own end and with a burst of speed, he rushed down the right wing, beat three Calgary players to the net and then calmly flipped the puck over Mike Smith‘s left shoulder.

Only about six seconds ticked off the game clock from the time McDavid gathered the puck near the bottom of the defensive zone faceoff circle to the time he scored on Smith at the other end of the rink.

He was flying.

He then put the finishing touches on the hat trick with an empty net goal.

And here’s another one for you: Think of all the greats that have played for the Oilers over the years. On Wednesday, McDavid recorded the first opening-night hat trick in the franchise’s history, per the NHL.

Oilers, Golden Knights, Cali teams, and more in PHT’s Pacific preview

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Let’s cut to the chase and wrap up these division previews.

Check out these other previews: Atlantic DivisionCentral Division, Metropolitan DivisionPHT’s picks and predictions.

Anaheim Ducks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Arizona Coyotes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Calgary Flames

Poll/looking to make the leap

Edmonton Oilers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Los Angeles Kings

Poll/looking to make the leap

San Jose Sharks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vancouver Canucks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vegas Golden Kngihts

Poll/looking to make the leap