Ryan Ellis

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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.

The Buzzer: Flyers end it at 10, Ovechkin magic

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Key happenings from PHT

Roberto Luongo might have suffered a serious injury.

Joe Thornton delivers a debatable hit on T.J. Oshie, then Tom Wilson makes him pay.

A big step for Seattle in its drive to get an NHL team?

The redemption of Ray Shero

Win of the Night:

The Philadelphia Flyers finally did it.

After losing 10 straight games (see a deeper look on that skid here), the Flyers made sure that Monday would mark the end of their suffering by way of a 5-2 win against the Calgary Flames.

In this case, it was a mixture of usual suspects (Jakub Voracek collected three assists) and less-than-expected names showing up (Scott Laughton generated a two-goal night). You can probably bet that Brian Elliott relished getting a win against a Flames team that passed on him after one up-and-down season. The veteran netminder stopped 43 shots for his first win since Nov. 9.

Michael Raffl won the Ric Flair robe. Hey, this team might not win much yet, but they’re stylin’ and profilin’ when they do.

It’s worth noting that the Flames scored first, but the Flyers tied it up about a minute later, and never relinquished their lead once they went from being up 2-1 to 4-1.

Can you really blame this team for being excited/relieved?

Player of the Night: Craig Smith, Nashville Predators

Voracek, Keith Yandle, and Vincent Trocheck all managed three-assist nights on Monday, so there’s some solid competition for this spot. When in doubt, I usually give the tiebreaker to the guy scoring goals, and Smith did so for his three points with two goals and one helper.

Smith continues to be red-hot for Nashville lately alongside Kevin Fiala (1G, 1A), who seem to be thanking the Predators for the early holiday present of Kyle Turris (two assists).

Smith, 28, already has 11 goals on the season, putting him one goal behind his rough 2016-17 campaign’s 12. His career-high for goals in a single season is 24, while he’s crossed the 20-goal plateau three times overall. Even if things slow down (his shooting percentage is a bit high at 17.2 percent right now), it’s easy to imagine him putting up the best numbers of his underrated career.

It sure looks like Nashville now has two dynamic lines to go with two great defensive pairings (when Ryan Ellis is healthy) and a duo of goalies that ranges from competent to splendid. Be scared, rest of the NHL.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin will probably be a healthy distance ahead of Dr. Recchi by the time his career ends:

And another milestone for Ovechkin:

SO NOT CLUTCH.

Highlight of the Night:

Sorry, tough night for Ovechkin haters, as he generated this great setup:

Snub of the Night:

You know how teams do ceremonial puck drops? I think Evgeny Kuznetsov is owed a ceremonial fist bump.

Scores

Capitals 4, Sharks 1
Islanders 5, Panthers 4 (SO)
Predators 5, Bruins 3
Flyers 5, Flames 2

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.

Let’s daydream about Doughty, Karlsson as free agents

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As much as people (*raises hand*) complain about the NHL lagging behind the NBA when it comes to blockbuster trades, it also seems like the league could use a real boost when it comes to free agency.

Blame it on the dangers of the game inspiring players to value long-term security over getting every last buck, team-friendly RFA quirks, or any number of factors, but this league rarely sees true star players hit the open market. Seriously, think about it; when’s the last time a true gamebreaker actually shopped his services? Would you count Brad Richards? Was it really as long ago as that Ilya Kovalchuk oddness?

(Sorry, Kevin Shattenkirk, I like you more than most, but you don’t count.)

With that in mind, it’s dangerous to look two years ahead and drool over the pool of potential, splashy UFA defensemen (see this Cap Friendly list as an example). That said, it’s also fun: imagine your team landing Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan McDonagh, or even Ryan Ellis/Anton Stralman/Niklas Hjalmarsson.

It’s such a fun thought that even Doughty is getting in on the speculation, as he discussed in this fascinating interview with Craig Custance of The Athletic (sub required):

“I know I’m going to talk to Karlsson back and forth, kind of see what money he’s looking for. I’ll kind of look at what money I’m looking for,” Doughty said. “I don’t know if he’s going to re-sign with Ottawa, I don’t know if I’ll re-sign with L.A. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

In case you’re wondering, yes, Doughty teased the idea of playing for the Maple Leafs once again. Is cheeky the right word, or is he merely candid?

Note: Doughty also said the right thing in claiming Los Angeles was his first choice, though.

Maybe the most delightful line came when Doughty said that he – along with Karlsson – might use P.K. Subban‘s contract as something of a measuring stick. Note that the Canadiens signed Subban for eight years at a $9 million cap hit, a deal that’s now owned by the Predators.

Really, you can’t blame Karlsson and Doughty for wanting that sort of cap hit, especially when you consider how sorely they’re being paid under their true market value.

Doughty signed his current deal in 2011, and for all the sass the Kings take for bad contracts, he’s been carrying just a $7M cap hit. Karlsson’s incredible bargain is actually at $6.5M, signed back in 2012. For a penny-pinching team like the Senators, those savings have been absolutely essential. Those deals also rank among the most enviable steals in all the league (especially once you throw out cheats like rookie contracts with artificial ceilings).

The fascinating thing about both Karlsson and Doughty is that, theoretically, it’s plausible that both might actually test the market. Many of these thoughts could also apply to OEL; for all we know, he may be closer to their levels by the end of 2018-19.

Not just about what Doughty wants with L.A.

As a fan of good hockey, it’s been delightful to see the Kings rebound, mostly because they’ve done so by modernizing the way they play. You have to think that Doughty’s having more fun, himself.

The #Kings debating who will cover #ErikKarlsson in overtime is everything 😂😂

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The Kings are in a better position to compete now, and it’s conceivable that their window might extend through 2018-19.

It’s not as easy to say what lies ahead in 2019-20 and beyond. Consider that Doughty turns 28 on Dec. 8; if he wants a long-term contract, it might be a bad situation for an L.A. franchise that might want to pivot toward a rebuild after taking another swing or two at a Stanley Cup.

Really, GM Rob Blake merely needs to look to San Jose if he wants a cautionary tale and doesn’t want to think about the mess he inherited. We all love Brent Burns, but his age and contract look as scraggly as his beard right now.

So, as painful as it might be, Doughty leaving town might actually be what’s best for both the player and the team. And it certainly would be fun for dorks like us, who love the drama of a free agent frenzy.

Note to Drew: even if the Maple Leafs are a slam-dunk, please play things up by at least pretending to field multiple offers. Hey, you’d get some steak/sushi dinners out of the deal and entertain us in the process. Pretty much everyone wins.

The cost of Karlsson

There are parallels with Karlsson’s situation, too, including him turning 28 soon (in his case, May).

Ottawa is incredibly dependent upon the otherworldly Swede, probably more than even Doughty, who’s immensely important to the Kings as well. That said, the Senators are a budget team right now, with open questions about ownership.

As much as GM Pierre Dorion wanted Matt Duchene for his speed and higher-end skill compared to Kyle Turris, there was also cost certainty to consider. Ottawa may decide that they’re simply not in a position to contend in the twilight of Karlsson’s prime, particularly if he’s getting paid *close* to what he’s actually worth.

For those who sometimes cringe at the Senators’ frequently bland style of play under Guy Boucher, it’s tantalizing to picture Karlsson serving as the catalyst to a high-powered, all-out-attacking offense.

***

It’s perfectly plausible that these defensemen will stick with their teams. Especially with Ottawa, Karlsson is the type of guy who’s so good he can help management avoid being, you know, fired. That has to weigh heavily on such thought processes.

There’s also the likely scenario where the Kings and/or Sens would realize they needed to part ways with their stud defensemen, leading to a sign-and-trade situation that saps some of the drama.

Still, hockey fans can dream, and compared to thoughts of Steven Stamkos dancing like sugar plums in your head, these visions might actually end up with real moves.

Hey, we can dream.

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.

Central Division is once again best in the NHL

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Last season, it was pretty clear that the Metropolitan Division was the class of the NHL.

Such a notion was expressed for reasons beyond the Metro being home to the repeat champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and really going farther than the Washington Capitals repeating as the Presidents’ Trophy winners. This was a deep division, with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers each over 100 standings points and the New York Islanders nearly making a wild card run of their own.

The 2016-17 season wasn’t as impressive for the Central Division as a whole, but with the first quarter of 2017-18 out of the way, it looks like this is once again the premier group in the league. At least so far.

Let’s consider a few factors, and then also note that a few of the teams might continue down their impressive paths.

  • The Central Division is the only one with three teams at or above 30 standings points.
  • Every team is fairly to quite competitive. At 23 points in 21 games, the Blackhawks are at the bottom of the Central, yet they’re ahead of nine other NHL teams and three other West teams.
  • Expanding upon that previous point, only one Central Division team has a negative goal differential: the Dallas Stars at -2. By comparison: only two teams are in the plus column in the top-heavy Atlantic, four are in the negative in the Metro (the Penguins somehow are at -20), and the Pacific boasts five teams in the minus.
  • Every Central team has at least 10 regulation/overtime wins. There are 11 teams that haven’t reached double digits between the NHL’s remaining three divisions.

Yep, the Central can brag about a lot of quantity-type accomplishments, but there’s also high-end potential.

The Blues lead the Central and the West, and they’re not that far behind the league-leading Lightning. For the most part, whatever holes you’d try to poke in Tampa Bay’s game, you’d do the same for St. Louis (if you want to rain on  the parade of that majestic Brayden SchennJaden SchwartzVladimir Tarasenko line). Even if they slow down, they seem like a contender in the West.

The Predators blanked the Blues last night, and they’re not waiting until late in the year to heat up this time around. They’ve won four in a row and nine of 10, looking deadly with Kyle Turris helping to balance out their scoring. Pekka Rinne‘s been great, and Nashville might end up being the best in the division if Ryan Ellis can come back reasonably healthy at some point this season.

The Jets are a chic pick for a breakthrough, and with good reason, particularly considering the lethal one-two punch of Mark Scheifele + Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine + Nikolaj Ehlers. They might have some work to do, but their array of young talent is the envy of much of the NHL.

Also: The Avalanche no longer stand as a layup, in part because of the ascension of Nathan MacKinnonThe Blackhawks may be flawed, but deep down, plenty of teams would at least be a little queasy to see them as a first-round opponent. And while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Wild are sneakily heating up; Bruce Boudreau keeps pumping out winners like hockey’s answer to Andy Reid. The Stars remain a work in progress at least considering the hype they generated from another splashy off-season, but they’re another team that could easily go on a big run.

Now, look, the Metro still deserves consideration in this discussion, especially with the Penguins generally having a tendency to hibernate until the games really matter and considering that the Capitals seem like they’re getting things together. When you go beyond current results, the best division argument might come down to personal taste.

At the moment, it’s pretty tough to argue with the Central Division. Maybe the most comforting thought for the rest of the league is that the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be structured in a way that they might just wear each other out.

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.

Fight video: Vladimir Tarasenko vs. Matthew Benning

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Vladimir Tarasenko earns the nickname “Tank” because he’s a big, hoss-like scorer and because it matches up well with his name.

He showed a different kind of firepower on Tuesday, though, as he took exception to a Matthew Benning hit and decided to fight the Edmonton Oilers defenseman. The bout happened even as the Oilers seemed like they were getting a precious scoring chance, but the crowd in St. Louis was riled up mainly to see the superstar drop the gloves.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t the first battle for “The Tank.” According to Hockey Fights’ listings, Tarasenko fought once in 2015-16 and another time in 2014-15, while also dropping the gloves once in the KHL.

(This is his first fight against someone not named Ryan, as he exchanged fisticuffs with Ryan Kesler and Ryan Ellis in his other NHL fights. I mean, unless Matthew Benning’s middle name is Ryan?)

So far, the Oilers haven’t been showing as much fight as Tarasenko, as the Blues currently hold a 3-0 lead and chased Cam Talbot. Read more about what’s been a tough night for goalies so far here.