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PHT Morning Skate: Blind hockey is ‘the greatest thing ever’

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Marissa Brandt was born in South Korea, but she was adopted by an American family when she was just four years old. Now, she’ll be representing South Korea at the upcoming winter Olympics What a journey! (Sports Illustrated)

–Offensive numbers have increased this season, but there isn’t a clear reason for that. The Sporting News’ Andrew Berkshire believes it could have something to do with defensive systems reaching their limit. (Sporting News)

–It wasn’t easy for Lightning fans to see the team trade Ben Bishop away last season. It clearly ended up being the right choice because Andrei Vasilevskiy has been nothing short of remarkable. (Tampa Times)

Jaden Schwartz is one of the funny guys in the Blues locker room, but he’s also dealt with his share of tragedies. A few years ago, his sister, Mandi, died, and that was obviously a difficult time in his life. Schwartz thinks of her every day and he continues to live out their hockey dream. (ESPN)

–The Coyotes have been the worst team in the NHL this season. As if that’s not enough, now they’re being accused of not paying employees enough, spying on their workers, and firing people for bringing up concerns over their pay. (AZCentral.com)

–Now that the three-way trade between the Sens, Preds and Avs is nearly two weeks old, Adam Gretz looks at the impact each part of the deal has had an on their respective club. (Fanragsports.com)

–Canucksarmy.com has had enough of the “stats vs. eye test” debate. “The thing is, hockey analytics is an evidence-based endeavour, and by definition, that means that there is plenty of evidence out there to back up its claims. How often do you see people that denounce the predictability of hockey analytics back up their claims with evidence?” (Canucksarmy.com)

–Blueseatblogs.com explains why yelling “shoot the puck” isn’t always the best solution. After all, passes that cross the slot line have a much higher chance of going into the net. (Blueseatblogs.com)

–You’re probably familiar with the term “putting money on the board”. If you’re not, it basically means that players or coaches offer money to teammate(s) if they win a game against a former team. It could be one reason why the Golden Knights have been so good this year. (Sinbin.Vegas)

–Here’s a nice story out of Connecticut, where hockey for the blind has arrived. “In the 13 years since I’ve been blind, it’s the most freedom I’ve felt,” Jim Sadecki said. (Fox61.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Red-hot lines, Murray’s tremendous save

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Lines of the Night: With combinations of forwards running wild in many cases, it might be best to break things down by the lines that dominated Thursday.

Let’s start with the painfully obvious one.

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov

Will the Lightning’s top line ever cool down? Probably, but right now they’re basically unstoppable; they didn’t even take it easy on Ben Bishop as he made his return to Tampa Bay. Instead, the Lightning beat the Stars 6-1 thanks to that top trio.

Stamkos scored two goals and two assists to boost his points total to 35 (!) in 19 games, while Nikita Kucherov scored his league-leading 17th tally and also produced two assists. Names grabbed an assist and apparently fought Dan Hamhuis.

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Some Colorado fans might have uttered “Matt WHO-chene?” for at least one night, as this top trio was ridiculous. Landeskog recorded his first career hat trick, Rantanen collected four points (1G, 3A), and MacKinnon generated one goal and four helpers.

This might just be the breakout season people were hoping to see with MacKinnon, as he has 20 points in 17 games.

It was a landslide from Avalanche captain Landeskog, if you will.

Brayden Schenn continues to ride high for the Blues, as he collected two goals and an assist. His point streak is honestly a little ridiculous:

Eric Staal (1G, 2A) had the better night, but his linemate Jason Zucker is on a tear of his own:

To keep this from getting unwieldy, we’ll leave it at that, but there are worth honorable mentions, such as top scorers for the Golden Knights (who just keep winning).

Highlight of the night: Matt Murray‘s save

There were some other great stops, goals, and hard hits on Thursday, but wow, Murray.

More factoids:

The Maple Leafs make a little history in their 1-0 OT win, which was their fifth straight W.

Roberto Luongo shuts out the Sharks for the first time in his career. You’d think San Jose would have been a victim of one of the previous 73 goose eggs …

And some relief:

More on that Coyotes win here and the Habs’ angry reactions here.

Scores

Leafs 1, Devils 0 (OT)

Islanders 6, Hurricanes 4

Coyotes 5, Canadiens 4

Penguins 3, Senators 1

Lightning 6, Stars 1

Wild 6, Predators 4

Jets 3, Flyers 2 (SO)

Avalanche 6, Capitals 2

Golden Knights 5, Canucks 2

Blues 4, Oilers 1

Bruins 2, Kings 1

Panthers 2, Sharks 0

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.

The Penguins have some major depth issues that need to be addressed

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Nearly one quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season and the Pittsburgh Penguins are probably not exactly where they want to be at this point.

Entering play on Tuesday, when they will host the Buffalo Sabres, they are 17th in the NHL in points percentage, they have the third-worst goal differential (minus-18, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes) after losing games by margins of 10-7, 7-1 and 7-1, and are only a middle of the pack team in terms of their shot attempt and possession numbers. Their goals against numbers overall are ugly (largely due to the three blowout losses), but they are also only 25th in the league in goals per game.

None of that is great.

There are a lot of factors here.

The early season schedule to this point has been brutal, having already played six sets of back-to-back games (often against rested teams — including some of the best teams in the league). For a team that has played 214 games the past two seasons that is a tough way to open the season. Their backup goaltending situation early in the season was a disaster with Antti Niemi giving up goals in bunches.

It is not wrong to think that a better backup goaltending situation to start the year could have maybe produced an extra win, or that once the schedule calms down a little they will start to get back on track a little.

There is another issue at work here too that is going to need to be addressed in a meaningful way: The bottom of the roster, which was decimated by free agency and the salary cap over the summer, is giving them almost no offense to speak of. Or anything, really.

This brings back a problem that plagued the Penguins between the 2010 and 2015 seasons when they were getting bounced early in the playoffs despite having a group of All-Stars at the top of the roster.

Over the past two years general manager Jim Rutherford did a ton of work to build that depth back up and it resulted in back-to-back Stanley Cups.

This past summer a lot of that depth walked out the door in free agency with Nick Bonino (Nashville Predators), Matt Cullen (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kunitz (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) all moving on. That also does not include the exit of Marc-Andre Fleury to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft, a pretty significant departure given how bad Niemi turned out to be.

That is a lot of depth to replace in one offseason, and to this point the Penguins have struggled to do it.

Instead of Bonino and Cullen at the third and fourth center spots they opened the season with Greg McKegg and Carter Rowney (currently injured), then traded for Riley Sheahan, a player that has not scored a goal in 97 of his past 98 games.

Ryan Reaves, brought in to add toughness, is playing just seven minutes per night and has replaced Kunitz.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective it is not hard to see how much of a drop this is has been for the offense.

Let’s break their forwards and their production down into two groups of six: The top-six in terms of ice-time and the bottom-six in terms of ice-time.

During the 2016-17 season the Penguins forwards that were 7-12 in ice-time averaged .445 points per game as a group.

So far this year? The 7-12 group is at just .201. A player that averages .201 points per game over 82 games scores just 16 points in a season. A .445 player scores 36.

That is a pretty substantial drop. To be fair we are also comparing a 19-game sampling with a full season. A lot can happen over the next few months. The table below breaks down the past two full seasons, as well as this one, to show where the Penguins were after 19 games and where they ended up.

In each of the past two seasons both groups were slow starters relative to where they ended up at the end of the season. But it wasn’t just a matter of players getting better or seeing their production in crease. In both instances there were pretty significant changes made to the roster.

In 2015-16 pretty much everything about the team changed after the first quarter of the season, from the head coach (Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan) to almost half of the roster (Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Justin Schultz all being called up or added to the roster during the season).

In 2016-17 it was the call-up of Jake Guentzel that ended up making a huge difference (as well as the return of a lot of injured player).

The point here is if the Penguins are going to have any chance of another repeat run they are going to need to make similar changes at some point before the trade deadline.

In their two years as the Penguins’ third-and fourth-line centers Bonino and Cullen each averaged 15 goals and between 30-40 points.

Right now McKegg and Sheahan are on a four-goal and 11-point pace … combined.

The Penguins didn’t go from postseason disappointments to Stanley Cup champions the past two years because players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got better or became better leaders or became more clutch. They were the same as they have always been (great). They became Stanley Cup champions again because players like Crosby and Malkin were still great, and they had a great supporting cast of players around them.

This is not to suggest the Penguins would necessarily be in a better situation with Bonino and Cullen and Kunitz at this point. Cullen is 41 years old and has one goal so far in Minnesota. At some point he will slow down. Bonino has played in just five games for the Predators due to injury and the Penguins never could have matched that contract offer under the salary cap. (Keeping Kunitz instead of adding Reaves probably would have been smart).

Their production from the past two seasons still existed and was a big part of the Penguins success. That is production they are not getting and are unlikely to get from the current cast of players in those roles as replacements.

There are some areas where improvement can come from. Sidney Crosby is going to play better. Kris Letang can (and probably will) play better. Prospect Daniel Sprong is off to a great start in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and could be on the Guentzel path to the NHL at some point later in the season.

The third-and fourth-line center spots, however, have become offensive black holes and with Reaves only playing seven minutes a night (sometimes significantly less) they are pretty much playing with an 11-man forward group.

All of those areas need to be addressed if another postseason run is going to happen this season.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: The Lightning, then everybody else

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A little more than one month into the NHL season and we are starting to see which teams are good and which teams are … well … not.

We are still at a point where one or two teams could emerge from the bottom of the pile or fall from the top, but once the NHL season gets to Thanksgiving there typically is not much change in the standings. At least not much of a significant one.

With that said, there should be no question at this moment as to who the best team in the NHL is. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, and really, there might not be anybody close to them.

At times this season the Lightning have looked like an on-ice version of the Harlem Globetrotters and have just been toying with their opponents. Entering the week the Lightning have the best record in the league (three points ahead of the next best team) and own a plus-25 goal differential. That is 11 goals better than any other team in the league.

Two of their four losses have come on the second end of back-to-backs (with one of them coming against a team that had been rested for three days). Their current four-game winning streak includes a perfect road trip through California that saw them beat the Kings, Sharks and Ducks (two of those teams are excellent at the moment) by a combined score of 12-4. The fourth win in that streak is against Columbus, another likely contender in the NHL this season.

They have the NHL’s leading goal-scorer (Nikita Kucherov has a three-goal lead over John Tavares) and the top-two point producers (Steven Stamkos and Kucherov), both of whom are at least seven points ahead of the No. 3 scorer in the league (Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler).

As if the talent up front is not enough, their starting goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .930 save percentage in 15 starts.

Right now in the NHL it is Tampa Bay, then everybody else fighting for second.

So where is everybody else at the moment? Let us take a look.

Positively terrifying

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They are, quite simply, the best team in the NHL right now for all of the reasons mentioned above.

The rest of the best right now

2. St. Louis Blues — I had little expectation for the Blues heading into this season, largely due to their injury situation, but they still have the second best record in the league, the second-best goal differential, and one of the best lines in hockey.

3. Los Angeles Kings — Dustin Brown has found the fountain of  youth. He has topped 30 points just once in the past five years with 36 being the high point during that stretch. He is pretty much halfway to that total just 18 games into this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — They hit a little bit of a rut a couple of weeks ago but have come back strong with four straight wins. What is truly impressive is three of those wins heading into the new week came without Auston Matthews.

5. New Jersey Devils — The Devils are … fun?! Seriously, what is this? Who is this team? Fifth in the league in goals scored and coming off of a 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Gibbons, out of the NHL for two years, somehow has eight goals so far.

6. Ottawa Senators — Everybody complains about watching them play but all they do is collect points. It is not pretty, but this is pro sports. Teams don’t have to apologize for doing what they need to do to win.

Teams on the rise

7. Winnipeg Jets — Could this be the year the Jets finally turn all of that individual talent into something good?

8. New York Rangers — What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After a disastrous start the Rangers have ripped off six wins in a row. Big time move in this week’s rankings.

9. Nashville Predators — No team improved more in the big Matt DucheneKyle Turris-Colorado trade than the Predators thanks to the addition of Turris at the expense of nothing significant from their roster. The defending Western Conference Champs enter the week 7-3-1 in their past 11 games.

10. San Jose Sharks — Entering Monday the only team that has beaten them over their past seven games is the Tampa Bay juggernaut. Just when you think the Sharks are going away they always find a way to still be hanging around in the Western Conference.

11. Washington Capitals — Don’t look now but here come the Capitals! After a slow start they are starting to look like the team that has dominated the regular season the past two years. Entering the week 6-2 in their past eight games while only allowing 16 goals during that stretch.

12. Montreal Canadiens — The overall record still stinks, I get it, but like the Rangers the Canadiens are starting to erase all of the memories from a miserable start to the season with wins in seven of their past 10 games. That qualifies as a team on the rise even if there are a lot of teams in the league that still have a better overall record.

Teams still looking good

13. New York Islanders — Nikita Kucherov’s start has kind of hidden the fact that John Tavares is scoring goals whenever he feels like it as well. Mighty fine time for a contract year, eh?

14. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith is giving the Flames exactly what they need in net. If he can continue to do that they are going to be a tough out in the Western Conference with that defense and that young talent up front.

15. Dallas Stars — I may have underrated them a bit a couple of weeks ago. They are solid, and in a bizarre twist from recent Stars teams are 20th in the league in goals scored and third in goals against. John Klingberg is playing fantastic hockey right now.

Teams on the decline

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I still like this Blue Jackets team an awful lot and think they can be right there at the end of the season when it comes down to winning the Eastern Conference, but they have slipped a bit in recent weeks with just five wins in their past 12 games.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Being down to their fourth and fifth goalies is not helping, but they are starting to expansion team results in recent weeks. They still have a lot of forwards playing really well and producing.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Brian Elliott has started to look better in his recent starts. With their top forwards going the way they are this could still be an interesting team if they can get that goaltending spot solidified.

19. Chicago Blackhawks — After starting the season 3-0-1 with 21 goals in their first four games the Blackhawks are just 5-8-2 with only 32 goals in the 15 games since.

20. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries have decimated this team this season and they just keep getting worse with Ryan Getzlaf being sidelined for another two months.

Still need some work

21. Pittsburgh Penguins — The schedule with all of these back-to-backs is hurting them. So is the bottom of the roster. The depth problems that plagued them from 2010 through 2015 are back in a bad way.

22. Minnesota Wild — It has been the Jason Zucker and Devan Dubnyk show lately, but other than them nobody else is really doing much of anything to help the cause.

23. Carolina Hurricanes — Everything about this team looks good. They are exciting. They play hard. They once again have dominant underlying numbers. But there is still something missing.

24. Vancouver Canucks — They had a great start to the season that seemed to have them exceeding expectations but things are starting to return to normal for the Canucks. The early start was a mirage.

25. Boston Bruins — A very top-heavy roster. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are great, but where else is the offense going to come from?

26. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha has been a nice bright spot so far this season with a team-leading 16 points. He has been especially strong lately with eight points, including four goals, in his past seven games.

27. Colorado Avalanche — They picked up some intriguing young players in the Matt Duchene trade but an already bad team ended up getting worse in the short-term.

28. Buffalo Sabres — They have scored more than two goals just twice in the past seven games.

29. Edmonton Oilers — Not to keep hitting this same point over and over again, but Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have more points than every player on the Oilers not named Connor McDavid.

30. Florida Panthers — Only two wins in their past nine games with 37 goals against.

31. Arizona Coyotes — In their first 19 games of the season the Arizona Coyotes have exactly zero wins in regulation. Their only two wins, as of Monday, coming by way of overtime or a shootout. That is … really something.

Fantasy Adds and Drops: A Zucker for goals

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Every week, PHT will look to help its readers by providing them with some fantasy advice. This column will focus on players that should be added and dropped in fantasy leagues. Every name in the “add” section will be owned in less than 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues, while each player in the “drop” section will be owned in less than half of leagues.

So, here we go!

Adds:

Jason Zucker-LW/RW-Minnesota Wild (owned in 49 percent of Yahoo leagues)

Zucker has been a popular add over the last week. It’s hard to argue with those who scooped him up on waivers, as he’s found the back of the net six times in his last three games. Obviously, he won’t have able to keep up that pace, but he seems to have found some chemistry with Eric Staal and Nino Niederreiter.

David Perron-LW/RW-Vegas Golden Knights (30 percent)

Perron comes into the week having recorded at least one point in four consecutive games. He leads the team with 14 points in 16 games. He should continue to get plenty of opportunities to produce offense. Like Zucker, Perron is eligible to play both wing positions, which makes him a little more valuable.

Josh Anderson-RW-Columbus Blue Jackets (12 percent) 

Since ending his holdout earlier this season, Anderson has been a valuable piece for the Blue Jackets. He hasn’t picked up a point in three straight games, but he’s still on pace to score 30 times in 2017-18. Anderson should be added in deeper fantasy leagues.

[More Fantasy: Check out RotoWorld’s In the Crease article]

Alex Kerfoot-C/RW-Colorado Avalanche (14 percent)

The Avalanche are a rebuilding team that has been willing to give youngsters a chance to play. Kerfoot was a college free agent signing that has paid immediate dividends for the them in 2017-18. He comes into this week with three straight multi-point efforts and he 13 points in 16 contests.

Yanni Gourde-C/RW-Tampa Bay Lightning (24 percent)

The focus in Tampa has been on Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (for good reason), but Gourde has been relatively productive too. Even though he saw his five-game point streak come to an end on Sunday, he’s still on pace to score close to 20 goals and over 50 points.

[Fantasy Podcast: RotoWorld analyzes the Matt Duchene trade]

Drops:

Sebastian Aho-LW/RW-Carolina Hurricanes (56 percent)

Aho had a terrific rookie season that saw him score 24 goals and 49 points in 82 games with the ‘Canes last season. This year, things haven’t been as smooth. He still hasn’t scored a goal in 15 games and he’s managed just eight assists during that span. Feel free to hold onto him in dynasty leagues, but he can be cut in most re-draft leagues.

Patrick Maroon-LW-Edmonton Oilers (57 percent)

Maroon had a solid season playing next to Connor McDavid last year, but his numbers have dropped off over the last little while. The Oilers forward has no points in his last five games and no goals in his last seven contests. He’s been firing more pucks on net lately, but you can find more productive players on the waiver wire.

Semyon Varlamov-G-Colorado Avalanche (54 percent)

Yes, I fully realize that Varlamov is 2-0-1 in his last three games, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that he’s allowed three goals or more in six straight games. Of course, that isn’t all his fault. It’s still tough ignore those numbers. A short-term add of Montreal’s Charlie Lindgren could help teams that need to pile up goalie wins.