PHT’s Season Preview: 30 questions, 180 answers

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We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2013-14 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:

1. Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, or Alex Ovechkin: Who will have the best season, with individual and team success taken into account?

Jason Brough: Crosby. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’s the best player of the three, on the best team of the three.

Mike Halford: Crosby. Plenty of motivation after losing the Hart to Ovechkin (Ovi now leads Sid 3-1 in that category) and another disappointing playoff exit.

Joe Yerdon: Crosby, and it won’t be close unless he’s injured again. He was on a record pace last year before his jaw got smashed.

Ryan Dadoun: Sidney Crosby. His injury history is obviously a concern, but if he can finally stay healthy, then he could surpass his career high of 120 points.

James O’Brien: At some point, Crosby has to shake his Forsbergian injury luck, so why not 2013-14? This team is loaded and Sid remains almost unstoppable.

Cam Tucker: Alex Ovechkin. He’ll be extra motivated to have a good season in part because the Olympics are in Russia.

2. The biggest worry for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks is…

JB: Motivation. Some of them struggled with it last time they won the Cup. One of the many reasons repeat champions have been rare.

MH: Getting worn down. One, this was an unusually short offseason. Two, almost all their key players look to figure prominently in the Olympics. And three, they’re the champs. Everybody’s going to be gunning for them.

JY: The Los Angeles Kings. The Blues will knock them around in the division, but the Kings are built to win the Cup again as well.

RD: Whether or not their young complimentary players can perform as advertised to give them a solid bottom six and, to a lesser extent, general fatigue.

JO: Injuries. Marian Hossa is the most obvious example, but the 2013 run put tough miles on everyone.

CT: Health. With an even shorter offseason than normal, the wear of last season’s playoff run may still take its toll early on.

3. True or false: the Red Wings have a better chance to win the Cup than the Senators. (A.k.a. was Daniel Alfredsson right?)

JB: True. The biggest concern remains the defense, but it grew leaps and bounds last season, thanks to a masterful coaching job from Mike Babcock.

MH: True, based purely on experience. The likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Kronwall know what it takes to win a Cup; Ottawa’s talented, but lacks the veteran know-how.

JY: Can I say “push?” No? I’ll say true then, as they return a team that was a win away from beating Chicago.

RD: Neither team strikes me as much more than a second-round squad this season. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Detroit; the presence of Alfredsson is the thing that tips the scales.

JO: True, but by a very slim margin.

CT: True. Ottawa will be tough in the East, but the Sens don’t yet have players on their roster with that championship experience.

4. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the most likely to make the playoffs this season is…

JB: Philly. Too many good players on the Flyers, and I have more confidence in Ray Emery than I had in Ilya Bryzgalov.

MH: Dallas, which greatly improved its two main areas of need — defense and center. The Stars will also benefit from new head coach Lindy Ruff, who has nearly 600 career wins.

JY: It’s hard to not like the Oilers for this role. Yes, early injuries, but that youth has to evolve eventually…right?

RD: The Philadelphia Flyers. They have so much talent and I think their goaltending will be less of an issue this season.

JO: New Jersey. Losing Ilya Kovalchuk hurts a lot, but this team was better than its record in 2013 and added some enticing pieces, especially Cory Schneider.

CT: Hard to imagine the Flyers missing the playoffs again, although with goalies like Ray Emery and Steve Mason, making them is no guarantee.

source: Getty Images

5. The Edmonton Oilers have the longest playoff drought in the NHL, at seven straight seasons. Will they finally make it this year?

JB: Yes. So long as they can tread water early in the season with Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the sidelines.

MH: Nope. Still too many question marks on the blueline and, perhaps more pressingly, in goal. Devan Dubnyk’s never won more than 20 games in a single season.

JY: Looks like I just answered this question. Yes, they’ll make it as the fourth seed in the Pacific Division.

RD: No, but they’ll be close. They still have depth and defensive issues to work through.

JO: No. Big injuries to start and will probably struggle defensively.

CT: Yes. Young crop of talented forwards is augmented by an improved group of veteran players. Time to take the next step.

6. Of all the teams that made the playoffs last season, the most likely to miss the playoffs is…

JB: Anaheim. It’ll be a long fall for the Ducks, from second in the West to out of the top eight.

MH: Toronto. Last year feels like it was a bit of smoke and mirrors, as the Leafs were routinely out-possessed and had unsustainable shooting percentages.

JY: I’m coming out of left field here a bit and saying Anaheim. Their defense is nerve-racking. Luckily they can score a bit.

RD: The New York Islanders. Losing Mark Streit hurts and I’m not sure how much longer Evgeni Nabokov can be heavily leaned on.

JO: The Isles. There’s a lot to like about what Garth Snow is building, but it looks like they’re sleeping on goaltending until Brooklyn.

CT: Montreal Canadiens. There is an awful lot riding on goaltender Carey Price, who didn’t have the best season in 2013.

7. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs make it back to the playoffs?

JB: Yes, they’ll sneak in. Two capable goalies makes it doubly possible one of them gets hot.

MH: No. See above.

JY: They’re close. They could be the team that steals a spot from the Metropolitan Division. Right now, I’m leaning towards no.

RD: Just barely, but yes. I didn’t like much of what they did this summer, but I like their goaltending a lot and I think their offensive core is solid.

JO: Despite a circus-like offseason, my gut says Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf contract years will squeeze this odd bunch in.

CT: Yes. After the disappointment of collapsing in Game 7 of the first round against Boston, they’ll be hungrier to prove they belong in the postseason.

8. The worst team in the NHL will be…

JB: Everyone’s going to say Calgary, so I’ll say Nashville. How is this team going to score?

MH: Calgary. Did anybody answer differently?

JY: The Calgary Flames, and it won’t even be close.

RD: The Calgary Flames. At least they’ve taken steps to build for the future.

JO: Calgary.

CT: The Tampa Bay Lightning. This isn’t a bad thing. Finishing at the bottom gives them more of a chance at selecting first overall in 2014.

9. The winner of the Presidents’ Trophy will be…

JB: Chicago. I said earlier that the ‘Hawks may struggle with motivation, but I meant more in the playoffs, when the intensity really picks up and prices have to be paid.

MH: The Blues. Ken Hitchcock has racked up the regular season wins (.670 winning percentage) since coming to St. Louis in 2011. Expect that trend to continue.

JY: Chicago Blackhawks. They’re still the team to beat and still have a ridiculously loaded roster.

RD: The Chicago Blackhawks. It helps that the Central Division is, in my mind, the weakest in the NHL.

JO: The super-deep Blues, at least if they can hold off Chicago in a cozier version of the Central Division.

CT: The Pittsburgh Penguins. Too much talent and it will come to the forefront as the season progresses. But the Penguins are judged by playoff performances.

10. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be good, could be awful) in the NHL is…

JB: Edmonton. So much talent there, but we said that last year, didn’t we? The “we’re too young” excuse has expired.

MH: Ottawa. There’s potential for the Jason Spezza-Bobby Ryan combo to rack up huge numbers…but it’s also possible Alfie’s departure is too much to overcome.

JY: Montreal. Does Carey Price bounce back? How does their defense hold up? Do their young forwards improve? I like them, but I wouldn’t throw money on them.

RD: Columbus. I don’t have a ton of confidence in Sergei Bobrovsky being better than solid, but if he plays like he did in the second half of the 2013 campaign, they could be good.

JO: Colorado. That offense could be deep and explosive but the D remains porous and their goalies are a huge coin flip.

CT: Columbus. Narrowly missed playoffs in lockout-shortened 2013. But that that Metropolitan Division appears highly competitive.

source: Getty Images

11. True or false: Roberto Luongo will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. For me, elite is in Vezina Trophy consideration, so this isn’t a huge slap in the face. He’ll probably be above average. I’m just not loving the vibe in Vancouver these days.

MH: True. Luongo will get massive playing time this year as there’s literally nobody challenging him (all apologies to Eddie Lack). Could be like his first season in Vancouver, when he played a career-high 76 games and earned a Vezina nomination.

JY: True. The fans were on him hard and now he’s won them over showing what a great guy he is on Twitter. Like in “Gladiator” you win the crowd, you win your freedom.

RD: You mean statistically or in the eyes of public? Statistically, I think he’ll be an elite goaltender, but every cold stretch he has will scare people.

JO: True (after a rocky start).

CT: True. He may start slow, because that’s what he does. But after Oct. 31, he’ll settle into a groove.

12. True or false: Tim Thomas will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. I think he’ll help the Panthers quite a bit though. Which says a lot about the goaltending they got last year.

MH: False. Too much time away from the game, and he’s playing on a Florida team filled with inexperienced players.

JY: False. He won’t be elite, but he’s not going to be bad either. Florida just needs competency in goal. He will do that.

RD: False. At best, I think he’ll be above average, but I don’texpect him to carry the Florida Panthers in his comeback season at the age of 39.

JO: False, but he could be above average.

CT: True. He should be, if nothing else, refreshed from his sabbatical from hockey. And Thomas has always had a knack for proving his critics wrong.

13. If the Devils make the playoffs, their starting goalie will be…

JB: Martin Brodeur, because he’s Martin Brodeur. Schneider will have the better regular season though. I don’t think the Devils will make it anyway.

MH: Cory Schneider.

JY: Cory Schneider. The team will do right by Martin Brodeur until it starts costing them games. Schneider will bring the consistency they need.

RD: Martin Brodeur, even if Schneider has a better season.

JO: Cory Schneider, and it’s not even close.

CT: Cory Schneider. Martin Brodeur has had a fine career but he’s also 41 years of age.  Schneider’s entering his prime.

14. The team that should be most concerned about its goaltending is…

JB: Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury has been awful the past two postseasons; Tomas Vokoun is 37 and dealing with a pretty serious health issue.

MH: Minnesota. Niklas Backstrom turns 36 in February and missed last year’s playoffs with a groin injury. If he falters, the gig falls to Josh Harding, who filled in admirably during the postseason but has significant health concerns of his own.

JY: It’s cliché but it’s Philadelphia. Steve Mason and Ray Emery could split to be great, but last season’s sample sizes were pretty small.

RD: I’ll cheat and go with Columbus. Not because I think Bobrovsky is the worst starter out there by any stretch of the imagination, but because Columbus is extremely dependent on Bobrovsky, who is in turn a big X-Factor.

JO: The Flames, unless they actually want to lose.

CT: The Vancouver Canucks. What do they do if Roberto Luongo gets injured or doesn’t perform? Eddie Lack, their current back-up, has never played in an NHL game.

source: AP

15. A young player who you expect to burst onto the scene is…

JB: Charlie Coyle in Minnesota. Seems like he has a great attitude. Zach Parise’s been raving about him.

MH: Boone Jenner. Big, physical forward that will open the season on Columbus’ top line with Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.

JY: There are so many choices here that I’m going to pick two: Seth Jones and Valeri Nichushkin.

RD: Aleksander Barkov. He’s talented, has already played against men, and should get his fair share of opportunities in Florida.

JO: Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg, especially if he’s lining up with Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi.

CT: Morgan Rielly. Will begin the season in Toronto. Presence of young defensemen can come with a high number of mistakes. But can’t deny the talent.

16. Will Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller re-sign with the Sabres?

JB: No. I see Vanek in particular as a chip the Sabres can turn into some assets at the deadline.

MH: No. Buffalo will at the center of about 1,983 rumors heading into the trade deadline.

JY: I think they’re both elsewhere next year. Both guys could fetch huge returns for what will be one of the youngest teams in the league this year.

RD: No, I think Vanek will be traded by the deadline and Miller might end up walking as a free agent. I wouldn’t completely rule out Miller getting traded too, but trading a starting netminder midseason is rare.

JO: Vanek stays, Miller goes.

CT: No. In Miller’s case, it would appear his past few seasons in Buffalo have produced a fractured relationship with teammates, the franchise and fans.

17. Will Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf re-sign with the Leafs?

JB: Phaneuf, yes. Kessel, I’m not so sure. Does he really like playing in a market like Toronto? I don’t get the sense he does.

MH: Yes. Can’t envision a scenario where Toronto loses its captain and leading scorer.

JY: Kessel will stay and the Leafs will pay up huge for him to do so. Phaneuf should stick around but I suspect he’ll be gone after this year.

RD: Phaneuf should, but I’m not as confident about Kessel. I think what Kessel does will be partially dependent on what kind of season Toronto has.

JO: Yes, both do.

CT: No. Even with the salary cap expected to go up, the Leafs may have to turn in another direction if both are asking too much.

18. Will Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau re-sign with the Sharks?

JB: I’ll say yes, but Thornton will have to take a hometown discount after the Sharks locked up centers Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.

MH: Yes, and so will Dan Boyle. Sharks GM Doug Wilson said he’s already spoken — and will continue to speak — with all three about extensions.

JY: Yes they will. The Sharks don’t really do “change” and they’re still top players in the league. They won’t get giant, long-term deals however.

RD: I think they both will end up finishing their careers in San Jose.

JO: Both take less money to stay in sunny San Jose.

CT: Yes. Patrick Marleau has never played for another NHL team so it’s easier to believe he would stay so as to potentially finish out his career in San Jose.

19. One big-name player that will get traded before the deadline is…

JB: Mike Cammalleri. No reason for Calgary to give the 31-year-old a big extension at this point in the rebuild.

MH: Paul Stastny. The Avs have an embarrassment of young riches at center in Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, and Stastny’s a UFA at season’s end.

JY: Keith Yandle. Coyotes GM Don Maloney has been dying to add another top-six forward and they’re loaded with defensive depth. Gotta give to get.

RD: I already said Vanek, but I’ll throw Marian Gaborik in the mix too. Like I said, Columbus is a wild card and if things don’t go as planned for them, I think they’ll put Gaborik on the block.

JO: Ryan Miller. Bonus guesses: Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.

CT: Does Steve Ott count as a big-name player? Entering final year of his contract, and other teams would love his toughness.

source: AP

20. The player with the most to prove is…

JB: Kris Letang. Got absolutely shredded by the critics for his playoff performance, and deservedly so. The Pens then gave him a $58 million contract extension. A lot of people thought they’d be better off trading him.

MH: Alex Pietrangelo. He played hardball with the Blues and was rewarded with a massive contract — now, the pressure’s on to prove he’s worth $45.5 million (and deserves a spot on the Canadian Olympic team).

JY: Claude Giroux. He didn’t have a great season last year and the Flyers missed the playoffs. He’ll have a lot of weight on his shoulders to get them back.

RD: Roberto Luongo, but I want to give an honorable mention to Ray Emery. After all the setbacks he’s endured, he’s slowly worked up to the point where he can fight for a starting job on a talented team. That opportunity is there now and it might never come again if he has a bad season.

JO: Marc-Andre Fleury could maintain his spot as Pittsburgh’s franchise goalie or land on the trading block based on his performance.

CT: Martin St. Louis. He’s small, he’s skilled and he’s getting older. But should be motivated to try and make Canada’s Olympic team.

21. True or false: Tyler Seguin will have a big year for the Dallas Stars.

JB: True. I’m expecting at least 70 points out of the 21-year-old. (Yes, remember, he’s still only 21.)

MH: True, because of an increased opportunity and role with the Stars. Remember that Seguin only averaged 17 minutes a game last year, and that was his highest TOI average in three seasons with the B’s.

JY: True. He was on pace for a 30-goal season last year in Boston even in spite of being a supposed party hound. He’ll flourish in Dallas.

RD: I think he’ll largely meet expectations, which in my mind translates to about 70 points.

JO: True, just make sure to give Jamie Benn credit, too.

CT: True. He got traded from a Stanley Cup contender because of his act off the ice. If that doesn’t wake him up, what will?

22. The best offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Brenden Morrow. He’s not what he used to be, but he’s perfect for the Blues.

MH: Jarome Iginla in Boston. Never gets hurt, is a perfect replacement for Nathan Horton and, despite talk of his demise last season, still managed to score 23 points in 28 games for the Penguins.

JY: Mikhail Grabovski in Washington. Mike Ribeiro gave them a taste of what it’s like to have a really good No. 2 center last year. Grabovski will be even better in Washington.

RD: Vincent Lecavalier. This free agent class wasn’t stunning overall, but Lecavalier is a great forward at a fair price.

JO: The Washington Capitals grabbing Mikhail Grabovski for peanuts.

CT: Mike Ribeiro. Re-united with former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett. Seem to have a good rapport together.

23. The worst offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Nathan Horton. Don’t trust him to stay healthy.

MH: Valtteri Filppula in Tampa Bay. In seven NHL seasons, he’s only scored more than 40 points once. He’s also got to deal with the weight of heightened expectations (you know, signing for $25 million) and the inevitable “replacing Vinny” narrative.

JY: Considering how much Ryane Clowe has already been banged up in training camp, looking ahead to five seasons of that in New Jersey seems ominous.

RD: Valtteri Filppula. One good season – and not even his contract season – was apparently good enough to warrant $25 million.

JO: David Clarkson.

CT: Dustin Penner. At a price of $2 million this season, it’s not a terrible signing. But he’s underachieved in each of the last four regular seasons.

24. The first head coach to be fired will be…

JB: Claude Noel in Winnipeg. I thought he’d get the axe last season, so let’s go double or nothing.

MH: Claude Noel. Just seems like a matter of time.

JY: Mike Yeo in Minnesota. Some Wild fans were crowing to have Yeo sacked this summer even after making the playoffs. Tough crowd there and lots of pressure to win.

RD: Kirk Muller. This is a team that needs to be a serious contender for a playoff spot and if the Hurricanes underperform, I think they’ll change coaches rather quickly.

JO: Claude Noel, even though his GM isn’t providing him with much. Particularly in goal.

CT: Claude Noel. Jets are entering their third year back in Winnipeg and if they struggle, expect public outcry. And coaches are expendable.

25. True or false: Alain Vigneault’s first season as head coach of the New York Rangers will be successful.

JB: True, the Rangers will respond to a different voice. But can we stop acting like he’s the nicest guy in the world and the NHL’s version of Mike D’Antoni? He can still be hard on players, and he’s hardly a run-and-gun coach.

MH: True, if only because they respond to a new voice in the room. The Rangers looked burnt out under Tortorella last season.

JY: True. He’s not the offensive God-send some are making him out to be, but the culture change there will do wonders for the Rangers.

RD: True. The Rangers are a good team with some gifted forwards and a great goalie that should find success under Alain Vigneault.

JO: True, a smashing success.

CT: True. He’s a good coach, for starters. The team on the ice isn’t bad, either. And they have a top goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.

source: Getty Images

26. True or false: John Tortorella’s first season as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks will be successful.

JB: False. The Torts hiring reminds me of the time the Capitals tried to change their style. I think the entire Canucks organization is a bit lost right now.

MH: False, though it probably won’t be Tortorella’s fault. The window looks like it’s been closing on Vancouver in each of the last two seasons.

JY: True, to a point. He’ll get the accountability from the players the front office wants but if they can’t stay healthy it’ll look like a failure.

RD: False. I think Luongo will have a statistically great season and Vancouver is a capable team, but I don’t see Tortorella taking them very deep into the playoffs, which is what he was brought in there to do.

JO: True, at least if making the playoffs is the standard. (Though I guess if AV got fired after making them, it isn’t.)

CT: False. What counts as success in Vancouver is, at the very least, a berth in the Western Conference final. Seems beyond that team’s capabilities.

27. The Canadian team with the best chance to win the country’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 is…

JB: Vancouver. Considering what I said in my previous answer, this says a lot. But if Torts can help the Canucks get their swagger back, they’ve got the forwards, defensemen, and goalie to make another run.

MH: Ottawa. Which probably says more about the state of Canadian teams than it does the Senators.

JY: Ottawa. They’ve got the goaltending, offensive depth, and defensive skill to make a deep run. Their biggest issue will be escaping their division.

RD: Vancouver by default. I don’t think there will be a Canadian team in the conference finals.

JO: The Vancouver Canucks, even though they’re treading water.

CT: The Ottawa Senators. Nice run last year and they have solid goaltending in Craig Anderson.  But the team might not be at that level yet.

28. True or false: Phoenix Coyotes fans will show up to support their team.

JB: False. This will take some time. The Coyotes’ brand has been badly damaged in that market.

MH: True. It’s amazing what, you know, actually having an owner can do for club morale.

JY: True. Things can’t really get worse there and the new ownership seems dedicated to making the fans happy. Team-supported tailgating? Heck yes.

RD: False. I don’t think they will see a huge jump in interest compared to 2013.

JO: False, at least unless they make the playoffs.

CT: True. But only in the playoffs, provided the Coyotes make it that far.

29. True or false: the NHL will announce at least one expansion team in the next year.

JB: False. Seattle is coming relatively soon though.

MH: False, though it could happen during the 2014-15 campaign.

JY: False. I can’t see this happening for at least two years.

RD: False. But maybe in a couple years.

JO: A Supersonic truth.

CT: True. The Pacific Northwest is intriguing to the NHL, as per deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Lots of smoke there. Has to be fire.

30. Finally, make a crazy prediction that probably won’t happen, but on second thought, you never know…

JB: The Florida Panthers will go from worst to, well, not first, but the playoffs. Tim Thomas wins the Vezina, then retires to run for President.

MH: Poor weather conditions lead to the first-ever canceled outdoor game.

JY: Hyrbid icing becomes such a raging success that the NHL adopts a “Beat the Icing” event at the All-Star Skills Competition in 2015. Somehow, Tim Thomas will win it.

RD: We’ll have two players that reach the 60-goal mark this season.Stamkos and Ovechkin have done it before and look great going into this season.

JO: Jarome Iginla will score more goals than years he’s lived (36).

CT: An all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final. No Canadian team appears to be at a championship level and even if it were the case, in a numbers game alone, the odds are still stacked against this happening. But dare to dream for this Canadian.

Seth Jones return reunites one of NHL’s top defensive pairs

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Huge news for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday as the team announced it has activated defenseman Seth Jones from injured reserve, and that he is expected to make his season debut on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes.

Jones has missed the first seven games of the season recovering from an MCL injury.

This is a huge development for a Blue Jackets team that has been, to say the least, inconsistent at the start of the year.

First, Jones is one of the NHL’s top defenders and a rising star in the league after finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting a year ago. Since arriving in Columbus as part of the one-for-one swap involving Ryan Johansen his game has taken off.

But it’s not just Jones himself that is a difference-maker for the Blue Jackets. When paired with Columbus’ other top young defender, Zach Werenski, the two help form one of the best and most productive defense pairings in the league, and Jones’ return might be just what Werenski needs to help bust him out of what has been a little bit of a slow start to the season.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season (when Werenski made his NHL debut) the two have spent almost all of their 5-on-5 ice-time together as a defense pairing, and they have been as good as any other duo in the league.

Coach John Tortorella said over the weekend that when Jones returns the plan is to put him back on the top pairing with Werenski.

In more than 2,500 minutes of ice-time the Blue Jackets control more than 56 percent of the shot attempts and outscore teams by a 95-69 margin. When neither player is on the ice that shot attempt share drops to below 50 percent, while the goal and scoring chance differentials also see a drop. But it’s not just the team that sees a drop without Jones — Werenski himself sees his play drop off when Jones is not next to him. Given how much time they spend together it’s not a huge sample size, but Werenski’s production and overall play has taken a hit without Jones by his said, especially at the start of this season. Understandable given how good Jones is, but it’s a testament to how well the two play alongside one another and how big of a difference they can make.

The Blue Jackets are fascinating team this season because there are so many different directions they can go in. When they are fully healthy they have a chance to be a really good team because they have two top-tier players in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the top of the lineup, and as mentioned here, one of the best defense pairings in the league in Jones and Werenski, a duo that can eat up 25 minutes per night and dominate.

But given the contract situations with Panarin and Bobrovsky and their uncertain future in Columbus no one really knows if they will be there beyond this season — or even at the end of this season.

If everything clicks just right this will almost certainly be a playoff team, and perhaps one that could even make some noise. Or they could be big-time sellers at the deadline if they stumble and find themselves on the playoff bubble and are not confident they can keep their top two players.

We have not seem them at their best yet so far this season.

Now that they are getting Jones back we should finally be able to see what they are really capable of.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

KHL player maintains rep, scores again from center ice (Video)

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If you’re a goaltender in the KHL you ought to have your head up when Andrei Kuteikin is carrying the puck through the neutral zone.

You see, Kuteikin established a reputation for himself during the 2017 Gagarin Cup playoffs as a Stephen Curry type shooter. Like the Golden State Warriors star, the longtime KHL defenseman isn’t afraid to fire the puck from anywhere. Two seasons ago, he scored three times from center ice for Dynamo Moscow in the postseason.

On Monday, now with Spartak Moscow, the 34-year-old Kuteikin drilled home the eventual game winner versus his old team from way downtown.

That’s Ivan Bocharov between the pipes for Dinamo. A teammate of Kuteikin’s last season, he may not have realized who had the puck or was just feeling super confident he could stop the long-range blast before the shot skipped through his five hole.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Power Rankings: Best starts to 2018-19 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from the overall team rankings to look at the best and most impressive individual performances to start the 2018-19 season.

The best individual performance (so far) does not reside in Edmonton or Toronto where there is a “best player” argument unfolding (actually, that argument is probably only taking place in Toronto), or in Washington, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh or Boston where some of the league’s best teams reside.

The best performance is currently in …  Anaheim.

There might be one or two other surprises in there.

To the rankings, where we take especially in-depth looks at the top-five…

The best of the best … so far

1. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks — If you take a quick at the Ducks’ record on Monday and see them sitting at 5-3-1 and in first place in the Pacific Division you might think, “hey, that is a pretty impressive start for a team that has been without three of its best forwards for most of the season.”

And it is an impressive start … if you look at only the record.

But here is the harsh truth about this team so far: It has stunk, and it has stunk bad. Part of that is due to only getting four total man-games from the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ondrej Kase (all four of them belonging to Getzlaf), three of the team’s top-five scorers from a year ago. But no matter the reason the team that is taking the ice every night has stunk.

They have spent the entire season getting absolutely caved in in terms of shots against and scoring chances against, they are giving up close to 40 shots per night, and they aren’t really great offensively.

The only reason the record does not reflect how much this team has stunk is because Gibson (and to a lesser extent, backup Ryan Miller when he has had to play two times), has been a miracle worker in the crease and kept the team afloat. In his first seven appearances this season he has a .949 save percentage that is tops in the league among goalies with at least four appearances, he has already made at least 37 saves four different times this season, only allowing more than two goals in one of those four games, and has somehow lost three of them, including a 42-save on 44-shot performance against Vegas on Friday night. Two of the Ducks’ wins in net have been one-goal decisions, including a 1-0 win over Arizona.

John Gibson is not only the Anaheim Ducks best player right now, he has been the most impressive player to start the 2018-19 season.

2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — I love the way that McDavid referred to his record about most consecutive goals contributed to to start a season: “You know what, it’s whatever. I’m not overly proud of it. I don’t think it’s a stat we should be proud of either.”

They should not be. They definitely should not be.

It’s a perfect response, and the fact that McDavid has, quite literally, been the Oilers’ entire offense this season is a perfect representation of his first three-plus seasons in the NHL. When he does what he did this past week against Winnipeg when he single-handedly led a third period rally to steal a win, or when he ruined the Boston Bruins’ overtime two nights later, he can put an entire organization on his back and carry it to heights it has no business reaching.

As of Monday he has 11 points in six games and looks to be well on his way to winning yet another scoring title. The Oilers still only have 13 goals this season as a team, meaning they have only scored two goals this season that McDavid has not factored in on. Only one of those two goals has come during 5-on-5 play. It is not a stretch to say that McDavid is responsible for this team not being winless through six games. Do the rest of the players on the Oilers get tired of hearing that, that everything they do is because of one guy? They might. But it’s not their fault. There is no doubt they are doing their best and playing to the best of their abilities. The fault lies upstairs in the front office.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — This was going to be an interesting season for MacKinnon because even though he was coming off of an absolute monster season a year ago I still thought he was a bit of a mystery. He burst onto the scene in 2013-14 with a remarkable rookie season, and then his production kind of leveled off for a while. It wasn’t bad production at all, it just wasn’t anything, for lack of a better word, special. Then the 2017-18 season and he just completely erupted offensively. Which MacKinnon would we get this season? The 100-point pace guy from a year ago, or the 55-point pace guy from the three years prior? Or, more likely, something in between? It turns out, so far, we are seeing the 100-point pace guy as MacKinnon is once again leading the Avalanche. Through the first eight games he already has eight goals and 14 total points, with almost all of that production coming at even-strength. He is not totally dependent on the power play like another dominant offensive player that we will get to shortly.

[Related: Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in NHL’s best conversation]

4. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs — Yes, there is a Maple Leafs player in the top-four. No, it is not the player you thought it would be. The Maple Leafs defense is a giant question mark and there is reason to doubt whether it is good enough as currently constructed to be a championship team this season. But Rielly has been awesome and, so far, been able to do something that almost no one else on his team has been able to do: Carry play at even-strength.

He is one of the few players on the Toronto roster that is keeping his head above water when it comes to shot attempts and scoring chances at 5-on-5, and when he is not on the ice there is a slight difference in the team’s performance versus when he is on. With him they are a positive shot attempt team, positive scoring chance differential team, and outscored their opponents by a 12-7 margin. Without him they fall into the red in all shot and scoring chance metrics and have been outscored by a 9-13 margin.

Oh, and he also has 14 points in nine games and is off to one of the best starts offensively for a defenseman in league history.

5. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs — Look, Matthews is great. He is one of the best players in the league and on a path toward superstardom, if he is not already there.

He is everything he was advertised to be in his draft year, if not more.

But Matthews, like the rest of the Maple Leafs team around, is still very much a work in progress.

He is not scoring 50-in-50. He is probably not even scoring 50 at all this season (and there is nothing wrong with that!) and for as great as his start has been, if I am looking at who has been the best player so far this season, and I am looking at players with nearly identical overall production and performance, I am going to give the slight edge to the players (McDavid and MacKinnon) that have carried the play at even-strength.

Power play goals count just as much as 5-on-5 goals and there is something to be said for starting the season with 10 goals in nine games (it was actually 10 goals in six games) and 16 total points.

None of this is to say that the Maple Leafs’ power play isn’t valuable. It is. It absolutely is. It is one of the most dominant five-man units in the league and it can carry the team for a long time during a season.

But eventually if you are going to be a Stanley Cup team you have to also do that when you don’t have a man advantage. Matthews and the Maple Leafs are not quite there. Yet.

The rest of the best

6. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals — He cooled off a bit from where he was in the first three games, but Kuznetsov still has at least two points in four of his first seven games and is picking right back up where he left off in the playoffs when he was a key cog in the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup. He is a remarkable talent and over the past two years has been putting it all together to become one of the league’s best players.

7. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins — The Bruins’ top line is as good as you are going to find in the NHL and it is almost impossible to separate the performances of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Pastrnak. Individually they are all great, and when put together they become an unstoppable three-headed monster that can carry the Bruins every single night. Two of the three (Bergeron and Pastrnak) already have a hat trick this season, and the one that doesn’t (Marchand) already has two three-point games, including a four-point effort. Who has been the best so far? Pick one out of a hat if you want, but I think I have to go with Pastrnak to stand out above the rest, just because he is literally averaging a goal-per-game entering play on Monday and has scored some of the most beautiful goals in the league.

8. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes — A model of consistency so far for the Hurricanes. Aho has recorded at least one point in every game the team has played through the first eight games, including three multi-point games. He is still only 21 years old and is well on his way to becoming a star for a Hurricanes team that is finally — maybe? — becoming the team everyone has thought it could be for the past five years.

9. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — Gaudreau is not only one of the best offensive players in the world, he is a one-man highlight reel nearly every single night. He put on an especially good show at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night in a win over the New York Rangers.

10. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins — Malkin’s season has been weird so far. The point production is better than everyone in the league (he is literally averaging two points per game) and is exactly where you expect Malkin to be. But he hasn’t always looked great so far or seemed as dominant as he can be. He has been really good; but he has another level to get to.

11. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — Like Malkin, I don’t think he has been at his best yet, but the production is still there. Which is scary to think about. He has some challengers for the goal-scoring crown but don’t be surprised if he ends up at the top of the list once again. That one-timer on the power play is still there, and no one can stop it.

12. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — Like Gaudreau, the lesson with DeBrincat is that if you are an NHL general manager or a head scout and sitting at your draft table on draft weekend, and you find an obscenely skilled, undersized forward that has shown an ability to score goals and put up points, you should probably take that player.

[Related: Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star]

13. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild — Dubnyk has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since arriving in Minnesota (fourth best save percentage in the league among goalies with at least 100 games played) and he has been tremendous so far this season with a .944 save percentage to help the Wild earn 10 of a possible 12 points in his starts. He has allowed two goals or less in four of his first six starts, and in one of the two where he allowed more than two goals he still made 52 saves in an overtime loss to the Hurricanes.

14. Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils — Palmieri deserves some extra attention because he has been overlooked and underrated ever since he arrived in New Jersey (he is the other forward Ray Shero stole for the team). He is not the best player on the Devils (that honor still goes to Taylor Hall), but Palmieri is a legitimate top-line forward in the NHL and has been a driving force for the Devils’ fast start this season.

15. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens — Not sure how long it will last this season, but so far this season has been the Tomas Tatar redemption tour. He has been a steady, consistent 25-goal scorer his entire career but was pretty much a punch-line in the second half of last season because George McPhee gave up a lot of draft picks to acquire him at the trade deadline, and then for whatever reason he never quite found his place with the Vegas Golden Knights. He didn’t suddenly forget how to play hockey, but the Golden Knights had an opportunity to get Max Pacioretty and sent Tatar to Montreal as part of that trade. With a fresh start in Montreal this season Tatar has been a wonderful addition for a surprising Montreal team that has, to this point, exceeded all of its expectations.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Can Atlantic Division teams keep rolling?

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The overall expectations for the Atlantic Division weren’t very high. Coming into the season, everyone believed that Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston would be the top three teams. Some had Florida making it to the playoffs in a Wild Card spot, but the expectations for the rest of the division weren’t very high. So far, those teams have done pretty well.

As of right now, the Maple Leafs, Lightning and Canadiens own the first three spots in the division. The Wild Card spots are owned by the Bruins and Sabres. That’s encouraging considering both Wild Card spots went to Metropolitan Division teams (Columbus and New Jersey) last season. The first team on the outside looking in to the playoffs is the Ottawa Senators, which means that Atlantic Divisions teams take up six of the top nine spots in the East.

Yes, it’s still early, but we have to acknowledge that there have been some pleasant surprises so far. With so much off-season drama in Montreal and Ottawa, it was easy to write those teams off. But they’ve both been incredibly solid during the first three weeks of the season. Both teams traded their captains away before the start of the preseason, but they’ve both figured out that the key to being successful in today’s NHL is speed. The Habs and Sens have found a way to play fast more often than not and they’ve been rewarded with some positive results.

The Sabres were one of the trendy “surprise” picks, but not many people were comfortable sliding them into a playoff spot. Thanks to a 5-4-0 start, they’re sitting in the second Wild Card slot behind Boston. Yes, a 5-4-0 record is nothing to write home about, but the Sabres didn’t collect their fifth of last season until Nov. 7. That’s an encouraging sign for a young team that is looking to create some positive momentum.

Teams like Washington, Philadelphia and Columbus, who are all out of the playoffs right now, will come around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll come at the expense of all the Atlantic teams. Is Carolina for real in the Metro? That remains to be seen. Are the Devils good enough to finish in the top three slots of their division? Again, that’s not a slam dunk. So yeah, there’s a good chance that certain teams in the Metro will pick it up in the near future, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that certain teams in the Atlantic are better than we had anticipated. They’ll make the playoff race interesting.

The Florida Panthers will also be a factor here at some point. Not having a healthy Roberto Luongo has been an issue for them, but once they get him back they could go on a run of their own. The Panthers missed the playoffs by just a single point last season, and the addition of Mike Hoffman could take them over the edge.

The only team that can really be counted out at this point, is the Detroit Red Wings. Based on their success over the last three decades, a decline was inevitable (especially in a salary cap world). The Wings roster needs some major work, so don’t be surprised if this is more than just a one-year rebuild. Every division has a weak link, and the Wings are clearly it in the Atlantic Division.

So nothing is settled yet, but the Atlantic Division appears set on making their case for having five teams in the playoffs this season. There’s still a lot of race track left, but at least they’re off to a promising start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.