Bulletin-board material: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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This is the third straight year (2013, 2014) we’ve done this, and so far we’ve only been wrong twice. Try and find more accurate NHL predictions than that. 

Calgary Flames: The worst team to make the playoffs. And we’re not even talking about their advanced stats, which are indeed awful. According to the standings, they were the worst team to make the playoffs. In a related story, it’s kinda funny how people are comparing this year’s Flames to last year’s Avalanche. Um, hello? The Avs won the Central and had a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal. The Flames finished third in the Pacific and have Jonas Hiller in goal. On top of that, they’re without Mark Giordano. Good. Night.

Vancouver Canucks: The second-worst team to make the playoffs. Somehow, the Canucks were lucky enough to match up with the Flames in the first round. Their luck won’t last long, though. Vancouver entered the season with the misguided goal of getting back to the playoffs, and can’t stop bragging that it accomplished that goal. While ownership will be happy with a couple of playoff gates, what this team really did was blow its chance to start a much-needed rebuild, and in a draft year with two “generational” talents to boot. Instead, the Canucks think they can “continue to build this team and be a playoff contender every year,” which is another way of saying they’d like to have their cake and eat it too. Question: if Jim Benning is such a genius at identifying talent, how does one explain Luca Sbisa?

Ottawa Senators: It’s hard to criticize these guys after what they did to make the playoffs. True, they got their coach fired because he was too mean to them, but 23-3-3 is 23-3-3. It’ll actually be too bad when Andrew Hammond falls back to earth over the next few weeks. The Hamburglar’s been a great story, from not being very good in college and the minors to what he’s done at the highest level of the game. He will fall back to earth though. The playoffs are a whole different animal, and Hammond — a 27-year-old undrafted rookie — is not the next Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Remember when these guys were going to be the next great dynasty? It was funny then and it’s even funnier now, because we don’t recall the 83-84 Oilers needing to beat the worst team in the NHL on the last day of the season just to make the playoffs. But that’s what the Pens needed. And boy were they completely unconvincing against the Sabres. Talk about zero confidence. Talk about no killer instinct. The Penguins could’ve easily lost that game. “It hasn’t been easy,” said Ben Lovejoy. “I’m proud of the way we were able to close it out tonight.” Yeah, way to go. You showed a lot of heart losing five in a row then barely defeating a historically bad team. Good luck against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Detroit Red Wings: It’s one thing to bench your big-money goalie for a young guy who’s playing out of his mind. It’s quite another to park him for Petr Mrazek, a 23-year-old with no playoff experience and a save percentage (.918) that isn’t even that great. That’s how poorly Jimmy Howard played down the stretch. And make no mistake, the Wings have issues beyond goaltending. They were a mediocre possession team in the second half of the season, and there’s no way Pavel Datsyuk is 100 percent. Enjoy Mike Babcock while he’s still behind the bench, Wings fans. (Which should be about five, maybe six, more games.)

Winnipeg Jets: You have to be happy for Jets fans. It’s been a long time since meaningful hockey was played in Winnipeg, and it’s going to be a tough assignment to beat the home side at MTS Centre. Except, of course, for the fact the Jets are the least disciplined team in the league, as ably demonstrated here by Dustin Byfuglien. Oh, and they don’t really have an elite center either. Also, Ondrej Pavelec is their goalie. (Other than that, though.) And please, PLEASE don’t argue that Pavelec is good now. Yes, he had a strong finish. But he’s shown flashes in the past too, only to revert back to what he really is — a below-average NHL goalie.

Montreal Canadiens: Unlike Pavelec, Carey Price is decidedly not below average. He’s actually the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, which would make him the first goalie to win the award since Jose Theodore did it for the Habs in 2001-02. Hey, how did that turn out anyway? Oh right, Theodore was just OK in the playoffs and Montreal lost to Carolina in the second round. Goaltending: impossible to predict and incredibly risky to rely on. That’s why teams that are good at possessing the puck are better bets. Puck possession is a team thing, so if one guy falters or gets hurt, it’s not the end of the world. By the way, the Habs were the worst possession team to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.

Washington Capitals: One of the most improved teams in the NHL still doesn’t have what it takes to win it all. That’s basically what Barry Trotz admitted a few months ago, and he was absolutely right. Asking Evgeny Kuznetsov to play first- or second-line center in the playoffs is way too much to ask. He’s a 22-year-old rookie. Even if he’s “come a long way over the last two months,” he’s still got a ways to go. The Caps simply aren’t strong enough down the middle, period. (Admit it, you all thought this was going to be a screed against Alex Ovechkin, and how he’s never won anything of meaning and never will. Nah, we’ll wait until they’re eliminated for that.)

Minnesota Wild: Sure, we could point out that Devan Dubnyk got run into the ground by Mike Yeo and, come April, the goalie savior started to show a few cracks. But the reason the Wild won’t win the Stanley Cup is because they won’t score enough goals. The power play stinks, and if they’re counting on Thomas Vanek to produce in the playoffs, well, let’s just say he hasn’t always been at his best in big games. Need another reason? The Wild aren’t deep enough on defense, and that can be big-time problematic in the playoffs.

Anaheim Ducks: The most overrated team in the NHL. Goals per game: 11th. Goals against: 20th. Power play: 28th. Penalty kill: 15th. Those aren’t the numbers of a Stanley Cup champ. In fact, the Ducks (+10) had the worst goal-differential of the 16 teams to make the playoffs. “If you look at teams that have won the Cup, they’re high in the defensive standings — L.A. was the best defensive team last year, won the Cup. Chicago before that, won it. When Boston won … there’s definitely a trend there.” You know who said that? It was Bruce Boudreau.

Tampa Bay Lightning: What seemed like a savvy preseason pick doesn’t seem quite so smart anymore. Yes, the Lightning score a lot of goals, but they don’t keep them out of their net particularly well, ranking 12th in that category. The year after being named a Vezina finalist, Ben Bishop predictably regressed and finished with a so-so save percentage of .916. Also remember that Bishop, 28, has never played in the playoffs. This is a young team that may win a Cup in the future, but it’s not quite ready yet.

New York Islanders: Can the Isles win a playoff series for the first time since 1993? We only ask this question so we can point out the fact that the Isles haven’t won a playoff series since 1993. It’s pretty sad how far the standards have fallen on Long Island. A fan base that once celebrated four straight championships now holds up Jaroslav Halak as some sort of goaltending god for having a .914 save percentage. Meanwhile, everyone’s doing cartwheels because Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, two good-but-not-great defensemen that were deemed expendable by their former teams, actually agreed to re-sign. The Isles finished the regular season with four wins in their last 14. Maybe they’ll raise the bar when they get to Brooklyn.

Nashville Predators: Similar to the Islanders, the Preds got off to a great start and had people debating whether they were legit Stanley Cup contenders. This despite the glaring facts that Mike Ribeiro was their first-line center and they had a rookie by the name of Filip Forsberg who was piling up points at an unsustainably high rate. Yada, yada, yada, the Preds went 8-13-4 in their last 25 games, including six straight losses to finish the season. Bottom line: this team is gonna be done real quick if Pekka Rinne doesn’t find his game. He gave up 17 goals in his last five outings combined.

New York Rangers: Back in March, a handful of Rags faithful got all hot and bothered when we pointed out the Blueshirts were “good but not great” down the middle. As if hockey fans everywhere should marvel at the amazing talent the Rangers had assembled to play center for their spectacular team. Sorry, but Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes, and Dominic Moore are pretty much the definition of “good but not great.” Which, hey, is better than “fine but not good”; however, when you consider the truly great centers that Cup champs almost always possess, not to mention the Rangers’ worrying possession numbers, it’s really not hard to doubt this team. On the bright side, at least Alain Vigneault has another Presidents’ Trophy to his name.

St. Louis Blues: The new San Jose Sharks. Or maybe the Sharks were the new St. Louis Blues. After all, the Blues were choking in the playoffs long before the Sharks started gagging away successful regular seasons. Six times in franchise history have the Blues amassed over 100 points, only to fall well short when the games start counting. This season was their seventh with more than 100 points, so of course they drew one of the league’s hottest teams in the first round. But it’s not a cursed history or tough opponent that will doom the Blues. It’s questionable goaltending (another Blues tradition) and a coach that can’t stop himself from over-coaching.

Chicago Blackhawks: Fun fact about the ‘Hawks: Out of the 16 teams to make the playoffs, only Ottawa and Winnipeg finished with fewer regulation/overtime wins. Another fact: If instead of going 9-3 in the shootout they’d gone 3-9, they’d have made the playoffs by one measly point. And yet the ‘Hawks remain Stanley Cup favorites in the eyes of many. Have people not been paying attention? The simple truth is, these guys have not been playing at an elite level since the Winter Classic. Antoine Vermette hasn’t been the answer, and Kimmo Timonen’s not the answer either, based on the 40-year-old’s dreadful possession stats. Just do us a favor and don’t act surprised when Chicago’s eliminated in the first or second round, OK?

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Sabres’ Okposo out with fourth concussion in less than three years

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres forward Kyle Okposo is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with his fourth concussion in a little more than 2 + years.

The Sabres provided the update in posting their weekly injury report Monday, two days after Okposo was hurt in a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. It happened with five minutes left in the second period when Okposo took the ice and accidently collided with Senators defenseman Ron Hainsey.

This marks the fourth consecutive season the 31-year-old player has been sidelined by a concussion. The most serious one happened when he missed the final two weeks of 2017-18 and spent nearly a week in a hospital after what he called a routine hit in practice.

Okposo missed three games in March 2018 after a concussion from a collision with Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan. And he missed a week last February when punched in the face by New York Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo.

Okposo is a 13-year veteran in his fourth season in Buffalo. He has a goal and four assists in 19 games.

The Sabres also announced center Tage Thompson will be out three to five weeks with an upper body injury. He was hurt in a 4-1 loss at Chicago on Sunday and after being called up from the minors to replace Okposo.