Getty

PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the early standings

5 Comments

October is a magical time in the NHL.

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

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

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

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

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

As good as they look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly what they look like

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Why the Wild are better off being terrible next season

Getty Images
1 Comment

When you ponder what separates the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL, don’t forget the importance of self-awareness.

For all of Minnesota Wild GM Paul Fenton’s lizard tongued blunders through his first year at the helm, the Wild’s biggest problem that owner Craig Leipold is in denial about his team.

It’s been about a year since Leipold shared this message, yet all signs point to the Wild refusing to embrace a true rebuild. In ignoring their reality, the Wild only dig the hole deeper by making more mistakes, and dragging their feet on finding better answers.

Instead of getting the best of both worlds of competing and “rebuilding on the fly,” the Wild are stuck in purgatory: too bad to credibly contend, too competitive to get the picks that help teams win championships. Leipold’s paid for a contender while the Wild have slipped to the level of outright pretenders.

In catering to Leipold, both Chuck Fletcher and current GM Paul Fenton created quite a mess. The Wild’s Cap Friendly page might as well include a horror movie scream mp3 every time you load it up.

Allow this take, then: the Wild would be better off bottoming out in 2019-20, rather than battling for mediocrity.

[The Central Division might not give the Wild much of a choice.]

Changing perceptions?

Most directly, an epic Wild collapse would help them get higher draft lottery odds.

The indirect benefits are considerable, if not guaranteed. Most importantly, Leipold may finally realize that the current plan isn’t working. Failing to even be “in the mix” may also inspire the Wild to trade away certain players, and for those players to make the process easier by waiving various clauses.

  • To start, there are players who might are in their primes, but may slip out by the time the Wild can truly compete. Jared Spurgeon is the biggest example with his expiring contract, but it continues to make sense to shop Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin heads the list of other considerations.
  • If the Wild end up cellar dwelling, it might be easier to convince Mikko Koivu and Devan Dubnyk to accept trades, and perhaps even to part ways with Eric Staal. (Trading Staal would be awkward since he gave the Wild a sweetheart deal, but sometimes things have to get awkward before they get better.)
  • Via Cap Friendly, the Wild’s commitments for 2020-21 go down to $59.46M, and really open up in 2021-22 (just $37.36M to seven players). So, if the Wild are too stubborn or cowardly to trade some of the above players, Fenton could get something close to a clean slate if they merely let them walk or retire. This thought makes a Spurgeon decision especially important.

On Parise and Suter …

Speaking of money regrets, the Wild should try to get Parise and Suter off the books, even if it’s tough to imagine them actually pulling that off.

  • Honestly, if Parise went on LTIR, I’d view it as far more credible than plenty of other cases. He’s had significant back issues, and those don’t tend to go away, particularly for 34-year-olds with a lot of mileage.
  • Suter seems impossible to trade, but we’ve seen other seemingly impossible trades actually happen.
  • Maybe there’d be a hockey deus ex machina, like expansion draft creativity, or a compliance buyout?

Not the best odds, yet Fenton would be negligent if he didn’t explore many avenues to ease concerns.

Hope can come quickly

A long rebuild would be a tough sell, but maybe Fenton could sell a Rangers revamp to Leipold: going all-in for a short period of time to bring in picks, prospects, and generally gain flexibility.

[More on the Rangers’ rebuild]

While I doubt that many teams can recreate the Rangers’ mix of wisdom and luck, the bottom line is that the Wild have gone a long time since they focused on getting blue chip prospects. Look at the Wild’s draft history and you’ll see how rare high first-rounders have been lately, and how often they’ve lacked higher picks altogether.

To sweeten the deal, the 2020 NHL Draft crop is getting quite a bit of hype, too.

Imagine the Wild landing a lottery pick, some picks and prospects through trades, and Kirill Kaprizov’s long-awaited NHL leap. If they hoarded cap space, they could strike for their own answer to Jacob Trouba and/or Artemi Panarin. Suddenly, the Wild go from drowning slowly in quicksand to seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

***

Things can change quickly in sports. The Wild could make their “poor, sad, dejected, beaten down” fans far happier with some bold changes, but they must sway their most important fan: their owner. If a truly lousy season is the only way for Leipold to clue in, then it might just be worth it for the Wild.

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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

Getty Images
2 Comments

Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

NHL Seattle
2 Comments

NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

————

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

Getty Images
2 Comments

Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck