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PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the early standings

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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.

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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:

Rangers vs. Blackhawks: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just over six weeks to go in the regular season, the Rangers and Blackhawks find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff dividing line with several teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race. New York currently has three teams to jump ahead of to get into a playoff spot, while Chicago has four

New York’s season-high four-game win streak was snapped on Sunday at MSG against Boston, 3-1, as the Rangers now hit the road for away games in five of their next six contests. Overall, Chicago has lost six of its last seven games (1-4-2) with its sole win coming two games ago at Calgary, an 8-4 affair on Saturday – the Blackhawks most goals scored this season.

New York’s high-priced offseason acquisition, Artemi Panarin (7-year/$81.5M), leads the team in goals (29), assists (49), points (78 – fifth in NHL)– to name a few. The Russian playmaker, who set a career high in pts (87) last season with the Blue Jackets, is on pace to set new highs in goals, assists and points. The 28-year-old began his career with the Blackhawks (undrafted), winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2015-16 before being traded to Columbus after two seasons

Chris Kreider has come on of late with 29 pts in the last 29 games after just 13 points in his first 28 games. Kreider, who is on pace for his first career 30-goal season, is set to become a free agent after this season. There were reports last week that Kreider’s agent and the Rangers have been discussing a possible contract extension, while he has also been linked with a possible trade to his hometown Bruins (from Boxford, Mass.). Kreider was drafted 19th overall by New York in 2009 and has spent his entire career with the Blueshirts.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Chicago Blackhawks
WHERE: United Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Artemi Panarin – Ryan StromeJesper Fast
Phil Di GiuseppeFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Julien Gauthier

Brady SkjeiJacob Trouba
Tony DeAngeloMarc Staal
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Igor Shesterkin

BLACKHAWKS
Dominik KubalikJonathan ToewsDrake Caggiula
Brandon SaadRyan CarpenterPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatKirby DachDylan Strome
Matthew HighmoreDavid KampfAlex Nylander

Duncan KeithAdam Boqvist
Erik GustafssonConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekOlli Maatta

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the action from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Ahmed Fareed will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

NHL Trade Deadline primer: Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

Tomas Tatar Trade
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With the NHL trade deadline getting close (February 24, 3 p.m. ET) the Pro Hockey Talk crew will be taking a closer look at some individual players that could be on the move. Today we focus on Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar.

Player: Tomas Tatar
Current Team: Montreal Canadiens
Position: Forward
Contract: One year remaining after this season with a $5.3 million salary cap number.

Why the Canadiens might trade him. If you squint really hard and give it your best effort you can maybe find a decent argument for why it makes sense for the Canadiens to keep Tatar.

He is an excellent player, and a very underrated one. He is signed through the end of next season and is not in danger of leaving as a free agent after this season. He has also been a great fit in Montreal since joining the team at the start of the 2018-19 season after coming over from Vegas in the Max Pacioretty trade. There is also the fact that the Canadiens might still believe they could be a playoff team next season, so it would make sense to keep your good players.

But all of that kind of goes out the window when you look at the current situation and the harsh reality that this team just is not very good.

The Canadiens are on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. They are completely going down the tube this season with five consecutive losses, including a dreadful 4-3 loss to Detroit on Tuesday where they blew a 3-1 lead to go 0-4 for the season against a team that currently has just 15 wins for the season and might be single the worst NHL team of the modern era. On top of that, the Canadiens are going to have a ton of contractual decisions to make over the next two seasons regarding Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danualt, and Jeff Petry.

With Carey Price and Shea Weber signed to monster contracts, they can’t keep everyone.

And given the current situation, why would they keep everyone?

There is also the fact that the price for players with term remaining on their contracts is sky high right now. Pounce while you can.

Teams that could/should be interested. Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders

What he provides. Whether it is traditional box score numbers or a more analytical look, Tatar stacks up extremely well with other top-line two-way wingers around the league. He is on track for a career year offensively this season (close to 30 goals, more than 70 points) and in a normal year is still going to give you 25 goals and 50 points.

His possession numbers have always been strong no matter what team he has played for, and this year they have reached an elite level.

Maybe you have a sour memory of him as a trade deadline acquisition after what happened with him Vegas two years ago, but small sample size decisions lead to mistakes. He is a good player and could be a great addition for a contender.

The Colorado Avalanche would be an intriguing option because they have the salary cap space to take him on and could be in the market for a winger with Mikko Rantanen sidelined (and just to give themselves a better chance to win).

Worth noting that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is in Denver on Wednesday night to watch the Avalanche-Islanders game in person.

Predicted Destination. A team like the Avalanche has a lot to offer and the flexibility to do it, but I have a suspicion that Bergevin is going to set an extremely high price, not get the offer he wants, and stand pat with the belief this team is closer to contending than it actually is.

More NHL Trade Deadline:

• Trade Deadline primer: Chris Kreider
Trade Deadline Primer: Ilya Kovalchuk
• Trade Deadline Primer: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
• Trade Deadline Primer: Joe Thornton
• Trade Deadline Primer: Robin Lehner
• Teams that need to be active at trade deadline

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.

FORE-1-1 podcast: ‘Miracle on Ice’ 40th anniversary with Jim Craig

Miracle on Ice celebration Al Michaels
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Jim Craig, goaltender for the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team, joined Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe to discuss hockey, his love of golf and his new book, “We Win!”.

This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the stunning upset by the U.S. Olympic hockey team over the heavily-favored Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The Americans would go on to top Finland in their next game to win the gold medal. Craig led all goaltenders in the tournament with a .916 save percentage, 419:36 minutes played, and 163 saves in seven games played.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe/id1481635240

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/fore11-with-chantel-mccabe

Golf Channel: https://www.golfchannel.com/fore-1-1-chantel-mccabe

NBC Sports: https://art19.com/shows/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe

Join Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe each month as she catches up with personalities from the golfing world and beyond.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called men’s hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Mike Tirico, will premiere tonight at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following Wednesday Night Hockey coverage of Rangers-Blackhawks.

Caps hope trade for Dillon, adjustments solve struggles

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For the first time since October, the Washington Capitals took the ice for practice as something other than a first-place team.

Defensive lapses and a glaring lack of structure have added up to losses in six of nine games and a .500 record over the past 10. It’s a struggle for the Capitals right now, but they hope a trade for defenseman Brenden Dillon and a few adjustments will shake them out of their midseason doldrums.

”The hard things to do, the defensive things to do, are always kind of the things that go first when you get into these kind of lulls in the season or whatever because they’re not the fun things to do,” goaltender Braden Holtby said Wednesday. ”Bringing a guy like him in, just an energy, a guy that’s been known to do those things – the hard things – and be a leader that way is good.”

Dillon could play as soon as Thursday night against Montreal, but he can’t solve all everything by himself. Even with Holtby finding a groove, the Capitals have allowed almost 3.5 goals per game during this stretch and not looked like a group that led the NHL for much of the year.

General manager Brian MacLellan said he probably would have sought Dillon from San Jose regardless of the recent drop in play, but the level of urgency to turn things around has increased.

”I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts,” MacLellan said. ”I don’t think we’re playing the right way. … The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game.”

Defensemen are getting the bulk of criticism and the blue liner certainly haven’t played up to expectations. Beyond John Carlson, who’s on pace for more than 90 points this season, the play of the likes of Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler has been inconsistent at best.

Carlson said the Capitals have been ”a little disjointed.”

”I think some other holes have crept into our details and systems that we all know we are capable of doing,” said Carlson, who could soon be Dillon’s defensive partner. ”Just simple things, whether it is mental or execution or just being out of position a little bit, matters a lot.”

Much of the chatter lately has been helping captain Alex Ovechkin score two more goals to reach 700 for his career. Ovechkin, MacLellan and others don’t think chasing that milestone has been a distraction, but Washington is 1-4-0 since he reached 698.

”We know exactly what we have to do,” Ovechkin said. ”It’s not a panic. It’s just a slump (that) every team goes through all seasons. Some teams go (through it) the beginning of the year. Somebody goes (though it) right now. It’s a good thing it’s happening now than in the playoffs.”

The Capitals are less than two years removed from their run to the Stanley Cup. They got knocked out in the first round last year and have retooled some things to try to win it all again.

Dillon brings the kind of physical play that is valued most in the playoffs. The 29-year-old has plenty of postseason experience and at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds blends right in with Washington’s big, heavy identity.

”When you’re standing in front of the net with him, it’s going to be a battle,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”That’s something we’ve tried to have with our team. When teams come into D.C., you want them to be like, ‘Oh, here we go, it’s going to be a tough game,’ and he’s just another piece that can really add to that.”