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The 20 best NHL players of 2017 (PHT Year In Review)

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(Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and much more as we bring you the best of 2017.)

The new year is on its way so we at PHT have decided to take a look back at the year that was in hockey, from the best bloopers, to the top plays, to the best players.

Come join us.

Today, we take a look at the 20 best players in the NHL in 2017. Keep in mind this ranking only takes into consideration what happened from Jan. 1 until the present. You might agree with the players we have on it, you might disagree. You might yell. In the end, we hope you enjoy it.

So let us start the countdown.

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — Since the start of the new year McDavid is one of just two players to top 100 points in the calendar year, he took home his first MVP award, his first scoring title, and masked an awful lot of flaws on the Edmonton Oilers’ roster. The flu slowed him down earlier this season but he is still making a push for another scoring crown and you probably should not bet against him winning it.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — He has become a truly special player. He is not only starting to pull away in the NHL scoring race this season, he leads the league in total goals (51) and total points (101) since Jan. 1. He has six more goals than any other player in the league during that stretch and is one of just two players (McDavid being the other) to top 90 points.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — His point totals do not look the way they used to, and given that he is not 25 anymore they probably never will, but he is still a dominant player. In 2017 he secured his second goal-scoring crown and his second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy, helping lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

4. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators — Karlsson is one of the generational talents in the NHL right now and was the driving force behind Ottawa’s stunning run to the Eastern Conference Finals. And he did it while basically playing on one foot for a large part of it. He is one the most impactful defensemen the league has seen in decades.

5. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — If he didn’t do so many borderline (or just plain dirty) things that make so many people hate him he would rightly be viewed as the top player that he has become. Over the past calendar year he is second in the league in goals scored, is a dominant possession player, and with an increased workload has become one of the best all-around players in the NHL.

6. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning — He is sometimes the overlooked superstar on the Tampa Bay roster, usually getting overshadowed by Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Hedman is a workhorse that plays huge minutes and is a rare combination of shutdown defensive play with gamebreaking offensive ability.

7. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks’ depth has been decimated the past couple of years and they are not really the powerhouse franchise they were when they were winning the Stanley Cup every other year. Kane has been the driving force behind their offense the past two seasons and is the one constant they have when it comes to production.

8. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets — The Jets have dynamic offense with some outstanding players at the top of their lineup, and Scheifele is becoming one of their best and important ones. He has been one of the NHL’s most productive players for a year now and is just entering what should be his statistical peak for offense.

9. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals — A devastating mix of Selke caliber defense (even if he does not get anywhere near enough attention for it) and elite offensive makes Backstrom one of the game’s best two-way centers and all-around players. Only McDavid has more assists than Backstrom’s 63 since Jan. 1.

10. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets — Arguably the most underrated and underappreciated player currently in the NHL. Like his teammate, Scheifele, Wheeler has been one of the top point producers in the NHL over the past year. He has been a 70-point player for pretty much the past five years and you would never know it given how little attention he gets across the league. Maybe now that the Jets are looking like an improved team he — and Scheifele — will start to get noticed a little more.

11. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks — The Sharks seem to funnel pretty much all of their offense through Burns when he is on the ice, resulting in him being one of the top players in the league when it comes to generating shots on goal. He ended up taking home the Norris Trophy a year ago thanks to his huge season offensively. Like Karlsson, he produces points like a top-line forward from the blue line. A rare talent.

12. John Tavares, New York Islanders — He is one of the most intriguing players in hockey right now given his contract situation and the possibility of him becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. It is a perfect time for him because he is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now.

13. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets — His playoff struggles are a concern and they have to be rectified if the Blue Jackets are going to be a true Stanley Cup contender, but you also can not ignore what he has done in the regular season where he has been, arguably, the top goaltender in the league.

14. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs — The focal point of the Maple Leafs’ rebuild, Matthews burst onto the NHL scene as a rookie with 40 goals as a 19-year-old and led the NHL in even-strength goals. So far this season he has followed it up by averaging more than a point per game while also posting strong possession numbers. He is going to be a superstar for a long time.

15. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — He had a down year in 2016-17 and that made it easy for people to give up on him as an elite player once again. Fast forward to the first three months of this season and he is scoring goals at a pace like few other players in their early 30s ever have. Still one of the NHL’s must-see players and the owner of one of the most unstoppable shots in the league.

16. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — If he had not missed the first part of 2017 due to injury he almost certainly would have been higher on this list. But what he has done so far this season is remarkable as it is probably some of the best all-around hockey he has ever played in the league.

17. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues — The Blues have proven to be an incredibly deep team so far this season, overcoming a rash of injuries to have one of the best records in the league. Tarasenko is still the straw that stirs the drink in St. Louis. One of the best goal-scorers in the league, Tarasenko is a threat to score 40 every season and is capable of putting the team on his back and single-handedly carrying it when he gets on a roll.

18. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — The argument for ignoring size and just looking at talent and production. Gaudreau was the 2017 Lady Byng winner, his first hardware in the NHL, and has come back this season to be one of the top point producers in the league. On the list of the NHL’s most exciting players Gaudreau is high on the list.

19. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins — He has been the one constant bright spot on the 2017-18 Penguins roster and arguably their best player. That comes after another fantastic playoff run in 2017 that helped the Penguins win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Whatever negative things were said about him in Toronto he has proven to be a classic big-game player.

20. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators — Forsberg had a slow start to the 2016-17 season, only scoring seven goals through his first 36 games into the new year. Once the calendar rolled over everything started to click for him with 25 goals over the next 46 games to end the regular season, another nine in 22 playoff games to help lead the Predators to the Stanley Cup Final, and already 13 this season in his first 35 games.

Previously:
The top hockey bloopers of 2017
The best hockey moments of 2017

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.

What’s driving the Coyotes’ hot streak

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To steal Zoolander parlance — only appropriate for a team that once employed Martin Hanzal — the Arizona Coyotes are so hot right now.

The Coyotes are on a four-game winning streak following Tuesday’s overtime win against the Rangers, and are 5-0-1 in their last six, erasing the discomfort from an 0-2-0 start where they only managed a single goal.

If the playoffs began right now, the 5-2-1 Coyotes would be the second wild-card team in the West. Could this be a sign that this is finally the year?

Let’s look at what is working so well so far, and how much of it is sustainable, with help from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

Glorious goaltending

Darcy Kuemper played at such a high level from January on in 2018-19, it seemed like he might just drag the wounded Coyotes to a playoff spot. Even so, it seemed a little hasty when the Coyotes handed Kuemper a two-year, $9 million extension in early October.

Well, if the 29-year-old can stay anywhere near the level he’s been at lately, that could be a mega-steal.

Kuemper’s only allowed 10 goals over six appearances, going 4-2-0 with a sparkling .944 save percentage to begin the season. He’s the first goalie in Coyotes franchise history to allow two or fewer games in 13 consecutive starts, carrying over last season’s red-hot work.

Delightfully for the Coyotes, Antti Raanta‘s shown signs of the sharp goalie he was pre-injury nightmares, as Raanta’s 1-0-1 with a .926 save percentage through two games.

Even if Kuemper is the real deal, one would expect the Coyotes’ league-leading team save percentage of .9388 to cool off; last season, the Islanders topped the NHL with a .9247 mark that would already be tough to match.

It’s plausible that goaltending could remain a strength for Arizona, though, particularly if they maintain their strong start when it comes to possessing the puck and limiting high-danger scoring chances against.

Luck and other peculiarities

As always, it’s important to take any eight-game sample with a grain of salt.

Nick Schmaltz is a good example, alongside goaltending, of “could be good, probably won’t be that good.” He already showed signs of flourishing in a bigger role in Arizona after being traded from Chicago last season (14 points in 17 games before injuries derailed things), but Schmaltz’s nine points in eight games is inflated by puck luck, including a 21.4 shooting percentage. There’s evidence that he might be a strong shooter in general (14.2 shooting percentage in 187 career games), but he’s likely to cool down to some extent.

It will also be interesting to track their power play. Last season, their 16.3 power-play percentage ranked sixth-worst in the NHL. Of course, they added Phil Kessel during the summer, and he’s been part of a unit that’s scored seven goals on 27 opportunities, good for a 25.9 percent success rate that ranks seventh overall.

PDO is a helpful metric for measuring luck (it’s merely save percentage plus shooting percentage), and so it’s worth noting that the Coyotes’ 1.030 mark ties them for fourth-highest at all strengths in this young season.

There’s at least one way where things could get tougher if the Coyotes are perceived as more of a threat.

Five for Howling recently pointed out an interesting trend: so far in 2019-20, the Coyotes have frequently faced opposing teams’ backups. That might be a coincidence, but if it continues to even a subtle extent, it could be helpful in a league ripe with parity.

Fewer trips to the trainers

Last season, the Coyotes were absolutely ravaged by injuries, to the point that it’s tempting to give them a mulligan. So far in 2019-20, Arizona’s been healthier, although it remains to be seen if they can can continue to thrive so much defensively with Niklas Hjalmarsson on the shelf.

Like with most NHL teams, injury luck (or a lack thereof) could be pivotal for Arizona.

***

Yes, it’s too early to know for sure, but which way do you lean: could this be the year the Coyotes put it together, or will 2019-20 end in another disappointment?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs get mostly good news about Rantanen’s injury

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When you first see footage of Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen‘s injury from Monday, you’ll probably say “gah!” and maybe feel a little sick to your stomach. Then you’d assume that he will be out for quite a long time.

All things considered, then, the Avs’ Wednesday update is about as close to good news as you could reasonably expect.

Coach Jared Bednar announced that Rantanen is week-to-week with a lower-body injury, and that the Avs might know more about the 22-year-old’s status early next week.

Losing Rantanen for days is rough, so this isn’t necessarily cause for a full-on party, but worthy of a sigh of relief. Especially when you recall this gruesome sight:

/appetite loss warning

via Sportsnet/Youtube

“Week-to-week” is obviously a vague window, so this additional bit of insight from Avalanche play-by-play announcer Marc Moser provides comfort:

It’s never ideal to lose a star like Rantanen, but the Avalanche are positioned reasonably well to weather the storm. They’re off to a strong 7-1-1 start for 15 standings points, leaving them a four-point edge over the Predators for the Central Division lead. It’s early in the season, so hopefully Rantanen will get to heal up completely for when the games matter the most — and with the Avs off to such a blistering start, they must be thinking about the playoffs a bit already.

And, actually, that might provide another silver lining: Colorado is being forced to look at different combinations beyond Rantanen + Nathan MacKinnon (and usually Gabriel Landeskog).

Could someone like Andre Burakovsky or Joonas Donskoi flourish on the top line? Finding out could provide highly useful intel for the future. If the Avs run into a team that can slow their dynamic duo (maybe an opponent like the Blues with Ryan O'Reilly?), it might be good to have a Plan B where MacKinnon and Rantanen can run their own lines.

It’s been understandable that the Avalanche haven’t run such experiments in the past, as they made it into the playoffs in both 2017-18 and 2018-19 by slim margins. This strong start might just afford them the luxury of testing some hypotheses.

… But don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad to lose Rantanen for weeks.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Surging Sabres not fearing repeat of last year’s collapse

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a new coach, an influx of talent and this being a new season, Jack Eichel doesn’t buy into fears the hot-starting Buffalo Sabres are due for a familiar collapse.

Nine games in, the Sabres are leading the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10. And yet, it’s difficult to forget what happened last year, when Buffalo was leading the NHL with a 17-6-2 record following a 10-game winning streak before proceeding to win just 16 of its final 57 games.

”I think we’ve grown up a little bit,” Eichel said Tuesday before the Sabres hosted the San Jose Sharks. ”I don’t think we’re guarded at all. I think you can learn a lot from last year, but I don’t think we’re worried about that as much as just trying to be a good hockey team every night.”

Aside from returning players being a year older, the Sabres captain credited first-year coach Ralph Krueger for introducing an upbeat message and simplified system to a team that struggled during Phil Housley’s two-year tenure.

”I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink every day with the environment that’s been created right now,” Eichel said.

”Yeah, winning takes care of a lot of stuff, there’s no way to sugarcoat that,” he added. ”But I think the overall environment’s been a good one this year. I think guys feel a little bit more relaxed. It’s not as high strung.”

The 60-year-old Krueger in many ways is Housley’s polar opposite. Where Housley demanded the Sabres play a complex positional system, Krueger wants his players to play a more up-tempo, free-wheeling style.

Though Housley is a Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman and was a first-time coach, Krueger brings with him an array of worldly experience. His resume includes coaching Switzerland’s national team, the Edmonton Oilers and spending the previous five years running soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

Krueger was hired in May, and became Buffalo’s fifth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and takes over a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.

General manager Jason Botterill is impressed with what he’s seen from a team that has so far handled adversity. After opening a three-game California road trip with a 5-2 loss to Anaheim, the Sabres responded with wins against Los Angeles and San Jose.

”I think Ralph has come with a clear message of what he’s looking for from our players,” Botterill said. ”And I think our players have been very open to receiving that message.”

The Sabres are benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, in which seven players have scored three or more goals. Their power play is leading the league with 11 goals, six coming from rookie Victor Olofsson. And Buffalo’s goaltending has been sound, with veteran Carter Hutton enjoying a two-game shutout streak.

Though realizing the season is still young, Krueger referred to the Sabres’ successful start as validating the plan he and his staff implemented this summer.

”It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Krueger said. ”And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

ZACH SCRATCHED

Botterill dismissed fears of Zach Bogosian missing the entire season, though he didn’t have a timetable regarding when the veteran defenseman will return after having hip surgery in April. Bogosian has been skating on his own the past two weeks.

”It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back,” Botterill said. ”But it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right.”

D-DEPTH

Botterill isn’t concerned about a potentially crowded blue line once Brandon Montour returns from a hand injury sustained last month. The Sabres are currently carrying seven defensemen and have already informed Henri Jokiharju he’s not going anywhere even though he’s the only defenseman who doesn’t have to clear waivers in being demoted to the minors.

Calling it a ”great problem” to have, Botterill said he still has time to decide. He also explained the team’s depth at defense will be tested with Buffalo set to play 11 games in 19 days next month.

Max Domi continues to excel in year two with Habs

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When the Montreal Canadiens acquired Max Domi from the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, they were landing a player that had nine goals and 38 and 45 points in his two previous seasons. But in his first year as a Hab, he took his game to another level. He finished the season with a career-high 28 goals and 72 points in 82 games while playing down the middle. What does he do for an encore in year two?

Usually, the leading scorer on a team will get to play with some of the better players on the roster, but Domi’s in a bit of a unique spot. Montreal’s “first” line is made up of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, who have played together since last season. They’re a very effective line and head coach Claude Julien likes having them together.

The “third” line is made up of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia (when healthy) and Jonathan Drouin, who spent a considerable amount of time playing with Domi last year (they weren’t overly effective together). So that doesn’t leave many options for the 24-year-old, who opened the season with offensively-challenged winger Artturi Lehkonen and rookie Nick Suzuki.

Lehkonen is a responsible winger while Suzuki struggled to get his footing early on. Paul Byron, Drouin and Jordan Weal have all spent time on that “second” line at five-on-five. Now that Suzuki has started producing on a different line, Julien is promoting him back to Domi’s line ahead of Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks. How have the rotating players affected Domi’s on-ice performance in 2019-20? It hasn’t affected him negatively at all.

As of right now, he’s picked up three goals and nine points in nine games. He has a CF% of 56.36, a SCF% of 57.14, a HDCF% of 63.41 and a very reasonable PDO of .994.

The Habs forward has also contributed to an improving Montreal power play that ranked 30th last season. He’s currently tied for the team lead in power-play points, with four. This is a Canadiens team that missed the playoffs by three points last year. If they can continue to get solid production from their special teams unit, that could be the difference between staying home in April and making it to the postseason.

[MORE: Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs]

The once controversial trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk is no longer being questioned in Montreal. Domi has been so much better and healthier than Galchenyuk that this has become one of the biggest steals of general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the Canadiens.

What makes his time in Montreal even more impressive is that he’s putting up these numbers while transitioning from wing to center. Yes, he struggled with defensive-zone coverage at times last year and he won just 44.9 percent of his face-offs, but those are two things that should improve as he gains experience. We’ll see if he can keep it up, but he’s already winning 50 percent of his draws through nine games.

If he had 72 points last year and he continues to improve, it’s fair to wonder just how high his ceiling is. Can he become a point-per-game player on a yearly basis? That’s entirely possible. Another interesting storyline to follow will be his next contract (he’s going to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year). When he was acquired by Montreal, he signed a two-year bridge deal worth $3.150 million per year. If he builds on last season’s numbers and stays healthy, it’s entirely possible that he could fetch upwards of $7 million or $8 million annually on a long-term deal.

Whatever the price ends up being, Bergevin will probably be happy to pay it given how well this trade has turned out for an organization that has been dying for a talented center like Domi for more than decade.

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.