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NHL Power Rankings: Bruins contenders again

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If you were starting to get worried that sports fans in Boston didn’t have enough good things to be happy about lately I am here to bring you some good news: Their hockey team is looking like a legitimate contender again. Especially now that they are healthy.

The Bruins enter play on Tuesday on a 15-3-2 run over their past 20 games, are one of the best possession teams in hockey, and have three of the best forwards in the league (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak) at the top of their lineup to drive the offense.

One of biggest developments though are the fact they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years with an infusion of young talent, including one of the league’s top rookies in Charlie McAvoy. He is not only playing more than 23 minutes per game, but is also playing them at an extremely high level. Once the strength of their roster, the Bruins defense took a significant hit in recent years due to age, the salary cap, and some trades that depleted their depth. With Torey Krug taking a big step forward and the development of McAvoy and Brandon Carlo that unit is once again a formidable one for a contender.

Then there is the resurgence of starting goaltender Tuukka Rask.

It’s not that Rask was necessarily bad the past two seasons, but he wasn’t really the same player we saw when he was helping lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and was one of the top goalies in the league. After posting some league average numbers the past two seasons Rask is back to performing like one of the top goalies in the league and has been nearly unbeatable during the Bruins’ recent hot streak.

Entering play on Tuesday he is 10-0-1 in his past 11 decisions, a stretch where he has allowed just 15 goals. He has allowed more than two goals just once during that stretch and more than one goal just four times.

The Bruins crack the top-five in our power rankings this week.

Let us check in and see where everyone else fits in.

The Best Of The Best

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — The Lightning are running away with the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter Tuesday with a seven-point lead over the Capitals and have still played two fewer games. What is not to love about this team right now? They deserve their own category at the moment.

The Elites

2. Vegas Golden Knights — At this point they are not just the best expansion team in NHL history, they are on their way to becoming the best expansion team in any of the four major sports. Another long winning streak, 9-0-1 in their past 10 games. Simply the best NHL story in decades.

3. Washington Capitals — Here come the Capitals. After winning just 10 of their first 20 games they have stormed back over the next 20 by going 14-4-2. They enter Tuesday a point ahead of the Devils in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

4. New Jersey Devils — If it wasn’t for what Vegas is doing these guys would probably be the biggest surprise in the league this season. The biggest individual player surprise? Brian Gibbons is tied for the team lead in goals at the moment.

5. Boston Bruins — Starting to look like a contender for all of the reasons mentioned above.

6. Los Angeles Kings — Still having a great season but have cooled off a bit since we last checked in on the power rankings. The top of the roster is great, but still some questions about the bottom half.

The Strong Contenders

7. Nashville Predators — Their depth is going to be tested for a bit here without Filip Forsberg. He was on pace for another 30-goal season before he landed on injured reserve.

8. Winnipeg Jets — I feel like Patrik Laine isn’t getting enough attention this season. He is on pace for 37 goals and if he gets there would have two 35-goal seasons before his age 20 season in the NHL. That has only been done by four players in NHL history: Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, Sidney Crosby and Dale Hawerchuk.

9. St. Louis Blues — They have hit their first slump of the season, winning just three of their past 10 games.  Not time to panic yet. It happens over the course of an 82-game season.

The Rest Of The Best

10. New York Rangers — They don’t always look great, but they keep stacking up points. Their upcoming schedule though is absolutely brutal and is going to be a huge test.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs — We’re back the wild, high-scoring games that have to be driving Mike Babcock crazy. Their recent road trip was not particularly kind to them, but they get a lot of home cooking over the next few weeks.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They have given up at least four goals in six of their past 10 games, including five games where they have surrendered at least five. Not what we are used to seeing from this team the past couple of seasons.

The Middle Ground

13. San Jose Sharks — Joe Pavelski is on pace for what would be (on a per-game basis) the worst goal-scoring season of his career. Shot volume has taken a bit of a dip, but not as big as the drop in shooting percentage. Little bit of bad luck at play? If that corrects itself could be a huge development or the Sharks in the second half.

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are right on the playoff bubble with what is, once again, one of the worst team save percentages in the NHL. How does this keep happening every single season no matter who the goalie is? They are so, so, so close. It is almost painful how close they are.

15. New York Islanders — Josh Bailey is on pace for more than 100 points. This probably is not getting the attention it deserves.

16. Dallas Stars — Very hot and cold team. Still should probably expect more given what the top of their roster looks like and how many big moves they make every summer.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are finally getting Zach Parise back. Getting him back healthy, as well as Nino Neiderreiter, could make this a interesting team. They have hung around despite those two major injuries.

18. Chicago Blackhawks — Corey Crawford‘s injury problems are starting to become a concern, especially as the team has only won two games this season with him out of the lineup.

19. Philadelphia Flyers — Very quietly Claude Giroux is on pace for what would be a career high in points. His career high was 93 points (in 77 games) in 2011-12. He is currently on track for 99 if he is able to play in all 82 games this season (and maintain this same pace).

Running Out Of Time To Make A Move

20. Florida Panthers — The Panthers have won five in a row and are trying to make a little bit of a move in the Eastern Conference. But is that winning streak a case of too little, too late? Even with it they are still five points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them.

21. Anaheim Ducks — Getting their centers back healthy might make a pretty big difference. They have won four out of five and are, as of Tuesday, back into a playoff position.

22. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau is amazing but this really is not the way the Flames envisioned this season going, especially after their big offseason moves.

23. Colorado Avalanche — Exciting offense plus bad defense and goaltending can at least make for some fun hockey. If you’re going to miss the playoffs again you should at least be entertaining. Nathan MacKinnon alone has been worth the price of admission this season.

24. Pittsburgh Penguins — The “played a lot of hockey the past two years” excuse is starting to get old. It is simply a flawed team that has too many empty roster spots (like, for example, the entire fourth line and a big part of the third line) at the moment. Out of their 13 games in December they only won two of them in regulation.

25. Edmonton Oilers — They showed some signs of life with a four-game winning streak in mid-December but then followed it up with a three-game losing streak. That gap between them and a playoff spot really is not getting any smaller.

Not Too Early To Start Looking To Next Season

26. Detroit Red Wings — At this point it’s just a matter of watching to see when — or if — they start making trades. Mike Green would probably be an attractive player. Could they find a taker for Jimmy Howard?

27. Montreal Canadiens — Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value. Don’t trade Max Pacioretty at his lowest value.

28. Vancouver Canucks — It was fun for a little bit in Vancouver this season, but it is just not their time yet.

29. Buffalo Sabres — Hey, at least the Bills are going to the playoffs!

30. Ottawa Senators —  Since starting the season 8-3-5 the Senators have gone 4-14-3 and completely fallen apart. Things are looking grim.

31. Arizona Coyotes — Tough situation. Extremely young team that has some talent that you should be excited about but is just overmatched on most nights.

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.

Bridge deal for Nurse could end up costing Oilers big time

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It took some time, but the Edmonton Oilers were finally able to re-sign restricted free agent Darnell Nurse on Monday afternoon. Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, the Oilers opted for a two-year bride deal worth $6.4 million ($3.2 million AAV). But was that the right move?

It’s great that the contract is done. Nurse can now report to the team and the Oilers can get the talented defender to training camp. Of course, Edmonton is pretty thin on defense, so he’ll be a welcomed addition to the team. But you can’t help wondering if this was just a quick fix to a problem that will resurface in a couple of years.

There will be added pressure on the 23-year-old to perform, especially because Andrej Sekera is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Nurse is coming off a season that saw him put up six goals and 26 points in 82 games. He also had a plus-15 rating and 67 penalty minutes while averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game.

After making it to the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Oilers fell flat on their face last season. They were bad. But looking at the data from last year, it’s easy to see that Nurse wasn’t the reason they failed to make the playoffs. Most of the numbers he put up ended up being better than the team average. For example, his CF% was 51.05 percent, while the team’s CF% was 50.59 percent, per Natural Stat Trick. He was also above the team average when it came to SCF%, HDCF%.

Nurse’s primary defense partner last season was Adam Larsson. The pair played just over 820 minutes together in 2017-18. The pairings’ CF% while together was 50.92 percent. While they were apart, Nurse’s CF% went up to 52.35 percent. Larsson’s dropped to 50.06 percent. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s noticeable enough.

Nurse is still just 23 years old, so there’s room for his game to grow. Getting him signed for $3.2 million per year over the next two years is a great deal given the numbers he posted last season. The problem with that thinking, is that it’s a little short-sighted. GM Peter Chiarelli might be getting a bargain now but if Nurse keeps getting better, his next contract will be long and expensive. Sure, the 26 points he put up are modest, but his points-per-game have increased in each of his three seasons. It’s not unrealistic to expect him to top 30 points this year.

The Montreal Canadiens are one example of a team that got burned by a bridge deal. In 2012, they signed P.K. Subban to a two-year deal worth less than $6 million in total. Subban held out, but eventually came back and won the Norris Trophy that season. The next time his contract expired, he ended up getting $72 million over eight years.

Yes, Nurse and Subban play a different style. And yes, this is an extreme example, but when you’re paying Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl big money ($21 million combined), getting long-term bargains on other players is important. The Oilers will benefit from having one of their top defenders signed to a team-friendly contract for two years, but Nurse, who will be an RFA again when this deal expires, could make them pay for it the next time his contract is up.

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.

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

PHT Morning Skate: Anonymous player poll; McKenzie’s pre-season draft rankings

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Montreal Canadiens have stocked their roster with former first-round draft picks. There are currently 13 of them with them in training camp. (Montreal Gazette)

• Speaking of Canadiens first-rounders, Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored a goal during his first preseason game at the Bell Center. He’s starting to look more and more comfortable on North American ice. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators have a new assistant general manager, and his name is Peter MacTavish. (Canadian Press)

• Speaking of the Sens, GM Pierre Dorion insists that despite all the drama, they’re still headed on the right track. (CBC.ca)

• Sabres prospect Alexander Nylander‘s professional career has gotten off to a slow start, but he was outstanding during Monday’s preseason game against Columbus. (Buffalo News)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have changed up their power play structure so that it looks a little bit more the one Washington ran last season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• TSN hockey insider Bob Mckenzie came out with his pre-season draft rankings already. To no ones surprise, Jack Hughes is at the top of the list. (TSN.ca)

• The Sharks welcomed Erik Karlsson to San Jose with a huge billboard and an ad in the local newspaper. (NHL.com)

• Even though it’s unclear if NHL players will be going to the 2022 Olympic Games in China, commissioner Gary Bettman is committed to growing the game there. (Inside the games)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli conducted an anonymous player poll. It sounds like certain NHLers believe that the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres will get things turned around pretty quickly this season. (TSN.ca)

• Many players on the New Jersey Devils surpassed their expected goal totals from last season, but what will they have in store for us in 2018-19? (All about the jersey)

• Hurricanes forward Victor Rask injured himself in the kitchen, which is really unfortunate. He’s expected to miss “months,” according to Rod Brind’Amour, so it’ll be up to players like Lucas Wallmark to step up. (Canes Country)

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.

Connor McDavid chasing rare, personal three-peat

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Three years into his career and Connor McDavid is already the NHL’s most dominant offensive player.

He has already topped the 100-point mark in two different seasons (there have only been four other 100-point seasons across the league over the past five years) and on a points per game level has outperformed the rest of the league by a fairly substantial margin.

He also enters the 2018-19 season with a chance to make a little bit of history.

Having won the NHL’s scoring title in each of the past two seasons, McDavid almost certainly enters this season as the favorite to do so again (he is also the odds on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP). Barring some sort of an injury that robs of him significant playing time, there does not seem to be much of anything that is going to stand in his way of winning it again. He has already produced at a rate that is unmatched by any of his peers in the league, and he seems to be driven to do even more this season. Given that he is entering his age 22 season, the age where scorers tend to hit their statistical peak, it seems possible he can improve on what he has already accomplished offensively.

So let’s pretend, just hypothetically, that all happens and he takes home his third consecutive scoring title.

It would be an accomplishment that puts him in some pretty rare company as it has only been accomplished by five other players in the history of the NHL.

The list:

  • Jaromir Jagr, as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, won four consecutive scoring titles between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 seasons. This was Jagr’s statistical peak and saw him record nearly 100 more points than any other player in the league during those four years. He was only challenged for the top spot in the final two years when Pavel Bure finished two points behind him in 1999-00 and Joe Sakic finished three points behind him in 2000-01.
  • Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL’s scoring leaderboards throughout most of the 1980s, winning the scoring title in eight consecutive seasons between 1979-80 and 1986-87. His run came to an end during the 1987-88 season when Mario Lemieux won back-to-back scoring titles before Gretzky won two more 1989-90 and 1990-91.
  • Guy LaFleur was one of the centerpieces of the Montreal Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s (thanks to some help from a couple of poorly managed expansion teams) and was at his best between 1975 and 1978 when he won three consecutive scoring titles. He followed this run with consecutive third-place finishes the next two years.
  • Phil Esposito won four consecutive scoring titles for the Boston Bruins between 1970 and 1974. This was part of a six-year run that saw him lead the league five times … the only year he didn’t win was the 1969-70 season when he came in second behind his Bruins teammate, Bobby Orr.
  • Gordie Howe won four of his six career scoring titles between 1950 and 1954, twice pulling off the NHL’s version of the triple crown by leading the league in goals, assists, and points in the same season (1950-51 and 1952-53).

If McDavid does it, he would be the only one on this list other than Gretzky to have done it within his first four years in the league, which is just incredible.

It is also another reminder as to just how incredible it is that the Oilers have made the playoffs just once in his career and are no guarantee to return this season.

Related: Non-playoff teams most likely to return to the postseason this 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.