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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.

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Canucks reportedly give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Will Laviolette bring out best of Predators?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Duchene under pressure to make Predators Stanley Cup contenders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Few players enter the 2019-20 season with more to prove than Matt Duchene.

He’d be under pressure for his fat new contract in any context. Frankly, there’s plenty of room for debate that Duchene will be worth his $8 million cap hit next season, let alone as the 28-year-old ages out of his prime, since the hefty deal runs through 2025-26. His two-way flaws have been there for a while, but don’t be surprised if they’re discussed more regularly now that he’s making bigger bucks.

Things could get even dicier if P.K. Subban knocks it out of the park in New Jersey, too.

Sure, the Predators didn’t technically trade Subban for Duchene directly, as the former was moved while the latter was signed by free agency, but even GM David Poile admitted that this was functionally a trade, as The Tennessean reported.

“Let’s call it like it is,” Poile said. “If we don’t make the Subban trade and get rid of his money, it’s going to be much more difficult to get into the Duchene sweepstakes. … It took the pressure off. So Subban for Duchene sounds like a reasonable way to say it.”

And Duchene is no stranger to people being unreasonable when they’re grading a trade.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

It might be difficult to believe, but for a while there, a big reaction to the first Duchene trade was that Kyle Turris was outplaying Duchene. Things soured to the point that Duchene grew tired of the comparisons, and the narrative took quite a while to shift. By the time Duchene showed he was far and away the superior player, people basically just moved on.

Fair or not, the story shifted to Duchene failing to be the upgrade the Ottawa Senators hoped he would be, and there are uncomfortable parallels between Senators GM Pierre Dorion long coveting Duchene, and Predators GM Poile having the same long-time interest.

Could it be that teams have been overrating Duchene for all this time, right down to the Blue Jackets making the questionable decision to basically sell their 2019 NHL Draft to rent Duchene and Ryan Dzingel?

In a fairer world, most of the ridicule would go to the GMs. We don’t live in a world of nuance, though, which means players like Duchene catch most of the heat, even if they’re producing at about the level they always have.

It doesn’t help that team-wide failures have followed Duchene to a tragically comical extent, and his teams have only made the playoffs three times during his 11-season NHL career, with Duchene generating 16 points in just 18 playoff games.

Memorably, Duchene was traded out of a miserable Avalanche situation, only to see that Colorado team burst into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Senators … well, ended up becoming even more miserable than the Duchene-era Avs were. Heck, the Blue Jackets almost missed the playoffs despite going all-in, too.

Maybe most awkwardly, Duchene could perform at the level any reasonable person would expect, and still receive merciless mockery.

Duchene carrying an $8M cap hit and $10M salary sets the stage for sticker shock because, as speedy and skilled as he is, he’s always been average at-best from a two-way standpoint.

It’s fair to question if he can be a 70-point player with consistency. He’s hit that mark before, including last season, yet he scored 59 points or less from 2014-15 through 2017-18, including languishing with just 41 points in 77 games in 2016-17.

If Duchene settles into a 25-goal, 60-65 point range while Subban reclaims his Norris form (he was a finalist as recently as 2017-18), and the Predators struggle to get to the next level, are people going to be fair to Duchene? Probably not.

This is arguably the first time that Duchene’s truly chosen where he wants to play, and he’s been linked to the Predators for years. Considering the pressure Duchene is under, this could end up being a “be careful what you wish for” situation.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.