PHT Report Card

PHT Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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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.

Vegas faces offseason moves to get under salary cap

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Vegas Golden Knights answered one offseason question when they signed William Karlsson to an eight-year contract.

Now they have to get under the salary cap before the start of next season.

Per Capfriendly.com, the Golden Knights’ projected cap hit is currently $89,024,999. The NHL recently announced next year’s limit will be $81.5 million, up $2 million from last season. That means the team needs to shave a little more than $7.5 million to clear the cap.

”It can get cumbersome for some teams in the middle of the summer, but typically it doesn’t matter once you get to the season,” Golden Knights president George McPhee said before the start of the team’s development camp on Tuesday. ”The plan was to build a team the best we could. Every once in a while, you get tight on the cap in this business. We’re there now, we’ll manage it and we will hopefully be in a much better place going forward with lots of cap space if we ever need it.”

McPhee said he tendered qualifying offers to each of the team’s restricted free agents, and now it’s a wait-and-see approach. He added he isn’t worried about the lingering David Clarkson contract, and ”really isn’t the issue that people think it is because you can just replace that salary at the right time.”

The Golden Knights agreed to take on Clarkson’s contract from Columbus, which parted with a first- and second-round pick in exchange, while negotiating for Vegas to pick Karlsson in the 2017 expansion draft. But Clarkson’s NHL career is likely over due to a chronically injured back, and the Golden Knights will create some cap space when he goes on injured reserve.

Brandon Pirri, Ryan Carpenter, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Deryk Engelland are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Young forwards Pirri and Carpenter may no longer fit in Vegas’ scheme with Alex Tuch signed through the 2025-26 season, and Erik Haula expected back after missing much of last season with a knee injury. Bellemare and Engelland have expressed interest in staying in Las Vegas, but could be headed elsewhere.

Then there is forward Cody Eakin and defenseman Colin Miller, who have garnered plenty of attention from other teams.

Eakin, who is coming off a career season, is due to make $3.85 million next year, while Miller, who struggled toward the end of last season, is due $3,875,000.

”We are going to have to make a few moves,” McPhee said. ”We’ve planned for that; we are going through that exercise right now. When we’re done, we’ll talk about it and explain it.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Karlsson among those choosing to stay put, avoid free agency

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Erik Karlsson wanted some time and space.

When the San Jose Sharks acquired the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in a trade last September, he and his wife told them up front they wouldn’t sign a long-term contract until they played a season to see if it was a fit. They gave general manager Doug Wilson their word they would make a decision in enough time let the Sharks plan their offseason.

Karlsson signed two weeks before free agency opened.

”They were letting me play hockey and getting adjusted to everything, and that meant the world to me,” Karlsson said after signing for $92 million over eight years . ”I’m very happy with how everything happened and that they didn’t force me into making a decision earlier than this.”

Karlsson is one of several players who might have landed richer contracts via free agency and opted instead to re-sign with their teams. For Karlsson, Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes, Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Washington’s Carl Hagelin and Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn, staying put won out over the risk of the open market.

”You never know what’s going to be out there if you go to free agency,” Edler said. ”There’s a lot of factors coming up here in the next few years with the potential lockout (and) there’s an expansion draft (for Seattle).”

A lower than expected salary cap set at $81.5 million also means there will be less money available all around July 1.

Of course, it’s not like most of these deals were hometown discounts. Karlsson got the richest salary for a defenseman in NHL history, Hayes signed for $50 million and Skinner turned a career year into $72 million . No matter the cap, the possibility existed that free agent frenzy could land them bigger deals.

They just didn’t want to find out.

”Going to July 1 is nice, (but) it’s kind of nice to be able to get it over with and sign with a tremendous team,” Hayes said. ”July 1 and unrestricted free agency is definitely an intriguing idea. But when I sat down with my agent and we kind of thought about what type of team I’d want to go and where I’d fit into the organization and the team, the Flyers were at the top of the list.”

The Flyers acquired the rights to Hayes from Winnipeg in early June and had to sell him on the benefits of playing in Philly. Elsewhere, familiarity helped. Just as Karlsson and wife Melinda got to know the Bay Area and Sharks organization over nine months, Skinner’s 40-goal season in Buffalo convinced him to stay.

”Going through the process, you think about everything, you weigh the pros and cons,” Skinner said. ”We just didn’t feel the need to get to that point because I like it here and I didn’t feel like it needed to get to that point where I wanted to look elsewhere.”

Coburn, who took a pay cut to sign a $3.4 million, two-year contract , said Tampa feeling like home off the ice and ”unfinished business” on the ice made staying his family’s top choice. After finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.

”We have an unbelievable team here and I want to be a part of it,” Coburn said.

Hagelin feels the same way about the Capitals after playing only 27 regular-season and playoff games with them since late February. The 30-year-old feared Washington’s salary-cap squeeze might impede him from sticking around but was willing to take a lower salary than he could’ve gotten on the open market to get an $11 million, four-year deal with a team he believes can win a championship in that time like it did in 2018.

”I wouldn’t have signed with Washington if I didn’t believe there’s still a good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Hagelin said.

Edler last played a playoff game in 2014 and the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Combine that with him being 33 and it might have been easy to understand Edler wanting to test the market. Instead, he had no wanderlust and agreed to a $12 million, two-year deal after 13 seasons with the Canucks.

”I’ve said from the beginning that if a deal was available with Vancouver, that was my No. 1 priority,” Edler said.

Wilson, the Sharks GM, traded for Karlsson and now locked down an elite offensive defenseman for the rest of his prime. Wilson related to their situation because his wife is from Chicago, where he played his entire career, and took the chance that the Karlssons would enjoy San Jose enough to want to stay.

”We trusted in that process,” Wilson said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devils introduce Jack Hughes to New Jersey after big week

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Devils introduced No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes to New Jersey on Tuesday – even though he is already sharing the spotlight.

The Devils have given notice they might be re-emerging as a contender with an encouraging draft and the stunning acquisition of six-time All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. It has all gone a long way in turning pessimism into optimism for a team that finished with the league’s third-worst record and out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

”Adding a talent like Jack Hughes on Friday night and Saturday, P.K. Subban, obviously I think the Devils are back in business,” general manager Ray Shero said.

It started with winning the draft lottery in early April to the selection of Hughes, a center, with the top pick Friday to the trade for Subban, who immediately steps into the role as New Jersey’s top defenseman.

With 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall expected to return to form after an injury-marred campaign, 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier continuing his development and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri playing his best hockey, the Devils have a shot to do something in a league where the St. Louis Blues come out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

Devils majority owner Josh Harris can’t wait to the season to start, adding Devils’ fans are used to winning Stanley Cups – the last was in 2003 – and now is the time to start doing it again.

”Jack joining the franchise represents another turn in our goal to be elite,” Harris said at a news conference for Hughes at the Prudential Center. ”We said that we’re here not to do anything other than consistently compete and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.”

With parents Jim and Ellen sitting in the front row, the 18-year-old Hughes was soft spoken, confident and composed speaking on a stage that included Harris and Shero.

The Florida-born Hughes said he had no doubt he would be playing next season in the NHL for the Devils and he hopes to play a creative game.

It is just what the talent-starved Devils need. The past week was a major step in Shero’s rebuilding plan over the past four years. It started soon after he was hired with the trades for Hall and Palmieri, the draft of Hischier, another center, and now the selection of Hughes and the trade with Nashville for Subban and his $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons.

Hughes hasn’t stopped going since the draft. He returned to New Jersey with Shero, Harris and his parents on a private jet and spent the next few days making media appearances. He attended the New York Yankees game against Toronto on Monday night, sitting for 30 minutes with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and actor Adam Sandler.

He is eager now to return to suburban Toronto, where he grew up, and begin preparations for an 82-game season against men, and being a part of a team.

”I want to be Jack Hughes, not Patrick Kane or Matt Barzal,” Hughes said. ”I want to have my own flavor, my own excitement to my game.”

The 170-pound playmaking center mixed poise, drive, and sheer skating ability to score 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the Devils. Hischier had 20 goals and 32 assists as a rookie.

Hughes doesn’t see himself as competing with Hischier for the job as the top-line center.

”I think to win you have to have 1A and 1B,” said Hughes, who will wear No. 86 with the Devils. ”No team wins with just one really good center. Travis Zajac has been a really good center for a long time and I think the Devils are in a really good spot. In the NHL, I feel whoever I play with will be a really good player.”

Coach John Hynes is looking forward to using all his new talent.

”It’s exciting,” Hynes said. ”It’s what you want. You want guys to come in and give you a chance to win and coach some excellent players.”

And who is to say the Devils are done? They still have $25 million available in cap space.

”I feel with the pieces we have at this moment, we are a much better team than we were on Thursday,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. ”That’s encouraging.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Hughes picks No. 86; Gritty surprises fan

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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.

• Why did the Avs trade Carl Soderberg? (Mile High Hockey)

• Breadman will get dough wherever he ends up. (Postmedia)

• Jack Hughes to wear “flashy” No. 86. (ESPN)

• The Winnipeg Jets face cap challenges this summer. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking the free agent goalie market. (TSN.ca)

• One Toronto draft pick once trick-or-treated at Mike Babcock’s house. (Sportsnet)

• First-round pick says sister is better than him. (CBC.ca)

• Jarome Iginla atop the list of Hall of Fame candidates for 2020. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL’s secret spending cap: How a shift in escrow acts as a hidden force that discourages spending. (The Athletic)

• How the United States Hockey League prepared Ronnie Attard for the big time. (USA Hockey)

• A seven-year-old hockey fan wanted a prosthetic leg that repped his favorite team, and Gritty was happy to surprise him. (CNN)

• A list of the five frontrunners to sign Matt Duchene. (The Hockey News)

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