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NHL Power Rankings: Jets offense can be scary good

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When we talk about the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference the first team that comes to mind would have to be the Nashville Predators. They were in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, made significant additions to the roster, and are still in a position to make at least one more this week before the NHL trade deadline.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights, currently the top team in the West, also have to be in that conversation as well. They have a great offense, strong goaltending, and seem to have that intangible chip on the shoulder with something to prove.

But after that who do we have next?

Well, it might just have to be the Winnipeg Jets thanks in large part to an offense that has become ridiculously good in a short period of time. After finishing sixth in the league in goals a season ago, the Jets have come back this season and entering play on Monday are third in the league in goals per game.

Now that Mark Scheifele is back in the lineup that are clicking on all cylinders.

They not only have high-end talent like Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Scheifele, and Nikolaj Ehlers, it is a deep, balanced offense that really does not have many weak links.

Entering the week they have the top spot in the Central Division (though Nashville is only two points back with two games still in hand) and are just two points back of Vegas for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference.

This is an organization that is still searching for its first ever postseason victory, and how well Connor Hellebuyck holds up in net will determine how many wins they will be able to get in the playoffs once they get there, but this offense is going to give them a chance against anybody.

They reach the No. 3 spot in this week’s power rankings.

Let us take a look at where everyone else sits this week.

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — They were blown out by Vancouver recently but that is just a small blip on the radar. They are still 20-3-3 in their past 26 games.

2. Vegas Golden Knights — Entering play on Monday the Vegas Golden Knights have the best points percentage in the NHL. That means they are on track to win the Presidents’ Trophy. In their first season.

3. Winnipeg Jets — They are a fun team to watch. The rebuild has been slow, but it is finally paying off.

4. Nashville Predators — They have to be considered one of the top favorites in the NHL at this point and you have to assume they are going to make a big addition before the trade deadline. Rick Nash seems perfect.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — With four losses in their past seven games that qualifies as a little bit of a slump. Still not much to worry about big picture. This team is legit. Slumps like this happen over 82 games.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — Matt Murray and Carl Hagelin starting to round into form is a pretty big deal for the Penguins. Could be game-changers.

The Rest Of The Contenders

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — They lost four games in a row in mid-January. Since then they are 11-4-0 and scoring a ton of goals. They are never boring.

8. Dallas Stars — Remember just a couple of years ago how their games were just defense optional goal scoring surges? The Stars are fifth in the NHL in goals against this season. The Ken Hitchcock effect.

9. Philadelphia Flyers — They are winning an awful lot but with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth injured who is going to play in goal?

10. Washington Capitals — The results are there, but the more I watch them the more doubts I have about them. Still very good. Still a dangerous team. Just not sure about them.

All Of These Teams Seem The Same

11. San Jose Sharks — Have to give the Sharks a lot of credit for getting through some pretty significant injuries and still finding ways to score goals and win. Not easy to be without a player like Joe Thornton.

12. New Jersey Devils — Just when it looked like they were in danger of really falling out of the playoff race they go on a four-game winning streak. Taylor Hall is making a strong MVP argument for himself.

13. St. Louis Blues — A three-game losing streak, as well as a surging Dallas team, has pushed the Blues back into a Wild Card spot and a little closer to the playoff bubble. They are still in pretty good shape so concern shouldn’t be too high. Yet.

14. Minnesota Wild — Eric Staal is quietly having a better season this year than he did last year. His performance last year was completely unexpected, too. If they make the playoffs he will be a big reason why.

15. Calgary Flames — Along with the Kings and Ducks, the two teams that follow them in this week’s rankings, they could either finish in the top-three of the Pacific Division or just as easily miss the playoffs. They have only won five of their past 14 games.

16. Los Angeles Kings — They don’t have a ton of talent and could probably use a bit of a reset in terms of how they build their team. They could make the playoffs, but even if they do, do they seem like a threat to go far?

17. Anaheim Ducks — Right in the thick of that jumbled Western Conference playoff race, but everyone they are competing with has games in hand on them, giving them a slightly steeper mountain to climb with less margin for error than some of the other teams they are competing with.

18. New York Islanders — They already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season. Imagine them with a halfway decent defense and goaltending situation.

19. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s take a look at how things have gone for the Hurricanes over the past month. Lost two. Won three. Lost three. Won three. Lost three. Consistently inconsistent.

20. Florida Panthers — They have won a lot recently, they still have a ton of games in hand on everybody, but it still seems like that gap is still too much to make up. But we will give them credit for the way they have played recently and bump them up a few spots.

21. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon returned, and that is good. Then they lost to Edmonton at home. That is … not good.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time. They should be better than this. They might be better than this. They need to start getting some results though.

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23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist looks completely exhausted and totally worn out. The team in front of him is lousy defensively and is probably only going to get worse over the next week when players get traded.

24. Detroit Red Wings — Bad time for Mike Green to be injured. Unless they are just keeping him out of the lineup to preserve him for a trade?

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The eight-game losing streak got a lot of attention but it is actually much worse than that. They have won just five of their past 17 games entering play on Monday.

26. Ottawa Senators — Who is going to go over the next week? Derrick Brassard? Mike Hoffman? Jean-Gabriel Pageau? Dare we ask … Erik Karlsson?

27. Vancouver Canucks — When you are rebuilding and out of the playoff race you just have to re-sign Eric Gudbranson. Well, no, no you don’t, but the Canucks seem determined to make that happen anyway.

28. Arizona Coyotes — They still have the worst record in the league but give them a lot of credit for playing the way they have recently and stringing some wins together.

A Level Of Their Own At The Bottom

29. Edmonton Oilers — Updating a stat from a week ago. Since Feb. 1, a stretch of nine games, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have combined to score 16 goals. The Edmonton Oilers have won two of those games. Keep boosting those draft lottery odds.

3o. Buffalo Sabres — They were lousy with Jack Eichel. They are even lousier without him. Perhaps the low point of the season came over the weekend against the Los Angeles Kings when they gave up three goals on three consecutive shots.

31. Montreal Canadiens — Only 4-11-1 in their past 16 and one of the worst records in the NHL overall.

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

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.

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Sabres’ Brandon Montour out rest of preseason with hand injury

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour will miss the remainder of training camp because of a hand injury and it’s uncertain whether he’ll be ready for the start of the season in two weeks.

The Sabres released no details of Montour’s injury on Thursday.

The team said it will provide an update on his status at the end camp. It’s unclear when Montour was hurt after he logged more than 17 minutes in a 4-1 preseason loss at Columbus on Tuesday.

Montour is a fourth-year NHL player and projected to play a top-four role on Buffalo’s blue line. He was acquired in a trade with Anaheim in February.

Buffalo will start the season minus defensemen Zach Bogosian and Lawrence Pilut, who are recovering from offseason surgery.

The Sabres also announced forward Scott Wilson and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald are listed day to day with lower body injuries.