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PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the nonsensical Minnesota Wild

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Take a look at the NHL standings and look at the top-four teams in each conference. Do it right now. Here they are. Go look. Take a look at the teams you see in those groups.

A lot of the ones you expect to see, right? A lot of the teams we have talked about all season.

Nashville. Tampa Bay. Boston. Vegas (yes, Vegas). Winnipeg. Pittsburgh. Toronto. Teams like that.

Then there is the Minnesota Wild. A team that almost nobody is talking about or has talked about it, mostly because they are decidedly average in just about every major category, sitting with one of the 10 best records in the league.

Nothing about their actual play on the ice really points to a team that should be that high in the standings.

They are one of the worst teams in the league in shot attempt percentage during 5-on-5 play.

They are in the bottom 10 in shots on goal for and shots on goal against per game. They are a middle of the pack team on the power play and the penalty kill. They are getting okay goaltending, but not really the type of out-of-this world performance that typically lifts a mediocre team this high up in the standings.

They do have a fairly decent shooting percentage (both overall and during 5-on-5 play) but like the goaltending it is nothing so out of the ordinary that it should lead to such a significant bump in the standings.

Along with all of that they really haven’t been a terribly healthy team this season and have had to deal with some pretty significant injuries to some pretty significant players. Nino Niederreiter has missed 19 games. Zach Parise has missed 39. Charlie Coyle has missed 16. Mikael Granlund has missed five.

Even with all of that here they are with one of the better records in the league.

None of it makes sense. Based on everything mentioned above they should probably be one of the worst teams in the league.

The two things they have going for them this season are the fact they have, for whatever reason, been nearly unbeatable at home with a staggering 24-5-6 record at the Xcel Energy Center.

They also have a couple of key forwards in Eric Staal, Jason Zucker (two of the top forwards that have been healthy all season) and Mikael Granlund having some huge years offensively.

Staal remains a remarkable story based on the way his career has rebounded since arriving in Minnesota before the start of the 2016-17 season. He looked like he was a shell of his former self during his last year in Carolina, but after a nice bounceback season a year ago he has come back this season and producing the way he did in his prime when he was one of the best players in the league.

Zucker has already shattered his previous career high in goals, and has once again helped form a pretty strong duo with Granlund when they have been used together. Since the start of last season Zucker and Granlund have spent more than 1,400 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together (via Natural Stat Trick), during which time the Wild have outscored teams by a 74-45 margin and controlled more than 51 percent of the shot attempts (an impressive number considering how bad the rest of the Wild’s possession numbers are).

Those three players deserve a ton of credit for the Wild’s current standing.

They are are also another nice reminder that sometimes a lot of what happens in the NHL in any given season can be completely random and not make any sense. It is the beauty of the sport sometimes. No other sports lends itself to that sort of performance for teams the way hockey can.

On to the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games entering the week and have no weakness on paper or on the ice. The best team in hockey.

2. Boston Bruins — They fact the have won six of their past seven games and are averaging more than five goals per game during that stretch without Patrice Bergeron for all of those games and Charlie McAvoy for five of them is remarkable. A scary team in the Eastern Conference.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning — Speaking of scary teams in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay is 9-0-1 in its past 10, has already hit 100 points on the season, and has two of the top scorers in the league. Honestly, any of these top three teams have a legit argument to be in the top spot.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Patrik Laine has 15 goals in his past 11 games. That is an absurd run. The Jets have a lot of great offensive weapons. He is the most dangerous.

The Rest Of The Contenders

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They have cooled off a little bit recently but enter the week having won three out of four on their current road trip.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have not always looked great, but they enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division, have won three out of four, and are still playing without their starting goalie.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — They had a pretty miserable four-game road trip recently but returned home with a big win over Pittsburgh. Given the number of shots they give up their playoff success will still largely be determined by how well Frederik Andersen plays in net.

8. Minnesota Wild — Not really sure how they are doing it, but they have one of the top records in the league. Eric Staal is getting most of the attention for his season, but let’s not overlook Jason Zucker’s 28 goals.

The ‘could go either way’ group

9. Philadelphia Flyers — Being a fan of this team has to be quite a trip. So far this season they have lost 10 games in a row, won six in a row two different times, and then lost five in a row over the past week and a half before snapping out of it by shutting down one of the best offensive teams in the league over the weekend.

10. Florida Panthers — They have the inside track for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter the week on a nine-game point streak and have been on a roll for a couple of months now. I wonder what the narrative surrounding this team and its front office changes the past two seasons would look like had they not lost Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Nick Bjugstad for more than 114 man-games a season ago. Think that had something to do with their decline? Think their healthy this season has something to do with their improvement?

11. Washington Capitals — If Braden Holtby does not get back to playing like Braden Holtby it could be an awfully short spring in Washington. Shorter than usual, that is.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are starting to pick it up at the right time but they still have very little margin for error in that race with New Jersey and Florida.

13. San Jose Sharks — Brent Burns is on track to finish in the top-three in shots on goal for the third year in a row. For a defenseman that is unheard of. Bobby Orr used to do that. That is about it.

14. Colorado Avalanche — If you are going to lose, lose in overtime. The Avalanche have lost five of their past 10 games. Not great. But four of those losses have come in overtime or a shootout which means they’ve earned 14 of a possible 20 points over that stretch. That will keep you in the playoff hunt.

15. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall is still doing amazing things but he needs some help. The Devils have lost six out of 10 entering the week and are still waiting for trade deadline acquisition Michael Grabner to record his first point with the team.

16. Anaheim Ducks — When healthy Ryan Getzlaf is still an incredible talent. He has 50 points in 44 games this season. With a healthy lineup they would not be a fun first-round matchup in the playoffs for anybody.

17. Dallas Stars — They are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. They still have a hold on a playoff spot and at the moment would sneak into Pacific Division playoff bracket as the first wild card team, avoiding a first-second round gauntlet that could include Winnipeg and Nashville. So … a strategic tank? Doubtful, because it still seems like something is holding them back, but it could work out that way.

18. Los Angeles Kings — Just when it looked like they were going to make a nice little push they get obliterated at home by a Blues team that had been falling apart.

19. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith‘s absence was a big problem for them. His return did not go well for him or the Flames as they dropped a big game to an Islanders team that had lost eight in a row.

20. St. Louis Blues — The only reason they are not firmly in the lottery at this point is because they had such a great start to the season. They have been awful for weeks, though.

Hope the ping pong balls go your way

21. Edmonton Oilers — They are 7-4-0 in their past 11 games, mostly because Connor McDavid has gone from “best player in the world” to “superman” mode.

22. New York Rangers — Ryan Spooner has 12 points in seven games since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade. He is a restricted free agent after the season and making a nice argument to be a part of the Rangers’ immediate future.

23. Chicago Blackhawks — Not sure I fully understand the front office’s apparent plan to stick with the same defense that has, for the most part, stunk this season.

24. Carolina Hurricanes — Maybe next year will be the year it all comes together for them, he said for the eighth year in a row.

25. Arizona Coyotes — They might still have the worst record in the league but they are not playing like the worst team in the league at the moment, and have not for several weeks. The schedule has softened up a bit but they have still beaten some really good teams during this stretch (Minnesota twice, Anaheim, San Jose).

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser‘s unfortunate injury means there is literally no reason for anybody to watch their games for the rest of the season, unless you are contractually obligated to.

27. Buffalo Sabres — It is still inexcusable they are this bad this far into their rebuild, but at least they have won a couple of games recently.

28. New York Islanders — I put them at No. 31 a week ago mainly because they had just been on such an unspeakably bad run and looked so awful for so long. I didn’t really think they were the worst team in the league. But I am not sure they are far from it, either. They have allowed 50 shots on goal in six different games this season. Since the start of the 2015-16 season no team in the NHL has allowed more than 50 shots in a game three times. In nearly three full years. The Islanders have doubled that in less than 70 games this year.

29. Ottawa Senators — The fans deserve a break and if they are going to lose Erik Karlsson this summer (or next summer) I hope for their case they get some good fortunate in the draft lottery and get a chance to pick Rasmus Dahlin to one day (hopefully) replace him. The owner probably does not deserve that same good fortune, though.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg is a Hall of Fame talent that played on some of the best teams of the modern era. Now he is going out on this team. It seems to be getting to him. How could it not?

31. Montreal Canadiens — They have only won five of their past 20 games and I am not sure I trust Marc Bergevin to dig the franchise out of the hole he has helped put it in.

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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.

Consistency the key as Eichel eyes end to Sabres’ playoff drought

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One of the main goals Jack Eichel believes that the Buffalo Sabres need to reach in 2019-20 is finding consistency in a positive way. Points dropped are points dropped and teams can leapfrog you in the standings easily if you’re going through a bit of a skid.

“There’s going to be games this year where we don’t have it — maybe we’ve been on the road, maybe we’ve been traveling, maybe it’s a back-to-back,” Eichel told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month. “It’s a long season and every night’s not your best night. The best teams find ways to scratch a point out here or there or maybe win a game that they don’t deserve to win. For us, it’s about doing that, finding consistency night in and night out and giving ourselves the best chance to have success.”

The Sabres felt both ends of the consistency scale in 2018-19. After the first two months of season they were top of the NHL, powered by a 10-game win streak. Everything was going well and the dream of ending their then seven-season playoff drought was alive.

When the Sabres went for win No. 11 in a row against Tampa Bay in late November, that’s when the wheels began to fall off. That night would be the start of a five-game losing streak and a final 57-game stretch where Buffalo would tumble down the Eastern Conference standings, winning consecutive games only twice the rest of the season and losing 15 of their last 19 games.

A summer of change saw head coach Phil Housley replaced by Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill add Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson up front, while bolstering the blue line with the acquisitions of Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Jeff Skinner was also re-signed long-term.

Eichel was impressed when he met with Krueger in Slovakia during the IIHF World Championship last spring. A chat over coffee turned into a multi-hour conversation ranging from hockey to politics to classic rock music.

“He’s so smart, he’s so intriguing as a person,” Eichel said. “I think he has a great vision for our group and I think all the guys are going to respond really well to him.”

[MORE: Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential]

Eichel will have a close relationship with Krueger as the team’s captain. His first season wearing the ‘C’ was a mixed one. Personally, the 22-year-old forward hit career highs in goals, assists, and points, but that success came as the team he was leading stumbled in the final three-quarters of the season.

Year one as captain was a learning experience for Eichel. He understood the pressures that come with the captaincy, and now he feels he’s better prepared for the responsibilities that come with the role.

“I felt like I needed to up my game for our team to have success,” he said. “Unfortunately, we struggled in the second half, but the first half of the year a lot of things went well. [We’ve got to] try to emulate that for a full season this year.”

Eichel got a close-up view of what success in the NHL looks like in June. He was in attendance for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden cheering on former teammates Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres) and Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University). That experience has only motivated him even more.

The Sabres have made the postseason only once since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise in Feb. 2011. Money has been spent to try and turn the team into a consistent winner, but that’s failed so far. There’s still plenty of roster reshaping for Botterill to do, but another lost season in Buffalo could lead to more changes, and the players understand the pressure to win in the city and what’s at stake this season.

“It’s almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel said. “With the drought that our franchise has been in for the playoffs, the ups and downs we’ve went through, being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressure to perform and bring success to Buffalo. 

“It can be tough at times, but sometimes it brings the best out of you and brings out the competitive side. We want to win. We want to win bad.”

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings

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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, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

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

Better or worse: This best hope the Red Wings have for significant improvement is some rapid development from a young player or two (Filip Zadina, Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen) and continued progress from players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, and Anthony Mantha. Even if all of that works out perfectly there are still significant question marks around the roster. They may not be worse, but they may not be significantly better, either.

Strengths: Not to be overly bleak about this team’s chances, but there are not a ton of strengths here. Larkin has become an outstanding player and even though it seems like he has been around forever, he is still only 23 years old. He is probably just now hitting his prime years and is coming off of a great year. Beyond him, the Red Wings have a ton of draft picks at their disposal, some intriguing young players coming through the farm system, and they hired one of the top general managers in the league (Steve Yzerman) to help try and turn this thing around. Long-term, that provides some hope. Short-term, things still look rough.

Weaknesses: They lack proven impact players, they lack depth at forward and defense, they were 22nd in goals scored a year ago, 27th in goals against, 19th on the power play, 27th on the penalty kill, and 23rd in team save percentage and a lot of the same players responsible for that performance are still there. In other words, there are weaknesses everywhere.

[MORE: Three questions | Blashill under pressure? | X-factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): This is an interesting one because the Red Wings have missed the playoffs three years in a row under Jeff Blashill, and while that is not necessarily his fault there are not many NHL coaches that get an opportunity to miss the playoffs four years in a row. Add in a new general manager that might want to go in his own direction and it would not be unreasonable to conclude that his seat is still warm. But he did sign a two-year contract extension after the 2018-19 season, so there is that aspect in play as well. We will put it at a 7 out of 10 for Blashill.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Larkin, Zadina and Athanasiou are three players worth keeping an eye.

Larkin simply because he is the team’s best player and is kind of fun to watch because of his speed. He had a monster year for the Red Wings in 2018-19 and really took a big step toward becoming a player they can count on and build around long-term.

Zadina is the prospect that can really move things along in a meaningful away in the Red Wings’ rebuild. He was regarded as one of the best pure goal scorers in his draft class (maybe even the best) and they were lucky to have a chance to pick him at No. 6 overall. He had a brief cup of coffee at the NHL level a year ago, scoring one goal in nine games. He is still only 19 years old so you don’t want to set the bar too high for him this season, but he is probably the most intriguing prospect with the highest upside in the organization.

When it comes to Athanasiou the intrigue here is simply whether or not he can be a 30-goal scorer again, or if he regresses back to the 15-20 goal player he was before that. He had always looked like a solid player but was one of the few bright spots on the team a year ago.

Playoffs or lottery: The Red Wings have been one of the NHL’s worst teams over the past three years and unless a bunch of young players emerge and become immediate stars, or if the goalies steal a bunch of games, it is hard to see a path for this roster to end their current playoff drought. This is a lottery team.

MORE:
Dylan Larkin on captaincy, getting Red Wings back to playoffs
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.