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Why Predators are so hot right now

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Last night, the Nashville Predators beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1, reaching 100 standings points in just 69 games.

(Yes, there were a lot of “nice” responses on Twitter.)

The reigning Western Conference finalists aren’t just having a strong season, they’re also playing their best hockey of 2017-18 right now. Yes, the Jets were tired and banged up last night, yet it was another instance of the Predators sending a message that they’re for real. A 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils on Saturday ended a 10-game winning streak, but at 11-0-1, they’ve now collected points in 12 consecutive games. They have a very real chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy, as the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 100 points but have played in one more game.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So, which players are really driving this success? Let’s start with the obvious.

Pekka Rinne, Vezina frontrunner?

A week ago, it was noted on PHT that Rinne and other goalies were gaining on Andrei Vasilevskiy in the race for the 2018 Vezina. It’s possible that Rinne has emerged as the new leader as of today, and not solely because of Vasilevskiy seemingly hitting a wall of fatigue.

As of this writing, Pekka Rinne sports an absurd record (38-9-4) with a fabulous .929 save percentage. His backup Juuse Saros is no slouch, either, making it quite likely that Nashville’s goalies will collect the William Jennings Trophy this season, too.

Rinne’s frequently received criticism from the fancy stats community, but this season? He’s been unassailable so far:

The season’s far from over, so Vasilevskiy could regain his lead in this race. Either way, Rinne is the top reason why the Predators are running away with the Central Division crown, the first spot in the West, and possibly the Presidents’ Trophy as well.

The return

Before his 2017-18 debut on Jan. 2, a popular refrain was “Imagine how good the Predators will be when Ryan Ellis is back?”

It felt like a dangerous assumption, however, to believe that Ellis would just bounce back from knee surgery. Plenty of athletes require a year or more to recover from certain procedures, and some are never the same.

As it turns out, the Predators have indeed taken off since the underrated defenseman returned to the lineup, as Ellis has been outstanding. The 27-year-old has generated 23 points in 31 games, and he’s been especially impressive lately. Since Feb. 14, Ellis scored 15 points in 14 games, tying Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Anze Kopitar, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone during that span

Plenty of options

Ellis is a rising part of such a deep attack that Peter Laviolette is already resting players for the upcoming playoff run.

The 2017-18 season is proving that Viktor Arvidsson is a legitimate top-line forward, as he’s justified the rave reviews the Predators received for locking him down to a long-term, bargain contract that carries just a $4.25 million cap hit. Arvidsson has 16 points during the same month span that Ellis has been on fire for, and he’s on track for another 30+ goal season with 26 goals (not to mention 26 assists).

P.K. Subban is the Predators’ strongest Norris candidate with a brilliant all-around campaign that includes 15 goals and 50 points, but Roman Josi has been as explosive as ever, contributing 46 points in just 62 games.

[Earlier this season, P.K. was an even stronger Norris candidate]

Kyle Turris‘ numbers have dipped a bit since a hot start after being traded to Nashville, yet he’s been a catalyst for two Predators wingers for much of his time there, helping Kevin Fiala (22 goals) and Craig Smith (21) join Arvidsson as 20-goal scorers. Filip Forsberg‘s experienced an up-and-down season, yet he’s not that far behind them with 18 goals.

That’s the thing. The Predators boast the depth that allows for the team to navigate hurdles more comfortably than much of the league. At this current robust level, they’re simply overwhelming opponents.

***

This is all the masterwork of David Poile, who now boasts the most regular-season wins of any GM. In a way, this renaissance truly stretches back to the hiring of underrated head coach Peter Laviolette, who owns the distinction of bringing three different NHL teams to the Stanley Cup Final after last year’s memorable run.

It remains to be seen if Laviolette can help Poile win his first Stanley Cup, but if that happens, there’s a solid chance that they’ll get it done by one heck of a “committee.”

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 Hoffman, Panthers get the last laugh?

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Some of the hottest rivalries in hockey intensified on Tuesday.

No, not Penguins – Capitals or Bruins – Canadiens. Not even Matthew Tkachuk versus the Kings or Brad Marchand against that frozen pole in “A Christmas Story.”

Instead, two of Hockey Twitter’s favorite punchlines united – eventually – as Mike Hoffman (who will never want to scroll Twitter again) was traded to the Florida Panthers (who may never stop hearing about sending Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas … at least on Twitter).

You could almost feel snarky hockey fans thanking the Panthers for efficiently consolidating their jokes into one spot. (Granted, not all of their jokes; the Canadiens and Senators are still reliable for that.)

The juicy part is that maybe, just maybe, Hoffman and the Panthers can band together to get the last laugh against their hecklers?

Let’s dig a little deeper on the shared motivations for the team and their newly acquired top-six winger.

The Panthers finished the season on a tear

Yes, Florida missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, giving them plenty of opportunities to painfully watch the Vegas Golden Knights’ deep run from the comfort of their own homes. (They probably opted to go to the beach or play golf instead, but still.)

It’s easy to forget how strong a push the Cats made for one of the East’s final playoff spots, though.

As a reminder, the Panthers finished with 96 points, leaving them a mere point behind the New Jersey Devils for the East’s final wild card spot after ending 2017-18 on a five-game winning streak. Consider that, since the calendar turned to 2018, Florida went 27-14-3. That tied them for seventh overall in points (57) during that span, and their 27 wins was the fifth-best mark.

(Again, not in the conference, but in the entire NHL.)

Pieces falling into place

While it’s fun to mock GM Dale Tallon’s decisions during the 2017 summer – by all means, keep the chuckles coming – it’s not true to say that every choice was a poor one.

That’s particularly poignant if the Panthers believed that they couldn’t add Evgenii Dadonov without getting rid of Reilly Smith.

During his first NHL season since 2011-12, the Russian winger generated 28 goals and 65 points in 74 games. Smith and Dadonov bring a lot of things to the table, including both forwards standing as strong possession players.

Dadonov wasn’t just a fantastic addition. He was also effective enough that the Panthers were starting to find a better balance among their top forwards.

Eventually, Nick Bjugstad enjoyed some of the best stretches of his career finishing chances created by Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov, as that trio formed one of the league’s scariest top lines. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau trickled down to the second line, and he really seemed to build something promising with Vincent Trocheck.

Now, the natural joke is to say “Wow, now imagine how great they’d be with all of those guys alongside Marchesssault and Smith?”

That’s fair, but it might not be that simple for a budget team.

And also …

Adding a key piece

… Hoffman could really make things interesting, and dull some of the ache that comes with being a go-to punchline on social media.

Florida (claims to) give Hoffman a clean slate, while Hoffman brings undeniable sniping abilities to a roster that could be downright scary if they don’t need to make any key subtractions this summer.

The 28-year-old scored 22 goals last season, which was actually his lowest total since he began his 20+ goal streak in 2014-15. Hoffman’s 104 goals ranks 24th in the NHL during that timeline, leaving him ahead of players such as James Neal, Taylor Hall, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

It’s notable that, with a $5.19 million cap hit, Hoffman also fits into the mix of Panthers forwards who are solid-to-ridiculous bargains (Barkov being the biggest steal as a true star at just $5.9M per year). With two years of term remaining, the Panthers get some cost certainty while Hoffman should be hungry to drive up his value in the market.

Of course, considering all of the things people will be snickering about on Twitter, his value is almost certain to go up.

***

As a veritable scamp, I can’t in good consciousness advise people to stop making jokes about the Panthers and/or Hoffman. That would be like asking Alex Ovechkin not to enjoy his time with the Stanley Cup.

That said, there’s a decent chance that Hoffman and the Panthers could silence at least some of their critics next season. Or at least win enough games to change the tone of some of the mockery.

More on the Mike Hoffman trade

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.

NBC Sports to present exclusive coverage of 2018 NHL Draft, NHL Awards

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NBC Sports will present live, exclusive coverage of the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft this Friday, with NHL Live at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.  In addition, NBCSN will televise the NHL Awards on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET from Las Vegas, as the NHL celebrates the top performers of the 2017-18 season from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

2018 NHL DRAFT FROM DALLAS – FRIDAY AT 7:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

The 2018 NHL Draft is headlined by Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin, a 6-foot-3 defenseman who tallied seven goals and 13 assists with Frölunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League in 2017-18. Dahlin, who is widely considered as the top prospect in the draft, can become just the sixth defenseman taken first overall since 1994.

A trio of forwards – Andrei Svechnikov (Russia) of the Barrie Colts (Ontario Hockey League), Brady Tkachuk (United States) of Boston University (Hockey East), and Filip Zadina (Czech Republic) of the Halifax Mooseheads (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) – are also expected to be early first-round selections. Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games for the Colts in 2017-18, Tkachuk led Boston University with 23 assists and finished fourth on the team in scoring, and Zadina totaled 44 goals and 38 assists for the Mooseheads. Three Americans, including Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes (University of Michigan) and Oliver Wahlstrom (U.S. National Under-18 Team), are projected to be picked early in the first round.

The New York Rangers lead all teams with three selections in the first round (9th, 26th, and 28th), and Original Six teams have a combined nine first-round picks this year.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Emmy Award-winning analyst Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger. Coverage will include a pre-game feature on the friendship formed between Tkachuk and Hughes, and a segment on Wahlstrom, who became famous at the age of nine for a trick shot he performed before a Bruins game at TD Garden.

2018 NHL Draft order

2018 NHL AWARDS FROM LAS VEGAS – WEDNESDAY AT 8 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

The 2018 NHL Awards will recognize the best regular-season players in a variety of categories, including most valuable player (Hart Trophy), outstanding goaltender (Vezina Trophy), outstanding defenseman (Norris Trophy) and outstanding rookie (Calder Trophy). The Ted Lindsay Award, which is presented annually to the “most outstanding player” in the NHL as voted by fellow members of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), will also will be awarded. Vegas Golden Knights’ George McPhee and Gerard Gallant are finalists for General Manager of the Year and the Jack Adams Award, respectively. New Jersey’s Taylor Hall, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon are all finalists for the Hart Trophy.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Hart Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Jack Adams Award

Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy
GM of the Year

Humboldt Broncos to reunite at NHL Awards show

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The Humboldt Broncos will be reuniting in Las Vegas this week, as 10 of the surviving members of the team will be honored at the NHL Awards on Wednesday night.

Nine of the 10 players flew from Calgary to Vegas on Monday, while the 10th person, Ryan Straschnitzki, travelled from Philadelphia, where he’s undergoing physiotherapy.

On April 6th, 16 people were killed and 13 more were injured when a semi-trailer hit the Broncos bus in Saskatchewan. Since then, the hockey community has rallied to help support the wounded players and the families who lost loved ones on the bus. The GoFundMe campaign aimed to raise money for the families affected by the crash raised an incredible $15 million.

“It’s just going to be great to see everyone,” said Xavier LaBelle, per the Canadian Press. “It’ll be pretty emotional, but we’ll be there for each other.”

The NHL Awards will also feature special commemorations for the first responders and survivors of the Vegas shooting that occurred in October and the hockey team of the Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Panthers ready to welcome Mike Hoffman, fiancee with ‘clean slate’

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When Dale Tallon was contacted by Pierre Dorion last week about potential interest in Mike Hoffman, the Florida Panthers general manager thought the asking price from the Ottawa Senators GM was a bit high. He put that conversation to the side until he was contacted Monday night by Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks. Then a deal was made.

It was a wild Tuesday morning that saw Hoffman traded twice in the span of a few hours. He first went from Ottawa to the Sharks and then was later flipped to the Panthers.

“We felt this would be a perfect fit for our team,” Tallon said on a conference call Tuesday morning. “He’s 28, he can score, he can skate, he’s got a cannon for a shot.”

Hoffman, who played with Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau for one year with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, has scored 104 goals over the last four seasons and was the type of player Tallon was looking to add to his lineup to potentially play alongside Vincent Trocheck.

“Our power play will be better, too. He’s got a great one-timer, great shot,” Tallon said.

[Sharks flip Hoffman to Panthers]

Dorion was seeking players in a return, presumably so the team could stay above the salary cap floor for next season with more trades likely on the way (Karlsson, Bobby Ryan?). Wilson, however, was merely looking for draft picks for Hoffman as he’s been clearing cap space with many believing he’ll go strong after Ilya Kovalchuk and John Tavares.

By acquiring Hoffman, that comes with the questions about last week’s allegations about his fiancee cyberbullying Erik and Melinda Karlsson. 

Tallon said he spoke with some of his players and staff and “had no pushback at all” when it came to bringing Hoffman and his fiancee, Monika Caryk, into the Panthers family. “I trust my guys. I trust my staff,” he said.

He also spoke with Hoffman directly and Tallon noted he has a good relationship with the player’s agent, former NHLer Mike Liut. He feels confident that Hoffman and Caryk will be embraced by the team and by the Panthers’ wives and girlfriends.

“Together, we discussed that what happened there is in the past and we’re moving forward with a clean slate,” Tallon said.

————

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.