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NHL Power Rankings: The Penguins are better than they were a year ago

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There seems to be some concern around the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs start to get closer. Their penalty kill has stunk for about a month now, they give up too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances, and sometimes because of that they give up more goals than you would like to see from a Stanley Cup contender.

All of that would seem to be concerning at this time of year. Then you look at the fact they are still 7-2-2 in their past 11 games and you start to remember, hey, these guys are pretty good and they gave up a lot of chances a year ago, too.

There is something else that needs to be kept in mind: They are still playing better right now than they were a year ago heading into the playoffs, where they ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

The fact they actually won the Cup a year ago seems to overshadow the fact they didn’t exactly go into the playoffs last season like a dominant powerhouse. They lost eight of their final 15 games (including six of their final 10), finished the season 22nd overall on the penalty kill, and allowed the fourth most shots on goal per game.  They didn’t exactly play great in the first two rounds, either, getting through Columbus and Washington thanks largely to great goaltending carrying them.

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

So let’s take a look at their recent performance this season where they are actually playing really well down the stretch, even if it can look a little sloppy at times.

Even with their recent slump on the PK they are still better than they were at the end of last season (17th this season vs. 21st this year) and are giving up the sixth fewest shots per game.

But let’s take a look at a more isolated stretch of games, specifically the past 11, and what they were doing at the same time a year ago.

Offensively they are averaging a full goal per game more, recording more shots, giving up fewer shots, and are one of the best possession teams in the league as opposed to being one of the worst.

The two drops are a slight increase in goals against and a worse penalty kill. It’s easy to blame the penalty kill slump on losing Ian Cole as part of the Derick Brassard trade, but that would also be kind of lazy. The Penguins played without Cole for 15 games earlier this season when he was on the team and never saw that sort of a drop in their play (while using mostly the same players).

The big change is in net where Matt Murray has been up and down at times when he has been healthy, while backups Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have simply not played well. It is probably not a coincidence that the PK started to fall apart recently when Murray went down with an injury and missed nearly a month and the Penguins had to turn to a career minor leaguer and a pretty good prospect that probably is not quite ready for full-time NHL action.

If Murray is healthy and playing the way he was before his most recent injury (he was 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage in nine starts before missing a month) they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

It should not be a total shock that they are potentially better team this season when you consider the fact they did not have Kris Letang — their No. 1 defenseman — at this time a year ago, and that they were able to add Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to fill the third-and fourth-line center spots and fix the depth problems they entered this season with.

The question is whether or not all of this is going to be enough to get them another chance at the Stanley Cup.

A year ago it was pretty obvious going into the playoffs that the Penguins and Washington Capitals were probably going to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.

That is not the case this season.

This season there are probably six teams that all have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern Conference, whether it be Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, the suddenly surging Blue Jackets and, yes, still the Capitals, too.

The East is absolutely loaded and significantly better than it was a season ago. The Penguins might be better. But so is their competition. Not by a little bit, either.

On to the rankings for this week…

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug are back in the lineup. The scary thing is they were still winning without them. Just wait until they get Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara back.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — It almost feels like we’ve forgotten about them a little bit. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16, still have the most points in the NHL, two of the best offensive players in the league, and made two huge additions at the trade deadline.

3. Nashville Predators — They’ve dropped three in a row since their 10-game winning streak came to an end. Nothing to worry about. Still the favorites in the west and one of the best teams in the NHL.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Starting to peak at the right time? A potential second-round matchup between them and Nashville might be the best series of the playoffs. If it happens.

The rest of the contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — For the second year in a row they won at least 10 games in a row. Even better than the results is the fact they are also playing at an extremely high level. Their reward for all of this will probably be another first-round matchup with Pittsburgh.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They really didn’t do anything to drop a spot this week, but there’s just so many good teams at the top right now that it almost just kind of happened by default. A scary good offense that has Auston Matthews back.

7. Washington Capitals — Feeling some pressure from the rest of the Metropolitan Division the Capitals have gone on a 7-1-0 run to strengthen their grip on the division.

8. San Jose Sharks — The best team right now that no one is talking about? Firm grasp on second place in the Pacific Division, 10-2-0 in their past 12 games, entering the week on a seven-game winning streak. And they still might get Joe Thornton back at some point.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins — It is all going to come down to goaltending.

10. Vegas Golden Knights — With wins in just six of their past 14 games they are still sliding a bit. That potential first-round matchup with Colorado seems dangerous for them.

The middle ground

11. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon has kind of overshadowed the fact that Mikko Rantanen is also one of the top scorers in the league this season. Of course, MacKinnon probably deserves a lot of credit for that but having two elite scorers on a line is never a bad thing.

12. Minnesota Wild — They are a pretty good team and should be capable of winning a round in the playoffs, but do they have the firepower to keep up with Winnipeg or the defense and goaltending to shut them down?

13. St. Louis Blues — These guys looked done one month ago, now here they are making a serious run at that eighth playoff spot in the West. Jake Allen is getting hot in net at the right time for them.

14. Anaheim Ducks — One of the great “what ifs” of this season will be what the Ducks would have been capable of with a reasonably healthy roster for most of the year.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier has officially become a force down the middle. That defense with 30-goal, 70-point offense is one hell of a player.

16. New Jersey Devils — With nine points in his past six games Taylor Hall is still trying to drag this team to the playoffs.

17. Florida Panthers — The games in hand are still their biggest asset in the race for a playoff spot. Still have to win them.

18. Los Angeles Kings — They have not won or lost consecutive games in nearly a month. This perfectly illustrates what this team is at the moment: Mediocre and dull. Neither great, nor bad.

Better luck in the lottery

19.  Edmonton Oilers — It took them most of the season and until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs, but they finally started to play at least a little bit like the team a lot of people thought they could be this season.

20. New York Rangers — Jesper Fast has an eight-game point streak heading into Monday’s game. There is not much else going on here.

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s just say it now: Nobody gets to pick them as their sleeper team next season.

22. Calgary Flames — To make matters worse, their first-round draft pick is going to the New York Islanders as a result of the Travis Hamonic trade.

23. Dallas Stars — How do you bring back Ken Hitchcock and Jim Nill after this? Too much money to spend on an average team that has tanked down the stretch.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — Just about the only positive from this season is that young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz have had really nice seasons. Given the long-term salary cap situation they need young talent to come through.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Derek Stepan has been outstanding lately with 11 points in his past eight games. This young team is still showing a ton of improvement as the season goes on.

26. Ottawa Senators — Everywhere Guy Boucher has gone, whether it is in the NHL or in Europe, his system has worked wonderfully for one season. Then it stops working. Every. Single. Time.

The basement

27. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser, a rookie, is going to miss 20 games and still has a very good chance to finish as the team’s leading scorer. The only reason we moved them up this week is because they have won two out of three and the four teams below them … well…

28. New York Islanders — They have two wins in their past 15 games. During those 15 games they have given up at least six goals four times. Twice they have given up seven goals. Woof.

29. Montreal Canadiens — Their only wins in the month of March have come against the New York Islanders (who have gone in the tank), the Dallas Stars (who have gone in the tank) and the Buffalo Sabres (who have never gotten out of the tank).

30. Buffalo Sabres — During their four-game losing streak entering Monday they have the following goal totals: 0, 1, 0, 1.

31. Detroit Red Wings — They did snap that 10-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then they lost two more in a row. They have not won a game in regulation since February 24. In their past 18 games they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one shootout win. That is it. Two of those wins were against the Carolina and the rebuilding New York Rangers.

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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.

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

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.

Devils keep it simple after years of aggressive moves

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The New Jersey Devils making a big, splashy (usually smart) move was starting to feel like a summer tradition along the lines of waterslides and family vacations.

Such aggression paid off pretty tangibly, too, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy while leading the Devils to an unlikely berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many franchises would take this as a sign to continue pushing chips further into the table. Instead, the Devils are electing – at least currently – to stay quiet, including allowing trade deadline additions Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner to walk.

That trend continued on Tuesday, as the Devils locked down some in-house supporting cast members to affordable contracts. GM Ray Shero handed Blake Coleman a three-year contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit, while Stefan Noesen signed for one year at a similar $1.75M AAV.

Coleman, 26, seems like a solid enough bet. He generated 13 goals and 25 points in 79 games last season despite a modest 8.9 shooting percentage and equally modest reps (an average of 14:24 TOI per game). Considering heavy usage in the defensive zone, his possession stats were respectable.

The story is more or less the same for Noesen, 25. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games despite even sparser ice time (13:17 on average) and managed even stronger possession stats while being placed in comparable defensive situations as Coleman.

Overall, this seems like solid stuff for useful (but not ground-breaking) players.

Maybe most importantly, the Devils seem like they aren’t putting too much weight in a postseason run that might be difficult to replicate. At the very least, New Jersey can’t reasonably ask Hall to improve on his fantastic 2017-18 campaign; anything close to that would be gravy.

Granted, there are a few things that actually could shake out better.

Most obviously, Cory Schneider might get his game back together. Despite two consecutive seasons you could probably describe as “backup-level,” his career save percentage remains strong at .920. Maybe this is the “new reality” for the 32-year-old netminder, but there’s also the chance that he might get his game back together. Goalies are tough to predict.

Regardless, the Devils must continue to wade through the Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Stanley Cup winners. Alongside those Capitals and Penguins, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Hurricanes will be formidable in 2018-19. If New Jersey takes a step back, at least it wouldn’t be after signing risky free agents. They’d probably generally be better off waiting for opportunities to strike, as they’ve done in the past.

(Speaking of leveraging opportunities, perhaps Marcus Johansson will enjoy better health luck next season? His concussion issues ranked as one of the things that didn’t break well for the Devils during what was otherwise a remarkable season.)

No NHL team really gets everything right, and a fair amount of luck is involved in building a winner, but smart franchises try to pile up as many smart moves as possible. Shero’s getting a lot of the big ones right, yet this summer, it seems like he’s making some solid, smaller calls.

Then again, maybe he’s just biding his time for another surprise?

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.

Ilya Kovalchuk confident he’s bringing ‘high level’ of play to Kings

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“I’m a young 35.” That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk described himself to reporters during a conference call over the weekend.

If you follow the Russian forward on Instagram, you’ll see that while he’s on the back nine of his hockey playing days he’s doing his best ensure he’s truly a young 35.

Готовь сани летом💪🏻👍🏻🔝… Nice workout with @primal_joe 🔥👌

A post shared by Ilya Kovalchuk (@ilyakovalchukofficial) on

“You just have to train a little more the older you are,” he said.

There are a lot of miles on Kovalchuk’s 35-year-old body. He has over 1,000 professional games played between the NHL and KHL, including 137 games the last two seasons between SKA St. Petersburg and international duty with Russia. Last month, he agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings — a team with a lot of experience and age, including 10 players who are at least 30 years old.

That’s not a problem in the eyes of the Kings, who lost out in pursuit of him eight years ago and are happy to bring him in to help with their offensive needs.

“He’s very explosive,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NHL Network last month. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [score] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s [Jeff Carter] or it’s [Anze Kopitar] — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”

The Kings have been desperate for scoring having averaged 2.68 goals per game over the last three seasons, good for eighth-worst in the NHL on that span. Kovalchuk netted 30 goals in each of his final two KHL seasons and his 63 points in 2017-18 equates to approximately 72 points over an 82-game season, per Rob Vollman’s latest translation factors. But while there are exceptions to the rule, production from forwards usually nosedives as they get up in their 30s. The supporting cast in LA will play a big part in how much this contract pays off.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

An exceptional talent over his career, you don’t expect Kovalchuk’s production to disappear as soon as he puts on a Kings jersey this season. But it will be interesting to watch, especially on a team that’s been so desperate for scoring.

“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” he said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, Carter, [Dustin] Brown — those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score – we just need to get to our goals.”

Kovalchuk “retired” from the Devils following the 2013 lockout-shortened season but said he followed the league during his time back home in Russia. He sees how the game has changed over the last five years and he’s eager to prove he can be a productive NHL player again.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “All the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level of where I can play.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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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.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


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