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.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

“The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

With that, Barkov was sold.

And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

“We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

“The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

“I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

“I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

CAMP ROSTER

Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

Terms of the deal were not released.

The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.