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NHL Power Rankings: Blue Jackets entering playoffs as one of NHL’s hottest teams

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As of Monday afternoon the Columbus Blue Jackets have not yet officially clinched a playoff berth, but let’s face it, they are going to be one of the eight teams in the Eastern Conference. It would take a monumental collapse over the next three games combined with the Florida Panthers pretty much winning out for the Blue Jackets to fall out of the top-eight. They are returning to the playoffs, and once they get there they are going to be going in as one of the hottest teams in the league.

Let’s just take a look at what they have done over their past 20 games.

The record: 15-4-1, the third best record in the league during that stretch behind only the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.

They have outscored teams by a 74-48 margin, a goal differential of plus-26. Only Boston’s plus-28 mark over that stretch is better.

Their 74 goals are third most in the league (again behind only Nashville and Boston). Their 48 goals against are tied for the second fewest (with the Los Angeles Kings) behind only the Anaheim Ducks’ 41.

They are also a top-10 possession team during that stretch, meaning that the process is there along with the results.

Driving the offense over that stretch has been Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Panarin’s 30 points over the past 20 games are tied for the third-most in the league (behind only Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon) while Atkinson has really started to find his game after a tough first half. Panarin is the one that has a chance to be the real difference-maker for this Blue Jackets team.

For as good as they were a year ago during the regular season, they really seemed to lack a true go-to-threat offensively. Coming over in an offseason trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad, Panarin has become just that player for Columbus. He is scoring at a nearly a point-per-game rate, has been one of the best possession driving forwards in the league this season, and is playing some of his best hockey right now.

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

The two big questions for them: Will Sergei Bobrovsky give them a better playoff performance than he did in his first two postseason appearances (where his save percentage is only .896), and how will their center depth (probably their biggest weakness) hold up against a potential first-round matchup against Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay or Boston (all of which are potential first-round matchups)?

Those are two big questions, but for the moment the Blue Jackets have to be excited about the way their team is playing down the stretch. Right now there are few teams playing better.

That has them in the top-five of this week’s Power Rankings.

On to the rankings.

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — They cannot seem to catch a break on the injury front but all they do is keep on winning. They have to be the favorites in the Eastern Conference right now.

2. Nashville Predators — It remains to be seen how much of an impact Eeli Tolvanen can make down the stretch and in the playoffs but he is certainly an intriguing addition to an already loaded team.

3. Winnipeg Jets — With wins in seven of their past eight games they are starting to get on a roll as the playoffs draw near. The only concern is only three of those recent wins have come in regulation.

The Rest Of The Contenders

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are the third place team in the Metropolitan Division, so why are they so high? It’s basically all about the way they are playing at the moment as we just described up above.

5. Washington Capitals —  They lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt over the summer. All they did was come back and win a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have cooled off down the stretch and now Steven Stamkos is banged up. Not great.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — We probably have not paid enough attention to the type of season that Mitch Marner has had. Already 69 points in 79 games to lead the team in scoring. He is 20 years old.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Still 9-4-2 in their past 15 games. You sometimes would not know it listening and reading to what people say about them at the moment.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — There probably wasn’t a more fitting way for them to clinch the Pacific Division title crown than William Karlsson scoring an absolutely unbelievable goal. Everything about this season for them — from the overall team success, to the success of a player like Karlsson, to that goal itself — has been absolutely unbelievable.

The Middle Ground

10. New Jersey Devils — They are on a six-game point streak and seem to have opened up enough of a lead over the Florida Panthers to get back into the playoffs. Taylor Hall is still driving the bus for this group.

11. San Jose Sharks — After winning eight in a row they have hit a little bit of a skid by dropping three in a row. They end the regular season with three in a row at home and then will open the playoffs at home. Good chance to get back on a roll.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Claude Giroux has a pretty strong MVP argument given how much better the Flyers are with him on the ice versus when he is not. They get wrecked on the scoreboard when he is off the ice.

13. Anaheim Ducks — Those wins over Los Angeles and Colorado the past two games have been huge, especially that come-from-behind win against the Avalanche on Sunday night. Not a team that will be a fun first-round matchup. The biggest concern: John Gibson keeps getting hurt. Ryan Miller has been really good in his absence, but Gibson is still the best goalie on the team.

14. Los Angeles Kings — Anze Kopitar has always been one of the NHL’s best two-way players and a great player offensively. The latter part of his game has really taken off this season.

15. Minnesota Wild — Don’t let Eric Staal‘s huge season overshadow the breakout year Jason Zucker has had, already shattering his previous career highs in goals and points.

16. St. Louis Blues — They won six in a row to make up all of that ground then dropped two in a row and were absolutely demolished by the Arizona Coyotes.

17. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson for the rest of the regular season is going to complicate things for their playoff push.

18. Florida Panthers — Do not let anybody ever tell you games in October and November are not important. The Panthers are 20-8-2 in their past 30 games, the third best record in the league during that stretch. Even with that they are still seven points out of a playoff spot.

The Lottery Teams

19. Carolina Hurricanes — Carolina Hurricanes goalies have to be cursed.

20. New York Rangers — Neal Pionk has looked pretty impressive down the stretch.

21. Arizona Coyotes — The final record is going to stink, but they are 16-8-2 in their past 26 games and over the past week have beaten Tampa Bay, Vegas, and St. Louis. The Vegas and Tampa Bay games were on the road, too.

22. Calgary Flames — Their seven-game losing streak finally ended with a win over Edmonton. Still a really disappointing season for a team that entered the year with a lot of hype. Their lottery pick is also going to the New York Islanders.

23. Dallas Stars — After winning another offseason they are going to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, third time in four years and eighth time in 10 years.

24. Vancouver Canucks — Four wins in a row and five of their past six. You are tanking all wrong! The big news in Vancouver right now is the fact the Sedin era is officially coming to a close with their retirement at the conclusion of the 2017-18 regular season. They were amazing for a long time.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad trade has to be one of the more underwhelming offseason transactions. At least from a Blackhawks perspective.

26. Edmonton Oilers — The most fitting game of their season was the one where Connor McDavid had three points in the first period to give his team a three-goal lead. Then they gave up seven goals in a row to lose 7-3.

27. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha‘s 24-goal season is one of the few bright spots on this year’s team.

28. New York Islanders — They have given up 18 more goals than any other team in the NHL this season. That is astonishing.

29. Montreal Canadiens — They have not beaten a team in a playoff position since February 3, a win over the Anaheim Ducks. They only have eight total wins against any team over that stretch.

30. Buffalo Sabres — At least they are getting a good look at their future with Casey Mittelstadt showing up and recording a pair of assists in his first two games in the NHL.

31. Ottawa Senators — They have lost seven of eight and given up 32 goals during that stretch.

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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.

Three questions facing New York Rangers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Three questions to ponder for the New York Rangers during the 2018-19 season.

[Rangers Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Under Pressure]

1. Does Henrik Lundqvist have a miracle in him?

Because that is probably what it will take for the Rangers to get back to the playoffs.

This is not a particularly strong roster — at least on paper — and is lacking in established, impact players all over the lineup. It’s not a terrible roster, it’s not a worst team in the league kind of roster, but it’s also probably not one that is strong enough to make up enough ground in the playoff race, especially in a division as strong as the Metropolitan Division.

If you’re a Rangers fan holding out hope for the playoffs, the biggest hope is that Lundqvist, in his age 36 season, can put the team on his back one more time and carry it to a level beyond any reasonable expectation. He has done it before, but it is probably asking quite a bit for him to do it again, especially as he has started to show some signs of slowing down over the past two years where his save percentage has dipped to .912 overall. Just for comparisons sake, his save percentage was .920 or better for eight consecutive seasons prior to the past two.

Even though it has not resulted in a championship, Lundqvist has been the face of the Rangers franchise for his entire career and its most important player. He has consistently given the team everything he has had and been one of the best players in the world. If the Rangers are going to make another run with him before his career runs out he is going to have to put together a herculean effort to make it happen.

2. What kind of coach will David Quinn be?

Alain Vigneault has had his share of success in the NHL, including with the New York Rangers.

But it became clear last season that it was time for a new voice and a new direction, especially as the team embarks on a rebuild of the roster. It is now a team that should be focusing on development and youth, something that probably was not going to happen in another season under Vigneault, a coach whose preference seems to be more with experienced and veteran players.

Replacing him will be first-year NHL coach David Quinn as he becomes the latest to make the jump from the NCAA ranks to the NHL (he will be joined this season by Jim Montgomery who is going from University of Denver to the Dallas Stars).

He is one of just five coaches to ever go from the NCAA to their first job in the NHL, a list that includes Montgomery, Dave Hakstol, Bob Johnson, and Ned Harkness.

Quinn comes highly regarded, especially when it comes to working with younger players, but as a rookie coach with no NHL coaching experience there is a lot of mystery as to what type of coach he will be.

With a roster that could have its share of younger talent his reputation as a talent developer will be put to the test.

That leads us to the third question facing the Rangers this season.

[Related: Rangers could once again be active in trade market]

3. Which young players will take a big step forward?

From a big picture outlook, the success or failure of this Rangers’ season probably shouldn’t be measured by how many games the team wins or loses.

They are probably not going to be contenders for anything. They are probably going to be a bad team. They are probably going to miss the playoffs and trade more established players before the season ends.

The important thing to watch for this season is whether or not any young players take a big step forward and establish themselves as long-term building blocks.

Even though this is a “rebuilding” team there is still a pretty significant veteran presence here, especially on the blue line and in net. But after all of the draft picks they have had in recent years, and all of the trades they made last year, there is also a pretty big collection of young players that could also get an opportunity, from the young players they acquired in the Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller trades (Brett Howden, Ryan Lindgren, Libor Hajek), to their recent first-round draft picks (Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson), to still developing NHLers like Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei, and Neal Pionk.

A couple of them taking a big step forward in their development would be a nice positive for what is almost certain to be another year outside of the playoffs.

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 could once again be active in trade market

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

Over the past year the New York Rangers have been one of the busiest teams in the league when it comes to roster movement as they’ve kickstarted their rebuild. Since the start of last offseason the Rangers have dealt veteran players Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, and Rick Nash. Some of them were rentals on expiring contracts (Holden, Grabner, Nash), while others still had term left on their deal (McDonagh, Miller, Stepan).

In return for that group of players they acquired 16 assets, including draft picks (three first-round picks, including a top-10 pick in 2017) and players that have ranged from established NHLers like Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov, to prospects like Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, and Ryan Lindgren.

Given that the Rangers are staring down the barrel at what could be a second consecutive non-playoff season and have an eye on the future, it is possible, if not likely, that the major roster shakeup will continue this season.

There are a couple of players on the roster worth watching when it comes to potential trades.

Let’s take a look at a few of them.

[Rangers Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Three Questions]

Mats Zuccarello — Zuccarello was the subject of trade rumors this past season but when all was said and done he ended up remaining in New York.

Now that he is entering the final year of his contract it seems likely that he will once again be a player on the trade block. He is almost certainly the Rangers’ best returning forward, and has built a solid career for himself after going undrafted and beginning his professional hockey career in Europe. But he is entering his age 31 season and the Rangers have to figure out if it’s worth investing in a new long-term contract with him because by the time the team is ready to be a contender again, he will almost certainly be on the downside of his career.

He is by no means a superstar, but given that he averages close to 60 points every season and has been extremely durable (he’s missed just 14 games over the past five years) he is a top-line talent and would be one of the most attractive and marketable rentals that could be available at the trade deadline.

Kevin Hayes This one just seems inevitable.

The Rangers were able to avoid arbitration with Hayes this summer by signing him to a one-year contract, meaning he is now eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. At this point you have to think that if the Rangers were committed to him as a long-term building block they would gone for a longer commitment. At age 26 and with more than 300 games of NHL play under his belt there are probably no secrets as to what Hayes is capable of as a player.

There probably is not much more in the way of development to take place here, and his production has been consistent enough over the past four years that the Rangers know what they have — a 15-to 20-goal, 40-to 45-point winger. He is what he is — a solid, if unspectacular player that is destined to be playing for somebody else by the end of February.

Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov — Two potential wild cards when it comes to potential trades for the Rangers because both are signed for the next two seasons.

Spooner and Namestnikov are two of the more established players the Rangers acquired in their roster purge this past season, with Spooner coming over as part of the Nash trade to Boston while Namestnikov was a piece in the McDonagh/Miller trade to Tampa Bay.

They are not prospects, but they also may not be core players for the next contending team in New York.

They seem like perfect “bridge” players that can give the Rangers enough in the short-term to not completely bottom out in the standings, while also still possessing some value as potential trade chips.

At the time of his acquisition from, Namestnikov, a former first-round pick of the Lightning, was having a monster season while playing alongside Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on the top line in Tampa Bay. It was absolutely a breakout season for him but you also have to take into account the talent he was playing alongside when looking at it. In his 19 games with the Rangers after the trade he managed just four points.

Spooner’s initial experience with the Rangers was very, very different as he immediately made an impact on the score sheet with 16 points (including 12 assists) in his first 20 games after being acquired for Nash. Given the rest of his career it was probably an outlier performance, but it was still a promising debut.

Given that both players are signed for two more years (both at $4 million per season) the Rangers have some time to get a longer look at both of them and see what they have in them. If one of them emerges into something that could be more than a bridge player they have a full year after this to sign them to a new extension. If not, they could almost certainly be flipped to continue to add to the branches of the trade trees that began last season.

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.

Under Pressure: Kevin Shattenkirk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

Kevin Shattenkirk‘s career has been quite the roller coaster over the past two years.

Throughout most of the 2016-17 season he was seen as the big fish at the trade deadline that was supposed to put a contender over the top.

He ended up going to the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals where his performance was solid, but probably not as impactful as the team or its fans had hoped. The next season his former coach, Barry Trotz, offered a fairly honest assessment of his play. He acknowledged that Shattenkirk made their power play more dangerous and that the trade “worked out fine”, but he also added “I think everybody thought of him as a 1-2 and he really wasn’t. He was a little lower.”

Not a totally scathing critique, but definitely pretty blunt.

Following that season Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract in free agency with the Rangers, a match that pretty much everyone saw coming from a mile away.

The first year of the contract did not go as anyone planned and went wrong in pretty much every possible way.

[Rangers Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Three Questions

Like the rest of the Rangers’ blue line, Shattenkirk struggled defensively and even found himself in the crosshairs for some criticism from coach Alain Vigneault that ranged from wanting to see “more urgency,” to calling him a “work in progress” in late December.

Perhaps one of the reasons things were not going well for him and the Rangers on the ice: He spent the first half of the season playing through an injury that no doubt limited him and then ultimately ended his season after just 46 games.

When all of that comes on the heels of a brief tenure in Washington that ended in disappointment it’s probably going to result in a pretty big hit to the reputation.

That tends to be the trouble with how we evaluate teams and players in professional sports, where what we saw from them last is what ultimately defines them. What we saw last, however, is not always the most accurate picture of what that player or team is or is capable of. And what have we seen last from Shattenkirk? A brief trip to Washington where he didn’t adjust and fit in as quickly as anyone would have liked, and an injury-shortened season in New York where he was probably never 100 percent.

The reality for him is that he is simply better than what we have seen from him over the past season-and-a-half, and more should be expected from him in 2018-19 for the Rangers.

For the six-year stretch between 2011-12 and 2016-17 Shattenkirk was one of the most productive defenders in the league. He was a constant lock for at least 45 points over an 82-game season and he always had outstanding possession numbers that placed him near the top of the league. During that five-year run he was 10th among all defenders in points per game (0.61) and had a 54 percent Corsi percentage that was 15th among defenders. He was one of only a small handful of players to be in the top-15 of both categories, and by pretty much every objective measure he was a top-15 player at his position in terms of his actual on-ice performance.

You do not just accidentally perform at that level in the NHL over a five-year stretch if you’re not a darn good player.

He also did not just suddenly lose all of that ability this past season. It is all still in there, and if healthy and in a system that might play to his strengths better than whatever it was the Rangers were doing this past season we could see very well see it on display once again. Heck, we even saw some of it last season when he started the year with 17 points in his first 18 games, including a seven-game point streak in November when he helped the team go on a 6-1-0 run.

For the Rangers’ sake they are going to need him to be healthy and return to that level of play because they are still counting on him to be a cornerstone of their defense for the next three seasons. As long as he is making more than $6 million per season during that time there is going to be an expectation for him to play at that level.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Pavel Buchnevich

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

After selling off several veterans last season, stockpiling draft picks, and collecting a bunch of younger assets the New York Rangers’ rebuild is well underway.

One of the most important — and perhaps most intriguing — players for the short-term outlook could be 23-year-old forward Pavel Buchnevich, whose potential still seems to be a little unknown given the way he was used under the previous coaching staff.

The argument for him coming off of a “breakthrough” season is simple: he played his first full season in the NHL and saw a nice jump in his overall production, while also finishing as the team’s fourth-leading scorer. All good stuff, and a nice positive development.

The problem is the Rangers may not have gotten as much out of him as they could have.

Or should have.

[Rangers Day: Looking back | Under Pressure | Three Questions

Throughout most of the season Buchnevich went through stretches where he would get lost in former coach Alain Vigneault’s line blender, and he never really seemed to get the benefit of the doubt from a coaching staff that seemed to favor older, more experienced (in other words, “safer”) players at the expense of younger, potentially more impactful talent. It was especially confusing early in the season when Buchnevich got off to a fantastic start offensively, recording 20 points in his first 25 games through the end of November. Despite that strong start things cooled off considerably (both in terms of ice-time and production) over the next couple of months before picking up again following the trade deadline when his role once again increased.

The one thing that consistently stood out about his season is that he usually managed to produce when he was given an opportunity.

His 1.77 points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play placed him fourth among all Rangers that played at least 40 games for the team, while his 1.75 primary assists per 60 were tops on the team. He was also one of the best Rangers forwards when it came to generating shot attempts.

Was he a totally well-rounded player that didn’t make mistakes? No. He was and still is very much a work in progress. But there was still a lot to like about his season and the potential he showed, and given the Rangers’ struggles offensively he probably should have had more of an opportunity to make a bigger impact.

That is what makes this season under first-year coach David Quinn so interesting for Buchnevich and the Rangers.

Quinn comes to the Rangers with a reputation for being able to work with young players and develop their talent, and Buchnevich’s development should be a primary focus for him. Not only because the Rangers are going to need offense this season, but because they need to identify the next wave of talent this rebuild is going to be centered around. With Buchnevich entering the final year of his entry level contract they are going to have to make some sort of a financial commitment to him after this season and it would be nice to have a clearer idea of what exactly they have in him.

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.