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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.