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Will Hoffman, Panthers get 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.

Update: Hoffman provided this statement on the move.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: The unexpected rise of the Islanders

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Expectations were understandably low for the New York Islanders at the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. They were coming off of a non-playoff year, had just lost their best player to free agency, spent the offseason filling the roster with fourth-liners and depth players, and three of their returning best forwards (Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson) were all entering the final year of their contracts making their future with the team up in the air (and they still are).

Add to that the fact they were an historically bad defensive team a year ago and were entering the season with a couple of question marks in net in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

On paper this team looked more likely to be competing for the top pick in the draft than the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Here we are now in mid-February and the Islanders are in first place in the Metro with a five-point lead (with a game in hand still) on the defending Stanley Cup champions and are one point better than the Toronto Maple Leafs team that signed John Tavares away from them.

There are reasons to wonder how long this run can last beyond this season — or even throughout the rest of this season — especially given the contract situations with Eberle, Lee, and Nelson, and that is to say nothing of any possible regression from the performance of the goalies. But for right now they are here at the top of the league, they are almost certainly going to the playoffs, and they are probably one of the most improbable success stories in recent NHL memory.

Heck, if you go back over the past decade or more they might be the second most improbably success story behind last year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season.

There have been a lot of teams that have experienced rapid turnarounds in one year. Last year’s Colorado Avalanche went from the worst record in the league to the playoffs. The 2016-17 Ottawa Senators went on an unexpected run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. That season’s Edmonton Oilers also made their first playoff appearance in a decade and were a Game 7 away from being in the Western Conference Final.

But none of those teams were facing a situation quite like this year’s Islanders where they were not only bad, but also lost their best player.

None of this should be working. But that is kind of the beauty and unpredictably that the NHL can provide.

The very nature of hockey lends itself more to these type of stories than almost any other sport because of the role luck can play, or how much a goaltending performance can alter the trajectory of a team or a season. The Islanders have had a lot of that go their way this season, and when you add in a top-tier coaching addition behind the bench you have the perfect recipe for an unexpected rise to the top of the league.

We can poke at their success all we want and look for flaws and wait for the bottom to fall out (and I definitely have this season), but for right now they have one of the best records in the league, are still white-hot over the past few weeks, and are giving their fans something to be legitimately happy about for the first time in years.

They crack the top-three in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else in the league fit this week?

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — There is just no knocking the Lightning out of this spot. They enter the week riding yet another five-game winning streak, have shut out their past two opponents, and have a forward in Nikita Kucherov who is having a Lemieux or Gretzky type of season offensively. They are 15 points ahead of the next closest team in the standings. Just give them the Presidents’ Trophy now.

2. San Jose Sharks — They still went 6-3-0 without Erik Karlsson and now he is back healthy. Still think they are a solid goalie away from being an absolute force of a team.

The Strong Contenders

3. New York Islanders — This has got to be one of the more memorable and satisfying seasons Islanders fans have had since … well … the 80s?

4. Boston Bruins — There are still serious concerns about the scoring depth on this team because one line will not take you very far … but the results are there right now, and they keep climbing the standings.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — Frederik Andersen is still the unsung hero of this team. His ability to play almost every night and at a well above league average level is huge for a team that isn’t great defensively. Just like last year, though, I worry about that workload during the regular season having a negative impact when the playoffs roll around. That is a grind of a season.

6. Calgary Flames — They hit what was one of their first real rough patches of the season recently by losing five out of six including four in a row. Snapped out of that, however, with an impressive win in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

7. Winnipeg Jets — I feel like this is a team where the results are not matching the process behind them right now. But the results are still kind of good.

The Middle Of The Pack Teams

8. St. Louis Blues — A 10-game winning streak and a 16-4-1 record since the start of the new year has rocketed them up the Western Conference standings, into a solid playoff position, and with still three games in hand on the Predators could even find themselves with a shot — a long shot, yes, but still a shot — to maybe steal home ice advantage in the first round.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets — What a maddening team. They win four in a row, then lose five in a row, then win four in a row, they might trade their best player, they might be in the market to add Matt Duchene. Chaos. All of it. But when they play at their best they can be really, really, really good.

10. Nashville Predators — They’ve set an incredibly high bar for themselves over the past two years that their record of 34-22-5 entering Monday, and their recent play, seems like a little less than what it should be. They are still great. Just seems like there is more there waiting to come out.

11. Carolina Hurricanes — This bunch of jerks is 16-5-1 in its past 22 games and playing like one of the best teams in the league. And it still may not be enough to secure a playoff. How you start a season matters.

[Related: Hurricanes keep winning, celebrating like bunch of jerks]

12. Washington Capitals — They are just like the 2017-18 version of the Capitals. A really good team that is capable of going on an incredible hot streak where they can be almost unbeatable. The key this year will be if they go on one of those runs at the right time again.

13. Montreal Canadiens — On paper the roster does not look to be anything special, but they are well coached, have strong underlying numbers to suggest their success this year is not a fluke, and they have a goalie that can change a game on any night.

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — Evgeni Malkin is starting to get on a roll. That is exactly what the Penguins need right now.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — The playoffs will not happen this season, but Carter Hart might be the most important player to enter the organization in a long, long, long time. His debut this season is probably good enough to change the short-term direction of the franchise.

16. Vegas Golden Knights — With only five wins — and only three in regulation — over their past 14 games entering the week this might be one of the longest slumps in the brief existence of the Golden Knights.

17. Dallas Stars — The offense is still revolving around only four or five players and a bunch of hopes and prayers that somebody else does something. They might make the playoffs because Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are great and because the rest of the teams immediately around them mostly stink.

[Related: After CEO criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround]

18. Chicago Blackhawks — They are making a late season push, and the West might just be bad enough to give them a shot they probably wouldn’t otherwise have.

19. Florida Panthers — They have been decent lately, but the real intrigue around this team is what they do over the next week, presumably in a quest to go after the big fish in free agency this summer.

20. New York Rangers — They have been very competitive lately, probably to the detriment of their lottery chances, but I suspect once the trade deadline comes and goes this roster will probably look a lot different and the winning will probably slow down a bit.

21. Minnesota Wild — Bruce Boudreau has never coached a full season in the NHL and missed the playoffs (he spent the 2011-12 season split between Washington and Anaheim and missed the playoffs that season). He is in danger of experiencing that this season, even if he is confident in his team’s chances.

[Related: Boudreau confident about Wild’s chances to earn playoff spot]

22. Buffalo Sabres — I realize you can’t take away a 10-game winning streak, but there were a lot of smoke and mirrors behind that success and outside of those 10 games where they won a bunch of one-goal games in overtime and shootouts they have been the same old Sabres.

23. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely on the right track and have some great young cornerstone pieces to build around, but they are still not a great — or even very good — team yet. 

The Lose For Hughes Teams

24. Arizona Coyotes — A terribly unlucky season on the injury front. Can not question the effort of the players, though. They have been competitive and a thorn in the side of opponents all year.

25. Colorado Avalanche — Simply put, they have been awful for more than two full months now.

26. New Jersey Devils — One positive to come out of this lost season is the development of Nico Hischier. He has been good.

27. Los Angeles Kings — Is Ilya Kovalchuk really done or is he just stuck on the worst possible team for offense? Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B? I would be interested to find out at the trade deadline, and I am sure the Kings would like to be rid of that contract.

28. Detroit Red Wings — Work those phones, Ken. Sell! Sell! Sell!

29. Ottawa Senators — By this time next week the roster could be unrecognizable. Even more than it already is.

30. Anaheim Ducks — Winning two out of three is progress, I guess?

31. Edmonton Oilers — They actually have a worse points percentage under Ken Hitchcock than they did under Todd McLellan. Goodness gracious what a mess.

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

AHL’s Bakersfield Condors can’t stop winning, boast 15-game streak

Bakersfield Condors
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The parent club has won once in 11 games. The minor league affiliate is the hottest team in the American Hockey League.

If you’re an Edmonton Oilers fan, well, maybe there’s some hope down in the AHL that can lead to a turnaround in the future. The Bakersfield Condors are red-hot right now having won 15 straight games, with their last defeat coming on Jan. 11.

They won No. 15 on Saturday night, thanks to an overtime goal from Cooper Marody. Here are the highlights and the call from the great Ryan Holt:

The streak has put the Condors in first place in the AHL’s Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference.

Now for the fun facts:

• The Condors are the seventh AHL team to win 15 consecutive games.

• The 15-game winning streak is the fourth-longest in AHL history.

• They kicked off 2019 with an 0-4-1 record and were in fifth place in their division — 11 points out of first place —  before the streak started.

• Bakersfield has outscored opponents 69-31 over their last 15 games and have only trailed for 49 minutes total.

• Per Holt, if the Condors win No. 16 next Saturday against Tucson they will match the 1984-85 Baltimore Skipjacks’ 16-game winning streak. That Skipjacks roster featured Steve Carlson (a.k.a. Steve Hanson), Bruce Boudreau, Marty McSorley, Bob Errey, Phil Bourque, and Andy Brickley. “Nobody on the roster was even alive then.”

• Only two teams in AHL history have had winning streaks greater than 16 games: The 2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms won 17, and the record-holders, 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals, went on an insane run winning 28 straight. Both teams won the Calder Cup in their respective seasons. (That Norfolk roster featured the likes of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, and were coached by some guy named Jon Cooper. Wonder whatever happened to those three?)

If the Condors keep the wins coming they could match the Admirals’ record on March 30 against the San Jose Barracuda and break it against the Manitoba Moose on April 2.

————

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Dominant Lightning still have chip on their shoulder

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have put together an incredible season thus far. How great have they been? Well, just take a look at the league standings. Through 59 games, the Bolts have accumulated 92 points. That puts them 15 points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who are the second-best team in the NHL right now.

If you were expecting the Lightning to slow down with such a big lead, you were mistaken. Tampa Bay still hasn’t dropped a game in regulation this month, as they’re in the middle of a 7-0-2 stretch in the month February. And it’s not like they’re beating up on bad teams, either.

They’ve taken down the Islanders, who are the best team in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens over the last three weeks.

How do they stay motivated with a such a big lead in the standings? Clearly, they’re being fuelled by their lack of Stanley Cup Championships.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Steven Stamkos said, per USA Today. “I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be happy to go to a Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. That’s tough to do. But with the expectations being so high for our group, we came into this year thinking this was our year, our turn.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Here’s how good they’ve been in 2018-19:

• They have a plus-73 goal differential. The Maple Leafs are second in that category and they’re at plus-42.

Nikita Kucherov has 94 points in 59 games. He’s six away from setting a new career high. Oh, and Patrick Kane is second in scoring this season (87 points in 58 games).

• The Lightning have three players in the top nine when it comes to scoring. Kucherov, Brayden Point (75 points in 58 games) and Steven Stamkos (71 points in 59 games). Only Colorado has more than one.

• Tampa has the best power play in the NHL. They have a success rate of 29.7 percent. The Bruins are 3.2 percent away from the Lightning in this category.

• Their penalty kill is ranked second in the league at 84.6 percent. Only Arizona (85.2 percent) is ahead of them.

All impressive totals, right? So let’s take a look at the advanced numbers, too (all stats via Natural Stat Trick):

• The Lightning are eighth in CF% at 51.95 percent. San Jose, Carolina, Vegas, Montreal, Nashville, Boston and Calgary are all ahead of them.

• When it comes to scoring chances, they have a 53.16 percent share of those opportunities this season. Only Vegas, Carolina, San Jose and Minnesota have a bigger share of the scoring chances.

• When it comes to high-danger scoring, as you’d imagine, the Lightning find themselves with the sixth-highest percentage in that category.

The Lightning have been dominant all year and now they just have to hope that they can stay healthy before the start of the playoffs.

MORE: What should Lightning add at trade deadline?

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Martin Jones might be key to long playoff run for Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks have been one of the elite teams in the NHL this season. They’re in a tight battle with the Calgary Flames for the Pacific Division. As of right now, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have more points than San Jose’s 77. What makes this run even more impressive for the Sharks, is that they’ve done all this with subpar goaltending for most of the season.

Starting netminder Martin Jones owns a 28-11-4 record, which is far from terrible, but his individual stats leave a lot to be desired. He owns a 2.88 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage in 2018-19. Those numbers include his recent surge, which tells you just how bad they were a little while ago.

In fairness to Jones, he’s been a lot better of late. The 29-year-old has rattled off six victories in his last seven games and he’s allowed two goals against in five of those contests. Since Christmas, he’s posted 14-3-0 record. So that’s encouraging. The Sharks just need to make sure he keeps rolling as the regular season comes to a close.

Backup goalie Aaron Dell hasn’t been much better (he hasn’t been better than Jones at all). In a smaller sample size, Dell has posted similar numbers to Jones. He has a 3.04 goals-against-average and a .892 save percentage.

What makes this issue a little more complex, is that general manager Doug Wilson can’t just go out and get himself another goalie. Wasting an asset or two on acquiring a goalie from another team when you’re paying Jones $5.75 million on a long-term contract isn’t good business. And it’s probably not the message you want to send Jones, who has five years remaining on his current deal.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Sure, Wilson could add Sergei Bobrovsky, Jimmy Howard or someone else, but there’s no guarantee that any of those goalies on the trade market will help get them further than Jones can. At this point, it seems like they’ve hitched their wagon to Jones, so he’s one of the players that will dictate how far they can go in the playoffs.

The Sharks have enough talent up front and on defense that they can overcome some average goaltending, but Jones can’t post a goals-against-average of three and a save percentage under .900 when the playoffs role around. There’s only so many more cracks this group of players will get at the Stanley Cup.

Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns are in their 30’s, while there’s no guarantee that Erik Karlsson will sign an extension to stay in San Jose.

If Jones can continue giving the Sharks some quality goaltending like he has been over the last few weeks, they have to be considered one of the favorites to win it all. If he reverts back to being average, they may only last a round or two.

All eyes will be on San Jose’s crease this spring.

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.