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Where they stand: Atlantic Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands. 

With August approaching, NHL GMs are mostly transitioning from “time at the cottage” to “tropical drinks on the beach.”

There’s more work to do, but much of it may happen closer to training camp time, aside from some deals to settle RFA situations and avoid salary arbitration. This seems like a great time to ponder which teams look likely to rise or fall in each division, so let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins

Summer summary: “Meh” seems like the right word to summarize Boston’s off-season.

They lost the Ri-Nashes (Rick Nash and Riley Nash), swapped backups, said goodbye to some depth players, and signed John Moore to a somewhat bewildering contract. So, yeah, meh.

More to do?: The B’s covered their free agent bases already, so their near $3 million in space (via Cap Friendly) could come in handy, with a “rental” probably making most sense.

The most interesting questions revolve around making some near-future calls regarding defense.

Brilliant young defenseman Charlie McAvoy‘s rookie contract expires after next season, while Zdeno Chara has to slow down at some point, right? The Bruins are lucky that Chara is OK with one-year commitments, but a raise is coming for McAvoy. Maybe they’d be better off settling on an extension now, rather than after another high-level season?

Where they stand: On somewhat shaky ground.

Consider this: the Maple Leafs pushed them to a Game 7 without John Tavares. The Lightning didn’t make any big splashes, yet they creamed the B’s with their current crew. Florida finished last season on a strong note, and could be really dangerous if the Mike Hoffman gamble works out.

So, the Bruins face challenges even if they maintain last season’s often-impressive progress. What if some key players hit the aging curve hard, too? Patrice Bergeron is somehow 33, and they feature some old Davids (Backes and Krejci) along their brilliant young one (Pastrnak). Chara is 41, and even Brad Marchand is 30.

On the other hand, the Bruins entered 2017-18 with some worries, and instead looked really promising while seeing some young players emerge. It wouldn’t be shocking to see some young talent rise to the occasion once again.

Buffalo Sabres

Summer summary: The Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly, and probably lost that trade, yet they may have improved overall this summer.

For one thing, the package they landed for ROR should at least help them get deeper. More obviously, Rasmus Dahlin is now in the organization, and he could very well pay significant dividends as a rookie. Speaking of rookies, Casey Mittelstadt may also be a difference-maker.

Landing Conor Sheary is pretty neat, especially if he finds almost as much chemistry with someone like Jack Eichel as he did with Sidney Crosby.

Between those additions and going with Carter Hutton instead of Robin Lehner in net, the Sabres should be very interesting this season. Now, will interesting translate to better?

More to do?: Sam Reinhart stands as a significant player still in need of a contract, as he’s currently a 22-year-old RFA.

With no arbitration date set, that situation might drag on for a while. Sure, Reinhart hasn’t been spectacular considering that he was the second pick in 2014, but he’s hit 20+ goals twice and scored 50 points in 2017-18. You can see where there might be some room for haggling there.

Without a Reinhart contract settled, the Sabres have about $12.2M in cap space. Buffalo’s likely better off waiting and seeing if real progress is possible before spending much more of that surplus.

Where they stand: Possibly in that same awkward “baby steps” stage that they seem perpetually stuck in?

There’s a lot to like with what Buffalo’s done – although, even if ROR needed to be traded, it’s not an upgrade – but it still feels like a work in progress.

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Detroit Red Wings

Summer summary: Detroit still seems a bit stuck in purgatory, adding veterans (Thomas Vanek and Jonathan Bernier) you’d expect more of a contender to seek. There’s still a vibe of “one foot in, one foot out” when it comes to a should-be rebuild.

At least they seemed to get the 2018 NHL Draft very, very right, though. Filip Zadina fell to them at the sixth pick, and Joe Veleno going 30th seemed to be a potential steal, too. You never know how college-age players will actually turn out, but these prospects seem quite promising. Getting those picks right matters a lot more than minor free agent signings.

More to do?: The Red Wings signed reasonable bridge deals with Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, but Dylan Larkin is still an RFA. PHT’s advice is for the Red Wings to sign Larkin for as long as possible.

That’s about it, unless the Red Wings can convince other teams to take some of their bad contracts.

Where they stand: They seem slated to be mediocre, but will they be bad enough? Because they’re better off being really bad and landing another premium prospect. Oh yeah, and they should also try to get rid of bad contracts.

Florida Panthers

Summer summary: After enduring jokes about Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith during much of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers … didn’t commit any major unforced errors. Progress.

Then again, if Mike Hoffman ends up being a disruptive force, maybe they did make a mistake? Eh, at least it’s a much smarter summer on paper.

More to do?: The Panthers don’t have any significant RFAs to deal with, and not much cap space, particularly for a franchise that frequently gets described as a “budget team.” Landing Hoffman gives this team a pretty robust top-nine of forwards, so that will probably have to do.

Where they stand: The Panthers finished 2017-18 on a tear, and it seems like they’ve gotten better heading into 2018-19. Aleksander Barkov centers one of the best top lines in the NHL, Vincent Trocheck‘s second trio really got things going later in the year, and Hoffman could give them more punch (whether it means adding to existing strengths or giving the third line a boost).

From here, it sure seems like Florida has playoff potential. Then again, we’ve seen this movie before.

Montreal Canadiens

Summer summary: Another year, another questionable trade featuring another player who seemed to absorb inexplicably harsh criticisms.

Much like P.K. Subban, Alex Galchenyuk‘s seemingly inevitable trade happened, netting Montreal Max Domi. The Canadiens also managed to get Joel Armia, while throwing fans a bone by bringing Tomas Plekanec back (his turtleneck never looked right in Maple Leaf blue anyway).

It will be fascinating to see if Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a worthy choice at third overall or if the Habs reached. It also remains to be seen if he can make the team, and if doing so would even be beneficial for either the player or the Habs.

More to do?: Ideally? Or maybe not?

The Max Pacioretty situation remains unsettled, as they haven’t been able to trade the winger and allegedly don’t seem particularly interested in signing “Patches” to an extension.

It’s a nerve-wracking situation. On one hand, Pacioretty seems less valuable as the season goes along, at least if a side deal for an extension would be a no-go. On the other hand, Habs GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to land proper value in trades. Maybe no move would somehow be better than another bad move?

Where they stand: It’s been frustrating to watch Montreal bleed talent year after year, a painful Bergevin tradition. You can’t totally dismiss the Canadiens’ chances while they have Carey Price in the mix. Yes, his contract is terrifying, particularly long-term, but it’s feasible that he could still generate elite work. If so, the Canadiens could very well compete for a playoff spot.

Is it really best for them to scratch and claw to get in the playoff bubble instead of landing another high-end pick, though? Probably not.

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Ottawa Senators

Summer summary: Woof.

Oh, you wanted more? The Senators have been a full-fledged disaster, both on and off the ice, during the past few months. And they haven’t even traded Erik Karlsson yet. Again, woof.

More to do?: Again, that Karlsson trade is brewing, and allowing it to drag into the regular season would rank as yet another ugly distraction for a team that’s setting a new standard for being substandard.

Beyond the enormously important Karlsson situation, the Senators have two lingering RFA situations (both slated for salary arbitration): Mark Stone and Cody Ceci. Stone, in particular, stands as a crucial consideration. Already sour fans could become outright outraged if the Senators nickle-and-dime Stone out of town.

Where they stand: Normally, they’d have every reason to tumble down the rankings and try to land Jack Hughes.

The Matt Duchene trade, and Ottawa’s decision to make the fourth pick in 2018, means that Colorado gets their 2019 NHL Draft pick. So Senators fans can’t even enjoy the cognitive dissonance of half-enjoying their team’s failures thanks to tanking, as the team doesn’t even have that luxury. (Did we mention “woof?”)

The Senators sometimes surprise the hockey world by winning when not expected, and it’s fair to expect that Craig Anderson will be better next season – he couldn’t get much worse – but the outlook is quite dismal.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Summer summary: Instead of landing a big name – so far? – the Lightning instead raised some eyebrows by handing hefty extensions to J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh.

The most important extension was handed to Nikita Kucherov. It might seem strange to call a $9.5M cap hit a bargain, but considering what Kucherov brings to the table, what he’s paid now, and what he’d get on the open market … yes, it’s a big bargain.

So, even though the Lightning haven’t made another splashy addition, Stevie Y hasn’t exactly been loafing.

More to do?: Can they still win the Karlsson sweepstakes? The Lightning rank among the teams who’d be most sensible if Karlsson is a mere rental, even though there’s talk that Tampa Bay is one of the few placed he’d be interesting in signing an early extension. If Karlsson talks reignite, then there’s quite a lot of work to do.

One way or another, it sure wouldn’t hurt to move Ryan Callahan‘s contract. One also can’t help but wonder about Anton Stralman. Are the Lightning content to let him play out his contract and then leave?

Where they stand: The Lightning head into 2018-19 as a genuine contender, with or without a splashy addition.

Honestly, the McDonagh trade’s greatest benefits might be seen this season, as players often struggle to make a full impact amid the rush of being moved around the deadline. McDonagh gets to settle in with a training camp and extension in hand, so maybe he’ll be more effective?

As good as the Lightning seem – and they appear poised to be a strong team – they could fall in the second round and not really underachieve. That’s because of the NHL’s playoff setup, which could set the stage for annual showdowns with the Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Summer summary: Oh, no big deal. Basically a leisurely stroll.

The Maple Leafs accomplished something incredibly rare in the NHL salary cap era, landing a true superstar free agent in John Tavares. Adding Tavares to Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri gives the Buds the sort of center depth just about any franchise would envy.

That would be a big enough change, but the Maple Leafs also saw big organizational changes, and in some cases departures.

The team is now in Kyle Dubas’ hands, as he became GM while Lou Lamoriello and others left town. Key subtractions also happened to the roster, as James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and Matt Martin are all gone.

Expectations will be sky-high in Toronto.

More to do?: People will appraise the Dubas era for more than just signing Tavares, as he faces quite the juggling act in trying to navigate new contracts for William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner.

Nylander is most pressing, as he still needs a contract heading into 2018-19 as an RFA. Meanwhile, Matthews and Marner can be signed to extensions, but they’re both entering contract years. It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs saving a lot of money in letting any of those situations drag out, especially if Marner ends up on a line with Tavares.

(Pro tip: Tavares’ wingers get paid.)

Where they stand: Maple Leafs fans have, for the most part, been patient when it comes to Brendan Shanahan’s rebuilding plan. Fans and media have been holding out for a moment like this, though, so the stakes are skyrocketing.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have some flaws, as they lack a true shutdown defenseman. Still, there’s talent even in that area, and Toronto’s forward group and an underrated workhorse goalie in Frederik Andersen make for a formidable opponent.

It’s going to be a huge challenge for Mike Babcock to mold all of these pieces into a true contender, especially considering capable competition, particularly with Tampa Bay. There’s a strong chance that this roster will live up to the hype, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

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.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.