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PHT Power Rankings: 10 NHL people that need to be better in 2018-19

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that need to have a better season in 2018-19.

A lot of general managers, coaches, and players had great performances during the 2017-18 season to help their teams.

Many of them were expected, some of them were not.

This week’s power rankings are not about them.

This week we look at 10 people around the NHL that, for one reason or another, really need to have a better performance during the 2018-19 season.

To the rankings!

1. Eugene Melynk, Ottawa Senators — It is almost remarkable the roller coaster of emotions Ottawa Senators fans have been on over the past two years, and sadly, just how hopeless the entire operation feels entering the 2018-19 season.

After coming out of nowhere to go on an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 — where they were in double overtime of Game 7, one shot away from the Stanley Cup Final — the entire organization completely imploded on itself over the year that followed.

On the eve of what should have been the biggest day of celebration for the team during the 2017-18 season — their outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens — team owner Eugene Melnyk threw the relocation threat out there, while also adding “I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team.”

Erik Karlsson, the team’s best player, has been on the verge of being traded for a year now while Melnyk reportedly wanted to tie Bobby Ryan‘s contract to the trade, a decision that would no doubt lessen the return for the best player the franchise has ever seen all in the name of saving the owner some money.

The locker room was ripped apart after the fiance of former forward Mike Hoffman was accused of harassing the Karlssons following the death of their son, resulting in Hoffman, one of their two best forwards, being traded for some magic beans.

Assistant general manager Randy Lee resigned after he was charged with two counts of harassment at the scouting combine in Buffalo.

Even if Melnyk himself wasn’t responsible for all of this individually, it is a total dysfunctional mess of a franchise from the top on down (with an emphasis on the “top” part) and the owner has to take responsibility for that. All of it has resulted in Melnyk becoming the most loathed owner in any of the NHL’s 31 markets with fans consistently taking to social media to urge him to sell the team. What could he do to make things better for Senators fans in 2018-19? Selling the team might be a good start, but that doesn’t seem to be something that is in the cards. So maybe he could just … you know … try to be better in some small way? Anything, really. Maybe don’t threaten to move the team the night before the biggest game of the season? Start small, build up from that.

2. Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers — This spot could easily be filled McLellan or general manager Peter Chiarelli, but in fairness to Chilarelli, he has already showed signs that he might be doing better this year. For example, he hasn’t traded a core player in a lopsided one-for-one, he resisted the urge to sell defenseman Oscar Klefbom at his lowest value, he held on to the No. 10 overall pick and hopefully strengthened the defense long-term, and he didn’t sign any ridiculous contracts in free agency. Progress is progress.

That leaves McLellan who will no doubt be on the hot seat if things don’t improve dramatically in Edmonton this season, because you don’t get the luxury of missing the playoffs very often when you have the best player in hockey on your roster.

The most shocking development in Edmonton last season was probably the way the special teams completely sunk the team, finishing 31st on the power play and 26th on the penalty kill. McLellan assumed more responsibility over the PK in the second half of the season (where it did improve … a little) and he has an entirely new set of assistants around him, including former Swift Current Broncos coach Emanuel Viveiros, who comes with a reputation for being a strong offensive coach, and defensive specialist Trent Yawney. There won’t be any excuses for McLellan this season if things go south again.

3. Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens — Earlier this offseason I took an in-depth look at how Bergevin’s tenure has slowly but surely made the Canadiens franchise worse. Nothing has really changed since then. If anything, things seem to be on the verge of getting worse as the Max Pacioretty drama continues to rage on with a trade seemingly being a matter of when, and not if. Once it gets completed that means the Canadiens will have wasted the prime years of one of the league’s best goal scorers that has been playing for them on a laughably cheap, team friendly, bargain contract.

All Bergevin has done over the past few years is saddle the team with bad contracts, a suddenly aging core, and most recently gambled that Max Domi can be better than Alex Galchenyuk. He has fumbled some of his biggest trades and has one more massive one to make at some point over the next few months (Pacioretty). If he messes that one up it will set the Canadiens franchise back even further than it’s already been set back under his watch.

Good luck, everybody!

4. Scott Darling, Carolina Hurricanes — In an effort to solve their long-standing issues in net the Hurricanes traded for Darling before the 2017-18 season and committed to him with a four-year, $16.6 million contract to be their starting goalie. Year one of the deal was a disaster as Darling, one of the league’s best backups in Chicago over the previous three years, turned in one of the least productive performances from a starter in recent NHL history. Despite that performance, the Hurricanes seemingly doubled down on their commitment to Darling as their starter by letting Cam Ward leave in free agency and only signing Petr Mrazek (coming off a down year of his own in Detroit and Philadelphia) to a one-year contract to push him.

For the time being it seems to be Darling’s net and if the Hurricanes are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season he is going to have to be significantly bette than he was last season. The Hurricanes have definitely given him some help by assembling what should one of the league’s best defenses around him (they have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league in recent years) and adding to it this summer with the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan.

5. Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks run of consecutive playoff appearances came to a sudden end this past season with one of the worst records in the NHL. It was a staggering fall for a team that is not that far removed from winning three Stanley Cups in six years, and just one year earlier finished with the third best record in the league and the best record in the Western Conference.

There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Blackhawks in 2017-18, from the injury to starting goalie Corey Crawford, to the fact that Jonathan Toews is now a $10 million per year second-line center (Sorry folks, it is true — at least based on his production).

One of the other big issues: General manager Stan Bowman’s quest to put the championship band back together backfired in a massive way. Along with re-acquiring Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks’ big move was trading Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Saad, just two years after the Blackhawks traded him away in a salary cap-clearing move. The latest trade was a disaster for the Blackhawks. Panarin not only showed that he could carry a line on his own without having Patrick Kane on the other side of the ice, but Saad struggled through the worst season of his career and was a colossal disappointment in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He managed just 17 goals and 35 points in 82 games, and somehow recorded just a single point in 174 minutes of power play time. It was, for lack of a better word, bad.

Given the Blackhawks’ lack of scoring depth and the fact their No. 1 center is now a 50-point player they are going to need a lot more from Saad in 2018-19 if they have any hope of returning to the playoffs in a suddenly competitive Central Division. The good news is that his underlying numbers (dominant possession numbers, a low shooting percentage for himself) point to a player that should be capable of bouncing back. Now he just has to do it.

6. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins — When Letang is on his game and at his best he is one of the most impactful defenders in the league. We saw him at his best during the 2015-16 season when he was a dominant force on the Penguins’ blue line on their run to winning the Stanley Cup, playing more than 28 minutes per night throughout the playoffs and scoring the Stanley Cup clinching goal, capping off a brilliant shift where he was a a one-man wrecking crew.

Unfortunately for Letang another significant injury during the following year robbed him of half of the season (including the entire postseason, where the Penguins would win another Stanley Cup) and didn’t allow him to get back on the ice until the start of the 2017-18 season. He was never quite the same player and struggled through one of the most inconsistent seasons of his career, highlighted by flashes of the dominance we’ve come to know from Letang, and stretches of play where he just didn’t seem to be himself. Harsh as it is to say, if he was one of the biggest reasons they won the Stanley Cup in 2016 (and he was), his performance was perhaps one of the biggest reasons they didn’t win it in 2018. Despite speculation that the Penguins could consider moving him in the offseason, he remains in Pittsburgh where the team is banking on his performance from this past season being a fluke that he can bounce back from. It is a smart bet to make because he is better than he showed this past season. If he bounces back the Penguins will once again be a force in the Eastern Conference and one of the league’s top Stanley Cup contenders.

7. Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers — A lot of general managers around the NHL were responsible for the immediate success of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights. None of them played a bigger role than Dale Tallon of the Florida Panthers when he sent Reilly Smith to Vegas in exchange for a draft pick and then allowing the Golden Knights to take Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft, while protecting the likes of Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on defense (the Panthers opted to protect four forwards and four defenders instead of five forwards and three defenders).

It was a head-scratching move at the time it was made (Marchessault was the team’s top offensive player the year before, and while Smith had a down year and carried a big contract, he was still a productive player with a decent track record in the NHL) and became even worse when Marchessault and Smith helped lead Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Panthers ended up missing the playoffs by a single point following a late-season surge up the standings. Even with the addition of Evgenii Dadonov (a very good move) that one series of roster transactions probably kept the Panthers out of a playoff spot. This offseason the Panthers acquired Mike Hoffman after his ugly exit from Ottawa and signed Troy Brouwer to fill a bottom-six role. Will those be enough to get the Panthers back in the playoffs?

8. The Travis HamonicT.J. Brodie pairing — Okay maybe this is cheating to include two players in here as one entry, but hear me out on this.

On paper the Calgary Flames were supposed to have one of the best top-four defensive pairings in the NHL last season after adding Hamonic to a group that already included the perpetually underrated Mark Giordano, Brodie, and young star Dougie Hamilton.

It did not go as planned, especially when it came to the second pairing of Hamonic and Brodie, a duo that badly struggled during the season. They spent more than 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together where the Flames were outscored by seven goals (33-40) and controlled just a little more than 50 percent of the total shot attempts. When neither player was on the ice the Flames were a 55 percent shot attempt team were only outscored by a pair of goals (90-92).

Now Hamilton is gone (traded as part of a package for Noah Hanifan), Giordano is a year older, and the Flames are going to need these two to be significantly better to make up for all of that.

(H/T Todd Cordell and Natural Stat Trick for those numbers)

9. Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers — With Claude Giroux back to being an elite scorer, an impressive young core of forwards and defenders starting to make their presence felt in the NHL, and the return of James van Riemsdyk, one of the league’s top goal scoring wingers, the Philadelphia Flyers are now back to the point where their roster looks really, really impressive with one very large exception.

Stop me if you have heard this before, but … goaltending might be the only thing that holds the Flyers back from taking another big step this season.

Elliott’s career has been as unpredictable as any other goalie in the league (which is really saying something at a position that is largely defined by its unpredictability) as he has gone from leading the league in save percentage at times, to being benched and traded away. He was okay at times last season, and he is ideally just a placeholder until Carter Hart is ready to take over the job, but the Flyers have a chance to be something more than the mediocre team they have been for the past six years if they can get something that resembles even average goaltending.

10. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins — As an outsider, watching the city of Boston collectively eat itself alive over the performance of Tuukka Rask is a remarkably entertaining thing to watch. As an observer of the game of hockey it is also a little maddening. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if I should include Rask on this ranking because he’s still a pretty darn good goalie that a great team can win with.

He didn’t even have a bad season a year ago.

Is he as good as he was five or six years ago? Probably not, and his personal numbers illustrate that. He is, however, still good. Really good.

But every time he doesn’t single handedly win the Bruins a big game the sky falls in around him and a city of spoiled rotten sports fans and media that think it is their god-given right to win every championship, in every sport, every year lose their minds and need to find a scapegoat. Lately, that scapegoat for the Bruins is almost always Tuukka Rask. For that reason alone Rask could use a better season, just to save himself from that madness and to salvage his reputation in Boston. It is unfair, but so are sports.

Now there is even offseason talk that the addition of Jaroslav Halak could challenge Rask for playing time, or perhaps even push Rask out of town.

Which is just … you know what? Maybe Boston deserves that.

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.

What the Penguins need to become a championship team again

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There is going to come a point in the next few years where the Pittsburgh Penguins are no longer a playoff team.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are all over the age of 32 and probably only have a handful of high-level years ahead of them. When they start to decline or retire there is going to be no replacing them and no matter what moves the Penguins make today there is not going to be anything that stops them from needing an extensive rebuild in the not-too-distant future. That future is not quite here yet.

After barely making the playoffs and getting swept in Round 1 with a roster that seemed to lose its way, it is not unfair to say that the team has slipped a bit in its standing as a Stanley Cup contender. What do they need to get back closer to the top?

We know the Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel duo is going to excel on the first line and the Kris Letang-Brian Dumoulin pairing is going to be great. After that it is a bunch of questions. The obvious keys focus on Alex Galchenyuk fitting in, Evgeni Malkin being better (especially at even-strength), and Matt Murray playing at his best (all things we already looked at today).

But that alone will not be enough.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor | Three Questions]

1. Rediscover their identity. I touched on this immediately after their Round 1 loss but the single biggest flaw the Penguins have is their sudden fascination with having players that provide “push back.” For a team that won two Stanley Cups under the mantra of “just play” it was a needless overreaction to some perceived injustices from a select few opposing players. The result was a shift away from what made team so tough to play against (balanced offense, mobile defense, speed, four scoring lines) and a rapidly growing collection of long-term, pricey contracts for depth players (Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson, Brandon Tanev). The big thing that would help address this: Another mobile, puck-moving defender that can play on the second pair. The big intangible thing: Go back to “just play” instead of worrying about pushing back.

2. A resurgence from a (hopefully) healthy Patric Hornqvist. Hornqvist’s status as a team leader and gritty forward with a non-stop motor masked the fact that his play rapidly deteriorated in the second half of the season, to the point where he was a complete non-factor offensively. It was a stunning slump after a strong first half. The thing that stands out about that is there is a pretty firm line that separated his season. That line was another head injury that kept him out of the lineup midway through the season. Was it a fluke slump? Was it a result of the injury? Was it a sign of things to come for him in the future now that he is 32 years old? A combination of all three? Whatever it was, the Penguins have Hornqvist signed for four more years at more than $5 million per season. The work ethic and effort are great, but at that price the Penguins need him to produce more than he did this past year or that contract will quickly turn into another drain on the salary cap.

3. Some young players need to emerge. The big focus during their mid-season turnaround in 2015-16 was on the coaching change. But there was another element at play: A bunch of young players became impact players at the same time (Murray, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl; Guentzel a year later). The Penguins need that again. While the farm system is thin, there are some candidates to take big steps forward at the NHL level. Dominik Simon is polarizing because he is a favorite of the coaching staff and struggles to score goals, but he is a good defensive player and playmaker. Jared McCann is a favorite of the front office because they love his potential and he had a strong showing after the trade from Florida. He needs to show it was not a fluke. Dominik Kahun is an intriguing add from Chicago and is coming off a solid rookie season. And even though this might be for a couple years down the line, Pierre-Oliver Joseph is the exact type of defender they need to emerge and become a regular.

The three superstars at the top are the most important ingredient. But they are only part of the recipe. These three keys are just as important.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

P.K. Subban, Lindsey Vonn announce engagement

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Lindsey Vonn and P.K. Subban are engaged, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Vonn, who retired in February with a female record 82 World Cup wins, and Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman, have dated for more than one year.

Vonn was previously married to fellow Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. They announced divorce plans in late 2011.

Vonn reportedly grimaced when asked in 2013 if she would get married again.

“No, thanks!” she said, according to Vogue then. “I am definitely not getting married. To anyone.”

After her divorce, Vonn dated Tiger Woods and NFL assistant coach Kenan Smith before dating Subban, going public in June 2018.

“Right off the bat, I knew he was different,” Vonn said, according to a Vogue magazine announcement of the engagement. “But I’d been married before, so I was pretty hesitant to let myself think that I could find someone that I would want to be married to again. After a few months of dating, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with, though.”

Subban, 30, also owns an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada in Sochi.

“Lindsey’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Subban said, according to Vogue. “There are people in life that deserve to be with good people. They have that person who takes care of them and makes them smile, and she deserves to be with someone who loves her more than anything else in the world, and I do.”

Vonn and Subban would become one of the most prominent married Olympic champion couples, joining the likes of tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

For more from Nick Zaccardi check out Olympic Talk on NBC Sports