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PHT Power Rankings: Non-playoff teams most likely to make postseason return

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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 which of the NHL’s non-playoff teams from this past season that are most likely to make a return to the playoffs.

There were 15 teams in the NHL that missed the playoffs during the 2017-18 NHL season and you can guarantee that at least one or two from that group will bounce back and make the postseason this year. There were five such teams a year ago with the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Winnipeg Jets all making a return to the playoffs, with the Jets going all the way to the Western Conference Final.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we rank all 15 non-playoff teams from a year ago in order of which one of them is most likely to see a similar turnaround.

1. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were right there in 2017-18, falling just one point short of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference even after trading Paul Stastny at the deadline. They bolstered their lineup this offseason by trading for a great two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly, bringing back David Perron off a career year in Vegas for yet another stint, and signing Tyler Bozak in free agency. That is suddenly a pretty good looking offensive lineup to go with a team that was sixth in the league in goals against last season. Honestly, it would probably be a surprise if this team did not make the playoffs in 2018-19.

2. Florida Panthers –– The Panthers were one of the best teams in the league over the second half of last season, finishing on a 25-8-2 run over their final 35 games, and like the Blues, ended up falling just a single point short of the second wild card spot in their conference. With Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Aaron Ekblad, they have a really good young core in place, while Evgenii Dadonov proved to be an outstanding pickup last summer. They added another top-six winger to the mix with the trade for Mike Hoffman. Whether that is enough to close the gap on the top-three in the Atlantic Division remains to be seen (all of Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston were at least nine points ahead of Florida in the standings last year), but they should be right in the thick of the wild card chase. They’re not going to maintain the pace they played at over the second half of the season, but they’re also probably not as bad as they were in the first half.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Trading Jeff Skinner is going to hurt the offense, but they have high hopes for 19-year-old Martin Necas and No. 2 overall draft pick Andrei Svechnikov. The real hope for optimism here though is on defense, a unit that looks to be absolutely loaded on paper after the offseason additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, while still (for now) holding on to Justin Faulk. The Hurricanes were already one of the best shot suppression teams in the league and just need to figure out a way to get respectable goaltending (and let’s be honest, Scott Darling can not possibly struggle more than he did a year ago). Yes, we say this stuff about them every year, but one of these years it finally has to happen.

4. Dallas Stars — Even though the Stars did not make a big splash move during the offseason (they are, however, one of the teams rumored to have had interest in Erik Karlsson) they still made a pretty significant change to the team when they brought in Jim Montgomery to replace Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. The Stars have been one of the league’s most consistently disappointing teams given the high-end talent they have at the top of the roster (currently with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Alexander Radulov) and the blockbuster moves they make every offseason. Yet every year they always seem to just settle in around the playoff bubble as a 90-92 point team. They are always so close, yet seemingly so far.

5. Chicago Blackhawks — The success or failure of the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks likely hinges on whether or not starting goalie Corey Crawford is healthy and able to play. When he was in the lineup last season, the Blackhawks were pretty good. When he went out of the lineup with a still mysterious upper-body injury they were of the worst teams in the league. Given the decline of the Blackhawks’ defense and their forward depth they are going to have to rely on goaltending quite a bit to carry them. A healthy Crawford might be able to do that. Their Plan B in net may not be able to.

6. Edmonton Oilers — It is stunning that the team with the most dominant offensive player in the world missed the playoffs by nearly 20 points last season. Also stunning that we are still not sure if they are good enough to be a playoff team this season. While it was the special teams units that mostly sunk the Oilers’ chances in 2017-18, this was still a pretty mediocre 5-on-5 team and they really didn’t make any significant changes to that roster. Given what has happened in previous years when they tried to make significant changes (Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson; signing Milan Lucic; Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome) maybe that is a good thing. Flawed as this team is, they do still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at the top of the lineup and there is always a chance they could go off and carry the team back to the playoffs.

[Related: 10 NHL people that need to have a better season in 2018-19]

7. Calgary Flames — The 2017-18 season was a giant disappointment for the Flames after there were such high preseason hopes. They were bringing back a really good young core with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk, and spent a ton of money and assets to bring in Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith to shore up the back end. Even though the three young forwards all played well (and Gaudreau was fantastic) everything else just kind of fell flat. James Neal is a nice addition up front, but trading Hamilton is a big blow to the defense even with Noan Hanifin and Elias Lindholm coming back in return. Smith was okay in his first year as their starting goaltender, but he is entering his age 36 season and just being “okay” may not be good enough.

8. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes finished with the worst record in the Western Conference and the third worst record overall, but they finished really strong, beat a lot of really good teams, and have a ton of young talent in place. When healthy, Antti Raanta was as good as any goalie in the NHL last season and if he can come close to duplicating that performance over a full year he could be a game-changer for the Coyotes. Another potential game-changer: Dylan Strome, the third overall pick from 2015. After dominating the OHL and AHL the past couple of years he showed some of that ability at the NHL level down the stretch run of the regular season. He is still a big-time talent. They also have what should be a strong 1-2 punch down the middle with Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk. They are not all the way there yet, but if a few things break their way (Raanta being as good as he showed last year; Strome taking a big step forward) they could be a big surprise team in the Western Conference.

9. Buffalo Sabres — A lot was made over their return for O’Reilly, but other than Tage Thompson, that was very much a quantity over quality deal and is not something that is likely to change for the fortunes of the team anytime soon. If anything, it made them a little worse. Fortunately, that was not the only trade they made over the summer. Conor Sheary will not have Sidney Crosby next to him in Buffalo so he remains sort of a mystery, but they ended up getting Skinner from Carolina for a really good price. In the end, they lost one big-time player, picked up another, and have a bunch of question marks including Carter Hutton, their new starting goalie. Jack Eichel will still be great, though. So, honestly, probably expect more of the same.

10. New York Rangers — The rebuild is well underway and it is very likely that even more veterans will get moved before the trade deadline this season (Mats Zuccarello? Kevin Hayes?). Playing in a division that is absolutely loaded at the top it just seems like the playoffs are a real long shot, even with Henrik Lundqvist in net.

11. Montreal Canadiens — Their best and probably only hope is that Carey Price plays like the 2014-15 version Carey Price. Since that is still always a possibility that probably puts them ahead of a few other teams in the league that do not have Carey Price.

12. Vancouver Canucks — Vancouver spent the offseason acting like a team that is a playoff contender by spending big money on its bottom-six. This is not a playoff contender. Brock Boeser looks great, Bo Horvat is pretty good, they have some intriguing prospects, but it is still not a very good team overall. And something that seems to get overlooked is that Henrik and Daniel Sedin were still pretty solid last season (two of their top-three scorers), and they are not coming back.

13. Detroit Red Wings — They got a gift in the draft when Filip Zadina fell to them at No. 6 overall, but this situation is still very bleak as they are spending a ton of money on a team that is just not very good. They accumulated a lot of draft picks, but this is going to be a long, painful rebuild.

14. New York Islanders — They lost their best player (John Tavares) in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs and spent the entire offseason replacing him with fourth-liners to go with all of the other fourth-liners they already had. Mathew Barzal is a worthy franchise cornerstone, but he will not be able to do it all by himself.

15. Ottawa Senators — There is absolutely nothing to be excited about here This was one of the worst teams in the league a year ago, has already lost one of its top scorers this offseason, and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, Erik Karlsson gets traded. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone are also entering the final year of their contracts so they, too, could be on the move at some point. This looks like a lottery team.

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 is the Wild’s long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Minnesota Wild.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Wild are kind of drifting toward that middle ground where they are not a true contender and they are not exactly awful, either. They have good players, but they also have some pretty significant flaws.

One of the biggest might be the fact they have a lot money tied up in players that are on the wrong side of 30. Mikko Koivu is a free agent after this season, and no one really knows what his future is at this point, but Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Devan Dubnyk are some of their biggest contracts beyond this season and Spurgeon is the only one younger than 32 years old. It is not a stretch to believe that every single one of those players has already played their best hockey. Parise was also the subject of trade rumors on deadline day with the New York Islanders, something that could be revisited later.

Beyond that, the Wild do have some intriguing younger players making up a second-wave of talent.

Kevin Fiala has been an outstanding pickup and is having an outstanding year, while Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek are other younger players the Wild are hoping can become bigger contributors.

The most intriguing young player in the organization, though, has yet to even play a game in North America. That player is Kirili Kaprizov, the 22-year-old winger that has dominated the KHL for the past few seasons. He was a fifth-round pick by the team a few years ago and his arrival in Minnesota has been anticipated for some time now.

Long-Term Needs

Really what the Wild need is a difference-maker. A game-changing forward that can be the focal point of the offense and carry it. A franchise cornerstone to build around both in the short-and long-term.

They do not really have that player right now, and the ones that most closely resemble that player on the roster right now are older and on the downside of their careers. They are also not really well positioned to get one without a lot of luck going their way in the draft lottery. It is a tough spot to be in.

Their biggest hope for that sort of presence might be with the aforementioned Kaprizov. For as intriguing and exciting as his potential is, it is still just exactly that — potential. Even if he does eventually become that top-line standout player, it may not happen as soon as he arrives next season. There could be some growing pains and an adjustment period along the way.

Long-Term Strengths

When they are all healthy their defense has some intriguing players and can be really good with Suter, Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, and Jonas Brodin are all signed through the end of next seaon, with the former three names all being signed to long-term deals. When it comes to scoring chances against and expected goals against the Wild have been one of the league’s top teams this season. The only thing that has held them back from being an elite defensive team has been inconsistency in net.

The addition of Cale Addison in the Jason Zucker trade also adds another intriguing blue-liner to the long-term outlook.

If Fiala can duplicate his 2019-20 performance he could also turn into a pretty big strength. He has been one of the league’s most productive 5-on-5 players on a per-minute basis this season and is still signed for another year at a very manageable salary cap hit.

The presence of him, Kaprizov, a still productive Zuccarello and hopefully improvements from players like Kunin, Greenway, and Eriksson Ek could give the Wild a formidable group of forwards.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild surprises and disappointments so far

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Kunitz puts Penguins in Cup Final

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NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour continues this week with matchups featuring unsung heroes.

Chris Kunitz opened the scoring in the second period of Game 7, his first goal in over three months. After regulation, tied at two goals apiece, Kunitz recorded his third point, and second goal of the game, in double overtime to send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire called the matchup from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, April 8
• Senators vs. Penguins (2017 Eastern Conf. Final, Game 7, Chris Kunitz) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL: Pause and Rewind – 6 p.m. ET

Thursday, April 9
• NHL: Pause and Rewind (Encore) – 5 p.m. ET
• Rangers vs. Kings (2014 Stanley Cup Final, Game 5, Alec Martinez) – 6 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: EPISODE 1 – NHL BROTHERS – TUESDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
Kathryn Tappen and Sportsnet host David Amber will co-host a 30-minute program about brothers in the NHL. The three sets of brothers interviewed and featured in the program are Eric, Jordan, and Marc Staal; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; and Quinn and Jack Hughes.

NHL: PAUSE AND REWIND – WEDNESDAY, 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
The premiere of a one-hour special, NHL: Pause and Rewind, will take a look back at this past NHL season as well as how players are spending their time off in the current league hiatus. Highlighted segments will include a look at the current top five teams in each conference, reflecting on the season’s milestones, including Alex Ovechkin’s historic 700 goal accomplishment, as well as revisiting the Blues’ improbable Stanley Cup victory last season.

NBC Sports commentators conducting player interviews and sharing #HockeyAtHome social content will also be featured throughout the program.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Wild long-term outlook

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.