Examining the NHL’s best positional units


The free agent of signing of John Tavares in Toronto and the San Jose Sharks’ acquisition of Erik Karlsson helped give two of the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders an embarrassment of riches at two of the most important positions.

By signing Tavares, the Maple Leafs added a top player to a depth chart that already had Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri down the middle, while the Sharks are going to be running a defensive unit out on the ice every night that will have three Norris Trophy contenders on it.

It puts both teams in the discussion for having the best depth at each position, and makes us asks a few questions, specifically: Which positional group around the league is the NHL’s best? How does Toronto’s center depth compare to recent Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh and Washington? Has San Jose’s depth on defense surpassed Nashville’s?

We take a look at all of those depth charts and many more and leave it up to you to vote.

Penguins centers

Let us start with the obvious here: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are two of the best players of their era, and they alone make this group one of the best in the NHL.

Over the past five seasons Crosby and Malkin are second and third in the league in points per game (1.14 and 1.13 respectively), trailing only Connor McDavid.

Over their careers they have combined to win four scoring titles, three MVP awards, and three Conn Smythe Trophies. They are both Hall of Famers, they are both generational talents, and at any given time each one of them can make a convincing case for being the best player in the world.

But it’s not just about them when it comes to the Penguins’ center depth.

They also have Derick Brassard as their third-line center, and even though his first impression with the Penguins post-trade deadline wasn’t quite what the team expected, he is still an outstanding option as a third-line center. Keep in mind that over the same five-year stretch mentioned above, he is 57th in points per game out of the 238 centers that appeared in at least 100 games, meaning that he is probably at least a second-line center on a lot of clubs. Add in Riley Sheahan and Matt Cullen as fourth line options and there are only one or two other teams in the league that have a depth chart down the middle that can even come close to matching up with the Penguins.

Sharks defense

The top-three on this defense with Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is just … absurd.

First, from an offensive standpoint Karlsson and Burns are in a class all of their own.

Over the past five years they are first and second among the league’s defenders in total points, and by a pretty significant margin. Karlsson’s 355 are first in the league, and are 29 ahead of Burns’ 326 in second-place. The next closest defender to Burns (Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman) is 51 points behind him, which is the same as the gap between Hedman and the No. 16 ranked defender on the list (Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson).

When it comes to the Norris Trophy, all three are regular vote-getters, with Karlsson and Burns being constants in the top-10.

Where each player has finished in the voting over just the past five years…

Karlsson: 7th, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 12th
Burns: No votes, 21st, 3rd, 1st, 8th
Vlasic: 12th, No votes, 20th, 21st, 11th

Just one season all three of them were in the top-12 of the voting, while Karlsson and Burns have combined to win it three times in their career and been finalists a total of five times.

The Sharks’ defense may not be quite as deep as, say, a team like Nashville, in the 4-7 spots, but there is nobody in the league that has a top-three on defense quite like this.

Predators defense

This is a remarkable unit because the top-four is not only full of outstanding players, but they are also all signed to long-term contracts that do not break the team’s salary cap structure.

P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all signed for at least the next two years, while Subban, Ekholm and Ellis are all signed for at least the next four years. The total salary cap commitment for those four players in each of the next two years: $19.2 million in 2018-19, and $22.95 million in 2019-20. That is incredible value for four players of that caliber, especially when Subban is the oldest player in the group at age 29.

Nashville’s management has done such a great job building this defense that it is still this deep even after trading two players like Seth Jones (for Ryan Johansen) and Shea Weber (for Subban) over the past three years. If most teams traded two players at the same position of that caliber it would totally crush them. The Predators, somehow, managed to come out of the trades even better as a team and still have one of the best blue lines in the league.

Jets wingers

Thanks to some great drafting over the years the Winnipeg Jets have assembled a powerhouse offense in the central division. And while they have a great top center in Mark Scheifele, the strength of this offense is built on the wings where they boast Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor for their top-two lines.

As far as wingers go, this group should be the envy of the entire league.

Wheeler has been one of the league’s most underrated and most productive players for several years now, while Laine has already emerged as one of the top-three goal-scorers after just two seasons in the league.

Not enough to impress? Well let’s throw in the fact that Ehlers has already recorded a pair of 60-point seasons before his age 22 season, something that only 19 forwards have done in the salary cap era. That list if a who’s who of superstars across the league.

Then there is Connor who only scored 30 goals as a rookie this past season and finished fourth in the Calder Trophy voting.

Usually Stanley Cup contenders are built on their strength down the middle. The Jets have taken a slightly different approach and have their big-ticket players on the outside.

Maple Leafs centers

What makes the Maple Leafs so intriguing in a discussion like this is that pretty much all of their top forwards are natural centers: Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri … even the ageless Patrick Marleau. So they have a ton of versatility and options here, especially in the event of an injury.

But looking at things from a practical matter the players that are going to get the most time at center are going to be the Matthews, Tavares, Kadri trio.

In Matthews and Tavares they have two of the elite offensive players in the league, while Kadri has turned into a terror of a shutdown center that can also score 30 goals, which is just an outrageous combination. Their top two centers aren’t quite as good as Pittsburgh’s, but as a total group they are as good as anybody else in the league.

Ducks goalies

In this three seasons as the Ducks’ starting goalie John Gibson has never had a save percentage lower than .920 and has been in the top-10 in each of the past two seasons. When he is healthy, he is one of the league’s elite goalies and he is still only 25 years old.

Backing him up is long-time NHL veteran Ryan Miller who excelled in relief of Gibson last season with a .928 mark in 28 appearances. Together, Gibson and Miller combined for one of the top save percentage marks in the league. Miller is no longer a top-tier starter, but if needed to be he would still be an average to above average goalie on a regular basis. As a backup option he is one of the best in the league and helps form one of the strongest goaltending duos in hockey.

Predators goalies

This is a great duo because it gives the Predators a strong present and future.

Pekka Rinne has been the starter in Nashville for the better part of the past decade. He’s had some peaks and valleys along the way, but the 2017-18 season was the best season of his career and finally brought him his first Vezina Trophy after having a couple of near-misses earlier in his career (he was a finalist three different times, including a runner-up on two occasions).

His time in Nashville is pretty getting close to coming to an end, however. Not only is he entering his age 36 season, but he is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Are the Predators going to be loyal to their long-time starter and bring him back for at least one more year? If they do not (and maybe even if they do) his eventual replacement is already backing him up in 23-year-old Juuse Saros.

All Saros has done in his limited action as an NHL goalie is stop the puck and put up big numbers, with a .923 save percentage in his first 48 appearances.

He is also signed for next-to-nothing over the next three seasons, counting just $1.5 million against the salary cap each season.

Capitals centers

Now we get to the defending Stanley Cup champions. While Alex Ovechkin is the heart and soul of the team, the engine that drives it is down the middle where the trio of Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Lars Eller resides. All three played massive roles in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run a season ago and were not only among the team’s top point producers in the playoffs, they also scored some of the biggest goals (or played a key role in the biggest goals) along the way.

Backstrom and Kuznetsov are both elite playmakers and among the most productive players in the world, while Backstrom has also become an outstanding defensive player to bring a great two-way game to the rink every night.

Eller isn’t going to score at the same level as a Brassard (Pittsburgh) or Kadri (Toronto), but he proved his worth in the playoffs this past year when he became an unexpected star for the Capitals by providing essential secondary scoring and depth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

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    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

    James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.

    Blackhawks, Athanasiou agree to 2-year, $8.5 million contract

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    Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
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    CHICAGO — The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks locked in one of their top scorers, agreeing to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with forward Andreas Athanasiou on Thursday.

    The 28-year-old Athanasiou tied for the team lead with 20 goals and ranked third with 40 points in his first season with Chicago. He matched career highs with four game-winning goals and three power-play goals.

    The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Athanasiou has 125 goals and 111 assists in 459 games with the Detroit Red Wings (2015-20), Edmonton Oilers (2020), Los Angeles Kings (2020-22) and Blackhawks.

    Chicago went 26-49-7 and finished last in the Central Division. The Blackhawks dealt Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers prior to the trade deadline and announced in April they would not re-sign Jonathan Toews, parting with two players who led them to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    Florida Panthers in familiar territory, backs to the wall once again down 0-2 in Stanley Cup Final

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sport

    SUNRISE, Fla. — The Panthers need a miracle. Again.

    Such is the story of Florida’s season, and it makes all the sense in the world that the plot has reappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers needed a furious late-season push just to get into the playoffs as the lowest seed, then needed to win three consecutive elimination games to oust a record-setting Boston team in Round 1.

    And now, another huge challenge awaits. Down 2-0 in the title series to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Panthers return to home ice on Thursday night looking to spark one more epic turnaround and get right back in the hunt for hockey’s biggest prize.

    “Desperation and winning a game,” Florida veteran Marc Staal said. “We’ve approached every game in the playoffs the same way. We just try to take it – like everyone says – one at a time. But our backs are against the wall, obviously. We’re down by two. But we’re coming home. Love our team, love our resiliency. We’re going to go out and give our best effort and play our best game tomorrow and go from there.”

    To say the odds are stacked high against the Panthers is a bit of an understatement.

    – They’ve beaten Vegas in four of 12 all-time meetings between the franchises. And now they’ve got to beat them in four of the next five games to win the Cup.

    – They’ve been outscored 10-2 in the last four periods against Vegas.

    Matthew Tkachuk has two more misconduct penalties (three) than he has points (one, a goal) in the series.

    – Former Panthers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have as many goals so far in the series (four) as all the current Panthers do in the series, combined.

    – Vegas hasn’t dropped four out of five games since going 1-2-2 to start a six-game road swing that began in late January.

    – Teams that start a Stanley Cup Final with two home wins have won the Cup 38 times in 41 past instances.

    But by now, Florida’s penchant for pulling off the improbable is well-known. Almost expected, really.

    “Of course, we’ve had three really tough series,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Boston is a good example. We were down, we found a way, we started playing a little better, we found a way to come back and get out of there. Same thing here – we’ve just got to work a little harder, work a little smarter and find a way to win games.”

    They’ve done it before.

    There was the 6-0-1 stretch late in the season to hold off Pittsburgh for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The winning three elimination games against a Boston team that had the best regular season in NHL history in Round 1; Game 5 there was on the road in overtime, Game 6 required a rally late in the third period to erase a 5-4 deficit and Game 7 was another road OT victory. There was a four-overtime win at Carolina in the East final, setting the table for a sweep where the Panthers got four one-goal wins and allowed only six goals.

    They’ve given up 12 goals in two games against Vegas. And it’s not all on Sergei Bobrovsky, either. Panthers coach Paul Maurice found it funny that it was considered a surprise to some that Bobrovsky – who carried Florida to the final round – will remain the starter for Game 3.

    “He was outstanding in Game 1,” Maurice said. “And he was as good as our team was in Game 2.”

    The message was simple: Everyone has to be better. The Panthers have a history of rising to those moments.

    “We never lose doubt in this room,” Florida forward Ryan Lomberg said. “Obviously, they’re a good team. They got here for a reason. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s kind of the theme of our whole year is we make it tough. Whether we wanted it this way or not, it’s this way, so we’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt now.”

    NOTES: Maurice said he expects D Radko Gudas, who left Game 2 injured, to play in Game 3. Forward Eetu Luostarinen will remain out. Maurice declined to offer specifics on Luostarinen’s injury, but quipped “he’s a good human.” … Thursday will be Florida’s first Stanley Cup Final game on home ice in FLA Live Arena. The Panthers’ 1996 final appearance was at a long-demolished arena in Miami.