Examining the NHL’s best positional units

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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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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.