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Which 2018 NHL playoff team is most likely to miss in 2019?

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We should start all of this off with a prediction.

As the 2018-19 NHL season is set to begin, I am fairly confident in saying the following playoff teams from this past season are going to once again find themselves in the playoffs again this year: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, and San Jose Sharks. Those seem like the safest bets. They have the best rosters, they have the best talent, they are at the top of the league and should be the biggest contenders for the Stanley Cup.

It is also a given that a couple of teams that missed the playoffs a season ago are going to make enough improvements and take a couple of the remaining spots. A few weeks ago we looked at the best possibilities to do that, with the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers leading the way (you can read about all of them). Obviously if a couple of them make it, that has to mean that a couple of other teams are going to fall back out.

So which 2018 playoff team is at most risk for having that happen? Assuming the eight teams mentioned above return, that leaves eight on the bubble that need a closer look. We start with the teams at most risk of missing and working our way up to the teams that should be able to return to the postseason.

1. New Jersey Devils 

Usually when one player single handedly carries a mediocre team to the playoffs it is a goalie doing the heavy lifting. For the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils it was winger Taylor Hall as he put together the best season of his career, won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and did everything in his power to lift the Devils to a playoff spot. Independent of Hall (and even with Hall, actually) this was a remarkably average hockey team.

They weren’t bad. They weren’t great. They were just … average. In every possible category.

Goals for: 15th
Goals against: 15th
Power play: 10th
Penalty kill: 8th
Shot Attempt Percentage: 21st
Team save percentage: 18th
Overall record: 14th

It would be nearly impossible to be more average than that. They ended up making the playoffs as a wild card by just a single point. The team right behind them, Florida, is coming back even stronger this season and if Hall regresses even a little bit it could spell doom for the Devils’ playoff chances.

What can keep them in? Taylor Hall goes superman again, and/or Marcus Johansson is healthy and productive while 2017 top pick Nico Hischier builds on a strong rookie season and has a breakout performance.

2. Colorado Avalanche

The Western Conference version of the Devils.

The Avalanche were another mediocre team that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs thanks to an incredible season from their franchise player. In this case, it was Nathan MacKinnon (with some help from Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog).

It was a truly stunning one-year turnaround because the Avalanche in 2016-17 were one of the worst teams in recent NHL history. They stunk. So to go through that big of a turnaround in one year was truly remarkable and unexpected, especially when they traded one of their best players (Matt Duchene) at the start of the year. That trade, for what it is worth, is probably going to work out in the long-run and look like a genius move because Samuel Girard looks like he might be a player for them on the blue line and they now own one of the most valuable assets in the NHL this season as a result of it — the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first-round draft pick.

Having said all of that, like the Devils, the Avalanche are what is basically a one-line team that needed an MVP-caliber season from its best player to just barely, by the slimmest of margins, be good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

I actually like this Flyers team a lot, but they also have a lot of boom-or-bust potential.

If everything breaks right for them this could be a team that not only makes the playoffs again, but potentially even makes some noise. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek can be great, and their young talent is captivating, particularly second-year forward Nolan Patrick who at times was one of their most dangerous forwards in the playoffs.

If Giroux and Voracek repeat what they did a year ago, and the young players like Patrick, Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov take big steps forward they are going to an exciting team. That is the boom potential.

The bust potential is that if the young players (especially on defense) don’t take a step forward, and/or if the goaltending implodes on them. Given the franchise history of the Philadelphia Flyers and its goaltenders, especially the goaltenders they are currently employing, that bust potential is certainly possible. Likely? Maybe not. Possible? For sure.

4. Los Angeles Kings

It was not that long ago that the Kings were one of the NHL’s elite teams, in a yearly battle with the Chicago Blackhawks for Western Conference supremacy and the Stanley Cup. Not really the case anymore either team.

The Kings, to their credit, are still a ferocious defensive team that will suck the life out of every game they play and keep everything close. That gives them a chance every night. The problem is they just lack the offense to be any kind of a serious threat, and even last season with Anze Kopitar having a career year and Dustin Brown somehow reviving his career offensively for one season they were still only slightly below average offensively.

Ilya Kovalchuk could be a nice addition, but it is very likely that Brown, and yes, maybe even Kopitar are not as productive as they were a year ago. As I wrote in the Pacific Division preview on Thursday, the Kings have been a bubble playoff team for four years now and will continue to be one as currently constructed. They are teetering closer and closer to needing an organizational overhaul.

5. Minnesota Wild 

I mean this in the most respectful way possible — I have no opinion on the Minnesota Wild.

None. No positive opinion. No negative opinion. No emotion of any kind toward them. There is nothing about them that makes me passionate in any way. This, I think, is the only attitude to take toward the Minnesota Wild if you are not actually a Minnesota Wild fan because this is the only attitude they deserve.

They are just a hockey team that exists.

If you were to ask someone to construct the most bland, run-of-the-mill NHL franchise imaginable, this would be it because that is what they are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

They have enough talent to make the playoffs. They have enough talent to be kind of relevant but not really relevant.

They do not have enough talent to get out of the first or do anything of significance once they get there. What they are now is probably what their ceiling is. They just … exist.

Minnesota Wild: hockey team.

6. Anaheim Ducks

Losing Corey Perry for most of the season definitely hurts, especially when this isn’t a great offensive team to begin with. But we also have to remember they are losing 2018 Corey Perry and not 2010 Corey Perry. There is a difference. He is still a very good top-six player, but he also has not topped 20 goals or 60 points in two years.

Ryan Getzlaf is still there, they have a really good defense, and their goaltending duo with John Gibson and Ryan Miller is still one of the league’s best at the position. They also play in a division that, outside of the top two teams, isn’t overly difficult.

7. Vegas Golden Knights

Anyone that can say certain what they expect from the Vegas Golden Knights this season is lying, because nobody really does. There is every reason to believe that a lot of players that shined in their debut season are going to regress. They also made some significant additions (Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny) that can make up for it.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have some problems. They play in a division with Pittsburgh and Washington. Their two best players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — are free agents after the season and management may have to make a big decision on what to do with them before they risk losing them for nothing in free agency. Seth Jones is starting the season injured. They still have not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in their existence. Those are the problems.

The positives are the fact that for right now they still do have Panarin and Bobrovsky on the roster, and they are great players.

Jones will be back at some point and along with Zach Werenski will form what should be one of the league’s best defensive pairings. They also have Pierre-Luc Dubois who, I think, could be on the verge of a monster season. They play in a tough division, but it is a top-heavy division. Once you get beyond Pittsburgh and Washington at the top everything is wide open. They will keep their two stars throughout the season, make one more run at something with them, and see where things go after that.

 

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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.