PHT Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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There are real, meaningful hockey games starting on Wednesday, and that means it is time to take our first real look at the Power Rankings for the 2018-19 season.

After spending most of the summer ranking everything from the best trades of the summer, to the most absurd mascot moments, to the people around the NHL that need to be better this season, to the best teams to not win the Stanley Cup yet in the salary cap era, to those old, random third jerseys it is finally time to start looking at where the NHL’s 31 teams stand entering this season.

Our plan for the season is to do a bi-weekly traditional power rankings, and then mix in a different sort of ranking on the off week in between (similar to what we did over the summer).

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have potential award winners behind the bench (Jon Cooper), on the top line (Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), on defense (Victor Hedman) and in net (Andrei Vasilevskiy). The top of the roster is as good as any other team in the league, and the complementary players are outstanding. You don’t become a final four team in three of the past four years by accident. Now they just have to figure out a way to go from being a consistently great team to a championship team.

2. Nashville Predators — Their defense is, at worst, the second best group in the NHL and they have to goalies that are good enough to start and play at a high level. They will be one of the toughest teams to score on once again and a top-10 offense.

3. San Jose Sharks — They are loaded, especially on the blue line where they have three players that are regulars in the Norris Trophy voting. That alone should make them Stanley Cup contenders. Then you add in the fact they have a solid goalie and a deep group of forwards and it is hard to find a weakness here.

4. Washington Capitals — It is pretty remarkable — and kind of funny —  that the Capitals team that finally did it, that finally overcame the postseason demons, that finally brought a championship to Washington, was probably one of the weaker Capitals teams (at least on paper) during this era. That this was probably one of the “weaker” teams is also a testament to how consistently great and competitive they have been, because it was an obviously great team.

5. Winnipeg Jets — The forwards on this team are incredible, especially on the wings where they boast one of the best depth charts in the league. Patrik Laine scoring 50 goals this season is a legitimate possibility. If Connor Hellebuyck comes close to matching his performance this team could win it all. If he does not they could disappoint.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — If Derick Brassard has a bounce back year after a disappointing debut with the Penguins following the trade this lineup could be laughably deep.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — The oddsmakers have them as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, and they are definitely loaded with talent up front especially after adding John Tavares in free agency. But they also have some flaws that could hold them back, particularly on defense and in potentially in net if they overwork Frederik Andersen again. We also have to acknowledge the fact that before they can win the Stanley Cup they have to get out of the first round of the playoffs, something they have not done in two NHL lockouts. I know, I know, different teams, different players, different times. But facts are facts.

8. Boston Bruins — The depth is a question mark after the top-line, but they have some really intriguing young players all over the lineup. Tuukka Rask could be the one player that makes or breaks where this team goes.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Asking them to repeat the success and magic from year one might be asking the impossible, but this is still a really good roster with a lot of salary cap flexibility and the assets (prospects and draft picks) to make another big move if needed.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Even with all of the preseason distractions relating to the contract statues of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky this is a really talented team. Talented enough to finally get through the first-round of the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but a talented team nonetheless.

[Related: Roundtable discussion on Blue Jackets, Rinne, surprise teams]

11. Minnesota Wild — The Wild are going to make the playoffs where they will likely run into a powerhouse Nashville or Winnipeg team in the first round, and should they happen to get through that they will probably have to face the other one in the second round. They are good. They are not good enough to get through both of those teams.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Could see this team making the playoffs and winning a round (maybe even two?) or being a massive disappointment and missing the playoffs because the defense and goaltending end up not being good enough. A true wild card of a team. At least the mascot rules.

13. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league a season ago and missed the playoffs because they could not score. They tried to address that over the summer with Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Patrick Maroon. O’Reilly is the big addition here because he is an awesome two-way player that does everything well, mixing shutdown defense with 60-point offense, and a tough, hard-nosed style of play that does not result in him taking penalties.

14. Anaheim Ducks — Losing Corey Perry hurts the offense, but the defense and goaltending should be good enough to carry this team back to the playoffs in a weak (after the top two teams) Pacific Division.

15. Florida Panthers — They were the hottest team in the league in the second half and added a 25-goal scorer to a core group of forwards that already boasts one of the league’s best two-way players (Aleksander Barkov) and some top-line talent in Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

16. Dallas Stars — Maybe first-year coach Jim Montgomery can find a way to get something more out of this team than what Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock were able to get in recent years. Still a lot of talent on this roster even if it never seems to translate to success in the standings.

17. Los Angeles Kings — The most stunning thing about the way the Kings were swept out of the playoffs isn’t just that they dropped four consecutive games to the Vegas Golden Knights, scoring just three goals in the series, it is that they looked completely overmatched, slow, and never seemed to be a threat to score. It was like they were playing a different sport.

[Related: Are the Los Angeles Kings in trouble already?]

18. Carolina Hurricanes — Absolutely love this defense with Dougie Hamilton joining the team and Justin Faulk remaining there (for now). But will Scott Darling be better than he was, and what sort of impact will rookies Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov make on an offense that was one of the worst in the league and traded one of its leading goal-scorers over the summer?

19. Colorado Avalanche — The big question here will be what type of player Nathan MacKinnon is and will be. After a great rookie season his career kind of stalled a little bit. It is not that he was bad, but he just did not really build off of that debut year in a big way … until 2017-18. Will the Avalanche get that Nathan MacKinnon or will they get the 60-65 point Nathan MacKinnon?

20. New Jersey Devils — A healthy Marcus Johansson will help, and Nico Hischier looks like he has star potential, but what if Taylor Hall does not duplicate his MVP level performance? Even with that performance this was a very average team.

21. Calgary Flames — Like the signing of James Neal in free agency as he should be able to add some secondary scoring to a team that badly needs it. Love Johnny Gaudreau and the way he plays. Hate the Dougie Hamilton trade, the mindset behind it, and the return they got for him.

22. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid is going to dominate, but who is going to help him? This is still a team lacking depth, defense, and goaltending.

23. Arizona Coyotes — Call me crazy but I think this team has the potential to make a big leap this season, especially if Antti Raanta can stay healthy and repeat what he did a year ago. A breakthrough year from Dylan Strome would also be helpful. Probably not a playoff team yet, but certainly a better team.

24. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner is a great pickup for that price, even if he leaves after this season, and they have a couple of preseason Calder Trophy candidates on this team in Casey Mittelstadt and 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin. Jack Eichel is pretty great, too.

25. New York Rangers — There are a lot of questions for the Rangers as their rebuild begins. Among them: How much does Henrik Lundqvist have left? Can a healthy Kevin Shattenkirk make a difference? Which veterans are the next go be traded?

26. Chicago Blackhawks — If Corey Crawford is not ready to go this team could be a mess again, and as we sit here on Monday on the verge of the season opener we still do not what he will be able to do or when he will be ready to go.

27. Montreal Canadiens — They traded a lot of offense this season with Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk leaving town, and this was not a great offense with them. Shea Weber may be starting to break down and the rest of the defense around him is suspect at best. They will need an MVP season from Carey Price to have a chance.

28. New York Islanders — I am not sold on what they are doing in the short-term with the grit-and-sandpaper approach to building a roster. What is most concerning is how many of those players are signed to long-term contracts. That does not even get into the state of the defense and goaltending.

[Related: Latest round of roster moves should make Islanders fans angry]

29. Vancouver Canucks — The best thing the Canucks will have going for them this season are the return of a healthy Brock Boeser and the potential emergence of Elias Pettersson.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg may not have been Selke contender and Conn Smythe winning Henrik Zetterberg anymore, but he was still probably the best player on the team. Now his playing career is over, Mike Green is not ready to start the season due to a health issue, and the rest of the roster does not inspire much confidence.

31. Ottawa Senators — This was a bad team with Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson. Now they are both traded for nothing that is going to make a significant impact this season and they are almost certain to deal more players off of this roster. Their fans do not even have a first-round draft pick to look forward to. Things are not going to be fun in Ottawa this season.

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.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

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In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.