PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

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.

Karlsson among those choosing to stay put, avoid free agency

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Erik Karlsson wanted some time and space.

When the San Jose Sharks acquired the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in a trade last September, he and his wife told them up front they wouldn’t sign a long-term contract until they played a season to see if it was a fit. They gave general manager Doug Wilson their word they would make a decision in enough time let the Sharks plan their offseason.

Karlsson signed two weeks before free agency opened.

”They were letting me play hockey and getting adjusted to everything, and that meant the world to me,” Karlsson said after signing for $92 million over eight years . ”I’m very happy with how everything happened and that they didn’t force me into making a decision earlier than this.”

Karlsson is one of several players who might have landed richer contracts via free agency and opted instead to re-sign with their teams. For Karlsson, Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes, Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Washington’s Carl Hagelin and Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn, staying put won out over the risk of the open market.

”You never know what’s going to be out there if you go to free agency,” Edler said. ”There’s a lot of factors coming up here in the next few years with the potential lockout (and) there’s an expansion draft (for Seattle).”

A lower than expected salary cap set at $81.5 million also means there will be less money available all around July 1.

Of course, it’s not like most of these deals were hometown discounts. Karlsson got the richest salary for a defenseman in NHL history, Hayes signed for $50 million and Skinner turned a career year into $72 million . No matter the cap, the possibility existed that free agent frenzy could land them bigger deals.

They just didn’t want to find out.

”Going to July 1 is nice, (but) it’s kind of nice to be able to get it over with and sign with a tremendous team,” Hayes said. ”July 1 and unrestricted free agency is definitely an intriguing idea. But when I sat down with my agent and we kind of thought about what type of team I’d want to go and where I’d fit into the organization and the team, the Flyers were at the top of the list.”

The Flyers acquired the rights to Hayes from Winnipeg in early June and had to sell him on the benefits of playing in Philly. Elsewhere, familiarity helped. Just as Karlsson and wife Melinda got to know the Bay Area and Sharks organization over nine months, Skinner’s 40-goal season in Buffalo convinced him to stay.

”Going through the process, you think about everything, you weigh the pros and cons,” Skinner said. ”We just didn’t feel the need to get to that point because I like it here and I didn’t feel like it needed to get to that point where I wanted to look elsewhere.”

Coburn, who took a pay cut to sign a $3.4 million, two-year contract , said Tampa feeling like home off the ice and ”unfinished business” on the ice made staying his family’s top choice. After finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.

”We have an unbelievable team here and I want to be a part of it,” Coburn said.

Hagelin feels the same way about the Capitals after playing only 27 regular-season and playoff games with them since late February. The 30-year-old feared Washington’s salary-cap squeeze might impede him from sticking around but was willing to take a lower salary than he could’ve gotten on the open market to get an $11 million, four-year deal with a team he believes can win a championship in that time like it did in 2018.

”I wouldn’t have signed with Washington if I didn’t believe there’s still a good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Hagelin said.

Edler last played a playoff game in 2014 and the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Combine that with him being 33 and it might have been easy to understand Edler wanting to test the market. Instead, he had no wanderlust and agreed to a $12 million, two-year deal after 13 seasons with the Canucks.

”I’ve said from the beginning that if a deal was available with Vancouver, that was my No. 1 priority,” Edler said.

Wilson, the Sharks GM, traded for Karlsson and now locked down an elite offensive defenseman for the rest of his prime. Wilson related to their situation because his wife is from Chicago, where he played his entire career, and took the chance that the Karlssons would enjoy San Jose enough to want to stay.

”We trusted in that process,” Wilson said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devils introduce Jack Hughes to New Jersey after big week

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Devils introduced No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes to New Jersey on Tuesday – even though he is already sharing the spotlight.

The Devils have given notice they might be re-emerging as a contender with an encouraging draft and the stunning acquisition of six-time All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. It has all gone a long way in turning pessimism into optimism for a team that finished with the league’s third-worst record and out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

”Adding a talent like Jack Hughes on Friday night and Saturday, P.K. Subban, obviously I think the Devils are back in business,” general manager Ray Shero said.

It started with winning the draft lottery in early April to the selection of Hughes, a center, with the top pick Friday to the trade for Subban, who immediately steps into the role as New Jersey’s top defenseman.

With 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall expected to return to form after an injury-marred campaign, 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier continuing his development and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri playing his best hockey, the Devils have a shot to do something in a league where the St. Louis Blues come out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

Devils majority owner Josh Harris can’t wait to the season to start, adding Devils’ fans are used to winning Stanley Cups – the last was in 2003 – and now is the time to start doing it again.

”Jack joining the franchise represents another turn in our goal to be elite,” Harris said at a news conference for Hughes at the Prudential Center. ”We said that we’re here not to do anything other than consistently compete and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.”

With parents Jim and Ellen sitting in the front row, the 18-year-old Hughes was soft spoken, confident and composed speaking on a stage that included Harris and Shero.

The Florida-born Hughes said he had no doubt he would be playing next season in the NHL for the Devils and he hopes to play a creative game.

It is just what the talent-starved Devils need. The past week was a major step in Shero’s rebuilding plan over the past four years. It started soon after he was hired with the trades for Hall and Palmieri, the draft of Hischier, another center, and now the selection of Hughes and the trade with Nashville for Subban and his $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons.

Hughes hasn’t stopped going since the draft. He returned to New Jersey with Shero, Harris and his parents on a private jet and spent the next few days making media appearances. He attended the New York Yankees game against Toronto on Monday night, sitting for 30 minutes with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and actor Adam Sandler.

He is eager now to return to suburban Toronto, where he grew up, and begin preparations for an 82-game season against men, and being a part of a team.

”I want to be Jack Hughes, not Patrick Kane or Matt Barzal,” Hughes said. ”I want to have my own flavor, my own excitement to my game.”

The 170-pound playmaking center mixed poise, drive, and sheer skating ability to score 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the Devils. Hischier had 20 goals and 32 assists as a rookie.

Hughes doesn’t see himself as competing with Hischier for the job as the top-line center.

”I think to win you have to have 1A and 1B,” said Hughes, who will wear No. 86 with the Devils. ”No team wins with just one really good center. Travis Zajac has been a really good center for a long time and I think the Devils are in a really good spot. In the NHL, I feel whoever I play with will be a really good player.”

Coach John Hynes is looking forward to using all his new talent.

”It’s exciting,” Hynes said. ”It’s what you want. You want guys to come in and give you a chance to win and coach some excellent players.”

And who is to say the Devils are done? They still have $25 million available in cap space.

”I feel with the pieces we have at this moment, we are a much better team than we were on Thursday,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. ”That’s encouraging.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Hughes picks No. 86; Gritty surprises fan

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Why did the Avs trade Carl Soderberg? (Mile High Hockey)

• Breadman will get dough wherever he ends up. (Postmedia)

• Jack Hughes to wear “flashy” No. 86. (ESPN)

• The Winnipeg Jets face cap challenges this summer. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking the free agent goalie market. (TSN.ca)

• One Toronto draft pick once trick-or-treated at Mike Babcock’s house. (Sportsnet)

• First-round pick says sister is better than him. (CBC.ca)

• Jarome Iginla atop the list of Hall of Fame candidates for 2020. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL’s secret spending cap: How a shift in escrow acts as a hidden force that discourages spending. (The Athletic)

• How the United States Hockey League prepared Ronnie Attard for the big time. (USA Hockey)

• A seven-year-old hockey fan wanted a prosthetic leg that repped his favorite team, and Gritty was happy to surprise him. (CNN)

• A list of the five frontrunners to sign Matt Duchene. (The Hockey News)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

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.