PHT Power Rankings: Best starts to 2018-19 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from the overall team rankings to look at the best and most impressive individual performances to start the 2018-19 season.

The best individual performance (so far) does not reside in Edmonton or Toronto where there is a “best player” argument unfolding (actually, that argument is probably only taking place in Toronto), or in Washington, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh or Boston where some of the league’s best teams reside.

The best performance is currently in …  Anaheim.

There might be one or two other surprises in there.

To the rankings, where we take especially in-depth looks at the top-five…

The best of the best … so far

1. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks — If you take a quick at the Ducks’ record on Monday and see them sitting at 5-3-1 and in first place in the Pacific Division you might think, “hey, that is a pretty impressive start for a team that has been without three of its best forwards for most of the season.”

And it is an impressive start … if you look at only the record.

But here is the harsh truth about this team so far: It has stunk, and it has stunk bad. Part of that is due to only getting four total man-games from the trio of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ondrej Kase (all four of them belonging to Getzlaf), three of the team’s top-five scorers from a year ago. But no matter the reason the team that is taking the ice every night has stunk.

They have spent the entire season getting absolutely caved in in terms of shots against and scoring chances against, they are giving up close to 40 shots per night, and they aren’t really great offensively.

The only reason the record does not reflect how much this team has stunk is because Gibson (and to a lesser extent, backup Ryan Miller when he has had to play two times), has been a miracle worker in the crease and kept the team afloat. In his first seven appearances this season he has a .949 save percentage that is tops in the league among goalies with at least four appearances, he has already made at least 37 saves four different times this season, only allowing more than two goals in one of those four games, and has somehow lost three of them, including a 42-save on 44-shot performance against Vegas on Friday night. Two of the Ducks’ wins in net have been one-goal decisions, including a 1-0 win over Arizona.

John Gibson is not only the Anaheim Ducks best player right now, he has been the most impressive player to start the 2018-19 season.

2. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — I love the way that McDavid referred to his record about most consecutive goals contributed to to start a season: “You know what, it’s whatever. I’m not overly proud of it. I don’t think it’s a stat we should be proud of either.”

They should not be. They definitely should not be.

It’s a perfect response, and the fact that McDavid has, quite literally, been the Oilers’ entire offense this season is a perfect representation of his first three-plus seasons in the NHL. When he does what he did this past week against Winnipeg when he single-handedly led a third period rally to steal a win, or when he ruined the Boston Bruins’ overtime two nights later, he can put an entire organization on his back and carry it to heights it has no business reaching.

As of Monday he has 11 points in six games and looks to be well on his way to winning yet another scoring title. The Oilers still only have 13 goals this season as a team, meaning they have only scored two goals this season that McDavid has not factored in on. Only one of those two goals has come during 5-on-5 play. It is not a stretch to say that McDavid is responsible for this team not being winless through six games. Do the rest of the players on the Oilers get tired of hearing that, that everything they do is because of one guy? They might. But it’s not their fault. There is no doubt they are doing their best and playing to the best of their abilities. The fault lies upstairs in the front office.

3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — This was going to be an interesting season for MacKinnon because even though he was coming off of an absolute monster season a year ago I still thought he was a bit of a mystery. He burst onto the scene in 2013-14 with a remarkable rookie season, and then his production kind of leveled off for a while. It wasn’t bad production at all, it just wasn’t anything, for lack of a better word, special. Then the 2017-18 season and he just completely erupted offensively. Which MacKinnon would we get this season? The 100-point pace guy from a year ago, or the 55-point pace guy from the three years prior? Or, more likely, something in between? It turns out, so far, we are seeing the 100-point pace guy as MacKinnon is once again leading the Avalanche. Through the first eight games he already has eight goals and 14 total points, with almost all of that production coming at even-strength. He is not totally dependent on the power play like another dominant offensive player that we will get to shortly.

[Related: Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in NHL’s best conversation]

4. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs — Yes, there is a Maple Leafs player in the top-four. No, it is not the player you thought it would be. The Maple Leafs defense is a giant question mark and there is reason to doubt whether it is good enough as currently constructed to be a championship team this season. But Rielly has been awesome and, so far, been able to do something that almost no one else on his team has been able to do: Carry play at even-strength.

He is one of the few players on the Toronto roster that is keeping his head above water when it comes to shot attempts and scoring chances at 5-on-5, and when he is not on the ice there is a slight difference in the team’s performance versus when he is on. With him they are a positive shot attempt team, positive scoring chance differential team, and outscored their opponents by a 12-7 margin. Without him they fall into the red in all shot and scoring chance metrics and have been outscored by a 9-13 margin.

Oh, and he also has 14 points in nine games and is off to one of the best starts offensively for a defenseman in league history.

5. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs — Look, Matthews is great. He is one of the best players in the league and on a path toward superstardom, if he is not already there.

He is everything he was advertised to be in his draft year, if not more.

But Matthews, like the rest of the Maple Leafs team around, is still very much a work in progress.

He is not scoring 50-in-50. He is probably not even scoring 50 at all this season (and there is nothing wrong with that!) and for as great as his start has been, if I am looking at who has been the best player so far this season, and I am looking at players with nearly identical overall production and performance, I am going to give the slight edge to the players (McDavid and MacKinnon) that have carried the play at even-strength.

Power play goals count just as much as 5-on-5 goals and there is something to be said for starting the season with 10 goals in nine games (it was actually 10 goals in six games) and 16 total points.

None of this is to say that the Maple Leafs’ power play isn’t valuable. It is. It absolutely is. It is one of the most dominant five-man units in the league and it can carry the team for a long time during a season.

But eventually if you are going to be a Stanley Cup team you have to also do that when you don’t have a man advantage. Matthews and the Maple Leafs are not quite there. Yet.

The rest of the best

6. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals — He cooled off a bit from where he was in the first three games, but Kuznetsov still has at least two points in four of his first seven games and is picking right back up where he left off in the playoffs when he was a key cog in the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup. He is a remarkable talent and over the past two years has been putting it all together to become one of the league’s best players.

7. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins — The Bruins’ top line is as good as you are going to find in the NHL and it is almost impossible to separate the performances of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and Pastrnak. Individually they are all great, and when put together they become an unstoppable three-headed monster that can carry the Bruins every single night. Two of the three (Bergeron and Pastrnak) already have a hat trick this season, and the one that doesn’t (Marchand) already has two three-point games, including a four-point effort. Who has been the best so far? Pick one out of a hat if you want, but I think I have to go with Pastrnak to stand out above the rest, just because he is literally averaging a goal-per-game entering play on Monday and has scored some of the most beautiful goals in the league.

8. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes — A model of consistency so far for the Hurricanes. Aho has recorded at least one point in every game the team has played through the first eight games, including three multi-point games. He is still only 21 years old and is well on his way to becoming a star for a Hurricanes team that is finally — maybe? — becoming the team everyone has thought it could be for the past five years.

9. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — Gaudreau is not only one of the best offensive players in the world, he is a one-man highlight reel nearly every single night. He put on an especially good show at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night in a win over the New York Rangers.

10. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins — Malkin’s season has been weird so far. The point production is better than everyone in the league (he is literally averaging two points per game) and is exactly where you expect Malkin to be. But he hasn’t always looked great so far or seemed as dominant as he can be. He has been really good; but he has another level to get to.

11. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — Like Malkin, I don’t think he has been at his best yet, but the production is still there. Which is scary to think about. He has some challengers for the goal-scoring crown but don’t be surprised if he ends up at the top of the list once again. That one-timer on the power play is still there, and no one can stop it.

12. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — Like Gaudreau, the lesson with DeBrincat is that if you are an NHL general manager or a head scout and sitting at your draft table on draft weekend, and you find an obscenely skilled, undersized forward that has shown an ability to score goals and put up points, you should probably take that player.

[Related: Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star]

13. Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild — Dubnyk has been one of the league’s most productive goalies since arriving in Minnesota (fourth best save percentage in the league among goalies with at least 100 games played) and he has been tremendous so far this season with a .944 save percentage to help the Wild earn 10 of a possible 12 points in his starts. He has allowed two goals or less in four of his first six starts, and in one of the two where he allowed more than two goals he still made 52 saves in an overtime loss to the Hurricanes.

14. Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils — Palmieri deserves some extra attention because he has been overlooked and underrated ever since he arrived in New Jersey (he is the other forward Ray Shero stole for the team). He is not the best player on the Devils (that honor still goes to Taylor Hall), but Palmieri is a legitimate top-line forward in the NHL and has been a driving force for the Devils’ fast start this season.

15. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens — Not sure how long it will last this season, but so far this season has been the Tomas Tatar redemption tour. He has been a steady, consistent 25-goal scorer his entire career but was pretty much a punch-line in the second half of last season because George McPhee gave up a lot of draft picks to acquire him at the trade deadline, and then for whatever reason he never quite found his place with the Vegas Golden Knights. He didn’t suddenly forget how to play hockey, but the Golden Knights had an opportunity to get Max Pacioretty and sent Tatar to Montreal as part of that trade. With a fresh start in Montreal this season Tatar has been a wonderful addition for a surprising Montreal team that has, to this point, exceeded all of its expectations.

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.

Hurricanes the team to watch as trade deadline approaches

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The Carolina Hurricanes are a team worth watching right now for a lot of reasons.

By winning eight of their past 11 games they have inched their way back into the playoff discussion in the Eastern Conference. At least enough to be considered on the bubble. Yes, five points back in mid-January is still a pretty big hill to climb, but they’re making a run at it.

They also have the Storm Surge celebrations after wins on home ice as they add a little excitement to the league. Great stuff.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

One of the other reasons you should be keeping an eye on them is they are one of the most intriguing teams in the league when it comes to the upcoming trade deadline because of the contract situations, the makeup of their roster, and their position in the standings.

The contract and roster situations include…

  • Almost all of their long-term commitments being on the blue line. All of their regular NHL defenders are signed through at least the end of next season, while four of them run through at least 2021 (and two of them go beyond 2024).
  • Their only goalie under contract beyond this season is Scott Darling … who is currently buried in the American Hockey League. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are both unrestricted free agents after this season.
  • Almost all of their forwards are some kind of a free agent after this season. The only forwards under contract beyond this season are Jordan Staal, Viktor Rask, Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, and Lucas Wallmark. The latter three are still on their entry-level deals. They have four potential unrestricted free agents (including captain Justin Williams) and five restricted free agents, including two of their top offensive players in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Then there is the place in the standings. Like a lot of the teams in the Western Conference wild card race, the Hurricanes have to figure out exactly what they are this season — a team that has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs and might want to add something, or at least stay the course as currently constructed? Or are they a team that is too far back and needs to go into “sell” mode, especially with its current crop of free agents?

One thing is certain, the Hurricanes have a lot of intriguing players when it comes to potential trade chips.

For one, they still have a ton of depth along the blue line and could still flip one of their defenders for help elsewhere around the roster. Justin Faulk‘s name was all over the rumor mill during the offseason (especially after the addition of Dougie Hamilton) but remained with the team. There was also a rumbling in recent weeks that they might — might — be willing to listen to offers on Hamilton, but that seems like a real long-shot given that they are barely a half of a season into it and they would probably be dealing him at his lowest possible value. The best bet there is to hold on to him and trust that he regains the form and production he has shown throughout his career.

The forwards are where the real intrigue comes in because, again, so many of them are on expiring contracts.

It is probably pretty safe to say that Aho and Teravainen are not going anywhere. Not only are the team’s two best forwards, they are both young and just now entering their primes. Even if you assume the Hurricanes are not going to be a team that spends to the salary cap they still have all the flexibility in the world to get them signed.

The most likely player to get moved would seem to be forward Micheal Ferland (the other part of the Hamilton trade) who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and is probably in line for a fairly substantial raise from his current $1.75 million salary. He would also probably be able to get that on the open market because he’s the type of player that appeals to pretty much everyone in the league. He has size, is physical, is probably going to be a 20-goal, 40-point player for the second year in a row and once again has strong underlying numbers. He’s a good player that a lot of teams would want — especially around playoff time.

The other variable in all of this is just where the Hurricanes sit in the standings as we get closer to the deadline.

They have been a patient team that has always kept the long-term goal in mind, and even with the recent surge they really haven’t picked up that much ground in the standings when it comes to wild card positioning. It’s still asking a lot for them to get in or to expect them to try and actually add to this roster this season by giving up younger, future assets.

But it is also a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008-09, and if they can stack a few more wins together and keep staying afloat in the race it might change how much they are willing to trade or sell off in the short-term.

There are a lot of different directions this can go in the coming weeks, and a lot of it will probably depend on how long they can keep up this recent strong play.

More: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

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.

Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

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The Western Conference wild card race is setting itself up to be an insane scramble to the finish in the second half of the season. Not only because there are a bunch of teams all jumbled together in the standings, but because several of them are completely volatile organizations that have the potential to do something completely outrageous — and exciting! — in the comings weeks to try and secure one of the playoff spots that are still up for grabs.

Heading into Tuesday night the race features four teams all tied in the standings with 47 points for the last playoff spot. That alone is pretty incredible, even at the halfway point of the season. But when you add in the suddenly fading Colorado Avalanche who sit just three points ahead of that pack, as well as the Dallas Stars who hold the third spot in the Central Division based on a tiebreaker with the Avalanche, and then consider the St. Louis Blues are still somehow lurking around after their terrible start, and you have got seven teams all packed together in what can probably best be described as a log-jam of mediocrity.

Also included in it are the Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, and the Minnesota Wild who will be hosting the Los Angeles Kings (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) on Tuesday night.

[Related: Should Wild’s future include Bruce Boudreau?]

It is absolute mayhem.

So which teams have the inside track to emerge out of that pile?

First, let’s just take a look at where the standings sit as of Tuesday. The important thing to keep in mind here is that even though the Wild, Oilers, Ducks, and Canucks are all currently tied in terms of their points, the number of games played by each team kind of skews things a little bit and puts some teams a little behind the pack.

Here are all seven teams mentioned, their current point total, their current points percentage, and their current points projection based on that points percentage.

The remarkable thing about the Stars is that they are in as good of a position as they are despite all of the drama surrounding them. Like the rest of the teams on this list they are quite flawed, but the national perception of them (at least recently) is that they are a complete mess because their CEO briefly lost his mind and sounded like an irrational fan that decided he had to rant on the post-game call-in show for no real reason.

Now they are looked at as a dysfunctional organization and are a league-wide punchline instead of what they actually are: A team that probably has a better record than it deserves given the flaws on the roster outside of its top line. They’ve probably overachieved this season. Not underacheved.

[Related: Stars’ CEO’s ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn]

The Stars, along with the Avalanche, are probably in the best position out of this group even though the latter has hit a wall recently and won just four of its past 17 games. They still have a cushion and a little bit of breathing room between them and the teams on the outside of the playoff picture, and assuming neither one really collapses (or in the Avalanche’s case, continues to collapse) in the second half they should be in.

Both teams are also similar in the sense that they are pretty much being carried by a single line. Fortunately for them, they are great lines.

The real fight comes with the five teams after them, and that’s where thing get interesting because this is where they have to make decisions on whether or not they are legitimate playoff teams and should try to add to their rosters before the trade deadline, or if they would just be chasing a mirage.

On paper the Wild probably have the best and most well-rounded team out of this group, even if it hasn’t played out that way on the ice this season. They have a top coach, a goalie that can be one of the best in the league when he is on his game, and a decently balanced roster. You would like to think they could get this season sorted out and get back on track.

The Ducks are pretty much the Western Conference version of the Buffalo Sabres at this point. Only worse. A team that banked a lot of points early in the season and has badly fallen back to the pack as reality punches them in the face.

In the Ducks’ case it has been an 11-game losing streak that has featured a couple of crushing losses over the past week where they allowed early multi-goal leads to spectacularly disappear. It is kind of remarkable they could go through such a losing streak and still be in contention. Nothing about the way this team plays suggests it is a playoff team, but it does have the one X-factor that could give it an edge in the race. That X-factor of course John Gibson, arguably the best goalie in the league this season.

That is the one position and the one player that can significantly elevate a mediocre team above the rest in a race like this.

But the team to really watch here is going to be Edmonton.

They have the best player in the league (Connor McDavid), they are on the fringes of the playoff race, they have a desperate general manager that is almost certainly trying to save his job, and what is seemingly a playoffs-or-bust mandate from ownership and upper management. After all, you can not keep wasting the prime years of a generational superstar.

The problem, of course, is that even with that generational superstar this is still a team that is probably more than one or two mid-season additions away from even being a playoff team, let alone a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Can you really risk trading a 2019 first-round draft pick, or your No. 4 overall pick from two years ago (Jesse Pulujarvi) to try and chase what might only be a wild card spot and likely being a sacrificial lamb for one of the Western Conference’s powerhouses?

Doing so would be risking what could still be something that could benefit the McDavid-Leon Draisaitl core in the future for what is basically a Hail Mary attempt at trying to make something out of this season. Those types of trades have not exactly worked out well for this particular organization.

On one hand, a lot of crazy things can happen if you get in the playoffs. A goalie can get hot, the other team’s goalie can fall apart, a superstar like McDavid can go off for seven games and throw everything off course and open the door for a 2017 Ottawa Senators like run.

But you have to actually get in the playoffs for that to be a possibility, and that still seems like it could be a big challenge for this team.

Then we have the Canucks and Blues, who are for all intents and purposes tied based on their current projections.

The Canucks are the feel-good story here because they seem to be ahead of schedule in their rebuild thanks in large part to the rapid development of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. But even with those two, and even with their better-than-expected record, they are still only an 82-point pace for the season right now, still have a deficit to make up when it comes to catching the the wild card teams, and still are not that great of a team. Keep in mind that 82-points would have been 13 points short of a playoff spot a year ago, and while the threshold to get in this year will probably be lower than that, there is still a chance that it increases from the 85-point projection it is at now with the Wild. All it is going to take is one of those current Wild Card teams to go on a five or six game winning streak (something they are both perfectly capable of doing) to change the target.

Look at it this way, only one Western Conference team in the salary cap era has made the playoffs with less than 90 points (the 2015-16 Wild made it with 87 points). Reaching the 90-point plateau would require Vancouver to play at a .614 points percentage over its remaining 35 games. This is a team that has played at a .500 pace over 47 games.

Then there are the Blues, winners of five of their past seven and 11 of their past 17, trying to dig themselves out of their slow start. This seems like a case of too little, too late. Goaltending is still a big issue and the they just seem to have put themselves in too deep of a hole to make up that much ground.

So that is where every team stands and what is ahead of them.

If you are a Stars or Avalanche fan, you should be somewhat comfortable. If you are a Wild fan perhaps cautiously optimistic. If you are fan of the other teams, you should hope your team does not do something drastic and could potentially damage the long-term outlook of your team.

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.

Flyers waive Weise as Fletcher keeps making moves

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New Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has some big decisions to make in the coming weeks and months as he tries to get the team out of its current predicament at the bottom of the NHL standings.

Before he gets to the major decisions (what to do with Wayne Simmonds? A permanent head coach? Other major changes to the roster?) he has been taking care of some work around the edges of the roster.

After dealing Jordan Weal to the Arizona Coyotes this past week, Fletcher announced on Tuesday that the team has placed veteran forward Dale Weise on waivers.

[Related: Flyers trade Weal to Arizona Coyotes]

The 30-year-old Weise signed a four-year, $9.4 million contract with the team prior to the start of the 2016-17 season but hasn’t really played up to the level the team expected from him. In 42 games this season he has five goals to go with six assists but has been held off the scoresheet entirely since Dec. 27 when he scored a goal in an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Given that Weise still has another year on his contract at a salary cap hit of more than $2 million it seems really unlikely that another team is going to claim him on waivers. Assuming he clears, it could open the door for him to be sent to the American Hockey League, or perhaps even a trade in the coming days. If there is a team interested in adding him but isn’t willing to take on his entire salary this could get the steps moving to work out a deal with retained salary.

Sending him to the AHL would give him a buried salary cap hit of $1.3 million for the Flyers.

In his first two-and-a-half years with the Flyers he has 17 goals to go with 17 assists in 152 games. Just for comparisons sake, he had 14 goals and 13 assists in 71 games with the Canadiens and Blackhawks the season before signing that contract.

More: Why wait to trade for Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds?

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.

Jets prepared for Western Conference showdown vs. Golden Knights

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Patrik Laine hasn’t forgotten how the Western Conference Final turned out. After the Winnipeg Jets topped the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1, 4-2, the NHL’s newest expansion team didn’t lose again in the series en route to a place in the Stanley Cup Final.

So when the Golden Knights visit the Jets Tuesday night at MTS Centre, some revenge will be on the minds of Laine and his teammates.

“Obviously, they kicked our ass in the playoffs,” Laine said Monday. “We want to win [Tuesday] and get the two points.”

The two points will be huge for either team as the Jets, who have played the fewest games (45) among the top three teams in the Central Division, look to extend their division lead, and the Golden Knights try to remain red-hot and chip away at the Calgary Flames’ lead in the Pacific Division.

Both teams have a pair of tests this week after the conference final rematch Tuesday. Vegas heads home to welcome a Pittsburgh Penguins team on Saturday that’s playing very well. Winnipeg hops on a plane to visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday.

“The games will bring their own intensity,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “Against the teams that aren’t right now in the playoff picture, our record is spectacular. So we haven’t taken anybody lightly. The challenges for us these next two games aren’t that. It would be playing well against good teams when you’re in the middle of a pretty good grinder missing some guys (Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers). Not excuses.”

Tuesday’s matchup will also be the first time Paul Stastny sees his old pals since leaving in free agency during the summer. After an October injury kept him sidelined for two months, the 33-year-old forward has resumed compliling the points and has 13 in 18 games this season.

Stastny’s return has certainly helped Vegas in their second year to maintain the successful results they experienced in 2017-18. A slow start to the season has turned into a two-month run that’s seen them take 43 out of a possible 56 points over their last 28 games (20-5-3).

Maybe another rematch in mid-May is in the cards?

“Now they look as powerful, if not more, than they did at any point last year. They’re a year further into their program,” Maurice said. “They still have that real veteran team. They don’t have a lot of kids in that lineup. And they’re deep. They’ll go four lines all night long.”

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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.