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.

PHT Morning Skate: Pastrnak on injury; Nashville’s Turris problem

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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.

David Pastrnak on his thumb injury: “Obviously I let the guys down a bit. It’s a tough time. It’s not an injury that happened on the ice, so I took full responsibility for that. That’s what hurt me most. Could I have avoided it? I wish [that I had]. But obviously things happen. The fact that I could let somebody down, I definitely hate that. The first couple of weeks were tough.” [NBC Boston]

• Just in time as the playoffs approach, James Neal returns to the Calgary Flames after a 14-game absence, hoping to find his scoring touch again. [NHL.com]

• When the postseason does arrive, who will get the starting gig in net for the Flames? [Featurd]

• A good look at the teams playing well with the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away. [TSN]

• Playoffs might be out of reach but the Vancouver Canucks are now acting as a spoiler. [Sportsnet]

• Meet the only female full-time Zamboni driver in the NHL. [ESPN]

• The younger members of the St. Louis Blues are really enjoying this playoff push. [Post-Dispatch]

• The San Jose Sharks are trying not to think too far into the future when it comes to a possible first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy need to give more to the New York Islanders as the playoffs approach. [Islanders Insight]

• Examining who’s chasing and possessing the puck the most for the Columbus Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• The Nashville Predators have a Kyle Turris problem. [A to Z Sports]

• A product of the “Ovechkin Effect” in Washington D.C., the Capitals signed Yale product and local boy Joe Snively on Monday. [Japers’ Rink]

• Which AHL players could step up and make an impact with the Edmonton Oilers? [Oilers Nation]

• Finally, there were a good number of bloopers in the NHL over the last week:

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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.

The Buzzer: Smith, Marchessault lead Shark slaughter; Connor helps Jets extend Central lead

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Three stars

1. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are unlikely to catch the Calgary Flames or the San Jose Sharks, but if the Sharks don’t surpass the Flames then both Vegas and San Jose are going to meet in the first round of the playoffs and the Smith and his squad fired the first shot on Monday with a four-point game in a 7-3 win.

Smith had a goal and three assists to help lead the Golden Knights to their third straight win. Smith has 16 points now in his past 12 games and has been on fire since early February.

2. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

See the above preamble, substitute Smith for Marchessault, and you have pretty much the same thing.

Marchessault notched his own four-point game in their win against San Jose, scoring twice and adding two assists. Marchessault now has four goals and two assists in his past two games.

The 28-year-old had one goal in 14 outings prior to his current little heater. He’s well off the 75-point pace he set last season, but if he’s heating up heading into the playoffs, watch out.

3. Kyle Connor Winnipeg Jets

When Connor is using his speed, he’s dangerous and he’s a bona fide playmaker.

So when he rushed down the left side of the ice, wrapped the puck around the net and fed it to Kevin Hayes to open the scoring, it was the 22-year-old’s speed that started it all off.

He’d then score a goal just 1:05 later in the game on the power play, using his diminutive frame as a net-front presence, jamming his 28th past Jack Campbell.

The Jets moved three points clear of the idle Nashville Predators and Winnipeg still has a game in hand on their Central Division foes.

Highlights of the night

Jumbo Joe still has it:

Can’t defend this:

Myers picks his corner:

So close…

Factoids

Patrick Kane hit 100 points for the second time in his NHL career on Monday.

Pettersson does it in the arena that he was drafted in:

Scores

Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Canucks 3, Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Jets 3, Kings 2
Golden Knights 7, Sharks 3


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

Sharks’ Haley tries to pull Golden Knights’ Reaves off bench for fight

Sportsnet
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Micheal Haley is a tough dude. There’s no question.

But wanting a piece of Ryan Reaves and go as far as trying to pull him off the bench to fight him? That’s ambitious.

Haley wasn’t happy after Reaves destroyed Melker Karlsson with a big hit right in front of the San Jose Sharks bench in the first period of Friday’s meeting with Reaves’ Vegas Golden Knights.

Reaves took a quick look at his handy work before going off on a line change. Haley, who was also on the ice, didn’t seem to care and went after Reaves, throwing a punch at one of the toughest — if not the toughest — men in the NHL.

Haley ended up taking a roughing penalty on the play. Reaves got a good laugh in, seeming quite amused at the whole ordeal.

This is a matchup that could feature in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and judging by this one, it would be a fantastic series.


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

Lightning clinch Presidents’ Trophy for first time in franchise history

Associated Press
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No was ever going to catch the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was just the mathematics that needed to be satisfied before they could be handed their first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

And with nine games remaining — a good three weeks — left in the regular season, the Lightning became just the second team since the trophy began being awarded in 1985-86 to do it as quickly as they did in a 4-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes on Monday. The 73 games it took the Lightning has only been bested by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who clinched the trophy in 71.

It should be noted that no team has won the Presidents’ Trophy and gone on to win the Stanley Cup since the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. Tampa’s biggest task still lays ahead of them as they look to exorcise their playoff demons.

There are still 18 points up for grabs, too, meaning that the Lightning, who are on 116 points after winning their fifth straight on Monday, can theoretically get to 134, which would set a new NHL record for most in a season (the Montreal Canadiens posted 132 in 1976-77). And before we write that off, realize that this Lightning team is something special and winning nine straight isn’t out of the realm of possibility. They could go 8-0-1 and still end with 133 points.

Furthermore, they’re six wins back of those 1995-96 Red Wings for most wins in a season with 62.

Tampa has matched or set all sorts of records this season, and their players have, too.

A week after Vincent Lecavalier’s points record was taken from him by Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos notched goal No. 384 in Monday’s win to pass Lecavalier for most in Lightning history.


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