PHT Power Rankings: Early season NHL surprises and disappointments

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the league as a whole and where everyone sits nearly one month into the season.

Who are the early season elites? It is a lot of the usual suspects. Who are the early season surprises? Carolina, Arizona and Buffalo are all extremely competitive, and dare we say … good. Who are the early disappointments? Look no further than Philadelphia and St. Louis. Who are we just not sure about? Everyone from Edmonton, to Chicago, to Montreal, to even Colorado.

All of that and more!

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — I know, I know. They just got clobbered by Arizona. Tough way to end the week. But that loss ended what had been a seven-game point streak and they are still 7-2-1 on the season. And they still haven’t really gotten much of anything out of players like Steven Stamkos or Ondrej Palat yet. The fact they are still piling up wins when they have not really started to click yet is a testament to how good and deep this team is.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins — They just completed a four-game road trip through Canada where they went 4-0-0 and outscored their opponents by a 23-6 margin. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are firing on all cylinders right now.

3Nashville Predators — They were the Western Conference champions two years and the Presidents’ Trophy winners this past season. They have shown no signs of slowing down and might be even better this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — There are real questions about their defense and goaltending that need to be answered, and losing Auston Matthews for a month is going to hurt in the short-term, but when you still have John Tavares and Nazem Kadri to center your top two lines in his absence they are going to be just fine. We know they will pile up wins in the regular season and that they are going to make the playoffs. We just don’t know how far they will go once they get there.

Great start, but still skeptical

5. Colorado Avalanche — They have a great record, one of the best lines in hockey that is driving one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, and as of Monday a plus-14 goal differential that is tied for the best in hockey. Why the skepticism: They are still a bottom-10 possession team and they really haven’t had a daunting schedule yet having only played three teams that finished in the top-12 of the standings a season ago. They are 1-2-0 in those games.

[Related: Is the line of Rantanen, MacKinnon, Landeskog the NHL’s best?]

6. Minnesota Wild — The Wild remain a fascinating team when it comes to quality vs. quantity in the shots department. They are once again one of the bottom teams in the league in shot attempt differential. They are one of the best teams in scoring chance differential. There are not many teams that can pull that off. The Wild did it a year ago and, so far, are doing it again.

7. Montreal Canadiens — Of all the teams in this tier this might be the one I am most skeptical of because, well, I just don’t think they’re that good. They have, however, played pretty well so far this season and have the one X-factor that can really elevate them if he is on top of his game. That X-factor: Carey Price. He hasn’t consistently been at that level this season, though he has shown flashes of it. Max Domi has also been a huge surprise having already scored five goals in 10 games after scoring nine in each of the past two seasons.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Two games into the season it looked like Todd McLellan had one foot out the door and the team was doomed to be awful again. And who knows, maybe it will all still play out that way. But they are 6-1-1 in the eight games since and some people other than Connor McDavid are starting to provide some offense. Up is down. Down is up.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the Canadiens I’m not really sure how good this team actually is but they do have some players that can be difference-makers and carry them a long way. Patrick Kane is off to a great start offensively, Alex DeBrincat is emerging as a star, and Corey Crawford is a massive upgrade over Cam Ward and the goalies they were using a year ago. They are not the team they once were. They might still be … decent?

10. New Jersey Devils — They have cooled off considerably from their four-game unbeaten streak to open the year and that concerns me, because this was a very average team a year ago outside of Taylor Hall and the top line. Still reason to think they can be good, but maybe not as good as the 4-0-0 start.

Teams that are better than this

11. San Jose Sharks — In the category of “teams that are not going to be this low in the standings (or the power rankings) for much longer,” the Sharks are at the top of that tier. After winning just two of their five five games the Sharks have now won five out of six and have at least a point in six consecutive games. Erik Karlsson has not been the player they expected … yet. He will be. When he is, look out.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Everything went right for them a year ago, and so far this season their puck luck has changed. Don’t let that make you think this team is going to keep regressing. They are controlling 60 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in their games and have the second best scoring chance differential. It is a weird thing to say about a team in its second year, but they are somewhat of a sleeping giant early in the season.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They need to get Patrik Laine going, and they will, but the bigger concern might be the fact that Connor Hellebuyck‘s early save percentage is only .907. His play a year ago is a big reason why they went from middle-of-the-pack, bubble playoff team to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

[Related: What is wrong with Patrik Laine?]

14. Boston Bruins — There is quite a gap between what their top line is doing offensively and what the rest of the team is doing offensively. That is going to be a problem if it continues.

15. Washington Capitals — I don’t believe in Stanley Cup hangovers. I do believe the 2017-18 Capitals were a really good, top-tier team that had everything click and go in their favor at the right time and that so far this season they have not yet hit their stride.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I kind of cringe as to what this team might look like if/when Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are not there. Given the way Bobrovsky has played so far this season we are getting a little preview of that, and it is not promising. But Bobrovsky is still there for now, and he will play better. As long as he does, so will the Blue Jackets.

The upstarts and surprises

17. Carolina Hurricanes — This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their fifth game of the 2017-18 season until the end of November. They have not only won four of their past five to get back to .500 through their first 10 games, they have been one of the toughest teams in the NHL to score against.

19. Buffalo Sabres — There does seem to be a different feel around this team this year. Jeff Skinner has always been everything they could have hoped for him to be. Just a matter now of how long he will remain there.

20. New York Islanders — They have not been great, but they have also not yet been the cellar dweller I thought they would be at the start of the year. Given the way their underlying numbers look they still might very well end up there, but so far they have been competitive. Anders Lee is on his way to having the type of season that can make him a lot of money in a few months.

The disappointments

21. Florida Panthers — They are probably playing better than their record indicates as goaltending has really hurt them, but you can not start a season with only two wins in your first nine games and expect to easily make up that ground. Given the way the 2017-18 season played out this team should know that better than anyone.

22. Calgary Flames — This team just seems like it should be … better. I really don’t know what else to say other than that. They are just underwhelming.

23. Dallas Stars — Take what we just said about the Flames and repeat it here.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — At the start of the season I argued this was the NHL’s ultimate boom-or-bust team given the makeup of the roster and the questions on the blue line and in net. So far they are a bust.

25. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the toughest teams in the league to score against in 2017-18 and missed the playoffs because their offense stunk. They spent the offseason throwing money at fixing their forwards and entering play on Monday have the fourth highest goals per game in the league. Success! The problem: Now they can’t stop anybody. You know what it means when one part of the team works and the other doesn’t, and then when the other part works the part that had been working stops working? It means you are probably a mediocre team.

These teams are bad

26. Ottawa Senators — They haven’t been as bad as expected, but they still only have four wins in 10 games and have probably had a few players playing over their heads so far. It would still not surprise me to see them 31st when the season concludes.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They had a really impressive three-game road trip through Florida and Pittsburgh early in the year where they won all three games. But other than that this team has been about what we expected: A couple of good young forwards, a bad defense and only mediocre at best goaltending.

28. Anaheim Ducks — The injuries have not helped, but other than the play of John Gibson and Ryan Miller there is nothing positive about the way this team has played this season. Think about how bad your team has to play to have a pair of goalies with a combined .938 save percentage over 12 games, and only win five of those games. When those two see any sort of a regression the bottom could fall out on this team.

[Related: Ducks ask too much of Gibson and Getzlaf is not happy]

29. New York Rangers — This season is all about which young players will show some progress and which veteran players will play well enough to get traded for a nice return before the deadline later in the year. Brett Howden has been impressive.

30. Los Angeles Kings — The window on this team as a Stanley Cup contender has been emphatically slammed shut. A slow, dull, boring team that needs overhauled.

31. Detroit Red Wings — It took them until game No. 11, but they finally have a win in regulation. That is how things are going for the Motor City’s hockey team so far this season.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data provided is via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.