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.

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

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 remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.