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Unlikely teams ruling the roost in Pacific Division

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If you’re a fan of Canadian hockey, then when you woke up on Sunday morning, checked the Pacific Division standings and were met with a sight for sore eyes.

Three western Canadian teams — Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers — in that order, 1-2-3 in the Pacific Division standings.

After scratching your head and rubbing your eyes to check if you had truly woken up, you sipped your coffee and wondered, simply, how?

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Calgary Flames

Calgary has found a way to get it done in the third period like no other team in the NHL thus far this season.

Few teams that trail after two periods of play ended up winning after three, yet here are the Flames with a 5-5-1 record when trailing after 40 minutes. That’s right, in 11 of their 15 games this season, the Flames have trailed after two periods of play. While most teams in the NHL might have a win or two in such a scenario, Calgary has five and managed a point out of another to stand atop the Pacific with a 9-5-1 record.

No other team has scored 28 goals in the final frame, either. The next closest is Colorado and Winnipeg, who each have 20.

Calgary has simply made it a point to come out in the third period and take it to other teams, evidenced by their five-goal outburst after trailing the Avalanche 4-1 entering the third on Thursday, and then their three unanswered against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

The Flames have won four straight now and have a real chance to put an early stranglehold on the division as they embark on a three-game road trip against Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.

Calgary isn’t getting the best goaltending at the moment, but they’ve been able to mask it by controlling possession and scoring a pile of goals — they are tied for first with Colorado with 52 goals scored and are tied for second with 32 of those coming at five-on-five.

Vancouver Canucks

Elias Pettersson is shooting at 40 percent.

That’s an incredible number (and one that’s likely to fall) but the Canucks are certainly enjoying it at the moment.

But he’s proved to be an incredible player thus far, highlighted most recently by his five-point night against the Avalanche on Friday.

Like Calgary, goaltending hasn’t been a specialty but scoring goals has. Vancouver is tied for the third most goals in the NHL at 47, so they, too, are outscoring some of their issues in their own end of the ice.

Vancouver’s possession numbers rank them near the bottom of the league but they’re sixth in the league in overall shooting percentage and 10th in five-on-five shooting percentage. If that well dries up at some point, so too will the wins.

But they are also a team decimated by injury. So who knows. The last thing Vancouver wants is to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, miss it, and get a mid-round pick in the middle of a rebuild.

And man, are the Canucks ever exciting to watch.

Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid has 21 points this season. Edmonton has 40 goals.

Where would the Oilers be without McDavid? It’s an intriguing question to explore yet one that doesn’t really matter unless he gets injured. The fact of the matter is they do have McDavid and McJesus is carrying the team.

And while drop off is expected for nearly every other player in the NHL that’s had a great start to the season, McDavid is the exception.

He gets defenseman-type minutes and he cannot be contained.

The good news in Edmonton is that other players have woken up.

Leon Draisaitl is producing, as is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and they’ve buckled down defensively, giving up the fifth-fewest high-danger scoring chances. Edmonton’s overall team save percentage isn’t great, but their combined five-on-five save percentage is seventh in the league operating at .935.

What does this all mean? 

In one sense, it doesn’t mean much at all, even if we’re nearing 20 percent completion of the regular season.

That said, the Pacific Division as a whole is quite poor this season. That makes it difficult to predict. And by extension, it also means that every team appears to be in the thick of it (save for Los Angeles at this point).

It also means that there will likely only be three Pacific Division spots up for grabs come April. The Central Division is very good and will likely take the available crossover spot should things stay on the same course.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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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.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.