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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

It’s Nashville Predators Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

2018-19
47-29-6, 100 points (1st in Central Division, 3rd in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost to Dallas Stars 4-2 in Round 1.

IN:
Matt Duchene
Steve Santini
Daniel Carr

OUT:
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Brian Boyle

RE-SIGNED:
Colton Sissons
Rocco Grimaldi
Jarred Tinordi

2018-19 Summary

If you judged the Nashville Predators’ season by the sour mood hanging over the team and fans at the end of the 2018-19, you’d almost think they were a cellar dweller.

Instead, the Predators managed to hold off the Jets and Blues to narrowly win the Central Division, and the team was able to survive some tough injuries to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s no getting around the disappointment once they got there, mind you, as falling to the Stars in a six-game Round 1 series definitely ranks as a letdown.

GM David Poile’s reaction to that letdown was to make major moves, something he hasn’t been shy about in the past.

Yet, even by Poile’s standards, he made some bold bets during this offseason.

The headliner, of course, was trading P.K. Subban to New Jersey for pennies on the dollar to clear up cap space for long-rumored free agent target Matt Duchene. While that move was also, in a more indirect way, meant to keep things open for a possible Roman Josi extension, many will fairly view the Predators’ overall offseason as sending away Subban so they could land Duchene.

The value proposition is debatable, but the logic makes a reasonable amount of sense.

After all, the Predators were absolutely terrible on the power play last season, and they also had trouble getting much offense outside of the top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. The hope is that Duchene can provide more balance to Nashville’s scoring attack, while Dante Fabbro might be able to replace some of what the Predators lost in shipping out Subban for not-much (sorry, Santini).

The Predators also made a fascinating bet in signing a quality depth player – but a depth player nonetheless – in Colton Sissons to a seven-year, $20 million contract. This is a “Poile move” as much as the bold trade, as the Predators also made a similar decision with Calle Jarnkrok a few years back.

One cannot help but wonder if the Predators are addressing personnel changes while ignoring possible structural issues.

Nashville’s power play woes could be as strategic as they were talent-related, as the Predators relied far too much upon lower-danger point shots, rather than a heavier number of attempts from better scoring areas like the slot. Will they emphasize that more now that Duchene is added to the mix? We’ll see.

Let’s not forget how much the Predators have struggled to integrate other new faces.

Mikael Granlund hopes to have a better full season with Nashville, after his first “rental” run was underwhelming. Kyle Turris had a fast start with the Predators, then went on to struggle for a year and change. Wayne Simmonds never really managed to make a mark as a rental, and now he’s gone to the Devils. Nick Bonino was also a disappointment as a free agent addition from a while back. Is anyone noticing a trend?

Will it be different this time around with Duchene, and will some of those players turn things around? The Predators are gambling big-time that the answer is “Yes.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Laine makes interesting comments about future with Jets

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Not long after Kyle Connor probably made Winnipeg Jets fans feel a little less anxious about lingering RFA impasses among two big stars, Patrik Laine had an interview with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston that could make that discomfort rise to a boil.

At least, depending upon how much you read into things. Overall, I’d say: maybe don’t, although as Laine said, “anything could happen.”

You can see a chunk of the interview in the video above, and note that Laine seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing … but he also didn’t exactly guarantee that he’ll stick with Winnipeg.

“Well you never know. It’s still business, you’ve got to be prepared for anything,” Laine told Johnston on Friday. “But yeah, you never know where you’re going to play next year so I’m just prepared for anything.”

Johnston’s full report is worth reading beyond the video, as it includes additional details. Some are promising (Laine is working on his explosiveness, and aware of criticisms of his play off-the-puck) and unsettling (Laine apparently said contracts talks have been “non-existent”).

Again, it’s probably wise for Winnipeg fans not to get too stressed. Most notably, RFA’s are restricted free agents for a reason: teams exhibit a lot of power over their negotiating options, restricting Laine’s ability to play anywhere else. In the past, that often allowed teams to get huge bargains for second year contracts; Laine’s current teammate Mark Scheifele only carrying a $6.125M cap hit through 2023-24 is a prime example of the savings teams can soak up.

This summer could serve as a turning points where high-profile RFAs see the way NBA players are flexing their negotiating muscles, and getting a little more say in their own paths, or at least not rolling over as easily when it comes to trying to get the maximum dollars they can in this context.

Laine, of course, is far from the only RFA in this situation, and that’s the rub: players are waiting for the first shoe to drop. The Athletic’s Craig Custance provided a fascinating breakdown of the standstill for forwards like Laine as well as defensemen like Charlie McAvoy (sub required), with an anonymous agent making it sound like this is almost a game of chicken: no one wants to blink first, and possibly miss out on more money.

“There is a little of, ‘I don’t want to go first,’” The agent told Custance. “If you’re Rantanen, you’re waiting for Marner. If you’re Marner, you’re waiting for Rantanen. … And you can couple that with, there’s not a ton of urgency right now.”

In Custance’s report, he notes that the Colorado Avalanche haven’t brought offers to Mikko Rantanen, who has discussed his situation with Laine, according to Johnston.

It begs the question: could it be that maybe Laine is nudging the Jets to try to break the ice? Is this interview just a matter of timing, and Laine is merely playing it cool (or even playing “hard to get”?).

Yes, teams are waiting for that new benchmark comparable to be set, possibly in Mitch Marner‘s prominent proceedings with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But if you’re the Jets, maybe you want to at least dip your toes in the water and see if Laine actually wants to just get something done? Winnipeg is particularly justified in wanting to try to skip in line as, again, the Jets must settle things with Laine and Connor. Earlier this week, Connor went as far as to say that he’d prefer a long-term deal with the Jets, yet would also consider something short-term.

If things thawed out with Connor, maybe they could with Laine as well?

Either way, it’s tough to imagine this ending in any way other than the Jets signing both Connor and Laine. The bigger questions likely revolve around key resolutions: how much, and for how long?

Of course, while it’s difficult to imagine Laine not eventually signing with the Jets, it’s also foolish to say that this will necessarily be easy for Winnipeg. Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from what may ultimately be a harmless — if a bit unsettling — interview.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Let’s explore three questions for the Habs as 2019-20 approaches …

1. Which Carey Price will show up, and how often?

With that $10.5 million cap hit, Carey Price remains a questionable investment in the eyes of many (myself included).

Still, the 2018-19 season restored some hope that Price could at least be an above-average, if not occasionally elite, goalie for the Canadiens. He managed a .918 save percentage last season, which matches his career average. Considering the heights of Price’s career, that’s a remarkable achievement.

But you must also consider the low points of Price’s career, simply because the Habs have traveled through those valleys quite a bit lately. Price played poorly in 2017-18, and was limited to just 12 games played as recently as 2015-16, so it’s not a given that Montreal will receive great play from Price.

As a side note: it’s his birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, especially since Price earned about a million cool points for the touching moment he was a part of during the 2019 NHL Awards, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

He’s certainly someone who’s become easy to root for.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. How many players already bumped against their ceilings?

The sheer number of Habs who enjoyed career years is remarkable, from Max Domi to Jeff Petry to Phillip Danault. Even traded-away forward Andrew Shaw often played over his head.

How many of those performances are repeatable?

The advice to tap the brakes is worthwhile with Domi, in particular. Contrast his brilliant 2018-19 season (28 goals, 72 points, 13.8 shooting percentage) with a rough final year in Arizona (nine goals [four empty-netters], 45 points, six shooting percentage in 2017-18) and you’ll realize that it’s dangerous to simply pencil in the same results from year to year.

It’s not all gloom and doom. While the “sophomore slump” is a threat, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could also take another big step forward. Shea Weber could be healthier, which may or may not lead to a healthier power play. And, if you’re hoping for anything to repeat, strong five-on-five play usually isn’t a fluke, at least when you keep most of the same players on a team, and most of them are pretty young.

Still, it’s possible that improved power play work might offset a slight drop-off, rather than supplementing a resounding team at even-strength … but we’ll see.

3. Will Marc Bergevin remain patient?

When it comes to judging the Habs’ GM’s work lately, it feels like people have been grading Bergevin on a curve: “Hey, this didn’t work out as badly as we thought.”

That friendly outlook might not last very long, and if Bergevin’s seat starts to heat up again — they’ve missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and three of four — then there’s the risk that he’ll make reckless moves to try to save his job.

As scrappy as this team is, forking over draft picks and/or prospects for quick fixes could really sting. Thankfully, Bergevin didn’t spend big during the past trade deadline or in free agency this summer (aside from a baffling Ben Chiarot signing), so he’s shown some discipline.

Bergevin’s one of the league’s most entertaining GMs because he’s willing to be bold, though, so we’ll see how long he can be stoic and not make a splashy move, beyond the occasional facetious offer sheet.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Will poor power play doom Canadiens again?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens. 

Despite finishing with 96 standings points – more than the Golden Knights, Stars, and Avalanche out West – the Montreal Canadiens failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As much as they might be tempted to grumble about the East being deeper than the West last season, the Canadiens should instead turn that “What if?” discussion inward, and wonder: what if we figured out our power play? The Habs finished the season with a +13 goal differential overall, and their even-strength heartiness becomes even more impressive once you realize that Montreal was -14 when you consider the sum of its special teams.

Fittingly for a team that once saw P.K. Subban as a scapegoat, you can’t blame the PK, either.

Instead, the penalty kill stood out like a sore thumb that was throbbing with pain. Montreal’s 13.2 power-play percentage was the second-worst in the NHL, and they actually scored the fewest PPG overall with just 31.

While it’s dangerous to assume that the Canadiens will remain a possession powerhouse in 2019-20, it’s something Claude Julien frequently manufactures in his teams. If Montreal can stay at least strong in that area, then the power play is a big X-factor: can it at least rise to the level of average, or even good, after being a huge detriment last season?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Questions of personnel

For the most part, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was justified in not being too busy in free agency (although he can be charged with not taking advantage of teams who were capped out and had to get rid of valuable players like Nikita Gusev, Erik Haula, and so on).

It would have been nice if the Canadiens might have gone after a mid-level sniper, though.

Montreal has some strong playmaking talent in the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, but when you look at that roster, you don’t see a ton of finishers. Apologies to Joel Armia, but when he’s a key triggerman for your power play, you’re not exactly going to leave opponents cowering in fear.

What might change

So, it’s important to weigh the lack of improvements against the instinctive assumption that things are almost bound to get better just by natural regression.

And, truly, there are signs that things should at least bump closer to average.

There are telltale signs that Montreal was a little unlucky. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens’ power-play shooting percentage was 10.23, the fourth-lowest in the NHL last season.

Again, the personnel question looms large, as Natural Stat Trick puts Montreal’s expected power play goals at 34, instead of 31, so it’s not like that would be a night-and-day difference if luck leveled out. Simply put, the Canadiens are going to need to improve.

One personnel difference could be more Shea Weber. The defenseman with a bazooka shot only played in 58 games last season, and while it’s risky to demand Weber hit close to 82, he might be healthier in 2019-20.

The thing is, just about every successful power play unit creates the meat of their chances from high-danger areas, whether those come from right in front of the net on dirty rebounds, slick plays starting behind the net, or sweet snipes from “Ovechkin’s office.”

Relying too much on Weber howitzers would be a mistake.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Weber cannot benefit this unit. It would actually be intriguing if the Canadiens decided to experiment a bit, including maybe having Weber slip into that “Ovechkin office” for the occasional scoring chance. If not Weber, the Habs should probably try to find someone who can bury opportunities at a higher rate, perhaps even prospect Nick Suzuki.

Overall, the Canadiens’ power play is a big X-factor, and it remains to be seen if they can improve from within in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.