PHT Power Rankings: The Sabres are back

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There is a new team at the top of this week’s PHT Power Rankings, and it is probably not a team you expected to be there at any point this season.

Yes, it is the Buffalo Sabres.

It has been a long time coming for Sabres fans after watching years of terrible hockey. Just for some perspective on where this team was prior to this season, no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded) had won fewer games than Buffalo over the previous five years. And it’s not just that the Sabres were at the bottom of the wins list during that stretch. They were at the bottom by a significant margin, having won 18 fewer games than the next worst team (the Arizona Coyotes). Heck, even the Edmonton Oilers won 30 more games than them. If you are 30 wins behind that organization, you know things are bad.

Thanks to a nine-game winning streak entering this week, the Sabres now have one of the best records in the league, are off to their best start in more than a decade, and with 16 wins in their first 24 games have positioned themselves nicely for a potential run to the playoffs.

During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 there were 20 teams that won at least 16 of their first 24 games. Only two of them, the 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens and 2017-18 St. Louis Blues, failed to make the playoffs that season. And the Canadiens’ failure to make the postseason was due mostly to a devastating injury to starting goaltender Carey Price.

So, yes, Buffalo, it’s not too early to start believing in your team. It might finally be good again.

As for the rest of the Power Rankings…

The Elites

1. Buffalo Sabres — Do I honestly believe the Sabres are the best team in hockey this season? No, I do not. But for the purposes of this week’s power rankings I have to give some love to a team that as of this moment has one of the best records in the league and has won nine games in a row (and 10 of 11). Buffalo fans, you’ve watched a lot of disgustingly bad hockey over the years. You deserve a fun team to watch, and you have earned it. Enjoy this.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — They just keep finding more stars in the draft where other teams do not. The latest example is Brayden Point who enters the week as one of the top-five scorers in the league.

3. Nashville Predators — Injuries are starting to mount for the Predators but they have enough depth to overcome them for a short period of time in the regular season.

One step below the elites

4. Boston Bruins — Speaking of great teams and depth, that has always been the big question for this Bruins team. Well, they are currently playing without Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and Charlie McAvoy and do you know what they are still doing? Winning. Jaroslav Halak deserves a ton of credit for the way he has played this season, but to be without one of the best two-way centers in the league and their top two defenders and still find ways to scratch out two points on most nights is a big accomplishment. Especially in that division. Since Bergeron went down the Bruins have collected seven out of a possible eight points.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the league and have only received 11 total games from Auston Matthews and William Nylander, their second-and third-leading scorers from a year ago. Imagine what they will look like when they both get in the lineup.

6. Minnesota Wild — With 20 points in his first 20 games this has been a great bounce back year so far for Zach Parise.

7. Winnipeg Jets — Remember When Patrik Laine had just three goals in his first 12 games? He now has 16 goals in his past 10 games, including three hat tricks, one of which was a million dollar five-goal game.

Making Their Move

8. Washington Capitals — Here come the Champs! They have won six of their past seven games and are starting to quickly climb the standings.

9. Colorado Avalanche –– I had the Avalanche as a mystery team two weeks ago, and they still kind of are. But that top line is absolutely unstoppable.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Cam Atkinson is red hot right now offensively with a seven-game goal scoring streak. This is still one of the more interesting teams in the league to watch from a distance given their status as a likely playoff team, and the fact their two best players are free agents after the season. Not an enviable position for their front office to be in.

11. Vegas Golden Knights — This is a very strange team. As a second-year franchise they are not particularly deep and injuries have crushed them this season, but they are also playing a lot better than their record indicates. They are starting to get the results now. Given the sorry state of the Pacific Division I still think they have a great shot to win it this season. The schedule really softens up for them over the next couple of weeks as well.

[Related: Stanley Cup Finalists are heating up]

The Middle Ground

12. Calgary Flames — Matthew Tkachuk just keeps getting better offensively and, somehow, more annoying for his opponents.

13. San Jose Sharks — Do not like where they are at this point given the talent they have on the roster, but they have got to start getting more out of Martin Jones. Getting him back to his expected level would do wonders for this team.

14. New York Islanders — Their MVP so far is Thomas Greiss. That is not something I expected to be typing at any point this season.

15. Pittsburgh Penguins — It has not always been pretty but with six out of a possible eight points in their past four games they might be starting to get back on track. Their record when they have all three of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Derick Brassard in the lineup is what should be expected of them this season. It is when one of them is out that everything seems to go wrong.

16. Detroit Red Wings — Give this team some credit, after a miserable start to the season they are 9-3-1 in their past 13 games. Not sure it is going to last, but they have been better than expected.

17. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist in the month of November is 5-1-1 with a .924 save percentage. King Henrik can still dominate at times.

18. Carolina Hurricanes — I feel like the middle of the pack is a good spot for this team. They go through stretches where they look like a team that is going to realize its potential, and then they still have moments like their game in New York on Saturday night where they look like the team they have been for the past seven years. Overall, though, they are 5-2-1 in their past eight games.

19. Dallas Stars — It is awfully difficult to replace one of the league’s best defenders (John Klingberg) and a pretty good starting goalie (Ben Bishop) when they are out of the lineup due to injury.

20. Montreal Canadiens –Tomas Tatar and Max Domi are still massive surprises, but the Canadiens have suddenly lost eight of their past 12 games, including four in a row.

21. Florida Panthers — Starting to look like that five-game winning streak a couple of weeks ago was just a mirage. Probably one of the most disappointing teams in the league, especially when you consider how much Mike Hoffman has produced for them.

22. Ottawa Senators — Their games are the NHL answer to a Big XII college football game. Nobody plays defense. Or shows much interest in playing defense.

23. Philadelphia Flyers — The Ron Hextall era is officially over. Sometimes the Flyers looked great, sometimes they looked awful. Put it all together and you have a completely average team.

[Related: Flyers fire GM Ron Hextall]

24. Anaheim Ducks — Ducks goalies have the fourth best overall save percentage in the league. They are only 15th in goals against average. Do you know what that means? The team in front of the goalies is playing horribly.

The Basement

25. Chicago Blackhawks — Dylan Strome may never be the player he was expected to be when he was selected third overall in 2015, but I love the Blackhawks’ gamble to trade for him. Maybe he and Alex DeBrincat can recapture some of the magic they had during their junior days.

26. Arizona Coyotes — They were starting to look like they were turning a corner, and then they lost eight out of 10 with the most recent two (a 5-1 loss to Colorado, followed by a 6-1 loss to Calgary — both at home) being especially ugly.

27. Vancouver Canucks — The best possible outcome for Canucks fans this season is continued development and highlights from Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser (when he is healthy), and a team around them that still keeps them in the Jack Hughes derby. That is happening.

28. Edmonton Oilers — The Ken Hitchcock era is not off to a great start with back-to-back losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles.

29. New Jersey Devils — The Devils are only 5-10-3 since that 4-0 start.

30. St. Louis Blues — The Ryan O'Reilly trade has worked out great. Unfortunately for the Blues that is the only thing that has worked for them this season.

31. Los Angeles Kings — Ilya Kovalchuk has not recorded a point in nine games and spent Sunday night on the fourth-line, logging just six minutes of ice time. Yikes.

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.

Consistency the key as Eichel eyes end to Sabres’ playoff drought

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One of the main goals Jack Eichel believes that the Buffalo Sabres need to reach in 2019-20 is finding consistency in a positive way. Points dropped are points dropped and teams can leapfrog you in the standings easily if you’re going through a bit of a skid.

“There’s going to be games this year where we don’t have it — maybe we’ve been on the road, maybe we’ve been traveling, maybe it’s a back-to-back,” Eichel told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month. “It’s a long season and every night’s not your best night. The best teams find ways to scratch a point out here or there or maybe win a game that they don’t deserve to win. For us, it’s about doing that, finding consistency night in and night out and giving ourselves the best chance to have success.”

The Sabres felt both ends of the consistency scale in 2018-19. After the first two months of season they were top of the NHL, powered by a 10-game win streak. Everything was going well and the dream of ending their then seven-season playoff drought was alive.

When the Sabres went for win No. 11 in a row against Tampa Bay in late November, that’s when the wheels began to fall off. That night would be the start of a five-game losing streak and a final 57-game stretch where Buffalo would tumble down the Eastern Conference standings, winning consecutive games only twice the rest of the season and losing 15 of their last 19 games.

A summer of change saw head coach Phil Housley replaced by Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill add Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson up front, while bolstering the blue line with the acquisitions of Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Jeff Skinner was also re-signed long-term.

Eichel was impressed when he met with Krueger in Slovakia during the IIHF World Championship last spring. A chat over coffee turned into a multi-hour conversation ranging from hockey to politics to classic rock music.

“He’s so smart, he’s so intriguing as a person,” Eichel said. “I think he has a great vision for our group and I think all the guys are going to respond really well to him.”

[MORE: Krueger holds key to unlocking Sabres’ potential]

Eichel will have a close relationship with Krueger as the team’s captain. His first season wearing the ‘C’ was a mixed one. Personally, the 22-year-old forward hit career highs in goals, assists, and points, but that success came as the team he was leading stumbled in the final three-quarters of the season.

Year one as captain was a learning experience for Eichel. He understood the pressures that come with the captaincy, and now he feels he’s better prepared for the responsibilities that come with the role.

“I felt like I needed to up my game for our team to have success,” he said. “Unfortunately, we struggled in the second half, but the first half of the year a lot of things went well. [We’ve got to] try to emulate that for a full season this year.”

Eichel got a close-up view of what success in the NHL looks like in June. He was in attendance for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden cheering on former teammates Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres) and Matt Grzelcyk (Boston University). That experience has only motivated him even more.

The Sabres have made the postseason only once since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise in Feb. 2011. Money has been spent to try and turn the team into a consistent winner, but that’s failed so far. There’s still plenty of roster reshaping for Botterill to do, but another lost season in Buffalo could lead to more changes, and the players understand the pressure to win in the city and what’s at stake this season.

“It’s almost impossible to not feel it,” Eichel said. “With the drought that our franchise has been in for the playoffs, the ups and downs we’ve went through, being a high pick and coming in with a lot of these new young players like Rasmus [Dahlin], I think that we feel pressure to perform and bring success to Buffalo. 

“It can be tough at times, but sometimes it brings the best out of you and brings out the competitive side. We want to win. We want to win bad.”

MORE:
Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: This best hope the Red Wings have for significant improvement is some rapid development from a young player or two (Filip Zadina, Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen) and continued progress from players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, and Anthony Mantha. Even if all of that works out perfectly there are still significant question marks around the roster. They may not be worse, but they may not be significantly better, either.

Strengths: Not to be overly bleak about this team’s chances, but there are not a ton of strengths here. Larkin has become an outstanding player and even though it seems like he has been around forever, he is still only 23 years old. He is probably just now hitting his prime years and is coming off of a great year. Beyond him, the Red Wings have a ton of draft picks at their disposal, some intriguing young players coming through the farm system, and they hired one of the top general managers in the league (Steve Yzerman) to help try and turn this thing around. Long-term, that provides some hope. Short-term, things still look rough.

Weaknesses: They lack proven impact players, they lack depth at forward and defense, they were 22nd in goals scored a year ago, 27th in goals against, 19th on the power play, 27th on the penalty kill, and 23rd in team save percentage and a lot of the same players responsible for that performance are still there. In other words, there are weaknesses everywhere.

[MORE: Three questions | Blashill under pressure? | X-factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): This is an interesting one because the Red Wings have missed the playoffs three years in a row under Jeff Blashill, and while that is not necessarily his fault there are not many NHL coaches that get an opportunity to miss the playoffs four years in a row. Add in a new general manager that might want to go in his own direction and it would not be unreasonable to conclude that his seat is still warm. But he did sign a two-year contract extension after the 2018-19 season, so there is that aspect in play as well. We will put it at a 7 out of 10 for Blashill.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Larkin, Zadina and Athanasiou are three players worth keeping an eye.

Larkin simply because he is the team’s best player and is kind of fun to watch because of his speed. He had a monster year for the Red Wings in 2018-19 and really took a big step toward becoming a player they can count on and build around long-term.

Zadina is the prospect that can really move things along in a meaningful away in the Red Wings’ rebuild. He was regarded as one of the best pure goal scorers in his draft class (maybe even the best) and they were lucky to have a chance to pick him at No. 6 overall. He had a brief cup of coffee at the NHL level a year ago, scoring one goal in nine games. He is still only 19 years old so you don’t want to set the bar too high for him this season, but he is probably the most intriguing prospect with the highest upside in the organization.

When it comes to Athanasiou the intrigue here is simply whether or not he can be a 30-goal scorer again, or if he regresses back to the 15-20 goal player he was before that. He had always looked like a solid player but was one of the few bright spots on the team a year ago.

Playoffs or lottery: The Red Wings have been one of the NHL’s worst teams over the past three years and unless a bunch of young players emerge and become immediate stars, or if the goalies steal a bunch of games, it is hard to see a path for this roster to end their current playoff drought. This is a lottery team.

MORE:
Dylan Larkin on captaincy, getting Red Wings back to playoffs
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blues’ O’Reilly has ‘another gear’ after being playoff MVP

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Ryan O’Reilly stockpiled quite the hardware to show off at his Stanley Cup day.

On display next to the Cup he helped the St. Louis Blues win in June were the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. Any player would gladly celebrate with those shiny centerpieces, though O’Reilly — at 28 and on his third team — is only now showing he is this kind of elite player.

“I still think I have another gear to get to, and that’s my plan,” O’Reilly said. “There’s still many things to improve on. There are areas to be better. One thing, too, is I think power-play production for myself could’ve been a lot better, and that’s an area I need to grow. There’s some stuff I’ve been working on to try to improve that.”

O’Reilly had nine points in the Cup Final against Boston playing through a cracked rib. He was nearly a point-a-game player during the regular season. Yet, somehow he still seemed underappreciated outside his peers.

“People didn’t realize how good of a player Ryan O’Reilly was until this year,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. “All the players knew how good he was and how big of a part of that team he was and how special of a player — just his two-way game, his faceoffs. Obviously his point production this year was outstanding. His play in the playoffs, winning MVP and obviously the Stanley Cup, it was a great year for him and I think he opened up a lot of eyes.”

O’Reilly said he figured something out during the playoffs: how to clear out some “garbage” in his brain to focus on what matters. The challenge now is trying to duplicate that during an 82-game regular season.

“Just go out there and completely be in the moment and go from there,” O’Reilly said. “That’s a big lesson for myself, trying to establish that more. Be clear and find a way to take all the noise and all the stuff that you don’t need in your head and just throw it out. It just seems like when I did that, I tend to get more bounces and things went my way.”

Winning the Selke was evidence enough of O’Reilly’s strong regular season. He ranked eighth in the league in faceoffs, which is part of what makes him so tough to play against.

“He’s just so competitive on draws,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “I’m one of those guys I want to start every shift with the puck and if we’re going up against a guy like that that could catch fire, and we might be chasing it down for a whole period. He’s obviously not one of the fastest guys out there, but he’s so good positionally and just aware of where guys are and what to do with the puck. I think he’s just an all-around super intelligent player.”

Nathan MacKinnon

Already considered one of the fastest hockey players on earth, MacKinnon carried the Colorado Avalanche to within one victory of the Western Conference final and is the biggest reason they’re a fashionable Cup contender this season. Fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby said MacKinnon is in the category of Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin and Edmonton star Connor McDavid as players who can take over games.

“We saw a pretty good glimpse of that in the playoffs,” Crosby said. “He did it consistently. … I’d expect him to take another big step.”

Rookie Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said it’s electrifying to watch MacKinnon on the ice. And the 24-year-old center is an example to his younger teammates and those around the league.

“He’s just a super committed guy,” Makar said. “He loves hockey, and that’s the way he plays. It shows on the ice. Just the way he handles his routine is very specific and you just learn from star players like that.”

Henrik Lundqvist

“The King” is 37, yet could be the difference between the New York Rangers missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season or contending ahead of schedule. The longtime starting goaltender isn’t fazed by young backup Alexandar Georgiev and top prospect Igor Shesterkin looming in the not-too-distant future.

“My approach will not change,” Lundqvist said. “I need to reach my top level no matter what, no matter who’s next to me or where the team is at.”

Lundqvist said the start of last season was the best he had felt in a while. He posted a 2.68 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in his first 22 starts last season, which would be great for an improved Rangers team with a better blue line and more firepower up front.

“That’s the level I just need to reach and sustain throughout the year, and then I know I can make a difference,” Lundqvist said.

Alex Ovechkin

The release of “Ovi O’s” cereal marked his 34th birthday. If anyone has shown age is just a number, it’s Ovechkin, who is now the Washington Capitals’ oldest player and still could score 50 goals. Even though Ovechkin said he’s “not a grandpa” and trained differently this summer, don’t expect him to alter his style too much.

“I’m still young, you know,” Ovechkin said. “I still want to play my game. … We’re here for 25 minutes or whatever it is — I just want to be here to win, whatever it takes.”

Ovechkin preceded O’Reilly as playoff MVP when he led the Capitals to the first title in franchise history in 2018. After a full summer off, he is refreshed to try to do it again.

“He’s obviously a different talent,” Washington winger Carl Hagelin said. “A guy like that doesn’t come around very often. He’s one of those energetic guys even though he’s 33, 34 years old. He comes to the rink with a smile every day. He does what he has to do.”

Mark Stone

There may not be a more complete winger in the NHL than Stone, who put up 12 points in the Vegas Golden Knights’ seven-game first-round series against San Jose. Stone is free of Ottawa’s long-term rebuild and starting a $76 million, eight-year contract with big expectations to help Vegas make another long playoff run.

“You get a No. 1 forward,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s an unbelievable player. He does everything well on the ice. He puts up great numbers every year, and he’s a successful player.”

Vegas is one of several NHL teams without a captain. That might not last long with Stone in the fold.

“He’s not a guy that’s trying to be a leader,” Marchessault said. “He’s just a born leader, so it’s just natural for him.”

Rasmus Dahlin

The 2018 No. 1 pick had 44 points to lead all rookie defenseman. It was just the floor for where Dahlin wants to start.

“Of course I want to score more goals, have more assists and stuff like that,” Dahlin said. “Last season, I had more points than I expected, but this year, I always want more. That’s why I play.”

The Buffalo Sabres are counting on that in their first season under coach Ralph Krueger. Captain Jack Eichel has big expectations for Dahlin, who he believes “lived up to all the hype.”

“You look at how good he was last year in year one and how much more he knows now,” Eichel said. “I think he’s primed to have a monster season.”

Report: Jets’ Byfuglien believed to be contemplating NHL future

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Dustin Byfuglien, currently taking a personal leave of absence away from the Winnipeg Jets, is believed using his time away from the team to contemplate his NHL future, according to a report from TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

There is currently no timetable for his decision.

Neither the Jets or Byfuglien’s representation were willing to comment.

When it was initially revealed by the team that Byfuglien would not be with them at the start of training camp, head coach Paul Maurice said there was nothing “sinister” at play and that Byfuglien and his family were healthy.

Byfuglien has two years remaining on a five-year contract that pays him $7.6 million per season.

TSN’s Frank Seravalli outlined the Jets’ roster options for how to handle the situation, and it could be any one of three different scenarios. If the Jets list him as an “active non-roster player” he will not count toward their 23-man roster, but his salary cap hit will remain on the books. They could suspend him and petition the league for his salary cap hit to not count. The other scenario is Byfuglien retires and his salary cap hit gets completely stripped away. The added salary cap space would be important as the Jets try to figure out a way to re-sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and fit them under the salary cap. It would also allow them to try and find a replacement for Byfuglien on the trade market if he does indeed walk away from the game.

Byfuglien has been a member of the Jets organization since the franchise was based in Atlanta and has become one of the most impactful defenders in the league due to his physical play, booming shot, and overall production. He had 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in only 42 games a year ago for the Jets. In 869 career games with the Jets/Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks he has 177 goals and 525 total points.

The Jets’ defense is already facing a lot of issues this season following the offseason departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot. If Byfuglien decides to step away from the game the Jets would almost certainly need to make a trade to address another massive hole on a unit that wouldn’t even resemble the defense the team put on the ice a year ago.

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen and Carolina’s Justin Faulk are two of the bigger name defenders that apparently available for trade. Both would be a downgrade from Byfuglien.

Along with the uncertainty regarding Byfuglien, the Jets are also still dealing with the fact two of their top forwards — Laine and Connor — remain unsigned as restricted free agents. Laine recently told a reporter in Finland that his linemates and usage are a factor in the ongoing contract negotiations.

MORE:
Byfuglien leave of absence adds more uncertainty for Jets

• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.