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.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”

Training camps open around NHL after another short offseason

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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Training camps open around the NHL after another short offseason, a third in a row squeezed by the pandemic. That doesn’t bother Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon one bit.

For one of hockey’s best players and his teammates, it’s already time to get back on the ice and defend their Stanley Cup title, less than three months since they knocked off the back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I still feel like I just was playing,” MacKinnon said. “I took two weeks off, and then I started skating again. It’s just fun. I enjoy it, and I like the short summer. It feels like the season’s just kind of rolling over again.”

The NHL rolls into fall coming off an entertaining playoffs and final with the chance to finally get back on a normal schedule. That means full camps for teams that got new coaches and the benefits of a regular routine.

That means a mere 88 days between Game 6 of the final and the first-on ice practice sessions.

“We’re kind of used to it now,” Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said after he and the Lightning lost in the final for the first time in three consecutive trips. “It’s a little harder, of course, because you don’t have that much time to rest. It’s basically a few weeks and you have to get back at it. But, yeah, I can’t complain. You want your summers to be short every year.”

It was a little longer for Connor McDavid and the Oilers after losing to Colorado in the West final. Despite the lack of downtime, McDavid “wouldn’t trade that in for anything” and aims to make it even further since Edmonton shored up its goaltending situation by adding Jack Campbell.

A few spins of the goalie carousel ended with the Avalanche acquiring Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers and Cup winner Darcy Kuemper landing with Washington. Joining new teammates, many of whom hoisted the Cup in 2018, Kuemper is not worried about less time off.

“It was definitely a very unique summer,” Kuemper said. “With how short it was, you start getting back into the gym and you’re kind of a little bit worried that your training’s going to be so short. But you kind of felt like you weren’t getting back into shape. You were already there.”

NEW COACHES

The Oilers are one of several teams settling in for training camp under a new coach. Jay Woodcroft took over as interim coach in February but has the full-time job now.

“Looking forward to a camp with him,” McDavid said. “He did a great job coming in during the middle of the season, but it’s never easy on a coach, for sure. I’m sure there’s things that he wanted to touch on that you wasn’t able to kind of in the middle of the year, so he’ll be able to to touch on all of it this year.”

The same goes for Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver, 11 months since being put in charge of the Canucks. Philadelphia’s John Tortorella, Boston’s Jim Montgomery, Vegas’ Bruce Cassidy, Dallas’ Peter DeBoer, Florida’s Paul Maurice, Chicago’s Luke Richardson, Detroit’s Derek Lalonde and the New York Islanders’ Lane Lambert are all starting the job fresh.

CAMP TRYOUTS

Roughly 40 players are attending a camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to earn a contract for the season. James Neal has that opportunity with the Blue Jackets, and Derek Stepan returned to Carolina to seek a job with the Hurricanes.

The most intriguing situation involves 37-year-old center Eric Staal, who agreed to the tryout with Florida the same time brother Marc signed a one-year contract. Younger brother Jordan was with Eric and Marc on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to witness the occasion.

“They’re both just super pumped, as was I,” said Jordan Staal, who is the captain of the Hurricanes. “Eric is excited about the opportunity and Marc, as well. Really cool. Really cool thing.”

EARLY START

Before the puck drops on the NHL season in North America on Oct. 11, the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks play twice in Prague on Oct. 7 and 8. And those are not exhibitions.

“We still play two important games,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who is a native of Prague. “It’s not just preseason where you coming here to warm up.”

Colorado and Columbus will also play two games in Tampere, Finland, on Nov. 4-5 as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

And just as the league gets used to a regular schedule, work is ongoing between the league and NHL Players’ Association to stage a World Cup of Hockey in February 2024, which is popular among players even if it knocks the calendar off kilter again.

“I think they missed out on a huge, huge portion of the international game that’s really going to be missed,” McDavid said. “We need to figure out a way to get an international tournament in as quickly as possible.”

Matthew Tkachuk, Panthers ready for 1st training camp together

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Aleksander Barkov was sound asleep at his home in Finland when the trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers was finalized, which isn’t surprising considering it was around 4 a.m. in that part of the world.

He woke up and read texts from friends reacting to the deal.

And it wasn’t too long before he got a message from Tkachuk.

“The first message was `(expletive) right’ and how he was excited to come to Florida,” Barkov, the Panthers’ captain, said at Florida’s media day. “`Let’s take this next step, let’s be a winning team for many years to come.’ That’s who he is. He wants to win. He wants to bring that character to this organization. And I think he’s done some damage already.”

With that, Barkov was sold.

And after a few weeks of informally skating with one another, the Panthers start the process of officially seeing what they have in Tkachuk when the team’s training camp – the first under new coach Paul Maurice – opens.

“We’ve basically had everybody here for a few weeks,” Tkachuk said. “I feel like I’ve been in training camp for a couple of weeks. So today doesn’t feel that new to me. I’ve gotten to know everybody … so let’s get these games going. I’m sick and tired of just practicing and working. I want to start playing some games. I think everybody feels the same way.”

Maurice was hired over the summer as well, inheriting a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and went to the second round of the playoffs — the first series win for Florida since the run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

He’s as eager as the players are for the first formal practice, calling it “our first Christmas.”

“The house is bought. Most of the boxes are unpacked,” Maurice said. “I’ve got two kids that kind of came with me; one’s in Coral Gables, one’s in Estero. Their places are unpacked. They’re out of our house. Once you get down here, for me, you spend most of your days at the rink. So, experiencing all of South Florida, we haven’t gotten to that yet.”

As part of the deal that went down on July 22, the 24-year-old Tkachuk signed a eight-year, $76 million contract. That’s not the only big cost that the Panthers had to agree to while executing the trade; they also sent Jonathan Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a left wing who had career bests of 42 goals, 62 assists and 104 points last season.

“I wish all the best to Huby and Weegs,” Barkov said. “They’re great. Everyone loved them. Only good things to say about them. It happens, and for sure, it was best for the team and organization to do this. We move on, and we’ll get ready for a new season.”

BOBROVSKY’S SUMMER

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is Russian, still makes his home in St. Petersburg, and went there for the bulk of his offseason.

He said it was not logistically difficult to travel there (or return to the U.S.) this summer, even as the war that started when Russia invaded Ukraine continues. Bobrovsky said last season that he was not trying to focus on anything but hockey, and when asked if it was difficult to be back in Russia as war continues he kept the same approach.

“I had a good summer,” Bobrovsky said. “I saw friends, I saw family. It’s all been fine. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on. I’m not involved in that stuff.”

CAMP ROSTER

Florida is opening camp with 56 players – 31 forwards, 19 defensemen and six goalies. That group includes brothers Eric Staal and Marc Staal; Marc Staal signed as a free agent in July; Eric Staal is with Florida on a tryout contract.

Coyotes sign Barrett Hayton right before training camp

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes signed forward Barrett Hayton to a two-year contract right before the start of training camp.

Terms of the deal were not released.

The 22-year-old Hayton was a restricted free agent and not initially listed on Arizona’s roster for camp.

Hayton had 10 goals and 14 assists in 60 games with the Coyotes last season, all career highs.

Arizona drafted the Peterborough, Ontario native with the fifth overall pick of the 2018 NHL draft. He has 13 goals and 18 assists in 94 career games with the Coyotes.