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.

NHL Free agent roundup: Islanders re-sign two RFAs; Nichushkin joins Avalanche

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It didn’t involve any of the big names that are still unsigned, but there was some movement on the NHL’s restricted free agent front on Monday afternoon thanks to the New York Islanders, while the Colorado Avalanche took a gamble on an intriguing unrestricted free agent.

Let’s take a look at the signings.

Islanders re-sign Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle

The Islanders reached deals with two of their remaining RFAs when they announced new deals for forwards Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle.

Dal Colle’s contract is a two-year deal, while Ho-Sang gets a one-year deal that will probably be a make-or-break season for him with the Islanders.

Anthony Beauvillier remains the Islanders’ only unsigned RFA at this point in the offseason.

Ho-Sang is the intriguing one here because he has such enormous potential but has not yet put everything together in the NHL or earned the trust of the organization. If he manages to do all of that he could be a huge X-factor for the Islanders this season.

He has 24 points in 53 career games at the NHL level.

The 23-year-old Dal Colle appeared in 28 games for the Islanders this past season, scoring three goals to go with four assists.

Avalanche get Nichushkin

After spending two years in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin returned to the NHL for the 2018-19 season and signed a two-year, $5.9 million contract with the Dallas Stars.

It proved to be a disappointing and uneventful deal for both sides. He failed to score a goal in 57 games while recording just 10 total assists. His contract was bought out by the Stars following the season, making him an unrestricted free agent.

On Monday, he signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche with the hopes that he can bounce back.

Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was one of the most bizarre seasons in league history as he became the first player to ever play at least 50 games in a season while scoring zero goals and recording zero penalty minutes.

After a promising rookie season back in 2013-14, Nichushkin’s development offensively has completely stalled, resulting in just nine goals and 31 assists in 144 NHL games. He is a fine defensive forward but has not shown any ability to make much of an impact with the puck.

MORE:
• 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.

Barzal is Islanders’ game-changer

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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 New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders have their share of questions entering the 2019-20 season but there is one thing they can be sure of — they have one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise cornerstone in Mathew Barzal.

Even though his point totals may have regressed in year two, the 22-year-old Barzal was the Islanders’ most dynamic and impactful player during the 2018-19 season and is on a trajectory that should take him to stardom in the NHL.

He has an incredible mix of speed, vision, and playmaking ability that makes him perfect for the modern game and a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck on his stick.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He has already become one of the best and most productive playmakers in the league and could be on the verge of taking his production to an entirely new level based on what he has already done.

Two comparisons to consider for Barzal entering this season.

1.  Over the past two seasons (his first two in the league) he is one of just 11 forwards (minimum 100 games played) that has averaged at least 0.65 assists per game, 0.89 points per game, and posted a 52 percent Corsi rating. The others on that list are are Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikko Rantanen, Artemi Panarin, and Mitch Marner.

Excellent company to be in, especially when you consider just how young he is and is just now entering his age 22 season.

2. It’s the latter point (his age) that is the key. Barzal is one of just 11 active forwards to average at least 0.89 points through their age 21 season in the NHL, a list that includes Crosby, Stamkos, Marner, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Auston Matthews, and Alex Ovechkin.

Marner, Matthews, and Barzal are all the same age, but the other eight combined to score at a 100-point pace in their age 22 season.

The biggest difference between Barzal and most of the players on that list is that he is not quite the goal-scorer that some of them are and is more known for his ability to drive play and set up his teammates, so a lot of his point production will be tied to what the players around him are able to do once he gets them the puck. He can definitely help put them in better positions to score, but it is still up to them to finish the play. It is also possible he could develop into more of a goal-scorer if he takes on more of a shoot-first mentality. He has never been a low-percentage shooter, and while passing and playmaking is his greatest strength offensively, he could probably put himself in a position to average more than two shots per game. Especially if he does not have elite talent around him at the given time.

No matter what direction he takes, Barzal is the Islanders’ best player and the one player that can swing a game in their favor.

His rapid development into a top-line player is one of the reasons the Islanders were able to overcome the free agent departure of John Tavares without completely falling apart. They already had a star on the roster ready to fill that No. 1 role, and his best days are still ahead of him.

This is the hardest type of player to acquire in a rebuild, and it usually takes a top draft pick to get one.

The Islanders were fortunate enough to be able to get one in the middle of the first-round and have the piece they need to build around.

MORE:
• 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.

Sustainability and Ho-Sang’s development top questions for Islanders

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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 New York Islanders.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

1. Can they do it again?

After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.

The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?

The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.

This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.

What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.

They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.

There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.

3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?

One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.

His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.

But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He just re-signed on a one-year contract on Monday and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.

MORE:
• 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.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

MORE:
• 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.