PHT Power Rankings: 10 players helping themselves in contract year

In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we will be taking a look at 10 players in contract years (both potential restricted and unrestricted free agents) that have done the most to help themselves this upcoming summer.

The summer of 2019 is going to be a fascinating one because some of the league’s best young players will be eligible for new contracts, including Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs), and Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets). All of them are in the middle of massive seasons that could no doubt make their financial demands increase even more.

They are not the only players helping their own bottom line.

To the rankings!

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche have what might be the NHL’s best line in Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. The latter two are both signed for at least the next three seasons at a combined salary cap hit of less than $12 million, an incredible bargain given what they produce and how important they are to the success of the team.

Rantanen might end up making nearly that much by himself.

Currently playing in the final year of his entry-level contract, he will be an RFA and has set himself up for an absolutely massive payday. How good has he been? As of Monday he is the NHL’s top scorer, and since the start of the 2017-18 season is fifth in the league in total points, trailing only Connor McDavid, MacKinnon, Nikita Kucherov and Claude Giroux.

Even if Rantanen is able to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $8-9 million (or more) out of the Avalanche that will still keep their big trio under $25 million total against the cap, and they should be absolutely ecstatic about that.

[Related: What Will Rantanen’s next contract look like?]

2-3. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. If you thought the William Nylander saga was something, just wait until this summer when the Maple Leafs have to do it again — times two! — with players that are better and more important to the franchise.

When the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares as a UFA last summmer it sent everyone in the NHL into a panic wondering how they’ll keep all of their top young players around his contract. The team’s company line is that they will need some of their core players to take less money in order to stay, and while the Nylander deal has been met with some skepticism (and even criticism) for how much he ended up getting, you could make an argument that he probably did take a little less than he could have. At the very least, if he continues on his current career path it will probably end up being a bargain by the end of it.

Given the years that Marner and Matthews are having, combined with what they have already done in their careers before this season, they are both going to be able to command top dollar on their next contracts.

The Marner hype coming out of Toronto is a runaway freight train at this point, but once you dig below the hyperbole and absurd comparisons he is a really good player and a legitimate top-line playmaker in the NHL. There is no reason he will not be able to get at least the same salary cap hit that Nylander got, if not more.

Matthews, on the other hand, is the big one. He is the franchise player, the one that this entire rebuild has been centered around. He will be — and should be — the most expensive of them all.

You will hear talk of offer sheets (no one in the NHL is bold enough to do that) and you will hear people argue the Maple Leafs will have to trade one of them. But you should ignore all of it, and so should the Maple Leafs. Keep your superstars, even if you can’t get them to “take less for the good of the team” and subtract around the edges. Maybe it costs you a Kasperi Kapanen or a Jake Gardiner or a Connor Brown in the long run, but it is a hell of a lot easier to find players like that than it is to find players like Matthews, Nylander, or Marner. And those are the players you need to win.

4. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Oh, and then there is this guy, the player that looks to be the heir to Alex Ovechkin‘s goal-scoring throne. Since the start of the 2016-17 season Laine and Ovechkin are tied atop of the NHL with 101 goals entering play on Monday, while Laine has played in nine fewer games. He is leading the league in goals entering play this week and should be able to name his price with the Jets.

5. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. Skinner has a lot going for him right now. Not only has he been a top-tier goal-scorer throughout his entire career, but he is having what might be his best goal-scoring season to date — in a contract year! — and he still does not turn 27 years old until May.

He has been a huge part of Buffalo’s turnaround this season and should be one of the most attractive players on the open market (assuming he gets there) given his production, skill, and age.

[Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed]

He already makes $5.75 million on his current deal and there is no reason he should not be able to top the $8 million figure this summer. Just for comparisons sake, James van Riemsdyk, who is a couple of years older than Skinner and offers similar goal-scoring value, got $7 million this past summer.

6. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets. In his two seasons with the Blue Jackets Panarin has shown that he can carry a line on his own and that his production in Chicago was not just the result of playing next to Patrick Kane. In 106 games with the Blue Jackets he is better than a point-per-game player, an elite possession driver, and one of the league’s overall best offensive players.

It seems all but certain he will be hitting the market after this season, while a report over the weekend surfaced that his former team — the Blackhawks — will be “all in” in trying to sign him. Given that one of the arguments in defense of trading him in the first place was the concern over what his next contract might look like, management would have to find a way to shed some of those undesirable contracts currently on the books in order to create the appropriate space for him.

7. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames. Another restricted free agent, and even though he is not on the same level as Rantanen, Matthews, Marner, or Laine, he is still turning into an excellent player for the Flames. Given his ability to cause havoc on the ice and annoy the crap out of everyone he comes across, while also producing points at a top-line rate, he is basically a younger, western Canada version of Brad Marchand.

[Related: Tkachuk brothers proving they are not just pests]

8. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are going to be in an interesting position this summer as Pavelski, Erik Karlsson and Joe Thornton will all be UFAs, while they also have to deal with the end of Timo Meier‘s entry-level deal. Thornton will probably keep coming back to San Jose as long as the Sharks want him (and as long as he can still play), so he’s probably not even worth discussing. While Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers might indicate, Pavelski is probably the pending free agent on the roster that has done the most to help his bank account this season.

Pavelski was one of the league’s top goal-scorers during the five-year stretch between 2011-12 and 2015-16, but saw his goal totals drop a bit the past two years. Only a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 season he is now just five goals behind his total from last season.

9-10. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators. The Senators have shown some flashes this season of being a better team than anyone expected them to be, but they are still on track to finish near the bottom of the standings this season.

That of course is good news for the Avalanche, owners of the Senators’ first-round draft pick as a result of last year’s Matt Duchene trade.

Speaking of Duchene, he is making the best of a bad situation in Ottawa while having a great individual year just before he hits the open market. And there is absolutely zero reason to believe the Senators are going to re-sign him, given everything owner Eugene Melnyk has said about the short-term and long-term future of the team. He and fellow free agent-to-be Stone are both averaging more than a point-per-game this season and should both be among the most attractive players on the UFA market, right after Skinner and Panarin.

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.

Roundtable: Best hub cities for NHL’s Return to Play

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Which two potential hub cities would be the best options for the NHL?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m going to rule out Canadian cities because … frankly, Canada is (broadly speaking) taking a more cautious approach. That’s positive for the greater good, but not those who want to hand out a 2020 Stanley Cup. That said, if the NHL was willing to comply with 14-day quarantines and the like, that would be a different ballgame.

But I’ll go with two cities in the U.S. to try to be more realistic.

My choices:
• Las Vegas, NV
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Look, you’re not going to find “perfect” options. But, after looking at the CDC’s listings for states/jurisdictions with the least and most infections, Nevada and Minnesota seem like decent bets. Of course, a lot can change in a few weeks, which is the timeline Gary Bettman discussed while pondering potential “hub cities.”

Personally, I’d be weighing safety far and away more than other factors, which is why I leaned (tentatively or not) toward Las Vegas and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In all honesty, the low infection rates of places like North Dakota make me wonder if ND really does rank among the best options. But oh well?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it some more: the NHL’s going to really need to show some finesse in threading the needle of actually pulling this off.

[Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I agree with James on the Canadian options. Given the current government mandates, if the NHL wants these two hub cities decided on in the next few weeks, I can’t see Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto having the time to appease the league’s desires.

The one clear front-runner is Vegas, for obvious reasons. Hotel capacity, transportation, rinks, low COVID-19 case rates. The Nevada summer heat is one worry I have, which will give Dan Craig and his team plenty of work to do to ensure the sheets are up-to-par.

Columbus or Pittsburgh would make sense if you want that East/West mix for TV. If the schedule is going to be something similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the Columbus/Pittsburgh side would start their games at noon ET and we’d have hockey all day with the Vegas games ending the night.

Both have key factors in their corner: multiple ice sheets, hotel proximity, and have been flattening the curve when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: From the outside, it would seem the top considerations for hub city destinations are the COVID-19 conditions, and whether the infrastructure is sufficient to execute a tournament of this scope. The former is a variable that involves expert opinion and decision making, so I won’t attempt to weigh the cities based on that. The latter is something the league had time to evaluate before it announced the 10 candidates, so one would assume that all the “finalists” meet whatever minimum standard is required to host.

My initial thought from the very beginning was that Las Vegas should be a lock, and the details of what that might look like were described in a recent report from The Athletic. Vegas seems uniquely equipped to create the most controlled environment for these purposes. That’s got my first vote.

With that in mind, my second hub city choice is Pittsburgh, for a few reasons:

First, geographical balance is important considering that, at least at the very beginning, there figure to be several games per day across the two sites. This Olympic-style format would work best on TV if there were staggered start times to accommodate audiences in every time zone. That rules out Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Second, it’s unclear to what extent the US-Canada border situation will influence the final decision, but given where things stand at this exact moment, it seems more practical to have both sites in the US. That rules out Edmonton and Toronto.

That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. I’ve got no good reason for picking Pittsburgh except: why not give a carrot to the team that has to go up against Carey Price (who was the overwhelming choice for best goalie in this year’s NHLPA Player Poll) and the Montreal Canadiens (who effectively had a zero percent chance of making the playoffs when the season paused)?

There you have it. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The Marc-Andre Fleury bowl.

MORE:
NHL announces return-to-play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

Russia hires Bragin as men’s national hockey team coach

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hired Valery Bragin as coach of the men’s national hockey team on Friday as it gears up to defend its Olympic title in 2022.

Bragin moves up from his longtime role in charge of the Russian under-20 team, which he led to the silver medal at this year’s world junior championships.

The Russian Hockey Federation didn’t say for how long Bragin’s contract runs. Bragin said his main aim was to prepare the team for next year’s world championships with a focus on players from outside the NHL.

Bragin replaces former Toronto Maple Leafs player Alexei Kudashov, who moves into a consultant role with the national team after 11 months as head coach.

Bragin also takes over from Kudashov as head coach of club team SKA St. Petersburg, whose operations are tightly intertwined with those of the national team. Roman Rotenberg is the general manager for both teams and holds vice president roles in both the club and the federation.

Rotenberg said in a statement that Kudashov “cannot currently put his full focus on coaching work.” He did not elaborate further.

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Igor Larionov replaces Bragin in charge of the junior team.

Russia’s players won the men’s hockey gold medal at the 2018 Olympics under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” name after the country was officially barred from the games for doping offenses.

PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

Willie O'Ree racism in hockey
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

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.

NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.