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.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.