PHT Power Rankings: No one is close to Lightning right now

12 Comments

The 2018-19 NHL season is almost at its halfway point and the Tampa Bay Lightning are rolling into the holiday break with what has been the best team in the league this season.

There is no one really close to them, either.

A quick look at where they stand compared to the rest of the league…

  • They have a six point lead over every other team in the league, one of the largest leads any team has had at this point in the season in recent history
  • They are on pace for 128 points this season. The NHL’s second best team at the moment is on pace for 115.
  • Their plus-48 goal differential is 11 goals better than any other team in the league, while there is only one team (the Toronto Maple Leafs) that is within 20 goals of that mark.
  • Their 28 wins are tied for the most of any team through the first 37 games of a season in the salary cap era.
  • Over the past 25 years only two teams (the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators) have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 154 through 37 games.

Needless to say, they are in the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Just a stunningly great hockey team right now. An offense that no one can slow down, an outstanding defense, and great goaltending. Put it all together and you have a team that is 16-2-1 in its past 19 games and is six points ahead of every other team in the league heading to the holiday break.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets have one of the best records in the NHL and they haven’t really received great goaltending from Connor Hellebucyk yet. Kind of scary to think about how good they could be if he starts to get back closer to the level he showed a year ago.

3. Washington Capitals — After winning just seven of their first 16 games the Capitals have gone on a 15-4-0 run in the 19 games that followed and Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is ridiculous even for him.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs —  Talk of them losing any of their young stars to an offer sheet is a waste of time (it is not going to happen) but they are still heading toward a truly fascinating offseason with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Both players have been absolutely sensational this season, with Marner already topping the 50-point mark just 36 games into the season.

The Playoff Teams/Contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky has won his past four decisions with two shutouts. That is just what the Blue Jackets need right now.

6. Calgary Flames — The biggest surprise on one of the biggest surprise teams is still the play of Elias Lindholm. With 17 goals and 39 points on the season he has already matched his career high in goals and is just five points away from matching another career high.

7. Nashville Predators — The injuries are really starting to catch up to them, but it is nothing to worry about at the moment.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are starting to look like the Penguins again. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are scoring almost every night, Kris Letang is playing at a Norris Trophy level on defense, and the goaltending is starting to perform like they need it to.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Early on it looked like the Golden Knights were headed for a big year two regression. Even though they are unlikely to match their year one point total they have gone 12-5-3 in their past 20 games. They are just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

10. Boston Bruins — They have managed to keep winning and maintain a playoff spot despite some significant injury issues. They are starting to get healthy again with the recent returns of Charlie McAvoy and Patrice Bergeron.

[Related: Patrice Bergeron grabs four points in return to lineup]

11. Colorado Avalanche — The top line is as dominant as it has been at any point over the past two years. At some point, though, the Avalanche are going to need another line to become somewhat of a goal-scoring threat.

12. San Jose Sharks — They went on a roll by winning seven out of eight and looked like they were starting to become the team we expected them to be. Then they dropped three in a row going into the break, including games against the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes. Erik Karlsson is starting to look like Erik Karlsson again, which is great news (he also received a two-game suspension … which is not great news).

13. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel have not cooled off, but the rest of the team has. Fortunately for them that early season winning streak and great start gave them a nice cushion so this recent slump has not hurt them too much.

The Bubble Teams

14. Montreal Canadiens — Carey Price had a couple of good games this past week but he is still way below what they need from him. It is actually kind of remarkable they have won as much as they have this season with the level of goaltending they have received from Price and Antti Niemi.

15. New York Islanders — They keep hanging around, especially impressive when you consider Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey have only combined for 12 goals at this point.

16. Anaheim Ducks — They occupy a playoff spot at the moment but I am still skeptical they will hold on to it. The team is too dependent on goaltending and has been outscored by 14 goals on the season. Not a good sign!

17. Edmonton Oilers — After the initial surge that followed the coaching change the Oilers have started to look like, well, the Oilers again. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can only carry this team so far on their own.

18. Vancouver Canucks — They have put together a little run here in recent weeks to get back closer to a playoff spot. They’ve been an extremely hot and cold team this season, but the two constants have been the play of Brock Boeser (when healthy) and rookie forward Elias Pettersson. They are great building blocks.

19. Dallas Stars — They backed into the break by losing six out of eight. Getting John Klingberg back will help a lot in their push for a playoff spot, though.

20. Minnesota Wild — The offense has dried up and now they are without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba for the foreseeable future.

[Related: Bad news for Wild as Dumba to miss significant time]

The Lottery Teams

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Andrei Svechnikov looks like he has a bright future ahead of him. Sebastian Aho is a star right now. These are the positives for the Hurricanes at the moment. They also played really well in the Hartford Whalers uniforms.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — The Carter Hart era has officially started. Will he be the one to finally solve the decades long problem in net, or will he be doomed to whatever it is that happens to goalies once they put on a Flyers uniform? He has won two of his first three decisions. The Flyers have already used six different goalies this season.

23. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov finally got whistled for his first penalty of the season this past week. He has drawn more than 20. He has taken one. Just one of the under-the-radar things that makes one of the league’s most under-the-radar stars so dominant on the ice.

24. St. Louis Blues — I still wonder what this season would have looked like for the Blues with better goaltending. A flawed team for sure, but they should not be this far down in the standings.

25. Los Angeles Kings — Points in five out of their past six and a three game winning streak to head into the break. Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the lineup and played his best hockey of the season with three points, including an overtime goal, in his first two games back.

26. Chicago Blackhawks — They had their first three game winning streak of the season with wins over Nashville, Dallas, and Colorado. A nice little stretch, but not enough to make much of a dent in the deficit they face for a playoff spot.

27. New York Rangers — It has been a tough month for the Rangers with just two wins, and only one of them coming in regulation. Kevin Hayes is having a strong season and could be an attractive trade chip as we get closer to the trade deadline later in the season.

28. Arizona Coyotes — After a promising start to the season the Coyotes have really struggled in recent weeks with losses in seven of their past 10 games.

29. Detroit Red Wings — What will this team look like if — or when — they trade Jimmy Howard? He has been one of the few bright spots on the roster this season.

30. Ottawa Senators — Just what the Colorado Avalanche, owners of the Senators’ 2019 first-round pick, want to see happening this season.

31. New Jersey Devils — Other than Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri there just is not much going on here with this team. Goaltending is a massive issue right now as it looks like Cory Schneider might be completely done.

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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

Getty Images
13 Comments

Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

Getty Images
4 Comments

The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

————

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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

Getty Images
4 Comments

Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

Getty Images
2 Comments

It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

View this post on Instagram

First 3 🤟🏄

A post shared by Mitch Marner (@marner_93) on

Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck