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PHT Power Rankings: Reality strikes Ducks

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The Anaheim Ducks have held a playoff position for much of the 2018-19 season, but their place in the standings has been the biggest mirage in the NHL.

Their success this season has been driven almost entirely by the play of their goalies (John Gibson and Ryan Miller) and has masked the numerous flaws that exist on this team, from the lack of depth, to the injuries, to the fact their core players are getting older and declining, to the fact they get absolutely caved in almost every night on the shot and scoring chance charts.

Teams like this eventually crumble. They always crumble. Sometimes it takes a few weeks. Sometimes a few months. Sometimes it does not happen until the next season. But it eventually always happens because the goalies, no matter how good they are, can not continue to play that flawlessly for that long.

The dam always breaks, the bubble always bursts, or whatever other cliche you want to use to refer to it.

For the Ducks, that time has come.

After getting blown out by the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, the Ducks have now dropped eight games in a row, find themselves barely hanging on to a playoff spot, and have been outscored by a jaw-dropping 23 goals on the season. That is one of the worst marks in the league and puts them with the NHL’s worst teams.

It is almost impossible to be that bad when you’re getting the level of goaltending they are getting this season (among the absolute best in the NHL!)

They are falling fast in the standings and in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

The elite

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Their 5-2 loss in San Jose was their first loss in regulation since Nov. 27. It happened on Jan 5. That is a hell of a long time to go between regulation defeats. They are just on an unbelievable roll right now, thanks in large part to Nikita Kucherov‘s offensive dominance. They are on a tier all alone this week.

Contenders making their climb

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They have won six in a row, are 17-3-3 in their past 23 games, and they have the dominant underlying numbers to back up their record. They are good. Legitimately good.

[Related: Golden Knights stay hot even beyond winning streak]

3. Pittsburgh Penguins — Matt Murray is back to playing like the franchise goalie the Penguins need him to be. Combine that with the performance of stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (who has been Norris worthy this season) and you have a team that is 14-5-1 in its past 20 games and has caught up to the leaders in their division.

The rest of the contenders

4. Toronto Maple Leafs –– Imagine how good the offense will be once William Nylander starts to get going.

5. Washington Capitals — Their power play has hit a pretty big slump lately but I am one million percent confident that is not something that is going to last.

6. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau just keeps getting better. He is on pace for 118 points this season and is the engine that drives this team.

7. San Jose Sharks — On Dec. 1 they lost their fourth game in a row to drop to 12-10-5 on the season. Since then they have gone 11-3-2 and their stars on the blue line are really starting to dominate like we expected. Do not sleep on this team in the Western Conference.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets — This is a really good team as it stands right now and I still feel like some of their best players (Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Sergei Bobrovsky) haven’t played their best hockey yet this season. What happens when they do?

9. Winnipeg Jets — Losing Nikolaj Ehlers will be a big loss, but they still have one of the best collections of forwards in the NHL. They have hit a bit of a wall recently, but they will be fine.

10. Nashville Predators — They are starting to get healthy (Welcome back, Filip Forsberg) so we will once again get to see what this team is capable of when it has all of its key players in the lineup.

Right on the edge

11. New York Islanders — Every team that outperforms its shot and scoring chance metrics thinks it has stumbled on the secret. They haven’t. They just have great goaltending. The Islanders right now are getting great goaltending.

[Related: Goalies are the difference for Islanders]

12. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron has nine points in seven games since returning to the lineup. The Bruins have won five of those games. Getting key players back in the lineup helps.

13. Montreal Canadiens — Shea Weber has really made a huge difference for this team since returning to the lineup.

14. Dallas Stars — Even with their ugly loss to Winnipeg on Sunday and all of the drama surrounding this team because of their CEO and owner, they are still 5-1-1 in their past seven games and hanging around in the playoff race. The top line is still carrying the offense.

15. Carolina Hurricanes — They are on one of those streaks where they start to play up to their potential and make you think they are about ready to turn the corner. Will this be the time it happens?

16. Minnesota Wild — That 13-game stretch where they lost 10 games really put them in a hole. They are trying to dig out of it with wins in three of their past four.

Falling back

17. Buffalo Sabres — That big cushion they built for themselves earlier in the year is really starting to slip away from them. They need to get more out of their forwards other than Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

18. Colorado Avalanche — Speaking of a team that needs more out of players outside of their top line … the Avalanche have lost 12 out of 15 and are now all of a sudden on the playoff bubble despite having three of the best offensive players in the league. Not a great sign!

19. Anaheim Ducks — This is, quite simply, not a very good hockey team.

The playoffs look like a long shot

20. Florida Panthers — It is looking like another wasted year of the Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau core. Unfortunate, because they are such outstanding players. Especially Barkov.

21. Vancouver Canucks — The standings say they open the week just one point out of a playoff spot, but they have already played 45 games this season, way more than everyone else around them in the standings. Their points percentage is in the bottom-six of the NHL. Once every one around them catches up in games played their playoff chances will look a lot worse.

22. New York Rangers — It should be another busy year for this team at the trade deadline. No playoffs in their immediate future and a few veteran players that could be attractive for contenders.

23. Edmonton Oilers — Just speaking in hypotheticals here, but how many more seasons like this before Connor McDavid gets fed up and demands his way out of Edmonton? It has to happen at some point, right? If this circus continues around him?

Lose For Hughes

24. New Jersey Devils — Rookie netminder Mackenzie Blackwood has been a pleasant development for a team that has had a constant hole in net this season.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks should be highly encouraged by what they have seen from Dylan Strome so far. He is up to 14 points in 20 games and scored the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

26. Los Angeles Kings — Even Anze Kopitar is having a disappointing season for this team. It is almost as if they are prohibited from having good offensive players.

27. Arizona Coyotes — You can not question the effort, but the talent is just not there yet. It really hurts when they are down to backup goalies on top of that.

28. St. Louis Blues — They took a run with this core and it doesn’t look like it is going to work. Like the Blackhawks and Kings, this is a team that looks like it might be in need of a teardown and rebuild.

29. Philadelphia Flyers — They’ve fired the coach, fired the general manager, fired assistants (coach, GM), called up the hot-shot goalie prospect, and had the players-only meeting after another loss. They have played every card a bad hockey team can play in a season.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Every year some rebuilding teams that are short on talent overachieve early in the year and then hit an extended slump that brings them back down to where everyone expected them to be. The Red Wings are in the middle of that slump right now.

31. Ottawa Senators — The problem with their spot in the “lose for Hughes” category is their 2019 first-round draft pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.

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.

It’s a big year for Penguins’ Matt Murray

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has a lot to prove this season.

He has to prove to the NHL that he is still the goalie that backstopped his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, and he has to prove to the Penguins that he is worthy of a significant long-term commitment after this season when his current deal expires.

Murray is an interesting player because he has already accomplished more in his first four years than most goalies will accomplish in an entire career. But for all of that team success there is still some debate as to what type of goalie he is and what his long-term prospects are as a No. 1 goalie.

His first two years in the league where as good as any goalie in the history of the league, maintaining a save percentage over .925 (regular season and playoffs) and winning two championships.  He regressed during the 2017-18 season and playoffs and then stumbled badly out of the gate this past season before catching fire when he was finally healthy in mid-December, playing some of the best hockey of his career between mid-December and the end of the regular season.

Looking at his career from a big picture perspective, he has been mostly outstanding when healthy and his play over the final four months of the 2018-19 season was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, the Penguins were even able to make the playoffs. He masked a lot of flaws the team had defensively and their success was driven mostly by how he played.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | 3 Questions]

When he was good, the Penguins won. When he was not good, they did not win.

Barring something unforeseen he is going to continue to be the Penguins’ starting goalie for years to come because, 1) he is good, and 2) they have zero organizational depth behind him. It is his spot. So while it is a little odd that have not made a new contract a priority (Jake Guentzel, Mike Sullivan, Jim Rutherford all signed long-term contracts within the organization over the past year — but the starting goalie has not) they still have time to get it done.

And Murray has time to show just exactly what type of goalie he is and what he is worth.

He is definitely the Penguins’ biggest X-Factor this season because with the makeup of their defense he is probably going to be tested often. Again. The Penguins are not as strong in front of him as they were two or three years ago and have a much smaller margin for error, finishing just four points clear of the first non-playoff team this past season. Even playing on a team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang as the core there is probably not a single player that will impact what they are capable of more than Murray. They all showed this past season how much his play impacts them in the standings.

If he plays like he did from December-March of this past season, which is pretty close to how he played in 2015-16 and 2016-17 when he was lifting the Stanley Cup, he is going to be in line for a huge contract.

If he plays like he did between 2017 and the end of November in 2018, it might create a little more uncertainty for the Penguins and make his next deal a little more complicated.

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.

Penguins questions include defense, trade bait, and Malkin’s bounce-back

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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 Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three pressing questions for the 2019-20 Pittsburgh Penguins

1. Is the defense good enough?

In the opinion of general manager Jim Rutherford, yes. He has repeatedly defended the construction of his defense and at one point even went as far as to call it the best defense he has had during his time in Pittsburgh. High praise considering he has been in Pittsburgh for two Stanley Cup winning teams.

This team, though, is not coming off of a Stanley Cup win and there is little objective evidence to suggest this defense is anything better than ordinary. They were 12th in the NHL in goals against this past season and even that ranking was driven significantly by the performance of Matt Murray in net thanks to some of the best play of his career from mid-December on.

As a team, the Penguins were one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots, average in preventing scoring chances, and a little below average on the PK. They have one great defense pairing in Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin (one of the best pairings in all of hockey) and then a bunch of flawed players and question marks after that. Other than shipping out Olli Maatta over the summer, the Penguins have done nothing else to change the look of their defense. Rutherford obviously believes in this group, and he is taking a pretty big bet that he is right.

2. Who is the next salary cap casualty or trade chip?

This is probably more of a preseason question than a question for the season, but somebody has to go.

Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to alleviate some of the salary cap crunch, but taking Alex Galchenyuk as part of the return and signing Brandon Tanev in free agency quickly erased that savings. Add that to the returning contracts for Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson and the Penguins have a significant chunk of money going to depth players that probably are not moving them closer to another championship. It has put them in a position where they have to move out someone else.

As it stands, they are slightly over the salary cap and still have to re-sign RFA Marcus Pettersson. After this season, Galchenyuk, Justin Schultz, Jared McCann, Dominik Simon and starting goalie Matt Murray will be in line for new contracts. So who goes?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Johnson or Gudbranson could be an option to go off the blue line and would probably the ideal trade bait, while Bryan Rust or Nick Bjugstad seem like logical candidates at forward.

3. Will Evgeni Malkin bounce back?

It is a good bet that he will.

The final offensive numbers from this past season look good (better than a point-per-game average) and he had a great start to the season, but his production really slumped over the final three quarters of the season and especially at even-strength. His defensive game was also lacking and he will be the first to say the 2018-19 season was not his best. He can be better, and the Penguins need him to be better. Malkin is a proud player and will no doubt be motivated to show this past season was a fluke and that he is still one of the league’s best and most dominant players. A driven Malkin playing at his best is a season-changing player, and if he gets back to that level it will be more valuable to the Penguins than any other potential offseason addition could have been.

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.

P.K. Subban, Lindsey Vonn announce engagement

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Lindsey Vonn and P.K. Subban are engaged, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

Vonn, who retired in February with a female record 82 World Cup wins, and Subban, a New Jersey Devils defenseman, have dated for more than one year.

Vonn was previously married to fellow Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. They announced divorce plans in late 2011.

Vonn reportedly grimaced when asked in 2013 if she would get married again.

“No, thanks!” she said, according to Vogue then. “I am definitely not getting married. To anyone.”

After her divorce, Vonn dated Tiger Woods and NFL assistant coach Kenan Smith before dating Subban, going public in June 2018.

“Right off the bat, I knew he was different,” Vonn said, according to a Vogue magazine announcement of the engagement. “But I’d been married before, so I was pretty hesitant to let myself think that I could find someone that I would want to be married to again. After a few months of dating, I knew he was the one I wanted to be with, though.”

Subban, 30, also owns an Olympic gold medal playing for Canada in Sochi.

“Lindsey’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Subban said, according to Vogue. “There are people in life that deserve to be with good people. They have that person who takes care of them and makes them smile, and she deserves to be with someone who loves her more than anything else in the world, and I do.”

Vonn and Subban would become one of the most prominent married Olympic champion couples, joining the likes of tennis players Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner.

For more from Nick Zaccardi check out Olympic Talk on NBC Sports

Remembering Chris Drury’s Little League World Series conquest 30 years later

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The summer of 1989 for the Trumbull, Connecticut little league team began with crowds featuring only their parents. By the end of August, their final game of the season saw 40,000-plus people turn out at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

On the mound for Trumbull that August 26 afternoon was a cherubic two-sport star. Chris Drury had turned 13 six days earlier and was eager to continue a winning year. Just four months before the 1989 Little League World Series, the future Stanley Cup champion and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer helped lead his pee-wee hockey team to the U.S. Amateur American Hockey Championship. His Greater Bridgeport, Conn. team went 64-2-1 en route to the title, and now Drury was trying to cap off the summer with another tournament win.

Facing Kang-Tu Little League from Taiwan, a country that had dominated the event for the previous two decades having won 13 of the 20 previous tournaments, Trumbull fell behind early but rallied with four runs in the third and fourth innings. Drury’s bases loaded two-run single extended their lead to 4-1.

After loading the bases in the top of the fifth, the Far East representatives were unable to cut the deficit any further after Drury induced a force out at third base, putting Trumbull three outs away.

“I don’t think any of us understood the magnitude of what we were doing while we were doing it,” Drury told the New York Daily News in 2009. “We were just playing baseball.”

The first two outs came way of a fly out to left field and Drury’s second strikeout of the game. When the ball came off the bat for what would end up being the final out, it first appeared like it was going over the wall as a two-run homerun, but left fielder Dan McGrath quickly settled under it on the warning track and the celebration was on.

Drury and his teammates were everywhere following their conquest in Williamsport, as documented by Sports Illustrated in 1989. They appeared on Good Morning America, met Mickey Mantle at his restaurant in New York City, visited President Bush in the White House, and attended the first two games of the 1989 World Series in Oakland, with Drury throwing out the first pitch before Game 2. There was even an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade among the many experiences the team was a part of in the months following the championship.

The winning didn’t stop there for Drury as he got older and eventually turned his focus to hockey. He helped Boston University win an NCAA championship during his freshman year and ended his collegiate career as a Hobey Baker Award winner. As he entered the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, Drury won the 1999 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and two years later he won a Stanley Cup as he development a penchant for scoring big goals in the postseason. He was also a part of two silver medal winning U.S. Olympic teams in Salt Lake 2002 and Vancouver 2010.

Following his time with the Avalanche, Drury would spend a season with the Calgary Flames and three with the Buffalo Sabres before finishing his NHL career in 2011 after four years with the New York Rangers. Upon retirement, he took a job in the Rangers organization as director of player development and these days he’s the team’s assistant general manager.

The thrill of a winning a Little League World Series title stayed with Drury as he grew older and experienced success on a professional level. Nothing could top the summer of 1989.

“It made me realize at a young age how much fun winning is,” Drury told the New York Times in 2008. “I wouldn’t trade it for the Cup. I wouldn’t trade it for a national championship in college. Each one was so unique. Little League was such a big thrill at such a young age. I don’t think I could rank them. They’re all No. 1 to me.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.