PHT Power Rankings: 10 people who will impact NHL playoff race

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 players, coaches, and general managers who are going to have a significant impact on the playoff race in the second half of the 2018-19 NHL season.

The playoff race in the Western Conference is a jumbled mess where pretty much every team outside of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks still has reason to believe they can make the playoffs, while the Eastern Conference is, with one or two exceptions, down to deciding seeding and division leaders.

Goalies, as they usually do, will play the biggest role in what happens for several teams, but do not forget the general managers that have some huge decisions to make when it comes to their rosters.

Basically what we are looking for this week is which individual people will be the most impactful on the second half playoff race, whether it be due to their play on the ice or the decisions they have to make.

To the rankings!

1. Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets — This has to be the most fascinating and maddening position of anyone in the NHL right now.

On one hand, Kekalainen has a really good team in a wide open division that should have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. They should be serious contenders right now. They should be a team that has its eyes on the Stanley Cup this season.

But two of his best and biggest name players (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) are free agents after this season, and one of them (Bobrovsky) has not played particularly well and already seems to have one foot out the door. All of this complicates things because there are several different directions where this could go.

He has to balance the long-term outlook of the franchise in securing his top players, whether to try and get something for them in return if he can’t secure them, or putting all of his chips on the table and going for a run right now. It’s a lot of power to be holding and could potentially impact not only his team, but several teams around him depending on what he and the organization decide they have to do.

[Related: Blue Jackets winning despite drama surrounding biggest stars]

2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens have exceeded every expectation so far and barring a late season collapse look to be headed back to the playoffs. It is an impressive accomplishment considering how bad their offseason looked (at least from my little corner of the Internet — I didn’t like any of it!). What makes it even more surprising is the fact they have done it while their best and most valuable player, Price, had what was a mostly sub-par start to the season season.

Not only by his own standard, but among any goalie in the league. He just was not good early on.

That, however, has started to change over the past two months.

Since the start of December Price’s save percentage has jumped up to .933 (to go with a 13-6-0 record) and has put him back among the league’s top performing goalies during that stretch. The only goalies that have appeared in at least 10 games since the start of December that have a higher save percentage are Robin Lehner and Matt Murray. When Price is at his best he can be one of the most impactful players in hockey because of his ability to mask whatever flaws his team may have defensively. Goalies in general can be season-changers, and Price has done it before for this very team. If he returns to form and continues on the path he has been on since the start of December the Canadiens are going to have a chance to win every single night. No one player can carry a team like a great goalie can, and Price at his best is as great as any goalie in the business.

3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — Yes, the Oilers look like the ruins of a smoldering dumpster fire after firing their coach and GM while having no depth to speak of around their top-three players. Yes, they are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third time in four years and the 12th time in 13 years. Yes, they have real problems that will require more than a quick fix.

But do you know what else they have? They have the best darn player in the world that can take over any game, at any time, on any day. They are also playing in what is an historically weak conference at the bottom for playoff teams where almost everyone is still in it, including them. Given the current state of the team it would require a herculean effort by McDavid to drag this team to the playoffs but if there is any one non-goalie in the league that is capable of doing it, this is the guy.

4. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks — Entering the second half of the season and the Canucks, the team that had won fewer games than any other team in the NHL over the previous three seasons, is thinking about the playoffs instead of the draft lottery.

It is a stunning turnaround and no one person has been more responsible for it than the rookie forward.

He has completely changed everything about the organization in just half a season and makes them a different team when he is in the lineup. The Canucks needed a cornerstone player to rebuild this thing around, and they found one. They are a different team when he is there.

5. Chuck Fletcher and Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers — I am going to combine these two together because Simmonds could be a huge addition for any playoff team in the league, and Fletcher is ultimately going to decide which team that is going to be. It is just one of the many big decisions he has to make over the next few months as he attempts to overhaul a team that went from a playoff berth a season ago to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Let’s start with Simmonds. Even if his play has declined a bit in recent years he is still an excellent power forward that every playoff team in the league would love to have him on their roster going into the playoffs. You can still put him in front of the net on the power play, let him cause havoc, and get some of those garbage goals he’s been so good at collecting throughout his career. He can still play, and on the right team with the right players around him he could once again be a force.

As for Fletcher himself, his big decision is going to be whether or not he stops at Simmonds or really starts to sell of some chips as part of a complete rebuild. He has to decide if this is just a re-tooling that can be corrected with a solid goalie and the right coach, or if the whole thing needs torn down.

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders — Every team that outperforms its shot-metrics things it has stumbled upon the secret formula for success. Almost every team that thinks that eventually gets punched in the face by reality. As long as the Islanders keep getting the level of goaltending they are getting they are going to keep winning, and while I think that is ultimately the driving force behind their success this season there is still something to be said for the job Trotz has done and is doing. The Islanders’ defensive play and structure has improved under his watch. They are playing better hockey. But can Trotz keep what is, on paper, an undermanned roster (at least in relation to the other teams in their division) playing the way it has?

[Related: Islanders’ Barzal impresses All-Star teammates]

7. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins — There were a lot of reasons the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat came to an end in the second round against the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and goaltending was probably near the top of the list. It just was not up to the same level it was the previous two seasons when they were winning the Stanley Cup. Goaltending was also one of the big reasons they had such a slow start at the beginning of the 2018-19 season and put them in a spot they are still trying to climb out of. Everything started to change for them this season when Murray returned from an injury in mid-December and almost immediately started to play some of the best hockey of his career. Since returning to the lineup he has been one of the best goalies in the league and is playing at or above the level he was at when he was backstopping the team to championships during the 2016 and 2017 playoffs. If he continues that the Penguins are going to be one heck of a tough out in the playoffs given the talent they have throughout the roster. They should be contenders. They will be if they get even average to slightly above average goaltending.

8. David Rittich, Calgary Flames — Given the way they are playing and the impact talent they have at the top of their roster the Flames look like a team that can win the Cup.

They have an MVP candidate in Johnny Gaudreau, a Norris Trophy front-runner in Mark Giordano, and they have all of the underlying numbers to suggest they are a championship caliber team.

The only thing they are lacking is a true No. 1 goalie. That could be a problem.

Mike Smith has simply not panned out the way they expected when they acquired him last season, and the goaltending job has slowly been taken over by the 26-year-old Rittich, a goalie that played in just 22 NHL games prior to this season. So far he has been able to handle the duty. But we are talking about a 30-game sampling this season and the jury is still very much out on what he can or can not do as a starter.

It might be overstating it a bit (but then again, it might not be given the importance of the position) that the Flames’ Cup chances could rest not on the shoulders of Gaudreau or Giordano, but on Rittich.

9. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators — They hold all of the cards here and it really all comes down to whether or not they are willing to re-sign with the Senators after this season.

The Senators are going to have to pay somebody next season, and Duchene and Stone are probably going to be better than anything they could get on the open market or acquire in a trade with whatever assets they are willing to part with. It will almost certainly result in an overpay to get them to stay, but again … who else are they going to pay?

But that is if they are willing to re-sign. The Senators are in the very early stages of a scorched earth rebuild and are probably at least couple of years away from being a legitimate contender. Duchene and Stone are not getting any younger and will never have an opportunity to be more valuable on the open market and to have the freedom to pursue a team that has a real shot to win. That has to be enticing, and if they are not willing to re-sign in Ottawa because of that the Senators would have no choice but to shop them, move on, and get what they can in a trade.

They are both point-per-game, top-six forwards that would make any contender instantly better the second they arrive.

10. John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes — Given everything this team has dealt with this season from an injury standpoint they should probably already be long eliminated from playoff contention. No one would blame them or give it a second thought if they were.

But they’re not.

They’re not because the second half of the West playoff field is wide open, and because Rick Tocchet has them playing a strong, defensive game that is limiting chances in front of a surprising goaltending performance from backup Darcy Kuemper. And that might complicate things for general manager Chayka because he now has to decide whether or not to buy, sell, or stay the course.

They are not in a position to be serious buyers quite yet, but you also don’t want to punt on the chance to make the playoffs when you have not been there in several years.

Related: Coyotes hanging around in playoff race as injury list grows

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.

Flames’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

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In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

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.

Islanders place Andrew Ladd on waivers

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New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello announced that the team put forward Andrew Ladd on waivers on Thursday, and from the sound of things, it’s unclear if we’ll see Ladd in the NHL again.

That said, Ladd’s $5.5 million AAV doesn’t expire until after 2022-23(!) so it’s possible that this saga may not be over.

For now, the Islanders are putting Ladd on waivers with the plan of assigning him to the AHL. Ladd had been on a conditioning stint while on LTIR as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in March, and Lamoriello said that the Islanders hadn’t seen enough from that conditioning stint to have him resume playing. Setting such a standard would always make sense, really, but especially so with the Islanders humming along with an impressive 13-3-1 record so far in 2019-20.

Ladd’s longer-term future is fuzzy, and Lamoriello didn’t want to speculate about his chances (or lack thereof?) to play in the NHL again.

Newsday’s Andrew Gross clarifies that Ladd won’t need to be taken off LTIR to make this happen, which is relevant considering the whole $5.5M thing.

Ladd’s signing ranks as one of the many cursed 2016 free agent contracts, joined by Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo (the player he essentially replaced for the Islanders), David Backes, Loui Eriksson and more.

To be fair, Ladd had some utility if you looked beyond disappointing numbers for the money at times with the Islanders, but again, it’s hard to get too thrilled about such positives when the price tag was so steep. Still, he had some aptitude, particularly defensively, during his first two seasons for the Islanders, as illustrated by this Hockey Viz heat map:

Looking at Ladd’s contract structure at Cap Friendly, there’s the remote chance that the Islanders might be able to move that $5.5M cap hit (LTIR-bound or not) as the deal goes along. Ladd’s actual salary slips to $4M from 2020-21 through 2022-23, and it’s split up by a $3M signing bonus and $1M base salary each year. Maybe a team hoping to hit the cap floor might be willing to eat that cap hit to inflate their numbers for assets after the signing bonus is already paid, even if that would most realistically be able to happen heading into 2022-23? Perhaps the Islanders could bribe the Seattle expansion franchise to eat that deal, much like Vegas ended up doing with David Clarkson‘s contract?

Ultimately, those details are mostly the concerns of whoever is handling the Islanders’ cap situation in the future, and perhaps other teams hoping to squeeze every ounce of value out of an offseason.

Unfortunately, whether Ladd ever plays for the Islanders (or any other NHL team) again, it’s clear that the Islanders didn’t get much value from signing the former Winnipeg Jets captain.

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.

Fabbri finding a home with new opportunity in Detroit

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This season for the Red Wings is about developing youth. There are over 10 players currently on the roster who are 24 years old or younger, so getting the kids up to speed to continue this transition phase is vital if the franchise is to become a playoff team again.

One of those kids is a recent addition to the team — thanks in part to Darren Pang — and a player who was in need of a new opportunity after a couple of tough seasons.

Robby Fabbri left the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues for the Red Wings earlier this month in a trade that sent Jacob De La Rose to St. Louis. He signed a one-year deal with St. Louis in July, but when it was clear he wouldn’t have a regular role in the lineup, he asked to move on. So far, the change has paid off as through three games, the 23-year-old winger has two goals and four points, including two primary assists on Detroit’s last two game-winning goals.

“He’s been great. He’s a playmaker,” said Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin. “He gets the puck and it’s going to someone with a purpose after he’s got it. Adding a guy like that who can make plays and does it a lot, and he’s a crafty guy, he’s been an energy guy for us and a huge addition.”

Entering the 2014 NHL Draft, the Red Wings were interested in Fabbri, who scored 45 goals and recorded 87 points in 58 games with the OHL’s Guelph Storm during his draft year. But when they were on the clock, general manager Ken Holland announced Larkin’s name at pick No. 15. Six spots later, Fabbri went to the Blues.

“He was always dangerous with the puck and he always had the puck on his stick,” Larkin said about playing against Fabbri in their younger days. “He was one of those guys where being from Detroit, he’s from Toronto, you knew who he was and you knew going into the game that it’s Robby Fabbri, he’s going to make plays and he’s going to be a star out there. It’s cool to have that and be in the same locker room with him now and come up through the same draft. We’re pretty familiar with each other through events and just knowing each other through time. I’m excited that he’s here and I think he’s excited that he’s here.”

Fabbri got off to an okay start with the Blues, scoring 29 times in his first 123 games, but two ACL injuries in the same knee derailed the next year-and-a-half of his career. By the time he returned last season, he showed he could still play, but it would remain a process before he’d 100% be back to his old self.

A new team, a new chance. It’s all working out so far as Fabbri continues in a positive direction.

“We’re hoping we can get Robby back up to the speed he was when he first came into the league and he had lots of success,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill after the trade. “I talked to Ken Hitchcock and (Blues head coach) Craig Berube. There’s a belief there’s more in him. There’s opportunity. … [W]e have opportunity here, a clean slate and now he’s got to grab it. We need more scoring, he can potentially provide that, so I look forward to watching him play.”

For Fabbri, putting his injuries in the rearview will help him move forward with his new opportunity and help him be a consistent offensive presence on a Red Wings team hoping to begin a consistent move in the right direction.

“When you’ve been hurt with the massive injuries he’s been hurt with sometimes you can get a little bit cautious, so it takes a little bit of time to get away from that,” said Blashill. “I’m hoping he can play as hard as he has in the past and he can give [us] scoring depth.”

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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.

Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

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The NHL on NBC’s Eddie Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, the former player and current analyst has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

Olczyk was recently named the NHL Hockey Fights Cancer Ambassador for the 2019-20 season and his new book “Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life” tells the story of his fight.

***

On February 21, at precisely 9:02 am, I was unhooked from my final chemo treatment. What a relief! It was incredible to be finally done — epic. I was done after six months. I had a bunch of family and friends call and congratulate me and I received so many texts from the hockey and horse racing worlds with exclamation points. Diana brought me a bouquet of helium balloons shaped like horses and dogs with the words You Did It. She almost flew away because of all the balloons. 

After that last round of chemo, I got rid of anything that reminded me of what I had gone through during those treatments—clothes, pillows, blankets. Anything that reeked of chemo, I disposed of. That felt really good. The week before I went to the mall and went on a shopping spree. I was about to embark on the rest of my life and the rest of my career. 

It was around this time that Illinois congressman Mike Quigley spoke on the House floor and addressed my situation. He had a Blackhawks jersey with my name and number brought in for display and talked about my battle and what I had been doing to raise awareness about the need for earlier screenings and continued research to find a cure. He described me as a native son of Chicago who has exemplified the heart, grit, and the character of the city we both call home. 

“Like many others who have faced cancer, he was concerned that he was letting people down and he began to question his mortality, but as he went through treatment and reflected on this ordeal Eddie started to recognize that it was okay to be scared,” Congressman Quigley said. “He knows it’s important to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with people getting colonoscopies at an earlier age. He knows that if he can help just one individual get a checkup sooner, he will feel like his battle with cancer was worth it. To Eddie and to all fighting cancer, stay strong and know we’re with you.” 

I was very grateful for him doing that. What an honor.

On March 8 I had the scan and the next day while traveling with the team to Boston, I asked Dr. Michael Terry, the Blackhawks team physician, if he had any update. He had been part of my illness from the start; I call him the captain of my doctors. 

He had access to the scan on his iPhone. He looked at me and said, “Edzo, from what I can see, it looks really clean.” 

I gave him a huge hug because I’d just dodged a huge bullet. After getting emotional, I took a couple of deep breaths. I wanted to yell something like what most hockey players do after they score a goal, but I was just overcome thinking about so much—my family, my kids, my friends. I just couldn’t wait to tell Diana that it looked good, but we still had to wait to hear from Dr. Mulcahy. 

It was a relief and a half that it was all gone. Thank God. I was so thankful for the physicians and the team that I had and the support I had. It’s always going to be with me, but I felt okay. We had come a long way since that first meeting with Dr. Mulcahy. Yes, it was absolute hell for six months. Going through the chemo was the most difficult part because there was a chance, God forbid, I’d have to continue with more treatment. 

I endured a lot and tackled it straight on and felt like I had conquered it. Now I had to recover and rid myself of all this medicine and tell my story to encourage people to go in for checkups and get colonoscopies. This is why we tried to be so open and outgoing without being overbearing. If you don’t feel good or you get to the age of 45, you’ve got to get checked, whether you have a history of cancer in your family or not. 

I called Diana after we deplaned and told her the news and we subsequently gave the heads-up to the kids. 

Four days later, at 5:07 pm, Dr. Mulcahy called and told me I was cancer-free. Diana was there with me and we didn’t do anything special other than maybe hug a little tighter when I got back home. It was like, “We did it. Let’s get as far away from this as we can.” 

On March 22, just before the start of the second period of a game at the United Center between the Hawks and the Vancouver Canucks, I went back on the air with Pat Foley to update people on my condition. He told the audience that because of what I had gone through, he had gotten a colonoscopy, as had Troy Murray and a bunch of Pat’s friends. He said my ability to go public with what I had gone through was tremendously inspirational and also heroic, because anybody who has gone through chemotherapy knows how devastating a situation that can be. 

Happily, I told everyone I was cancer-free. I reiterated as I had throughout my battle that it was a team effort, including the doctors, the entire Hawks organization, the National Hockey League, the people I worked with on TV, my family, my wife, my children, and my friends. If it wasn’t for my family, there was no way I could have gone through this. We all beat this. And I said I had done enough crying to last me a lifetime. 

Pat was so pumped. “You beat cancer, baby!” he exclaimed. 

Now that I was publicly revealing I was cancer-free, I wanted to reinforce to people who were battling cancer or knew someone going through it that they are not weak individuals. My message for them was to stay strong, believe they are tough, and believe they will beat it. I ended the interview by saying if I could inspire one person to stay away from this by going for a colonoscopy, then I guess it was well worth it. It tests your will to live. 

I did a bunch of interviews afterward, just as I had done since I went public with my cancer battle, so it was kind of like going full circle. It wasn’t easy but it’s a lot less stressful when you’re telling them the happy ending of the story. Sharing that news was such a relief. 

I subsequently underwent the hernia surgery in which they put an 8″x10″ piece of mesh in my stomach to seal it up and fix it. In a way, it also felt like the final touch on my long journey.

This excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life by Eddie Olczyk with Perry Lefko is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.  For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/EddieOlczyk.