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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.