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

5 Comments

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

4 Comments

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

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

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Boston Bruins

2 Comments

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but only marginally so. Marcus Johansson provided a nice boost to Boston’s depth scoring as a rental, and now he’s gone. But, really, for a team that was as competitive as the Bruins — and has been as competitive as long as the Bruins have managed to be — this was a manageable offseason.

Strengths: The Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak remains in the conversation of best lines in the NHL, and plenty put them at number one, period. They dominate games not just by scoring in buckets, but by hogging the puck to a staggering degree. That trio likely stands as the biggest reason why the Bruins deployed an explosive power play last season, but Torey Krug deserves credit there, too. Being able to keep Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo in the fold should help the Bruins be strong on defense (for the most part). Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak was a strong goalie pairing last season, and David KrejciJake DeBrusk have created an effective second line duo that doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves.

Weaknesses: There’s little sense ignoring the threat of Father Time, as plenty of key scorers and both Bruins goalies are on the wrong side of 30. The Bruins must also keep an eye on Zdeno Chara, and not just because he’s at risk of missing parts of the early season with injuries. He’s slowing noticeably, so the Bruins can’t get too sentimental. It’s not outrageous to worry if the Bruins might go back to being a little top-heavy again.

[MORE BRUINS: X-Factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Bruce Cassidy’s seat should be as cool as the other side of the pillow, with his greatest dangers coming in practice.

That said, the Bruins have high hopes, and if they falter, there might not be a ton of patience. We don’t know how long this team’s window of contention may stay open, what with so many key players battling the aging curve. It’s also worth noting that ownership is changing from Jeremy Jacobs to his six offspring, so there’s a mild risk of the Bruins turning into an NHL answer to “Succession.”

I’d rate it as a two (or maybe three) out of 10.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle, and Tuukka Rask.

Marchand is always interesting. Sometimes, because he’s performing at an all-world level. Other times, it’s because he’s being hockey’s most obnoxious troll. Plenty of times, he’s both.

In Coyle’s case, he gets a fuller taste of life as a member of the Bruins after getting his feet wet coming in around trade deadline time. This is a contract year for Coyle, so a lot of money is on the line, and it’s tough to say what kind of price tag he’ll demand.

Rask has occasionally been the scapegoat when things go a little sideways in Boston. That’s the life of a $7 million starting goalie. Fair or not, if Rask stumbles to begin 2019-20, people will wonder about the psychological aftershocks of a tough Game 7 loss against the Blues.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have shown us how a few players can seemingly age overnight, and a proud team can plummet all the way down to the cellar. The mileage on Rask, Bergeron, Krejci, Chara, Halak, and even Marchand should not be ignored, particularly after a deep playoff run.

Still, this Bruins team was fantastic last season, and should be very strong again. Matching last year’s deep run is unlikely to be easy thanks to a formidable Atlantic Division, but the playoffs are a good bet.

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

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.

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

Leave a comment

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Winnipeg Jets

Leave a comment

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Far worse.

Losing Jacob Trouba hurts, and the defense also waved goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (with addition Neal Pionk arguably being a net negative). Kevin Hayes was clearly a rental, but either way, they once again have a 2C problem with him gone.

Strengths: Assuming the Jets sign RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg still boasts some serious firepower on offense. It’s tough to shake the feeling that we didn’t see the best out of that forward group at times in 2018-19. Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler produced enough to overlook some possession numbers that were at-times middling, but it was a frustrating year for Laine, while Nikolaj Ehlers hopes to shake off a brutal playoff series where he went pointless.

Weaknesses: Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are quality defensemen, but that defense group is troubling overall — at least when you’re trying to endure the rigors of a tough Central Division. The Jets could really struggle in their own end, especially if last season’s expected goals nosedive was a sign of a new normal, rather than just a blip on the radar.

Troublingly, it’s not certain that Connor Hellebuyck will bail them out of mistakes; he was fabulous in 2017-18, but then fell back down to Earth with a .913 save percentage last season. It’s unclear if Hellebuyck can bail the Jets out if their defense ends up being as weak as feared.

[MORE: Three questions | X-factorUnder Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Normally, I’d lean almost toward 10, but Paul Maurice is some kind of coaching vampire. The dude’s somehow been consistently a head coach since 1995-96, even though team success has often been fleeting. You’d think the calls for his head would have been even louder considering how the Jets’ play plummeted basically once the calendar hit 2019.

Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart really captures that meltdown dramatically:

Yikes.

When you look at the Jets on paper, you expect more than we saw in 2018-19. How much is that on the players underachieving (or bad luck), and how much does it boil down to a coach who … frankly, hasn’t accomplished enough to make you think “that guy should be a head coach for decades.”

Because Maurice is nearly indestructible, let’s bump that 10 down to an 8 or 9. Turn on the microwave if Laine, Connor, and/or Dustin Byfuglien miss a chunk of the early season and the Jets really sink, though.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Laine, Connor, and Byfuglien.

In the cases of Laine and Connor, they remain RFA situations to watch. They’ll also carry a ton of pressure if they get paid more than people believe they’re worth. These are two players with quite a bit to prove already, and may only bring higher expectations with fatter wallets.

Byfuglien, meanwhile, is fascinating under almost all circumstances — a true anomaly of a player. Humans this large aren’t supposed to be able to rove like Byfuglien can, and he’s a truly unique combination of skill and nastiness. At his size and his age (34), it’s fair to wonder when Byfuglien might buckle under the burden of what will likely be a heavy workload post-Trouba and Myers.

Playoffs or Lottery: As gifted as Winnipeg’s top-end players are, it feels like they’re more likely to fight for a wild-card spot or Central second/third seed than run away with the division, conference, or Presidents’ Trophy. This team had serious problems toward the end of last season, and it’s unclear if they’ve solved them, particularly after losing important players like Trouba.

Even considering some of the red flags, it would be a surprise if the Jets missed the playoffs altogether, though.

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

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.