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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

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Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

Ron Francis hired as NHL Seattle’s first GM

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NHL Seattle president and CEO Tod Leiweke said last month during the NHL Draft in Vancouver that the group wanted to hire a general manager sooner rather than later.

Well, 226 days after the NHL awarded them a franchise that will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season, Seattle has a GM and his name is Ron Francis.

“Announcing Ron Francis as our team’s first general manager is a dream come true,” said Leiweke in a statement. “He is truly hockey royalty and is the perfect fit for the team we are building. He has a proven track record in hockey management, a dedication to the community and an eagerness to innovate which fits our vision. In our search, we looked for someone who is smart, experienced, well-prepared and progressive. I am confident that he will maintain our commitment to excellence and ultimately guide us to a Stanley Cup.”

NHL Seattle, still working on a name and team colors, wants to follow the same blueprint that the Vegas Golden Knights did when they assembled their staff before entering the league for the 2017-18 season. This is one big step among many before they finally hit the ice as a franchise.

Francis, who will oversee player personnel, coaching staff, amateur and pro scouting, player development, analytics, sports science and AHL minor league operations, was last in NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. He joined the organization in 2011 as director of hockey operations and three years later took on the role of GM. In March of 2018, Francis was reassigned to president of hockey operations after Tom Dundon bought the team. One month later the Hockey Hall of Famer was fired. Since January he had been working at a Raleigh commercial real estate firm.

According to the Seattle Times, which first broke the story on Tuesday night, Francis’ deal is likely in the five-year range and “midrange” in terms of salary compared to other NHL GMs.

Under Francis, the Hurricanes failed to make the the Stanley Cup Playoffs in four years. He oversaw the trade that sent longtime captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, as well as the deal that brought Teuvo Teravainen to Raleigh. His scouting staff helped draft the likes of Warren Foegele, Sebastian Aho, highly-touted forward Martin Necas, and Noah Hanifin, who would later be a piece to bring in Dougie Hamilton via trade. 

[MORE: What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?]

The summer of 2017 was an interesting one for Francis. After years of tight purse strings, he finally was able to spend some money. His biggest signing that did not work out was the four years and $16.6 million given to Scott Darling to solve their problem in goal. But the one that worked and could still pay off if he decides to keep playing is bringing back Justin Williams, who has helped changed the culture around the team during this past season of success.

In a completely different environment with much different expectations, Francis has lots to prove in his second chance as an NHL GM.

It will be difficult to copy the success that the Golden Knights had in their inaugural season, and judging by how Francis ran his ship in Carolina, he’ll be about patience and not sacrificing the future for today — and he’ll probably be able to spend some money on a more consistent basis.

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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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.