PHT Power Rankings: Sharks are one player away

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We need to talk about the San Jose Sharks this week because they are looking awesome this season.

They do not have a single player in the top-20 in the league in scoring, and only one (Brent Burns) that is in the top-40. Despite that, they have seven different players that have already topped the 40-point mark this season (putting each of them on at least a 65-point pace for the season), an eighth that is already over 30 points, and then Joe Thornton casually hanging back with 26 points in only 44 games and still being a dominant one-man wrecking crew when it comes to driving possession (nearly a 60 percent Corsi rating this season).

So they are loaded at forward.

Their two Norris Trophy winning defenders in Burns and Erik Karlsson are playing at an elite level and they have at least one of them on the ice for nearly 45 minutes per night. So for more than two-thirds of the game their opponents are going up against probably one of the five-best blue-liners in the league. If Marc-Edouard Vlasic ever gets back on track and plays to his expected level the defense would look even scarier.

Overall, the Sharks enter the week with the sixth-best points percentage in the NHL (third best in the Western Conference) and look every bit like they contender we expected them to be at the start of the season.

They have almost everything they could possibly need.

The one thing they are missing? Goaltending. That has been the Achilles’ heel of this team this season as neither Martin Jones or Aaron Dell have played well at all.

Together, they have an .891 save percentage, a mark that is the third-worst in the league ahead of only the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers.

Do you have any idea how dominant and great the rest of your team has to be to get goaltending that bad and still be one of the best teams in the league? Just look at it this way: Of the 10-worst teams in save percentage this season the Sharks are the only one that occupies a playoff spot. Among the bottom-15 teams they are one of only three that is currently in a playoff spot, joining the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks, and the Canucks are a fringe team that is only really still in the race because the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field isn’t any good.

The Sharks are as good as it gets in the NHL and have everything they could possibly need to win it all except for, at the moment, a goalie. Whether it comes from Jones improving or a trade they are going to need to hope it gets figured out because that is the worst possible position to have a weakness at come playoff time.

The Sharks sit in the No. 4 spot in this week’s Power Rankings. Let us see where everyone else sits.

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have cooled off the smallest bit, but until someone does something to close the gap on them even a little bit they have earned their spot at the top of the list.

2. Calgary Flames — There is nothing to suggest that they are not for real. A legitimate Stanley Cup contender with an exciting young core that might be around for a while.

3. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t been playing their best hockey lately, but they keep winning. That counts for something. I feel like I’ve been saying this for a while now but imagine how good they could be when Patrik Laine gets back on track

4. San Jose Sharks — Imagine how great they could be with better goaltending.

The Second Tier Elites

5. New York Islanders — They are 15-3-2 in their past 20 games! It is not always pretty, but they just keep on winning and collecting points. There is no way that Barry Trotz does not win the coach of the year at this point. There are still some red flags that exist here, but you can’t take away what they have done and the position they have put themselves in.

6. Nashville Predators — When they are healthy they are as good as it gets. Viktor Arvidsson has only played in 30 games this season and already has 21 goals. Filip Forsberg has only played in 37 games and is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Keep them healthy and this team can go far.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — If you were one of the people arguing they would need to trade William Nylander for defense what was your reaction to them getting a top-pairing defender in Jake Muzzin without having to trade Nylander? Or any other key player in the organization? What a perfect fit for what the maple Leafs need both this season and next season.

8. Montreal Canadiens — The surprising success of the Flames and Islanders has overshadowed the job Claude Julien has done in montreal. With Carey Price starting to get back to being Carey Price this team could be a real headache for somebody in the first round of the playoffs. Or maybe the second.

Still Contenders, But Going Through a Slump

9. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are so laughably hot and cold this season, but when they are at their best they beat anybody as they did when they rolled over the Tampa Bay Lightning this past week. They can also lose to anybody, as their 2-6-2 record against last place teams this season reflects. They really need Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to solidify their depth, though.

10. Vegas Golden Knights — I am still pretty high on this team and think that in some ways they are a bit better than their first season. They are not as reliant on goaltending, the first line has not been as good but the improved second line makes up for it. Little bit of a slump here recently but when you have rarely struggled in your first season-and-a-half in the league it is going to stand out when you do.

11. Boston Bruins — The top of the lineup is fine and the goalies have been great, but they have got to find some scoring depth to give them a shot in the stacked Atlantic Division playoff field.

12. Washington Capitals — Losing nine out of 10 games is not something we are used to seeing from this franchise in the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom era. I still think it’s just a temporary speed bump and not yet a cause for real concern.

The Bubble Teams

13. Dallas Stars — They have only allowed 14 goals in their past nine games but are still only 5-4-0 during that stretch because they can’t consistently score and have gotten next to nothing offensively after Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg during that stretch.

14. Minnesota Wild — I still don’t fully know what to make of this team. I kind of like their roster, but I also kind of don’t. They are kind of good sometimes, they are kind of not good other times. Zach Parise is having a great bounce back season, and that certainly helps given that Eric Staal has regressed a bit. They will probably make the playoffs, but they will probably not go anywhere. Actually, when you look at all of that and put it together this is the perfect Minnesota Wild season.

15. Vancouver Canucks — Let’s be honest, their current position in a playoff spot is entirely due to the mediocrity that is surrounding them in the Western Conference. That is a fact. They are not even on pace for 90 points this season. But, they are there. They are in it. And they are in it despite Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, their two best players, combining to miss 24 man-games due to injury. That has no doubt robbed them of at least a couple of points in the standings.

16. St. Louis Blues — Every year we see a team that gets crushed early in the year and then plays like a contender for the last five months of the season only to fall just short because of that terrible start. This might be that team this season. But they are certainly playing well right now.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets — It wasn’t that long ago that I was telling you not to sleep on the Blue Jackets this season and then … everything fell apart. They lost a bunch of games, Artemi Panarin might be on his way out, and wow did all of that escalate quickly.

[Related: Is it time for struggling Blue Jackets to make a move?]

18. Carolina Hurricanes — Nino Niederreiter has been exactly what they needed.

19. Philadelphia Flyers — If Carter Hart keeps playing like this he is going to make Flyers fans start to believe they have a goalie. Maybe they have reason to believe that. He has certainly helped them in the short-term.

20. Arizona Coyotes –– They deserve a ton of credit for hanging in this thing as long as they have given the injury situation they have had to deal with this season.

21. Florida Panthers — It is going to be intriguing to see what they can do this offseason with the newfound salary cap space they have created for themselves. Will the Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky duo be heading to Miami soon?

22. New York Rangers — They are playing hard, but the talent just isn’t there.

23. Buffalo Sabres — Being just a few points out of a playoff spot is progress from where they are coming from in recent seasons. Based on where they were just a couple of months ago it is bitterly disappointing. They are fading fast and just got lit up at home by a Blackhawks team that is going nowhere this season.

24. Colorado Avalanche — One line, again, can only take you so far. They are 7-15-3 in their past 25 games and falling fast in the standings. Such a promising start, too.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Western Conference playoff field being as weak as it is creates the illusion they might still be in it, but they need to start dumping as many contracts as they can to try and still get something out of the Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane era.

26. Edmonton Oilers — Five losses in a row, three of them to teams out of the playoffs. A rudderless ship going nowhere.

The Lottery Teams

27. Detroit Red Wings — With three wins in a row and five in their past seven games they clearly have not quit on the season. Just too little, too late. Do not ruin your Jack Hughes chances!

28. Los Angeles Kings — Finally, the rebuild seems to be underway.

[Related: Muzzin trade should be start of Kings’ teardown]

29. New Jersey Devils — With Taylor Hall a year away from free agency you have to wonder what his future in New Jersey is. He spent the first part of his career surrounded by nothing in Edmonton, then spent the second part of his career in a similar situation in New Jersey. Have to imagine he wants to take advantage of free agency to get to a team that won’t surround him with nothing.

30. Ottawa Senators — They might get a first-round pick or two for trading Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, but it’s not going to be the potential Jack Hughes pick they sent to Colorado to get Duchene in the first place. That is unfortunate.

31. Anaheim Ducks — I know the overall record for the season does not reflect this, and technically speaking they are still very much alive in the Western Conference wild card race, but somebody needs to tell me why they do not deserve the No. 31 spot this week. They have the worst goal differential in hockey at minus-39. They just lost 9-3 in a game where they gave up six goals in the first 18 minutes. They are an abysmal possession team and get absolutely caved in when it comes to allowing shots. They are boring offensively. This team stinks. Stinks!

More: Ducks fans call for Carlyle’s firing

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.

Paul Maurice and the Jets could really use a win right now

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This was always going to be a challenging season for the Winnipeg Jets.

After a surprising run to the Western Conference Final during the 2017-18 season, they regressed last season and opened this season with a makeshift defense due to offseason departures and the still unsettled situation regarding Dustin Byfuglien. At times, and especially recently, the defense has looked has looked exactly like the patchwork unit that it is. They get bombarded on the shot chart, and had it not been for some superhuman play from starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck over the first couple of months their playoff chances for this season might already be in the toilet.

But they’re not.

They are still — for now — very much in the Western Conference Wild Card race, and with a win on Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could enter the All-Star break and bye week just a single point back of a playoff spot. Considering the state of the defense and the way the team has actually played at times, that would be a decent conclusion to the first half of the season.

It would also probably be a big win for coach Paul Maurice, whose seat seems to get warmer with each and every loss. And the losses have been piling up recently. After losing in Carolina on Tuesday night, 4-1, the Jets have lost five of their past six and are just 6-11-2 in their past 19 games.

On Tuesday, it was another tough start that saw the Jets give up three early goals and have to play from behind again. When asked about another slow start, Maurice was defiant in saying there was no slow start (using an expletive in the process) and instead defended his team’s effort and the way they played. It was a little surprising given how rough this recent stretch has been, especially the past three games when they’ve been outscored by a 16-4 margin. Listening to him talk about the team’s effort and how they “played their asses off,” it almost sounded like a coach that is resigned to his team being undermanned at a major position (defense) and that things are just unraveling. It was basically: They did everything they could, and this is all they had.

Given the current situation and the recent slide, it’s enough to wonder if Thursday’s game against Columbus is approaching must-win territory. It is believed that Maurice’s contract expires at the end of this season, and as Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s really hard to see the Jets giving him another contract extension after two straight years of declining results.

If there were ever a time for a team to consider a change, wouldn’t this be it? A coach in the final year of his contract, for a struggling team that seems to have hit its ceiling with that coach, while the team itself is still flirting with a playoff spot. Not to mention the fact that after Wednesday they have a week-and-a-half and an opportunity to hit the reset button coming out of the break.

Whether or not that would make a difference is certainly up for debate. There is probably not a coach or prospective coach in the league that can turn this defense as constructed into a contender, and no matter who is behind the bench is going to have to rely on the forwards being able to outscore their opponents and hope for Hellebuyck to return to his Vezina/MVP level from the first couple of months.

It just seems like the Jets and their coach are at a crossroads for this season, and maybe beyond.

It is difficult — and maybe even silly — to put so much emphasis on one regular season game in the middle of January, but Thursday’s game against Columbus seems like it has the potential to dramatically shift things one way or another for the Jets.

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.

Police investigating after Gritty accused of punching 13-year-old in back

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We have an early contender for strangest hockey story of 2020.

Philadelphia police are investigating a claim that Gritty, the rambunctious googly-eye mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, punched a 13-year-old fan in the back during a meet-and-greet with season ticket holders in November.

The claim comes from Chris Greenwell, a Delaware native and 22-year Flyers season ticket holder, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As Greenwell tells it, after waiting in line for more than hour to meet Gritty for a photo, his son “playfully patted” the mascot on the head before walking away. At that point, Gritty is accused of getting out of his chair, taking a running start, and punching Greenwell’s son in the back as hard as he could. He told the Inquirer that he took his son to a chiropractor a week later, providing the paper with a document showing that his son was diagnosed with “mild pain” and a “back bruise.”

When Greenwell and the Flyers could not come to terms on how handle the situation, he reported the incident to Philadelphia police who are currently investigating.

The Inquirer details email exchanges between Greenwell and the Flyers ownership group, Comcast Spectacor, where he initially complained about the lousy quality of the picture where Gritty did not look at the camera.

From the report:

After the alleged punch, Greenwell emailed officials at Comcast Spectacor, first complaining of the “lousy picture” with the mascot who didn’t look at the camera. Then he raised the “more serious and disappointing” concern.

“I know it was not correct for my son to harmlessly tap him on his head but for a Flyers employee to get (sic) throw a full punch at someone with his back turned and hurt a 13 year old boy is assault, unprofessional and unacceptable for your organization,” he wrote.

During that email exchange the Flyers claim there is no video footage to support Greenwell’s claim, while no witnesses were able to verify the same story. Still, Greenwell and the Flyers attempted to find ways to make it right. Greenwell suggested the team show his son on the scoreboard or allow him into the locker room to get autographs from players.

The Flyers countered by giving him the opportunity to sit on the team bench during warmups before a future home game.

That was not deemed to be acceptable.

That was not the only issue in the exchanges.

From the Inquirer:

But the email exchange soured when Greenwell and Kleinman disagreed on what was said during a December phone call. Greenwall claimed Kleinman told him that Gritty admitted he hit Brandon. Kleinman denied saying that.

“At no time did I state that one of my colleagues hit your son,” Kleinman replied in a Dec. 23 email. “Gritty, however, recalls being hit on the head repeatedly by someone during one of the earlier photo shoots.”

Greenwell, who said he is dumping his season tickets with the team, added that he only wanted an apology and something special for his son.

Gritty is a little different than your typical mascot in how the Flyers have it act. When they unleashed Gritty on the world prior to the 2018-19 season they described it as having “bully tendencies” and being “mischievous.” Everything about the Gritty persona since then has backed that up. There was always the chance that Gritty might fly too close to the sun and get burned.

According to one fan, that happened.

The Flyers insist it did not happen that way.

Now we are left with … this.

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.

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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The Florida Panthers not only gave head coach Joel Quenneville a win in his first return to Chicago on Tuesday night, they extended their winning streak to six games and roll into the All-Star break and bye week as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.

They are also in the rather unfamiliar territory of having a strong hold on a playoff spot this late in the season.

The Panthers are just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division while also owning a four-point cushion over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It obviously doesn’t lock them into anything, but it has to be a pleasant change of pace after slow starts the previous two years all but crushed their playoff hopes by the All-Star break.

It’s also a big step in the right direction for an organization that needs to earn the trust of its fanbase and give people in their market a reason to finally care about them. As we detailed back in August, this has been the least successful organization in terms of playoff success since the start of 2000 across the NHL and NBA. Overall, they have made the playoffs just five times in 25 years and have only won three playoff series ever — all of them coming during one improbable playoff run during the 1995-96 season.

In recent years we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere after years of struggle to go on deep playoff runs. Two years it was the Winnipeg Jets, after never winning a playoff game in the first 17 years of their existence, going to the Western Conference Final. A year ago it was the Carolina Hurricanes snapping a nine-year postseason drought and going to the Eastern Conference Final.

There is at least some reason to believe the Panthers could be capable of going on a similar run this season.

The offense is legit

Pop quiz: Who is the NHL’s highest scoring team right now? Toronto? Pittsburgh? Washington? Tampa Bay? Colorado? All good guess, and all wrong. It’s the Florida Panthers, averaging a league-best 3.83 goals per game as of Wednesday.

Leading the way is their outstanding top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Individually, they have each been top-10 scorers in the NHL over the past three seasons and together they are one of the best top-line duos in the league, producing goals at a rate similar to some of the league’s best.

But it’s not just them that drive the offense.

Thanks to Frank Vatrano‘s hat trick on Tuesday, the Panthers already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season, most in the league. There are only six other teams in the league that have more than four (Vancouver has six; Colorado, Vegas, Washington, and Winnipeg all have five each).

Goaltending can still be the big difference maker here

This is probably the wildest part of Florida’s success.

Goaltending was by far their biggest area of need this offseason and they addressed it by delivering a dump truck full of money to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had been one of the NHL’s best goalies during his time in Columbus and on more than one occasion helped carry the team to the playoffs. The Panthers’ hope was that he could be their new No. 1 goalie, solidify the position, and be the missing piece to finally get them back in the playoffs.

The Panthers may end up back in the playoffs, but right now it is in spite of their goaltending.

As of Wednesday the Panthers sit 27th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and 25th in all situations save percentage. Typically teams with goaltending like this do not make the playoffs, or even have a chance to make the playoffs. Out of the bottom-15 teams in overall save percentage right now, Florida and Vegas are the only two teams holding a playoff spot.

On one hand, this might be their undoing in the second half if Bobrovsky can’t get back on track.

On the other hand, if he DOES get back on track the Panthers could be a dangerous team to deal with. There was always risk with giving a 31-year-old goalie a seven-year, $70 million contract, but his career shouldn’t fall off a cliff this quickly. His first half in Florida has been similar to his first half performance in Columbus a year ago. He finished last season by catching fire in February, March, and April and not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, but also sweep one of the best regular season teams in NHL history. He still has that ability.

They could still use some help on defense

While Bobrovsky has definitely struggled, it would be unfair to put all of the Panthers’ goal prevention problems on just him. Because there are some issues in front of him.

The Panthers have invested a ton of money and resources on their blue line but the results have not yet followed. In terms of shot attempts against, shots against, scoring chances and expected goals the Panthers are no better than average (and in some cases near the bottom of the league). That’s something that is going to have to be addressed, but the salary cap situation will not make it easy.

Big picture: The Panthers have some flaws, and right now might have to get through Tampa Bay and Boston in rounds 1 and 2 in a potential playoff run, but there is reason for optimism here. They have the highest scoring team in the league, the eighth best points percentage in the league, and have done that with some of the worst goaltending in the league. A tweak or two on the blue line and Bobrovsky rediscovering his ability to stop pucks and there might be something interesting brewing here.

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.

My Favorite Goal: Spurgeon’s baseball swing goal for Wild

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers, personalities and NHL players remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Derek Stepan of the Coyotes remembers Jared Spurgeon‘s baseball swing goal vs. the Devils in 2017.

Derek Stepan wasn’t even involved in the game that featured his choice for favorite goal. With the Devils visiting the Wild on Jan. 17, 2017,  a deflected shot was saved by Cory Schneider and flew into the air to the side of the New Jersey net. That’s when Spurgeon quickly gloved the puck and dropped it to himself and swung for the fences for a goal.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
Darren McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Alex Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie
Marek Malik’s stunning shootout winner
Paul Henderson scores for Canada
• Mario Lemieux’s end-to-end masterpiece; Hextall scores again
Tomas Hertl goes between-the-legs
Borschevsky’s goal sealed with a kiss

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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.