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PHT Power Rankings: The unexpected rise of the Islanders

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Expectations were understandably low for the New York Islanders at the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. They were coming off of a non-playoff year, had just lost their best player to free agency, spent the offseason filling the roster with fourth-liners and depth players, and three of their returning best forwards (Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson) were all entering the final year of their contracts making their future with the team up in the air (and they still are).

Add to that the fact they were an historically bad defensive team a year ago and were entering the season with a couple of question marks in net in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

On paper this team looked more likely to be competing for the top pick in the draft than the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Here we are now in mid-February and the Islanders are in first place in the Metro with a five-point lead (with a game in hand still) on the defending Stanley Cup champions and are one point better than the Toronto Maple Leafs team that signed John Tavares away from them.

There are reasons to wonder how long this run can last beyond this season — or even throughout the rest of this season — especially given the contract situations with Eberle, Lee, and Nelson, and that is to say nothing of any possible regression from the performance of the goalies. But for right now they are here at the top of the league, they are almost certainly going to the playoffs, and they are probably one of the most improbable success stories in recent NHL memory.

Heck, if you go back over the past decade or more they might be the second most improbably success story behind last year’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights that made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season.

There have been a lot of teams that have experienced rapid turnarounds in one year. Last year’s Colorado Avalanche went from the worst record in the league to the playoffs. The 2016-17 Ottawa Senators went on an unexpected run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. That season’s Edmonton Oilers also made their first playoff appearance in a decade and were a Game 7 away from being in the Western Conference Final.

But none of those teams were facing a situation quite like this year’s Islanders where they were not only bad, but also lost their best player.

None of this should be working. But that is kind of the beauty and unpredictably that the NHL can provide.

The very nature of hockey lends itself more to these type of stories than almost any other sport because of the role luck can play, or how much a goaltending performance can alter the trajectory of a team or a season. The Islanders have had a lot of that go their way this season, and when you add in a top-tier coaching addition behind the bench you have the perfect recipe for an unexpected rise to the top of the league.

We can poke at their success all we want and look for flaws and wait for the bottom to fall out (and I definitely have this season), but for right now they have one of the best records in the league, are still white-hot over the past few weeks, and are giving their fans something to be legitimately happy about for the first time in years.

They crack the top-three in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else in the league fit this week?

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — There is just no knocking the Lightning out of this spot. They enter the week riding yet another five-game winning streak, have shut out their past two opponents, and have a forward in Nikita Kucherov who is having a Lemieux or Gretzky type of season offensively. They are 15 points ahead of the next closest team in the standings. Just give them the Presidents’ Trophy now.

2. San Jose Sharks — They still went 6-3-0 without Erik Karlsson and now he is back healthy. Still think they are a solid goalie away from being an absolute force of a team.

The Strong Contenders

3. New York Islanders — This has got to be one of the more memorable and satisfying seasons Islanders fans have had since … well … the 80s?

4. Boston Bruins — There are still serious concerns about the scoring depth on this team because one line will not take you very far … but the results are there right now, and they keep climbing the standings.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — Frederik Andersen is still the unsung hero of this team. His ability to play almost every night and at a well above league average level is huge for a team that isn’t great defensively. Just like last year, though, I worry about that workload during the regular season having a negative impact when the playoffs roll around. That is a grind of a season.

6. Calgary Flames — They hit what was one of their first real rough patches of the season recently by losing five out of six including four in a row. Snapped out of that, however, with an impressive win in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

7. Winnipeg Jets — I feel like this is a team where the results are not matching the process behind them right now. But the results are still kind of good.

The Middle Of The Pack Teams

8. St. Louis Blues — A 10-game winning streak and a 16-4-1 record since the start of the new year has rocketed them up the Western Conference standings, into a solid playoff position, and with still three games in hand on the Predators could even find themselves with a shot — a long shot, yes, but still a shot — to maybe steal home ice advantage in the first round.

9. Columbus Blue Jackets — What a maddening team. They win four in a row, then lose five in a row, then win four in a row, they might trade their best player, they might be in the market to add Matt Duchene. Chaos. All of it. But when they play at their best they can be really, really, really good.

10. Nashville Predators — They’ve set an incredibly high bar for themselves over the past two years that their record of 34-22-5 entering Monday, and their recent play, seems like a little less than what it should be. They are still great. Just seems like there is more there waiting to come out.

11. Carolina Hurricanes — This bunch of jerks is 16-5-1 in its past 22 games and playing like one of the best teams in the league. And it still may not be enough to secure a playoff. How you start a season matters.

[Related: Hurricanes keep winning, celebrating like bunch of jerks]

12. Washington Capitals — They are just like the 2017-18 version of the Capitals. A really good team that is capable of going on an incredible hot streak where they can be almost unbeatable. The key this year will be if they go on one of those runs at the right time again.

13. Montreal Canadiens — On paper the roster does not look to be anything special, but they are well coached, have strong underlying numbers to suggest their success this year is not a fluke, and they have a goalie that can change a game on any night.

14. Pittsburgh Penguins — Evgeni Malkin is starting to get on a roll. That is exactly what the Penguins need right now.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — The playoffs will not happen this season, but Carter Hart might be the most important player to enter the organization in a long, long, long time. His debut this season is probably good enough to change the short-term direction of the franchise.

16. Vegas Golden Knights — With only five wins — and only three in regulation — over their past 14 games entering the week this might be one of the longest slumps in the brief existence of the Golden Knights.

17. Dallas Stars — The offense is still revolving around only four or five players and a bunch of hopes and prayers that somebody else does something. They might make the playoffs because Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are great and because the rest of the teams immediately around them mostly stink.

[Related: After CEO criticism, Seguin leading Stars’ turnaround]

18. Chicago Blackhawks — They are making a late season push, and the West might just be bad enough to give them a shot they probably wouldn’t otherwise have.

19. Florida Panthers — They have been decent lately, but the real intrigue around this team is what they do over the next week, presumably in a quest to go after the big fish in free agency this summer.

20. New York Rangers — They have been very competitive lately, probably to the detriment of their lottery chances, but I suspect once the trade deadline comes and goes this roster will probably look a lot different and the winning will probably slow down a bit.

21. Minnesota Wild — Bruce Boudreau has never coached a full season in the NHL and missed the playoffs (he spent the 2011-12 season split between Washington and Anaheim and missed the playoffs that season). He is in danger of experiencing that this season, even if he is confident in his team’s chances.

[Related: Boudreau confident about Wild’s chances to earn playoff spot]

22. Buffalo Sabres — I realize you can’t take away a 10-game winning streak, but there were a lot of smoke and mirrors behind that success and outside of those 10 games where they won a bunch of one-goal games in overtime and shootouts they have been the same old Sabres.

23. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely on the right track and have some great young cornerstone pieces to build around, but they are still not a great — or even very good — team yet. 

The Lose For Hughes Teams

24. Arizona Coyotes — A terribly unlucky season on the injury front. Can not question the effort of the players, though. They have been competitive and a thorn in the side of opponents all year.

25. Colorado Avalanche — Simply put, they have been awful for more than two full months now.

26. New Jersey Devils — One positive to come out of this lost season is the development of Nico Hischier. He has been good.

27. Los Angeles Kings — Is Ilya Kovalchuk really done or is he just stuck on the worst possible team for offense? Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B? I would be interested to find out at the trade deadline, and I am sure the Kings would like to be rid of that contract.

28. Detroit Red Wings — Work those phones, Ken. Sell! Sell! Sell!

29. Ottawa Senators — By this time next week the roster could be unrecognizable. Even more than it already is.

30. Anaheim Ducks — Winning two out of three is progress, I guess?

31. Edmonton Oilers — They actually have a worse points percentage under Ken Hitchcock than they did under Todd McLellan. Goodness gracious what a mess.

MORE: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Pageau earns DoPS hearing after boarding Canucks’ Sautner

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Jean-Gabriel Pageau only received a minor for boarding Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ashton Sautner Thursday night, but the Ottawa Senators forward could be punished again following his discipline hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety.

The DoPS will be speaking with Pageau after his second period hit on Sautner. The Canucks blue liner left the game for a bit before returning to finish Vancouver’s 7-4 win over the Senators.

Pageau, who took a big, unpenalized hit from Jake Virtanen earlier in the game, will likely be sitting for one or two games here. He eyes Sautner as he’s going to retrieve the puck along the boards and the Canucks defenseman does not peek behind him to see Pageau coming, nor does he change any part of his body before the Senators forward drills him between the numbers.

Given Sautner’s position on the ice and the fact he didn’t know he was about to be hit from behind, Pageau does not try to minimize contact or avoid his check. That’s a textbook suspension.

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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.

Karlsson, Panarin, Bobrovsky can close strong and cash in

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Many NHL teams have plenty to play for down the final stretch of the regular season, trying to get in the playoffs or to improve their positioning, before 16 teams compete for the Stanley Cup.

Some players have a lot at stake, too.

Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are a few of the potential free agents in the league with a chance to close strong and cash in by re-signing with their teams or on the open market.

The top trio of stars and some other standouts with a lot to gain financially when the season is finished, if not sooner:

KARLSSON

The San Jose Sharks acquired the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from Ottawa before the season started, hoping they would have him for more than a year. To keep Karlsson off the market as an unrestricted free agent, San Jose may have to at least match the eight-year, $88 million deal the Los Angeles Kings gave defenseman Drew Doughty to stay last summer.

PANARIN

Dynamic scorers like the Russian winger rarely are available in free agency and a team that wants to spend a lot of money over many years may be able to land an 80-point scorer. Panarin has already said he wants to see if there are better options in the summer than staying with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are simply hoping he helps them win at least a postseason series for the first time.

BOBROVSKY

Big-time goaltenders, like the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, usually stay with their teams and off the market. Like his teammate and fellow countryman, the 30-year-old Bobrovsky will probably want to make the most of his opportunity to make as much money as he can with his next deal while being at or near the prime or his career.

Matt Duchene

It was a good time for the center, and his bank account, to have one of the best years of his career. He’s averaging more than a point per game this season, starting with Ottawa, before being dealt to Columbus . If Panarin and Bobrovsky appear to be leaving in free agency after the season, the Blue Jackets may give the 28-year-old Duchene a lot to stay before the market opens.

Jeff Skinner

The center has a shot to surpass the 63 points he has reached twice before the team he plays for, the Buffalo Sabres, are relegated to watching the postseason for an eighth straight season. The Sabres want to re-sign Skinner, but he might be willing to take a seven-year deal – instead of the eight he can get to stay – and join a Stanley Cup contender.

Jake Gardiner

He has been out for nearly a month with a back injury, but barring it lingering into the playoffs to cast doubt on his long-term health, one of the best defensemen available will be paid well to stay in Toronto or to go play for another team.

Wayne Simmonds

The winger has not produced much offensively with Nashville, which acquired him from Philadelphia, and yet he will have a chance to make a lasting impression when it matters most in the playoffs. Simmonds has a rare combination of scoring ability, toughness and durability.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

There is an excellent group of players eligible to be restricted free agents, including: forwards Mikko Rantanen, William Karlsson, Brayden Point, Mitch Marner, Sebastian Aho and Matthew Tkachuk along with defensemen Jacob Trouba and Zach Werenski. Teams, though, rarely extend offer sheets to other franchise’s restricted free agents as Philadelphia did in 2012 with a $110 million, 14-year deal for Shea Weber, only to have the Predators match it.

Push for the Playoffs: Blue Jackets’ need to take advantage of favorable schedule

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to strengthen their hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That pretty much heats things up for both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s only salvation is a wild card place, while the Blue Jackets (and Hurricanes) still have a shot at grabbing one of the Metropolitan Division’s three seeds.

The Blue Jackets started off their four-game road trip with losses to the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames. They head to Edmonton tonight and Vancouver on Sunday in two games where heading home with four points in the bag could go a long way. Of their final nine games, only three come against teams currently in a playoff position. Then there’s March 28 when they host the Canadiens, which could be big boost for either team’s postseason dreams.

“We’ve had a tough schedule, but if you want to make the playoffs and you want to do damage in the playoffs, those are the teams you have to beat,” said defenseman Scott Harrington. “It’s great to prepare us for what’s potentially upcoming and where we want to be.”

Columbus’ biggest issue of late has been their inability to score. They’ve averaged only 2.2 goals per game in their last 12 games. Their big trade deadline acquisitions are still warming up. Matt Duchene has two goals in this last four games after going goalless in this first eight games with the Blue Jackets. Meanwhile, Ryan Dzingel has just one since being dealt from Ottawa.

Given GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s moves at the deadline, there’s pressure on the entire organization to make the playoffs. Columbus is 5-6-1 since the deadline, and while they may have the NHL’s eighth-easiest schedule remaining, those opponents cannot be overlooked.

“We’re not getting the results, which is frustrating, but the process is there,” said Duchene. “The second you deviate from the process is when you start to fail and deserve to fail. We’ll keep going and we’ll stay with it and take it one day at a time.”

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Bruins at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning at Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET
Islanders at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Blues, 8 p.m. ET
Penguins at Predators, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Senators at Flames, 9 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Jets at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET
Sharks at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Islanders — 99.2 percent
Penguins — 97.0 percent
Hurricanes — 95.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 72.7 percent
Canadiens — 33.6 percent
Flyers — 1.3 percent
Panthers — 0.4 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 99.7 percent
Stars — 95.5 percent
Coyotes — 54.2 percent
Avalanche — 23.6 percent
Wild — 15 percent
Blackhawks — 10.4 percent
Canucks — 1.3 percent
Oilers — 0.3 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 119 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 92 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Story behind 2020 Winter Classic logo; Hobey Baker nominees

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The story behind the 2020 Winter Classic logo. [NHL.com]

• Chris Drury has been named general manager of the 2019 U.S. National Team. Drury is currently an assistant GM with the New York Rangers. [USA Hockey]

• The Maple Leafs’ problems could be bigger than their last four games. [Yahoo]

• Adam Fox, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar are among the 10 nominees for the 2019 Hobey Baker Award. [Hobey Baker]

• What would today’s NHL look like if the salary cap didn’t exist? [USA Today]

• This is a prime opportunity for the Winnipeg Jets to take control of the Central Division. [Sportsnet]

• The story of Brady Keeper is one you’ll want to read today. [TSN]

• The Vegas Golden Knights’ top line is stepping up at the right time. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• Philadelphia Flyers forward Justin Bailey has reached out to a Buffalo-area youth hockey player who was subjected to racial slurs and taunts during a game in January. [NHL.com]

• As they chase a playoff spot, the Chicago Blackhawks find themselves scoreboard watching. [NBC Chicago]

Erik Cernak has emerged as an impactful member of the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line. [Raw Charge]

• There’s no slowing down the Calgary Flames, even after clinching a playoff spot. [Calgary Herald]

• Should the Rangers shut down some of their top players with the playoffs out of the picture? [Blueshirt Banter]

• Ryan Donato has made the most of his new opportunity with the Minnesota Wild. [The Hockey News]

• Finally, Mason is back with round two of his adventures on ice:

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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.