PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.

Remembering Gretzky passing Howe, 30 years later

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back 30 years when Wayne Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s all-time points record … against his former team.

Exactly 30 years ago Tuesday Wayne Gretzky, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, made NHL history by breaking Gordie Howe’s points record with a late third period goal to tally his 1,851st career point in the league.

In what was perhaps the most fitting way possible, he managed to do it in Edmonton against his former team where he spent the first nine years of his NHL career, winning four Stanley Cups. “The Great One” also accomplished the feat just a little more than a year after he was traded to Los Angeles in one of the biggest trades in sports history. There was already a statue built of him outside the building in which he broke the record.

Gretzky entered the game trailing Howe by just a single point and tied the all-time mark with a first period assist on a Bernie Nicholls goal to give the Kings a 1-0 lead.

He broke Howe’s record with less than a minute to play in the third period, tying the game and sending it to overtime where Gretzky would end up winning the game to cap off the night.

Not only did he break the record in Edmonton on a game-tying in the closing seconds, but it came at the end of what was a three-minute shift for Gretzky, via the October 15, 1989 Associated Press:

A couple of random facts to keep in mind about Gretzky’s climb up the NHL’s all-time points leaderboard and the absurdity of his production…

  • He recorded his 1,850th point in his 11th NHL season at the age of 28.
  • By comparison, Howe played 26 seasons in the NHL and recorded his 1,850th point at the age of 51. Yes, there was a brief three-year retirement and a six-year stop in the WHA thrown in there, but even if you look at Howe’s career when he retired the first time at age 42 (after 25 seasons in the NHL) he was still *only* at 1,809 points. Gretzky shattered that by age 27.
  • The craziest stat about Gretzky’s career is still the fact that if he never scored a goal in the NHL he would have still eventually broken Howe’s point record by 113 points just based on assists alone.
  • At the time of Gretzky’s record setting day, he had already registered 1,207 assists, a mark that (again excluding goals) would have been enough to put him in the top-12 in points all-time at that moment.
  • Gretzky would go on to finish his career with 2,857 points. The NHL’s second-leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr, is 936 points behind him (1,921 points). The gap between Gretzky and Jagr at No. 1 and 2 is the same as the gap between Jagr and the 91st leading scorer of all-time, Dave Keon.
  • The active players that are closest to Gretzky are Joe Thornton with 1,480 points, Sidney Crosby with 1,226, and Alex Ovechkin with 1,218. It is entirely possible — if not likely — that Crosby and Ovechkin will eventually pass Howe’s mark and climb into the top-five, but none of them have any chance of matching Gretzky’s point record, a mark that seems almost unbreakable given the way the game has evolved and become a more defensive and goaltending dominated sport.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click 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.

Stewart earns contract with Flyers after month-long PTO

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Chris Stewart’s tryout with the Philadelphia Flyers has come to an end and the result is a one-way contract with the team.

The Flyers announced on Tuesday that they have signed the soon-to-be 32-year-old winger to a one-year, $750,000 contract. Stewart had been on a PTO deal since training camp and due to a salary cap crunch were unable to sign him. That door opened on Monday when Andy Welinski was waived, freeing up the money to make it happen.

“We’re happy to have Chris under contract,” said Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher in a statement. “Chris came into training camp with a great attitude and a strong work-ethic. He brings size and a veteran presence to our lineup.”

Welinski, along with Nolan Patrick, had been on injured reserve and his salary counted against the Flyers’ cap, tying Fletcher’s hands. His $750,000 salary will now come off the books after clearing waivers as he heads to the AHL.

Despite retaining PTO status once the season began, Stewart has been with the Flyers through their three games. He was with them on their early-season jaunt to Europe and has been skating with the team as they take part in their current Western Canada road trip. He’s expected to make his debut Tuesday night in Calgary. Per the Courier Post, the Flyers have been covering the cost of Stewart’s hotel, which is near their training facility, and he’s been receiving per diem.

Before signing his PTO with the Flyers in July, Stewart had not played in the NHL since the 2017-18 season when he suited up for 54 games with the Wild and Flames. He spent last season in Great Britain’s EIHL playing for the Nottingham Panthers.

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The ovation lasted a good 40 seconds, and it showed just far the relationship between Canadiens fans and Jonathan Drouin has come since his 2017 trade from the Lightning.

After netting a goal and an assist, it was clear on his face just how much the 24-year-old Drouin appreciated the love from the fans still inside Bell Centre following their 6-3 win over the Blues on Saturday. The two-point night extended the forward’s point streak to five games to start the season, surely boosting his confidence following a quiet preseason on the ice that resulted with his entrance into the trade rumor mill.

Rewind nearly two years when in his first season with the Canadiens Drouin finished with just 13 goals in 77 games — a total well below expectations following the trade that sent defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa. The pressure to succeed immediately was high considering the team handed him a six-year, $33 million extension just hours after acquiring him.

Offensively, Drouin was better last season — scoring 18 goals and recording a career high 53 points — but he wasn’t satisfied, especially with one goal and six points in his final 26 games. He spent the summer with Canadiens assistant coach Dominique Ducharme looking over video, per Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, and the results are finally showing.

[COVERAGE OF CANADIENS-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

“There’s some stuff where I complicate things a little bit,” Drouin said. “It’s been one of my problems when I played junior and in the NHL, when I started in this league. Sometimes it’s just making that easy play where it doesn’t look that great or doesn’t look that good on TV but it’s effective. I think that’s what we looked at more than anything is to be more effective in what I do every game. Whether it’s with the puck or without it, it’s just being more… not conservative, but going after it the way I used to do it back when I played my best games in junior and in the NHL in that playoff [in 2015 with Tampa].”

Those around Drouin are noticing the differences and the improvements he’s made. Canadiens head coach Claude Julien feels this is the best he’s played since joining the team.

“It’s not the others that are making him better; it’s him who’s making them better,” Julien said. “It’s a good sign for us and he deserves a lot of credit for it.”

Drouin entered the 2019-20 season with something to prove. He wasn’t happy with his game in the past and understood the pressure that comes with playing in Montreal. He’s simply put in the work and it’s paying off.

“Mentally I’m more into the games, I’m more focused and it’s been a big change in my game,” he said.

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Perron, Slavin lead this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jaccob Slavin, Hurricanes – D: For each of the previous three seasons, Slavin recorded 30-34 points, but at the age of 25 it’s not unreasonable to believe that we haven’t seen his peak. This campaign certainly has the potential to result in him setting new career-highs. He’s riding a five-game point streak, which has brought him up to two goals and five points in six games this season.

Zach Aston-Reese, Penguins – LW/RW: Aston-Reese was a standout in Northeastern University, but since turning pro in 2017, he’s needed time to gradually work up the Penguins’ ladder. He still has some climbing to do, but after playing in 14 games in 2017-18 and 43 contests in 2018-19 with Pittsburgh, he seems to have now secured an everyday role with the squad. Aston-Reese is still a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues, but at the least he’s worth keeping an eye on and in the short-term he’s worth gambling to ride his current hot streak of four points in his last two contests.

Justin Schultz, Penguins – D: Schultz had 51 points back in 2016-17, but he hasn’t come close to that level before or since. He’s off to a promising start in 2019-20 though with four assists in six games. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he’s averaging 3:41 minutes of power-play ice time, which is just barely behind Kris Letang. That power-play role has been huge for Schultz with three of those four assists coming with the man advantage. As long as he stays healthy, which was the big problem last season, he has a huge opportunity to be a big contributor.

David Perron, Blues – LW/RW: At the time of writing, Perron is owned in 60% of Yahoo leagues, which I see as on the low end given what he brings to the table offensively. He had 66 points in 70 games in 2017-18 and then 46 points in 57 contests in 2018-19, which translates to an average of 72 points per 82 games over that span. This season seems to be a continuation of that. He has three goals and five points in five games while averaging 18:25 minutes. While he’s an injury risk, he should be regarded as a high-end winger. 

[Ready for the season? Get the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ilya Mikheyev, Maple Leafs – LW: Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are two of the biggest names in this season’s rookie pool, but neither has done much offensively yet. Instead, Mikheyev has been one of the league’s top rookies with two goals and five points in six contests. It helps that he’s been getting a good chunk of ice time for a rookie.  He’s averaging 15:55 minutes, which is the third highest for a rookie forward. Mikheyev is still owned in just 6% of Yahoo leagues, so there is still a chance to grab him.

Tomas Tatar, Canadiens– LW/RW: Tatar had 25 goals and a career-high 58 points in his first season with the Canadiens and his second campaign with Montreal has the potential to be similarly successful. He already has two goals and five points in five contests while averaging 16:58 minutes. It helps that he’s been playing alongside Brendan Gallagher, who surpassed the 30-goal milestone in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Ryan Dzingel, Hurricanes – LW/RW: Dzingel is one I’m more on the fence about in the long run, but I’m certainly interested in gambling on him at this moment. He’s gotten off to a hot start with two goals and five points in six contests. He’s only averaging 14:17 minutes, which makes it hard to see him sustaining anywhere near his current level of production. Still, he’s a fairly talented forward and he’s doing well enough to be worth taking a chance on at this time.

Sam Lafferty, Penguins – C/LW:  Lafferty is another lower profile rookie who has stepped up early. In his case though, it’s been all thanks to a surge in his last two games. He scored a goal and three points on Saturday and added another two goals on Sunday. Will he keep this up? I strong doubt it. Lafferty is someone to pick up for now while he’s hot, but drop as soon as he slows down.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G:  Smith left something to be desired in 2018-19 with Calgary, but his stint with Edmonton has gotten off to an encouraging start. He’s 3-0-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .907 save percentage in three starts. Edmonton has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season and if that keeps up, Smith will be a primary benefactor. Mikko Koskinen is worth considering for the same reason. Personally, I see Smith as the safer bet given his wealth of experience, but for what it’s worth, Koskinen has gotten off to the better start with a 2-0-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .914 save percentage in two starts. They’re also likely to split the Oilers’ responsibilities fairly evenly.

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens – C/LW: Drouin has been one of those players with a ton of offensive upside that seems to keep ending up short of that potential. He matched his career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points, which is solid to be sure, but there’s still that underlining belief that there might be more there from the 2013 third overall pick. Maybe this is the season we’ll get him to take that last step. He’s opened the campaign on a five-game point streak with two goals and six points over that span. 

Players You May Want To Drop

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets – D: This one might seem the most obvious, but it’s also the one I’m most on the fence about. Yes, Byfuglien isn’t playing and he’s been reportedly considering retirement, so he might not play at all this season. But to drop him now means potentially missing out on a 40-50 point defenseman if he decides tomorrow to return to the Jets. However, we’re two weeks into the season now and there’s been no indication that he’s even close to making a decision. Even if he did surprise me by saying today that he’s returning, he’ll need time to get up to speed and after missing training camp and the start of the season, that might be difficult. With every passing day, the odds of him living up to expectations even if he does play diminish and at a certain point you need to start thinking about cutting your losses.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jakub Voracek, Flyers – RW: Voracek has no points in three games, but what I find particularly concerning is that he’s averaging just 15:33 minutes. That’s down from 18:40 minutes in 2018-19 and 19:27 minutes in 2017-18. So far this season, the most Voracek has played in a game has been 16:06 minutes, which would have been in the bottom-10 for minutes back last season. With his role potentially changing, his offensive output might decline meaningfully.

Chris Kreider, Rangers – LW: Kreider does have two assists in three games, so he’s gotten off to a good start. However, he’s averaging 14:55 minutes per game, which is way down from 17:24 minutes in 2018-19 when he had 52 points in 79 contests. Given how borderline he was to begin with in standard fantasy leagues, that decline is concerning. On top of that, he recently sustained a lower-body injury.  It’s not believed to be long-term, but again he’s borderline to begin with so there’s not a lot of motivation to wait even minor injuries out.

Nazem Kadri, Avalanche – C: Kadri had just 16 goals and 44 points in 73 games last season with Toronto, but there was some hope that the move to Colorado might change things. After all, he’d be moving from a team that was using him primarily as a third-line center to one with a second-line spot for him. So far, that hasn’t worked out with Kadri being limited to a goal and no assists in four contests. Given that he only has center-eligibility, which is a very deep position, I’d be inclined to drop him for now in favor of someone who is offering more immediate help. He is still worth keeping an eye on though.

Jonathan Quick, Kings – G: So far Quick has been a disaster this season. He’s allowed at least five goals per game, which has given him a 0-3-0 record, 6.43 GAA, and .793 save percentage in three starts. That comes after his struggles in 2018-19 with a 16-23-7 record, 3.38 GAA, and .888 save percentage in 46 starts. Certainly the team in front of him isn’t doing Quick any favors, but the Kings are in a transitional phase, so they’re not likely to help him much for the remainder of the season either. This seems like a goaltending situation to avoid where at all possible.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.