PHT Power Rankings: Golden Knights emerging as West’s best

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The only thing crazier than an expansion team reaching the Stanley Cup Final in its first year of existence would be that same team showing that it wasn’t a fluke and doing it again in year two.

The Vegas Golden Knights still have a long way to go before they do that, but they are not only starting to look perfectly capable of going on such a run, they are starting to look like they might be the team to beat in the Western Conference.

Overall, their record is not going to be the best one in the West, and they are probably going to win fewer games than they did a year ago. That should not overshadow the fact this team is looking outstanding at the right time of year, and especially after adding Mark Stone at the trade deadline.

Just look at what they have done over their past 20 games dating back to early February.

  • Their 12-6-2 record during that stretch is the second best in the West, trailing only the St. Louis Blues.
  • Their underlying numbers are as good as any team in the NHL since then, currently sitting third in Corsi Percentage (53.7 percent), third in scoring chance percentage (54.1), and first in high-danger scoring chance percentage (57.6).
  • Their newly formed line of Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Paul Stastny has been dominant and gives them three scoring lines that are capable of beating any team on any night.

It is also not just about what they are doing that makes them such a strong contender. It is also about the rest of the teams around them because, honestly, who else is looking great right now in the West?

The San Jose Sharks should probably be the top contender, but their goaltending is a mess and might just be bad enough to sink a potential Cup team.

The Calgary Flames are the only team in the West that has underlying numbers that compare to Vegas’ over the past 20 games, but their playoff chances seem to be resting on the shoulders of a relatively unproven goalie in David Rittich. There is a risk there.

The Nashville Predators have not looked right for more than a month now.

Pretty much every other team in the playoff mix seems to have some sort of major question mark around them.

They may not have the best record, but with the way they are playing right now it is hard to find a team that looks tougher than the Golden Knights.

They reach the third spot in this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else sit this week?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Whether they end up winning the Stanley Cup or not they might be one of the best single season teams the NHL has ever seen, at least based on what they have done during the 2018-19 regular season.

2. Boston Bruins — It almost seems like their dominance this season has slid under the radar. They have been one of the best teams in the league despite being consistently crushed by injuries. Maybe their depth is better than we gave them credit for at the start of the season? Bruce Cassidy should be in the Jack Adams Award discussion.

3. Vegas Golden Knights — They have been dominant since the trade deadline. A lot of their success will simply depend on the health of Marc-Andre Fleury and how he plays in the playoffs.

4. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau should be a top-five vote-getter in the MVP race and Mark Giordano might be the Norris Trophy winner. Those two are a big reason why the Flames are on their way to winning just their second division title over the past two decades.

5. Winnipeg Jets — Maybe starting to play their best hockey at the right time of year. Getting Dustin Byfuglien back would be a huge lift, as would a goal scoring binge from Patrik Laine.

6. Washington Capitals — They have looked like a championship caliber team since the trade deadline. Losing Michal Kempny will hurt, but the additions of Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen have really helped their overall defensive play.

[Related: Carl Hagelin is just what the Capitals needed]

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — If Matt Murray keeps playing the way he has been since mid-December this is going to be a very difficult team to beat, especially once Evgeni Malkin returns to the lineup.

8. Carolina Hurricanes — They are 25-9-2 since Dec. 31. The addition of Nino Niederreiter has been significant, but now No. 2 overall pick Andrei Svechnikov is starting to emerge as a big-time goal-scoring threat.

9. St. Louis Blues — Don’t look now but they have a really good chance of snagging home-ice advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. Who saw that happening after the way they started the season?

10. San Jose Sharks — When it comes to their forwards and defense they might be the best team in the Western Conference, especially when Erik Karlsson is healthy. They should be the runaway favorite to win the West given their roster and the way they are capable of playing. But they have lost five in a row and there is no way you can trust their goaltending right now against anybody.

[Related: Sharks’ goaltending is historically bad for Stanley Cup contender]

11. Toronto Maple Leafs — There seems to be a real “sky is falling” mentality around this team  as of late, only further showing how much pressure this team is going to be under to win. Another first-round exit in the playoffs, no matter who they have to play, will not be viewed as acceptable.

12. New York Islanders — They are still in contention for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division but have only been a .500 team for more than a month. That said, if the goaltending holds up they will have a chance to win every night.

13. Nashville Predators — The Predators have not looked right for a while now, and that 5-0 loss to Winnipeg with what was probably their best shot at the Central Division title on the line was concerning. Also concerning: What in the world has happened to Kyle Turris this season?

14. Colorado Avalanche — The Gabriel Landeskog injury seemed like it might be the end of their playoff chances, but Nathan MacKinnon just wanted to remind everyone that he is one of the league’s best players and can carry a team.

15. Montreal Canadiens — Here is a nightmare situation for the Lightning: You dominate the entire regular season and your reward is a potential first-round matchup against a goalie in Carey Price that could easily ruin a season in seven games if he gets hot. Not saying it will happen, not even saying it might happen. But it could happen.

16. Dallas Stars — The more this season goes on, the more ridiculous team CEO Jim Lites’ comments about Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn seem. The Stars only have three forwards with more than 27 points this season — Seguin, Benn, and Alexander Radulov. That trio, along with the play of goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin, are going to carry this team to the playoffs.

17. Minnesota Wild — They looked like they were going to show some surprising fight to make the playoffs after some big trades that no doubt made them worse in the short-term, but they have since gone in the tank with only three wins in their past 11 games. They are still, somehow, only two points out of a Wild Card spot as of Monday.

18. Chicago Blackhawks –– The win on Sunday against Colorado kept their slim playoff hopes alive, but they are a real long shot at this point.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets — If they had lost to the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night their season might already be over. The fact it has reached that point after all of the moves they made at the trade deadline is stunning. If they do not make the playoffs it is going to be fascinating to see what happens to the general manager (who is apparently not happy with how the team is playing) and the coach, and how future teams in a similar situation handle the trade deadline.

20. Arizona Coyotes — The offense has failed them at the worst possible time. They have lost five games in a row, scoring only six goals during that stretch. They have wasted some great goaltending from Darcy Kuemper.

21. Florida Panthers — Honestly, they might only be a goalie away. I just don’t know if the goalie they seem willing to throw the bank at this summer (Sergei Bobrovsky) is the right goalie to get them there at this stage of his career.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — Carter Hart looks legit, and their overall record under Scott Gordon is very good, but I think that record is a mirage. They can not think everything is fine just because they have won some games in the second half of the season. The process behind the results matters, too, and the process is not good enough.

23. Anaheim Ducks — Some discouraging news as it relates to Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves this week. In less discouraging news, John Gibson has been outstanding lately in net.

24. Vancouver Canucks — Excluding the Golden Knights, who have only played two seasons in the NHL, no team in the league has won fewer games over the past four years than the Canucks, and they once again will still not be bad enough to have a great shot at the No. 1 overall pick. It is truly an incredible accomplishment to be that consistently bad but not quite be bad enough to get yourself a position to get the top pick. If any fan base deserves some lottery ball luck this year, it is this one.

25. Edmonton Oilers — There is no other team in the NHL that could have had a situation like the Tobias Rieder-Bob Nicholson one. Sure, there was another team’s CEO that threw a handful of players under the bus this season and blamed them for the team’s struggles, but blaming a fourth-liner? Total insanity.

[Related: Rieder responds to CEO criticism]

26. New York Rangers — In a season like this you have to look for the small victories anywhere you can get them. Beating the Toronto Maple Leafs over the weekend was one. Pavel Buchnevich maybe reaching the 20-goal mark while missing nearly 20 games would be another.

27. Los Angeles Kings — Jonathan Quick‘s .891 save percentage is one of the absolute worst in the NHL this season. Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen in 31 games between them, playing behind the same team, both have a save percentage of .923 or better. What is most shocking about that is those two are still only 12-17-2 on the season even with their great play in net, a strong indication that the team is just badly flawed all over the roster. Also their big free agent acquisition does not seem to fit with the current coach.

28. Detroit Red Wings — Bringing back Jimmy Howard for another season is not the worst decision in the world, but at some point they are going to have to find a long-term solution in goal. That player does not yet seem to be anywhere in the organization.

29. New Jersey Devils — There was reason to be skeptical of this team being as good as it was a year ago, but the injury situation has absolutely not helped. Just a tough year all around.

30. Ottawa Senators — They still have the worst record in the league, they will still likely finish there, and there is a very real chance their draft pick, which now belongs to the Avalanche, will be the No. 1 overall pick which will be another level of embarrassment on what is already a difficult rebuild for Senators fans. That said, the players that are still there are playing hard and it has produced a couple of impressive wins over the past week, shutting out the Blues and a four-goal win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

31. Buffalo Sabres — On November 27 the Sabres won their 10th game in a row and had the best record in the NHL. Since then they are 14-28-7 and that is the NHL’s worst record during that stretch. That is how you have one of the league’s longest winning streaks of the season and still find yourself 17 points out of a playoff spot in late March. That is deserving of the bottom spot this week.

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.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

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

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.