PHT Power Rankings: Teams under the most pressure to make Stanley Cup run

6 Comments

The championship-or-bust mentality we have with sports teams can be a dangerous and frustrating one because it usually sets us up for nothing but disappointment, anger, and, sometimes, shockingly bad sports takes.

We have high expectations for teams, especially those loaded with high-end talent, and view them as disappointments or underachievers (or worse, “chokers”) if they do not reach the arbitrary goals we set for them. Sometimes, depending on the makeup of the team in question, even one championship is not viewed as good enough. But the reality in sports is that for even the very best teams in any given season the chances of winning a championship are remarkably low with the odds being overwhelmingly stacked against them.

Chances are, your favorite team is going to end its season with a loss, no matter how great it may be, and that loss is going to be greeted with massive amounts of disappointment.

When you are a fan of a team you are rooting for that one team against the field. Taking one team against the field is always a bad bet.

Often times the biggest opponent your favorite team faces isn’t any one team lining up across from it, it is the battle against the expectations that were set for it.

Still, having said all of that, some teams do face higher expectations and more pressure to win than others.

With that in mind, we are using this week’s PHT Power Rankings to look at the teams facing the most pressure to win the Stanley Cup, or at least make a serious run at it, this postseason.

Just for added emphasis: This is not a ranking of the best teams or a statement on where each team stands on the ice in terms of its ability — it is a ranking of teams facing the most pressure to win. 

With that said, to the rankings!

The expectation is a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Now that the Washington Capitals broke through their glass ceiling and finally gave their fans a championship, the Lightning, at least with this current group, are the new “so close, yet so far” away team. The only difference is the Lightning’s situation is probably even more frustrating because of how painfully close they have been the past four years, reaching at least the Eastern Conference Final three times, only to fall just short in spectacularly bad ways.

Just look at how their past four seasons have ended.

  • In 2014-15 they had a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final and then never won another game in the series, scoring only two goals in the three games.
  • In 2015-16 they had a 3-2 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 on home ice, and were outscored by a 7-3 margin in Games 6 and 7, losing both.
  • In 2016-17 they were decimated by injuries during the regular season and missed the playoffs by one point.
  • In 2017-18 they had another 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Final and were then shutout in Games 6 and 7 while giving up seven goals.

If you are a Lightning fan that is … frustrating. Your team has clearly — CLEARLY! — been one of the NHL’s best over the past five years and has not only won a ton of regular season games, but also a ton of playoff games. Since the start of the 2014-15 season only one team (Pittsburgh, with 39) has won more playoff games than the Lightning’s 36. You have some of the best individual talent in the league with front-runners or actual award winners at every position (and behind the bench and in the front office). It is all there. Now your team this season is the best it has ever been and might actually be one of the best single season teams in league history. Again, I hate “championship or bust” mentality because it is setting yourself up for failure and disappointment, but if it ever had to apply to a team, this is the team.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — Heaven help this team if they lose to Boston in the first round again because the pitchforks will be out. A reasonable approach to this team would be that they have a great core, a strong future, and a pretty good team that probably isn’t quite good enough to win the Stanley Cup right now. But nothing surrounding this team is reasonable. The core is great, but they still haven’t won a playoff series yet. Mike Babcock gets paid more money than any other coach in the NHL and is still regarded as an elite hockey mastermind even though he has coached in the second round exactly one time since 2010, while 23 different coaches have won a playoff series since he last did. If this team, with all of that following them around, loses again in the madhouse that is Toronto it is going to be absolute mayhem. Pressure!

3. San Jose Sharks — When it comes to their forwards and defense the Sharks might be the best team in the Western Conference (at least when they are healthy) and should be the favorites to win it. They have also invested heavily in this season to go all in. Erik Karlsson is a free agent after this season, they are running out of time to get Joe Thornton a championship, and they gambled at the trade deadline that Martin Jones and/or Aaron Dell will get their act together and start stopping some pucks. If they do not start stopping pucks this team is going to be in trouble, and that will not be good news for anyone.

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

You need to do something

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — The Blue Jackets entered the NHL at the start of the 2000-01 season. Since then, they are one of just two teams (the Florida Panthers being the other) that has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in that time. They have only won five playoff games (total!), a level of futility that has been matched only by the Panthers. At some point you have to do something come playoff time, and this season would be a good time for that something to happen given the circumstances surrounding the roster. They not only decided to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky throughout the remainder of the season (a decision I agree with, for what it is worth) knowing they will almost certainly lose them over the summer, but went all in on trading for even more potential rentals in Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Barring a terrible collapse over the next week they have probably done enough to avoid the embarrassment that would have been missing the playoffs entirely after all of that, but this is currently a franchise that has to be over the “just happy to be here” phase.

5. Nashville Predators — Probably the Western Conference version of the Lightning at this point, only without  quite as much “oh so close” frustration. General manager David Poile was aggressive in the trading game once again and has put together an impressive roster that is not only signed long-term, but also still has plenty of wiggle room under the salary cap. Expectations should be high.

6. Boston Bruins — Here is a sentence that has probably never been said or written about a Boston sports team in the past 10 or 15 years: They are really underrated, probably overlooked, and have very quietly been one of the most dominant teams in the league this season, especially when you take into account the injury situation they have dealt with at times. The biggest obstacle they face is playing in the wrong division with two other Stanley Cup contenders, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if they are playing in June.

7. Winnipeg Jets  — After reaching the Western Conference Final a year ago and coming back with a roster that boasts one of the best collections of high end forwards in the league this should be a team expected to go on another lengthy run, especially if they can hold on to the Central Division lead and draw a Wild Card team in round one.

8. Calgary Flames — The Flames have been a huge surprise this year and there probably were not many people that had them pegged as a potential Stanley Cup team at the start. But when you are the No. 1 seed in a conference that definitely brings some expectation to win. Nobody in Calgary should be mad if they fall short of a championship, but at this point there should be an expectation to at the very least make it to the second or third round.

9. St. Louis Blues — The Blues went on a huge spending spree over the summer in an effort to boost an offense that kept them out of the playoffs a year ago, and they seem to have found a goalie — at least for this season — that has not only put them in the playoffs, but has given them a chance to maybe steal the Central Division in the final week of the regular season. Given the way Nashville and Winnipeg have played at times down the stretch neither one of them looks unbeatable in the first two rounds, and the Blues have been one of the league’s best teams ever since Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington were added to the mix. The door is open for them.

10. Dallas Stars — Always the winners of the offseason, never the winners during the season. This has been a truly bizarre year in Dallas that began with the team’s CEO publicly ripping his best players even though they were (and still are) the only ones producing any sort of offense. Given the way the goaltending has played they are going to be a tough out if that continues. The trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, and Jamie Benn can take over any game offensively at any time, but there is not much after them. Realistically? Not a championship team at the moment. But given how the GM is always looking for the blockbuster move and the way the CEO acted this season it would probably be beneficial to not go out early.

You get the benefit of the doubt

11. Washington Capitals

12. Pittsburgh Penguins

13. Vegas Golden Knights

All three of these teams get to go together because the same rule applies to all of them and I would say the same thing about all of them. The players and coaches are professionals that are wired mentally to compete and win and go all in every game, and they will. In their eyes as coaches and players anything less than a championship will be a disappointment because this is what they play for. But if you are a fan of any of these teams you really don’t have a reason to be too disappointed if the season ends with anything less than a championship just because of what they have accomplished lately. The Capitals are literally the defending champs, you get at least a one year grace period. The Penguins have played in four Stanley Cup Finals over the past 10 years, winning three of them, including two of the past three. As for Vegas? You are still in the honeymoon phase as a fanbase and were able to experience more excitement, enjoyment, and winning in your first year of existence than fans of probably 90 percent of the league have been able to experience in the past decade. Or more. Not only that, in year two your team might be even better and has a great chance to do it all over again. You have literally never experienced bad hockey.

Nobody expects you to win, but you better make the playoffs

14. Montreal Canadiens — It feels weird saying the Canadiens are under pressure to simply make the playoffs given how low my expectations were for them at the start of the season, but they have maintained a spot in the top-eight for most of the year and to fall out of that at the very end, after going through a couple of ugly late-season collapses in recent years, would be less than ideal and a bad look for everyone.

15. Colorado Avalanche — This is a very flawed team that still has plenty of reason for optimism in the future. They have three outstanding young forwards just now entering their prime years in the league, they have some good young talent coming through the system and they are going to add to that with a top-four pick in 2019 that might even be the top pick in the draft. Still, they were a playoff team a year ago and started the season with 17 wins in their first 29 games. That should be enough to get in the playoffs, especially in what has been an historically weak Western Conference Wild Card race.

The playoffs are a bonus

16. New York Islanders — Look, this entire season has been an incredible ride for Islanders fans, and with their goaltending playing the way it has all year there is every reason to believe they can make some noise in the playoffs and maybe do something meaningful. Even if they do not, Islanders fans are going to look back at this season and this particular team fondly because of what they accomplished and the way the team gave a giant middle finger to everybody that counted them out (me included) at the start given the way free agency went.

17. Carolina Hurricanes — No matter what happens this season with the Hurricanes it almost feels like a new beginning for a franchise that had been, quite frankly, forgotten about. The future is bright, the team is fun during and after games, and all of it together has re-energized a fanbase that has known nothing but losing and disappointment for the past decade.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago and have been completely decimated by injuries for most of the season. Nobody would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they struggled on the ice again. Making the playoffs would be an incredible accomplishment and a huge stepping stone for the organization.

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.

Rangers’ Brendan Lemieux fined $2,000 for elbowing Cody Glass

3 Comments

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Monday that New York Rangers forward Brendan Lemieux has been fined $2,000 for elbowing Vegas Golden Knights forward Cody Glass on Sunday.

The incident, which you can see in the video above, took place late in the second period and forced Glass to exit the game. He did not return.

There was no penalty called on the play.

Lemieux closed in on Glass to finish a check, but as he approached him he spun around, hit him back first, and swung his elbow around making contact with Glass’ head.

The Rangers went on to win the game, 5-0, thanks to another huge game from goaltender Alexandar Georgiev.

Given that the DoPS deemed the play to be worth some sort of discipline it is a little bit of a surprise that Lemieux was able to avoid a suspension given that Glass was injured on the play.

Glass was the first-ever draft pick in Golden Knights history (No. 6 overall in 2017) and is playing in his first NHL season. He has four goals and seven assists in 32 games this season. Coach Gerrard Gallant called his injury an “upper-body injury.”

The only update from Gallant on Monday was that Glass was not with the team and that he went through concussion protocol on Sunday night.

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.

Senators’ Sabourin closer to return after scary collision

Leave a comment

Ottawa Senators forward Scott Sabourin is closer to returning to the lineup and was able to take a huge step in that return on Monday when he skated with the team for the first time since he was taken off the ice on a stretcher following a scary collision in Boston.

Sabourin has been sidelined since Nov. 2 when he was injured on an attempted check against Bruins forward David Backes. It was an innocent looking play that had a horrifying result as Sabourin was knocked out, suffered a broken nose and a concussion, and had spend the night in a Boston hospital.

He spoke to reporters for the first time on Monday and talked about his progress.

Via the Ottawa Citizen:

“I’m feeling much better,” said Sabourin, who spoke to reporters for the first time since the hit, on Monday morning. “It’s been a little while here and I’ve been taking my time recovering but we’re taking it day-by-day. I’m glad to be out there with the guys and I’m looking forward to the future.

“(Next is) getting back to shape I’d say. Six weeks off is a bit of time so we’re just trying to progress by getting the legs back under me and getting the confidence coming along with it and then hopefully back in the lineup sooner rather than later.”

The next step for him is to be cleared for contact, which has not yet happened. There is still no timetable for that — or his eventual return — but the fact he is back on the ice and skating with the team is a positive step for him.

The 27-year-old forward made his NHL debut this season after spending the first six years of his professional career playing in the American Hockey League after going undrafted.

He signed a professional tryout contract with the Senators this offseason and did enough to earn a spot on the opening roster, scoring a goal in his debut.

Related: Senators’ Sabourin stretchered off ice following scary collision with David Backes

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Metropolitan Division dominance

Leave a comment

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings it is all about the Metropolitan Division which is proving itself to be the best, most competitive, and top-heavy division in the league.

It is so good right now that as of Monday five of the league’s top-11 teams in points percentage (Washington, New York Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Carolina) all play in it, and four of those teams (Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) are in the top-seven.

All five are also in the top-10 in goal-differential.

The Capitals look like they have a shot to win another Presidents’ Trophy and maybe a Stanley Cup, the Islanders are still locking things down defensively, the Penguins are playing like a legit contender even though they they have been the most injured team in the league, the Flyers are one of the hottest teams in the league, and the Hurricanes are quietly surging along with a blossoming superstar on their roster.

Those teams also dominate the top of this week’s Power Rankings.

Where do they — and the rest of the league — currently sit?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. John Carlson is on pace to be the first defenseman since the 1991-92 season to hit the 100-point mark and the Capitals are on pace to win their fourth Presidents’ Trophy since the 2009-10 season.

2. Colorado Avalanche. If they can get Taylor Hall they would be the clear favorite to win the Western Conference, and maybe the Stanley Cup. They might be the favorite for both even if they do not get Taylor Hall.

3. Boston Bruins. Imagine how good they can be when they get Patrice Bergeron back.

4. Philadelphia Flyers. In any given week it feels like they could be a top-five team or a bottom-five team. Right now? Top-five. Losing Travis Konecny for now is going to be tough.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The way they are playing through significant injuries should make the rest of the Eastern Conference worried about what they are capable of when they start getting people back — including Sidney Crosby.

6. New York Islanders. They have come back to earth a little bit since that 17-game point streak came to an end, which is to be expected. Should not be a cause for concern yet.

7. St. Louis Blues. They could still use a little more offense, but the goaltending has been good enough to mask their flaws.

8. Winnipeg Jets. Forget the Vezina Trophy, Connor Hellebuyck is building himself an MVP case right now. Not saying he will win it, but he is building an argument.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Andrei Svechnikov is starting to become a monster, leading the team in goals, points, and averaging more than a point-per-game. He is only 19 years old.

10. Arizona Coyotes. They are off to one of the best starts in franchise history while getting minimal goal-scoring from three of their top players (Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson). If they can get going they might be on to something here, especially with that goaltending duo.

11. Dallas Stars. With this goaltending they can make a lot of noise, assuming the goaltending keeps playing the way it has.

12. Minnesota Wild. A season that looked lost a little more than a month ago is now on the verge of being salvaged. The Wild have earned a point in 14 out of their 17 games (10-3-4) since the start of November and are climbing back up the standings.

13. Edmonton Oilers. There are a lot of cracks in the foundation. Still no depth, and since their 7-1 start they have managed to win just 11 out of 24 games. They are going in the wrong direction.

14. Vancouver Canucks. I don’t think even they expected J.T. Miller to be as impactful as he has been since they acquired him.

15. Calgary Flames. They have started to turn things around the past couple of weeks, and even Milan Lucic is on a two-game goal-scoring streak.

16. Tampa Bay Lightning. Two things have hurt their spot in the standings. The first is they have played a league-low 27 games. The second is they have been wildly inconsistent in the 27 games they have played.

17. Florida Panthers. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are incredible. The goaltending is still incredibly bad.

18. Toronto Maple Leafs. Every team in the Atlantic Division behind Boston is a jumbled mess of mediocrity, and I don’t think the Maple Leafs expected to find themselves in that pile. They have shown signs of going on a run since the coaching change, but it has not all come together yet.

19. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel is having a dominant, breakout season. Hopefully the Sabres can do enough around him so it does not go to waste.

20. New York Rangers. They are hanging in there and have given a lot of teams headaches lately. I don’t know if they are as good as their record, but having a superstar like Artemi Panarin and two outstanding goalies playing the way they are it is going to give a team a chance.

21. Vegas Golden Knights. Something is just off here. This team should be better than it currently is.

22. Nashville Predators. The usually dependable goaltending duo of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros is sinking their season at the moment.

23. San Jose Sharks. Speaking of teams that should be better than they currently are, the Sharks are in a lot of trouble after a miserable road trip through Florida. Teams that get blown out as often as this team does do not typically do very well.

24. Montreal Canadiens. They simply do not have enough depth to overcome the injuries to Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

25. Chicago Blackhawks. Robin Lehner has been a great addition and helped give an otherwise awful defensive team a chance to win. He just can not stop anything in the shootout.

26. Columbus Blue Jackets. We knew the goaltending would be a question mark, but the offense has dropped off even more than it was expected to.

27. Ottawa Senators. After a brief surge in the middle of November the Senators are back to their struggles. The biggest thing to watch here is where Jean-Gabriel Pageau ends up.

28. Anaheim Ducks. They have three wins in their past 15 games. Somehow two of those wins have been against the Blues and Islanders.

29. New Jersey Devils. John Hynes may not have been the right coach for the Devils, but he also wasn’t the biggest problem.

30. Los Angeles Kings. What do you do with Jonathan Quick? Trading him does not seem to be an option given his play. A buyout will be a significant salary cap hit for a long time. He also has shown no sign that his career is on the verge of turning back around.

31. Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings are trending toward “historically bad” territory this season.

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.

Flyers’ Konecny out ‘indefinitely’ due to concussion

Getty
5 Comments

The Philadelphia Flyers’ chaotic win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon proved to be a costly one as leading scorer Travis Konecny had to exit after he was rocked on an open-ice hit by Mark Borowiecki.

The team issued an update on Konecny’s status on Monday, and it is not good.

Konecny is going to be sidelined “indefinitely” after being diagnosed with a concussion. Here is a look at the play that knocked him out of the lineup. It was one of the turning points that saw the game devolve into a series of fights, trash talk, and a late cheap shot from Brady Tkachuk on Scott Laughton (you can read about all of that here).

“He’s been our best scorer and he’s found a way to contribute offensively and defensively,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault on Monday. “We were using him five-on-five and the PP. It’s going to give the opportunity to someone else to see more ice time and step up and contribute.”

The Flyers have been one of the hottest teams in the league over the past couple of weeks and have won seven of their past nine games to climb up to the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The play of Konecny has been one of the driving forces behind their success as he leads the team in goals and total points during what has been — so far– a breakout season offensively. He is in the first year of a six-year, $33 million contract.

He scored in the first period of Saturday’s win, giving him three goals in the past four games.

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.