PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

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There can only be one team lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, and that means the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against your favorite team going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Chances are, your team is going to lose at some point over the next two months.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we keep that in mind and, just as we did at the start of the playoffs a year ago, take a look at why your team can not win it all this season.

Teams are ranked in order their ability to overcome whatever weakness it is they may have.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have to actually finish a big series. In the past four years they have lost two Eastern Conference Finals where they had 3-2 leads and a Cup Final where they had a 2-1 lead. In all three situations their offense was completely shut down at the worst possible time. A fluke? An unfortunate, poorly timed coincidence? Some kind of mental block? All of the above? Whatever it is, until they actually do it that question is going to keep following them around.

2. Washington Capitals — The defending champs have started to play like champions since the trade deadline. The concern here: They are still not a great defensive team and the loss of Michal Kempny will only make that worse. What they do have, however, are a couple of Hall of Fame forwards and a goalie that, even though he didn’t have a great regular season, always seems to play his best hockey in the playoffs. That recipe worked a year ago.

3.  Vegas Golden Knights — They have been a dominant possession team in the second half and can roll three quality lines that can all beat you. Their struggles down the stretch were mainly related to the fact Malcolm Subban isn’t Marc-Andre Fleury. With Fleury back and healthy, and assuming the bad version of him does not show up, this is going to be a brutal team to deal with. That is the big concern, though: Which Fleury will they get. No goalie in the league has been more hot and cold than him this season. He has been great in games, and awful in others.

4. Boston Bruins — One of the best teams in the NHL this season despite some brutal injury luck that robbed them of some of their best, most important players for extended periods of time. The biggest concern I see here, other than still wondering if they are deep enough beyond their top forwards, is the same thing every team in the Atlantic Division bracket has … they are the best teams in the league, they all have to play each other, and somebody has to lose.

5. St. Louis Blues — They have been one of the hottest teams in the league for months now and have some of the best underlying numbers in the NHL since Craig Berube took over behind the bench. It’s easy to write their turnaround off as them simply catching lightning in a bottle with Jordan Binnington, but since Jan. 1 the Blues have been one of the best 5-on-5 teams in hockey. They don’t really have a glaring weakness and the two top teams in their bracket are there for the taking. If you wanted to look for an issue it is probably concern over how long Binnington can keep playing at this level or if he will eventually turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

6. Nashville Predators — I want to say a lot of their struggles at times this season, especially as it relates to their offense, have been because of all the games players like Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson missed. They still have what might be the best defense in hockey and two really good goalies, but their offense — both at even-strength and on the power play — has been a struggle this season.

7. Calgary Flames — I love everything about this team except for the fact I don’t entirely trust David Rittich or Mike Smith. That is the wrong position to have questions about.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They could win the Cup or they could lose Round 1 in five games. Nobody really knows what this team will do or what it is capable of, and that is kind of the problem here. They are just too inconsistent. There are only a handful of teams in the NHL that can match the star power they have at the top of the lineup, and Matt Murray has been better than anybody gives him credit for being this season, but their defensive play is severely lacking at times and I don’t know that you can trust their second and third pairs on the blue line.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are really good, and their struggles are probably magnified more than the struggles of other teams because of where they play and the expectations around them. I just don’t know if they are good enough to beat Boston and Tampa Bay in the first two rounds should it come to that. There might be six teams in the entire league better than them, and two of them will probably be standing directly in front of them in the first two rounds.

10. Carolina Hurricanes — Since January 1 the Hurricanes have been kind of outstanding. Their points percentage since then? Fourth best in the NHL. Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength? All among the top-10. Sebastian Aho is a star, Teuvo Teravainen has had a great year, Nino Niederreiter gave them another finisher they desperately needed, and Andrei Svechnikov‘s rookie season is better than you realize. Love the way they play and love their approach to the game. My big concern is how long Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney can maintain their current level of play.

[Related: Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs]

11. San Jose Sharks — Goaltending matters in the playoffs and history is not kind to playoff teams that have goaltending like this, no matter how good their regular season record is or how good their roster looks on paper. This is a real problem and it might cost them the Stanley Cup.

12. Winnipeg Jets — I don’t know what to make of this team. A couple of weeks ago they looked to be getting into playoff mode and playing some of their best hockey of the season, but for two months now they have been getting obliterated in shot attempts and scoring chances and have only been a very mediocre even-strength team all season. They do have great talent up front that could always carry them on a run, but something is missing this season.

13. New York Islanders — Mathew Barzal is developing into a star, but this roster lacks the type of impact talent after him that every Cup winner needs to have. Since February 1 they are 24th in the NHL in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential, 16th in scoring chance differential, and are only 6-7-1 against playoff teams during that stretch. I could see them winning a round with their goaltending, and then giving somebody a scare in Round 2. But I just don’t see the high-end talent here to win it all this season.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — They were a mess in that first month after the trade deadline, but the Blue Jackets are kind of quietly heading into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league winning seven of their past eight. That is the good news. The bad news is they are stuck in the divisional bracket from hell and have to have face the Lightning in Round 1, and if they get through that, have to play the winner of Boston-Toronto in Round 2. And as much I hate to be that person to mention a narrative built entirely around small sample sizes, because I usually loathe that person, but Sergei Bobrovsky in the playoffs … yeah … it has been a problem.

15. Dallas Stars — Their goaltending gives them a chance every single night, but eventually Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are going to get shut down for a couple of games. Once that happens there is nobody else on this team that is a threat to score.

16. Colorado Avalanche — They have the same depth concerns as the Stars without the great goaltending to back it all up.

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.

Trade: Flames get Lucic; Oilers receive Neal

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Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.

Yeah, wow.

Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to one-for-one, although there are a few minor tweaks to consider.

The Calgary Herald’s Kristen Anderson reports that the Oilers are retaining 12.5 percent of Milan Lucic’s salary, which translates to $750K, while Edmonton is also sending Calgary a conditional third-round pick in 2020. It’s not clear yet what those conditions are.

If Anderson and others are correct, that means the trade boils down to:

Flames receive: Lucic, 31, minus $750K per year. That puts Lucic at $5.25M, with his contract running through 2022-23. Calgary also receives Edmonton’s 2020 third-round pick, if conditions are met.

Oilers receive: Neal, 31, who has a $5.75M cap hit that runs through 2022-23.

As you can see, the two players remain very similar in both cap hit, term, and even age. The Flames save $500K in cap space, while the Oilers add $500K, as Puck Pedia confirms.

Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.

On Saturday, PHT will try to wade through the variety of paths the two teams could take, whether it means sticking with Lucic and Neal respectively, or going for a buyout or trade. For now, let’s consider where they are in their careers.

Lucic’s tough times

After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.

The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least peace in that regard.

A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary

Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.

He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s sixth NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons. Players as productive as Neal – aside from last season’s meltdown – rarely become journeymen like this.

Honestly, should we just get his nameplate ready for the Seattle [Unfortunately Not Supersonics] right now?

Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.

And then this Calgary season happened.

Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:

Better times ahead, maybe?

Again, it’s easy to forget that both wingers are 31.

That’s not a great age to be when your contract looks inflated, but there’s also a chance that maybe both could turn things around, at least to some degree. With Neal closer to more productive seasons than Lucic, he’d seem to be a more likely candidate, especially if his rifle of a shot pairs nicely with Connor McDavid‘s all-world playmaking.

But both players have a shot at positive regression. Neal’s five percent shooting percentage from 2018-19 marked the only time in his career that he’s been below 10.4 percent, while Lucic shot at 6.8 in 2017-18 and 8.1 in 2018-19, compared to his career average of 13.5 percent.

Modest rebounds wouldn’t guarantee that either Neal or Lucic sticks around in their new climates. Improvements might just make each forward easier to trade, and more palatable to keep around while looking for trades. There’s simply a lot of room for “to be continued” elements to this move, from buyouts to trades and more.

***

As discussed above, there could still be twists and turns in these sagas, and some of those possibilities will be examined on Saturday. Yet, at this moment in time, this seems like the rare trade win for the Oilers. Maybe this is the start of a positive pattern now that Ken Holland is GM?

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.

Trouba gets seven-year, $56 million deal from Rangers

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The New York Rangers have locked up Jacob Trouba with a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Trouba saw his restricted free agent rights acquired by the Rangers last month from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defenseman Neal Pionk and 2019 first-round pick (Ville Heinola). General manager Jeff Gorton added up front by bringing Artemi Panarin to Broadway on July 1, so you knew that they were going to eventually come to an agreement to keep the 25-year-old defenseman in the fold following the June trade as they bulk up for a run in 2019-20.

“They’re building a winner tends to be the vibe I’ve gotten,” said Trouba following the trade to New York. “They treat the players first class. It’s very first-class organization. I mean, it’s New York so you’ve got a big stage and they expect a lot out of their team. We want to ultimately get to the Stanley Cup.”

 

Earlier this month Trouba had elected salary arbitration and had a July 25 date scheduled. But that was merely a formality to allow extra time for both sides to hammer out a deal.

According to PuckPedia, $22 million will be paid to Trouba over the next three seasons via signing bonuses and he has a no-move clause from 2020-21 to 2023-24 and a limited no-trade clause in the final two years of the deal.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Trouba has spent the last six seasons with the Jets, playing 408 games and recording 42 goals and 179 points. In 2018-19 he set a career high with 50 points, making him the ninth defenseman 25 or younger to hit that mark in the past three seasons.

Gorton still has work to do this summer in deciding whether to re-sign RFAs Pavel Buchnevich (July 29 arbitration hearing), Brendan Lemieux and Tony DeAngelo, while working around the salary cap, which after this signing puts them over the ceiling. This could end up leading to a trade of Chris Kreider, who’s entering the final year of this deal carrying a $4.625 million cap hit but owed $4 million in salary for the coming season. They also have a 48-hour buyout window later this summer as well even if they settle with Buchnevich before his hearing.

MORE: Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.

Maple Leafs’ Marner mum on contract negotiations

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It’s not much, but for Toronto Maple Leafs fans willing to hang on anything said by still-unsigned restricted free agent Mitch Marner, it was at least something.

When Marner stepped in front of a crowd of reporters on Thursday, he did undoubtedly knowing what the first line of questioning would be. And the second, and the third.

When is he going to sign?

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marner said. “I want to be there for the start of camp, so hoping something can get done then.”

From there, Marner steered those questions toward his agent as he threw on his best pair dancing shoes and showed he could sidestep with the best of them.

If you’re looking for a t-shirt slogan, “You have to ask my agent” is right up there with the best of them in Toronto these days.

 

“My agent and Kyle are doing it, and they’re going to figure something out,” Marner said.

One thing Marner made pretty clear is he wouldn’t be at training camp without a contract.

“Probably not,” he said. “There’s so much risk with that. It’s just something you don’t want to risk.”

What about an offer sheet?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Marner whipped out the agent line once again, while saying he’s trying to stay out of all of that “stuff.”

So the uncertainty hasn’t affected you?

“None,” he said, before once again talking about his agent’s role in the negotiations.

What about fans’ concerns that you may not sign a contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I’m leaving all of that to my agent right now,” he said.

Those agents, man. Ruining Toronto’s summer for the second year in a row.

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Marner seemed unfazed by it all and appears to be enjoying his summer.

Why wouldn’t he? He’s about to get paid in a major way, but the Maple Leafs or any number of teams that would be willing to lavish cash upon him if given the chance.

Marner’s situation is one of several playing out this summer. He’s not the only big-ticket RFA without a deal so far.

Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado are just a few others. It’s become commonplace for big names without arbitration rights on the RFA list to let negotiations span the summer, if not further.

Marner’s contract is only illuminated better because of where he plays. Dominating two national TV broadcasters on a daily basis in Canada.

And the fear in Leafs Nations is made only worse knowing all-too-well where this path can lead.

William Nylander‘s contract last summer dragged right into the regular season and Nylander and the Maple Leafs felt those effects throughout the season.

The same scenario with Marner would be worse, given he’s the team’s leading point-getter from last season.

A Toronto native, Marner said he’s well-accustomed to the media and said his phone has been shut off for much of the summer.

Like he said, his agent is running the show. Marner’s merely the main protagonist who has yet to be revealed in a complex script.

When he will is anyone’s guess.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck