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.

Roundtable: Best hub cities for NHL’s Return to Play

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Which two potential hub cities would be the best options for the NHL?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m going to rule out Canadian cities because … frankly, Canada is (broadly speaking) taking a more cautious approach. That’s positive for the greater good, but not those who want to hand out a 2020 Stanley Cup. That said, if the NHL was willing to comply with 14-day quarantines and the like, that would be a different ballgame.

But I’ll go with two cities in the U.S. to try to be more realistic.

My choices:
• Las Vegas, NV
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

Look, you’re not going to find “perfect” options. But, after looking at the CDC’s listings for states/jurisdictions with the least and most infections, Nevada and Minnesota seem like decent bets. Of course, a lot can change in a few weeks, which is the timeline Gary Bettman discussed while pondering potential “hub cities.”

Personally, I’d be weighing safety far and away more than other factors, which is why I leaned (tentatively or not) toward Las Vegas and Minneapolis/St. Paul. In all honesty, the low infection rates of places like North Dakota make me wonder if ND really does rank among the best options. But oh well?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it some more: the NHL’s going to really need to show some finesse in threading the needle of actually pulling this off.

[Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away]

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I agree with James on the Canadian options. Given the current government mandates, if the NHL wants these two hub cities decided on in the next few weeks, I can’t see Edmonton, Vancouver or Toronto having the time to appease the league’s desires.

The one clear front-runner is Vegas, for obvious reasons. Hotel capacity, transportation, rinks, low COVID-19 case rates. The Nevada summer heat is one worry I have, which will give Dan Craig and his team plenty of work to do to ensure the sheets are up-to-par.

Columbus or Pittsburgh would make sense if you want that East/West mix for TV. If the schedule is going to be something similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, the Columbus/Pittsburgh side would start their games at noon ET and we’d have hockey all day with the Vegas games ending the night.

Both have key factors in their corner: multiple ice sheets, hotel proximity, and have been flattening the curve when it comes to COVID-19 cases.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: From the outside, it would seem the top considerations for hub city destinations are the COVID-19 conditions, and whether the infrastructure is sufficient to execute a tournament of this scope. The former is a variable that involves expert opinion and decision making, so I won’t attempt to weigh the cities based on that. The latter is something the league had time to evaluate before it announced the 10 candidates, so one would assume that all the “finalists” meet whatever minimum standard is required to host.

My initial thought from the very beginning was that Las Vegas should be a lock, and the details of what that might look like were described in a recent report from The Athletic. Vegas seems uniquely equipped to create the most controlled environment for these purposes. That’s got my first vote.

With that in mind, my second hub city choice is Pittsburgh, for a few reasons:

First, geographical balance is important considering that, at least at the very beginning, there figure to be several games per day across the two sites. This Olympic-style format would work best on TV if there were staggered start times to accommodate audiences in every time zone. That rules out Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Second, it’s unclear to what extent the US-Canada border situation will influence the final decision, but given where things stand at this exact moment, it seems more practical to have both sites in the US. That rules out Edmonton and Toronto.

That leaves Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Pittsburgh. I’ve got no good reason for picking Pittsburgh except: why not give a carrot to the team that has to go up against Carey Price (who was the overwhelming choice for best goalie in this year’s NHLPA Player Poll) and the Montreal Canadiens (who effectively had a zero percent chance of making the playoffs when the season paused)?

There you have it. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. The Marc-Andre Fleury bowl.

MORE:
NHL announces return-to-play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

Russia hires Bragin as men’s national hockey team coach

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia hired Valery Bragin as coach of the men’s national hockey team on Friday as it gears up to defend its Olympic title in 2022.

Bragin moves up from his longtime role in charge of the Russian under-20 team, which he led to the silver medal at this year’s world junior championships.

The Russian Hockey Federation didn’t say for how long Bragin’s contract runs. Bragin said his main aim was to prepare the team for next year’s world championships with a focus on players from outside the NHL.

Bragin replaces former Toronto Maple Leafs player Alexei Kudashov, who moves into a consultant role with the national team after 11 months as head coach.

Bragin also takes over from Kudashov as head coach of club team SKA St. Petersburg, whose operations are tightly intertwined with those of the national team. Roman Rotenberg is the general manager for both teams and holds vice president roles in both the club and the federation.

Rotenberg said in a statement that Kudashov “cannot currently put his full focus on coaching work.” He did not elaborate further.

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Igor Larionov replaces Bragin in charge of the junior team.

Russia’s players won the men’s hockey gold medal at the 2018 Olympics under the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” name after the country was officially barred from the games for doping offenses.

PHT Morning Skate: Willie O’Ree, others on racism in and outside of hockey

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

O’Ree and others on racism in and around hockey

• Hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree described George Floyd’s death and the events surrounding it as “very discouraging.” O’Ree added that, on a larger level, racism isn’t going to go away overnight. That said, after witnessing statements from the likes of Blake Wheeler acknowledging their privilege, O’Ree wonders if the truth about racism is finally “sinking in.” Maybe players can show that they’ve learned such lessons once play resumes? [CBC]

• Michael Traikos caught up with Kevin Weekes for his perspective on racism in and around hockey. On one hand, Weekes celebrates players “without a horse in the race” such as Jonathan Toews and Blake Wheeler for speaking up. On the other hand, Weekes emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do. [Toronto Sun]

• Jeff Veillette spots the sometimes-rampant racism in the “NHL 20” community. Unfortunately, it seems like EA Sports has a lot of work to do to improve this area. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the company is putting a lot of resources into fixing this problem, either. [Faceoff Circle]

CBA talks intensify, and other hockey bits

• Both TSN’s Darren Dreger and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman report that the NHL and NHLPA are intensifying talks to extend the CBA. Stabilizing escrow is a big factor for the players, as the pandemic pause is likely to hit them hard, and for quite some time. [More detail in 31 Thoughts, in particular]

• Read up on the Sens Foundation ending its relationship with the Ottawa Senators. [Sports Daily]

Nick Foligno and his family open up a new chapter with “The Heart’s Playbook.” [The Hockey Writers]

• The Oilers realize that, with the “championship pedigree” of the Blackhawks, an upset isn’t out of the question during the Qualifying Round. [Sportsnet; also read PHT’s previews for the West here]

• Which teams are oddsmakers favoring if action starts up again? [Featurd]

• Emily Kaplan looks at a coronavirus trend for Ducks fans: getting married at the Honda Center. Pretty fun. [ESPN]

• Could the Rangers repair their relationship with Lias Andersson? Such a push could help them as early as the Qualifying Round against the Hurricanes. It certainly beats things only getting bitter and Andersson’s development stalling. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• When you get drafted 34th overall, as Dalton Smith did in 2010, you expect to play in the NHL. You don’t necessarily expect to only do so for one minute and 26 seconds in one game in late 2019 with the Sabres. Smith’s journey is quite the story by Nick Faris. [The Score]

• Grant Fuhr talks about what drove him to become a coach for one of the team’s in the upcoming 3-on-3 hockey league 3ICE. Sounds like it could be pretty wild stuff. [Desert Sun]

• Bill Hoppe goes in-depth on Victor Olofsson‘s chances of having staying power as a scorer with the Sabres. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

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.

NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.