PHT Power Rankings: Next team to win its first Stanley Cup

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The past two NHL postseasons have given us first time Stanley Cup champions.

In 2017-18, it was the Washington Capitals finally breaking through and giving their fans a championship after years of torment and disappointment.

This season it was the St. Louis Blues doing the same thing and not only winning their first ever Stanley Cup Final game, but also winning their first ever championship in what was their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the 1970 season.

With the Capitals and Blues finally getting their names on the Stanley Cup, there are still 11 teams in the NHL that have yet to win it.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we look at those 11 teams in order of who is most likely to be the next team to win its first championship.

To the rankings!

Teams knocking on the door

1. Vegas Golden Knights. This has not been your typical expansion team. In their first two years in the NHL the Golden Knights have already made the playoffs two times, were in the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season, and were an historic Game 7 third period meltdown away from starting what could have been another lengthy postseason run this season. They have a great core of talent in place, are already an established Stanley Cup contender, and have an ownership and a front office that is not afraid to take chances and go all in on winning. Their fans did not have to wait long for a taste of success, and they will not have to wait long for a championship.

2. Nashville Predators. The Predators have been one of the NHL’s most successful teams for the past four years now, and while they have some holes to address this offseason (like their power play) this is still an incredibly deep roster. They have what is perhaps the best top-four on defense in the NHL (barring a trade this summer) and a deep, talented group of forwards. Their core is still fairly young, it is all signed long-term, and they still have some salary cap space to play with when it comes to adding to it. They were in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and still have a team that is capable of getting back to that level and finishing the job in the very near future.

3. San Jose Sharks. A lot of it depends on what happens with their offseason. Re-sign Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski and this team is right back as one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Heck, even if they only re-sign Karlsson and get a reasonably healthy season out of him they are right back at the top of the Conference. Goaltending is still a big question mark, but the rest of this team is so good that it is not going to need a game-stealer in the crease, just somebody to simply avoid losing games.

4. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets badly regressed in the second half of the 2018-19 season, but this is still a team loaded with talent, especially at forward where they are one of the deepest teams in the league. The defense has some holes, especially if Jacob Trouba gets traded this summer, and while they are probably not quite as good as the Golden Knights, Predators, or Sharks they are still definitely a step or two ahead of teams like Columbus and Minnesota.

Teams with some work to do

5. Columbus Blue Jackets. They are set to lose a ton this offseason and do not have a ton of assets at their disposal to replace them, giving general manager Jarmo Kekalainen one of the toughest jobs of any general manager in the NHL, but he still has a pretty solid core in place to work with thanks to Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They need a goalie, they need another impact forward or two, but they still have a core of players that can be built around. The big question mark in the short-term is going to be in net where it is going to be awfully difficult to replace Sergei Bobrovsky. Their ability to find a competent No. 1 goalie will determine how quickly they can get to a championship level.

[Related: Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer]

6. Minnesota Wild. Here is my biggest concern with the Wild: I am not sure how much trust or faith I have in the new front office based on what we have seen and heard from them so far. This was a really good regular season team for quite a few years, but was never quite good enough to get over the top teams in its own division. It hit its ceiling, its big-money core is aging and declining, and the front office has made some very questionable moves that might be setting the team back a bit.

7. Florida Panthers. The Panthers were a massive disappointment during the 2018-19 season and have probably been the least successful organization in the league over the past 20 years. It is still a team that is not far from being relevant for the first time since The Rat Trick team during its improbably 1995-96 run to the Stanley Cup Final. The core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck is phenomenal and they are all signed long-term at team-friendly rates. They have salary cap space, they seem determined to spend and make a big splash this summer, and if they could get the right complementary pieces around their top young players this is not a team that is terribly far off. But getting the right complementary players is way easier said than done.

8. Buffalo Sabres. They have Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, one player that is already a star (Eichel) and another that is on the way to becoming a star (Dahlin). As long as they continue on their current paths they will be the foundation of this team for the next decade, and that is an excellent thing because star players are the toughest thing to acquire in a rebuild. The problem is the rest of the team around those two is simply not anywhere clear to a championship level. Eichel and Dahlin can not do it on their own, and for the foreseeable future they will have to try.

9. Arizona Coyotes. If you took a poll of random hockey fans and asked them which team in the league is furthest away from a championship I wager that one of the most popular answers would be the Arizona Coyotes because, well, it is an organization that does not get a lot of respect. That could soon be changing. The Coyotes nearly made the playoffs this season despite being hit harder by injuries than almost any other team in the league. They have a lot of promising young talent and a nice mix of veterans to go with them, but they are still missing a true difference-maker at forward. Getting that type of player is going to be their biggest hurdle in taking the next step in their development. That is the biggest reason I have them behind teams like Florida and Buffalo even though in some ways the Coyotes are better. The difference is those two teams have young franchise cornerstones that can change games. Those are the players you win championships with.

It might be a long wait

10. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are must-see players, but this entire organization just seems stuck in neutral. In terms of wins, they have been the least successful team in the NHL over the past four years but have never quite been bad enough in any one individual season to have a great chance to land a No. 1 or 2 overall pick, while they have also had terrible luck in the draft lottery. They have also never really been good enough to be anything close to a playoff team. Being stuck in the middle ground of the NHL is a terrible place to be, and that is where Jim Benning has put them with little to no sign of getting out of it anytime soon.

11. Ottawa Senators. It is downright astonishing that this team went from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (double overtime of that Game 7, no less!) to a team that just seems to be completely hopeless. The truly frustrating thing about the Senators is they have some promising young players. They have some reasons for optimism. The biggest issue holding them back is ownership. If they would not pay to keep together a team that was on the verge of the Stanley Cup Final, and if they would not pay to keep a franchise icon and one of the best players ever at his position in Erik Karlsson, why does anyone think they will pay to keep the next wave of talent that goes through Ottawa if they continue to develop? There is no reason to believe anything will be different this time around. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of ownership in Ottawa speak for themselves.

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.

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Provorov’s next contract presents big challenge for Flyers

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Philadelphia Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher has been busy overhauling his roster this summer and still has two big jobs ahead of him when it comes to re-signing restricted free agents Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov.

With close to $14 million in salary cap space remaining, he should have no problem in getting them signed and keeping the team under the salary cap.

Konecny’s situation seems like it should be pretty simple: He is a top-six forward that has been incredibly consistent throughout the first three years of his career. The Flyers know what they have right now, and they should have a pretty good idea as to what he is going to be in the future. There is not much risk in projecting what he should be able to do for them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Provorov, on the other hand, presents a far more interesting challenge because he is still somewhat of a mystery whose career seems like it can go in either direction.

Along with Shayne Gostisbehere, Provorov is supposed to be the foundation of the Flyers’ defense for the next decade and entered the league with much fanfare at the start of the 2016-17 season. From the moment he arrived the Flyers have treated him like a top-pairing defender and pretty much thrown him in the deep end of the pool.

At times, he has flashed the potential that made him a top-10 pick in the draft and such a prized piece in the Flyers’ organization.

During his first three years in the league he has not missed a single game, has played more than 20 minutes per game every year, and over the past two seasons has played the fourth most total minutes in the NHL and the third most even-strength minutes. The Flyers have also not gone out of their way to shelter him in terms of where he starts his shifts and who he plays against, regularly sending him over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs and playing against other team’s top players.

In their view, based on his usage, he is their top defender.

Or at least was their top defender over the past two seasons.

Given the performance of the Flyers defensively during those seasons, that may not be much of a statement.

The concern that has to be addressed is that so far in his career Provorov has not always performed like a top-pairing defender in those top-pairing minutes that he has been given.

Just because a player gets a lot of playing time and the toughest assignments does not necessarily mean they are going to handle those minutes or succeed within them. That has been the case at times with Provorov in Philadelphia. This is not like the situation Columbus and Boston are facing with Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy this summer where both young players have already demonstrated an ability to play like top-pairing defenders and have already earned what should be significant, long-term commitments from their respective teams.

This is a situation where a young, talented, and still very promising player has been given a huge role, but has not always performed enough to justify that much trust.

He is also coming off of what can probably be described as a down season where his performance regressed from what it was in 2017-18. He not only saw a steep drop in his production offensively, but the Flyers were outshot, outchanced, and outscored by a pretty significant margin when Provorov was on the ice no matter who his partner was.

He struggled alongside Shayne Gostisbehere. He also struggled alongside Travis Sanheim, while Sanheim saw his performance increase dramatically when he was away from Provorov.

The dilemma the Flyers have to face here is how they handle a new contract for him this summer.

On one hand, he does not turn 23 until January and clearly has the talent to be an impact defender. But he has also played three full seasons in the NHL, and even when looked at within the context of his own team, has not yet shown a consistent ability to be that player. Every player develops at a different pace, and just because McAvoy and Werenski have already emerged as stars doesn’t mean every player at the same age has to follow the same rapid path. Because they most certainly will not.

It just makes it difficult for teams like the Flyers when they have to juggle a new contract.

They were in a similar position with Gostisbehere a couple of years ago when they signed him to a six-year, $27 million contract when he came off of his entry-level deal. But while Gostisbehere had regressed offensively, he still posted strong underlying numbers and at least showed the ability to be more of a possession-driving player. His goal-scoring and point production dropped, but there were at least positive signs it might bounce back. That is not necessarily the case with Provorov.

Even though Provorov has played a ton of minutes, put up some decent goal numbers at times, and been one of the biggest minute-eating defenders in the league, this just seems like a situation that screams for a bridge contract to allow the player to continue to develop, while also giving the team an opportunity to figure out what they have.

Provorov still has the potential to be a star and a bonafide top-pairing defender.

He just has not played like one yet or consistently shown any sign that he definitely will be one, despite being given the role.

Related: Werenski, McAvoy should be in line for huge contracts

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.

Capitals re-sign Vrana for two years, $6.7 million

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took care of his biggest remaining offseason task on Tuesday afternoon when he re-signed restricted free agent forward Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract.

The deal will pay Vrana $6.7 million and carry an average annual salary cap hit of $3.35 million per season.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” said MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vrana was the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014 and has already shown top-line potential in the NHL. He took a huge step forward in his development during the 2018-19 season, scoring 24 goals to go with 23 assists while also posting strong underlying numbers. He is one of the Capitals’ best young players and quickly starting to become one of their core players moving forward.

It is obviously a bridge contract that will keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires following the 2020-21 season. If he continues on his current path he would be in line for a significant long-term contract that summer.

With Vrana signed the Capitals have under $1 million in salary cap space remaining. They still have to work out new contracts with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson. Both players filed for salary arbitration. Djoos’ hearing is scheduled for July 22, while Stephenson has his scheduled for August 1. If the Capitals want to keep both on the NHL roster on opening night they may have to make another minor move at some point before the start of the regular 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.

Donato gets two-year, $3.8 million extension from Wild

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Ryan Donato took advantage of a bigger opportunity with the Minnesota Wild and earned himself a raise on Tuesday.

The Wild announced that they have extended the 23-year-old Donato with a two-year, $3.8 million contract. That $1.9 million annual salary will be a bump from the $925,000 he made during the 2018-19 NHL season.

Following a February trade that sent Charlie Coyle to the Boston Bruins, Donato saw his ice time rise over three minutes under Bruce Boudreau and that resulted in four goals and 16 points in 22 games with Minnesota. Unable to carve out his own role in Boston, Donato struggled offensively with six goals and nine points in 34 games before moving.

“I definitely learned the business side of it, for sure,” Donato said in April. “One thing I learned, in Boston and here, it’s a game of ups and downs. More than college, more than any level, there’s a lot of ups and downs. It’s been an emotional roller coaster the whole year, but definitely over the last couple months it’s settled down quite a bit.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Donato, who was a restricted free agent and will remain one when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season, continued his production in the American Hockey League’s notching 11 points in 14 games between the end of the Iowa Wild’s regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s all about opportunity in this league,” Donato said. “If I can get myself into scoring positions playing with the high-end veteran players we have here, that have been known to find guys in scoring positions, then I’m a guy that can bury it.”

The Wild have high hopes for next season as they expect to be a playoff team coming out of what will be a very, very competitive Central Division. General manager Paul Fenton added Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello to boost the team’s offense which finished fourth-worst in the NHL in goals per game (2.56). Donato will be expected to be a key contributor.

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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.