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NHL Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

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

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Los Angeles Kings

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: A lot of things went wrong for the Kings a year ago, and it wasn’t just a lack of talent around the top players. The top players also had their own issues. Drew Doughty was awful. Jonathan Quick was one of the worst goalies in the league. Even the always dependable Anze Kopitar had one of his worst seasons in the league. Put it all together and it was a miserable season for the Kings. Bounce-backs from that trio alone should be worth a few extra wins, especially when it comes to Quick. Will that be enough to make a dent in the playoff race? Probably not, but they should be a little better just because it may not be possible to be any worse.

Strengths: If the big three of Kopitar, Doughty, and Quick can rebound the Kings still have two top-tier players (Kopitar and Doughty) and a pretty good goalie. They may not be what they were during their peak in the Stanley Cup years, but they can still make an impact. While the Kings’ front office has not really taken drastic steps to accelerate the rebuild by trading many veterans, they still have still managed to put together an impressive farm system that was only strengthened this offseason with the additions of Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev.

Weaknesses: While they have a promising farm system, a lot of the prospects are still a year or two away from making a noticeable impact in the NHL. So for the short-term the team is simply lacking talent at the NHL level, while the players they will be counting on the most are closer to the end of their careers than their peak. Kopitar, Quick, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, and Ilya Kovalchuk are all over the age of 32; Doughty turns 30 this season. Offensively, the Kings have been a stale, dull team that has significantly fallen behind the rest of the league for a few years now. Even in their most recent playoff appearance they seemed to be playing a different sport than the Vegas team that shut them down. The young players coming through the pipeline might help change that in future, but it will not be this season.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Todd McLellan takes over behind the bench, and while it would not be unheard of for a coach to get fired after just one year, it would take a pretty spectacular failure this season for him to not get at least a couple of years. So we will put his rating at a 2 out of 10.

Three most fascinating players: Kovalchuk, Quick, and Jaret Anderson-Dolan.

Kovalchuk is worth watching just to see if he still has anything left at the NHL level. His return to the league after a five-year run in the KHL was a disappointment, and he never seemed to fit in with the Kings’ previous coaching staff. Will a fresh start under McLellan help? Can he still be a 25-30 goal threat? The Kings need anything they can get offensively.

Quick has always been fascinating because his reputation across the league has always exceeded his actual performance. That reputation comes from his postseason play between 2012 and 2014 when the Kings were always playing for the Stanley Cup. To be fair, he was legitimately great in those postseasons. But if you look at his career as a whole his yearly performance hasn’t always matched that. He’s been a consistently good, but not always great starter. And that’s fine. You can win with that. You can not win with what the Kings received from Quick a year ago, which was one of the worst performances in the league.

Anderson-Dolan might be one of the young players in the organization that gets a chance to make an impact this season. The 2017 second-round pick had a five-game cup of coffee at the start of the 2018-19 season before being sent back to his junior team (where he excelled). His goal is to play the entire season in the NHL, and he just might get a chance to do that on a team that really needs some playmaking and talent down the middle.

Playoffs or lottery: The Kings might be a little better, but unless Quick and Jack Campbell play out of their mind in goal for 82 games the playoffs seem to be a real long shot for this team. That means it is back to the lottery.

MORE:
Kopitar on Kings’ season to forget, playing for McLellan
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 goaltenders getting concussions at an alarming rate

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Filip Chytil beat the last defender to the net, snapped the shot past Tuukka Rask and barreled over the goaltender he had just scored on.

Rask flipped his mask off, lay prone and needed assistance to get to his feet and to the Boston Bruins locker room. The goal counted and Chytil faced no repercussions.

Rask suffered a concussion.

”I think it’s brutal, but what can you do?” Rask said. ”The game’s so fast nowadays and space is limited. The guy’s driving wide and the D’s half a step late, then collisions happen.”

Those kinds of collisions are happening at an alarming rate over the past couple of seasons and goaltenders are getting hurt. Just two goaltenders were concussed in 2016-17, missing a total of 15 games, but over the past two seasons, 14 different goalies missed a total of 276 games with a concussion or head injury caused by everything from elbows and knees to pucks off their helmets.

This is a jarring statistic involving the most important position in hockey, but the NHL has not yet taken further steps to protect its masked men. In recent years, the focus has been on trimming the size of goalie equipment as a way to generate more offense and players are routinely coached to crash the net whenever possible. It adds up to putting the most valuable and vulnerable players on the ice at risk of head contact they can do little to avoid and often isn’t even penalized.

”We’re so dialed in on the puck, a lot of times you don’t see guys come from the side,” New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. ”As a player, you can always adjust your body, but if we adjust our positioning, we open up the net. You just have to stand there and I think in a lot of situations hope for the best when people come running into you.”

Hoping for the best isn’t exactly a reassuring strategy, but goalies say there is not much else they can do. Rask, who saw Chytil coming, said goalies mostly are at the mercy of their teammates, opponents and the officials.

”You’ve got to trust that your D-men are going to be there to help protect you and with the referees calling penalties and stuff with goaltender interference that they’re going to try and protect us, too,” said Anaheim Ducks starter John Gibson, who missed a combined 10 games with two separate concussions the last two years. ”What you try to do is know where guys could be coming from so you can brace rather than hitting you and you’re kind of blindsided.”

Goalies have different theories on why concussions and head injuries are up in recent years.

Ben Bishop of Dallas believes the overall decline in fighting correlates to the increase of players feeling like they can take liberties at the crease, while Washington’s’ Braden Holtby considers it part of how players are taught from a young age now.

”Most of those plays that are happening aren’t older guys that have been around,” Holtby said. ”It’s the younger generation where they’ve grown up with there’s no fear to go to the crease and that kind of thing.”

Others point to the inconsistency of goaltender interference calls, which can be as lenient as waving off a goal with no penalty and as severe as a two-minute minor. Holtby and his peers say a minor penalty is not much of a deterrent to keep players from crashing the net in hopes of a goal.

Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, said a two-minute minor penalty isn’t equitable to a goalie getting a concussion.

”I think the league has to (change) the rule,” Vasilevskiy said. ”Maybe it’s a few-game suspension.”

The NHL in recent years has taken steps to reduce hits to the head. Rule 48 instituted in 2010 makes virtually any hit with contact to an opponent’s head a penalty, but Holtby said head contact to goalies is ”not treated the same as everywhere else on the ice for some reason.”

Knowing teammate Marc-Andre Fleury has missed 38 games with three separate concussions over the past four seasons, Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault tries to be conscious of that when he goes to the net.

”For me, it’s just common sense,” Marchessault said. ”Goalies have no protection for that. They’re there in their net and I think everybody should respect more of their crease and be more severe, I think, on the goalie interference (penalties).”

Defenders have to think about it, too.

Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin said collisions like Chytil and Rask happen when players don’t have the right positioning, which is something that starts before the puck gets close to the crease and can be difficult to avoid.

”As a forward, your job is to get to the net, to get to the front of the net,” Slavin said. ”You’re trying to stop them as a defenseman from getting to the net, and they’re trying to be that net-front presence. Everything’s kind of colliding at the net, so I don’t how much you can actually stop that from happening.”

Concussion spotters in 2016 were given the authority to remove a player from a game if he exhibits visible signs of a concussion, and it applies to goalies. The policy came under fire early because backup goalies were coming in cold at important junctures of games.

Rask said spotters are doing a good job of being selective with goalies, who are becoming more accepting of looking out for their health.

”You need to take responsibility on yourself to realize if something’s not right that you need to at least get checked out,” Gibson added. ”With all the programs that they have now, maybe they miss it and you’re not feeling quite right, usually the trainer will come and ask you if you’re not OK or you feel something, and then there’s little tests you can go do in the back. And obviously if that doesn’t work, you’ve got to take some responsibility on yourself to say, ‘I’m not feeling quite right.”’

Previewing the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Oilers have a new GM (Ken Holland) and a new head coach (Dave Tippett), but as far as personnel changes go, this was a very quiet offseason.

Considering some of the blunders of the Peter Chiarelli era, there might be a feeling of “no news is good news,” although try telling that to Connor McDavid, who didn’t get much of a bright side to look on beyond hoping that Mike Smith channels his solid playoff production, rather than Smith’s more troubling body of work.

The Oilers are almost the same team as last year, although James Neal could be a nice upgrade over Milan Lucic.

Strengths: McDavid! OK, thanks for coming!

Alright, the Oilers also have Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and maybe some help coming – eventually – with prospects such as Evan Bouchard.

And, hey, having the best player in the world is a pretty big strength.

Weaknesses: … And squandering McDavid’s talents almost takes talent in itself.

You know you’re weak on the wings when people are hoping that James Neal is a solution, and crossing their fingers that Alex Chiasson can approach last season’s numbers.

This team is weak on the wings, and that’s far from their only issue. Their defense doesn’t play the sort of modern game that you’d want to propel McDavid in transition, and lacks elite skill overall. Maybe Tippett can scheme this group to competence, but it’s unclear how much potential has been untapped after Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan tried their hands at the same.

Oh yeah, their goaltending duo of Smith and Mikko Koskinen is a bowl of “meh,” too.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Consider this: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL, and Tippett will be his ninth head coach.

The Oilers have been the definition of dysfunctional for a distressingly long period of time, and while there’s the feeling that McDavid and others are far beyond the point of being tired of losing, it’s time for some stability. That’s what Tippett represents: a steadying presence, something that must appeal to the deliberate approach Holland also seems to prefer.

That said, Edmonton’s also subject to about-faces, as that seems to be their M.O. Let’s put Tippett at a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: McDavid, Koskinen, Darnell Nurse

Number 97 would be a pick every year based on his captivating speed and skill alone. Maybe eyes are fixed on him a bit more now, though, as he’s shown signs of frustration, occasionally actually letting that be known in vague media comments. If the Oilers unravel again, will McDavid vent in an even bigger way?

Re-signing Koskinen tied a baffling bow around the Chiarelli era. Along with Smith, it’s tough to know what exactly we should expect from Koskinen. If Tippett’s system dumbs games down and makes it all a slog, that might actually set the stage for some redemption. (James Neal is another fascinating redemption story.)

The Oilers have precious few defensemen of merit, so it’s crucial for them to see Nurse take additional steps forward. Then again, he’s entering a contract year, so they also probably don’t want to break the bank for the RFA. That should make Nurse intriguing to watch.

Playoffs or Lottery: It’s tough to pick against McDavid, especially since Draisaitl and RNH give him some support. One can imagine a decent formula of McDavid + stingy defense and goaltending = grinding out wins.

Hockey teaches us time and time again that one superstar rarely is enough to mask a ton of blemishes, though. While a weak Pacific gives some hope for Edmonton sneaking in, I’d lean closer to the lottery than the playoffs with Edmonton.

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.

Agent surprised Point, Lightning are so far apart ‘this late’

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The thought was that Mitch Marner finally signing with the Maple Leafs would set off a flurry of other big RFA signings, but that appears to only be partially true.

Much like the Winnipeg Jets with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, the Tampa Bay Lightning appear to be at an impasse with star forward Brayden Point. Point’s agent Gerry Johannson admitted as much to Sportsnet 650 on Thursday.

The interview is a mix of good and bad for anxious Lightning fans. The bad is that Johannson said more than once that the two sides aren’t very close to a new deal. On the other hand, Johannson didn’t seem to give the threat of an offer sheet much merit. He comments on both subjects around the three-minute mark, while Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston transcribed this key bit:

“We’ve been sort of ready to go since last July,” Johannson said. “It’s just I’m a little surprised we’re this far apart this late, but on the other hand every negotiation is a bit different and there’s different pressures and different circumstances and all sorts of different things.”

Johannson didn’t give much of an indication regarding whether Point preferred a longer-term contract like something Marner received, or a “bridge” deal like what Brock Boeser signed for with Vancouver.

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning have about $8.477M in space as of this writing. That honestly feels a little bit low for a 23-year-old forward who generated 41 goals and 92 points in 79 regular-season games last season, even if you account for Point losing less money playing in a tax-friendly state like Florida.

Marner is younger, and Toronto doesn’t have that state tax edge, but you could make some very reasonable comparisons between the two players, especially since Point is a center while Marner is a winger. They’re both impact scorers, and Point may be a little bit more well-rounded, as you may believe when considering metrics such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM even-strength comparison charts:

Of course, where the Maple Leafs have been paying premiums for Auston Matthews and John Tavares, multiple Lightning players are receiving AAVs below their perceived value, including Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman.

Combine that notion with the feeling that Point very much wants to stay with Tampa Bay – Johannson doesn’t deny that at all – and you can see why the Lightning might be almost brazen about nickel-and-diming Point.

Johannson is right in saying it’s fairly late, with less than two weeks remaining until the 2019-20 regular season starts. Yet Point’s agent himself said that a deal can get done if the will is there, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if Point and the Lightning hash something out soon. Maybe media appearances like these might even speed things up ever so slightly?

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.