NHL Power Rankings: Early season surprises and slow starts

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at some of the early season results around the league.

The first couple of weeks can be tricky to analyze because there is a lot of random noise still taking place, and that can cloud our early outlook on a lot of teams. Over the course of an 82-game season every team is going to hit hot streaks and cold streaks, and if one of those streaks happens early in the year with nothing else around it we can easily jump to some wrong conclusions.

So far some Stanley Cup contenders have struggled, while a couple of teams that were thought to be at the bottom of the league have excelled.

Which teams are for real and which ones are not? Let us try to figure some of that out now.

To the rankings!

The early elites

These teams are at the top and will likely stay here…

1. Carolina Hurricanes. Anyone that thought this team’s second half and postseason run was a fluke was mistaken. They are for real and they are not going away. If they get the goaltending they could be a serious contender to win it all.

2. Colorado Avalanche. So far the preseason hype is legit. They still have the superstars at the top of the lineup, and now they have some actual depth to go with it. Cale Makar looks like a potential Calder Trophy winner.

3. Boston Bruins. When Tuukka Rask is on his game — as he has been so far — the Bruins can be close to unbeatable.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. They do have two losses (a one-goal loss to a great Boston team, and a random off night in Arizona) but they have absolutely steamrolled every other team they have played, including several division foes. Mark Stone could be a real sleeper MVP contender this season.

Great starts but still have something to prove

These teams have started fast, but may not stay here…

5. Edmonton Oilers. The good news: They won their first five games, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl look unstoppable, and James Neal is doing exactly what they hoped. The bad news: The roster after those three is still littered with questions and their underlying numbers point to an unsustainable hot streak. We will see where this goes.

6. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is a heck of a duo to build around, but after the way they started last year and fell apart after the first two months the rest of the team has to prove they can do it all year before anyone buys into them.

7. Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson might be the best goalie in hockey, and because of that they always have a chance on any given night. Having Ryan Miller is a backup is a pretty darn good Plan B in net, too.

8. Philadelphia Flyers. Still not quite sure what to make of the Flyers. The top of their lineup is great but the rest of the roster has question marks. A lot here still depends on what Carter Hart does. They started the season with three games in three different countries and managed to collect five out of six points during that stretch. Nice start.

The contenders that you know will be there

These teams are almost certainly going to be in the playoffs, and maybe even have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, but have not yet played their best (or close to their best)…

9. St. Louis Blues. Brayden Schenn is responding to his new eight-year contract extension by scoring a ton of goals. We know he is good now, but that contract comes down to how good he looks four or five years from now.

10. Nashville Predators. Matt Duchene has been everything they could have hoped for so far. If he continues that he will be a significant addition to this roster.

11. Washington Capitals. They have not really played their best yet but are still managing to collect points in the standings almost every night. Good thing to do when you are not yet at your best.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. The injury situation has left their forward lines a jumbled mess, but they are still finding ways to score goals and win. Sidney Crosby has been completely dominant.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs. The defensive questions that have followed this team around for the past few years are still there right now.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. Something seems a little off so far. This is the best roster in the league on paper, but they have been really hit-and-miss so far this season. Their 4-2 loss in Ottawa over the weekend was ugly.

15. Calgary Flames. Some regression was to be expected this season, but they still have enough talent to be a factor in the Western Conference. Johnny Gaudreau is superb with the puck and is off to a great start.

The great unknowns

These teams are still mysteries whose seasons could still go in any direction…

16. Winnipeg Jets. Their defense is not very good, and that is going to be a big problem, especially if Dustin Byfuglien does not re-join the team. But they do still have a great collection of forwards and the big wild card is Patrik Laine having a monster season. So far, he is.

17. Montreal Canadiens. What this team really needs is for Jonathan Drouin to have a breakout year and become the star forward they hoped he could (and would) be.

18. Detroit Red Wings. They have to be thrilled with the start Anthony Mantha is off to. They have played well, but the roster just does not seem to stack up to the other potential playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

19. New York Rangers. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin looks like it has a chance to be quite a duo this season.

20. New York Islanders. They are still going to struggle to score goals, but Mathew Barzal will produce more than he has so far. They will still go as far as the goalies can take them.

21. Florida Panthers. They won just one of their first five games entering Monday, but two of their losses came in a shootout. Yeah, they missed out on two points, but we are talking about a coin flip away from their start looking dramatically different than it does. Sergei Bobrovsky being off to a slow start is not helping.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets. So far the goaltending has been the issue it was expected to be, but Pierre Luc-Dubois looks like he is on track for the huge year that was expected of him.

23. Vancouver Canucks. Quinn Hughes was the big reason for excitement this season and so far he is looking like a player that wants to insert himself into the Calder Trophy discussion.

24. Los Angeles Kings. The expectation was that there was no way Jonathan Quick could play worse than he did a year ago. In his first three games he has surrendered 19 goals. That is not going to cut it.

25. Arizona Coyotes. They are still getting great goaltending, but the lack of offense is a real concern.

Good teams that should be better

These are good rosters and should be playoff teams, but they have struggled so far…

26. San Jose Sharks. Not sure if a 40-year-old Patrick Marleau was the missing piece here, but they did win their first two games after he arrived, helping to ease the frustration from an 0-4 start. Do not expect this team to remain this low all season. Too much talent here. Still a potential Western Conference champion.

27. Dallas Stars. Roope Hintz has been the lone bright spot on what has been, so far, one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL.

Could be a long season

These teams have looked bad and may continue to look bad all season…

28. Ottawa Senators. Their win over the Lightning this weekend really was impressive, but other than that they have looked exactly like we expected the Senators to look.

29. Chicago Blackhawks. The early returns on the “did they do enough to fix their defense?” question are not looking promising.

30. New Jersey Devils. Their best players and their new faces are all off to slow starts, and that should help when those players get things turned around. Not sure if the goaltending will turn around, though. So far the Devils have not really done anything well this season.

31. Minnesota Wild. There is just — well — there is just not much positive happening here.

MORE:
• 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.

Pass or Fail: LA Kings’ 2020 Stadium Series jerseys

adidas / Kings
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One day after the Colorado Avalanche showed off their jerseys for next month’s Stadium Series game, the Los Angeles Kings revealed what they will wear when they hit the ice at at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC).

As is tradition for Stadium Series games, the design is very unique and out there. The black, white, and silver is there along with the LA from their regular jerseys “taking flight” since the game will take place on the campus of the Air Force Academy.

adidas / Kings

Now while you’re maybe distracted by the black and white of the jerseys and the sweet white gloves, do not overlook one neat feature: the shiny silver helmets.

adidas / Kings

Some additional notes from adidas:

Crest: A new L.A. crest takes flight on diagonal bisected blocking, inspired by aircraft battle stripes.

Design: The architecture of the venue’s Air Force Academy, coupled with a pilot’s ambition to push to the edge, inspired the oblique angles used to shape the jersey’s typography and numbering. A checkerboard design graphic is implemented along the neckline.

What do you think? The black, white, and silver against the burgundy, blue, and white will be an interesting look on the ice.

MORE: Avalanche reveal 2020 Stadium Series jersey

The 2020 Stadium Series game between the Avalanche and Kings will take place Feb. 15 at Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo.. The game will air on NBC at 8 p.m. ET.

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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.

Bad news on Hurricanes’ Hamilton: broken bone in leg

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The Carolina Hurricanes and others hoped that Dougie Hamilton‘s nasty injury looked worse than it was. Unfortunately, the result is pretty bad: Hamilton suffered a broken fibula (broken bone in his left leg) on Thursday.

You can watch and cringe at Hamilton’s bad luck in the video above.

Michael Smith of the Hurricanes website confirmed the broken fibula, stating that Hamilton may undergo surgery as soon as Friday. Smith noted that a recovery timeline might become known later tonight. Either way, it’s clear that this is a huge loss for the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes teammate Jaccob Slavin replaced Hamilton on the 2020 NHL All-Star Game roster.

What Hamilton broken fibula injury might mean to Hurricanes

The Hurricanes face a small margin of error after losing Hamilton and Thursday’s game to the Blue Jackets. Looking at the standings, it’s tough to imagine them wading into the Metro’s top three, while the bubble race could be tight:

Speculating on how long Hamilton might be out is pretty tricky. A commenter in this thread pointed out that Jason Zucker returned from a break in as little as four weeks. On the other hand, Nick Kypreos notes that Hamilton’s Hurricanes teammate Jordan Staal missed half of a season with a similar injury.

Plenty of injuries are tough to figure, and that’s quite true with breaks.

The bottom line is that even an optimistic recovery window would be painful for Carolina. Earlier in January, Adam Gretz broke down why Hamilton ranks as one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

In a nutshell: Hamilton provides explosive offensive (14 goals[!] and 40 points [!!] in 47 games this season) while being better defensively than his critics realize. This Hockey Viz Heat Map tells much of the story:

So, yeah, this hurts a lot for Hurricanes team that could be in quite the battle (most likely) for one of the East’s two wild-card spots. Perhaps it might even push the Hurricanes to try to find some help on the trade market?

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.

Bruins place David Backes on waivers

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David Backes has played only 16 games for the Bruins this season and spent many a night as a healthy scratch. On Friday the 35-year-old forward was placed on waivers.

“At the end of the day, you do what’s best for the team,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on Friday.

Should he clear, which he will, Backes will report to Providence of the American Hockey League.

This season Backes has only one goal and three points while playing a career low 8:33 per night.

“We’re going to look at younger guys and just felt at the end of the day, you do what’s best for your team, what makes you the best team,” Cassidy said. “Ultimately [general manager Don Sweeney] put him on waivers, feeling that was the best thing. I know David doesn’t agree with the situation, but that’s the decision we made [was] for the good of the team. I respect David as a person, as a player. We just felt we had better options, and that’s how we’re going to go forward and see how it plays out.”

It’s been downhill for Backes in Boston since signing a five-year, $30 million deal in 2016. His offensive output has declined and he’s dealt with numerous injuries. Under Cassidy he’s found it difficult to carve out a role in the Bruins’ lineup and be a consistent face among their 12 forwards.

“It’s gymnastics, there’s no question about it,” said Backes last week. “But that’s where we’re at right now, that’s a sign of a good team. If I’m not cracking the lineup, I think we’ve got a pretty good team. That’s kind of my perspective on it and I’m going to be called on at some point, kind of same way I was in the playoffs where didn’t start in there but was able to I feel like make an impact on a few games and help our team win. That’s what we’re about here is team first, and I’m trying to exemplify that when I’m in, when I’m out and be ready whenever I get called.”

Backes has one year left on a contract that carries a $6 million cap hit and $4 million salary through the end of the 2020-21 season. A buyout this summer would put $4 million on the Bruins’ salary cap in 2020-21 and $1 million on it for 2021-22, per Cap Friendly. That could be an option for GM Don Sweeney, but it’s going to be another offseason with a tight salary cap picture. The salary cap ceiling may rise only a few million dollars and extensions will be due this summer for restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk and unrestricted free agents Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, and Jaroslav Halak.

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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.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.