PHT Face-Off: Hungry Sharks; Caps are road warriors

Before the start of the regular season, most expected the top three spots in the Atlantic Division to go to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. The order of the three teams was up for debate, but those three were pretty much locked in as the favorites to earn those spots.

As of today, not only do the Atlantic Division standings look nothing like what we expected, but two of the three teams aren’t even in the top three. Credit to Boston, who could’ve had a Stanley Cup Final hangover. Instead, they’ve come out and they’ve been flat-out dominant for the most part this season. Tampa and Toronto are very different stories.

The big difference between the two, is that the Bolts are showing signs of life. The Maple Leafs aren’t.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on going forward:

• Schedule sets up nicely for Bolts:

The Lightning won their two games against Buffalo in Stockholm, Sweden and they managed to annihilate the Rangers, 9-3, in their return to North America. They dropped a 4-3 decision to the Jets this weekend, but their schedule should allow them to continue having success. They’ll play back-to-back road games in St. Louis and Chicago this week, but 14 of their final 21 games of 2019 will be played at Amalie Arena.

What also helps is the fact that Nikita Kucherov is also starting to come around. Kucherov, who led the league in scoring last year, had three multi-point performances in the first eight games of the season, but he was kept off the scoresheet the other five games. Now, he’s riding a four-game point streak and he’s picked up at least one point in seven of his last nine outings.

The Lightning just need Brayden Point to find his footing, which is a little silly to say considering he has a respectable 12 points in 14 games. The 23-year-old has just two assists in his last five contests.

This offensive machine is starting to get going. 17 games into the season, they lead the league in goals-per-game (3.71). The issue is also that they need to start keeping the puck out of their own net, as they’ve allowed 3.47 goals-against-per-game which is seventh-worst in the league.

• Falling Leafs: 

Earlier this month, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock made some interesting comments re: his team’s identity.

“When we changed our lineup as much as we did we knew it wasn’t going to be Day 1…you plan every day to be successful – that’s just what you plan for – and when it’s not as good as you want you have to work towards it and you gotta keep trying getting better,” Babcock told the Ray and Dregs Podcast. “I think that’s the mode we’ve been in. When you come into the year, you want to get out of the first 20 (games) with an identity. And it’s not last year’s identity because that doesn’t happen. It’s reinventing yourself so you know what you are. You say to the players, let’s do what we do and they know what that is…so I would say after 14 games, we don’t know what that is yet…”

Not much has changed since those comments were made. The Maple Leafs have dropped five games in a row (four in regulation) and they’re coming off a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, the team has had to deal with injuries to John Tavares and now Mitch Marner, but something just doesn’t look right. Scoring goals isn’t a problem. Through 22 games, they’ve managed to score the sixth-highest amount of goals of anybody in the league, but they can’t keep the puck out of their own net. They currently rank 30th in the NHL in goals against, with 77. Only the Detroit Red Wings have conceded more goals.

Their defensive zone coverage and their commitment to defense in general is a disaster right now. Babcock needs to find an identity for his team. Will they give him enough time to find it?

Sharks can win:

After an ugly start, the Sharks have rattled off six wins in a row. It probably helps that they haven’t had to leave the state of California since the beginning of the month, but you can’t take anything away from their way they’ve accumulated the results.

The Sharks have been better in a lot of aspects, but two players in particular have stepped up their game offensively in a big way. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl have been particularly impressive during this recent run. Couture had just one goal in his first 16 games of the season. He’s now scored twice in his last five games. During the streak, he’s racked up 11 points and he’s put together four multi-point efforts.

As for Hertl, he saw his point streak snapped at five games on Saturday night, but you can’t deny that he’s been a huge offensive catalyst for San Jose. In the first five games of this streak, he piled up nine points.

Both Hertl and Couture lead the team in scoring with 21 points in 21 games.

• Capitals are Road Warriors: 

The Washington Capitals are the only team in the league that has surpassed the 30-point mark this season (they have 34 points) and they’ve done a lot of their damage away from home. Believe it or not, the Capitals have won five of 10 games at Capitals One Arena (5-2-3), but they’ve gone 10-1-1 on the road. Yes, you read that correctly. They’ve picked up 21 of a possible 24 points in their opponent’s rinks.

They clearly won’t be able to keep this up, but the fact that they were able to do this in the first place is just crazy. And they’ve won in some difficult places. They beat the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues on the road on opening night. They’ve also won away from home against the Islanders, Stars, Bruins and Flyers. And let’s not forget the five game road trip against Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto where they picked up nine of 10 points.

The only home team that was able to beat the Capitals in regulation was the Nashville Predators, who came away with a 6-5 win back on Oct. 10. Washington actually had 1-0, 2-1, 4-2 and 5-4 leads in that game, but they couldn’t hold on.

Unfortunately for the Caps, four of their next five games will be played at home.

• Flames shooting low:

The Calgary Flames picked up 107 points last season, which tied them for second in the NHL. This year, things have been way different. If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t be in them. Thankfully for Calgary, there’s still plenty of time left in the regular season.

After last night’s loss ugly 6-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk wasn’t mincing words.

“It’s disgusting,” he told reporters, per Sportsnet. “It’s bad, it’s bad right now. We need to change this around.”

You’re probably going to start seeing articles being written about how it’s time to trade Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, or some other star on the team. You might see stories about how it’s time to move on from Bill Peters. Before you make sweeping judgements on these issues, keep things in perspective.

As of right now, the Flames have the fourth-lowest shooting percentage in the NHL. You’re probably wondering who the teams below them are. Well, here you go: Detroit, Los Angeles and Columbus. We knew that those bottom-three teams were going to be bad this year. There’s no need to get into their situations. But with Calgary, it was harder to see coming because they have so much offensive talent.

The average shooting percentage in the NHL right now is 9.6 percent. The Flames, as a team, are shooting at 8.1 percent.

Check out Sean Tierney’s PDO breakdown from earlier this morning (h/t: Sean Tierney)

Let’s give it a little more time before we blow up the Flames roster.

What’s coming up this week?

• The Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 will be inducted Monday night in Toronto. Meet the class.

• Islanders look to tie the longest point streak in franchise history when they visit the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena Tues. Nov. 19, 7 p.m. ET.

• First-round rematch: The Sharks will take on the Golden Knights on Thu. Nov. 21, 10 p.m. ET.

Elias Pettersson vs. Alex Ovechkin on Sat. Nov 23, 12:30 p.m. ET.

• Dave Tippett returns to Arizona for the first time as Oilers head coach on Sun. Nov. 24, 8 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Lightning vs. Blues, Tue. Nov. 19, 8 p.m. ET
• Oilers vs. Sharks, Tue. Nov. 19, 10:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN
• Capitals vs. Rangers, Wed. Nov. 20, 8 p.m. ET

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.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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.

Florence Schelling becomes first woman GM of top-level men’s team

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SC Bern of Switzerland’s National League has named Florence Schelling as its new general manager. The appointment makes her the first woman in such a role in top-level men’s hockey.

“We were looking for a young, fresh, visionary and intelligent person,” SC Bern CEO Marc Luthi told Berner Zeitung. “We looked at what the Swiss market had to offer – and came to the conclusion that there was no proven sports director available who would suit us.”

“We came to the conclusion: Florence is the person we are looking for and want,” added Luthi. “Yes, Florence will be a pioneer, probably worldwide in her new role. But she’s young, fresh, she’ll bring a new perspective and break up existing structures.”

The 31-year-old Schelling, who previously coached Switzerland’s U18 women’s team, was one of the best goaltenders in the world during her career. After debuting internationally at 15 at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, she spent the next 14 years representing Switzerland. She helped the country earn bronze at the 2012 Women’s Worlds and the 2014 Olympics, where she was voted tournament MVP. Both tournaments also saw her named best goaltender.

Before excelling on the international stage, Schelling was a four-year starter at Northeastern University and a 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist.

Bern were National League champions in 2019 but ended up ninth out of 12 teams this season. One of Schelling’s first duties after she begins next week is to find a new head coach.

“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” said Schelling, via IIHF.com. “We had a couple of discussions about working together and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”

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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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

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In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports