Andre Burakovsky

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

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 Colorado Avalanche

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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: The Avs were one of the best young teams in the entire NHL last season and that should continue into this year. They found a way to add veteran center Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs while also landing Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin. Outside of Kadri, the rest are nothing more than depth additions, but on a roster lacking firepower behind their first line, those moves may prove to be significant. Whether or not the Avalanche are a better team this year than they were last year will likely depend on when restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen signs his next contract. For now, let’s call the Avs better.

Strengths: Again, let’s assume for a moment that Rantanen will be signed by the start of the regular season. With Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog in the fold, the Avs arguably have the best line in hockey. When those three are on, they’re incredibly difficult to stop. MacKinnon is coming off 97 and 99-point seasons, Landeskog had 75 points in 73 games and Rantanen had a career-high 87 points in 74 contests. They’re nearly impossible to stop on their worst day.

The Avs also have some of the top young defensemen in the game in Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram. Makar made a significant impact in the playoffs last year and he should be able to pick up where he left off. Girard just inked a significant contract extension with the club this summer and Byram, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but he offers immense upside, too.

[MORE: 3 QuestionsUnder Pressure I X-factor: Makar]

Weaknesses: We’ve talked about the outstanding top line, but can the rest of the squad score enough to give them a more balanced attack? After the “big three,” no other forward on the roster put up more than 49 points last season. After MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, their top score point-getters were Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot. All three of those players are no longer with the organization. Of course, Kadri should be able to pick up some of the slack offensively, but for the Avalanche to get more out of their roster, they’ll need more balance up front.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The seat isn’t even warm for Jared Bednar, so we’ll go with a 2 out of 10. If the Avalanche take a step back in 2019-20, anything is possible. But Bednar showed that he’s able to get the most out of his guys during the regular season and the playoffs. Again, unless something drastic happens with Rantanen, this team should be better than they were a year ago.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Makar, Tyson Jost and Philipp Grubauer are three players to keep an eye on this season. Makar didn’t suit up in a regular season game for the Avs because he was finishing up his college season with UMass-Amherst, but he made quite the impression during the postseason, as he had a goal and six points in just 10 games. He has the potential to be a number one defenseman for this organization for a long time. How quickly can he get there?

Jost is still just 21 years old, but the Avalanche need him to up his production sooner or later. The 21-year-old was drafted 10th overall in 2016. Since then, he’s picked up 49 points in 141 games which is fine for a young player, but someone with that draft pedigree has to explode offensively sooner or later. Is this the year?

Grubauer has shown that he’s capable of winning big games during the regular season and the playoffs, but this will be the first time in his career that he’s the undisputed number one goalie on a team at the NHL level. He’s never played more than 37 games during an NHL regular season and you have to imagine that he’ll have to surpass that number this year. He’ll need to show that he can handle a heavy workload now that Semyon Varlamov is no longer in Colorado. He should be fine, but it’s something to monitor.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. This is a team that managed to earn the final Wild Card spot in the West last year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish there again this year. They also have enough talent that they might be able to sneak into the top three spots in the Central Division though.

MORE:
How good can Avs be next season?
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs forward Mikko Rantanen in Finland with no deal imminent

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DENVER — Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have a spot open on their top line.

For the moment, anyway, until things are resolved with their third dimension, Mikko Rantanen.

The Colorado Avalanche are about to open training camp and Rantanen remains in Finland as the restricted free agent tries to work out a new deal.

”It’s going to get sorted out,” Landeskog said Thursday as the team reported to the Pepsi Center for pre-camp physicals. ”Obviously, you miss him. But we’re not too worried about it.”

As far as headway toward a deal, Rantanen’s agent, Michael Liut, said in an email: ”Optimistic, but nothing imminent.” Liut added that there is ”always progress in a negotiation, sometimes slower than both sides would prefer.”

The 22-year-old Rantanen formed a potent combination with MacKinnon and Landeskog last season to help the Avalanche make the playoffs for a second straight year. The All-Star trio accounted for 41% of Colorado’s goals in the regular season. What’s more, the team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game – and 6-0 when they all scored a goal in the same contest.

Rantanen is coming off a season in which he finished with 31 goals and 56 assists. His 87 points were a career high.

”Certainly he’s a great player for us and we’d love to have him in camp,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s obviously not here, so the focus for me and our team shifts to the guys who are here and in our locker room.”

That means Bednar will tinker with Rantanen’s spot on the top line.

First up, the new guys – Andre Burakovsky, who was acquired in a June trade with Washington, and Joonas Donskoi, a forward the Avalanche picked up in free agency after he spent the last few seasons with San Jose.

After that, maybe some in-house candidates – J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost.

”We have a job to do to get ready for the season, and that’s the way I look at it,” said Bednar, whose team was eliminated last season by the Sharks in Game 7 of the second round. ”Hopefully we can get Mikko in and bring him up to speed quickly and get him joining us for the regular season. That’d be a nice goal for us.”

The Avalanche are a trendy pick to make some noise this season after general manager Joe Sakic gave the team an offseason makeover. Colorado brought in free agents such as Donskoi and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They also drafted defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick.

Colorado also made several trades, including one with Arizona to land defenseman Kevin Connauton. The Avs sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alex Kerfoot to Toronto in exchange for defenseman Calle Rosen and forward Nazem Kadri.

So far, MacKinnon likes what he’s seen in Kadri, who joined the speedy forward for pre-camp workouts in the higher elevation of Vail, Colorado.

”He’s a lot better than I thought he was. I knew he was a really good player. But up in Vail, there was a lot to be seen,” MacKinnon said. ”I think in Toronto, he was held back a little bit. He’s a great shutdown player. He’s got a lot of offensive upside that I don’t think the league has seen yet. We’re definitely going to see it this year.”

MacKinnon has been in talks with Rantanen – not about contracts, though, just as a friend.

”I know Mikko wants to be here,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re excited to have him here soon.”

NOTES: D Ian Cole remains on schedule after hip surgery, but he won’t be skating with the group to start training camp. ”He’s still not there yet,” Bednar said. … F Colin Wilson and D Erik Johnson are both recovering from shoulder surgeries. ”They’ve both been progressing really well,” Bednar said.

Three key questions for Capitals in 2019-20

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

Let’s ponder three questions for the Capitals …

1. Will Evgeny Kuznetsov get on track?

It’s been a whirlwind year or so for Kuznetsov, as he’s gone from a key contributor during that memorable Stanley Cup run (eagle celebrations and all) to attracting a lot of negative attention off the ice, to the point that the IIHF suspended him for four years after he tested positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship.

One can only speculate about whether off-ice issues have affected Kuznetsov’s play, but either way, you could argue that he didn’t always perform up to his own (lofty) standards in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov hasn’t ever really resembled a Selke candidate, but his defensive numbers were a little troubling last season, as you can see from the mix of good (offense) and bad (defense) in his RAPM chart from Evolving Wild:

Kuznetsov has things to work on, even if the NHL doesn’t add any additional fines or suspensions stemming from that IIHF suspension.

Even with some flaws that magnified last season, Kuznetsov is a difference-maker for the Capitals on the ice, so it’s a pivotal situation for Washington.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

2. Can the Capitals’ core hang with the best of the best?

The Kuznetsov question spirals out to an even deeper one: does this team still have what it takes to hang with the absolute cream of the crop?

This isn’t meant as an insult to a Capitals team that has a strong chance to win another Metropolitan Division. Instead, it just speaks to the level of talent at the top of the NHL, especially in an Atlantic Division that’s downright foreboding at the top.

When you line up the Capitals’ biggest stars and strengths up alongside what the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and possibly a few other East standouts, how often do you expect Washington to prevail?

Much like with Boston, the Capitals have managed to find some nice players beyond their core, but they’re still driven by their core. And while that group is by no means “ancient,” you have to wonder if enough players will lose enough steps that they might not be favorites. Alex Ovechkin is 33, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, T.J. Oshie is somehow 32, and plenty of other players are close to 30.

For years, the Capitals have been a team who’ve generated some troubling possession stats, yet they’ve consistently beat expectations, whether that’s by manufacturing the higher-danger chances needed, or merely having the sheer skill to overcome often allowing more raw chances than they create (or at other times, barely keeping their heads above water). What if 2019-20 is the season where that skill edge starts to recede?

3. Will a tweaked supporting cast flourish?

GM Brian MacLellan did a masterful job navigating salary cap challenges, even if it forced him to say goodbye to Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, and Brett Connolly. More than a few wonder if bringing in Radko Gudas for Niskanen improved their defense, rather than merely opening up money. Richard Panik could end up being a savvy pickup like Connolly once was, even if the two bring value in different ways.

Yet, MacLellan maneuvering well given the circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals’ supporting cast will be better.

That could be key, too, if the aforementioned core group takes a step back. Along with getting the most out of newcomers, the Capitals have to hope that players like Jakub Vrana can take the next step forward.

***

One way or another, this Capitals team seems primed to be quite good. Answering those questions – and addressing the contract situations for Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom – will go a long way in answering how good the Capitals will end up being, though.

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.

Rantanen’s contract, Grubauer among questions facing Avs

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Avalanche:

1. Is Philipp Grubauer ready for prime time?

He certainly looked like he could shoulder the brunt of a full-time role in the final month of the season. But if you watched the first stretch of last season you’d have thought the exact opposite.

The reality is, if not for Grubauer, the Avalanche wouldn’t have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite struggling early on in the year, Grubauer was nothing short of money across his final 14 appearances of the regular season, posting a 9-2-2 record with a .956 save percentage and three shutouts.

Elite level goaltending was needed, especially with Colorado’s top line fizzling slightly in the scoring department down the stretch. Grubauer’s play earned him the nod in the playoffs and rightfully so. You’d be crazy not to run with the goalie stopping 96 percent of the shots he faced in the run-in to the postseason. And he was pretty stellar there, too, propelling the eighth-seeded Avs past the top-dog Calgary Flames in Round 1 before taking the San Jose Sharks all the way to Game 7 in Round 2.

With the departure of Semyon Varlamov, the crease is now Grubauer’s. Play as he did in March and April, and the Avs will contend for first place in the tough Central Division.

2. Will the offseason moves provide the depth scoring Colorado yearns for?

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog combined for a whopping 261 points last season, including 106 of the team’s 258 goals (41 percent).

There’s nothing to suggest that those numbers won’t be there again this season, but the hope in Colorado is that they get a bit of help.

Each of the next three top point producers on the Avs last season (Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot) won’t be on the team for this coming season.

In their place are offseason acquisition Nazem Kadri, who came from Toronto in the deal that sent Barrie and Kerfoot the other way, and Joonas Donskoi, who was picked up in free agency, as well as Andre Burakovsky.

[MORE: Under Pressure2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Kadri immediately becomes the team’s second-line center and has 30-goal potential, having done so in two out of the past three years. Last season’s 16 goals were a disappointment, but if Kadri can rebound in a new environment in an expanded role, Colorado can probably count on a total at least in the high 20s.

3. How long will contract negotiations linger for Mikko Rantanen? 

At this point, there’s no reason to hit the panic button on the restricted free agent.

A quick glance around the league shows several big-ticket RFAs who have yet to sign. This has become standard practice and there are varying degrees when it comes to outcomes.

The biggest thing here for the Avs to avoid is reaching some sort of impasse in which Rantanen misses part or all of training camp. There’s no need to allow that to happen. Colorado has the cap space to give Rantanen what he wants — and what he deserves given his pedigree.

That likely comes in around the $10 million mark in annual average value and the Avs will want to get that sewn up in an eight-year pact.

It still seems like everyone is waiting for the first foot to drop (Mitch Marner) but that situation could also play itself out well into training camp itself.

The Avs don’t need a repeat of William Nylander (at least his on-ice performance after missing a bunch of time due to a contract stall out.) Sakic has gone ahead and made some moves to make this team better. An elongated contract dispute with Rantanen would only set the team back.

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

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck