PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of early NHL noise

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Trying to analyze the early season results in the NHL can be a bit of a mess.

Those games and points matter — more than most people realize — but they are not always an accurate representation of what teams are. There can be a lot of noise there when a talented team gets off to a slow start because a couple of bounces went against them or their goalie had a bad week, or when a potential non-playoff team starts off on a roll. In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we try to sort through the noise and separate reality from fiction.

This week we’re separating the NHL’s 31 teams into four different tiers:

  • The teams off to the strong start that are for real
  • The teams off to a strong start but the jury is still out them
  • The teams off to a slow start but are going to get beter
  • The mystery teams that could end up going in either direction
  • The teams that are off to slow starts and are not likely to get much better

With that said, on to the rankings…

First Tier: Good start and they are for real

1. Boston Bruins — The Bruins got blown out in the season opener in Washington, but all they have done since is steamroll everyone else they have played. On one hand, yes, they have played four run-of-the-mill teams that are not going anywhere this season. On the other hand, that is exactly what you expect a great team to do to run-of-the-mill teams.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs — The offense is scary good, and it will only get better whenever they find a way to get William Nylander signed. Auston Matthews won’t keep scoring two goals every game but he is still an elite player. Defense and goaltending is going to be a question mark come playoff time but the offense is good enough to make them a force in the regular season.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Is this it? Is this finally the year? It could be. It might be. I think it is. Not only are the Hurricanes finally looking like the team we have been waiting for them to be, they are also an extremely fun team.

4. Nashville Predators — They laid an egg in their home opener against Calgary and became the butt of many jokes around the league for hanging a banner for pretty much everything they do, but this is still one of the most complete teams in the NHL. And they are playing like it so far.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have only played three games as of Monday, but did you see what they did to a pretty good Columbus team over the weekend? When they are clicking on all cylinders they are as good as it gets.

Second Tier: Good start, but jury is still out

6. New Jersey Devils — The Devils were one of the playoff teams from a year ago that I had my doubts about coming into this season, and while those doubts still remain it’s awfully hard to argue with the early season results. Three wins in their first three games including a dominating 6-0 win over the defending champs and an impressive win over a Stanley Cup contender in San Jose.

7. Anaheim Ducks — Winning four out of six and collecting nine of a possible 12 points while playing mostly without Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Getzlaf is impressive. They haven’t exactly looked good while doing it, and John Gibson is the one doing most of the heavy lifting to carry the team, but that’s why goalies get paid, too.

[Related: John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat]

8. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are picking up where they left off a year ago and doing their thing. That thing? Carrying the offense.

9. Dallas Stars — The Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov trio is making things happen, both individually and as a group. All three have at least eight points through their first four games, while the Stars are outscoring teams by a 6-2 margin and controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts when they are on the ice together.

10. Chicago Blackhawks — What does it tell me when a team is 3-0-2 through its first five games with all five games going to overtime while also being near the bottom of the league in goals against? It tells me a lot of things have fallen in their favor early on and that the whole thing might be a giant house of cards waiting to collapse. But those points matter too, and you can’t take them away.

Third Tier: Slow start, but it will not continue

11. Washington Capitals — After demolishing the Bruins on banner raising night they have lost three out of four entering playing on Monday, and at times have not looked great while doing it. But let’s not panic too much. They will get it together.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have had some problems defensively and with their puck management, but that has been the case with this group over the past two years. They are playmakers that play a high-risk, high-reward game. Only a handful of teams in the league can make that work. They are one of them.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They clearly have not hit their stride yet, alternating wins and losses through the first two weeks but the talent on this team is real. Be patient.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets — Artemi Panarin is the backbone of this offense and he is off to an incredible start. He, along with Sergei Bobrovsky, are going to give them a chance to compete this season. The problem is they are at risk of losing them both for nothing after this season. Still a delicate situation for the Blue Jackets’ management to handle.

15. Vegas Golden Knights — Before you start thinking about regression and that last year was a fluke, keep in mind that Marc-Andre Fleury can — and will — be a lot better than he was over the first few games of the season and that they are currently a dominant possession team. They will be better.

[Related: What’s behind Golden Knights’ slow start?]

16. San Jose Sharks — Other than that blowout win in Philadelphia this has not been what we expected from the Sharks at the start of the season. They are clearly still trying to figure things out, but they will.

17. Minnesota Wild — They are pretty much the exact opposite of the Chicago Blackhawks so far in that they have played a lot of close, one-goal games that have gone to overtime, only instead of everything going in their favor, the bounces have worked against them.

Fourth Tier: The mystery teams 

18. Montreal Canadiens — I had no expectations for this team at the start, but they haven’t looked bad. Carey Price can be a difference-maker, but I don’t trust the offense to be good enough to sustain this better-than-expected start.

[Related: How can Canadiens exceed expectations this season?]

19. Calgary Flames — If they are going to do anything this season they are going to need more from Mike Smith because other than the shutout in Nashville he has not been good this season. Johnny Gaudreau is fantastic.

20. Vancouver Canucks — Good news: They have won three of their first five. Bad news: Their best young player is sidelined with a concussion. Worse news: They had a promising start last season, too, (6-3-1 through 10 games), and still finished with one of the league’s worst records. I would anticipate that is where they end up this season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — The big question with Conor Sheary was whether or not he could be a productive player away from Sidney Crosby. The early results in Buffalo are promising with his three goals in four games. If he has a bounce back year that would be a great pickup for the Sabres given how little he cost. Don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, either. There is some talent here, but it feels like we’ve said that about Buffalo before during this perpetual rebuilding phase.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — They can look like a playoff team or a lottery team on any given night. They are the biggest mystery team in the NHL, mainly because their defense and goalie situation is a constant question mark. Early injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Nolan Patrick are not helping.

23. St. Louis Blues — They spent a ton of money and assets to upgrade the offense over the summer, and they are returning a pretty solid defense. But goaltending is really hurting them early on.

24. Los Angeles Kings — They still look like an anemic offense team that is in need of an overhaul. At times they just never seem to be a threat to score, even with players like Anze Kopitar and Ilya Kovalchuk on the roster.

25. New York Islanders — The bottom of the roster is ugly, the defense and goaltending are question marks, but Mathew Barzal has superstar potential and Anders Lee is still scoring without John Tavares next to him.

[Related: Mathew Barzal is Islanders’ reason for hope]

26. Florida Panthers — I wouldn’t read too much into this start of this early ranking. They are winless, but it is also only three games. They are not as good as the team that was nearly unbeatable in the second half last season, and they also aren’t as bad as they were at the start of the season. Having said that, we saw last year what a bad start can do to a team and if they are going to be a playoff team they need to start getting wins. Fast.

Fifth Tier: It is going to be a long season

27. Ottawa Senators — A lot of their early success is driven by a 14.6 team-wide shooting percentage through the first five games. Once that levels off and returns to normal the lack of offense combined with the abysmal defense will be a bad combination.

28. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid has scored or assisted on this team’s past nine goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season. He is literally the only thing they have right now.

29. New York Rangers — For the most part they have been competitive and in most of their games, but there just isn’t enough talent here to compete at a high level.

30. Arizona Coyotes — There were a lot of reasons for optimism entering the season — and they still exist — but this is not the start anyone in Arizona wanted, having been shutout in three of their first four games.

31. Detroit Red Wings — There are not many positives here right now. They are every bit as bad as they were expected to be. Maybe even a little worse.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

PHT’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Sabres are remarkably expensive, but relief is coming

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After finally hammering out a bridge deal with rising forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres’ roster seems more or less set for 2018-19.

There’s plenty of debate regarding whether this team will improve, take a step back after a minor step forward, or idle in the same mediocre position they were last season. But one thing is clear once you peruse their Cap Friendly page and other listings of their salary structure, even if it might sneak up on you: this team is expensive.

Following the addition of Reinhart’s new $3.65 million cap hit, the Sabres have committed $76,684,524 to the cap this coming season, leaving them with about $2.815M in cap space.

That’s staggering stuff, especially considering: a) their moribund lack of success in recent seasons and b) the profound savings they’ll enjoy from prominent players (Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt) competing on entry-level contracts.

Let’s take a look at the Sabres’ somewhat puzzling salary structure to try to see warning signs, reasons for optimism, and situations that could go either way.

Long-term commitments

Three contracts stand out the most for Buffalo, and they’re a mixed bag:

Jack Eichel, 21: $10M cap hit through 2025-26
Kyle Okposo, 30: $6M through 2022-23
Rasmus Ristolainen, 23: $5.4M through 2021-22

It would be wise to throw in two other deals, too:

Patrik Berglund, 30: $3.85M through 2021-22
Carter Hutton, 32: $2.75M through 2020-21

Plenty of people criticized (and still criticize) the Eichel deal. Personally, I think he’s worth it. Even if you make an impassioned argument that Eichel’s only worth, say, $8.5M, Buffalo would have gained little in playing hardball there.

Considering the impact of the aging curve, Okposo’s contract looks like a real problem right now.

That said, Okposo absolutely faced extenuating circumstances considering how closely the 2017-18 season followed profound health scares, so maybe things improve in 2018-19? Consider that, even last season, Okposo generated 35 points over 51 games from November through February, which would prorate to about 56 points during a full season. That’s not world-beating stuff, yet if Okposo could generate 55-60 points while producing positive possession, the $6M wouldn’t seem so outrageous.

Okposo is just one of those intriguing pivotal considerations for Buffalo, as we’ll get to Ristolainen soon.

The nice thing, again, for Buffalo’s salary structure is that young players give them some default bargains. While bonuses can cloud matters, they’ll be paying Mittelstadt below market value for two seasons, while Dahlin’s primed to begin his three-year rookie contract. Such considerations – not to mention the dream of Alex Nylander “figuring things out” and giving them another bargain – could make those riskier deals easier to stomach.

Passing the torch?

The best news is that Buffalo’s ugliest deals are largely going away, whether they’re ending after 2018-19 or 2019-20.

Especially bad deals off the books after 2018-19:

Jason Pominville, 35: $5.6M
Matt Moulson, 34: $3.975M

Worst deal expiring after 2019-20:

Zach Bogosian, 28: $5.143M

With Jeff Skinner (26, $5.725M) entering a contract year, the Sabres would enjoy plenty of room to extend him – if they want to – considering the money freed up by those expiring Moulson and Pominville deals.

The Sabres see more than just Bogosian’s deal expire after two more seasons, and by then, they should know if Marco Scandella (28, $4M) was merely overwhelmed by a huge jump in useage (he logged almost exactly four more minutes per game in 2017-18 versus 2016-17, averaging a career-high TOI of 23:19). They’ll be able to gather more intel on forwards Vladimir Sobotka (31, $3.5M) and Conor Sheary (26, $3M) as well. Oh yeah, and they’d cross the bridge to a new deal with Reinhart.

Now, it’s not guaranteed that all that expiring money will mean that Buffalo will suddenly be cheap to run, as it’s conceivable that a lot of that liberated cash will simply go to Mittelstadt, Skinner, Sheary, Tage Thompson, and Linus Ullmark.

Of course, even if that’s the case, Buffalo would see more money going to younger players, which is generally a positive step in today’s NHL.

Ripple effects

You know how fans often depict Erik Karlsson and other defensemen (maybe Dougie Hamilton?) as players who bring offense yet are glaring liabilities in their own end? Such a criticism holds more weight with a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, who’s sometimes a whipping boy among analytics-minded hockey fans.

Painfully enough, Ristolainen might even be a little overrated on offense, as Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool and other metrics suggest:

The Sabres’ defense has been a uniquely ugly beast, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the tide-changing addition of Rasmus Dahlin may very well – eventually? – produce a domino effect.

Basically, Dahlin’s ascent may gradually place Ristolainen and others (again, Scandella was leaned up far too often last season) in more comfortable situations. It’s unclear if Ristolainen will prove that he’s worth $5.4M per season, but he might at least be able to clean up his numbers if he goes from difficult zone start situations to being used as more of an offensive specialist.

At 23, it’s not outrageous to wonder if a) Ristolainen’s confidence has been shaken and b) there’s still time for him to improve.

As special as Dahlin appears to be, it’s a lot to ask for him to fix things overnight, or even quickly. Unfortunately, the Sabres have been asking their defensemen to do too much in recent years, already. Maybe Dahlin will be so outstanding, so quickly, that such missteps won’t matter so much?

Overall improvements may also help forwards and goalies to thrive at a higher level, too.

Eichel’s dealt with poor support at times during his Buffalo run, not to mention some rough injury luck here and there. While the Ryan O'Reilly trade stings, landing Skinner and Sheary while inserting Dahlin and Mittelstadt into the lineup could really raise the wider competence of this team. Bonus points if Hutton proves that he can be a true No. 1 goalie, or failing that, a good platoon member alongside Ullmark.

***

This Sabres team is prohibitively expensive, and faces a serious uphill battle in proving that they’re worth the money.

Ultimately, the franchise’s future may hinge on key fork-in-the-road moments, such as Eichel getting some offensive support, the goaltending situation panning out, and solutions emerging on defense.

Forecasting the future isn’t easy, but the Sabres should at least be fascinating to watch.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins return from long summer

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CRANBERRY, Pa. (AP) — Sidney Crosby has been back in Pittsburgh for a few weeks, participating in several informal practices while his Penguins teammates returned from an unusually long offseason. Still, the first day of training camp felt different Friday.

”It’s always an exciting time. You’re excited to see all the guys,” Crosby said. ”You’re energized by the start of the year.”

That’s not the only way this camp, in particular, differs. After winning two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins don’t enter the season as champs.

That said, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

”It’s a good challenge,” Crosby said, ”and it’s fun to be back out there.”

After being eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Penguins will look slightly different while attempting to win a third championship in four seasons.

Forward Conor Sheary and defenseman Matt Hunwick were traded to Buffalo on June 27. In their place, 21-year-old forward Daniel Sprong has a chance to play first-line right wing next to Crosby and left wing Jake Guentzel and Jack Johnson could bolster a shallow defense after signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract July 1.

Matt Cullen, a 41-year-old forward who was on the two title teams, signed a one-year, $650,000 contract to return to Pittsburgh. He should return to the fourth line after Tom Kuhnhackl joined the New York Islanders on a one-year contract.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t plan to approach this camp any differently, though.

”I think training camp is a great opportunity to establish our identity right away, to instill the right habits,” Sullivan said. ”It’s no secret we’re a team that likes to skate. So, our fitness level as a group is really important. We’re trying to establish that foundation right away.”

Sprong, who had 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last season, helped push the tempo with Crosby during the first practice Friday. He remained there in a scrimmage, where set up a goal from Crosby in the right circle.

”You want to make a difference in camp and open eyes,” Sprong said. ”I think today was a good first day, but again, it’s only one day in camp. There’s many days left to go and you have to get better everyday.”

The Penguins have seemingly been in an endless search for a right wing that could play next to Crosby throughout his 13 NHL seasons.

Sheary seemed like the answer after scoring 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 61 games in 2016-17. That was before he regressed with 18 goals and 30 points in 79 games the following season.

With Sprong, they might have found the solution. His offensive upside could overcome what defensive pitfalls his game provides.

Even it Sprong doesn’t fit, Crosby wouldn’t be concerned.

”Whatever the combinations are, I think we’re just looking to make things happen out there,” Crosby said. ”Create offensively. Make sure we get our timing and we’re aware of each other out there on the ice.”

MORE PHT PENGUINS COVERAGE:
Three questions facing the Penguins
Under Pressure: Jack Johnson