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.

John Gibson keeping Ducks afloat

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Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson did not receive a single Vezina Trophy vote from the NHL’s general managers last season, and given how well he played that result was probably one of the bigger omissions in the league’s awards voting. It is not that he should have won it, or even necessarily been a finalist, but to not get a single vote when obviously inferior goalies did was … curious.

Since becoming the Ducks’ starting goalie during the 2015-16 season Gibson has been one of the best in the business, and seems determined to have his best season yet in 2017-18. If Anaheim is going to avoid falling off the map in the Western Conference playoff picture they probably are going to need elite play from their goaltender given the early trends they have shown.

Entering the weekend the Ducks are off to a 3-0-1 start, which is pretty impressive when you consider they have been without several of the top forwards, including Corey Perry, Ondrej Kase, and Ryan Getzlaf.

Perry and Kase have yet to play and neither will be back in the lineup anytime soon, while Getzlaf has missed two games due to a groin injury. That is a lot of talent out of the lineup as all three were among the team’s top-five scorers a year ago. And the Ducks were not a great offensive team with them, finishing 18th in the league in goals scored. Take them out and it gets even worse.

Along with that lack of offense, this Ducks team also has the same calling card as every Randy Carlyle-coached team before it: They get completely dominated when it comes to the shot chart, meaning it is imperative that the goalie not only plays well, but is capable of carrying the team.

For all of the success Carlyle has had behind the bench in the NHL (and he has had a lot; winning a Stanley Cup and reaching in the Western Conference Final twice) his teams all tend to play the same way. They get outshot. Badly. No matter who is on the team, no matter what the talent level is, no matter what conference or division they are playing in, they get caved in when it comes to shots.

It was the case during his first stint in Anaheim. It was the case during his time in Toronto. It was the case as recently as last season.

It is, so far, once again the case this season.

Through four games the Ducks are last in the NHL in total shot attempt differential during 5-on-5 play. They are next-to-last in scoring chance differential. They are 25th in “high-danger” scoring chance differential. (All numbers via Natural Stat Trick.) Whether you put much stock in the analytics are not, it is hard to acknowledge that it is a winning formula to continue getting that badly outshot and outchanced over the course of a season.

Still, despite all of those shortcomings the Ducks have collected seven out of a possible eight point to start the year and have only allowed three even-strength goals (and only six goals overall).

Gibson is the single biggest reason for all of that.

As of Friday, he already posted a .955 save percentage in his first four starts. Given that two of their three wins have been by a single goal (a 1-0 win, and a 3-2 shootout win) and their only loss came in a shootout, it is not a stretch to say that if he had been even marginally worse during those first four games the Ducks’ record and early season outlook would easily be completely different at this point.

That is all probably a good indication of what to expect from the Ducks this season, especially as long as their top forwards are sidelined. In short, they are going to go as far as Gibson can carry them.

If that is the way your team is going to play, Gibson is probably one of the best options a team can have at this point. Of the 44 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games since the start of the 2015-16 season, none of them have a higher save percentage than Gibson’s .925 mark. Despite that, he has only received a Vezina Trophy vote of any kind exactly one time, when he received a single second-place vote during the 2015-16 season when he helped the Ducks win the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against in a season.

He will probably not have much margin for error this season, and if the Ducks keep leaning on him the way they have, and he continues to deliver, he might finally get that Vezina Trophy support he has yet to receive in his career. Maybe even more.

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.

Pacific Division continues to get hammered by injuries

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It would appear that injuries are pilling up on Pacific Division teams to start the season, and it’s a who’s who when it comes to names.

The latest is a lower-body injury for Los Angeles Kings starting goalie Jonathan Quick, who is listed as day-to-day with the ailment.

The injury reportedly happened at practice, and backup Jack Campbell has already been named the starter for Los Angeles’ game on Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings.
Campbell has proven to be a capable replacement, going 2-0-2 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in four starts last season.

The Kings are already without Dustin Brown, who sustained a broken finger in the preseason and needed surgery to repair it.

Bonus for Peter Budaj fans, he’s back in the NHL.

The injury bug has taken a chunk out of the San Jose Sharks, too, after Joe Thornton was placed on injured reserve on Sunday after flying home from the team’s Eastern Conference road trip.

Jumbo Joe, 39, is dealing with swelling in his right knee, which was surgically repaired after he tore his ACL and MCL last season. Thornton has had catastrophic injuries to both of his knees now in the past two years. Despite his age, he’s been averaging around 16 minutes a night with the talent-laden Sharks this season.

The Anaheim Ducks received more bad news on Sunday after it was revealed that Ryan Getzlaf is day-to-day lower-body injury after leaving Saturday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. Getzlaf joins a growing list of walking wounded in Anaheim, with Corey Perry, Patrick Eaves, Ryan Kesler and Ondrej Kase all sidelined.

Despite what seems like some big holes in the Ducks’ lineup, Anaheim is 2-0 to start the season. John Gibson grabbed his first shutout of the campaign in a 1-0 win Saturday.

The Coyotes have been woeful to start the season, having yet to register a goal in their first two games.

Injuries have played a role in that, too, of course.

Alex Galchenyuk, Christian Dvorak and Jakob Chychrun are all stuck in the infirmary for the Coyotes.

The Calgary Flames are without Travis Hamonic after a fight resulted in a facial fracture for the defenseman, who is now week-to-week as he recovers.

Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch remain sidelined in Vegas.

Really, the only team to come through relatively unscathed here is Vancouver.

It’s been a tough opening week on the west coast.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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

Ducks stun Sharks, spoil Karlsson’s debut

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Heading into opening night, it seemed like the Sharks would only lose and the Ducks would only win for a simple reason: goaltending.

That was pretty much the case on Wednesday, as John Gibson played a huge role in Anaheim upsetting San Jose 5-2. The American-born goalie celebrated his contract extension by stopping 31 out of 33 shots, keeping the Ducks in the game even as they allowed 24 shots on goal in the second period alone.

It seemed like the Sharks needed works of art to beat John Gibson, and this Tomas Hertl goal was exactly that:

Meanwhile, it was a tough night for Martin Jones, whose lowest point came on a Brandon Montour tally (one that just can’t happen when the goalie at the other end is standing on his head):

Heading into this game, the Sharks boasted a “Who’s who” lineup, as Erik Karlsson adds staggering firepower to a lineup that already made the playoffs last season. On the other hand, injuries forced the Ducks to roll with a group that would elicit a “Who?” response from even most hardcore hockey fans.

It’s fitting, then, that a big move came when Max Comtois scored his first NHL goal in his first game, quieting “The Shark Tank” with a 1-0 goal just 49 seconds into the game.

To wade through choppy waters without the likes of Corey Perry, Ryan Kesler, and Ondrej Kase, the Ducks need “no-name” players to step up … but they’re still forced to rely on big names. Gibson delivered in an authoritative way, and so did other important Ducks. Anaheim received key three-point outputs from Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, while Adam Henrique and Ryan Getzlaf came up big, too.

While there were plenty of flashes of the brilliance expected from Karlsson, it wasn’t the ideal first night in teal. The superb Swede suffered a -2 rating, only fired one shot on goal, and failed to generate a point while logging almost 27 minutes (26:48) in his Sharks debut.

The good news is that Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer is finding ways to get both of his star defensemen on the ice, as Brent Burns logged 25:18 in this one. Unfortunately, their presence didn’t pay big dividends on special teams; while the Ducks went 2-for-3 (albeit giving up Hertl’s shorthanded goal), the Sharks failed to convert on three opportunities.

Again, San Jose still generally dominated the flow of play and puck possession, even if they didn’t have much to show for it on the scoreboard.

It’s just one game, yet if nothing else, it’s a real confidence-booster for a Ducks team that will need to be plucky to overcome this early stretch of injuries. Gibson and their healthy top guys are the key there, and for at least one night, that was enough against a potential juggernaut (or megalodon?) in the Sharks.

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.

 

Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals raise Cup banner; Karlsson’s Sharks debut

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season starts with a doubleheader on Wednesday. In the first game, the Washington Capitals host the Boston Bruins at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

For the first time in franchise history, the Capitals will enter the regular season as defending Stanley Cup Champions. It didn’t come easy, but Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby and the rest of the team were able to get it done. So how do they respond after a summer of living it up with Lord Stanley? That’s the biggest question.

The Caps should be fine. Will they win the division? It’s possible. Will they repeat as Stanley Cup champs? You never know. All we know for sure, is that the team doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did a year ago. Outside of a few depth additions, Washington is bringing back all the characters that you know and love. Of course, Tom Wilson won’t be among them in the first few games of the season because of a suspension.

Before tonight’s game against the Bruins, the Caps will get to watch their Stanley Cup banner go up to the rafters. That’ll be an exciting and emotional moment for the team and for its fans.

“It is going to be a very exciting moment, a very special moment,” Ovechkin said, per NHL.com. “The atmosphere is going to be unbelievable. The people are going to be happy. Some might even cry. It’s all about the Cup, it’s all about this team and this organization, how we did it. We share it with all the people who live in Washington.”

As for the Bruins, they seem to be flying under the radar in a division that includes the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston put together a terrific regular season before being bounced by the Lightning in the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins have three of the better players in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak up front. They also have a cast of young players like Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato that could take big steps forward in 2018-19.

On defense, veteran Zdeno Chara and youngster Charlie McAvoy will continue to lead the way for a group that’s relatively underrated. And between the pipes, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak should provide the Bruins with a strong one-two punch throughout the season.

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks will host the Anaheim Ducks at 10:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Of all the additions and transactions that were made between the end of the playoffs and start of the regular season, no team made a bigger move than the Sharks, who acquired Erik Karlsson from Ottawa for a less-than-stellar package of players and picks.

Adding Karlsson to a blueline that already includes Brent Burns seems to be unfair. Can you imagine what the what that power play is going to look like? Of course, they’ll have to find a way to get Karlsson to sign a contract extension, but for now they should just enjoy the luxuries they have on that defense. The Sharks will have to find a way to put it all together, but they have so many veterans that they’ll probably be able to make this whole thing work pretty quickly.

Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Joe Thornton, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Martin Jones will also have a hand in leading this team to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The only major loss they suffered in 2018 was Thornton’s beard.

“My wife’s been wanting this done for a long time and the guys kind of got on it and all of a sudden the shaver came out, and there it was on the plate,” Thornton said, per the Mercury News. “My 5-year old wasn’t happy this morning. When he woke up, he didn’t want to see dad. I’ve got to make it up to him somehow.”

The Ducks are in an interesting position heading into the year. Corey Perry‘s going to miss an extended period of time and Ryan Kesler, Ondrej Kase and Patrick Eaves are all opening the season on IR. They’ll still be able to count on guys like Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Adam Henrique, Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and John Gibson.

Instead of playing that physical brand of hockey that they’re used to playing, the Ducks are going to try play quicker.

“We’re trying to put in a new system and different line combinations, and that takes time,” Henrique said, per the Associated Press. “It takes some time to adjust to everything we’re being asked to do, but we’re already seeing flashes of it, for sure. For us, it’s a matter of just trying to get it into our games.”

Ahhhhhhhh hockey season is back, everybody! Enjoy!

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.