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PHT on Fantasy Hockey: Add them while you still can

We’re still early in the 2018-19 season, which means that fantasy hockey owners continue to wrestle with conflicting thoughts: “Am I overreacting?” versus “Am I being too slow to react?”

There are a wide variety of fantasy league formats, so it’s essentially impossible to cover every base in one add/drop-style column. With apologies to those in aberrant leagues or in expert-heavy pools where you already need to keep an eye on AHL call-ups, this list is intended for those in the lighter range. Here’s hoping that this could be a useful read even for the types who bring spreadsheets and laptops to fantasy drafts.

Note: position eligibility and percentage owned are based on Yahoo leagues.

[PHT fantasy preview: bounce-back candidates, sleepers, and risky players]

Micheal Ferland, LW/RW, 65-percent owned

Ferland is taken in about two-thirds of Yahoo leagues, so this likely is only useful for a small section of fantasy owners. Still, the people who could actually land Ferland probably need to make a decision soon. As in: open a new tab and add him if this section convinces you he’s worthy.

The former Flames forward isn’t going to sustain his current scoring pace (four goals and seven points in seven games). After all, Ferland was limited to 21 goals and 41 points last season (a career-high) with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan as his primary linemates. The good news is that Ferland is once again riding with strong linemates in Carolina, as he’s played almost every even-strength minute alongside Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. That’s awesome, yet it’s also important to temper expectations; he’s not likely to maintain a point-per-game pace this season after scoring a point every other game in 2017-18.

Ferland’s averaging an extra minute of ice time per contest so far, but he’s not on the top power-play unit, so … again, just pencil him in for … say, a 50-point potential.

Such scoring ability is easy to praise when you consider Ferland’s peripheral output. The 26-year-old has 18 hits so far in seven games, while he’s delivered 612 over 257 NHL games. Ferland’s been sending a ton of pucks on net so far this season (26, close to four per game), so if he’s going to flirt with three per night overall, that’s a heck of a jump from his two per game that’s been a general career trend.

So, Ferland’s bound to regress, yet he’s worth your time as long as he’s a regular on the top line.

Brady Tkachuk, LW, 34%

Now, you might be asking, “But Brady Tkachuk is on IR?” My answer: exactly.

This is a bit of an off-the-beaten-path strategy, but if you are planning on doing an add/drop anyway (and have free IR spots), why not drop your player, add Tkachuk, place him on IR, and then add someone else? Again, this plan hinges on your team not already being bitten by the injury bug; there’s also the worry that Ottawa might opt to avoid burning a year off of Tkachuk’s rookie contract once he does come back.

But … overall, Tkachuk could be really intriguing, and worth keeping on your IR to at least monitor the situation. Worst-case scenario, you can just drop him if things don’t work out.

Tomas Tatar, LW/RW, 50% / Brendan Gallagher, RW, 61% / Jeff Petry, D, 25%

I’ve said this once, I’ll say it again: the Montreal Canadiens are going to slow down.

Still, even (potential) cellar dwellers need someone to score, and the Habs feature some interesting choices. These three stand out as players who are a) off to hot starts, b) play prominent roles, and c) figure to at least remain important for the Canadiens.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Gallagher isn’t much more fantasy-available than Ferland, and he’s the most obvious choice among these players, so I’ll move on beyond stating that Gallagher is a clear first-line-caliber winger who’s worth your time. (His modest career PIM totals are a bit surprising, considering his ability to agitate.)

Tatar is solid enough, albeit with a not-so-exciting ceiling. He’s not a great peripheral option, yet his LW/RW eligibility might put things over the top in deeper leagues. At worst, I’d consider watch-listing Tatar.

Petry might, honestly, be the most intriguing … although he’s most interesting in deeper leagues.

Since coming to Montreal – I have to admit, I didn’t realize this was already his fifth season with the Canadiens – Petry’s averaged 22:28 TOI per game, with his totals going over 23 minutes per night since last season.

So far in 2018-19, Petry’s topped all Montreal skaters with an average of 4:53 of power-play TOI. With just one PPP, he hasn’t exactly been killing it from that perspective, but Petry should rack up a ton of reps until Shea Weber returns. (And, considering Weber’s mileage, there’s the possibility that a Weber return would be short-lived, anyway.)

Even once Weber is back, I’d expect Petry to carry a heavy workload. Would that be enough for him to be roster-worthy? Cross that bridge when you come to it, because he’s a nice defensive workhorse at this very moment.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C/LW, 75%

Look, I’m not going to belabor the point with this one, as “The Nuge” is mostly scooped up. Still, 25-percent-availability is enough to at least mention him here, with faint hopes that you might actually grab him.

More than Ty Rattie, Nugent-Hopkins is super-appealing as Connor McDavid‘s fire hydrant-er, linemate. RNH can also score at a respectable level on his own, but the “don’t think, just add him” feeling comes from his current role. It doesn’t hurt that you can place him as a LW, either.

• Henri Jokiharju, D, 47%

The 29th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft might end up being a comparable steal to Eeli Tolvanen, the guy who Nashville selected one pick later.

Jokiharju has made quite an impact over his first six NHL games, collecting five assists, largely playing on the top pairing alongside Duncan Keith, and – maybe most impressively – earning praise from Coach Q.

Is he going to sustain all of this enough to remain fantasy-relevant? That I don’t know. He’s not currently on the top PP unit, and his ice time (21:18 average) is outstanding for a rookie, but not at the high-end of defensemen overall.

That said, the Blackhawks need right-handed defensemen, and Joker (I assume people call him that?) fits that bill. Your interest here might just rise or fall according to how viable you expect Chicago to be. If you add him, I’d recommend being liberal with add/drops if he slips.

Honestly, his greatest value probably comes in Daily Fantasy formats, as he’s been dirt-cheap in that regard.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Goalie considerations

Consider me a proponent for Raanta.

I know the Coyotes got off to a rough start, and “run support” could be a weak point during multiple stretches this season. That said, Raanta’s body of work (a dazzling .922 career save percentage) indicates that he could be legit, and I’d expect him to rack up a lot of starts if he can stay healthy. Raanta stands as a nice second goalie, and could be a game-changer if it makes sense for you to carry three.

How is this happening?

Will it continue to? I’d wager not, but if you’re hurting for a goalie, you could do worse than to find out.

Meh. The combination of questionable team (Kings blowout or not) and substantial competition from Thomas Greiss scares me away. Lehner is fighting for his career, however, so at least motivation is a plus. I’d probably only add Lehner on a weekend where you hope to steal a goalie stat or two on a Sunday in a weekly head-to-head match, or something like that. Mostly meh here, gang.

Quick hits

  • Chris Kreider, LW, 49% – A heck of a player who boosts his value by being a nice source of PIM and hits. He’d be extra valuable if “running goalies” was a category, especially since Corey Perry‘s on the shelf.
  • Kevin Labanc, LW/RW, 22% – Easy to like that he’s currently on the Sharks’ top line, yet he’s not getting much ice time. Eyeball him in DFS, but I’d wait to see if he gets more reps before adding him in all but the deepest leagues.
  • Zach Parise, LW, 40% – It’s easy for a player to eat far too much criticism when they’re carrying a big contract … but hey, you’re not shelling out his checks, right? Parise’s getting significant ice time, firing a nice volume of pucks on net, and is scoring at a nice rate. He’s one of the safer options for a depth LW.
  • Hampus Lindholm, D, 49% – One of those “better in reality than fantasy” defensemen, Lindholm gets a lot more interesting if your stat categories go deeper, as he averages more than a hit and blocked shot per game during his NHL career (380 hits, 459 bs in 378 GP, and he’s upped those numbers in recent years of heavier usage). His solid-but-unspectacular points totals are frustrating at times – again, because Lindholm is just so good; Marc-Edouard Vlasic fans can relate – yet Lindholm does a little of everything.

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.

Contract talks: Nylander and Leafs meet; Rinne’s future with Predators

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Update: The Ducks announced a three-year contract for Nick Ritchie tonight, so scratch one name off the list.

***

Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:

William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.

Phew.

As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.

It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.

Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
  • Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
  • Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
  • The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun discusses the circumstances (sub required) that could make a trade more likely. (Personally, it’s tough to imagine, but it’s also surprising that the situation keeps dragging on.)

It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.

Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks

McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.

It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.

Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.

Key situations for the Nashville Predators

There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.

Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.

Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.

McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.

The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.

Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.

Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.

As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.

Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.

***

Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.

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.

Are Predators wise in demoting hyped prospect Tolvanen?

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After absorbing the highlights and the hype from his spellbinding start in the KHL, it was frustrating to see Eeli Tolvanen‘s first run with the Nashville Predators end with such a whimper.

You can only fault him so much, as he didn’t really get much of a chance to prove himself. Tolvanen barely averaged more than 12 minutes of ice time over the three regular-season games with the Predators, failing to score a goal or an assist. Despite what sometimes felt like a revolving door of forwards at depth positions, Tolvanen didn’t play a single shift during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s difficult to suss out how much of that is on Tolvanen – whose game likely needs some polish outside, aside from sniping – and how much of the blame goes to Peter Laviolette (who, as an NHL head coach, is required to cast a suspicious eye on all rookies*).

With those growing pains in mind, maybe it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that the Predators demoted Tolvanen to the AHL on Wednesday, although it is a little surprising that he didn’t receive an extra look or two to close out training camp.

After all, the thinking goes, wouldn’t the 19-year-old be better off enjoying a featured role with the Milwaukee Admirals, rather than scrapping for minutes and possibly finding himself as an occasional healthy scratch with the big club?

Well, it’s not necessarily that simple.

Let’s get into some of the deeper details.

A different form of 10-game cut-off: In most cases, an NHL team faces a conundrum: either demote a player or risk burning a year off of their entry-level contracts for a weak return. The Edmonton Oilers’ blunders with Jesse Puljujarvi remind us that a team can recklessly squander what could be the best “bang for your buck” years of a player’s time.

Taking advantage of that “entry-level slide” can be especially appealing when a team is able to assign a player to the AHL, rather than the junior level or overseas.

That would seem to be the case with Tolvanen, yet that turns out to not be true. As The Athletic’s Adam Vingan and TSN’s Bob McKenzie have reported, Tolvanen’s contract features a clause that would allow him to play in Europe if he reaches 10 games played at the AHL level.

With that in mind, the Predators would relinquish quite a bit of control over Tolvanen’s near future if they allow him to play in the KHL, or some other European league. He wouldn’t receive much more exposure to North American rinks if that happened, but most importantly, the Predators would forfeit a certain level of control over when Tolvanen could play for them again.

If I were running the Predators, I’d prefer to keep him around the big club.

It shouldn’t be that tough to find a fit: Look, it’s plausible that there would be times when a low-end, veteran grinder would be a better fit for the Predators’ lineup than Tolvanen. Overall, though, it’s tough to imagine that Tolvanen couldn’t benefit Nashville with his game-breaking talents, even if he’s a work in progress. Would you really rather have Zac Rinaldo or Miikka Salomaki on the ice instead of Tolvanen?

One area where you can make an especially strong argument for Tolvanen is on the power play.

The Predators have some fantastic talent offensively, yet their strength on defense can be a curse in disguise when it comes to the man advantage. Consider the shot distribution: Roman Josi (71 SOG on PP) and P.K. Subban (56 SOG on PP) topped all Predators in that regard, with only Filip Forsberg firing at a comparable rate (46 PP SOG, but while being limited to 67 games).

Maybe Tolvanen could be a lot like Sam Gagner was during a very successful year with Columbus: a highly specialized shooter on the power play. Racking up points that way could help the Predators go from results that are acceptable, but not very exciting, to a power play unit that could count as another strength for a real contender out West.

Loading up: You never know how wide your window to compete really is, so while preserving Tolvanen’s cheapest years has an undeniable lure, there are some significant reasons to just try to make it work with him in 2018-19.

For one thing, taking advantage of Tolvanen’s rookie contract now could allow the Predators to really load up. With ample space to work with – Cap Friendly puts them at more than $8.7M – Nashville could target a deluxe rental like Mark Stone (or, amusingly, maybe Matt Duchene?). In such a scenario, Tolvanen could step into a spot if Nashville needed to package, say, Craig Smith in a hypothetical trade.


Again, the threat of Tolvanen heading overseas looms large in these considerations. How arduous would the process be to get him back to North America? Would Tolvanen develop “bad habits” away from the club’s more watchful eyes? The situation seems tricky enough that it might just be preferable to hope that he figures things out, earns Laviolette’s trust, and pays immediate dividends instead.

Overall, these are good problems for an already talent-rich team like the Predators to have. It’s unusual for a late first-rounder of such a recent draft (30th in 2017) to force the issue so soon.

Regardless, Tolvanen’s situation remains a tricky one for Nashville. If they get this all right, the rewards could indeed be rich.

* – Though, I’d credit Laviolette for being more willing to trust players than former Predators coach Barry Trotz. Would Trotz have given Filip Forsberg and Kevin Fiala the same amount of leeway so early on in their respective careers? As smart a coach as Trotz is, I’d lean toward “No.”

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.

PHT’s 2018-19 Central 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
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

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

Preds see no reason to mess with success in chase for Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators see no reason to make any major changes to a roster that won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, not with a group that has been so very close to that elusive Stanley Cup the past two seasons.

”It didn’t work out in the playoffs the way we wanted,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. ”But we truly believe this team can win a Stanley Cup, and that’s why we want to keep this team together.”

The Predators lost the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games to Pittsburgh and followed that up with the best regular season in team history. But Nashville’s quest for a repeat run to the Final ended in the first Game 7 on home ice in the Western Conference semifinals with a loss to Winnipeg , the team that finished second overall behind the Predators in the regular season.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm said a Game 7 can go either way. The Predators know the rest of the Western Conference keeps loading up with talent through trades and signings. That makes just reaching the playoffs a challenge in the West, much less repeating either as conference or Central Division champs.

”It’s a privilege we are together still, and we barely had any change on our roster,” Ekholm said. ”I see that as a very positive thing.”

Some other things to know about the Predators this season:

NET QUESTIONS

Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy-winning season, his first in his fourth time as a finalist for the award for the NHL’s top goalie in the regular season. He was at his best carrying the Predators to the Presidents’ Trophy, going 42-13-4 with eight shutouts, a 2.31 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He also earned his 300th career victory on Feb. 22. Rinne turns 36 in November and is going into the final season of his current contract.

The Predators also signed Rinne’s backup, a fellow Finn in Juuse Saros who was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for the season. Saros, 23, signed a three-year extension after going 11-5-7 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

”There’s more skill on the ice than ever before, the same goes for goalies,” Rinne said. ”You really have to take care of yourself, and I feel like I had a good summer. I’m healthy and energized and feel really good so looking forward to this season.”

ROSTER TWEAKS

Center Mike Fisher retired again, this time for good after coming out of retirement to rejoin the Predators in late February. Veteran forward Scott Hartnell also was let go with his experienced replaced by signing Dan Hamhuis, a defenseman Nashville drafted at No. 12 in the 2001 entry draft. Defenseman Alexei Emelin also was allowed to leave for the KHL.

NASHVILLE KEEPERS

Along with an extension for Saros, general manager David Poile also signed forwards Ryan Hartman and Miikka Salomaki to extensions keeping the restricted free agents around. The biggest deal of the offseason for Nashville easily was signing defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year deal worth $50 million that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season. Ellis still had a season remaining, so Poile kept the defenseman’s status from hanging over the Predators. The move also keeps three of Nashville’s top four defensemen – Ellis, P.K. Subban and Ekholm – signed through the 2021-22 season.

YOUNG HOPES

Eeli Tolvanen couldn’t have come to the NHL with much higher expectations after setting a scoring record as an 18-year-old for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League, and he also tied for the second-most points by an under-19 player for Finland at the Winter Olympics with nine points in five games. He played three games down the stretch for Nashville. Rinne said European media were disappointed Tolvanen didn’t have a hat trick in his opener, but the goalie believes the teen made the right move to get acquainted with the Predators last spring.

”I’m expecting big things out of him,” Rinne said.

Ryan Johansen

The Predators sure could use a big step forward in the regular season by the big first-line center. Johansen ranked fourth on the team in points in the regular season with 54 in 79 games. Then Johansen scored better than a point a game with 14 points in 13 games in the postseason, and the center looking a bit more at the net than passing could provide a boost across the top line with Filip Forsberg.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL