PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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 Morning Skate: The issues in St. Louis; Schneider’s struggles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• So how are things going with the St. Louis Blues? “We were terrible in the first period. Every player. Terrible.” [Post-Dispatch]

• Meanwhile, the Blues handed Robert Bortuzzo a three-year extension. [Blues]

• Seattle’s NHL arrival will only grow the already rich history of the sport in the community. [NHL.com]

• How Mikko Rantanen turned into one of the NHL’s top scorers. [Sportsnet]

• What’s next for struggling Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils? [NJ.com]

• This will be a fun headline to remember: “He’s baaaaack – Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli looking like the resident genius” [Edmonton Sun]

Mikko Koskinen has been quite a find for the Oilers. [TSN]

• Knee surgery will likely keep Erik Haula of the Vegas Golden Knights out for the remainder of the season. [Las Vegas Review-Journal]

• A lower-body injury will keep Mike Green out of the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup for the next 3-5 weeks. [MLive]

• A busted finger means the Oilers will be without Oskar Klefbom for the next 6-8 weeks. [Oilers Nation]

• The Vancouver Canucks appear to have some interest in Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky. [NoVa Caps]

• Which NHL players are carrying the biggest offensive burdens for their teams? [ESPN.com]

• Some ideas on how to fix the New York Islanders power play. [Gotham Sports]

• The Guy Lafleur disco album is really something. [Punk Junk]

• Washington Capitals roll out welcome for the Black Girl Hockey Club’s first meeting. [Color of Hockey]

• Injuries have really put a damper on the Arizona Coyotes’ season. [Featurd]

• Finally, our good friend Gritty had a special Christmas message for ESPN’s Katie Nolan:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Hindsight is 43/35 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That’s how many goals and assists William Karlsson put up for the Vegas Golden Knights after the Blue Jackets let him go in the most recent NHL expansion draft. They also sent first- and second-round draft picks to Vegas to unload David Clarkson‘s contract and hold on to forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

”I think we’ve looked at probably 100 times already that, ‘Could we have done something different the last time around?”’ Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Probably not. You’re going to make some mistakes and you might let the wrong guy go. You do your studying, you do your evaluation of your players and you do your projections and it’s not an exact science.”

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021, when Seattle enters the league. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.

”We might get to a situation where we’re like, ‘Boy I don’t want to lose any of these guys,’ so a team may have to do it again,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. ”But we’ve lived it now and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it. And if you’re going to (make a trade), you’re going to make sure it’s for the right person. You’re going to be like: ‘I’m giving up a lot of assets here. Is this the right thing to do?”’

McPhee held all the leverage that summer, and he stockpiled talent as a result. Because only seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender (or seven skaters at any position and a goaltender) could be protected, a lot of deep teams were stuck with core players unprotected and willing to do almost anything to keep them.

Just some of the ”fear factor” moves: The Wild traded prospect Alex Tuch and let center Erik Haula go to Vegas to keep Matt Dumba. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault. The Islanders traded a first-round pick to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. The Ducks traded Shea Theodore to clear Clayton Stoner’s salary and keep Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. The Penguins even sent a future second-round pick to ensure Vegas would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota’s GM, figured out the hard way that expansion means every team loses something. Now with Philadelphia, his approach will likely be to lose as little as possible to Seattle.

”No matter what you do you’re going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. ”You either let them make the choice for you or you try to help them out by making sure you’re keeping the things you want to keep. It was a great process to go through and I’m sure there were some lessons learned, but at the end of the day, if you have too many players than you can protect, you’ve got to pick your poison.”

A popular choice last time? Teams giving up players to clear salary-cap space. That was the impetus for the Fleury move and others, but so much time to prepare could reduce the need for those trades in the summer of 2021.

”That’s just one thing that I see could happen, that if the teams aren’t financially strapped against the cap then they don’t have to make those sacrifices of young players to get the cap relief,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said.

With two full offseasons until Seattle can plunder 30 NHL teams (Vegas will not participate), a lot of GMs are already planning ahead. Offices in Columbus and Dallas have already been the scene of some long-range preparation while acknowledging a lot can change between now and then. Nill said teams will likely need to decide whether someone is a ”core player” or someone who isn’t going to be around in the future.

All GMs will need to grapple with the impact of no-movement clauses in player contracts that the NHL decreed must be protected in any expansion draft. Ottawa lost defenseman Marc Methot, in part, because Dion Phaneuf wouldn’t waive his no-movement clause. Now that GMs know the rules, deals through 2021 could be affected.

”You’re reluctant to give no-move clauses at any time, but certainly with knowing what your expansion protected list is going to be, I think that will make teams a little more cautious,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said.

According to PuckPedia , there are already 36 players with no-movement clauses for 2021-22. The Penguins, Stars and Blackhawks lead the league with four players each. Don’t be surprised if GMs attempt to change some of those situations to put themselves in a better spot.

”You don’t want to fill your protection list with guys that you have to protect because of the clauses in their contract,” Kekalainen said. ”You want to fill it with the guys you want to protect, so you want to leave that option to yourself.”

DE-IMPROVED PENGUINS

After sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh is 6-2-2 in its past 10 games to surge up the standings. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has stepped up for injured starter Matt Murray, is a big part of that with his 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage over that time.

”I’m not surprised,” Rutherford said. ”Casey took the long road to the National Hockey League. He worked at it. He’s worked very close with Mike Buckley, our goalie coach, and he’s a goalie that really worked on his fundamentals.”

The Penguins activated Murray off injured reserve Wednesday. Even with Murray’s return, don’t expect Pittsburgh to keep DeSmith on the bench for long.

”You have to have two goalies because if you want to have a long run in the spring, you can’t wear your No. 1 goalie out,” Rutherford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division face off Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 25; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 39; Points: Rantanen, 52; Ice time: Seth Jones (Columbus), 26:29; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.91; Save percentage: Rinne, 9.32.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed from Vancouver.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: Paul Martin retires; Nylander wait continues

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, introducing “Desert Gold,” an inside look into the Vegas Golden Knights’ incredible run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Watch the first episode on Saturday, Nov. 27th on NBCSports.com and Facebook Watch.

• Paul Martin’s 14-year NHL career has come to an end as the longtime defenseman has announced his retirement. [Gophers]

Sidney Crosby‘s status for Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning is unclear after he was evaluated for an upper-body injury following practice. [Tribune-Review]

• Did you hear about the Twitter accounts that were recently created and have put out a strong defense of the Ottawa Senators? Never a dull moment. [Silver Seven Sens]

• With six of their next seven games away from TD Garden, the Boston Bruins are hoping to build some momentum. [Bruins Daily]

• Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Mark Chipman will join the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee, replacing writer Eric Duhatschek and the late Bill Torrey. [HHOF]

• The longer the Toronto Maple Leafs wait to sign William Nylander, the more beneficial it could be for them. [TSN]

• Speaking of Nylander, here are 29 reasons why the Tampa Bay Lightning should trade for him. [Raw Charge]

Erik Haula’s injury has opened the door for Cody Eakin as the Golden Knights forward showed Wednesday night. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• The 2019 NWHL All-Star Game will be held in Nashville as part of a doubleheader with the Predators on Feb. 10. [NWHL]

• The only choice for the Calgary Flames when it comes to Mike Smith is patience. [Flames Nation]

• How sustainable is this start by the Vancouver Canucks? [Sportsnet]

• NHL superstars talk about the key issues surrounding the next CBA. [ESPN]

• The next few weeks are pretty important for the future of the Anaheim Ducks. [Anaheim Calling]

• “For the first time in program history, Sun Devil Hockey cracked the top-20 in this week’s USCHO Coaches’ Poll at No. 18 after the best start in program history.” [Sun Devils]

• The Dallas Stars power play is really missing John Klingberg. [Blackout Dallas]

Niklas Kronwall’s presence has been impactful for the Detroit Red Wings this season. [Octopus Thrower]

• Finally, what a save by Worcester Railers goaltender Evan Buitenhuis:

Injuries exposing Golden Knights’ lack of depth

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We are not even a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 NHL season and it is already clear that things are not going anywhere near as well for the Vegas Golden Knights as they did in their inaugural season.

They enter Wednesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) tied for the second-worst record in the Western Conference, ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings, and have quite a bit of work to do to get themselves back into a playoff position. Regression from a Stanley Cup Final appearance in year one was inevitable, but this might be even more than should have been expected given just how good they looked a year ago.

Goaltending has been a major culprit in the fall, but injuries and a 20-game suspension to one of their top defenders (Nate Schmidt) have also ruined what little depth the team had.

Even last year when Vegas was rolling through the Western Conference it was a very top heavy team that had some question marks after its top line. The complete dominance of the Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith line, as well as a career year from Marc-Andre Fleury, helped mask whatever flaws may have existed on the roster.

[Related: Golden Knights look to get back on track on Wednesday Night Hockey]

Keep in mind this team a year ago had a minus-17 goal differential at 5-on-5 when its top line was not on the ice (it plus-24 with the the top line on the ice).

But with those top players coming back, and Erik Haula coming off of a breakout season with his first real look in a significant role, and the offseason additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to hopefully — at least in theory — form what could have been a second dominant scoring line, there was plenty of reason think Vegas could at least be a playoff team once again, if not an actual contender.

Things have quickly gone awry from that plan.

Especially as injuries have mounted and the goaltending has collapsed on itself.

Pacioretty missed four games due to injury earlier this month and has yet to make the expected impact when they acquired him from Montreal for a trade package centered around Tomas Tatar (who has been great in Montreal) and 2017 first-round draft pick Nick Suzuki. As of Wednesday, he has just two points (both goals) in 14 games.

Stastny, their big free agent acquisition, has been sidelined since Oct. 8 and has only played in three games this season. In the words of coach Gerard Gallant on Wednesday, he is “not even close” to returning.

He and Pacioretty have spent just 43 minutes on the ice together this season.

As if that has not been enough, they recently lost Haula — 29 goals a year ago — to an ugly looking injury that required him to be stretchered off the ice and is going to keep him out of the lineup on a month-to-month basis.

Sprinkle in some additional injuries to the likes of Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and Deryk Engelland (who was one of the many pleasant surprises on the team a year ago) and the lineup has been consistently depleted this season.

General manager George McPhee was recently on Fan 590 in Toronto and talked about the situation, saying “we aren’t deep enough yet to not have everybody in.”

Via The Sin Bin.

I’d like to get healthy, for one game. just to see what we are. We just haven’t been. You know we rebuilt our second line and I think they’ve played two and half games together. Stastny’s been out most of the year, Pacioretty was out, Haula’s out, Tuch’s been out. We aren’t deep enough yet to not have everybody in.

If there is any good news on the horizon it’s that Schmidt will be eligible to return from his suspension on Nov. 18, which should give a boost to the defense.

But when it comes to everything else their options may be limited to just simply waiting. And hoping.

They have to wait for Stastny and Schmidt to get back in the lineup.

They have to hope Pacioretty breaks out of this early funk.

They have to hope Fleury’s early struggles are just that — early struggles — and not the beginning of the end for a 34-year-old goalie that just signed a long-term contract extension this summer.

Beyond that, what are the other logical options here? Vegas still has a lot of draft pick capital at its disposal, but at some point there has to be a big picture outlook where it has to remember that even with its year-one success this is still an expansion team building an organization from the ground up. It can not keep shipping away draft picks and prospects and ignoring the future.

All of that salary cap space the Golden Knights had at their disposal in future years has also quickly started to go away with several long-term contracts signed over the past few months (Marchessault, Smith, Fleury, Pacioretty, Tuch, Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Colin Miller are all signed through at least the 2022 season, while Stastny is locked in through 2021.  Karlsson will once again be a restricted free agent after this season and is currently doing enough to show he, too, is worth a long-term deal).

Everything went right for Vegas in year one, and it produced an incredible, almost too good to be true story. They are going to need everything to go right the rest of the way this season if they are going to come close to repeating because, so far, everything has worked against them. It all has them facing quite a deficit in the standings.

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.