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PHT Power Rankings: Wild still stuck in wrong division

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Before the start of the season I had what was, admittedly, an overly harsh assessment of the Minnesota Wild (No. 5 on the list here) that talked about how they just kind of exist as a franchise, and how I don’t really have any overwhelmingly strong opinions, positively or negatively, about them as a team. Mostly because for as good as they tend to be, they just never really go anywhere.

Every year you know exactly what they will do, where they will finish in the standings, when they will exit the playoffs.

They have a lot of really good players, but they don’t really have any true superstars.

They are a consistently good team (sometimes really good!), but no matter how good they are, there always seems to be that one team they inevitably meet in the first round that is just always a little bit better than them.

The result is a team that consistently finishes with 100 points, is usually in the top-10 in the overall league standings (top-eight the past two years; top-three this season as of Monday), but can never make a serious postseason run. You know they are going to be there in the playoffs and probably near the top of the standings, but deep down you just know they have no legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup. At least that is the way it seems.

Look at it this way: During the five-year stretch between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Wild were 10th in the NHL in games won. That is a pretty good team. You would think with that much regular season success, and that many trips to the playoffs (all five years), that something might have come together for at least one decent run deep in the playoffs.

For most teams, it does.

For most teams, it did.

For the Wild, it didn’t.

They were one of just two teams in the top-12 in total wins during that stretch that did not make at least one Conference Finals appearance (the Boston Bruins, sixth in wins during that stretch, were the other).

Eight of the teams in the top-12 made at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance (St. Louis, Boston, Anaheim, and Minnesota were the ones that did not).

This season, the Wild are once again a good team. A really good team. A really good team with a great coach in Bruce Boudreau that is doing what he has done for every team he has coached — win. They dominate five-on-five goal-scoring. They dominate five-on-five scoring chances. They have a great penalty kill and an outstanding goalie.

If you are a Wild fan there should be every reason to look at this team and think “maybe we have a chance!”

For everyone outside of Minnesota, you can’t help but look at the situation and the division and the potential path through the playoffs and simply say, “there is no way they are beating both Nashville and Winnipeg in the first two rounds. It just doesn’t seem probable.”

This is the story of the Minnesota Wild in a nutshell. In any given year there may only be two or three teams in their conference that are better than them, and those teams will almost always — always! — be in their division, and be their likely first-or second-round opponents.

The same is true this season.

For years that team was always the Chicago Blackhawks during their mini-dynasty run.

This year — just like last year — it is Nashville and Winnipeg. The two teams they will almost certainly have to go through to go on a run and get out of the Central Division bracket.

It takes a lot of luck and good fortune to win a Stanley Cup. That luck can be anything and everything from getting the right bounce in the right moment, to having all of your key players healthy at the same time, to getting the right matchups along the way.

When it comes to the Wild, they almost never seem to get the latter. Every year it is a brutally tough draw in their division. That does not seem to be changing.

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — Just an incredibly deep team that is dominating everybody. They have only allowed seven goals on their current five-game winning streak. In four of those games they allowed either one goal or zero goals.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — Ryan McDonagh seems to have found the fountain of youth in Tampa Bay, and as if they weren’t already good enough, Victor Hedman is now back in the lineup. The Atlantic Division should be theirs for the taking once again.

3. Minnesota Wild — Once again stuck in the wrong division.

They are who we thought they were 

4. Boston Bruins — Jaroslav Halak has been a huge surprise this season. What has not been a surprise has been the domination of their top line. It is almost like a cheat code when they are on the ice. I don’t mean to exaggerate here, but splitting that trio up should be a fireable offense.

5. Winnipeg Jets — After recording a pair of points in their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday night, Blake Wheeler is now on a 10-game point streak. He has 19 points during that streak.

[Related: It is time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated]

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are still picking up wins even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, but their loss over the weekend to Boston should concern them from a big picture outlook. They still have no answer for the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line and if the Maple Leafs are going to be anything other than a team that loses in the first-round they are probably going to have to get through Boston this season. Are you convinced they can do that?

Exceeding expectations, but the jury should still be out

7. Vancouver Canucks — This team still strikes me as a house of cards (that defense and goaltending … woof!), but Elias Petterson is a legit top-line talent and one of the league’s must-see players right now. I give them credit for winning early, because that matters, but I am still not ready to buy this team, this season. Yet.

8. Montreal Canadiens — Just about everything Marc Bergevin touched this offseason seems to be turning to gold. At least for now. How long that good fortune lasts will determine the success or failure of this year’s team.

9. Buffalo Sabres — Whether it is from Buffalo or somebody else, Jeff Skinner is putting himself in a position to collect a lot of money at some point over the next few months. He is still only 26 years old and it seems like he has been around forever.

They are who we thought they were, part 2

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — They enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division despite the fact their goalies, for the most part, have completely stunk this season. They need Sergei Bobrovsky to be Sergei Bobrovsky again.

11. Philadelphia Flyers — How does anyone that follows this team have a healthy blood pressure? They either look great or horrible and they seem to spend equal time on both sides of that spectrum. Lately, the great version has been here (at least offensively). Give it time, though, because the horrible version is probably lurking around the corner just waiting to appear again.

12. Dallas Stars — Middle of the pack seems to be the perfect way to describe the Stars. In any year and every year. Losing John Klingberg for a month is going to hurt, though. He is one of the game’s best blue-liners and should be in the Norris discussion once again.

13. Calgary Flames — The Flames are off to a pretty good start and one of the biggest contributors has been … David Rittich? The backup goalie is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage in six starts. Now if they could just get something out of James Neal

Hey, wake up, you are better than this

14. San Jose Sharks — Erik Karlsson has been better than his box score numbers would indicate, but zero goals in 18 games to start the season is not what anybody expected.

15. Washington Capitals — The defending Stanley Cup champions have won back-to-back games once this season. They have yet to win more than two in a row. They have also yet to lose more than two in a row.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins — The general manager was right to call out his team. But he also is the one that built the team, so he has to look in the mirror a little bit, too.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

17. St. Louis Blues — Three of their top-five scorers right now (Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, Tyler Bozak) were acquired over the offseason in an effort to boost one of the league’s worst offensive teams. They fixed the offense just in time for the goaltending to abandon them.

Making their move … but is it already too late?

18. Florida Panthers — Entering the week they are 5-2-0 in their past seven games, but another slow start to the season may have been enough to bury them.

19. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their eighth game of the 2017-18 season until December 22, so they are more than a month ahead of last year’s pace. There is a lot to like about this team, especially the way they play defensively and on the penalty kill. They are not an easy two points for anyone.

20. New York Rangers — Honestly, not sure I expected this team to put together a six-game point streak at any time this season, but that is exactly what they have done over the past two weeks as part of a 5-0-1 run. Only two of those five wins came in regulation (the other three were shootout wins) so it’s probably not something that is going to sustain itself, but you can’t fault the effort.

21. Detroit Red Wings –– Same story as the Rangers. The effort is there, and it’s resulted in a nice little hot streak here recently (for the Red Wings, it is wins in six out of the past seven games, including three in a row where they have had to overcome a two-goal deficit) but even bad teams get hot at some point during an 82-game season.

The mystery teams

22. Colorado Avalanche — Two of the top-three scorers in the league, a top-three offense overall, top-10 in goals against per game … and they are, at the moment, a fringe playoff team that has lost six out of eight games.

23. New York Islanders — The argument in favor of the Islanders is that they are balanced, and getting contributions from everyone, and they are the definition of a team with a good system and a good coach in place. The reality is they are 21st in the league in goals per game, 30th in shots on goal per game, and are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to possession and scoring chance differential. Unsustainable goaltending has masked all of those flaws for now.

24. Vegas Golden Knights — I still think this team is capable of putting together a run here if they get their goalies straightened out. But maybe they’re just not going to get the goaltending this season? Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t young anymore and the jury is still out Malcolm Subban.

25. Carolina Hurricanes — Such a promising start, too.

26. Edmonton Oilers — No forward depth. Bad defense. Cam Talbot is not playing well in goal. Everyone in charge of this team should remain on the hot seat.

27. Ottawa Senators — Young players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk have been great this season. That is the important thing for this team.

28. New Jersey Devils — After starting the season with a four-game winning streak the Devils are just 2-8-1 since then.

[Related: Struggling Devils]

29. Anaheim Ducks — Their strong start was always a mirage given the way they were actually playing. They have just one regulation win in their past 11 games. This has all the makings of another team destined for an in-season coaching change.

You probably fired the wrong person

30. Chicago Blackhawks — Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster is not particularly good.

31. Los Angeles Kings —  Whenever you think it is time to fire your head coach it is probably time to also look at the people that built the roster. This roster stinks.

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 Morning Skate: O’Ree’s Hall call; landing spots for Quenneville

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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.

• The Remembrance Day jerseys that the ECHL’s Brampton Beast will wear this Sunday are phenomenal.

• The Washington Capitals held a 50/50 raffle during Wednesday night’s game and raised over $19,000 for Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. [RMNB]

• It’s been 60 years since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier. Now he’s finally getting the call to the Hockey Hall of Fame. [SI.com]

Jakub Voracek is no fan of the Uber driver who released that video of Ottawa Senators players ripping their coach: “Who gives a s—? He’s a f—ing idiot. Do your job. You’re an Uber driver, drive cars. Don’t try to sell copies to make some money. Get the f— out of here. You know what I mean, he’s a loser.” [NBC Philadelphia]

• Meanwhile, the Senators are demanding that the Ottawa Citizen take the video down. The paper will not do that. [CBC]

• “Following a report that the Coyotes would soon change ownership, the team has said that it is open to opportunities to improve its organization but would not say that any changes are imminent.” [Arizona Sports]

• The New York Islanders are off to a great start, but will it last? [The Hockey News]

• Five possible landing spots for Joel Quenneville. [Featurd]

• Jimmy Howard is playing well for the Detroit Red Wings, which might just earn him an extension. [MLive]

Marcus Sorensen is really coming on for the San Jose Sharks. [NBC Bay Area]

• Brody Roybal, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist and the PyeongChang hockey tournament MVP, climbed Willis Tower’s 2,149 stairs using his upper body, arms and hands on Sunday. [Olympic Talk]

Elias Pettersson has some around the NHL believing he’s a young Pavel Datsyuk. [NHL.com]

James Neal’s tough start with the Calgary Flames boils down to a lack of opportunities. [Sportsnet]

• Jussi Jokinen has joined Swiss side EHC Kloten until Dec. 5. [Swiss Hockey News]

• “Mika Zibanejad and the case of being a true 1C” [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Shorter video reviews and other changes the NHL should make. [Jets Nation]

Nate Schmidt joined his Vegas Golden Knights teammates for practice on Wednesday. He’s eligible to return on Nov. 18. [Review-Journal]

• The update on Erik Haula is that he’ll travel with the Golden Knights on their current road trip and not play in their next three games. More information will be available soon, according to Gerard Gallant. [TSN]

• Finally, what’s Mike Fisher been up to in his second retirement? Well…

————

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.

The Buzzer: Kotkaniemi’s breakout game, Koskinen’s shutout, Flames’ rally

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Laine entered Thursday’s game against the Florida Panthers with just three goals and five total points in his first 12 games, and had gone five consecutive games without a point. You can now consider that slump over. Laine matched his goal total for the season entering Thursday with a hat trick performance in his home country as the Jets picked up a 4-2 win over the Panthers in Finland. Even with the slow start it was only a matter of time until Laine had a breakout game. He still managed 17 shots on goal in the previous five games and is simply too good and too talented to be held off the scoresheet for that long. Especially when he was still generating shots the way he was. Eventually they were going to start finding the back of the net for him. On Thursday afternoon they started to.

2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. Kotkaniemi, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft, scored his first two NHL goals on Thursday night to help lead the Canadiens to a 6-4 win over the Washington Capitals in a game that also saw his team set an NHL record for fastest two goals by one team. His goals were also big ones for the 2018 rookie class as now all of the top-four picks from this year (Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Kotkaniemi, and Brady Tkachuk) have scored at least one goal in the season following their draft year. That is something that has not happened since the 2009-10 season.

3. Mikko Koskinen, Edmonton Oilers. The Edmonton Oilers won for the fourth time in their past five games by shutting out the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-0. Drake Caggiula scored twice in the win, but backup goalie Mikko Koskinen played the best game of his brief career by stopping all 40 shots he faced. Koskinen’s addition to the Oilers roster was a bizarre one over the summer given how much they paid him, the fact they guaranteed him a roster spot, and the fact he had not played a game in the NHL since 2010-11 … and even then he only played four games. He came through in a big way on Thursday night. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, extended their current losing streak to four games.

Other notable performances from a busy night

• The Calgary Flames trailed the Colorado Avalanche by three goals entering the third period before erupting for five consecutive goals to take a 6-5 win. Among those scoring in the comeback: Elias Lindholm who has already scored nine goals for the Flames after coming over in the Dougie Hamilton trade over the summer. Free agent acquisition James Neal also scored a big goal, tying the game as part of a four-minute stretch where the Flames would score three goals.

Sergei Bobrovsky has not looked like himself yet this season but finally did on Thursday night, stopping 44 of the 45 shots he faced in a 4-1 win over the San Jose Sharks, whose six-game point streak came to an end. Before Thursday’s game the Sharks had recorded at least a point in eight of their previous nine games.

• It was another rough night for the Southern California teams as the Anaheim Ducks dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the New York Rangers, losing for the seventh time in a row. The Kings, meanwhile, dropped a 5-2 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers and have now lost seven of their past eight games. They have scored two goals or fewer in all of the losses during that stretch.

• The Ottawa Senators snapped a four-game losing streak with a win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Craig Anderson playing a starring role as he stopped 46 out of 48 shots.

• Break up the … Detroit Red Wings? After going the first 10 games of the season without registering a regulation win (and only one shootout win total) the Red Wings have now three games in a row thanks to their 4-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. All three of those wins have come in regulation.

Anton Khudobin stopped 31 shots as the Dallas Stars shut down the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs are now 2-4-0 in their past six games.

• The St. Louis Blues got a much-needed win with a 5-3 performance over the Vegas Golden Knights. The difference in the game was Oskar Sundqvist, who scored a pair of goals. That matched his career goal total entering the night (two goals in 72 career games).

Highlights of the Night

In what might have been a Stanley Cup Final preview the Nashville Predators continued to roll on Thursday night with a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The play of the night was this Ryan Johansen pass to set up Roman Josi for the eventual game-winning goal.

Factoids

It was a big night for personal milestones around the NHL as Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey and Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville both played in their 1,000th career games on Thursday night. Both teams were on the losing end of their games, but Pominville did score a goal on his special night.

• Big win for the New York Islanders on Thursday night over the Pittsburgh Penguins, thanks in part to a tremendous showing from goalie Thomas Greiss.

• Also worth pointing out one more time: The Montreal Canadiens set an NHL record tonight for the fastest two goals scored by one team. Two seconds apart.

Scores
Winnipeg Jets 4, Florida Panthers 2
Dallas Stars 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1
New York Islanders 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (SO)
Montreal Canadiens 6, Washington Capitals 4
Ottawa Senators 4, Buffalo Sabres 2
Nashville Predators 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Detroit Red Wings 4, New Jersey Devils 3
St. Louis Blues 5, Vegas Golden Knights 3
Calgary Flames 6, Colorado Avalanche 5
Edmonton Oilers 4, Chicago Blackhawks 0
New York Rangers 3, Anaheim Ducks 2 (SO)
Columbus Blue Jackets 4, San Jose Sharks 1
Philadelphia Flyers 5, Los Angeles Kings 2

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.

Neal off to an ice-cold start with Flames

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At times, James Neal can seem like a one-dimensional player. Unfortunately for the Flames – and certainly to Neal’s frustration – we haven’t really seen much of his vaunted goal-scoring in Calgary.

Through 13 games, Neal only has two goals and one assist for three points. Things have been especially lousy lately, as the 31-year-old only has one point in his last nine games. To rub a little salt in his wounds, Neal’s only point was the lone goal as the Penguins shellacked the Flames by the unreal score of 9-1.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to contrast this start with the way he began last season. To jog your memory: Neal somehow scored the game-winning goal in three straight games, opening his short Vegas Golden Knights career with a four-game goal streak (six tallies during that dizzying run).

How concerned should the Flames be about Neal’s slow start? Let’s consider some of the factors.

Age of decline?

The Flames likely knew that Neal’s contract is risky, at least when it comes to giving a 31-year-old winger such term. Much like with Milan Lucic and the Oilers, the struggles have come a lot sooner than expected, though.

Generally speaking, snipers tend to hit the aging curve the hardest, so Calgary might just need to accept diminishing returns.

Bad luck

That said, it’s unlikely that Neal will struggle this much, at least for the remainder of 2018-19.

As you’d expect with a goal-scorer who isn’t scoring goals, Neal’s not getting a lot of bounces. His two goals in 13 games have come from 33 shots on goal, translating to a 6.1 shooting percentage. To put it mildly, that poor shooting luck is out of the ordinary for a winger who enjoyed a 12.4 shooting percentage last season, and has connected on 12 percent for his career.

So, yeah, expect Neal to rebound. That said, will he rebound enough for the Flames not to regret committing to him for five years at $5.75 million per season, even now? It could be tough because …

Odd man out

Neal’s not exactly enjoying the most fruitful opportunities to score.

As you can see from these Natural Stat Trick teammates numbers, Sam Bennett is far and away his most common linemate, while those two have been joined by the not-exactly-imposing likes of Mark Jankowski. With 26 points during each of his last seasons (despite missing just one game during that span), Bennett continues to be an enigma for Calgary.

(Well, he’s either an enigma, or the puzzle’s been solved and he’s just not very good.)

The thing is, barring injuries, a third-line role honestly makes a lot of sense.

Elias Lindholm has been dynamite with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Even if Lindholm and Neal end up being equally effective, Neal would give that top trio three left-handed shots, while Lindholm brings versatility as a righty.

Perhaps there could eventually be some headway on the second line, as Michael Frolik‘s somehow been a healthy scratch this season. That’s not really an optimal situation, however, as Frolik combines with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund to form the puck-hogging “3M Line.” Maybe Neal’s finishing touch would add a new wrinkle to Backlund/Tkachuk (for all that trio’s strengths, they tend to suffer from bad puck luck), but it sure feels like messing with a good thing.

Man advantage

There is one area where Neal could conceivably deliver more value: the power play.

So far, Neal’s on the second unit, while the first group goes with Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Mark Giordano. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Neal might bring added value to a Flames top unit, as he can use his size to screen a goalie. Perhaps just as importantly, Neal isn’t afraid to pull the trigger and unleash his deadly shot, so that could be a solution if Bill Peters diagnoses a problem of over-passing.

***

It’s honestly pretty impressive that Neal’s always found a way to score at least 20 goals during his first 10 seasons in the NHL. He did it as a rookie, collecting 24. Neal did so even during the season he was shipped to Pittsburgh, when he couldn’t buy a bucket (1 goal on 52 SOG in 20 games after he already had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas).

Remarkably, Neal even hit that mark during the streak-running, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, as he generated 21 goals in just 40 games. (Neal sure was prolific alongside Evgeni Malkin, at least before that situation hit an iceberg.)

Injuries, trades, and even partial work stoppages haven’t really kept Neal from scoring goals, so chances are, he’ll get back on track soon. That doesn’t mean it will be as easy as he often makes it look, however.

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.

The Buzzer: Halak is back; Domi continues tear

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Three Stars

1. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins

He still has game. Halak stopped all 26 shots the Philadelphia Flyers sent his way in a 3-0 win for his Boston Bruins. The Bruins backup already had one shutout this season over the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 4 and now has his second before the month is through. What’s interesting about this is that with Tuukka Rask‘s struggles (.901 save percentage), Halak is creating a goaltending controversy in Boston.

In five starts this season, Halak has a 3-0-2 record with a very impressive .945 save percentage.

2. Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens 

His team didn’t win, but that wasn’t Domi’s fault. He did his part, scoring twice in the game — two wicked wrist shots that Buffalo Sabres goalie had no chance on. Domi has been on a tear as of late, highlighted by a five-game point streak and 10 points in his first nine games for of the season. Putting Domi at center with the Canadiens has paid dividends so far.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Whenever you start to feel that Sid has taken a step back he proves otherwise. You’ll see below what I mean. Crosby’s three points helped the Penguins demolish the Calgary Flames 9-1 in Cow Town. Crosby led the way, but Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist each had two goals and Matt Murray made 38 saves (although the one he didn’t make ruined an otherwise solid performance). Crosby is now up to three goals on the season. Three days ago he didn’t have one.

Honorable mention — Jason Dickinson of the Dallas Stars

Dickinson broke out with two goals and three points as the Stars cruised to a 5-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks. Prior to Thursday’s game, Dickinson had three goals and six points in his brief NHL career.

Highlights of the Night

Crosby. No need for comment:

Nugent-Hopkins dazzles on this one:

Blunder of the night 

Matt Murray was cruising to a near-40 save shutout when James Neal threw out a knuckle puck. Brutal way to end a shutout bid.

“Oh, wow.”

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 3, Flyers 0

Sabres 4, Canadiens 3

Predators 4, Devils 3 (OT)

Blue Jackets 7, Blues 4

Wild 4, Kings 1

Blackhawks 5, Rangers

Stars 5, Ducks 2

Oilers 4, Capitals 1

Penguins 9, Flames 1

Coyotes 4, Canucks 1

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