PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

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.

Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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: Guentzel’s hat trick leads rally; Hurricanes go bowling

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Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pittsburgh Penguins trailed by three goals after one period on Friday night, and then stormed back for a 7-4 win to hand the Anaheim Ducks their 10th loss in a row. There were a lot of stars in the win for the Penguins (Sidney Crosby was dominant even if he only recorded one point, Tanner Pearson scored two goals, Evgeni Malkin had four points) but it was Jake Guentzel that played a huge role, recording his second hat trick of the season. He scored two goals early in the second period to help the Penguins tie the game, and then added an empty netter later in the game to help put it away. He is now just one goal away from matching his season total from a year ago (22 goals).

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Jeff Skinner was back in Carolina on Friday night as a visiting player for the first time (and he scored his 30th goal of the season) but it was Sebastian Aho that ended up stealing the show with a pair of goals in the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win. They were both kind of fluky goals that went in the net off of Sabres defenders, but the Hurricanes will take them as they try to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Aho is now up to 18 goals on the season and continues to be one of the Hurricanes’ best players.

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets haven’t been playing their best lately, but they have still found a way to win three of their past four games thanks to their 4-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night. Blake Wheeler scored a goal and recorded his 49th assist, but Kyle Connor was the big contributor for the team with a three point night, scoring a goal and adding a pair of assists in the win. He is now up to 16 goals and 34 points on the season and remains one of the Jets’ most underrated players.

Highlights

The Carolina Hurricanes continued their season of fun victory celebrations by allowing team captain Justin Williams to go … bowling. Williams also scored a goal on the night.

Phil Kessel gets credit for the game-winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins and he absolutely refused to be denied.

How bad were the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night? John Gibson gave up six goals and was by far their best player. In the first period he was making saves like this.

Factoids

  • Jeff Skinner’s goal was his 30th of the season, and the fourth time he has scored 30 goals in his career. He is the first Sabres player to score at least 30 goals in a season since Jason Pominville did it during the 2011-12 season [Sabres PR]
  • Bryan Little recorded his 500th career point on Friday night and is the third player in the history of the franchise to record 500 points with it. [NHL PR]
  • No player in the NHL has ore points than Johnny Gaudreau‘s 38 since the start of December [Sportsnet Stats]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 4, Florida Panthers 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 7, Anaheim Ducks 4

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.

Pondering Jeff Skinner trade as Sabres visit Hurricanes

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Back in May, I surmised that the Carolina Hurricanes would likely be haunted by a Jeff Skinner trade, and that was before I shared Hockey Twitter’s general reaction of “that’s it?” when he was sent to the Buffalo Sabres.

As bad as that trade looked in August, it only seems to get worse as the 2018-19 NHL season goes along, and so the Hurricanes brass has to take it on the chin Friday, as people inevitably revisit the trade being that Skinner’s making his first visit to Carolina as a member of an opposing team.

Let’s dig a little deeper. For the most part, this will only pour more salt in the wounds of Hurricanes GM Don Waddell and his staff, yet there are a few things that will provide at least a little comfort.

Red-hot Skinner, and a cautionary tale

Puck luck stood as one of the main reasons why I was concerned about Carolina trading Skinner.

In 2017-18, Skinner scored 24 goals, down from 37 the previous season. While this point will cue a wah-wah from Dallas Stars CEO Jim Lites, the 24 goals really weren’t so bad when you consider his 8.7 shooting percentage, down from his current career average of 11.4 percent.

This season, Skinner already has a ludicrous 29 goals, and he’s showing dazzling swagger with a 21.5 SH% (his previous career-high was 14.4 percent from his Calder-winning 2010-11 season). Goals like these have to sting the scoring-starved Hurricanes:

The Hurricanes remain as frustrating as ever when it comes to failing to finish chances. In fact, the frustration is only greater, as Skinner and fellow traded winger Elias Lindholm are enjoying the best runs of their careers on playoff-caliber teams, while Carolina looks like it will once again see the postseason as agonizingly just-out-of-reach.

The free agent factor

The dangerous thing for the Sabres is that Skinner, a pending unrestricted free agent, is virtually certain to cool off, but has socked away such a great season that his price is dramatically inflated. Skinner’s a fantastic player, so that’s not the end of the world, but it’s a factor that more far-sighted fans should consider.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, there’s only so much solace one can take from a move eventually looking a bit less painful.

Interestingly, there’s the slight chance – albeit slim – that the Sabres might decide to trade Skinner if they don’t think it’s better to keep him, thus reaping more indirect rewards from this trade. Yow.

Even if it’s just for one year, Buffalo desperately needed to make real progress in 2018-19, and Skinner’s been enormously important in the Sabres doing just that.

Diminishing returns

To review, Carolina received:

  • Prospect Cliff Pu, and the stinky puns that come with his name.
  • Buffalo’s 2019 second-round pick.
  • Buffalo’s 2020 third-round pick and six-rounder.

That seemed like a pupu platter weak return from the moment it happened, and unfortunately, it’s only stinking worse today.

Unfortunately, Pu’s had an awful first year with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. He has just one assist since Nov. 25, and only one goal and three assists for four points in 32 games.

Cruel stat: Pu’s .13 points-per-game are barely better than that of goalie Scott Darling (.11), who managed an assist in nine contests.

That second-rounder was a somewhat reasonable gamble that the Sabres would struggle again in 2018-19. Instead, they currently hold the second wild-card spot in the East. While Buffalo could fall short of a 2019 Stanley Cup playoff berth, they’re unlikely to fall enough for that to be anything better than a mid-second-rounder.

The third and sixth-rounders in 2020 carry dubious benefits, even if the Sabres struggle in 2019-20. Maybe the numbers will change in the next decade, but a few years ago, TSN’s Travis Yost noted that only about one-third of third-rounders became NHL players from 2000-09, and that number decreases as you go along. And the odds of finding a Skinner-level gem is even less likely.

Of course, draft picks can be helpful in making trades.

Think of it from a PR perspective, in particular.

Sports fans can be drawn in to the siren call of potential, and few things do the imagination wonders quite like throwing some draft picks into a trade, to soften the shock of losing a more proven commodity.

Maybe the Hurricanes could turn those Sabres picks into, say, a goalie for the future? Perhaps they could use them in a package to carve out some goals?

If nothing else, they give the Hurricanes options. Skinner’s goals are a lot more exciting, but still.

***

Again, it’s crucial to consider context.

The Hurricanes likely believed that Skinner would leave in free agency (either by his choice, theirs, or both), so they didn’t want to lose him for nothing. It’s possible that both sides wanted to get a split over with after years of missing the playoffs and the tensions that tend to arise from falling short.

Still, Carolina and other teams can learn from this. Maybe you can’t trade a player on supremely hot streaks, but there may be better option than selling low when they’re ice-cold. There’s an alternate scenario where the Hurricanes bide their time by waiting to trade Skinner, likely driving up his value while enjoying the goals he could provide.

(Even if he might not be anywhere near as red-hot as he is now, prospering in a dynamic duo with Jack Eichel.)

This saga isn’t over for the Sabres, either, as they must make the right moves regarding his future.

There’s no denying that it looks like an enormous win for Buffalo right now, though, and that’s something the Hurricanes must contend with on Friday night.

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.

NHL All-Star Game: Draisaitl, Landeskog, Letang, Skinner voted ‘Last Men In’

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Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers have been added to the 2019 NHL All-Star rosters after fans elected them through the Last Men In vote.

Following the player announcement last week, the NHL left one spot open on each divisional roster for the new Last Men In competition. After a week of voting by fans, those four will be heading to All-Star Weekend in San Jose later this month.

According to the NHL, more than 11.5 million votes were cast over in the last week, including two million on Thursday, which was the final day of balloting.

Still to be announced is the new captain for the Metropolitan Division after Alex Ovechkin pulled out for more rest. And barring another injury replacement, the Montreal Canadiens will be the only team without a representative after Carey Price announced he would not be participating.

Here are the updated rosters:

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Last Men In vote)
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning*
(*Injury replacement for Carey Price)

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Last Men In vote)
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
(*Captain Alex Oveckin pulled out.)

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (Last Men In vote)
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Last Men In vote)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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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.