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PHT Power Rankings: Making sense of the nonsensical Minnesota Wild

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Take a look at the NHL standings and look at the top-four teams in each conference. Do it right now. Here they are. Go look. Take a look at the teams you see in those groups.

A lot of the ones you expect to see, right? A lot of the teams we have talked about all season.

Nashville. Tampa Bay. Boston. Vegas (yes, Vegas). Winnipeg. Pittsburgh. Toronto. Teams like that.

Then there is the Minnesota Wild. A team that almost nobody is talking about or has talked about it, mostly because they are decidedly average in just about every major category, sitting with one of the 10 best records in the league.

Nothing about their actual play on the ice really points to a team that should be that high in the standings.

They are one of the worst teams in the league in shot attempt percentage during 5-on-5 play.

They are in the bottom 10 in shots on goal for and shots on goal against per game. They are a middle of the pack team on the power play and the penalty kill. They are getting okay goaltending, but not really the type of out-of-this world performance that typically lifts a mediocre team this high up in the standings.

They do have a fairly decent shooting percentage (both overall and during 5-on-5 play) but like the goaltending it is nothing so out of the ordinary that it should lead to such a significant bump in the standings.

Along with all of that they really haven’t been a terribly healthy team this season and have had to deal with some pretty significant injuries to some pretty significant players. Nino Niederreiter has missed 19 games. Zach Parise has missed 39. Charlie Coyle has missed 16. Mikael Granlund has missed five.

Even with all of that here they are with one of the better records in the league.

None of it makes sense. Based on everything mentioned above they should probably be one of the worst teams in the league.

The two things they have going for them this season are the fact they have, for whatever reason, been nearly unbeatable at home with a staggering 24-5-6 record at the Xcel Energy Center.

They also have a couple of key forwards in Eric Staal, Jason Zucker (two of the top forwards that have been healthy all season) and Mikael Granlund having some huge years offensively.

Staal remains a remarkable story based on the way his career has rebounded since arriving in Minnesota before the start of the 2016-17 season. He looked like he was a shell of his former self during his last year in Carolina, but after a nice bounceback season a year ago he has come back this season and producing the way he did in his prime when he was one of the best players in the league.

Zucker has already shattered his previous career high in goals, and has once again helped form a pretty strong duo with Granlund when they have been used together. Since the start of last season Zucker and Granlund have spent more than 1,400 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together (via Natural Stat Trick), during which time the Wild have outscored teams by a 74-45 margin and controlled more than 51 percent of the shot attempts (an impressive number considering how bad the rest of the Wild’s possession numbers are).

Those three players deserve a ton of credit for the Wild’s current standing.

They are are also another nice reminder that sometimes a lot of what happens in the NHL in any given season can be completely random and not make any sense. It is the beauty of the sport sometimes. No other sports lends itself to that sort of performance for teams the way hockey can.

On to the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They are 10-0-1 in their past 11 games entering the week and have no weakness on paper or on the ice. The best team in hockey.

2. Boston Bruins — They fact the have won six of their past seven games and are averaging more than five goals per game during that stretch without Patrice Bergeron for all of those games and Charlie McAvoy for five of them is remarkable. A scary team in the Eastern Conference.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning — Speaking of scary teams in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay is 9-0-1 in its past 10, has already hit 100 points on the season, and has two of the top scorers in the league. Honestly, any of these top three teams have a legit argument to be in the top spot.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Patrik Laine has 15 goals in his past 11 games. That is an absurd run. The Jets have a lot of great offensive weapons. He is the most dangerous.

The Rest Of The Contenders

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They have cooled off a little bit recently but enter the week having won three out of four on their current road trip.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — They have not always looked great, but they enter the week in first place in the Metropolitan Division, have won three out of four, and are still playing without their starting goalie.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — They had a pretty miserable four-game road trip recently but returned home with a big win over Pittsburgh. Given the number of shots they give up their playoff success will still largely be determined by how well Frederik Andersen plays in net.

8. Minnesota Wild — Not really sure how they are doing it, but they have one of the top records in the league. Eric Staal is getting most of the attention for his season, but let’s not overlook Jason Zucker’s 28 goals.

The ‘could go either way’ group

9. Philadelphia Flyers — Being a fan of this team has to be quite a trip. So far this season they have lost 10 games in a row, won six in a row two different times, and then lost five in a row over the past week and a half before snapping out of it by shutting down one of the best offensive teams in the league over the weekend.

10. Florida Panthers — They have the inside track for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They enter the week on a nine-game point streak and have been on a roll for a couple of months now. I wonder what the narrative surrounding this team and its front office changes the past two seasons would look like had they not lost Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Nick Bjugstad for more than 114 man-games a season ago. Think that had something to do with their decline? Think their healthy this season has something to do with their improvement?

11. Washington Capitals — If Braden Holtby does not get back to playing like Braden Holtby it could be an awfully short spring in Washington. Shorter than usual, that is.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are starting to pick it up at the right time but they still have very little margin for error in that race with New Jersey and Florida.

13. San Jose Sharks — Brent Burns is on track to finish in the top-three in shots on goal for the third year in a row. For a defenseman that is unheard of. Bobby Orr used to do that. That is about it.

14. Colorado Avalanche — If you are going to lose, lose in overtime. The Avalanche have lost five of their past 10 games. Not great. But four of those losses have come in overtime or a shootout which means they’ve earned 14 of a possible 20 points over that stretch. That will keep you in the playoff hunt.

15. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall is still doing amazing things but he needs some help. The Devils have lost six out of 10 entering the week and are still waiting for trade deadline acquisition Michael Grabner to record his first point with the team.

16. Anaheim Ducks — When healthy Ryan Getzlaf is still an incredible talent. He has 50 points in 44 games this season. With a healthy lineup they would not be a fun first-round matchup in the playoffs for anybody.

17. Dallas Stars — They are trending in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year. Maybe that’s not the worst thing. They still have a hold on a playoff spot and at the moment would sneak into Pacific Division playoff bracket as the first wild card team, avoiding a first-second round gauntlet that could include Winnipeg and Nashville. So … a strategic tank? Doubtful, because it still seems like something is holding them back, but it could work out that way.

18. Los Angeles Kings — Just when it looked like they were going to make a nice little push they get obliterated at home by a Blues team that had been falling apart.

19. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith‘s absence was a big problem for them. His return did not go well for him or the Flames as they dropped a big game to an Islanders team that had lost eight in a row.

20. St. Louis Blues — The only reason they are not firmly in the lottery at this point is because they had such a great start to the season. They have been awful for weeks, though.

Hope the ping pong balls go your way

21. Edmonton Oilers — They are 7-4-0 in their past 11 games, mostly because Connor McDavid has gone from “best player in the world” to “superman” mode.

22. New York Rangers — Ryan Spooner has 12 points in seven games since being acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Rick Nash trade. He is a restricted free agent after the season and making a nice argument to be a part of the Rangers’ immediate future.

23. Chicago Blackhawks — Not sure I fully understand the front office’s apparent plan to stick with the same defense that has, for the most part, stunk this season.

24. Carolina Hurricanes — Maybe next year will be the year it all comes together for them, he said for the eighth year in a row.

25. Arizona Coyotes — They might still have the worst record in the league but they are not playing like the worst team in the league at the moment, and have not for several weeks. The schedule has softened up a bit but they have still beaten some really good teams during this stretch (Minnesota twice, Anaheim, San Jose).

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser‘s unfortunate injury means there is literally no reason for anybody to watch their games for the rest of the season, unless you are contractually obligated to.

27. Buffalo Sabres — It is still inexcusable they are this bad this far into their rebuild, but at least they have won a couple of games recently.

28. New York Islanders — I put them at No. 31 a week ago mainly because they had just been on such an unspeakably bad run and looked so awful for so long. I didn’t really think they were the worst team in the league. But I am not sure they are far from it, either. They have allowed 50 shots on goal in six different games this season. Since the start of the 2015-16 season no team in the NHL has allowed more than 50 shots in a game three times. In nearly three full years. The Islanders have doubled that in less than 70 games this year.

29. Ottawa Senators — The fans deserve a break and if they are going to lose Erik Karlsson this summer (or next summer) I hope for their case they get some good fortunate in the draft lottery and get a chance to pick Rasmus Dahlin to one day (hopefully) replace him. The owner probably does not deserve that same good fortune, though.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg is a Hall of Fame talent that played on some of the best teams of the modern era. Now he is going out on this team. It seems to be getting to him. How could it not?

31. Montreal Canadiens — They have only won five of their past 20 games and I am not sure I trust Marc Bergevin to dig the franchise out of the hole he has helped put it in.

————

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.

Dadonov’s NHL return pays off for Panthers

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The Florida Panthers have been lampooned for an off-season that saw them power up the Vegas Golden Knights with both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, prompting all sorts of jokes about their second line and GM Dale Tallon. You can’t call that summer of moves a total failure, however.

That’s because, by bringing Evgenii Dadonov back from the KHL, the Panthers (wait for it) eventually did set themselves up to have two strong scoring lines.

For some time now, Florida’s been rolling with Dadonov alongside superstar-in-the-making Aleksander Barkov, while Vincent Trocheck‘s been finding great chemistry with Barkov’s frequent partner in crime Jonathan Huberdeau. These tweaks have played a role in the Panthers’ six-game winning streak and run of 13-3-0 in their last 16 games.

[NHL Power Rankings: Panthers aren’t going away.]

(No doubt about it, Roberto Luongo returning from injury issues has also played a big role in this turnaround. Stay tuned for more on Luongo from PHT on Tuesday morning.)

It’s early, but it sure looks like Dadonov is the latest player to return to the NHL from the KHL with flying colors, following in the footsteps of Alex Radulov. In each case, the change – or maybe merely getting more seasoning – has done them good.

Dadonov was no stranger to playing with a star player, as he’s transitioned from making music with Ilya Kovalchuk to lining up with Barkov. The results have been especially staggering lately; Dadonov has six points (two goals, four assists) during a three-game point streak and nine points in his last five games. That span began with a hat trick in a gutsy win against the Penguins:

So far in his return season to Panthers and the NHL, Dadonov has 20 goals and 47 points in 55 games. Injuries slipped him up a bit, but over an 82-game pace, that would translate to about 70 points. As you might expect from someone racking up points and partnering with Barkov, his possession stats check out as well.

Such support and a clean bill of health helps Barkov too, a the potential Selke candidate already has a career-high 64 points in just 62 games. Barkov certainly ranks as the catalyst, but Dadonov looks like he’ll soon eclipse Huberdeau as Barkov’s most common linemate. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s allowed Florida to diversify its attack.

(It sure doesn’t seem to hurt Nick Bjugstad‘s stock, either, as the third member of that line. The towering 25-year-old has five assists in his past five games skating with Bark and Dad.)

For all the criticisms – again, in many cases fair – of Tallon and the Panthers, the forward group has been a bright spot, and Dadonov could end up being another great bargain. He’s locked up for just $4 million per year through 2019-20, providing great value alongside even better bargains in Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck.

It’s a great victory for the Panthers, and you wonder if Dadonov stands as yet another argument that strong KHL production could carry over to the NHL, sometimes at a discount rate. During his last KHL season in 2016-17, Dadonov collected 66 points in 53 regular-season games before generating 19 points in 18 playoff contests.

We’ve seen Dadonov and Radulov make fantastic, immediate impacts after bouncing from the NHL to the KHL and back. There’s also been the occasional late bloomer, such as Artemi Panarin being an instant success as a Calder Trophy winner and barely slowing down since then.

Such thoughts make it tough not to picture similar successes for KHL stars in 2017-18, whether it be an older, familiar face in 34-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk, or much-hyped Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen.

[Insight on Tolvanen’s future with the Predators from Bob McKenzie last week.]

Perhaps it might justify extra looks for “reclamation projects” even outside of the more obvious names, too?

(That said, there are still bumpy transitions.Vadim Shipachyov, Dadonov’s KHL linemate alongside Kovalchuk, flamed out with the Golden Knights in a strange way.)

Ultimately, while the Panthers opened themselves up to mockery with some purging of “analytics-friendly” talent in Marchessault and Smith, many were pleased with the addition of Dadonov. Even with that in mind, he’s delivered in a big way.

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: Big nights for Karlsson, Hall, Nash

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Players of the Night:

  • You don’t come across a ton of nights where multiple players enjoy five-point games, but there were some prolific performances on Tuesday. The Minnesota Wild beat the St. Louis Blues 8-3, with Eric Staal and Jason Zucker both managing the feat. Staal gets extra cool points because he combined a hat trick with two assists. More on that here.
  • Remarkably, there was another five-point night. Roman Josi collected five assists in helping the Predators beat the Jets 6-5. Josi tied Nashville’s single-game record with those five points. That game was just a lot, so read more.
  • Despite those five-point outputs, there actually were some strong goaltending performances. You can read about Jack Campbell making 41 saves for his first win – a long time coming – in this post. Perhaps you’re more impressed by a shutout, though. Ben Bishop stopped 38 shots to help the Stars beat the Flames 2-0.

Highlights

You know what? Rick Nash in a Bruins uniform feels right. Doesn’t it? Either way, pretty nice first goal with Boston:

Hey, cool milestone too:

Great moment of patience, and other stuff: Anze Kopitar.

Another great moment of patience, and other stuff: Jonathan Huberdeau

Erik Karlsson collected the 500th regular-season point of his career, and hey, he did it with the Ottawa Senators. Oh yeah, it also came on a patently ridiculous goal.

Factoids

Taylor Hall continues to be outrageous, helping the Devils beat the Penguins in regulation.

A great time for David Poile to reach a rare mark for GMs.

Scores

Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (OT)
Devils 3, Penguins 2
Capitals 3, Senators 2
Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 2 (OT)
Wild 8, Blues 3
Predators 6, Jets 5
Stars 2, Flames 0
Kings 4, Golden Knights 1
Sharks 5, Oilers 2

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 teams need new blood, new ideas

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Every now and then, it seems like the tortoise-like pace of progress in the NHL might actually pick up.

Look at the way the game is played. Scoring is up significantly this season, with franchises being more and more willing to dress four talented lines of forwards, rather than wasting valuable minutes on enforcers and other puck-stoppers. We’re seeing less dump-and-chase and more emphasis on skill.

We’re even seeing fewer big-money mistakes in free agency; even some of the missteps are easier to defend than the days of Jeff Finger and Bobby Holik getting “They gave him how much?” deals.

(Actually, for many in the case of Finger, the question was “Jeff who?”)

Yet whenever you get too excited about change, collars get a little stiffer on the country club, and you remember that progress isn’t always a straight line.

This week was one of those moments of “course correction,” as two of the messiest teams in the league handed their GMs contract extensions in the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks. It’s tough to deny that the NHL is simply more insular than other, more innovative leagues.

As you can see, NHL owners sure seem inclined to shake their head at the common reply for anyone who’s been bothered by a blog post or hockey article: “Did you ever play the game?”

Now, as the extended article (“Who’s Running the Show?” by Wave Intel’s Jason Paul) illustrates, mistakes aren’t solely made by former players in suits. After all, Pierre Dorion is on that “Non-Pro” list, and he’s had some issues, while Peter Chiarelli’s Harvard background would make you think he’d be more open to analytical suggestion.

Still, there’s evidence that NHL teams deal with a “Yes man” culture that rears its head in disastrous ways. You’d think there would be more debate, for example, over the Bruins’ notorious decision to trade Tyler Seguin:

A similar thing happened when the Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. One subplot of that trade was that analytics staffer Matt Pfeffer strongly disagreed with the move, and was let go shortly thereafter. While he didn’t say that was why the Canadiens parted ways with him, it still drew headlines, such as his discussion with The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell.

“They didn’t tell me it was over that,” Pfeffer said in July 2016. “But I guess everyone knows now where I stood on the Subban-Weber trade. There are times when there’s some possibility that there would be another side to the argument, but this was one of those things where it was so, so far outside what could be considered reasonable. I made a pretty strong case, but I made the case that the analytics made. This wasn’t a personal thing.”

Pfeffer would later say he regretted criticizing the trade … though you wonder how much of that regret comes from ruffling feathers?

There are several examples of a “one step forward, two steps backward” pace when it comes to outsiders getting voices in NHL organizations. The Florida Panthers, at times, seem to represent the worst of both worlds. They briefly placed emphasis on analytics, with head coach Gerard Gallant being pushed out in the process. That only really lasted a season – really, less – before GM Dale Tallon regained true power, and then he cleaned out many of those contract, emboldening the Vegas Golden Knights in the process.

(Now that salary structure is a horror movie, although the saving grace of cheap contracts for Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck remain a silver lining throughout.)

There have been movement to scoop up analytics minds like the memorable summer of 2014, and then there has been backlash, most dramatically in the case of the Panthers.

It’s crucial to realize that there’s not necessarily “one way” to do things, even as narratives about “old-school” philosophies battling with analytics even continue in the MLB, a sport that often seems light years ahead of the NHL. All but the least reasonable advocates on “each side” will agree that there’s valuable to many different approaches.

The real danger is in cronyism, as Jonathan Willis expertly discussed for The Athletic (sub required), while making a fascinating comparison to how France prepared for WWI (as he’s wont to do). Willis describes the best-practice process of very-much-connected Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who’s distinguished himself as one of the league’s best minds:

Steve Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning offers a useful example. He has some old colleagues from his time in Detroit there, including former teammates Pat Verbeek and Stacy Roest, though Verbeek mostly played for non-Red Wings teams and Roest mostly played in the minors and Europe as a pro.

But his top lieutenant is Julien Brisebois, the lawyer who worked his way into a hockey operations role in Montreal and did such fine work running their AHL team. His head coach is another lawyer, Jon Cooper, who took an unconventional path to the majors. The team employs a statistical analyst, Michael Peterson, who has history in baseball, an MBA and a master’s degree in mathematics. He also kept former interim GM Tom Kurvers on staff after taking over; he has a more traditional hockey background but comes from outside Yzerman’s immediate circle.

Such an approach was echoed by another great hockey mind, Mike Babcock, who promoted the practice of embracing diverse ideas in Craig Custance’s book “Behind the Bench.”

” … You never know where you’re getting your best idea,” Babcock said. “It could be from your rookie player, it could be from your power skating instructor, it could be from the guy who cooks breakfast. You have to be open-minded.”

***

To review: some of the brightest minds in the sport want to keep absorbing more and more ideas. Or, at minimum, they know that it’s wise to venture such an open-minded argument.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen several instances where “the old way” leaves teams in the hockey equivalent of debt: bad contracts, shaky prospect pools, and dire futures.

If you don’t want to listen to “the nerds,” just consider what Yzerman, Babcock, and other bright hockey people might say. NHL teams would be wise to throw out a wider net to find the next great thinkers.

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.

Struggling Panthers want to keep gang together

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If you want a sign of a GM/front office with power, observe moments when a marginal player gets a somewhat bafflingly long contract extension.

On one hand, congrats to Colton Sceviour, who surely works hard for the three-year extension he signed today; it’s reportedly worth $1.2 million per year, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. He’s getting rewarded for being a diligent penalty killer, and this should help him limit the risk of becoming a “journeyman” player.

Still, it’s a little confounding that the Florida Panthers would be so compelled to lock up yet another piece of a roster that’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

You see successful teams fall into this sort of trap quite often. The Detroit Red Wings roster is littered with questionable decisions for non-core guys; you might gasp at remaining years for Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and Luke Glendening.

At least those teams were trying to perpetuate past successes, though.

The Panthers, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and even with bargain contracts for fantastic players in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck, it’s tough to say if they’re much closer today. They’ve only made it to the playoffs twice in the last six seasons, and only four times since that John Vanbiesbrouck-fueled run.

You’d think this team would be light on commitments as something of a message to players to “earn” their deals, but instead there are a ton of players locked up to lengthy deals.

[Can the Panthers still make a playoff run?]

Again, in the case of Barkov, Huberdeau, and Trocheck, that’s a very good thing. Barkov and Huberdeau are absolute steals at $5.9 million per year, with Huberdeau covered until 2022-23, while Barkov’s locked up until 2021-22.

Still, it’s a little unsettling how “locked in” this team is, what with Florida almost certain to miss the playoffs once again.

Forwards signed through at least 2019-20:

Huberdeau ($5.9M through 2022-23), Barkov ($5.9M, 2021-22), Trocheck ($4.75M through 2021-22), Nick Bjugstad ($4.1M through 2020-21), Evgeni Dadonov ($4M through 2019-20), and Sceviour ($1.2M through 2020-21).

Defensemen signed through at least 2019-20:

Aaron Ekblad ($7.5M through 2024-25), Keith Yandle ($6.35M through 2022-23), Michael Matheson ($4.875M though 2025-26), and Mark Pysyk ($2.73M through 2019-20).

Both goalies locked up with considerable term:

Roberto Luongo (eternal $4.5M through 2021-22) and James Reimer ($3.4M through 2020-21).

***

Yikes, right?

Again, the Panthers’ roster construction looks a lot like that of a team in the middle of a championship window, where they’ve had to take on some risky contracts to reward successes. Only, the successes have been minimal in Florida. It’s tough not to think back to GM Dale Tallon commenting on being fully in control again, and then to observe what looks like a risk-heavy roster.

To be fair, there are some real bargains on this team, and they’ve shown flashes of brilliance even during a couple of dire years. They’ve also dealt with injuries to both Luongo and Reimer. While Bobby Lou might simply be in that phase of his career, you’d hope Reimer will enjoy better luck in the future. Oddly enough for a team with such lengthy, pricey investments in goalies, they might want to ponder another option, especially if Luongo is charting a course toward the LTIR in the future.

Beyond that, the Panthers need to get the most out of an expensive defense. That starts with Ekblad, who signed a mammoth deal that won’t be easy to live up to. Still, if he can make strides during his career, it will be much easier to stomach, especially since Florida is saving with other marquee guys at forward.

[Tallon is focused on the future]

All things considered, Tallon & Co. can salvage this, likely by finding decent bargains around those pricey core players, and also by making sure that they’re making the most out of coaching and development.

So it’s not all bad, yet it’s a bit head-scratching to realize just how many players have long-term security on a team that’s seemingly stuck in puck purgatory, year after year.

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.