PHT Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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There are real, meaningful hockey games starting on Wednesday, and that means it is time to take our first real look at the Power Rankings for the 2018-19 season.

After spending most of the summer ranking everything from the best trades of the summer, to the most absurd mascot moments, to the people around the NHL that need to be better this season, to the best teams to not win the Stanley Cup yet in the salary cap era, to those old, random third jerseys it is finally time to start looking at where the NHL’s 31 teams stand entering this season.

Our plan for the season is to do a bi-weekly traditional power rankings, and then mix in a different sort of ranking on the off week in between (similar to what we did over the summer).

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have potential award winners behind the bench (Jon Cooper), on the top line (Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), on defense (Victor Hedman) and in net (Andrei Vasilevskiy). The top of the roster is as good as any other team in the league, and the complementary players are outstanding. You don’t become a final four team in three of the past four years by accident. Now they just have to figure out a way to go from being a consistently great team to a championship team.

2. Nashville Predators — Their defense is, at worst, the second best group in the NHL and they have to goalies that are good enough to start and play at a high level. They will be one of the toughest teams to score on once again and a top-10 offense.

3. San Jose Sharks — They are loaded, especially on the blue line where they have three players that are regulars in the Norris Trophy voting. That alone should make them Stanley Cup contenders. Then you add in the fact they have a solid goalie and a deep group of forwards and it is hard to find a weakness here.

4. Washington Capitals — It is pretty remarkable — and kind of funny —  that the Capitals team that finally did it, that finally overcame the postseason demons, that finally brought a championship to Washington, was probably one of the weaker Capitals teams (at least on paper) during this era. That this was probably one of the “weaker” teams is also a testament to how consistently great and competitive they have been, because it was an obviously great team.

5. Winnipeg Jets — The forwards on this team are incredible, especially on the wings where they boast one of the best depth charts in the league. Patrik Laine scoring 50 goals this season is a legitimate possibility. If Connor Hellebuyck comes close to matching his performance this team could win it all. If he does not they could disappoint.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — If Derick Brassard has a bounce back year after a disappointing debut with the Penguins following the trade this lineup could be laughably deep.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — The oddsmakers have them as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, and they are definitely loaded with talent up front especially after adding John Tavares in free agency. But they also have some flaws that could hold them back, particularly on defense and in potentially in net if they overwork Frederik Andersen again. We also have to acknowledge the fact that before they can win the Stanley Cup they have to get out of the first round of the playoffs, something they have not done in two NHL lockouts. I know, I know, different teams, different players, different times. But facts are facts.

8. Boston Bruins — The depth is a question mark after the top-line, but they have some really intriguing young players all over the lineup. Tuukka Rask could be the one player that makes or breaks where this team goes.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Asking them to repeat the success and magic from year one might be asking the impossible, but this is still a really good roster with a lot of salary cap flexibility and the assets (prospects and draft picks) to make another big move if needed.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Even with all of the preseason distractions relating to the contract statues of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky this is a really talented team. Talented enough to finally get through the first-round of the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but a talented team nonetheless.

[Related: Roundtable discussion on Blue Jackets, Rinne, surprise teams]

11. Minnesota Wild — The Wild are going to make the playoffs where they will likely run into a powerhouse Nashville or Winnipeg team in the first round, and should they happen to get through that they will probably have to face the other one in the second round. They are good. They are not good enough to get through both of those teams.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Could see this team making the playoffs and winning a round (maybe even two?) or being a massive disappointment and missing the playoffs because the defense and goaltending end up not being good enough. A true wild card of a team. At least the mascot rules.

13. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league a season ago and missed the playoffs because they could not score. They tried to address that over the summer with Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Patrick Maroon. O’Reilly is the big addition here because he is an awesome two-way player that does everything well, mixing shutdown defense with 60-point offense, and a tough, hard-nosed style of play that does not result in him taking penalties.

14. Anaheim Ducks — Losing Corey Perry hurts the offense, but the defense and goaltending should be good enough to carry this team back to the playoffs in a weak (after the top two teams) Pacific Division.

15. Florida Panthers — They were the hottest team in the league in the second half and added a 25-goal scorer to a core group of forwards that already boasts one of the league’s best two-way players (Aleksander Barkov) and some top-line talent in Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

16. Dallas Stars — Maybe first-year coach Jim Montgomery can find a way to get something more out of this team than what Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock were able to get in recent years. Still a lot of talent on this roster even if it never seems to translate to success in the standings.

17. Los Angeles Kings — The most stunning thing about the way the Kings were swept out of the playoffs isn’t just that they dropped four consecutive games to the Vegas Golden Knights, scoring just three goals in the series, it is that they looked completely overmatched, slow, and never seemed to be a threat to score. It was like they were playing a different sport.

[Related: Are the Los Angeles Kings in trouble already?]

18. Carolina Hurricanes — Absolutely love this defense with Dougie Hamilton joining the team and Justin Faulk remaining there (for now). But will Scott Darling be better than he was, and what sort of impact will rookies Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov make on an offense that was one of the worst in the league and traded one of its leading goal-scorers over the summer?

19. Colorado Avalanche — The big question here will be what type of player Nathan MacKinnon is and will be. After a great rookie season his career kind of stalled a little bit. It is not that he was bad, but he just did not really build off of that debut year in a big way … until 2017-18. Will the Avalanche get that Nathan MacKinnon or will they get the 60-65 point Nathan MacKinnon?

20. New Jersey Devils — A healthy Marcus Johansson will help, and Nico Hischier looks like he has star potential, but what if Taylor Hall does not duplicate his MVP level performance? Even with that performance this was a very average team.

21. Calgary Flames — Like the signing of James Neal in free agency as he should be able to add some secondary scoring to a team that badly needs it. Love Johnny Gaudreau and the way he plays. Hate the Dougie Hamilton trade, the mindset behind it, and the return they got for him.

22. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid is going to dominate, but who is going to help him? This is still a team lacking depth, defense, and goaltending.

23. Arizona Coyotes — Call me crazy but I think this team has the potential to make a big leap this season, especially if Antti Raanta can stay healthy and repeat what he did a year ago. A breakthrough year from Dylan Strome would also be helpful. Probably not a playoff team yet, but certainly a better team.

24. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner is a great pickup for that price, even if he leaves after this season, and they have a couple of preseason Calder Trophy candidates on this team in Casey Mittelstadt and 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin. Jack Eichel is pretty great, too.

25. New York Rangers — There are a lot of questions for the Rangers as their rebuild begins. Among them: How much does Henrik Lundqvist have left? Can a healthy Kevin Shattenkirk make a difference? Which veterans are the next go be traded?

26. Chicago Blackhawks — If Corey Crawford is not ready to go this team could be a mess again, and as we sit here on Monday on the verge of the season opener we still do not what he will be able to do or when he will be ready to go.

27. Montreal Canadiens — They traded a lot of offense this season with Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk leaving town, and this was not a great offense with them. Shea Weber may be starting to break down and the rest of the defense around him is suspect at best. They will need an MVP season from Carey Price to have a chance.

28. New York Islanders — I am not sold on what they are doing in the short-term with the grit-and-sandpaper approach to building a roster. What is most concerning is how many of those players are signed to long-term contracts. That does not even get into the state of the defense and goaltending.

[Related: Latest round of roster moves should make Islanders fans angry]

29. Vancouver Canucks — The best thing the Canucks will have going for them this season are the return of a healthy Brock Boeser and the potential emergence of Elias Pettersson.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg may not have been Selke contender and Conn Smythe winning Henrik Zetterberg anymore, but he was still probably the best player on the team. Now his playing career is over, Mike Green is not ready to start the season due to a health issue, and the rest of the roster does not inspire much confidence.

31. Ottawa Senators — This was a bad team with Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson. Now they are both traded for nothing that is going to make a significant impact this season and they are almost certain to deal more players off of this roster. Their fans do not even have a first-round draft pick to look forward to. Things are not going to be fun in Ottawa this season.

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’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Non-playoff teams most likely to make postseason return

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It is the summer and with no games being played at the moment it is awfully difficult to rank the NHL’s 31 teams on a weekly basis. So the PHT Power Rankings will spend the next month taking a look back at some of the best (and worst) developments in the NHL, both past and present. Best trades. Worst trades. Best all-time teams. Any other random things we feel like ranking. This week we look at which of the NHL’s non-playoff teams from this past season that are most likely to make a return to the playoffs.

There were 15 teams in the NHL that missed the playoffs during the 2017-18 NHL season and you can guarantee that at least one or two from that group will bounce back and make the postseason this year. There were five such teams a year ago with the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Winnipeg Jets all making a return to the playoffs, with the Jets going all the way to the Western Conference Final.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we rank all 15 non-playoff teams from a year ago in order of which one of them is most likely to see a similar turnaround.

1. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were right there in 2017-18, falling just one point short of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference even after trading Paul Stastny at the deadline. They bolstered their lineup this offseason by trading for a great two-way center in Ryan O'Reilly, bringing back David Perron off a career year in Vegas for yet another stint, and signing Tyler Bozak in free agency. That is suddenly a pretty good looking offensive lineup to go with a team that was sixth in the league in goals against last season. Honestly, it would probably be a surprise if this team did not make the playoffs in 2018-19.

2. Florida Panthers –– The Panthers were one of the best teams in the league over the second half of last season, finishing on a 25-8-2 run over their final 35 games, and like the Blues, ended up falling just a single point short of the second wild card spot in their conference. With Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Aaron Ekblad, they have a really good young core in place, while Evgenii Dadonov proved to be an outstanding pickup last summer. They added another top-six winger to the mix with the trade for Mike Hoffman. Whether that is enough to close the gap on the top-three in the Atlantic Division remains to be seen (all of Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston were at least nine points ahead of Florida in the standings last year), but they should be right in the thick of the wild card chase. They’re not going to maintain the pace they played at over the second half of the season, but they’re also probably not as bad as they were in the first half.

3. Carolina Hurricanes — Trading Jeff Skinner is going to hurt the offense, but they have high hopes for 19-year-old Martin Necas and No. 2 overall draft pick Andrei Svechnikov. The real hope for optimism here though is on defense, a unit that looks to be absolutely loaded on paper after the offseason additions of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, while still (for now) holding on to Justin Faulk. The Hurricanes were already one of the best shot suppression teams in the league and just need to figure out a way to get respectable goaltending (and let’s be honest, Scott Darling can not possibly struggle more than he did a year ago). Yes, we say this stuff about them every year, but one of these years it finally has to happen.

4. Dallas Stars — Even though the Stars did not make a big splash move during the offseason (they are, however, one of the teams rumored to have had interest in Erik Karlsson) they still made a pretty significant change to the team when they brought in Jim Montgomery to replace Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. The Stars have been one of the league’s most consistently disappointing teams given the high-end talent they have at the top of the roster (currently with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Alexander Radulov) and the blockbuster moves they make every offseason. Yet every year they always seem to just settle in around the playoff bubble as a 90-92 point team. They are always so close, yet seemingly so far.

5. Chicago Blackhawks — The success or failure of the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks likely hinges on whether or not starting goalie Corey Crawford is healthy and able to play. When he was in the lineup last season, the Blackhawks were pretty good. When he went out of the lineup with a still mysterious upper-body injury they were of the worst teams in the league. Given the decline of the Blackhawks’ defense and their forward depth they are going to have to rely on goaltending quite a bit to carry them. A healthy Crawford might be able to do that. Their Plan B in net may not be able to.

6. Edmonton Oilers — It is stunning that the team with the most dominant offensive player in the world missed the playoffs by nearly 20 points last season. Also stunning that we are still not sure if they are good enough to be a playoff team this season. While it was the special teams units that mostly sunk the Oilers’ chances in 2017-18, this was still a pretty mediocre 5-on-5 team and they really didn’t make any significant changes to that roster. Given what has happened in previous years when they tried to make significant changes (Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson; signing Milan Lucic; Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome) maybe that is a good thing. Flawed as this team is, they do still have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at the top of the lineup and there is always a chance they could go off and carry the team back to the playoffs.

[Related: 10 NHL people that need to have a better season in 2018-19]

7. Calgary Flames — The 2017-18 season was a giant disappointment for the Flames after there were such high preseason hopes. They were bringing back a really good young core with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk, and spent a ton of money and assets to bring in Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith to shore up the back end. Even though the three young forwards all played well (and Gaudreau was fantastic) everything else just kind of fell flat. James Neal is a nice addition up front, but trading Hamilton is a big blow to the defense even with Noan Hanifin and Elias Lindholm coming back in return. Smith was okay in his first year as their starting goaltender, but he is entering his age 36 season and just being “okay” may not be good enough.

8. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes finished with the worst record in the Western Conference and the third worst record overall, but they finished really strong, beat a lot of really good teams, and have a ton of young talent in place. When healthy, Antti Raanta was as good as any goalie in the NHL last season and if he can come close to duplicating that performance over a full year he could be a game-changer for the Coyotes. Another potential game-changer: Dylan Strome, the third overall pick from 2015. After dominating the OHL and AHL the past couple of years he showed some of that ability at the NHL level down the stretch run of the regular season. He is still a big-time talent. They also have what should be a strong 1-2 punch down the middle with Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk. They are not all the way there yet, but if a few things break their way (Raanta being as good as he showed last year; Strome taking a big step forward) they could be a big surprise team in the Western Conference.

9. Buffalo Sabres — A lot was made over their return for O’Reilly, but other than Tage Thompson, that was very much a quantity over quality deal and is not something that is likely to change for the fortunes of the team anytime soon. If anything, it made them a little worse. Fortunately, that was not the only trade they made over the summer. Conor Sheary will not have Sidney Crosby next to him in Buffalo so he remains sort of a mystery, but they ended up getting Skinner from Carolina for a really good price. In the end, they lost one big-time player, picked up another, and have a bunch of question marks including Carter Hutton, their new starting goalie. Jack Eichel will still be great, though. So, honestly, probably expect more of the same.

10. New York Rangers — The rebuild is well underway and it is very likely that even more veterans will get moved before the trade deadline this season (Mats Zuccarello? Kevin Hayes?). Playing in a division that is absolutely loaded at the top it just seems like the playoffs are a real long shot, even with Henrik Lundqvist in net.

11. Montreal Canadiens — Their best and probably only hope is that Carey Price plays like the 2014-15 version Carey Price. Since that is still always a possibility that probably puts them ahead of a few other teams in the league that do not have Carey Price.

12. Vancouver Canucks — Vancouver spent the offseason acting like a team that is a playoff contender by spending big money on its bottom-six. This is not a playoff contender. Brock Boeser looks great, Bo Horvat is pretty good, they have some intriguing prospects, but it is still not a very good team overall. And something that seems to get overlooked is that Henrik and Daniel Sedin were still pretty solid last season (two of their top-three scorers), and they are not coming back.

13. Detroit Red Wings — They got a gift in the draft when Filip Zadina fell to them at No. 6 overall, but this situation is still very bleak as they are spending a ton of money on a team that is just not very good. They accumulated a lot of draft picks, but this is going to be a long, painful rebuild.

14. New York Islanders — They lost their best player (John Tavares) in free agency to the Toronto Maple Leafs and spent the entire offseason replacing him with fourth-liners to go with all of the other fourth-liners they already had. Mathew Barzal is a worthy franchise cornerstone, but he will not be able to do it all by himself.

15. Ottawa Senators — There is absolutely nothing to be excited about here This was one of the worst teams in the league a year ago, has already lost one of its top scorers this offseason, and it only seems to be a matter of when, and not if, Erik Karlsson gets traded. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone are also entering the final year of their contracts so they, too, could be on the move at some point. This looks like a lottery team.

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.

Carolina hopes strong defense brings end to playoff drought

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have assembled quite a crowd on defense.

The Hurricanes brought in two established defensemen this offseason – trading for Dougie Hamilton, and signing Calvin de Haan. That means seven players for six spots on game nights, and they hope the strength in those numbers will finally end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

And while No. 2 overall draft pick Andrei Svechnikov and 2017 first-rounder Martin Necas will draw much of the attention, the strength of this team could be a defensive unit that ranks among the best in the Eastern Conference.

”Being able to play with some of the talent on that back end was going to make my life a lot easier,” de Haan said Tuesday. ”And hopefully they can say the same thing about me one day.”

Carolina was the only team in the league last season to allow fewer than 29 shots on goal per game, but they were just 22nd in the league in goals allowed (253).

The additions of Hamilton and de Haan strengthens a young defensive group centered around Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, both of whom last year signed long-term deals that will keep them with the Hurricanes well into the 2020s, and a series of offseason transactions left 26-year-old Justin Faulk as the group’s longest-tenured player.

”I’m the grayhair on the back end,” de Haan said, ”and I’m only 27.”

Carolina picked up Hamilton from Calgary in a five-player trade at the draft that cost the Hurricanes another young defenseman – Noah Hanifin – and signed former New York Islander de Haan to a four-year free-agent contract in July. All seven of the defensemen are under contract for the 2019-20 season, too, except for former first-round pick Haydn Fleury – who will be a restricted free agent, giving Carolina the right to match any offer he receives.

”I think we’re going to have a really young group of guys,” Hamilton said, ”and it’ll be fun to see where we can take it.”

Hamilton, who shared the NHL lead among defensemen with 17 goals last season and has had four straight seasons with at least 42 points, gives the Hurricanes some offensive punch from the blue line. Carolina’s top-scoring defenseman last season was Hanifin, who had 32 points. Meanwhile, de Haan looks to step right in and replace Hanifin on the left side.

Those two would appear to join Pesce and Slavin as the top four, with Faulk – whose plus-minus rating was a career-worst minus-26 and whose 31 points were his worst since 2012-13 – slipping to a lower rung along with Trevor van Riemsdyk or Fleury.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to bring an end to that pesky playoff drought.

The Hurricanes have made the playoffs just once – in 2009 – since they won the Stanley Cup in 2006. If they miss the postseason again this year, they’ll tie the NHL record for consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, a dubious mark set by Florida from 2001-11 and matched by Edmonton from 2007-17.

Carolina has ”a lot of talented, young guys in the system, and the guys we brought in are great players, so that will be exciting, make everybody better and push one another,” van Riemsdyk said. ”I think our D-corps looks really good, and it’s an exciting time to be in Raleigh and hopefully we can make that step and make the playoffs and make some noise this year.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE HURRICANES COVERAGE:
2017-18 review
Under Pressure: Scott Darling
Three questions

Under Pressure: Joel Quenneville

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

You don’t hear it mentioned often enough, but since becoming the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville’s been one of the best in the NHL. Maybe the best head coach.

He doesn’t always have the same recognition to show for it. Much like Phil Jackson in the NBA and other coaches of perennial contenders, Coach Q isn’t piling up coach of the year awards. His lone Jack Adams came (wait for it) with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.

Yes, that really happened. Indeed, it’s kind of hard to believe in 2018.

Thanks to Mike Babcock, Coach Q hasn’t been “the guy” for Team Canada, not on the same level, nor did he draw a bidding war for his services.

Walking the tight rope

Of course, there’s never been a bidding war because the Blackhawks and Quenneville managed to stick together through thick and thin. With three Stanley Cups and plenty of other impressive runs, you’d think that would be a no-brainer, yet there have been rumblings about possible changes during drier periods.

Elliotte Friedman referenced rumors in “31 Thoughts” back in January, there were reports about Coach Q being quite upset about moves such as trading Niklas Hjalmarsson in the 2017 off-season, and he admitted publicly that he wasn’t happy about assistants getting fired.

There was a fair share of drama when the Blackhawks were pumping out their best work, while sometimes falling short of the mark, but missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs really revved up those concerns. You could make an argument, even, for an amicable split; after all, the Blackhawks also haven’t won a playoff series since winning it all in 2014-15.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Where does Toews rank? | Building Off a Breakthrough]

It was no surprise, then, that the team needed to address such questions after deciding to bring both Bowman and Quenneville back for 2018-19. Team president John McDonough did just that in early April.

“I believe in continuity [and] they’ve had an incredible body of success,” McDonough said via the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not tethered to the past. This has been a very disappointing year and our expectations are incredibly high. We’re not going to deviate from those expectations. But I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”

To put things mildly, Quenneville faces an uphill battle when it comes to squeezing another run or two out of this declining crew.

Cooking with ingredients beyond their expiration date?

One of the biggest concerns comes in net, as Corey Crawford‘s health is a mystery for 2018-19. The Blackhawks claim they addressed that by adding Cam Ward. There’s no denying that Ward is “experienced,” yet you nearly need to observe the last decade of “experiences” for the Carolina Hurricanes to understand why people question if he can hold down the fort.

Coach Q will be asked to support whoever’s in net with his system, which won’t exactly be propped up by stellar defensive talent.

Brent Seabrook ranks as the latest Blackhawks contract that stands as a burden for the team, while as great as Duncan Keith is, you wonder if a big nosedive is looming considering his age (35) and the massive minutes he’s accrued between these NHL runs and international competition. The support beyond those guys is, erm, limited, and it probably doesn’t help that Chicago sent a decent depth defenseman in Jordan Oesterle to Arizona as a sweetener in the Marian Hossa trade.

(Sorry, but Brandon Manning probably isn’t the answer.)

You have to think that Q looks at that roster and hopes that Bowman has a trick up his sleeve, as Cap Friendly does show that Chicago boasts about $5.5 million in cap space.

Getting some sort of talent would certainly make Quenneville’s life a little easier. Could they swing a deal for a much-needed defenseman in Justin Faulk? Getting Artemi Panarin back is plausible considering his manageable cap hit ($6M), although it would be interesting to see how Chicago would entice Columbus. Heck, the Blackhawks could do worse than to gamble on a rental (who might stick around) such as Erik Karlsson or Max Pacioretty.

Even if there aren’t major improvements, there are some things that could go better.

Not all bad

As much of a concern as Crawford is, there’s always the chance that he can be fine and play in more games than he did last season. He’s been a huge reason why it took longer than some expected for the Blackhawks to hit the wall.

Chicago also boasts some nice offensive talent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine things going better for Toews and Brandon Saad (who, in “NBA Jam” parlance, couldn’t buy a bucket last season), and Patrick Kane might return to Art Ross contention if the Blackhawks landed a gem or maybe elevated Alex DeBrincat.

It’s up to Quenneville to make the most of whatever Bowman gets him. Generally speaking, Coach Q’s done that. Can the coach with a cop-friendly mustache get any more jelly out of that donut, though? It won’t be easy.

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.