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.

Which 2018 NHL playoff team is most likely to miss in 2019?

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We should start all of this off with a prediction.

As the 2018-19 NHL season is set to begin, I am fairly confident in saying the following playoff teams from this past season are going to once again find themselves in the playoffs again this year: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, and San Jose Sharks. Those seem like the safest bets. They have the best rosters, they have the best talent, they are at the top of the league and should be the biggest contenders for the Stanley Cup.

It is also a given that a couple of teams that missed the playoffs a season ago are going to make enough improvements and take a couple of the remaining spots. A few weeks ago we looked at the best possibilities to do that, with the St. Louis Blues and Florida Panthers leading the way (you can read about all of them). Obviously if a couple of them make it, that has to mean that a couple of other teams are going to fall back out.

So which 2018 playoff team is at most risk for having that happen? Assuming the eight teams mentioned above return, that leaves eight on the bubble that need a closer look. We start with the teams at most risk of missing and working our way up to the teams that should be able to return to the postseason.

1. New Jersey Devils 

Usually when one player single handedly carries a mediocre team to the playoffs it is a goalie doing the heavy lifting. For the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils it was winger Taylor Hall as he put together the best season of his career, won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and did everything in his power to lift the Devils to a playoff spot. Independent of Hall (and even with Hall, actually) this was a remarkably average hockey team.

They weren’t bad. They weren’t great. They were just … average. In every possible category.

Goals for: 15th
Goals against: 15th
Power play: 10th
Penalty kill: 8th
Shot Attempt Percentage: 21st
Team save percentage: 18th
Overall record: 14th

It would be nearly impossible to be more average than that. They ended up making the playoffs as a wild card by just a single point. The team right behind them, Florida, is coming back even stronger this season and if Hall regresses even a little bit it could spell doom for the Devils’ playoff chances.

What can keep them in? Taylor Hall goes superman again, and/or Marcus Johansson is healthy and productive while 2017 top pick Nico Hischier builds on a strong rookie season and has a breakout performance.

2. Colorado Avalanche

The Western Conference version of the Devils.

The Avalanche were another mediocre team that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs thanks to an incredible season from their franchise player. In this case, it was Nathan MacKinnon (with some help from Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog).

It was a truly stunning one-year turnaround because the Avalanche in 2016-17 were one of the worst teams in recent NHL history. They stunk. So to go through that big of a turnaround in one year was truly remarkable and unexpected, especially when they traded one of their best players (Matt Duchene) at the start of the year. That trade, for what it is worth, is probably going to work out in the long-run and look like a genius move because Samuel Girard looks like he might be a player for them on the blue line and they now own one of the most valuable assets in the NHL this season as a result of it — the Ottawa Senators’ 2019 first-round draft pick.

Having said all of that, like the Devils, the Avalanche are what is basically a one-line team that needed an MVP-caliber season from its best player to just barely, by the slimmest of margins, be good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.

3. Philadelphia Flyers

I actually like this Flyers team a lot, but they also have a lot of boom-or-bust potential.

If everything breaks right for them this could be a team that not only makes the playoffs again, but potentially even makes some noise. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek can be great, and their young talent is captivating, particularly second-year forward Nolan Patrick who at times was one of their most dangerous forwards in the playoffs.

If Giroux and Voracek repeat what they did a year ago, and the young players like Patrick, Travis Konecny, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Ivan Provorov take big steps forward they are going to an exciting team. That is the boom potential.

The bust potential is that if the young players (especially on defense) don’t take a step forward, and/or if the goaltending implodes on them. Given the franchise history of the Philadelphia Flyers and its goaltenders, especially the goaltenders they are currently employing, that bust potential is certainly possible. Likely? Maybe not. Possible? For sure.

4. Los Angeles Kings

It was not that long ago that the Kings were one of the NHL’s elite teams, in a yearly battle with the Chicago Blackhawks for Western Conference supremacy and the Stanley Cup. Not really the case anymore either team.

The Kings, to their credit, are still a ferocious defensive team that will suck the life out of every game they play and keep everything close. That gives them a chance every night. The problem is they just lack the offense to be any kind of a serious threat, and even last season with Anze Kopitar having a career year and Dustin Brown somehow reviving his career offensively for one season they were still only slightly below average offensively.

Ilya Kovalchuk could be a nice addition, but it is very likely that Brown, and yes, maybe even Kopitar are not as productive as they were a year ago. As I wrote in the Pacific Division preview on Thursday, the Kings have been a bubble playoff team for four years now and will continue to be one as currently constructed. They are teetering closer and closer to needing an organizational overhaul.

5. Minnesota Wild 

I mean this in the most respectful way possible — I have no opinion on the Minnesota Wild.

None. No positive opinion. No negative opinion. No emotion of any kind toward them. There is nothing about them that makes me passionate in any way. This, I think, is the only attitude to take toward the Minnesota Wild if you are not actually a Minnesota Wild fan because this is the only attitude they deserve.

They are just a hockey team that exists.

If you were to ask someone to construct the most bland, run-of-the-mill NHL franchise imaginable, this would be it because that is what they are, what they have been, and what they will continue to be.

They have enough talent to make the playoffs. They have enough talent to be kind of relevant but not really relevant.

They do not have enough talent to get out of the first or do anything of significance once they get there. What they are now is probably what their ceiling is. They just … exist.

Minnesota Wild: hockey team.

6. Anaheim Ducks

Losing Corey Perry for most of the season definitely hurts, especially when this isn’t a great offensive team to begin with. But we also have to remember they are losing 2018 Corey Perry and not 2010 Corey Perry. There is a difference. He is still a very good top-six player, but he also has not topped 20 goals or 60 points in two years.

Ryan Getzlaf is still there, they have a really good defense, and their goaltending duo with John Gibson and Ryan Miller is still one of the league’s best at the position. They also play in a division that, outside of the top two teams, isn’t overly difficult.

7. Vegas Golden Knights

Anyone that can say certain what they expect from the Vegas Golden Knights this season is lying, because nobody really does. There is every reason to believe that a lot of players that shined in their debut season are going to regress. They also made some significant additions (Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny) that can make up for it.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets have some problems. They play in a division with Pittsburgh and Washington. Their two best players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — are free agents after the season and management may have to make a big decision on what to do with them before they risk losing them for nothing in free agency. Seth Jones is starting the season injured. They still have not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in their existence. Those are the problems.

The positives are the fact that for right now they still do have Panarin and Bobrovsky on the roster, and they are great players.

Jones will be back at some point and along with Zach Werenski will form what should be one of the league’s best defensive pairings. They also have Pierre-Luc Dubois who, I think, could be on the verge of a monster season. They play in a tough division, but it is a top-heavy division. Once you get beyond Pittsburgh and Washington at the top everything is wide open. They will keep their two stars throughout the season, make one more run at something with them, and see where things go after that.

 

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.

Taylor Hall not expecting complacency from Devils after playoff return

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CHICAGO — We see it often in sports. A team has a successful season and enters the next year believing the same magic will happen again. One team that will be interesting to watch during the 2018-19 NHL season is the New Jersey Devils. After making a 27-point jump in the standings, they reached the postseason for the first time since 2012.

General manager Ray Shero made few changes to his roster, but they will get a healthy Cory Schneider back in net after Keith Kinkaid helped vault the Devils into playoff contention while the No. 1 was out injured. 

After a taste of the playoffs, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall is eager to get going again and is confident that last season wasn’t a fluke.

“It’s easy to get complacent with us making the playoffs last year, but I don’t really see that with our group,” Hall told Pro Hockey Talk during the NHL Player Media Tour on Thursday. “We have a really hard-working group of guys and a lot of guys that are still playing for a lot — whether that’s contracts and their future and everything like that. I’m looking forward to seeing if our young guys can take a step and really lead our team. If we can stay healthy, that’s probably the biggest thing for every team in the league, is just staying healthy — if we can do that we’ll be fine.”

In his third season behind the Devils’ bench head coach John Hynes pushed the right buttons and got help from Hall’s MVP play to get his team to the postseason. The additions of Marcus Johansson, Sami Vatanen, Brian Boyle and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier were the ingredients that meshed well with the coach’s system and resulted in a winning season.

Hall credits his career year to his relationship with Hynes.

“I think he’s a guy that gets a lot from me, personally. He knows how to motivate me and knows what to say and what not to say,” he said. “For our group, he did a great job for us last year. It wasn’t just in the games coaching, it was off the ice, dictating how hard our practices were, how often we practiced, his messages to the team, how he wanted us to play. I think that really culminated into us having a successful season. He’s a coach that I have a great relationship with and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”

As the Devils surged up the Metropolitan Division standings, Hall went on an offensive tear, ripping off a 26-game point streak, something he believes may not happen again. He would finish with 39 goals and 93 points, both career highs, and become the first player in franchise history to win the Hart Trophy.

Like the Devils as team, Hall is confident he can remain at the level he reached last season.

“As far as being as successful player, a successful offensive player, I have no doubt that I can do that again this season for the Devils and I’m excited to see what happens,” he said.

MORE PHT DEVILS COVERAGE:
Under Pressure: Cory Schneider
Three questions facing the Devils

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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.

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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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 Washington Capitals.

2017-18
49-26-7, 105 pts. (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights.

IN
Nic Dowd
Brooks Orpik (technically)

OUT
Alex Chaisson
Jay Beagle
Anthony Peluso
Tyler Graovac
Jakub Jerabek
Philipp Grubauer

RE-SIGNED
Tom Wilson
John Carlson
Travis Boyd
Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny
Madison Bowey

– – –

Stanley Cup champions.

Alex Ovechkin and others diving into the Georgetown fountain.

Two things that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital.

In reality, it’s the first one that will be etched in history forever. The Capitals, a team that had always come up short, always underperformed when they needed their best performance, finally broke through, sent all their demons back to where they came from and hoisted Lord Stanley in June.

And in true Capitals form, none of it came easy.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

From dropping the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to losing three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals had to work for the Cup.

Beating Pittsburgh in the second round was historical. Not since 1994 had the team bested the Penguins in the playoffs, and they’d been plagued by the Penguins ever since, including the previous two seasons where they were stopped in their tracks by Crosby and Co. in the second round.

Furthermore, the window appeared to be closed on the Capitals. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy two years running, but couldn’t figure it out when it mattered most. Their roster also appeared to be dealt a serious blow with key departures during last offseason, including Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt.

They still had their core, but good cores need good complements and Washington lost several.

The team endured Braden Holtby losing his starting job for a time late in the season, only to regain it in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never look back. Holtby appeared to be his elite self, especially in the final two games to close out the series against the Lightning, where he posted back-to-back shutouts against the regular season’s most potent offense.

In the Cup Final, Holtby bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to post four straight wins and a .938 save percentage during that span.

The Caps simply trudged along, taking every bump in stride and never wavering too far off course.

Ovi scored 49 to capture his one-millionth Rocket Richard Trophy and Evgeni Kuznetsov rebounded from his 59-point season (which followed a breakout campaign with 77 in 2015-16) to post career bests in both goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov’s form carried over into the playoffs where he paced the league with 32 points. Ovechkin finished second in scoring and first in goals with 15 and Nicklas Backstrom rounded out the top-three point producers.

There’s been a lot of partying this summer, nothing foreign to a team that’s won hockey’s greatest prize.

Keeping John Carlson is the most important thing the Capitals have done this offseason.

Signing Tom Wilson to a lengthy extension worth many millions of dollars is the most controversial decision they’ve made.

Not re-signing head coach Barry Trotz might be their biggest mistake. Assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reins while Trotz will be the bench boss in Long Island.

The Caps head into next season with much of the same team intact and a belief now that they can overcome anything. We know they’re going to score goals. We know their power play is going to be elite. A bounce-back regular season from Holtby should keep the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan once again.

A conversation involving the Caps and the Stanley Cup used to elicit laughter. Now, it emits chatter of a repeat.

How times have changed.

Prospect Pool

Ilya Samsonov, G, 21, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) – 2015 first-round pick

Three years of elite numbers in the KHL has the hype train carrying Samsonov moving at full force. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level deal after Metallurg was bounced from the Gagarin Cup and will play in North America this. The only question now is, where?

Samsonov is expected to be given a shot to be Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer now out of the picture. Samsonov will face competition from Pheonix Copley, who will also be vying for the bench job. Samsonov appears as ready as one can be to make the jump, but allowing him some time in the NHL to adjust and adapt to the American game wouldn’t hurt. He’s still going to see time with the Caps this year.

Alexander Alexeyev, D, 18, Red Deer (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The 31st and final pick in the first round this past June, Alexeyev had a breakout season with the Rebels with 37 points in 45 games.

He’s big, too, at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds and has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Alexeyev won’t be turning pro this year, and another season of development in the WHL will be good as he continues to adapt to the North American game. He’s got some good mentors in Washington, including fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

“He’s a really intelligent player, extremely patient with the puck, good shot, skates really well,” Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future with us.”

Lucas Johansen, D, 20, Hershey (AHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Johansen made a nice transition from junior with the Kelowna Rockets to professional with the Bears last season, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 74 games.

A second year in Hershey is in the cards for Johansen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen. Washington’s three defensive pairings aren’t going to change in training camp, but an injury could change all of that.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to play here,” Johansen told the NHL at the team’s developments camp in June. “But I know I have a lot of things to improve on and [for] the jump to the NHL you have to be strong, you have to be fast. But I’m looking forward to committing myself to getting better and I’m going to come to camp and do the best I can to make this team and whatever happens from there, I’ll be happy.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck