Mike Smith

NHL Power Rankings: The quiet dominance of the Capitals

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Maybe it is because we are so used to seeing them at the top of the NHL standings.

Maybe it is because they already won their Stanley Cup and there is no longer any pressure on them to shake their postseason disappointment label.

Or maybe it is because there are so many other intriguing stories around the NHL that are dominating headlines (Edmonton and Vancouver off to surprising starts, the Islanders winning 10 in a row, Boston and St. Louis looking like they can get back to the Stanley Cup Final).

Whatever the reason, it seems like the Washington Capitals are getting a little overlooked this season and it is kind of amazing given just how dominant they have been. Entering the week they are 13-2-3 for the season, are one of the highest scoring teams in the league, have the best points percentage in the league, and have recorded at least a point in 11 consecutive games (10-0-1). What stands out the most about this start is they are doing it while getting mostly sub-par goaltending from Braden Holtby. If he gets back on track there is the potential for another championship parade in Washington D.C..

Because of all of that the Capitals climb to the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does every other team sit this season?

To the rankings!

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin at 34 years of age is off to the second best goal scoring start of his career. He just keeps going and completely disregarding the normal aging curve of players.

2. St. Louis Blues. The defending champs were 3-2-3 after eight games and lost their best player for what will probably most — if not all — of the regular season. All they have done is go 9-1-0 in their past 10 games. Lot of overtime luck in there, but they are building themselves a nice cushion.

3. New York Islanders. After starting the year 1-3-0 they are entering the week on an 11-0-1 run, with the only loss coming in overtime after surrendering a three-goal third period lead.

4. Boston Bruins. Eventually somebody other than David Pastrnak or Brad Marchand will have to start scoring some goals. They have time to figure it out.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. Very quietly the Flyers have one of the top points percentages in the NHL (sixth best) and have won five out of their past six. Five of those six games have gone to overtime or a shootout so they are not really decisive wins, but their underlying and possession numbers paint the picture of a team that might have the right process.

6. Edmonton Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Drasaitl are doing exactly what is expected and exactly what they always do. The big difference-makers this season, though, are Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen playing great in net. Those two are the players that will determine what this team is able to do.

7. Colorado Avalanche. They slumped recently but am going to give them the benefit of the doubt due to the injury situation. When healthy they showed they can dominate, and they showed against Nashville and Columbus they can still score goals even without Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins. Just when it looked like they were starting to get fully healthy Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all exited the lineup with injuries. They are still playing extremely well despite all of the players they have been missing but the absence of Crosby will be a huge test.

9. Montreal Canadiens. Shea Weber can still be a great player and change a game when he is healthy.

10. Florida Panthers. If Sergei Bobrovsky would start playing like the goalie they paid him to be they would really be on to something this year. There is still plenty of time for him to turn it around and if/when he does this could be a sneaky dangerous team.

11. Nashville Predators. Filip Forsberg has five points in five games since returning to the lineup. The offense has been great, but they need more from the goalies, specifically Jusse Saros.

12. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop got back on track and so did the Stars. They still need to do something to find some more offense because no goalie is great enough to allow one goal every game.

13. Winnipeg Jets. Paul Maurice deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team competitive given the state of the defense. But do you know who deserves more credit? Goalie Connor Hellebuyck.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are starting to show some signs of getting back on track, but something still seems a little off here.

15. Toronto Maple Leafs. Everybody wants the Maple Leafs to change the way the play, but what if the change they need to make is to become more aggressive offensively, and not less?

16. Calgary Flames. They are starting to get back on track after a slow start. Matthew Tkachuk is the engine driving this machine right now.

17. Arizona Coyotes. They are definitely on the right track but still need to learn how to finish games.

18. Vancouver Canucks. The offense has gone cold during their four-game losing streak, but there are still a lot of encouraging signs here with this team.

19. Vegas Golden Knights. They have lost five out of six and still have not found a competent backup goalie to give Marc-Andre Fleury some rest. That is an under the radar problem that is going to need to be addressed.

20. Carolina Hurricanes. I still believe when all is said and done this season they will be a contender in the Eastern Conference, but they look out of sorts right now across the board.

21. Buffalo Sabres. The competition has started to get tougher and the losses have become more frequent. Not a good sign. After starting the year 8-1-0 the Sabres are 1-5-1 since with the only win coming against a lousy Detroit Red Wings team.

22. New York Rangers. Adam Fox has been the most impressive rookie on this team. That is not a knock on No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, just a statement on how good Fox has been.

23. San Jose Sharks. Starting to show some signs of life, but how far are they really going to go with that goaltending?

24. Chicago Blackhawks. They are finding ways to collect points every other game, but there is not really anything impressive about their play.

25. Ottawa Senators. They may not have a ton of talent but they play hard and are not throwing in the towel on this season.

26. Anaheim Ducks. If John Gibson and Ryan Miller are not flawless this team has no chance. Both goalies are having outstanding years and the team is still trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

27. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, is starting to look more comfortable.

28. Minnesota Wild. Their big rally against Arizona was a nice break from the overall disappointment that has been the 2019-20 season.

29. Columbus Blue Jackets. My sleeper team for the season is turning out to be exactly what everyone thought it would be.

30. Detroit Red Wings. After losing 12 out of 13 they managed to beat Boston and Vegas in back-to-back games. Even with those two wins they are still just 3-11-1 in their past 15 games. That is bad. What is not bad? Robby Fabbri scoring two goals in his first game with the team.

31. Los Angeles Kings. Time to start selling off whatever they can.

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.

Oilers, Coyotes following different paths to surprising starts

In a lot of recent years a matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes would have been viewed as a battle over draft lottery odds instead of a meaningful regular season game with an impact on the standings.

But things are finally looking up for both teams this season as they enter Monday’s game in Edmonto as not only two of the biggest early season surprises, but two of the Western Conference’s top teams (the Oilers are second in points percentage, while the Coyotes are fourth).

The two teams meet for the first time this season on Monday night in Edmonton.

Two teams following two very different paths

In terms of the actual results their early performances are strikingly similar in both the standings and their overall offensive production.  The Oilers’ points percentage is .700 entering Monday’s game (a 114-point pace) while they are averaging 2.87 goals per game. The Coyotes are at .654 (107 point pace) and averaging 2.85 goals per game.

They are also both among the top-10 in terms of goals against. All good signs.

The path in which they have reached those results, however, has been very, very, very different, in terms of both style and the players that are doing the heavy lifting for them.

Superstars vs. Balance

The Oilers are totally dependent on star power to carry their offense with the duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl factoring in on more than 50 percent of the team’s goals so far this season. Their roster beyond the top handful of forwards is still lacking in talent and offensive production, and they have not yet shown they can consistently win games when their two best players do not take over and single-handedly dominate.

They remain a poor possession team and get badly outshot every night, putting further pressure on their goalies (Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen) to carry them. This is the same recipe that has failed them the past two years and for the majority of the McDavid-Draisaitl era, which has to be at least a little concerning for Oilers fans.

The Coyotes, on the other hand, do not have anywhere near the same star power at the top of their lineup and are relying on a more balanced attack offensively. Not one player on the team has contributed to more than 32 percent of the team’s goals, while they already have six different forwards with at least three goals through the first 13 games (Phil Kessel, Conor Garland, Christian Dvorak, Nick Schmaltz, Carl Soderberg, and Michael Grabner) all of which are on pace to score more than 18 goals this season.

The Oilers only have three forwards on pace for more than 15 goals this season.

But the most encouraging thing for the Coyotes is probably the fact they have shown an ability to push the play and dictate the pace of games on their terms. Yes, they are getting great goaltending from the duo of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta and that definitely helps. But they are not dependent on them to win games. The Coyotes are a top-10 team in shot attempt differential, demonstrating an ability to tilt the ice in their favor, while they are also on the positive side of the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance differentials.

They may not have the superstars that Edmonton has at the top, but they seem to have have the necessary depth, balance, and playing style to overcome that.

Old faces in new places

You have to go back to the 2011-12 season to find the last playoff appearance for the Coyotes, and the duo of coach Dave Tippett and goalie Mike Smith played a key role in what turned out to be a shocking run to the Western Conference Final. It was all downhill for the duo (and the franchise as a whole) after that, and over the past couple of years they moved on from both Tippett (replacing him with Rick Tocchet two years) and Smith (trading him to Calgary the same offseason).

Now that duo is reunited in Edmonton and hoping to lead a turnaround for the Oilers.

For Tippett, this will be his first game behind the bench against his former team. He spent eight years as the Coyotes’ coach, compiling a 282-257-83 record with three consecutive playoff appearances between 2010 and 2012. He helped guide them through a rocky team in the franchise’s history when their long-term future was as unsettled as ever.

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.

The Buzzer: Sharks keep sinking; Jets, Byfuglien to arbitration?

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Saturday’s been such a busy — and violent/scary — night in the NHL, that it feels acceptable to commandeer the beginning of The Buzzer for some developing stories before we get to the three stars, highlights, and factoids.

Choppy waters for the Sharks

If you can zoom out a bit, it’s fair to remember that the Sharks sent a bucket of pucks Connor Hellebuyck‘s way on Friday, only to lose. They were probably a little tired on Saturday, and also maybe feeling a little bit like they wouldn’t get the bounces that come from whatever hard work they could squeeze out.

(It’s worth asking if a team that also leans so much on older players might be especially prone to weak efforts on the second half of back-to-backs.)

Those caveats out of the way … yikes.

The Sharks’ 5-2 loss to the Canucks represents San Jose’s fifth loss in a row, and the Sharks have only won once in their last eight games (1-6-1 stretch), pushing their 2019-20 record to a deeply worrisome 4-10-1. When the Sharks decided to extend Erik Karlsson, it felt like the right move now, even if there’d likely be pain down the road. That pain instead took the express lane.

More than a few people wonder if Peter DeBoer will lose his job, among other changes. That’s a situation to watch, whether things heat up this weekend, this week, or further down the line. Either way, it’s pretty shocking, even if it’s early.

Arbitration for Buffy?

The latest episode of “As the Buffy Turns” comes from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who reports that the Winnipeg Jets might have to go to arbitration with possibly retiring defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. It kicks off around the two-minute mark:

This seems less optimistic than Bob McKenzie’s update from earlier this week on NBCSN. The gist of the disagreement can be broken down in two basic phases, via Friedman’s report:

  • The NHL/Jets argue that Byfuglien was deemed “fit to play” at an end-of-season exit physical. Byfuglien’s side notes that it was well-known that he played hurt through the playoffs, and tried to take the summer to heal. Once his ankle acted up again, he reportedly decided it might be time to retire. Thus, on Byfuglien’s side, they argue it’s a legitimate hockey injury.
  • Once Byfuglien underwent surgery, a broken foot was discovered. At least, that’s Byfuglien’s side; there are arguments over when that injury might have happened.

It ultimately seems like this may come down to whether or not Byfuglien will be paid while he’s on the shelf — possibly without ever returning. But we’ll see.

*Phew*

Three Stars

1. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers

If you only look at the exhilarating game-winner, you’d think Leon Draisaitl was the one who stole the show from Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Overall, though, it was Mike Smith.

The Penguins peppered Smith with 52 shots on goal, including 13 high-danger chances at even-strength alone, according to Natural Stat Trick. Smith only yielded a single goal, stealing a win for the Oilers. Read more about that game in Adam Gretz’s three takeaways.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames

While Smith nabbed a remarkable 51 saves, it was “Big Save Dave” who finished Saturday night without a single blemish. Rittich pitched a 43-save shutout to help Calgary beat the Blue Jackets 3-0.

I’m giving Smith the edge because he faced so many dangerous chances, but Rittich’s night was plenty impressive in its own right.

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets entered the third period against the Golden Knights down 3-1, closing off a back-to-back in Vegas, one of the toughest buildings to snag such a win in.

Winnipeg wouldn’t be denied, and Connor was a big part of a comeback win. He collected two primary assists to help push the game into overtime, then baffled Malcolm Subban after Subban made a tremendous save earlier in the period. Getting the OT winner, plus two primary assists, helps push Connor just a bit ahead of the pack.

There were some other great performances, including David Pastrnak posting another three-point night (1G, 2A).

Highlight of the Night

The Devils got a much-needed win by beating the Hurricanes, and Nico Hischier scored a much-needed goal:

Factoids

  • The Islanders are on a nine-game winning streak, tied for the second best streak in franchise history. You can read more about that here, but Isles Blog points out another impressive stat: the team is 14-1-1 in the second half of back-to-back sets under Barry Trotz.
  • NHL PR notes that the Kings have scored 41 OT goals since the 3-on-3 format was introduced in 2015-16, six more than any team.
  • Speaking of highest marks since 2015-16 (also compiled by NHL PR), Sergei Bobrovsky holds the most shutouts with 23. That 23rd came on Saturday, and marks his first with the Panthers.
  • From Sportsnet Stats: David Pastrnak’s 27 points rank as the third-most through 13 games in Bruins history. Pastrnak’s only behind Phil Esposito (31 in 1973-74) and Bobby Orr (28 in 1974-75).

Scores

EDM 2 – PIT 1 (OT)
NYR 2 – NSH 1
BOS 5 – OTT 2
NYI 1 – BUF 0
FLA 4 – DET 0
TOR 4 – PHI 3 (SO)
NJD 5 – CAR 3
CGY 3 – CBJ 0
DAL 4 – MTL 1
STL 4 – MIN 3 (OT)
ARI 3 – COL 0
WIN 4 – VGK 3 (OT)
VAN 5 – SJS 2
LAK 4 – CHI 3 (OT)

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Smith, Draisaitl steal one for Oilers against Penguins: 3 takeaways

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The first Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavid matchup of the 2019-20 season ended up being stolen by a great goaltending performance from Mike Smith, goals by Colby Cave and Brian Dumoulin, and one of the *other* superstars in the game scoring the game-winner in overtime.

Mike Smith’s 51 saves and Leon Draisaitl‘s league-leading 13th goal of the season 2:37 into overtime proved to be the difference for the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon as they went into Pittsburgh and stole a 2-1 win against the Penguins.

What all stood out from this game? Here are three quick takeaways.

1. Mike Smith stole this. The Penguins welcomed Evgeni Malkin back to the lineup on Saturday afternoon and for the first time all season had their full roster healthy at the same time. They carried the play all day, outshooting the Oilers by a 52-28 margin and constantly buzzing around the Edmonton net generating chance after chance. And all day Smith was up to the task, turning aside 51 shots in what was not only his best performance of the season but probably one of the best games of his career.

For as many games as the Oilers have won so far this season they still have a lot of questions regarding their forward depth and their defense and even with Saturday’s win a lot of those issues were on display against the Penguins. If they keep playing like this they are going to need their goaltending to be nearly flawless for them to have a chance to maintain their early success. Fortunately for them Smith was able to give them that sort of performance on Saturday because anything less than that and this game could have easily had a very different result.

2. Leon Draisaitl is incredible. Draisaitl added to his league-leading point total by scoring the overtime winner, holding off Alex Galchenyuk and beating Penguins goalie Matt Murray to the far side. It ended an incredibly exciting back-and-forth overtime period that saw the two teams exchange prime scoring chances at both ends of the ice.

Draisaitl may not be on McDavid’s level as a player, but at this point it is starting to become impossible to argue that he is not one of the four or five best players in the world. After scoring 50 goals and 100 points a year ago, he is already up 13 goals and 26 points through the first 15 games this season and is well on his way to making a run at both numbers again this year. The Oilers still need to find some offense outside of him and McDavid, but those two guys are borderline unstoppable right now.

3. It was a quiet day for the Crosby-McDavid matchup. This was the first head-to-head matchup between Crosby and McDavid where neither player recorded a point, while they managed to combine for just five shots on goal.

The Penguins did a great job containing the McDavid-Draisaitl duo during regulation, attempting 25 of the 28 shot attempts when they were on the ice.

It is a testament to how great Smith was for the Oilers that they were able to get two points on what was such an off day for their top duo.

It also says a lot about Draisaitl that on a day where he and McDavid were mostly quiet he could still end up being one of the difference-makers in the game.

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.

Roundtable: Hot starts, biggest disappointments

Choosing from the teams off to strong starts in October, which one won’t last?

SEAN: The Canucks may very well wind up in the playoffs come April, but it feels like a matter or time before they slowly slide back into the wild card race and out of contention for the Pacific Division crown. The Lotto Line of Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller has been unstoppable; Quinn Hughes is playing himself into the Calder Trophy conversation after one month; and the goaltending duo of Thatcher Demko and Jacob Markstrom has been solid with a combined .932 even strength save percentage. They’re banking important points this early in the season, but their 103 PDO will certainly slide back a touch.

Vancouver’s November schedule could pose some difficulty in keeping up this pace with games against the Avalanche (2), Penguins, Oilers, Blues, Predators (2), and Capitals. If they can reach December and find themselves still in one of the top three spots in the Pacific then that could go a long way toward proving doubters they’re for real.

JAMES: The Sabres [1.036] and Canucks [1.031] are marinating in that glorious, glorious PDO right now, and chances are, both will see their hot shooting and goaltending cool down. The question is: how much?

Considering the Canucks’ weak division, and quite a few promising underlying numbers for Vancouver, I think they might be able to squeak into a playoff spot. The Sabres, however, must run through what still figures to be a buzzsaw in the Atlantic — at least if the Lightning and Maple Leafs get their acts together.

So, Buffalo, in particular, falls under “Fool me once …” That said, I can’t totally blame someone who’s being lured in by the gravitational pull of that strong start.

ADAM: The skepticism around Buffalo is legitimate because of the way last year unfolded, but I still think they have a better shot to stick around this year because they are a little deeper and do not seem to be doing it with as much smoke and mirrors as they did early last season. What that means, I don’t know. That is still a brutally tough division and you have to imagine Tampa Bay and Toronto get their acts together. They may not finish high in the standings, but I don’t see a collapse here. The team that I think is still likely to fall off has to be the Oilers, and I hate saying that because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are so amazing. I want to see them on a big stage. But they are literally carrying the offense again, and we have seen this movie before. They are great enough to do it in short bursts to help the team go on some hot streaks, but no two players are great enough to carry a team through an 82-game season unless one of those players is a goalie. There are still just too many flaws on this roster.

JOEY: I’m still skeptical about the Oilers. Yes, they have the high-end talent that most teams can only dream of, but I’m just not sold on the supporting cast. Is James Neal going to keep rolling? Are the other forwards going to do enough scoring to sustain Edmonton’s place in the standings? Can a duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen keep Edmonton in games? I have so many questions for this team it’s not even funny. Look, the Oilers probably won’t finish first in the division, but if they sneak into the playoffs that fan base should be happy with that. I just have a hard time seeing it right now.

SCOTT: The Ducks are 8-6-0 and I am not sure if that qualifies as a ‘hot start’, but I expect them to drop quite a bit the standings. The Flames and Sharks are too talented to remain near the bottom of the division and if they move up, someone has to slide down. Another team to keep an eye on is the Blues. With Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for an extended period of time, will they be able to generate enough offense to remain competitive in a ferocious Central Division.

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Who is your biggest disappointment — player or team — so far?

SEAN: This could have been noted goon Aleksander Barkov, who has four penalty minutes already after not picking up his second minor last season until March 7… but my choice is the Lightning. Tampa is facing the adversity they noted after-the-fact last season hurt them in Round 1 against the Blue Jackets. A sluggish October that saw them win consecutive games only once, allow two or fewer goals only three times, and allow 3.5 goals (2.7 GPG last season) and three more shots on average per night has led them to a 6-4-2 start.

The challenge is clear for the Lightning: It’s Stanley Cup or bust. We’re going to see who the real Lightning are this season. They cruised for 82 games in 2018-19, and now the teams around them have improved. There wasn’t a lot to remember in October and how they respond will be an indicator of what to expect later in the season.

JAMES: The Sharks are a disaster by just about every measure to begin 2019-20. They’re sinking when it comes to most, if not all, possession stats. About the only thing that’s encouraging is that, unlike the bumbling Bolts, San Jose’s been mostly unlucky. While I fear that their goaltending will only rebound in marginal ways, I don’t expect their offense to remain so toothless.

ADAM: It has to be San Jose. Their commitment to the goalie situation just totally stuns me, but what is even more shocking is the fact the rest of the team seems to have forgotten how to play hockey this season. They are getting completely dominated at even-strength and this team is just far too talented to play like this. No team with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the blue line, and with the talent they still have at forward (even after losing Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi over the summer) should be playing this poorly. It is stunning.

JOEY: I realized that the Sharks were getting old in a hurry, but I didn’t expect them to have four wins in their first 13 games. The loss of Joe Pavelski has hit both sides pretty hard. Do you think the player and team would like a do-over there? Logan Couture is a fine captain, but he’s already had to call his teammates out a couple of times. Adding Patrick Marleau is a nice touch, but it just isn’t adding up to victories right now. The Sharks should be worried because it looks like their championship window has been slammed shut.

SCOTT: In Taylor Hall’s final season before reaching unrestricted free agency, GM Ray Shero made a couple of maneuvers this summer to help bolster his roster. With the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes, the Devils hoped to take advantage of a wide-open Metropolitan Division. However, the Devils have failed to protect leads, especially at home and find themselves competing for the top draft pick once again. Coach John Hynes could be the first coach to join the unemployment line if the Devils can’t figure it out on the ice.

QUICK AWARD PICKS AFTER ONE MONTH

HART
SEAN: David Pastrnak
JAMES: David Pastrnak
ADAM: Leon Draisaitl
JOEY: Sidney Crosby
SCOTT: Leon Draisaitl

VEZINA
SEAN: Tuukka Rask
JAMES: Tuukka Rask
ADAM: Tuukka Rask
JOEY: Tuukka Rask
SCOTT: Tuukka Rask

CALDER
SEAN: Quinn Hughes
JAMES: Quinn Hughes
ADAM: Quinn Hughes
JOEY: Cale Makar
SCOTT: Quinn Hughes

NORRIS
SEAN: Roman Josi
JAMES: John Carlson
ADAM: John Carlson
JOEY: John Carlson
SCOTT: John Carlson

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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.