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Canadiens surprisingly exceeding expectations

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The Montreal Canadiens’ trade for Nate Thompson on Monday afternoon isn’t anything that is going to make the rest of the Eastern Conference sit up and take notice. It is not going to put the fear of God in the Tampa Bay Lightning or Toronto Maple Leafs, or change the course of the playoffs and impact where the Stanley Cup ends up. It is a likely playoff team adding a role player to its lineup for a small price and trying to find any small upgrade it can. Nothing more, nothing less.

What’s important is what it says about the Canadiens as a team this season.

They are buyers and looking to add.

This is a surprising development because of where they were, or at least seemed to be, at the start of the season.

Consider the fact they had one of the worst records in the league a season ago that ended with a disastrous second-half collapse.

In the offseason, they traded two of the best offensive players (on what was a bad offensive team) in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk for a package of players that, at the time, didn’t seem to make them better. In exchange for Galchenyuk, they received Max Domi‘s whose development had badly stalled with the Arizona Coyotes and had produced only a fraction of what Galchenyuk had with the Canadiens. It looked like a clear downgrade.

In return for Pacioretty, one of the league’s best goal-scorers over the past six years, they received Tomas Tatar, a historically solid performer that was coming off of a terrible postseason run with the Vegas Golden Knights, and a lot of potential in the future. Again, it didn’t seem to make them any better in the short-term.

Then on top of all of that there was the fact that their top defender, Shea Weber, was going to be sidelined for most of the first half of the season.

There was little reason for optimism, and I will admit to being extremely critical of the moves and the direction the team seemed to be going in, especially with how much money they have tied up in Weber and Price, both of whom are on the wrong side of 30. That should still be a long-term concern, but sometimes you’re wrong in the short-term.

For them to exceed expectations it was almost as if they would need Carey Price to do what he did during the 2014-15 season and single handedly carry the team and sweep all of the major postseason awards.

[Related: Claude Julien has Canadiens playing fast, aggressive]

Now more than 50 games into the season, and with all of the factors above working against them, the Canadiens have more than exceeded all preseason expectations and barring another late season collapse look to be a solid lock to return to the playoffs. And they’ve done it without Carey Price being … well … Carey Price. He’s been good overall, and he’s been great lately, but he hasn’t been consistently great from the start, and he even had a really tough start to the season where he was playing significantly below his normal career level.

Despite that, the Canadiens kept winning, which is a positive development for the short-term outlook of the franchise. Why? Because everything about this team right now is legitimately good. They are playing with an aggressiveness and a level of speed that has been lacking in Montreal for years. Their possession and scoring chances numbers are among the best in the NHL. Their 5-on-5 shot attempt share is the third-best in the league, while they are in the top-five in scoring chance share and top-10 in High-Danger scoring chances.

Weber has been great since returning to the lineup, Domi has become the player Arizona always thought he would be, while Tatar has returned to the form he showed in his pre-Vegas career. Along with those developments, Philip Danault has taken a massive step forward this season both offensively and defensively, and the arrival and rapid development of rookie and No. 3 overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi looks like it could fill a long-term hole at center.

It’s not easy for the Canadiens to slide under the radar in the NHL just because of the history, the legacy of the franchise, where they are located, and the mystique around them. In most seasons Claude Julien would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award given how well the team has played and how much better it has been than originally expected. But given the surprising success stories with the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames the Canadiens have managed to do the impossible  and have a really good team that has gone relatively unnoticed in the NHL.

It might be time to start taking notice because not only are they really good and playing really well, their best player and biggest game-changer — Price — is starting to play like they expect him to. Those two developments working together could make them a fierce matchup for somebody early in the playoffs.

More: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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 Power Rankings: 10 teams that could be most active at NHL trade deadline

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we start to get you ready for the trade deadline (which is now just two short weeks away!) by looking at 10 teams around the NHL that could be the most active leading up to trade deadline day.

Some of these teams are sellers. Some of them are buyers. All of them have the potential to be busy over the next two weeks.

Let’s take a look at who is out there and who could be made available.

1. Ottawa Senators — Senators management has a grand plan for what the future of the franchise will look like, but it remains to be seen how they actually get there. In the short-term the stage is set for them to potentially be the biggest sellers at the trade deadline because of the ongoing rebuild and the number of key players that are on expiring contracts, including Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel. Not to mention any other veteran player that could potentially be available. The Senators are trying to re-sign both Stone and Duchene, but the longer it goes without a deal and the closer we get to the deadline the more likely it seems that one or both could be on their way out. The Senators need to find a way to recoup a first-round draft pick after sending theirs to Colorado in the original Duchene trade, and they should be able to get at least one or two if they send out their pending UFA’s. It will not be the potential Jack Hughes pick they sent away, but a rebuilding team without any first-round picks isn’t off to a great start.

2. Detroit Red Wings — Ken Holland started the rebuild, at least a little bit, last trade deadline when he sent Petr Mrazek and Tomas Tatar away for five draft picks. He could be doing even more this season with free agents Jimmy Howard, Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, and Niklas Kronwall all on the roster. Howard and Nyquist are by far the most marketable pieces that he has to deal from and could fetch him a decent return at the deadline. As tempted as the Red Wings might be to try and re-sign Howard given their short-term (and long-term) goaltending situation they should resist that urge and cash in on what has been one of the best seasons of his career. Or at least one of his best seasons in recent memory. A mid-30s Howard isn’t going to be the difference between a good Red Wings team and a bad Red Wings team next season, so they should try to get what they can right now and hope one of the contenders that is a goalie away (looking at you, San Jose) wants to take a chance on a deadline rental to put them over the top.

[Related: Five teams that should be calling about Jimmy Howard]

3. New York Rangers — The Rangers have been shipping out core players for more than a year, dealing away Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller since the start of last season. There will undoubtedly be more moves coming over the next two weeks even though they have put together a nice hot streak here recently. Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello both look like they could be on the move, but would it surprise anyone if they also moved some players that still had term left on their deals or years of team control? Like a Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov, or even maybe, if the price was right, a Chris Kreider?

4. Columbus Blue Jackets  — This is a totally fascinating team because I have no clue what they are going to do. The Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky contract situations mean that if they do something it is probably going to be massive. A potential playoff team shipping out top-tier players at the deadline would be huge news and significantly alter the course of several playoff teams and potential playoff teams. Or they could also keep them and load up around them for one more run, which would also be significant. Either way GM Jarmo Kekalainen has a chance to do something bold. Standing pat doesn’t seem to be an option. He is either selling or going all in.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Everything! Must! Go! The Jake Muzzin trade was a pretty clear sign that it is finally time to start looking for the future. They already sent away one pending unrestricted free agent on Monday by trading Nate Thompson to the Montreal Canadiens, and Carl Hagelin seems like he could probably be sent elsewhere as well. Their veteran players have some big contracts that might be tough to move, and I don’t expect them to even consider trading Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty, but this still feels like a team whose complete teardown is imminent.

6. Florida Panthers — This is a team to watch because they are clearly trying to position themselves for a run at some big free agents this summer. There is the rumor that they are interested in trying to strike now and get Bobrovsky away from Columbus to sign him before he hits the open market, they are a potential landing spot for Panarin, and they have a few UFAs they can move for more draft picks, including Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan who were acquired in the big blockbuster with Pittsburgh. Will they ship out even more money in an effort to clear even more salary cap space? TSN’s Frank Seravalli mentioned the possibility of Jonathan Huberdeau on Monday, the type of move that would almost certainly indicate they would be all in on free agency.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

7. Boston Bruins — Simply put, they have to find some secondary scoring. All of their offense comes from the same five players — Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, David Krejci, and Torey Krug. They are all great, but five players alone producing offense will not get you very far in the playoffs. Especially against the teams they will have to face on their potential postseason path.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Jim Rutherford tends to strike early before the trade deadline, and he has done that with a few moves already this season (Tanner Pearson, sending Jamie Oleksiak back to Dallas, the big trade with the Florida Panthers) but I just don’t see him being done. He has never done. He is always tinkering with his roster and this roster right now, as currently constructed, is not where the Penguins expect it to be. Almost anything is on the table with this team.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — A lot of this is dependent on what they can do with some veteran players that have no-trade clauses, specifically Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but there are a lot of bloated contracts here that they should explore moving. Not only Seabrook, but also perhaps Anisimov and Brandon Saad.

10.  Washington Capitals — I can’t imagine the defending champs are happy with the way this season has gone over the past few weeks or with the current state of their defense. That has to be high atop their shopping list as they look to make a repeat run at the Stanley Cup. I can’t see them doing anything drastic, but they could definitely use a move or two.

MORE: Defense should top Capitals’ shopping list

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.

Pro Hockey Talk’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for all completed deals. The 2019 NHL trade deadline is Monday, Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET.

Feb. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Edmonton Oilers:
Sam Gagner
Vancouver Canucks: 
Ryan Spooner

Feb. 15, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers: Cam Talbot
Edmonton Oilers:
Anthony Stolarz

Feb. 12, 2019
New York Rangers: 2020 seventh-round pick
Vancouver Canucks: 
Marek Mazanec

Feb. 11, 2019
Columbus Blue Jackets: conditional seventh-round 2019 pick
Pittsburgh Penguins: Blake Siebenaler

Feb. 11, 2019
Montreal Canadiens: Nate Thompson, 2019 fifth-round pick
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fourth-round pick

Feb. 9, 2019 (PHT Analysis)
Philadelphia Flyers: Dave Schlemko, Byron Froese
Montreal Canadiens: Dale Weise, Christian Folin

Feb. 8, 2019
Arizona Coyotes: Emil Pettersson
Nashville PredatorsLaurent Dauphin, Adam Helewka

Feb. 6, 2019
Nashville Predators: Cody McLeod
New York Rangers:
2020 seventh-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Nashville Predators: Brian Boyle
New Jersey Devils: 2019 second-round pick

Feb. 6, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Christophe Beaudin
Colorado Avalanche: Max McCormick

Feb. 1, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins: Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann
Florida Panthers: Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, 2019 second-round picks and two 2019 fourth-round picks

Jan. 30, 2019
New Jersey Devils: Ryan Murphy
Minnesota Wild: Michael Kapla

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Muzzin
Los Angeles Kings: Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi, 2019 first-round pick

Jan. 28, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Pittsburgh Penguins: 2019 fourth-round pick
Dallas Stars: Jamie Oleksiak

Jan. 24, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
Los Angeles Kings: 2019 fifth-round pick

Jan. 21, 2019
Minnesota Wild: Brad Hunt, 2019 sixth-round pick
Vegas Golden Knights: 2019 conditional fifth-round pick

Jan. 17, 2019
Buffalo Sabres: Taylor Leier
Philadelphia Flyers: Justin Bailey

Jan. 17, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild: Victor Rask
Carolina Hurricanes: Nino Niederreiter

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Michael Del Zotto
Vancouver Canucks: Luke Schenn, 2020 seventh-round pick

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Derek Grant
Pittsburgh Penguins: Joseph Blandisi

Jan. 16, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Minnesota Wild: Pontus Aberg
Anaheim Ducks: Justin Kloos

Jan. 14, 2019
New York Rangers: Connor Brickley
Nashville Predators: Cole Schneider

Jan. 14, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Anaheim Ducks: Devin Shore
Dallas Stars: Andrew Cogliano

Jan. 11, 2019
Chicago Blackhawks: Slater Koekkoek, 2019 fifth-round pick
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jan Rutta, 2019 seventh-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019 (PHT analysis)
Arizona Coyotes: Jordan Weal
Philadelphia Flyers: 2019 sixth-round pick

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Cody Goloubef
Boston Bruins: Paul Carey

Jan. 11, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Morgan Klimchuk
Toronto Maple Leafs: Gabriel Gagne

Jan. 3, 2019
Winnipeg Jets: Jimmy Oligny
Vegas Golden Knights: Futures

Jan. 3, 2019
St. Louis Blues: Jared Coreau
Anaheim Ducks: Futures

Jan. 2, 2019
Ottawa Senators: Anders Nilsson, Darren Archibald
Vancouver Canucks: Mike McKenna, Tom Pyatt, 2019 sixth-round pick

Muzzin trade should be the beginning of Kings’ teardown

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When the Los Angeles Kings traded defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday evening they took an important step toward doing something that was probably a year or two overdue — turning the page on their past glory and starting to finally look toward the future.

It’s time. It’s beyond time. Waiting any longer would have put this team in an even deeper hole that would have taken even longer to get out of.

Since winning their second Stanley Cup in 2014 the Kings have been stuck in neutral in the NHL’s worst possible place — the middle ground — somewhere between a contender and a lottery team, desperately trying to squeeze out whatever is left of an aging core by adding more aging pieces to it (Dion Phaneuf, Ilya Kovalchuk, Carl Hagelin, etc).

Yes, they made the playoffs twice since that last championship.

They also managed to win only a single game in those two appearances, losing in five games to a Sharks team that went on to win the Western Conference in 2016, then getting swept by the Vegas Golden Knights a year ago in a series that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the scoreboard. The two teams were playing a different sport for the four games, and while the Kings didn’t give up much, they never even seemed like they were close to scoring or were capable of doing anything to make Marc-Andre Fleury sweat even a little bit.

[Related: Maple Leafs bolster back end, trade for Muzzin]

In between those two emphatic first-round exits were two non-playoff seasons. More than halfway through the 2018-19 season they are tumbling toward another spring that will be spent at home.

Big picture, this has been an alarmingly mediocre team for going on five years now. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Kings are 17th in regular season wins, which is about as middle of the pack as a team can get.

The only two teams with fewer than the one postseason win the Kings have during that stretch are the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, and they only reason they have won fewer is because they haven’t actually made the playoffs.

It has become increasingly clear that there is a sizable gap between the Kings roster and the way it plays and the way the rest of the NHL is built. That gap is only widening, and the only way it’s going to get fixed is if management makes the painful decision to take a blowtorch to the roster.

Trading the 29-year-old Muzzin and his remaining contract ($4 million per year through the end of next season) is a start.

It can not be the end, and based on what general manager Rob Blake said after the trade it likely will not be.

“I don’t want to get into specifics of players, but we are actively looking at making moves for the future of the organization, yes,” said Blake, via the Los Angeles Times, when asked about trading more veteran players.

Quite honestly, there probably isn’t a veteran player on the roster that should be untouchable. Given that the only two key unrestricted free agents they have are Hagelin and Nate Thompson it seems reasonable to conclude that big-name, core players are part of those discussions.

The Kings are in a pretty dire situation here where they are not only old (the third oldest team in the league), but they have those players signed to long-term contracts. Looking at their current roster they have nine players already over the age of 30, with six of them age 33 or older. Almost all of those players are signed for at least the next two seasons at pretty sizable salary cap hits.

Kovalchuk, 35, has two years remaining on his current deal that pays him more than $6 million per season. Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, both in their age 34 seasons, are signed for three more seasons after this one at a combined salary cap hit of more than $11 million per season (though Carter’s contract significantly reduces in terms of actual dollars because it was so front-loaded when it was signed).

All of this is going to make a rebuild even more complicated because they don’t have a ton to trade.

It seems highly unlikely that Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty would ever go anywhere, not only because of their importance to the franchise but also because of their contracts (both of which contain no-move clauses).

Dumping Brown, Phaneuf and probably Kovalchuk would probably require significant amounts of retained salary, or perhaps even giving up something of value to dump what is left of those salaries.

The real value is probably going to be in trading players like Tyler Toffoli and Alec Martinez.

At 26 years old Toffoli is actually one of the “young” players on the Kings’ roster, and even though he is having a down year is still at least capable of being a 20-goal, 45-point winger. He is not a foundational piece or someone you would ever center a rebuild around, but a contender would absolutely find value in him especially at his $4.6 million salary cap hit the next through the end of next season.

Martinez is in a similar position in that he is still very good and has an attractive contract. There is no reason to think he could not fetch the Kings a package similar to what the Kings received from Toronto for Muzzin. Or at least close to it.

Then there is the elephant in the room that is starting goalie Jonathan Quick.

Quick is another one of those cornerstone pieces, along with Kopitar and Doughty, that helped bring two Stanley Cups to Los Angeles, and Kings fans should be forever grateful for that. But he’s also a player whose perceived value has probably almost always exceeded his actual on-ice value. He’s been great at times, and in the brightest spotlight when all eyes were on him. And that matters. But he’s also been just average at a lot of other times, and that matters, too.

The former always overshadowed the latter, and that still may be the case today.

He is 33 years old, has four years remaining on his contract, and given all of that is probably closer to the end of his career than his peak years. Given the potential enormity of this overhaul, it would probably be in their best interest to see if they can find a taker for that contract right now because they’re not going to be in a position to win in the coming seasons.

It might be painful, but it also might be necessary.

The Kings have been mediocre long enough. Now it’s time to take a step or two back because it is the only way they can actually move forward as an organization.

Trading Muzzin, a popular core player that helped win championships and was still signed beyond this season, was a start. It can not be where they stop.

More: PHT Power Rankings: 10 people that will impact the NHL playoff race

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blues visit Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After defeating the Penguins 5-2 in LA on Saturday, Jan. 12, the Kings hit the road for a three-game trip to Minnesota, Dallas and Colorado. The Kings lost to the Wild 3-2 after a shootout but then beat the Stars 2-1. They entered Saturday with a chance to make it a four-game point streak, but lost 7-1 to Colorado, allowing six goals in the second period.

Saturday’s 7-1 loss at the Avs was the team’s worst this season, as they lost the game by six goals (worst differential this season) and allowed seven goals, tied for the most allowed this season.

St. Louis last played on Saturday, beating the Senators 3-2 to earn their fourth victory in their last six games (4-1-1 record). They will face the Kings on Monday before playing the Ducks in Anaheim on Wednesday. Then, like the Kings, will have the All-Star Break and their bye week before playing next on Saturday, Feb. 2 at Columbus. The Blues next home game is Saturday, Feb. 9 vs. Nashville.

The NHL’s hottest player – David Perron – missed Saturday’s win over Ottawa with an upper-body injury. Head coach Craig Berube called Perron day-to-day, but said he would likely not make the trip to California.

Entering Saturday, Perron had a point in 13 straight games (6G-10A), the NHL’s longest active point streak. He has 17 goals this year (had 16 in 70 games w/ VGK last season) and has 19 points (9G-10A) in the last 18 games after recording 16 points (8G-8A) in his first 27 games of the season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: St. Louis Blues at Los Angeles Kings
Where: Staples Center
When: Monday, Jan. 21, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Pat MaroonRyan O'ReillyVladimir Tarasenko
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennAlexander Steen
Samuel Blais – Oskar SundqvistJordan Kyrou
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevJordan Nolan

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

KINGS
Ilya KovalchukAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloJeff CarterBrendan Leipsic
Carl HagelinAdrian KempeTyler Toffoli
Kyle CliffordNate ThompsonAustin Wagner

Derek ForbortDrew Doughty
Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez
Dion PhaneufPaul LaDue

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick