Owen Tippett

NHL Power Rankings: 10 most exciting rookies for 2019-20 season

2 Comments

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we continue to get you ready for the start of the 2019-20 season by looking ahead to some of the most exciting rookies in the league this season.

Included among them are the top two picks from the 2019 NHL draft class, a potentially overlooked New York Rangers prospect, and some key young players that could play big roles on contenders.

To the rankings!

1. Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers. The highlight of a wildly successful offseason in Manhattan was the Rangers moving up to the No. 2 overall pick in the draft lottery and winning the opportunity to select Kakko. He has been a highlight reel at every stage of his development and is the most fascinating rookie in this year’s class. He has NHL size, incredible skill, and pretty much everything an NHL team could want in a potential franchise player. The Rangers added a ton of talent to their roster this summer and Kakko might be the most important long-term piece to join the team during this rebuild. You need superstars to win, and Kakko has that potential.

2. Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils. Just like their arch-rivals, the Devils had a huge offseason that saw them hit the jackpot in the draft lottery to to win their second No. 1 overall pick in three years. Hughes scored two goals in his preseason debut and is going to enter the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites. The fierce rivalry between the Rangers and Devils, as well as the fact the Rangers took Kakko No. 2 overall, is going to be a great subplot to their careers and development.

3. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. He was a late addition to the Avalanche’s postseason roster last spring and made an immediate impact. The Avalanche did not really shelter him much, and with Tyson Barrie having finally been traded after years of rumors they are going to have to lean heavily on Makar and Samuel Girard to play huge roles on their blue line.

4. Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers. Lost in all of the Kakko hype is that the Rangers’ have another top prospect ready to make his NHL debut this season. Kravtsov has spent the past three seasons playing in the KHL and more than held his own as a teenager, finishing the 2018-19 season as the third-leading scorer on his team. With him and Kappo making their NHL debuts this season there is plenty of reason for Rangers fans to be excited about their future.

5. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. Even though the Canucks haven’t had any draft lottery luck over the past four years they have still managed to pick some franchise cornerstones with their top picks. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson already look like stars at forward, and now they get to see what Hughes can do on the blue line over a full season. He doesn’t have great size, but he has a ton of skill and has top-pairing potential. For a team that desperately needs a young impact player on defense, Hughes is going to be an important part of the Canucks’ rebuild.

6. Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks. Even though he played 22 games in the NHL a year ago, Steel will still barely qualify as a rookie this season (the cut off is 25 games before the current season). He showed a ton of potential last year with 41 points in 53 games in the AHL, while also scoring six goals in his first brief taste of the NHL. With Corey Perry gone and Ryan Kesler out for the season the Ducks need their young players to take a big step, and Steel should be the one capable of making the biggest impact.

7. Ryan Poehling, Montreal Canadiens. After spending three years at St. Cloud, the 2017 first-round pick had a chance to play one game at the NHL level last year and it could not have gone any better for him, scoring three goals including the game-winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He figures to play a big role for the Canadiens this season and alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi gives the Canadiens two promising young forwards to build around.

8. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets have high hopes for Texier and they are going to need him to him to produce after the team said goodbye to Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel this summer. He never looked out of place a year ago, scoring three goals in his first 10 games (including two goals in eight playoff games).

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. While most of the attention in Carolina gets focussed on the quality and depth of their defense, they are quietly assembling quite a collection of forwards as well. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Neiderreiter are all already outstanding players, while Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on track to be a star. This year they should add another young piece to that core with Necas. He had a great year in the AHL (his first full season of pro hockey in North America) and is just another outstanding young player in an organization that is already full of them.

10. Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres. One of the players from the 2019 draft class after the top-two that has a real chance to stick in the NHL this season. That is still not a given at this point (and probably the biggest reason he is not higher on the list) but he has had a strong showing in camp and is giving the Sabres plenty of reasons to give him a look into the regular season. He still has junior eligibility, but the Sabres aren’t exactly loaded up front and would be an intriguing addition to alongside Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

Honorable mentions: Filip Zadina (Detroit Red Wings); Evan Bouchard (Edmonton Oilers); Owen Tippett (Florida Panthers); Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators); Erik Brannstrom (Ottawa Senators).

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

1 Comment

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

PHT’s 2018-19 predictions: NHL Awards, first coach fired, overrated teams

9 Comments

Pre-season predictions are fun to track once things get under way because it’s interesting to see how they start to look as more and more games are played. It’s a good way to see what people are thinking heading into the season, and it’s especially a fun time to check back on them during different points of the year.

Below are our picks for the NHL awards which will handed out in June, plus some various topics like overrated and underrated teams, first coach fired, how many goals William Karlsson will score and more. Please be sure to forget these when they turn out to be 100 percent wrong at the end of the season. But do please come back and praise those individuals for their predictive ways if any of these end up being correct.

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

HART: Laine (Leahy), McDavid (O’Brien), Ovechkin (Gretz), MacKinnon (Alfieri), Kucherov (Billeck)
ART ROSS: McDavid (all)
ROCKET RICHARD: Ovechkin (Leahy, Gretz), Laine (O’Brien, Alfieri, Billeck)
VEZINA: Rask (Leahy), Gibson (O’Brien, Gretz), Vasilevskiy (Alfieri, Billeck)
NORRIS: Jones (Leahy), Karlsson (O’Brien, Gretz), Subban (Alfieri, Billeck)
CALDER: Mittelstadt (Leahy, Gretz), Dahlin (O’Brien, Alfieri), Pettersson (Billeck)
SELKE: Bergeron (all)

OVERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Blues. Every year it’s the same thing: They play well, Vladimir Tarasenko lights it up, and then something happens where they crap out in the playoffs. Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron will help, but Jake Allen needs to rebound.

O’BRIEN: Kings. Considering the age of their core, the Kings could easily crash and burn this season. That’s especially true if Jonathan Quick proves his critics right by regressing.

GRETZ: Kings. They will do what they always do. They will post great possession numbers, they will not give up many goals, but they are still so lacking in talent and creativity offensively that they just will not be able to keep up with the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference. Ilya Kovalchuk will help, but the 35-year-old version of him is not enough to fix everything wrong with this team offensively.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

ALFIERI: Ducks. Ryan Kesler’s going to miss a lot of time due to injury and Corey Perry isn’t the player he once was. How much longer can the Ducks continue to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference? Sure, there’s some new blood on the roster, but Ryan Getzlaf can’t just keep shouldering the load for them. The Ducks will get into the playoffs, but they won’t do much damage.

BILLECK: Maple Leafs. Sure, they got Tavares. But did they improve on defense? Nope. The Maple Leafs are getting close, but they need a better backend to be Stanley Cup competitive.

UNDERRATED TEAM

LEAHY: Panthers. Roberto Luongo still has some juice left and a young core has been growing together as prospects Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom could play big factors this season. Bob Boughner did a great job in year one. With more familiarity with his system and core players taking the next step, it’s a fine recipe for a big jump.

O’BRIEN: Oilers. It’s deeply unsettling to leave McDavid’s Oilers out of the playoffs, yet Edmonton missed last season even though the unparalleled megastar scored 108 points. That seems kind of impossible, doesn’t it? I expect a significant rebound, but not enough lessons were learned to get in the West’s eight.

GRETZ: Flyers. I don’t know if Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek will be exactly as good as they were a year ago, but they are still front-line players and the young talent on this team is really, really good. Once again they are a goalie away from being a serious contender.

ALFIERI: Golden Knights. Somehow, people are still doubting the Vegas Golden Knights. I don’t know if they’re an underrated team because they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, but I feel like people aren’t giving them the respect they deserve. They also made some solid acquisitions over the summer.

BILLECK: Sabres. Great summer of moves, including bringing in Jeff Skinner. Carter Hutton should provide better goaltending and Ramus Dahlin. 

OVERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Ryan Johansen. What’s $8 million supposed to get you these days? Probably a little more offense than he’s provided for the Predators. He’s hit the 20- and 30-goal marks before and there’s plenty of talent in Nashville that he can get there again.

O’BRIEN: Jonathan Toews. Is Toews still overrated? Yeah, let’s go with Toews.

GRETZ: Marc-Andre Fleury. He had an amazing year, he had the best playoff run of his career, he is still a pretty good goalie, but he is not going to repeat what he did last year and throughout the playoffs.

ALFIERI: Paul Stastny. I liked the Stastny pick up for Vegas, but you can’t help but feel like his stock has picked up a lot of steam over the last few months. He’s still an extremely useful player but will he be able to contribute much more than 50 points? I don’t know about that. His $6.5 million price tag isn’t cheap.

BILLECK: William Karlsson. From 18 points to 78. From nine goals to 43. I’ll glady eat this if Wild Bill does it again, but until he does, I’m skeptical.

UNDERRATED PLAYER

LEAHY: Mikko Rantanen. Playing with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, it’s easy to overlook the talents of the 21-year-old Finn. He played a huge role in the MGM line’s success last season and heading into the final year of his entry-level contract, he could set himself up for a rich deal next summer.

O’BRIEN: William Karlsson. I’m starting to think that Karlsson is the bizarro version of Stars-era Loui Eriksson. Karlsson was deemed overrated so often – and harshly – last season thanks to his abrupt production and 23.4 shooting percentage. Now he enters 2018-19 as a perfectly skilled player making a perfectly fair $5.25M, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Vegas regrets going the “prove it” route with “Wild Bill.” (Note: I may be swayed by hair flips, though.)

GRETZ: Dougie Hamilton. He led all defenders in the league in goal-scoring last season, is a 50-point player from the blue line, posts dominant possession numbers, and is signed long-term at below market salary cap number. He might be a top-10 defensemen in the NHL right now and is a tremendous value, and the Hurricanes got him — and a pretty good forward in Micheal Ferland — without giving up a ton

ALFIERI: Blake Wheeler. Sure, Wheeler got paid, but it feels like people still don’t consider him as one of the top players in the league. Only eight players scored more points than he did last season and nobody had more assists. He’s an underrated playmaker.

BILLECK: Blake Wheeler. Glossed over for the Hart despite a 91-point season. One of the best power forwards in the game and filled in admirably at center when Mark Scheifele went down for 16 games. 

FIRST COACH FIRED

LEAHY: Todd McLellan. This is how it’s trending in Edmonton, right? Connor McDavid is there having to do it all himself and general manager Peter Chiarelli had a quiet summer. That’s not going to inspire much confidence that the Oilers can rebound this season, and before the ax falls on him, Chiarelli will make a move behind the bench early.

O’BRIEN: Todd McLellan. Normally I’d say Guy Boucher would be the fall guy, but I doubt Ottawa has the scratch to fork over more money for an in-season hire. So let’s go with McLellan, who’s probably lucky he avoided the axe after 2017-18.

GRETZ: Todd McLellan. When you have the best player in the league and miss the playoffs twice in three years you do not get a very long leash. I don’t think Edmonton addressed its shortcomings enough in the offseason so not sure the winning will return just yet.

ALFIERI: Jeff Blashill. I know the Red Wings don’t typically make coaching moves during the season, but I expect it to be a very difficult year for Detroit.

BILLECK: Guy Boucher. It’s Ottawa and Boucher is in a no-win situation. 

BIGGEST FREE AGENT BUST

LEAHY: Jay Beagle. Good for Beagle getting that money, but that’s a long, pricey contract for a bottom-sixer*. (*Also applies to Antoine Roussel.)

O’BRIEN: Leo Komarov. John Ta-just kidding. Komarov edges Jack Johnson and Antoine Roussel by a hair, because that signing kicks Islanders fans while they’re down.

GRETZ: Carter Hutton. He had a great year for the Blues in part-time duty but the rest of his career performance at the NHL level is just okay. Don’t see him as a solution to the Sabres’ problems in goal.

ALFIERI: James Neal. He got off to a great start with Vegas last year, but he ended up with 25 goals and 44 points in 71 games. Even though those are far from bad numbers, I’m not sure they warranted a five-year, $28.75 million deal.

BILLECK: James Neal. Nearly $6 million a year for a guy who can’t reach 50 points anymore. 

BLUE JACKETS KEEP OR TRADE PANARIN?

LEAHY: Keep. The Blue Jackets could be contenders coming out of the East, but the futures of Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are going to be huge sub-plots this season. If they’re a playoff team come February, how could not look to add to their roster and try and make a roster and hope for the best in free agency?

O’BRIEN: Trade. Trade him close to the deadline after they a) gauge where their team is and b) have a better shot at landing NHL-ready assets in return.

GRETZ: Keep. The Blue Jackets will keep him because they will be too competitive to trade him. Have to see where the team goes with him.

ALFIERI: Keep. They’ll be in a playoff race and they’ll need him to make sure they get in. I think he ends up walking in unrestricted free-agency.

BILLECK: Keep until the deadline and sign if the opportunity arises.

Erik Karlsson RE-SIGNS WITH SHARKS OR BECOMES UFA?

LEAHY: Re-signs. Doug Wilson is not going to let this big fish get away, and when Karlsson sees the talent that surrounds him in San Jose, he’ll want to stay. Maybe he’ll even grow out his beard after hanging out with Brent Burns and Joe Thornton  (OK, maybe not Jumbo now) for a while?

O’BRIEN: Re-signs… after the trade deadline.

GRETZ: Re-signs. Karlsson will sign with the Sharks before he reaches UFA. The Sharks can make it work under the cap and he can be the focal point of their defense and organization going forward.

ALFIERI: Re-signs. No way he’s leaving San Jose. He’ll be back on an eight-year deal.

BILLECK: Re-signs with a max contract.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

————

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.

PHT’s Season Preview Roundtable: Blue Jackets, Rinne’s future, surprise teams

Getty Images
4 Comments

1. You’re Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. How do you handle the Panarin/Bobrovsky situations?

SEAN: I go all-in until the trade deadline. The Metropolitan Division will be a battle, and if you’re going to lose these guys in free agency, might as well load up for a Cup run and try to make your way through three rounds of playoff hockey. Kekalainen has the fallback of using the Feb. 25 trade deadline to flip them both should the season not go as planned. It’s a difficult spot. These are two huge pieces of your team and pieces that can help you win. No GM wants to have a Tavares situation and watch two elite players walk for nothing next summer.

JAMES: While Panarin isn’t interested in an extension and Bobrovsky’s situation is cloudy, Kekalainen received serious peace of mind by receiving an extension of his own. With that in mind, he – or in this exercise, I – can feel far more comfortable if it becomes clear that the best option is the nuclear one: trading both.

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Panarin’s allowed Columbus much latitude here, so the question essentially becomes closer to “When?” than “If?” Here’s where Kekalainen and I might differ, though: if the best trade package revolves around “futures” rather than “currents,” then so be it. This franchise is restless about winning a playoff series, but with Seth Jones at 23 and Zach Werenski at 21, it’s not as if the situation is now or never.

Resolving Panarin-Bob in the best way possible may just come down to timing.

[Metropolitan Division Preview]

The Bob situation is a tougher call because an extension might not be best for the team, rather than the goalie. Bobrovsky is already 30. It’s fascinating that Bob might want the same deal as Carey Price, as Price’s $10.5M per year looks especially scary considering that the deal just began while he’s … 31. Yes, the same age that Bob would be.

If $10.5M was the rare, would Bobrovsky at least dial his term demands to a less-imposing range of say, 5 seasons? If I’m Kekalainen, those are the answers I would need. If the answers aren’t positive, then trading both might really be the best – if most painful – thing to do.

The thing is, people will wonder how you could move a $7.425M goalie, yet things get easier during the trade deadline. Also, teams that want to win get more desperate. What if the Flames are on fire (sorry) but Mike Smith goes on IR? What if things are coming together for the Stars, but Ben Bishop is on the shelf or in a deep slump? Contenders could conceivably offer a huge price to rent Bob.

ADAM: You have to let the season play out. Yes, the possibility of losing one or both of them for nothing as free agent sucks. But you’re a playoff team, you’re probably going to be a playoff team with them. As long as you have a realistic chance to do that you have to take a run at it and see where you can go. If the team falls out of the playoff picture by the deadline, or is on the bubble, and you are sure you can’t get them signed, then by all means make them available and see what you can get. But until it reaches that point you make a run with this group.

JOEY: I think you have to do your best to convince both players that Columbus is where they need to be. That might be easier said than done, but you have to pull out all the stops for these two guys because they’re the two most important players in the organization. Panarin put up 82 points last season and he’s still going to be just 27 years old when free agency hits. That’s a talent worth trying to keep. As for Bobrovsky, he’s been one of the top goaltenders in the league for years now, but some teams aren’t willing to pay goalies top dollar. Still, Kekalainen has to do everything he can to make these players feel like they need to be Blue Jackets. This team still hasn’t won a playoff round, and they won’t be doing that anytime soon if they lose those two players.

If, for whatever reason, Panarin and Bobrovsky aren’t willing to commit to being Blue Jackets after they’re eligible to sign extensions on January 1st, Kekalainen has no choice but to move them both. Even if the Jackets are in a playoff spot, they can’t afford to lose those guys for nothing in the summer. 

SCOTT: If you trade them now, say buh-bye to the playoffs. Panarin is the only point-per-game player the Blue Jackets have. Hell, he was the highest scoring player on the team by nearly 30 points and the highest scoring forward by almost 40. Panarin is the type of player you build around, so if money is the issue, PAY. THE. MAN.

Of course, it appears Panarin doesn’t want to be there, so whenever the best possible deal presents itself is when you need to pull that trigger. That’s the reality of the situation. You need — NEED — to get the best possible return given how talented he is and what you’re losing.

Still, you need to try your damnedest to convince Panarin to stay.

And that applies to Bob as well.

Bobrovsky, like Panarin, is one of the best at what they do. No Bob = no playoffs.

But if it comes to it, they have to go by the deadline. You can’t do what the Islanders did last summer and watch your best player(s) walk for free. The return at the deadline probably isn’t what it would be now, or a month or two into the season once the injury bug hits someone in the league. A tricky road to cross.

2. Will this be Pekka Rinne‘s final season with the Nashville Predators?

SEAN: Juuse Saros appears to be ready to take over the No. 1 role in Nashville, but Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy winning season and has been such a huge part of that franchise for the last decade. I can see Poile wanting to keep the tandem in place in the future as long as Saros take strides and Rinne doesn’t take a huge step back. A short-term deal — a bridge-type extension — could be ideal considering their salary cap situation, allowing for a transition phase.

[Central Division Preview]

JAMES: With the Ryan Ellis extension settled, the Predators don’t really have any enormous contracts to settle for 2019-20 (although Kevin Fiala is a gem). With that – and Juuse Saros’ ridiculously cheap contract – in mind, Nashville could enjoy the basically unprecedented luxury of a gradual transition from Rinne to Saros over a couple of seasons. Goalies are unpredictable, so why not try to convince Rinne to spend more time with the only team he’s known? The guy’s made a ton of cash, seems to love Nashville, and could conceivably move on, say, after 2019-20.

There’s logic to parting ways for both sides, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this will be his second-to-last season.

Then again, I thought Ellis would leave for greener pastures, so take that prediction with a grain of salt.

ADAM: It certainly looks that way. His age, combined with the fact that his replacement is already in the building and will probably get more of a role this season makes it seem inevitable. He was a great goalie for a long time in Nashville but I think this season is it for him there. Eventually Saros has to play because he might be too good to keep on the bench.

JOEY: I know Rinne’s heading into the final year of his contract, I know Juuse Saros is going to push him for the number one job and I know Rinne struggled in the playoffs, but I don’t think the Predators will want to lose him. He’s been with them for his entire career and he’s been a valuable contributor throughout the years. On the flip side, he’s also going to have to accept a decrease in pay if he’s going to stick around beyond this year.

Rinne is scheduled to make $7 million this season. He won’t be getting that kind of money again going forward, but Saros’ new deal only pays him $1.5 million per year for the next three years, so the Preds could be able to “splurge” to bring back Rinne on a short-term deal. The 35-year-old shouldn’t be in a hurry to leave a Predators team that has a real chance at success over the next few seasons.

SCOTT: Ideally, no.

Ideally, the Predators find a way to sign him to a shorter deal that takes him to the end of his career and provides a smooth transition as Saros turns into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. A one year deal, even, given the cap crunch for Nashville doesn’t come until after the 2019-20 season when Roman Josi is going to need big money.

Of course, that ball is in Rinne’s court. He’s the UFA at the end of this season and there are teams out there that would want the services of a guy one year removed from winning the Vezina. How many would line up is yet to be determined, and he’s not getting any younger, but GMs take risks and Rinne is still a good goalie, despite his blunder in the playoffs last year.

Any short-term contract likely means a pay cut for Rinne, who really doesn’t need to take a pay cut unless he wants to remain in Nashville.

Getty Images

3. What level of regression — if any — will the Vegas Golden Knights experience this season?

SEAN: George McPhee did a good enough job refueling the tank this off-season that the monumental drop-off that many were expecting after last season shouldn’t go down. William Karlsson won’t be chasing a Rocket Richard again and Marc-Andre Fleury may play at a Conn Smythe calibre again, but the additions of Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny will help with scoring depth and they still have plenty of room under the cap ceiling to make a big splash to stay in the mix in what will be a brutal Western Conference playoff battle.

JAMES: Quite a bit, yet I believe that they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Losing Nate Schmidt for 20 games is a big blow, as the inevitable toll of injuries hasn’t even kicked off. That defense could be in trouble, for real this time. While the top line is very good, I expect them to at least cool down from last season’s “molten lava” state. The drop could be really steep for Marc-Andre Fleury, not to mention “Huh?” successes like Deryk Engelland. On the bright side, it was brilliant to bring in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. They might just make the difference between getting in the playoffs and barely missing out.

ADAM: There almost has to be some. William Karlsson might be a good player, but he’s not 43 goals good. Marc-Andre Fleury is a really good starting goalie whose career has done a 180 from where it was five or six years ago, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that same level of play over another full season, especially at his age. I don’t know that Erik Haula is a 30-goal scorer every year. So there is definitely some potential for regression there. That said, don’t you kind of make up for that by adding players like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty? And even if the aforementioned trio does regress, they are not going to suddenly become bad. They just might go from great to really good.

JOEY: The Golden Knights lost David Perron and James Neal in free agency, but they replaced them with forwards like Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, which makes them even better (on paper at least) heading into this season. And, don’t forget, they had to overcome the loss of Marc-Andre Fleury early on in the season. If Fleury plays between 50-60 games, that definitely makes them better, too. 

[Pacific Division Preview]

Vegas may not get repeat performances from every player that had a career year in 2017-18, but as a team, I think they’ll be more than just competitive. Don’t be surprised if the Golden Knights and Sharks are battling for the Pacific Division crown throughout the year. They know they have a first line that works in William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and now they also have Stastny and Pacioretty playing a second-line role. This team will be just fine.

SCOTT: I guess this depends on whether you think all the career years that were had in Vegas last season were just a fluke.

I don’t. Vegas good great deals in the scrap bin that was the expansion draft and they immediately found some uncanny chemistry. George McPhee didn’t stand still over the summer, either. The addition of Paul Stastny was bigger, and then getting Max Pacioretty was bigger. Those guys can make up for any regression we might see from the likes of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.

Remember, this was a team that dealt with crippling goaltender injuries and still managed to win the Pacific Division. I’ll stop betting against this team until they give me a reason to.

4. What team that is flying way under the radar and could surprise people this season and why?

SEAN: They came within a point of the playoff last season, and with a year under their belts with head coach Bob Boughner, the Florida Panthers appear ready to take that next step. There are a lot of other teams in the East to get excited about, which could allow the Panthers to fly under the radar this season. Between Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov up front, and Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle in the back, there’s a very strong core there. Add in the potential of youngsters Owen Tippett and Henrik Borgstrom and Sunrise, Florida could provide us with a big surprise this season.

JAMES: The Florida Panthers have been the subject of ridicule for some time, but they looked like a dangerous team late last season. Barkov and Trocheck give them a one-two punch at center that can hang with just about any other duo. As brittle as Reimer and Luongo are, both goalies are capable. There are some great supporting cast members, and we could see the ascent of intriguing young players such as Henrik Borgstrom. These Cats can play.

[Atlantic Division Preview]

ADAM: Not saying they will do it, but it would not shock me if Arizona really came out of nowhere this season. Their entire season was made last season when they got off to that terrible start. It is not a coincidence that Antti Raanta played in almost none of those games. When he was in the lineup they were not only competitive, they were pretty good. Now they have Alex Galchenyuk coming in, I still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player, and they have a top-tier defenseman. The Arizona Coyotes are my sleeper team.

JOEY: The Arizona Coyotes. Yes, I realize that they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the last few seasons, but they ended last season on a high note. They also had a positive offseason, as they were able to get Oliver Ekman-Larson re-signed and they added a talented center in Alex Galchenyuk, who could be a big-time difference maker once he gets healthy. Even though the ‘Yotes are still a little young, they could be able to compete for a playoff spot in 2018-19. The fact that Antti Raanta looked a lot more comfortable in a number one role toward the end of last season is an encouraging sign. 

Today’s NHL is all about being young and fast, and the Coyotes are certainly both of those things. They may still be a year away from earning a postseason berth, but they could still shock a lot of people as soon as 2018-19.

SCOTT: The Buffalo Sabres. Rub your eyes. Splash some water on your face. Pinch yourself. But the fact of the matter is the Sabres went out and made some moves this summer in an effort to get better. And they weren’t empty moves. Skinner. Berglund. Hutton. Sheary. Oh, and some kid named Dahlin. Sure, Dahlin was the product of a disastrous season, but he’s an immediate upgrade to their defence. Casey Mittlestadt should play an important role as well. I said it before, but I believe Buffalo have gone from the joke of the NHL to a team that could work its way into the *gasps* playoff discussion this year.

————

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.

Captaincy continues Aleksander Barkov’s growth as a player

AP Images
4 Comments

It was Shawn Thornton who requested that Aleksander Barkov move his stall closer to his within the Florida Panthers’ locker room. In Barkov’s second year in the NHL it was Thornton’s goal to get the shy young Finn to show off his personality a little bit more around his teammates.

The move happened and Thornton slowly pecked away and brought more and more of Barkov’s personality out.

“When you sit next to that kind of player and person, it helps you a lot,” Barkov told Pro Hockey Talk on Tuesday. “Even the first couple of days, you’re just shy and sit next to him and answer his questions. Then a little bit at a time you just get out of your shell and start talking to him, joking with him and just have fun with him. That helped me a lot. If you can be good friends with this guy, you can be good friends with everybody.”

That small change allowed Barkov to get comfortable in his early NHL days and was the first step in him feeling confident enough to take on the responsibility of team captain, which the Panthers announced on Monday.

Barkov was approached at the end of last season and asked if he felt ready should they decide to have him wear the ‘C,’ replacing Derek MacKenzie. He said he was ready for the honor but also fine with remaining as an alternate, which he served as last season.

You might think there would be some awkwardness with MacKenzie being asked to give up the captaincy, but when he was given the ‘C’ in 2016 he knew that he was just holding it before one of the team’s younger stars was ready for the responsibility.

[Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov]

So when the change became official, MacKenzie was thrilled to be passing it on to Barkov.

“He called me right away and congratulated me,” Barkov said. “I was really happy to hear him calling me and congratulating me and telling me he’s OK with everything and he’s actually fine with that and he’s going to help me. I learned a lot from him. He’s probably one of the best captains I’ve ever heard in my six seasons here.”

MacKenzie, along with Willie Mitchell and Ed Jovanovski were the three captains Barkov played for since breaking into the NHL in 2013. Each of them has left a lasting imprint on the 23-year-old Panthers star.

“Those three guys, they helped me so much,” said Barkov, who also added that former NHLer Ville Nieminen, who played with Barkov and his father in Finland, was also a big influence. “Not just being a captain, just being great people you can talk to about anything, even if everything is good you can just go to them and talk to them and they’re true professionals. I got lucky to be with them in the same organization.”

Barkov takes on the captaincy at an important time in the Panthers’ growth. He’s coming off a career season offensively and the team missed out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a point. Bob Boughner is entering his second year behind the bench, Mike Hoffman was acquired over the summer and highly-touted prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett could make an impact. There are plenty of expectations that the trend continues upwards in 2018-19.

As far as leadership style goes, Barkov doesn’t expect much to change as they look to build off the last few seasons. The only thing that may change is how many dinners he may have to pick up as captain, but MacKenzie didn’t give him the heads up on that.

“No, nobody told me about that,” Barkov said laughing. “I’m just trying to keep quiet so nobody remembers that.”

————

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.