Rasmus Dahlin

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL Power Rankings: Early season surprises and slow starts

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at some of the early season results around the league.

The first couple of weeks can be tricky to analyze because there is a lot of random noise still taking place, and that can cloud our early outlook on a lot of teams. Over the course of an 82-game season every team is going to hit hot streaks and cold streaks, and if one of those streaks happens early in the year with nothing else around it we can easily jump to some wrong conclusions.

So far some Stanley Cup contenders have struggled, while a couple of teams that were thought to be at the bottom of the league have excelled.

Which teams are for real and which ones are not? Let us try to figure some of that out now.

To the rankings!

The early elites

These teams are at the top and will likely stay here…

1. Carolina Hurricanes. Anyone that thought this team’s second half and postseason run was a fluke was mistaken. They are for real and they are not going away. If they get the goaltending they could be a serious contender to win it all.

2. Colorado Avalanche. So far the preseason hype is legit. They still have the superstars at the top of the lineup, and now they have some actual depth to go with it. Cale Makar looks like a potential Calder Trophy winner.

3. Boston Bruins. When Tuukka Rask is on his game — as he has been so far — the Bruins can be close to unbeatable.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. They do have two losses (a one-goal loss to a great Boston team, and a random off night in Arizona) but they have absolutely steamrolled every other team they have played, including several division foes. Mark Stone could be a real sleeper MVP contender this season.

Great starts but still have something to prove

These teams have started fast, but may not stay here…

5. Edmonton Oilers. The good news: They won their first five games, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl look unstoppable, and James Neal is doing exactly what they hoped. The bad news: The roster after those three is still littered with questions and their underlying numbers point to an unsustainable hot streak. We will see where this goes.

6. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is a heck of a duo to build around, but after the way they started last year and fell apart after the first two months the rest of the team has to prove they can do it all year before anyone buys into them.

7. Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson might be the best goalie in hockey, and because of that they always have a chance on any given night. Having Ryan Miller is a backup is a pretty darn good Plan B in net, too.

8. Philadelphia Flyers. Still not quite sure what to make of the Flyers. The top of their lineup is great but the rest of the roster has question marks. A lot here still depends on what Carter Hart does. They started the season with three games in three different countries and managed to collect five out of six points during that stretch. Nice start.

The contenders that you know will be there

These teams are almost certainly going to be in the playoffs, and maybe even have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, but have not yet played their best (or close to their best)…

9. St. Louis Blues. Brayden Schenn is responding to his new eight-year contract extension by scoring a ton of goals. We know he is good now, but that contract comes down to how good he looks four or five years from now.

10. Nashville Predators. Matt Duchene has been everything they could have hoped for so far. If he continues that he will be a significant addition to this roster.

11. Washington Capitals. They have not really played their best yet but are still managing to collect points in the standings almost every night. Good thing to do when you are not yet at your best.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. The injury situation has left their forward lines a jumbled mess, but they are still finding ways to score goals and win. Sidney Crosby has been completely dominant.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs. The defensive questions that have followed this team around for the past few years are still there right now.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. Something seems a little off so far. This is the best roster in the league on paper, but they have been really hit-and-miss so far this season. Their 4-2 loss in Ottawa over the weekend was ugly.

15. Calgary Flames. Some regression was to be expected this season, but they still have enough talent to be a factor in the Western Conference. Johnny Gaudreau is superb with the puck and is off to a great start.

The great unknowns

These teams are still mysteries whose seasons could still go in any direction…

16. Winnipeg Jets. Their defense is not very good, and that is going to be a big problem, especially if Dustin Byfuglien does not re-join the team. But they do still have a great collection of forwards and the big wild card is Patrik Laine having a monster season. So far, he is.

17. Montreal Canadiens. What this team really needs is for Jonathan Drouin to have a breakout year and become the star forward they hoped he could (and would) be.

18. Detroit Red Wings. They have to be thrilled with the start Anthony Mantha is off to. They have played well, but the roster just does not seem to stack up to the other potential playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

19. New York Rangers. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin looks like it has a chance to be quite a duo this season.

20. New York Islanders. They are still going to struggle to score goals, but Mathew Barzal will produce more than he has so far. They will still go as far as the goalies can take them.

21. Florida Panthers. They won just one of their first five games entering Monday, but two of their losses came in a shootout. Yeah, they missed out on two points, but we are talking about a coin flip away from their start looking dramatically different than it does. Sergei Bobrovsky being off to a slow start is not helping.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets. So far the goaltending has been the issue it was expected to be, but Pierre Luc-Dubois looks like he is on track for the huge year that was expected of him.

23. Vancouver Canucks. Quinn Hughes was the big reason for excitement this season and so far he is looking like a player that wants to insert himself into the Calder Trophy discussion.

24. Los Angeles Kings. The expectation was that there was no way Jonathan Quick could play worse than he did a year ago. In his first three games he has surrendered 19 goals. That is not going to cut it.

25. Arizona Coyotes. They are still getting great goaltending, but the lack of offense is a real concern.

Good teams that should be better

These are good rosters and should be playoff teams, but they have struggled so far…

26. San Jose Sharks. Not sure if a 40-year-old Patrick Marleau was the missing piece here, but they did win their first two games after he arrived, helping to ease the frustration from an 0-4 start. Do not expect this team to remain this low all season. Too much talent here. Still a potential Western Conference champion.

27. Dallas Stars. Roope Hintz has been the lone bright spot on what has been, so far, one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL.

Could be a long season

These teams have looked bad and may continue to look bad all season…

28. Ottawa Senators. Their win over the Lightning this weekend really was impressive, but other than that they have looked exactly like we expected the Senators to look.

29. Chicago Blackhawks. The early returns on the “did they do enough to fix their defense?” question are not looking promising.

30. New Jersey Devils. Their best players and their new faces are all off to slow starts, and that should help when those players get things turned around. Not sure if the goaltending will turn around, though. So far the Devils have not really done anything well this season.

31. Minnesota Wild. There is just — well — there is just not much positive happening here.

MORE:
• 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Kings in trouble; Can Blues keep Pietrangelo?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jesse Puljujarvi isn’t opposed to spending the year over in Europe. (Sportsnet)

• Hall-of-fame executive Jim Devellano is going to undergo brain surgery on Monday to remove a non-cancerous brain tumour. (USA Today)

• Patrick Marleau’s agent admitted that his client only wanted to play for the San Jose Sharks. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• It’s early in the season, but the Los Angeles Kings could be in some serious trouble already. (Yahoo)

• How quickly can a Stanley Cup window slam shut? (Gotham Sports Network)

• Will the St. Louis Blues be able to re-sign Alex Pietrangelo? (Featurd)

• Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger won’t rush Rasmus Dahlin‘s development. (Buffalo News)

• Losing defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson for an extended period of time would be bad for the Coyotes. (Five for Howling)

Anthony Cirelli isn’t the biggest name on the Lightning roster, but he’s an important part of the group. (The Score)

• Todd Bertuzzi should be in the Canucks’ Ring of Honor. (Daily Hive)

• Have the seats at TD Garden gotten smaller? (Boston Globe)

• The Red Wings’ fourth line is off to a great start this season. (Mlive.com)

• Andrew Raycroft loves the city of Boston. (Bruins Die Hards)

• The Senators have hired Canadian University Basketball coach Dave Smart as a consultant. (TSN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine is relieved; Dahlin’s impact

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Patrik Laine is relieved that he doesn’t have to focus on a contract extension anymore. (NHL.com)

• The Sabres are willing to put up with Rasmus Dahlin‘s mistakes because the offensive benefits are huge. (The Hockey News)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t forgotten about the way they went out in the playoffs last season. (TSN.ca)

• ESPN.com breaks down the different levels of hatred in hockey. (ESPN)

• It’s obvious that the culture in the Flyers organization has changed. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Former Chealsea keeper Petr Cech is making the switch to hockey. (Edmonton Journal)

Victor Olofsson has made quite the impression in Buffalo so far this season. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• The Maple Leafs probably regret trading Tuukka Rask away. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• There’s a few things the Canadiens have to fix early on this season. (A Winning Habit)

• Is it time for the New Jersey Devils to hit the panic button? (All About the Jersey)

• Here’s 10 questions facing the Colorado Avalanche in 2019-20. (Mile High Hockey)

Troy Stecher has to prove himself all over again at the NHL level. (Vancouver Courier)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Why are Sabres, Rangers, Oilers, Ducks off to hot starts?

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It’s far too early to talk about hot streaks for the Ducks, Sabres, Rangers and Oilers … but it’s far too fun not to. But before we get into that, you might be wondering: are any of these teams for real?

The quick answer isn’t sexy: we don’t know much of anything yet.

In 2018-19, the Devils began the season with a four-game winning streak, yet they were bad enough (31-41-10) to win the draft lottery and land Jack Hughes. Meanwhile, the Avalanche started off last season 6-1-2, and ended up proving that their 2017-18 breakthrough wasn’t a fluke.

So … yeah, apply your grains of salt here, but let’s dive into what’s driving some quick starts.

(Note: this post is limited to four teams that are off to hot starts who missed the playoffs in 2018-19. Hence, no Hurricanes, who made it to the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, for example.)

Anaheim Ducks (3-0-0, six points)

If someone told you that the Ducks began the season on a three-game winning streak, you’d probably assume that goaltending would be the key. And you’d be right.

John Gibson has earned all three wins, generating a ridiculous .970 save percentage, making at least 31 saves in each game so far.

As all-world as Gibson is, this pace is unsustainable. The Ducks have killed every penalty so far, going 7-for-7. Looking at Natural Stat Trick’s all-strengths stats, there are some absurd numbers, including Gibson making the save on a league-leading 94.12 percent of the high-danger scoring chances he’s faced.

It’s not all bad news for the Ducks, necessarily. The early returns on Dallas Eakins seem positive, as Anaheim is more or less breaking even in possession stats, which wasn’t always a safe assumption under former coach Randy Carlyle, who was notorious for submarining his team’s puck possession numbers.

The formula of Gibson (and, to an extent, strong backup Ryan Miller) plus respectable overall play and timely offense might just work for the Ducks. If nothing else, there’s a decent chance that they’ll make gains after a lousy 2018-19.

Just don’t expect Gibson to remain superhuman.

(If I had to bet on any goalie to be superb in 2019-20, it would be Gibson, though.)

Buffalo Sabres (3-0-1, seven points)

While the Ducks have had a perfect penalty kill so far, the Sabres’ power play has been outrageous. Buffalo leads the NHL with eight power play goals, converting on eight of 15 opportunities.

The Sabres have a power-play shooting percentage of 25. Last season, the Lightning led the NHL with a 21.64 power-play shooting percentage, while no one else even hit 19 (Boston was second at 18.84 percent).

Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin are tied for the league lead with five power-play points, while Victor Olofsson chisels out a reputation as “Goal-ofsson” for his deadly work on the man advantage.

So far, the Sabres’ expected goals on the power play was 3.17, which ranks third in Natural Stat Trick’s listings, so there’s certainly some strength to the unit. Perhaps that’s where Ralph Krueger really picked up some especially strong tricks in soccer?

The Sabres are playing over their heads, yet there are positive signs possession-wise.

Edmonton Oilers (3-0-0, six points)

With 14 goals on 80 SOG, the Oilers lead the NHL with a 17.5 shooting percentage.

Not shockingly, James Neal is on fire after that four-goal game, generating six goals on 14 SOG for a 42.9 shooting percentage. Connor McDavid‘s hot hand isn’t so surprising (22.2 percent), but Zack Kassian won’t convert three goals on five SOG (60 percent) very often.

Looking deeper at the Oilers’ stats, they’ve struggled with the seventh-worst Corsi For and Fenwick For percentages, although they’ve generated slightly more high-danger chances for than against (34-30) early on under Dave Tippett. There are worse strategies than “being middle-of-the-pack while having McDavid.”

New York Rangers (2-0-0, four points)

The Rangers have the highest PDO (1.098) so far this season with a high shooting percentage (16.13) and save percentage (93.67). You probably won’t be stunned to realize that the Oilers rank second in PDO (1.077), the Ducks come in fourth (1.058), and the Sabres are ninth (1.043).

Mika Zibanejad‘s been worthy of more attention during the last couple of years, but he won’t generate four points per game (he has eight in two games so far). Artemi Panarin could very well maintain strong chemistry with Zibanejad, but this pace will inevitably subside.

New York’s underlying numbers are rough thus far, even when you factor in score effects.

The Rangers’ 6-4 win against Winnipeg to open the season on Oct. 3 might be the template for the Rangers: lots of goals and chances going both ways, goalies ending up miserable, and chaos generally ensuing. It might not always be pretty, but it could end up being fun to watch.

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.