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

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We should start all of this off with a prediction.

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

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

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

1. New Jersey Devils 

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

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

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

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

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

2. Colorado Avalanche

The Western Conference version of the Devils.

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

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

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

3. Philadelphia Flyers

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

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

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

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

4. Los Angeles Kings

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

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

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

5. Minnesota Wild 

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

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

They are just a hockey team that exists.

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

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

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

Minnesota Wild: hockey team.

6. Anaheim Ducks

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

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

7. Vegas Golden Knights

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

8. Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

 

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL not tough enough with preseason suspensions

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When it comes to the court of public opinion the NHL’s Department of Player Safety is always going to be a no-win position.

Their job is a brutally difficult, thankless one that by its very nature is going to anger almost everyone watching the NHL. No player receiving a suspension is going to be happy about it, while their team and fans will usually think the punishment is too harsh. Meanwhile, the other side is always going to come away thinking the punishment wasn’t severe enough. Then there is always the neutral third parties in the middle that have no rooting interest with either team and will always be split with their opinions.

In short: It’s a job that a lot of people like me (and you!) enjoy yelling about. Sometimes we think they get it right; sometimes we think they get it wrong.

When it comes to Max Domi‘s suspension for the remainder of the preseason for “roughing” (the official wording from the league) Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the near universal consensus seems to be a gigantic shoulder-shrug and the understanding that this isn’t really a punishment.

[Related: NHL suspends Max Domi for remainder of preseason]

Sure, it goes in the books as a “five-game” suspension, because the Canadiens still have five games remaining in the preseason. And it will impact Domi in the future if he does something else to get suspended because it will be added to his history of disciplinary action that already includes a one-game suspension from the 2016-17 season for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game. This roughing incident, it is worth mentioning, also occurred while Domi was attempting to instigate a fight. Too soon to call that sort of action with him a trend, but it’s close.

The problem is that he isn’t losing anything of consequence as a result of the “punishment.”

He will not miss a single regular season game.

He will not forfeit a penny of his $3.15 million salary this season.

He basically gets to take the rest of the Canadiens’ preseason games off (and he would almost certainly sit at least one or maybe even two of them anyway, just because that is how the preseason works) and be rested for the start of the regular season on Oct. 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The only possible defense (and that word should be used loosely) of the DoPS here is that because the Canadiens have five preseason games remaining, and because suspensions longer than five games require an in-person hearing as mandated by the CBA, the league would have had to handle this incident with an in-person hearing to take away regular season games. In the eyes of the CBA, a suspension for five preseason games counts the same as five games in the regular season.

The only logical response to that defense should be: So what? Then schedule an in-person hearing if that is what it takes and requires to sit a player that did something blatantly illegal (and dangerous) for games that matter. Players tend to waive their right to an in-person hearing, anyway.

When it comes to dealing with suspensions in the postseason the NHL seems to take into account the importance of those games and how impactful even one postseason game can be in a best-of-seven series. If we’re dealing in absolutes here the same logic is applied, because had Domi done that same thing in a regular season game he probably doesn’t sit five games for it.

In the history of the DoPS “punching an unsuspecting opponent” typically results in a fine or a one-game suspension, unless it is an exceedingly dirty punch or involves a player with an extensive track record of goon-ism. The only two that went longer were a four-game ban for John Scott for punching Tim Jackman, and a six-game ban for Zac Rinaldo a year ago for punching Colorado’s Samuel Girard. Both Scott and Rinaldo had more extensive and troubling track records for discipline than Domi currently does.

If you want to argue semantics and say that Domi was suspended for “roughing” the point remains the same, because only one roughing suspension over the past seven years went longer than one game, and none went longer than two.

So looking at strictly by the number of “games” he has to miss he did, technically speaking, get hit harder with a more severe punishment than previous players.

But at some point common sense has to prevail here and someone has to say, you know what … maybe this translation isn’t right and we have to do something more. Because, again,  and this can not be stated enough, he is not missing a meaningful game of consequence or losing a penny of salary for blatantly punching an unwilling combatant (one with a history of concussions) in the face, leaving him a bloody mess.

The point of handing out a suspension shouldn’t just be for the league or an opposing team to get its pound of flesh when a player does something wrong and champion the fact they had to miss “X” number of games.

It should be to help deter future incidents and aim for meaningful change for the betterment of player safety around the league. That is literally why it is called “the Department of Player Safety.” It is supposed to have the safety of the players in mind. And that was the original goal of the DoPS — to try and put a stop to blatant, targeted hits to the head that were ruining seasons and careers (and, ultimately, lives).

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

No one with an ounce of common sense is looking at this and thinking that this suspension does anything close that. And the NHL has to know that, too. How so? Because when a player does something in a previous season or postseason that warrants a suspension that will carry over to the following season (as was the case with Raffi Torres in 2011-12, and then Brayden Schenn in 2015-16), that carryover suspension starts with the regular season games — not the preseason games.

This, of course, is not the first time the league has handed out what is, ultimately, a meaningless suspension that only covers meaningless games.

Last year there were two such suspensions, with Washington’s Tom Wilson earning a two preseason game suspension for boarding St. Louis’ Robert Thomas, which was followed by New York’s Andrew Desjardins getting a two preseason game ban for an illegal check to the head of Miles Wood the very next night.

(It should be pointed out that upon Wilson’s return to the lineup in the preseason he earned himself a four-game regular suspension for boarding).

During the 2016-17 Andrew Shaw (who like Domi was playing in his first game with the Canadiens following an offseason trade to add more grit, sandpaper, and energy) was sat down for three preseason games for boarding.

There were four other similar suspensions in 2013-14.

Since the formation of the DoPS at the start of the 2011-12 season, there have been 21 suspensions handed out for preseason incidents. Only 12 of those suspensions carried over to regular season games. Of those 12, eight of them occurred during the initial DoPS season when the league was far more aggressive in suspending players (there were nine preseason suspensions handed out that season alone).

That means that over the previous six years only four of the 11 incidents that rose to the level of supplemental discipline resulted in a player missing a game that mattered.

That can not, and should not, be acceptable.

So, yeah. Five games for Max Domi. Given the circumstances, it is not even close to being enough.

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.

Three questions facing Colorado Avalanche

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Some questions to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Colorado Avalanche…

[Avalanche Day: Looking back | Under PressureBreakthrough ]

1. How good will Philipp Grubauer be?

The Avalanche made a big splash this offseason by getting Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a second-round draft pick and taking on Brooks Orpik‘s contract (which was then bought out, allowing Orpik to return to Washington on a cheaper salary). The Avalanche immediately signed him to a three-year contract, presumably to be their long-term starting goalie.

The question is just how good he can be?  In his limited playing time with the Capitals Grubauer performed as well as any other goalie in the NHL, and was so good this past season that Barry Trotz actually gave him the starting job heading into the playoffs. It was a role he kept for two games before being replaced by long-time starter Braden Holtby — who then helped lead the team to the Stanley Cup — but it was still an incredibly strong statement in the belief that the Capitals had in Grubauer.

His limited resume is very encouraging, and he has certainly at least earned the right to be a starter. But it is all still based on an extremely small sampling of data, while goaltenders can be extremely difficult to project.

The potential is certainly there for the Avalanche to have landed an excellent starting goalie, but it is still very much of a mystery.

2. What about the defense? 

The Avalanche have been a bad defensive team in recent years, giving up shots and shot attempts at a rate that has consistently placed them among the worst in the league.

Even with their turnaround in the standings this past season, that was still true. One of the things that bailed them out was the fact they received strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier. This year the job gets passed along to Varlamov and Grubauer. Still, it would be beneficial for the Avalanche if they could become a better shot suppression team and not have to lean on their goaltenders so much.

Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie have been the mainstays on the blue line in recent seasons, and despite the trade rumors that always seem to follow Barrie around he is still a member of the team.

Nikita Zadorov, one of the pieces from the Ryan O'Reilly trade, took some positive steps forward this past season and is still only 23 years old. Samuel Girard, one of the players they picked up in the Matt Duchene trade is also loaded with potential and had a promising debut with the Avalanche this past season.

Then they also brought in Ian Cole in free agency on a three-year contract that will pay him more than $12 million (just over $4 million per season). Cole is a fearless shot blocker and logs big minutes on the penalty kill, and his role on a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh has certainly boosted his stock around the league. He is probably best served as a third-pairing defenseman, though, and if the Avalanche use him in that role (and with Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov and Girard all on the roster, that is possible) he could be a strong addition. An expensive third-pairing defender for sure, but probably a strong one.

3. Will anybody step up to take some pressure off the top line?

As mentioned in the Under Pressure look, there is going to be a huge expectation for Nathan MacKinnon (along with his linemate, Mikko Rantanen) to carry the offense this season, just as he did this past season. Whether or not he does that remains to be seen, but even if he does if the Avalanche are going to take the next step from a fringe playoff team to a contender in the Western Conference they are going to need another line (or two … or three) to emerge as a threat offensively. When the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo was off the ice this past season the Avalanche were still a team that was outshot and outscored. That is not going to be good enough, and if there is any sort of a regression from the top line it could erase all the positive strides the Avalanche made in 2017-18.

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.

Under Pressure: Nathan MacKinnon

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Usually when we look at players that are “under pressure” heading into a season we focus on players coming off of a down year, or a coach on the hot seat, or a goalie that needs to prove themselves and carry a team, or a player going for a new contract.

It is not usually a player coming off of an MVP-caliber season the way Nathan MacKinnon is in Colorado. Even so, we are still going to take a look at him for this section because it seems like now that he had the season he had in 2017-18 the level of expectation for him going forward is going to be at an entirely new level.

That, too, is a form of pressure.

Especially when the Avalanche’s success and turnaround this past season was largely dependent on MacKinnon’s performance.

[Avalanche Day: Looking back at 2017-18 | Building Off Breakthrough]

This past season he finished fifth in the scoring race with 97 points. His 1.31 points per game were second best in the NHL. He recorded at least three points in a game 13 different times, the second highest total in the league (behind only Connor McDavid). He had a direct in hand 38 percent of the team’s goals during the regular season and then he was great in their first-round playoff race with six points (including three goals) against the Nashville Predators. The difference in the Avalanche’s performance with him on the ice versus when he was not on the ice was striking. As he went, so went the team.

MacKinnon’s career has followed an interesting path to this point. He burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2013-14 and put together a sensational rookie year that saw him finish with 24 goals and 63 points as an 18-year-old, playing a significant role in what had been a bad Avalanche team the year before return to the playoffs. His play didn’t really regress after that season, but he also didn’t take the significant leap that was expected, instead settling in as a 20-goal, 50-point player. Very good, but not quite a superstar level. That leap finally happened this past season and ended with him finishing second in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall.

The question now becomes can he do it — or at least something close to that — again, because that might be what the Avalanche need to get back in the playoffs.

The Avalanche a nice trio of impact forwards in MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog up front, as well as some intriguing young players on this roster (Tyson Jost, Alexander Kerfoot, Samuel Girard). Even with that core in place it is still a team with very suspect depth and question marks on the blue line and in goal. Their success or failure will depend largely on how the players at the top (specifically MacKinnon and Rantanen) perform. It is not entirely fair to those players to expect them to carry that much of the load, but that is the situation the current roster probably puts them in.

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.

It’s Colorado Avalanche day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

2017-18

43-30-9, 95 pts. (4th in the Central Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-2 vs. Nashville Predators, first round

IN:

Philipp Grubauer
Matt Calvert
Ian Cole

OUT:

Nail Yakupov
Jonathan Bernier
Joe Colborne
Blake Comeau
Andrew Hammond

RE-SIGNED:

Gabriel Bourque
Matt Nieto
Patrik Nemeth

The Avalanche stunned the hockey world when they went from being one of the worst teams in league history in 2016-17 to being a playoff team in 2017-18. They got off to a rocky start, but things seemed to turn after they made a blockbuster deal with Ottawa and Nashville. They sent Matt Duchene to the Senators and got back a package that included defenseman Samuel Girard. Things seemed to click after that.

There’s many reasons why they were able to get their franchise back on the rails so quickly, but Nathan MacKinnon was the main catalyst.

[Avalanche Day: Building off a Breakthrough]

The 22-year-old was chosen as one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy after he posted an incredible 39 goals and 97 points in 74 games last season. MacKinnon has always had immense potential, but he failed to live up to the hype in the three previous years. Now, it looks like he’s finally arrived as a franchise center. But he’s not the only reason Colorado was able to sneak in to the postseason.

Mikko Rantanen also took a huge step forward in his second NHL season. The 21-year-old went from being a 38-point scorer in year one to being an 84-point guy in his sophomore campaign. Getting point-per-game production from him was critical. Again, no one expected it, but it was a welcomed bonus.

Gabriel Landeskog (62 points) and Alex Kerfoot (43 points) also proved to be valuable assets to the Avs up front.

On defense, veterans Erik Johnson (missed 20 games) and Tyson Barrie (57 points in 68 games) played an important role. Barrie, in particular, stood out. He’s the primary puck-mover on the team. He anchors the power play and plays significant minutes for his team. There was rumblings about him being available, but Colorado did well to hold on to him.

Girard, Nemeth, Mark Barberio and Nikita Zadorov also found a way to up their game throughout the regular season.

Between the pipes, the Avs got solid play from Semyon Varlamov, who stayed healthy enough to play in 51 games, and they got some solid outings from last year’s backup goalie, Jonathan Bernier.

In the end, the Avalanche were knocked out in the first round by Nashville, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Even though they didn’t go on a long playoff run, it’s impossible to consider last season a failure for this young team.

Prospect Pool:

• Cale Makar, D, 19, UMass-Amherst – 2017 first-round pick

Makar is going back to school next season, so he won’t be a contributor for Avs during most of the year, but he could be one of those players that helps out once his college season is over, which means he could be an option in the playoffs. He’s a smaller defenseman, but he’s got smarts, skill and speed, which makes him the ideal modern-day blueliner. Expect him to be in Colorado sooner than later.

“I just felt it was in my best interest to go back to school for one more year and hopefully develop a little bit more,” Makar told NHL.com. “I’m getting to the point where I feel I’m pro ready, but at the end of the day I know that there are still some things in my game, whether it’s in the defensive side or off ice physically that I can tweak.”

• Conor Timmins, D, 19, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – 2017 second-round pick

After taking Makar early in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Avs came back in the second round and took Timmins. Despite suffering an ankle injury last January, Timmins still had a productive year with the Greyhounds (41 points in 36 games) and with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He’s a smart defender with good skating ability. He’s also not shy to throw his weight around. He’ll make the leap to the pro ranks this season.

Vladislav Kamenev, C, 21, San Antonio Rampage – Acquired from Predators

The Avs got Kamenev from Nashville in that three-way deal that sent Duchene to Ottawa. Kamenev missed a good chunk of last season because of an arm injury, but he’s as NHL-ready as any of the top prospects in the Avalanche organization. He’s a versatile forward that can play any of the three spots up front. In his last full AHL season (2016-17), he picked up 20 goals and 51 points, so we know he can produce at the pro level. Kamenev just has to focus on staying healthy and taking his overall game up another notch or two.

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.