T.J. Brodie

Flames vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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It was a 23-point turnaround (84 to 107) for the Calgary Flames this season, and after missing the playoffs by 11 points a year ago they came back this season and claimed the top spot in the Western Conference with six points of cushion in the standings.

It produced their first division title in 13 years, only their second since 1995, and has them going into the postseason as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

They have award front-runners for the Hart Trophy (Johnny Gaudreau) and Norris Trophy (Mark Giordano) and a deep, talented roster that is littered with young players just now entering the prime of their career. They are not only a formidable threat to win it all this season, they are probably not going away anytime soon.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, saw their point total regress by five points this season but still managed to secure their second consecutive playoff appearance thanks to an 8-1-2 finish to the regular season that was driven by the firepower of Nathan MacKinnon up front and a spectacular goaltending performance from Philipp Grubauer.

When it comes to individual talent and star power, this series might be one of the most intriguing ones of Round 1 as the two teams boast eight of the top-40 point producers in the NHL this season. It might be the 1 vs. 8 matchup in the Western Conference, but it is probably going to be a lot closer than the gap in the standings might suggest.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 2019, 10 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | SN, TVA Sports, NHL Network
Saturday, April 13, 2019, 10:30 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 19, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD
Sunday, April 21, 2019, TBD: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | TBD
Tuesday, April 23, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD

FORWARDS

CALGARY: The Flames have assembled an outstanding young core of forwards, led by MVP contender Johnny Gaudreau. Between him, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm the Flames have four of the top-30 scoring forwards in the league this season, and none of them are over the age of 25. In total, they had five 20-goal scorers, seven players score at least 13 goals, and they finished the season as the second-highest scoring team in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have impact players and depth, which is exactly what you need for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.

COLORADO: The story for the Avalanche for the past two years has been the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It a trio that stacks up with any other team in the league and they can — and will — carry the entire offense. They have a little more depth than they did a year ago, thanks in part to the career year for Carl Soderberg, but this is still a team that will go as far as its big-three can take them. The big concern is whether or not Rantanen, who has been sidelined since March 21, will be ready for the start of the series.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. Both teams have some of the best and most productive forwards in the league, and there will be a ton of star power on the ice throughout this series, but the Flames are just a little bit deeper up front and get the advantage.

DEFENSE

CALGARY: The Flames are an outstanding defensive team and have what should be the Norris Trophy winner in Mark Giordano. At 35 years old he is still a workhorse on their blue line and was the best all-around defender in the league this season due to his offensive production (nearly a point per game) and shutdown play defensively. T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic round out a top-four that help the Flames be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league.

COLORADO: Tyson Barrie has always been an underrated player and Samuel Girard, one of the key pieces they acquired in last year’s Matt Duchene trade, looks like he is on track to becoming a really good defender. The rest of the defense is solid, if unspectacular. Ian Cole is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a fearless shot-blocker, while Erik Johnson remains a mainstay in their top-four. The Avalanche are not as bad defensively as they have been in recent years, but they are not really a team that is going to lock you down, either.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. They have the best defender in the series (Giordano) and the better depth on the blue line. There isn’t a huge gap between these two teams in total goals against, but when it comes to things that the defense can control (shots on goal, scoring chances) the Flames rate significantly higher. Everything after that comes down to goaltending. Speaking of which…

GOALTENDING

CALGARY: Now we get to the concern with this Flames team. Mike Smith has been as bad as it can get in the NHL this season, and while David Rittich has been a nice surprise, he is a massive question mark going into playoffs because he is almost no track record to go by. Even more concerning is the fact he is rolling into the playoffs with an .897 save percentage in his 15 appearances since February 1. If he falters? Well … has Smith done anything to inspire confidence this season?

COLORADO: Philipp Grubauer had a miserable start to the season but has been lights out in the second half, especially down the stretch of the regular season as the Avalanche made their push for a playoff spot. For the season his .917 save percentage is well above the league average, and in his past 16 appearances dating to back to February 1 he is all the way up to .948. He is, at the moment, the hot goalie you hear about this time of year.

ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE. Simply because right now Grubauer is the hot hand, Rittich is regressing at the wrong time of year, and they do not have a good solution after him.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will David Rittich be good enough?

He better be, because the Flames really do not have another option. Their depth at forward and defense is as good as it gets in the NHL this season, and their only weakness is at the one position that could do the most damage to their chances. He has not played well down the stretch, and he will be facing a team that has three top-tier scorers and a pretty good power play.

Will they get enough offense after the big three?

The trio of MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen combined to score 41 percent of the Avalanche’s goals this season. There were only three other teams in the NHL that had a bigger percentage of their goals go to their top-three players, and keep in mind that Landeskog and Rantanen combined to miss 16 man-games due to injury. This is an extremely top heavy team offensively. The problem for the Avalanche is the playoffs often times come down to each team’s top players canceling each other out and the series being determined by one of two things: Goaltending, or depth. The Avalanche might have a slight edge in goal, but they do not have the advantage when it comes to depth.

PREDICTION

FLAMES IN 7. This seems like a series that has a chance to go the distance. The Avalanche are entering the playoffs on a bit of a role, they have the better goalie at the moment, and they might be able to steal enough goals on the power play to really make this close. In the end, though, the Flames do still have the deeper roster up front and on defense and that should — should — be enough to get them through to Round 2.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Islanders vs. Penguins
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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

The Buzzer: Patrik Laine ends 15-game goal drought

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine entered Friday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights stuck in one of the worst slumps of his young career. He had not scored a goal in 15 consecutive games and recorded just four assists during that stretch. Consider the slump now over. He scored a pair of goals for the Jets in their 6-3 win over the Golden Knights to reclaim the top spot, for now, in the Central Division by jumping back ahead of the Nashville Predators. The Jets still have two games in hand as well. Even with Laine’s goal drought he still has 27 goals in 61 games, which is still a 36-goal pace over 82 games. Just shows how good he is when he is at his best that he can go 15 games in a row without scoring a goal and still have a good chance to score more than 35 goals in a season. He was not the only Jets player to snap goal drought on Friday. Adam Lowry also scored to snap what had been a 17-game goal slump, and they ended their droughts by scoring just 27 seconds apart.

2. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche picked up two huge points and won for the fourth time in their past five games by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. J.T. Compher was one of the stars of the night for Avalanche and was one of two players (Carl Soderberg being the other) to score a pair of goals. Compher’s second goal was the big one as it went in the books as the game-winner with just under six minutes to play in regulation, giving the Avalanche their third win in a row and fourth win in the past five games.

3. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames increased their lead in the Pacific Division to three points over the San Jose Sharks thanks to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Defender T.J. Brodie played a pretty big role in the win by contributing to both goals, scoring one and assisting on the game-winner.

Highlights of the Night

The save of the night belongs to Minnesota Wild forward (Yes! Forward!) Mikael Granlund for stepping up in net after this turnover by Devan Dubnyk. It helped lead to a huge win for the Wild in the Western Conference Wild Card race.

In more traditional saves, this stop by Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller was also pretty impressive.

Matt Duchene did not record a point in his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets but he did play extremely well in their 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He also received a video tribute and a standing ovation from Senators fans. His time with the team may not have gone as planned on a team level, but he was still very good in parts of two seasons with the team.

Factoids

  • Sergei Bobrovsky recorded the shutout for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, giving him 16 since the start of the 2016-17 season, tying him for the most in the NHL during that stretch with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. [NHL PR]
  • It came in a losing effort but Patrick Kane extended his point streak to 20 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, making him the seventh player in NHL history to have multiple 20-game point streaks. [NHL PR]
  • Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice won his 685th regular season game on Friday night and moved into sole possession of eighth place on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list. [NHL PR]
  • Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche became the ninth player in NHL history to record his first 20-goal season after their 33rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Speaking of which, this is the first time since the 2006-07 season that the Colorado Avalanche have had at least four 20-goal scorers in a single season. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the other three this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Ottawa Senators 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Minnesota Wild 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 2, Anaheim Ducks 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

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.

Big changes have led to big results for Flames

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After they made the playoffs in 2016-17, the Calgary Flames were expected to take a step forward last season. Their failure do so led them to a coaching change and a blockbuster trade with Carolina. So far, those two things have worked out in a big way.

As of right now, the Flames find themselves in second over in the NHL standings, with 60 points. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (70 points) are ahead of them. New head coach Bill Peters has found a way to get all of his team’s parts firing at the same time.

Although Calgary finds themselves in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals against, they’ve found a way to put the puck in the back of the net with regularity through 45 games. Their 162 goals for are third in the league behind Tampa and San Jose.

When we think of the best lines in hockey, we often think of the top lines in Colorado, Tampa or even Washington, but it’s time to start showing some love to Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Gaudreau (66 points in 45 games) is third in league scoring, Monahan (54 points in 45 games) is 11th, and Lindholm (51 points in 45 games) is 16th. Lindholm, who was one of the two players acquired from the ‘Canes over the summer, has already surpassed his career high in points. He’s been an excellent fit with those two players. Oh, and by the way, Matthew Tkachuk is 17th in league scoring with 51 points in 45 games.

As PostMedia’s Wes Gilberston pointed out earlier this week, the Flames are the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to have four players hit the 50-point mark at this stage of the season. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Tomas Sandstrom accomplished that for the Pens.

Another reason the Flames have been so hard to stop this year, is because of their depth on defense. First, 35-year-old Mark Giordano is having the best year of his career. He’s put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation by picking up 43 points in 43 games. T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and the other piece of the trade with Carolina, Noah Hanifin, round out the top four. That’s an impressive group of defenders for one team to possess.

So, adding Peters behind the bench and acquiring Lindholm and Hanifin from Carolina have been excellent moves. Johnny Gaudreau taking his game to another level is also a huge reason why the Flames are where they are today. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t vulnerable.

The biggest question mark they have can be found between the pipes. Mike Smith, who comes with a cap hit of $4.25M, hasn’t been the answer. The 36-year-old has a 12-9-1 record with a 3.09 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage this season. He just hasn’t been good enough.

So the team decided to turn to David Rittich, who’s been a significant upgrade on Smith. The 26-year-old hasn’t lost a game in regulation since mid-December. He owns a 16-4-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage. The numbers look good, but how will he respond when the real pressure begins? We simply don’t know. Can he take his game to another level in the postseason when goals typically tend to drop a little bit? We don’t know.

If he can keep playing this way, the Flames will have a legitimate shot of winning it all. If he doesn’t, they could find themselves bowing out of the playoffs fairly early.

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 Power Rankings: NHL’s most dominant performances so far

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the players, lines, and positions that have put together the most dominant performances through the first two-and-a-half months of the NHL season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects in here, from the top line of the Colorado Avalanche, the ridiculous depth of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the unstoppable force that is the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom duo.

There are also a few pairings that have maybe been overlooked so far this season.

1. Colorado’s top line. There should be no debate as to which team boasts the NHL’s best line and it is the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Their performance so far this season has been nothing short of dominant and has been the driving force behind what is looking to be a second consecutive playoff appearance for the Avalanche. Individually, they are each among the league’s top-15 scorers while Rantanen and MacKinnon are first and second in the league having both already exceeded the 50-point mark. They are on track to be one of the best duos the league has seen in recent history, and when you combine them with Landeskog they make the NHL’s most complete line. When that trio has been on the ice together during 5-on-5 play this season the Avalanche are outscoring teams by a 31-16 margin and controlling more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts. When that line is not on the ice the Avalanche are a negative team in both areas.

[Related: Avalanche duo chasing rare feat]

2. The duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Individually they have been sensational. The perpetually underrated Backstrom is off to one of the best starts of his career, while Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is unprecedented in this era even for him. When they have been on the ice together the Capitals have been an unstoppable force. They’ve only spent about 200 minutes together at even-strength but the Capitals have a 15-4 goal different during those minutes and their work on the power play is as great as it has ever been. They won a Stanley Cup, partied all summer, and came back even stronger.

3. Connor McDavid. He is trying to almost single-handedly carry the Edmonton Oilers to a playoff spot. He is playing more than 23 minutes per night, is on pace for more than 120 points, and has had a hand in literally 50 percent of his team’s goals. When he is not on the ice the Oilers are still playing at a lottery team level, just as they have throughout most of his career.

4. The Lightning. The whole team. Everything about them. Entering play on Monday the Lightning have a six-point lead over the second-best team in the NHL. No team has had that large of a lead in the standings on Dec. 17 since the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks, and the Lightning have done that despite not having their top defender, Victor Hedman, for seven games earlier this season and not having their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for more than a month. Both players were awards finalists a year ago, with Hedman actually winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender. If that is not enough, they are still averaging four goals per game while their 138 goals are the fourth most through a team’s first 34 games over the past 25 years. Only the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1995-96 Avalanche, and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators had more goals after their first 34 games during that stretch. Truly dominant team across the board.

5. Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Buffalo Sabres fans have reason to believe again, and this duo is the biggest reason why. Not only are they wildly productive together, but they have been a highlight reel almost every night. Skinner is second in the league in goals as of Monday while Eichel is in the top-six in total points. The Sabres are a plus-18 (32 goals for, 14 goals against) when they are on the ice together at even-strength. This is everything the team could have possibly hoped for when they acquired Skinner before the season to play alongside their franchise player.

6. Calgary’s top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. This might be the best defense pairing in hockey this season, and I’m not sure anyone else is really close. Giordano is having a career year and should be a mid-season contender for the Norris, while he and Brodie have been outstanding as a pairing. How good have they been? In 470 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with them on the ice the Flames have allowed just nine goals (that is only 1.15 goals per 60 minutes) and only 45 total shot attempts per 60 minutes. For some perspective on that the Vegas Golden Knights are the best team in the league when it comes to suppressing shot attempts … they give up 51.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes. The Boston Bruins are the best team when it comes to 5-on-5 goal prevention … they are giving up 1.84 goals per 60 minutes. Just total defensive dominance from these two, while Giordano is also having a spectacular year offensively.

7. John Gibson and Ryan Miller. No potential playoff team bleeds shots and scoring chances against quite like the Anaheim Ducks do. With anything less than outstanding goaltending they would probably near the bottom of the Western Conference standings instead of in contention for the Pacific Division crown. But they are not only getting outstanding goaltending, they are getting the best goaltending in the NHL. Together the Gibson-Miller duo has combined for a league-best .920 save percentage this season, .004 points better than any other team in the league and .012 points better than the league average.

8. Auston Matthews. He would probably higher on the list had he played in more games, but 16 goals and 19 games is a ridiculous scoring pace, as is the fact he already has six two-goal games this season. Only Ovechkin (with seven) has more. Matthews, again, has only played in 19 games while Ovechkin has played in 32 for the Capitals.

9. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It does not matter if their center is Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, this duo is the engine that drives the Bruins’ offense, and by extension, the entire team. The Bruins aren’t really getting any scoring outside of this line so they are going to need them to continue carrying the load if they are going to be a playoff team. They have been great with Krejci, but they are even better with Bergeron, and he seems to be getting closer to a return to the lineup.

10. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a particularly good defense, and they are not a great defensive team by any stretch, but they do have one of the NHL’s absolute best defensive pairs in Letang and Dumoulin. Together they’ve doubled up their opponents in the goals department (28-14) and have controlled nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts and scoring chances when they are on the ice together. Letang is the dominant player in this group due to his offensive ability (nearly a point per game), but Dumoulin is a perfect complement to him and they have been exceptional together from the start.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

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.

 

PHT’s 2018-19 Pacific Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

• Atlantic Division Preview
• Metropolitan Division Preview
• Central Division Preview

At the start of the 2017-18 season there was an expectation that the Western Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final would come from the Pacific Division. The oddsmakers, misguided as it may have turned out to be in hindsight, believed it would be the Edmonton Oilers, and that the expansion Vegas Golden Knights would be one of the league’s worst teams.

Not exactly how it all played out.

Once the games started getting played the Oilers turned out to be a season-long mess and disappointment, while the Golden Knights came out of nowhere, rolled to a division title, and then won the Western Conference before losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Following an unexpected season on the ice, there was a ton of significant roster movement within the division with San Jose, Vegas, Los Angeles, Calgary and Arizona all making significant changes to their roster.

Who ended up getting better and who ended up getting worse? Let us take a look around the Pacific Division as we continue our PHT Divisional previews.

ANAHEIM DUCKS

Better or Worse: Nobody stays the same in professional sports; you’re either doing something to get better or you’re doing something to get worse. And by not really doing anything to get better over the summer it makes me want to say the Ducks might be a little worse, especially given everything that happened around them in the division this summer where San Jose, Vegas, and Los Angeles all made big moves to strengthen their team. Still a good team, but not really much better than they were.

Strengths: The Ducks’ strength is definitely on the back end where they have Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson leading the defense, and then have the duo of John Gibson and Ryan Miller in net. When healthy Gibson is one of the best goalies in the league and Miller was outstanding last year as a backup when needed.

Weaknesses: Corey Perry‘s injury is going to be a major blow to a team that was already lacking in offense. They are going to need Ondrej Kase to take a big step in his development and get a little more out of Jakob Silfverberg to make up for it. 

2017-18 Highlight: Crushed by injuries down the middle the Ducks addressed it by trading Sami Vatanen to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Henrique. A few weeks after the trade Henrique scored one of the best goals of the NHL season against his former team when he did this.

MVP Candidate: Ryan Getzlaf may be entering his age 33 season but he is still an impact player and top-line center. He has scored at a point-per-game level the past two years and still makes everyone around him better.

Playoffs or Lottery: Even with the injury to Perry this is still probably a playoff team — especially in this division — but one that may be behind San Jose and Vegas within the the division.

ARIZONA COYOTES 

Better or Worse: They will be much better. They showed huge improvement in the second half of the 2017-18 season  just by having a healthy Antti Raanta in the lineup, and then they went and added Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Grabner over the summer. I also still have high hopes for Dylan Strome to be an impact player and they will also be getting a full season Jakob Chychrun on defense.

Strengths: Thanks to the additions of Derek Stepan and Alex Galchenyuk over the past year the Coyotes have a pretty decent 1-2 punch at center. Combine them with the potential of Dylan Strome, the presence of Oliver Ekman-Larsson on defense, and Raanta in net and they have a nice foundation down the middle to build from.

Weaknesses: Depth is probably the big one, and it is not just related to any one position. It is almost everywhere except for maybe center. Depth on the wings, depth on the blue line, depth in goal. The talent at the top of the lineup is intriguing and very good, but there just is not enough to complement them just yet.

2017-18 Highlight: Once they got him in the lineup Raanta was everything the Coyotes could have hoped for him to be, and his highlight of the year was this post-to-post glove save against the Montreal Canadiens.

MVP Candidate: It is probably going to have to be the Raanta show for the Coyotes this season. How much of an impact did he make on the Coyotes a year ago? In the games where he earned a decision they played at a 90-point pace (21-17-6). In the games where he didn’t? They played at a 47-point pace. A lot of their problems in the overall standings came from that brutal 1-12-1 start, a stretch where Raanta only played two full games.

Playoffs or Lottery: They will be much better and there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about where this team can go and what it can be in the future but they still have a little more work to do before they get there. It will be another lottery season, but they will be at the back end of the lottery as opposed to the top of it.

CALGARY FLAMES 

Better or Worse: James Neal is a nice addition, but is he enough to make the team better than it was last year, when it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs? Something to keep in mind here: Neal scored 25 goals and finished with 44 total points in 71 games for Vegas a season ago. He is their big offseason addition. Micheal Ferland, who was included by the Flames in the trade that sent their best defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, to the Carolina Hurricanes, scored 21 goals and finished with 41 points in 77 games. Add in the fact you lost your best defender and it’s hard to see how the roster is better.

Strengths: For all of the things that went wrong for this team a year ago they do have three outstanding young players to build around in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk. All three of them are age 25 or younger and were all among the team’s top-three scorers a year ago.

Weaknesses: It is an extremely top-heavy team offensively, and while Neal might help he is probably not enough of a difference maker to take them from 26th in goals scored to the level they need to be at offensively to contend. The defense without Hamilton is also going to be a question mark because T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic both struggled last season, while Mark Giordano is another year older.

2017-18 Highlight: This is a weird one, but their 2-0 win in Anaheim at the start of the season snapped what had been a 25-game losing streak at the Honda Center that dated all the way back to the 2004 season. That is a remarkable losing streak in one building.

MVP Candidate: How can it be anybody other than Gaudreau? He is one of the best offensive players in the league and is coming off of a monster season that saw him record 60 assists and 84 total points. He is also entering his age 25 season, typically the year players hit their peak offensive production in their careers.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were 11 points out of a wild card spot (and 16 points back of a top-three spot in the Pacific Division) and I don’t see enough improvement here to make up that much ground. They are a lottery team.

EDMONTON OILERS 

Better or Worse: They could really go either way here. If the fix the special teams units that ruined their 2017-18 season they should be better, especially if Oscar Klefbom is healthy and returns to form. But they didn’t really make any meaningful additions to a team that missed the playoffs by 17 points.

Strengths: They have Connor McDavid. Period.

Weaknesses: Perhaps the best way to put this would be to reference you to a story from the Edmonton Journal over the weekend that looked at the players on the roster bubble in training camp and point out the fact that every single player listed at right wing is listed as being on the bubble. My goodness, that is bleak. Also bleak: The defense. And the goaltending. And basically everything that is not Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

2017-18 Highlight: This assist by McDavid to set up Patrick Maroon is truly something to behold.

MVP Candidate: McDavid is the odds on favorite to win the MVP award at the start of the season, mostly because he is the best player in the world at the moment and is coming off of back-to-back scoring title and 100-point seasons. He is going for a third consecutive scoring title, an accomplishment that is incredibly rare in NHL history. To get another MVP award though he is going to need the team around him to be better.

Playoffs or Lottery: As incredible as it may seem for a team that has the best player in the league, they are probably a lottery team again. For the third time in four years. There just is not enough talent around McDavid to make them a contender.

LOS ANGELES KINGS

Better or Worse: He may be 35 years old but Ilya Kovalchuk will be a big addition for an offense-starved team. Will he be a 50-goal, 90-point player? Not a chance. But he should be at least capable of 30 goals and 60 points, something that would make him one of the most productive players on the team.

Strengths: They are one of the best defensive teams in the league with one of the best defensive players in Drew Doughty. They haven’t finished lower than 10th in goals against since the 2009-10 season and are consistently in the top-five. No team in the league gave up fewer goals a season ago.

Weaknesses: Simply put, it’s offense. Even with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and the addition of Kovalchuk this is simply a mediocre at best offensive team and has been for a few years. They

2017-18 Highlight: Kopitar was the Kings’ best player all year and was perhaps at his most dominant in a 7-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche when he scored four goals.

MVP Candidate: The one that was the runner-up a season ago, Kopitar. He is one of the best two-way players in the league that offers a game-changing combination of top-tier offense and shutdown defense.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Kings have missed the playoffs in two of the past four seasons and have not made it out of the first round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. They have been, pretty much, a bubble playoff team for the past four years and there really is not much to suggest that is going to change this season.

SAN JOSE SHARKS 

Better or Worse: Better. Much better. They should have a full season of Joe Thornton (injured) and Evander Kane (acquired at the trade deadline and signed to a contract extension) and they acquired a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson. It would be a shock if they were not better.

Strengths: With Karlsson and Brent Burns they have three of the past seven Norris Trophies on their blue line and a player in Marc-Edouard Vlasic that gets votes every year. There is not a better top-three anywhere in the NHL on defense.

Weaknesses: They are not many. If we were to reach here we could say they were a middle of the pack team a year ago offensively, finishing 14th in goals scored and 16th on the power play, but you have to figure both of those numbers can easily go up this season given the additions.

2017-18 Highlight: Logan Couture scored 12 more goals than any player on the Sharks this past season. None of them looked better than this goal against the Winnipeg Jets.

MVP Candidate: Going to go with Karlsson here, simply because he is going to play a ton of minutes on what should be a Stanley Cup contender and assuming he is 100 percent healthy should have a monster year. Especially playing on a team that has Stanley Cup level talent around him.

Playoffs or Lottery: They were second round playoff team a year ago made some pretty significant additions to the roster, including one of the biggest pick-ups over the summer in Karlsson. They are not only a playoff team, they are a Stanley Cup contender.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS 

Better or Worse: Even though Henrik and Daniel Sedin were at the end of their career and as good as they were in their prime, they were still two of the Canucks’ best players and among their top-three scorers. They are now gone. The players coming in from outside the organization to replace them: Jay Beagle and Antoine Rousell on long-term contracts to be fourth-liners. They are a worse team today.

Strengths: The biggest strength on this team will be getting Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat back for full seasons after both missed 20 games a year ago. Boeser is one of the league’s bright young stars and should be the Canucks’ best player for the foreseeable future.

Weaknesses: Goaltending is going to be a problem. Jacob Markstrom is the starter but has never really been anything better than average at any point in his career. The duo of him and Anders Nilsson is going to have to exceed any reasonable expectation anyone might have for them to help make this team competitive, especially playing behind the defense.

2017-18 Highlight: You could not have scripted a better farewell game in the NHL for the Sedins than this.

MVP Candidate: Brock Boeser finished the 2017-18 season as the Canucks’ leading goal-scorer and point-producer. He did that as a 20-year-old rookie in his first full season of NHL action, and despite missing 20 games due to injury. He is their best player by a mile.

Playoffs or Lottery: One of the worst teams in the league from a year ago that did not really get any better in the offseason. They are not only a lottery team, they are a potential Jack Hughes team.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS 

Better or Worse: I don’t know if they will be “better” in terms of results on the ice, because that would mean actually winning the Stanley Cup, but the roster on paper certainly looks better with the additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. Sure, they lost James Neal and David Perron, two really good contributors on the 2017-18 team, but the two players coming in to replace them are better.

Strengths: Their top line was one of the best in the NHL a season ago, and while there is every reason to believe that William Karlsson and Reilly Smith will regress a bit, they should still be very good. Jonathan Marchessault is also every bit as good as he showed. They also have an outstanding goalie.

Weaknesses: For as good as their top-six is — especially that top line — their bottom six is definitely lacking a little bit. The fourth line received a lot of praise in the playoffs, but I’m not sure how well it holds up over an 82-game season.

2017-18 Highlight: The whole season was a highlight, but their Western Conference clinching game against the Winnipeg Jets was the culmination of a truly remarkable, totally unexpected season.

MVP Candidate: Marchessault showed that his 30-goal season from the 2016-17 season in Florida was anything but a fluke by following it up with a dominant performance in Vegas, earning himself a long-term contract extension.

Playoffs or Lottery: Nobody should expect another run to the Stanley Cup Final, but this should still be a playoff team and probably even a strong contender in the Western Conference.

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.