Taylor Hall

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

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.

Devils sign Zacha after brief, amusing KHL flirtation

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To put things mildly, Pavel Zacha hasn’t exactly lived up to being the sixth overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft during his time with the New Jersey Devils.

In all honesty, the highlight of his time so far might have come recently, when Devils GM Ray Shero profanely reacted to Zacha seemingly trying to use the KHL as leverage in RFA negotiations. Now both sides can laugh about it (?), too, after the Devils signed Zacha to a three-year contract that carries a $2.25 million AAV. This just about wraps up the Devils’ offseason to-do list, at least if they can’t convince Taylor Hall to sign an early extension.

Don’t blame Devils fans if they make a joke about sending Zacha to bleepin’ Brampton if he struggles, because this is gold (Jerry, gold):

Zacha, 22, hasn’t distinguished himself in many good ways, aside from seemingly being useful on the penalty kill.

His possession stats have been weak at best, and he hasn’t provided much offense, generating 13 goals and 25 points in 61 games last season. He’s fallen in that range for some time now, producing 25 points in 2017-18 and 24 in 2016-17.

Maybe the Devils can give more of a [redacted] about Zacha if he can find a fit in what looks like a massively improved lineup, though? Either way, it will be a challenge for Zacha to be more than just that guy who Ray Shero said bad words about.

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.

Setting realistic expectations for Rangers, Devils, Panthers after big summer

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The New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, and Florida Panthers were not only three of the busiest teams in the NHL this summer, they also made some of the biggest and most notable roster transactions.

Blockbuster moves in the summer mean big expectations for the season. Sometimes those expectations can be a little too much based on offseason moves and preseason hype.

So what should fans of those three teams be realistically expecting this season after what appears to be a successful summer?

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Florida Panthers

Key additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Joel Quenneville
How high should expectations be?
Wild card or bust.

The Panthers are not yet on the same level as the the top-three teams in the Atlantic (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto) but there is no reason the playoffs should not be a minimum expectation this season.

They have high-level players at forward and fixed their single biggest flaw from a year ago with the addition of Bobrovsky. How bad was the Panthers’ goaltending last year? Despite allowing the seventh fewest shots per game, they still managed to allow the fourth most goals thanks to the second-worst save percentage (.891) in the league. Even a .900 save percentage would have trimmed 20 goals off of their total, while a league average (.905) mark would have trimmed off more than 30. Bobrovsky has finished just one of the past seven seasons with a mark lower than .910. Even though Bobrovsky won’t play every game, getting that level of play from him over 50-55 games could make a massive difference. Combine that with a Hall of Fame coach and the returning core they have up front and anything less than a playoff appearance should be considered a significant disappointment.

New Jersey Devils

Key additions: P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Hughes
How high should expectations be: Lower than they probably are

There is a lot to like about what the Devils did this offseason. They added a potential superstar in Hughes, a superstar defender in Subban, they have a healthy Taylor Hall returning to the lineup, and they added two other intriguing forwards in Gusev and Simmonds. And they did not have to give up anything of significance to do any of it. If nothing else the Devils are going to be a LOT more exciting to watch than they have been in recent seasons and they should obviously be better.

There are just a few problems here. For one, the Devils still have a massive question mark in goal and if things go poorly none of their additions are really going to matter all that much. Goaltending will make or break this team, and the current options are not promising.

The other issue is that the new additions are not without their questions. Subban and Simmonds are both on the wrong side of 30 and have shown some signs of slowing down (especially Simmonds). Gusev is extremely intriguing and full of potential, but is still an unknown that could go either way. There are reasons to be optimistic and if everything goes perfectly well this team could be a factor in the playoff race. But the more “what ifs” you add in to a team the more likely it is that something goes wrong.

New York Rangers

Key additions: Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox
How high should expectations be: Compete for a playoff spot

Thanks to a little draft lottery luck and some major spending the Rangers’ rebuild accelerated in a big way this summer thanks to the additions of Panarin and Kakko. That is a ton of impact talent entering the organization in a short period of time.

Normally spending big money on the UFA market is a fools paradise, but there are always exceptions, and players like Panarin tend to qualify as that sort of exception. He is still in his prime, doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his career, and is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He is a game-changer. But even with him, Trouba, and young players like Kakko and Fox it may not be quite enough to make up the sizable gap between them and the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Are the Rangers are a sure-fire playoff team yet? Probably not, because they still have some questions with their depth and defense. But they should be able to stay in the discussion fairly deep into the season. Why should you like the Rangers’ playoff chances more than their arch-rivals in New Jersey? They have what could be (and should be) far better goaltending and seemingly fewer questions with their new offseason additions.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Which NHL teams are ready to bounce back?

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After looking at individual players ready to bounce back (or regress) ahead of the 2019-20 NHL season, it is time to shift our focus to the teams that are on the verge of doing the same.

This week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the 15 teams that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago and which ones are most likely to make a return trip to the postseason in 2020. It is pretty much a given that at least two or three of these teams is going to qualify this season, it is just a matter of which ones did enough.

To the rankings!

1. Florida Panthers. They have one of the best all-around players and salary cap bargains in the league in Aleksander Barkov, a good core of players around him, and just added a No. 1 goalie that is one of the best in the league to fill their biggest need. Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky‘s contract turns into a salary cap disaster in three years, but he can still make a huge impact in the short-term.

2. New Jersey Devils. It would require a pretty dramatic one-year turnaround, but with the additions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Jack Hughes, Wayne Simmonds, and the return of a healthy Taylor Hall it is not an impossible thought. The wild card will be a possibility if they can get something that resembles decent goaltending.

3. Chicago Blackhawks. There is reason to be concerned with their forward depth and their defense (the latter is a huge question mark), but they still have a couple of superstars and at least have the potential to have an outstanding goalie duo with Corey Crawford (assuming he is healthy) and Robin Lehner. This is still a team that believes it can win right now.

4. New York Rangers. After a huge offseason that featured some big scores (Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Fox) and some good luck (moving to No. 2 in the draft lottery to select Kaapo Kaako) expectations are going to be high in New York. (Maybe too high?) They are not yet a championship contender, but they will be a lot better.

5. Philadelphia Flyers. They made a lot of moves but I’m not sure if they are really any better than they were at the start of the offseason. That said, the game-changer here could be if Carter Hart is as good as advertised.

[Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

6. Arizona Coyotes. They were crushed by injuries all season and still nearly made the playoffs. Better injury luck and the additions of Phil Kessel and Carl Soderberg might be enough to give them that extra push to sneak in.

7. Montreal Canadiens. Maybe this is little low for a 96-point team that was just two points back of a playoff spot, but I also think they played a little over their heads. What if Max Domi and Tomas Tatar aren’t as good as they were this past season?  What did they do to add to the roster in any meaningful way? If anything, they only subtracted from it by dealing Andrew Shaw (19 goals, 47 points in only 63 games) back to Chicago.

8. Minnesota Wild. Paul Fenton may have only been there for one season but the damage he left behind could linger for a few years. There is a path back to the playoffs this season, but a lot needs to go right.

9. Buffalo Sabres. They actually had a really solid offseason, but they are so far behind the top-three teams in the division (and probably Florida now, too) that the playoffs still seem like a real long shot.

10. Edmonton Oilers. I would say Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going off and having monster seasons might be enough to carry them to a playoff spot, but it is hard to imagine the duo being better than it was a year ago when they both finished in the top-four in the league in scoring … and the team missed the playoffs by 11 points.

11. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and some of the other young players here will make the Canucks worth watching but there is not yet enough around them to make them a playoff team.

12. Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson is great, but is he great enough to make up for the rest of the roster around him? Not sure any goalie in the NHL is quite that great.

13. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman has his work cut out for him here. Other than bringing back Valtteri Filppula and the addition of a couple of rookies this is the same team that has been lurking around the bottom of the Eastern Conference for the past few years.

14. Los Angeles Kings. Maybe Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty are better this season (they should be), but even if they are that will not be enough to make up for the rest of the roster. Just start the rebuild already.

15. Ottawa Senators. In terms of actual salary being paid this season it is by far the cheapest roster in the NHL with almost no long-term commitments. Winning is not the priority right now, and winning is not in their immediate future.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL teams under pressure to win this season
Bounce-back candidates
Top regression candidates
Breakout candidates 

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

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

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.