William Nylander

NHL Power Rankings: The most underrated players

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus to individual players. Specifically, the most underrated players in the NHL right now.

We are trying to keep this to players that are legitimately underrated, overlooked, and do not get the proper amount of attention they probably deserve.

So we are just going to put this out here at the front front: You will not see Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom or Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov on this list. They are staples on every underrated list or ranking that is compiled and both have reached a point where everyone knows exactly how great they are (pretty great).

Who does make this list?

To the rankings!

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. While everyone falls all over themselves to talk about how underrated Barkov is, the Panthers’ other star forward is actually still fairly overlooked. Especially when you consider just how productive he has been, and for how long he has played at that level. Huberdeau has been a monster offensively for four seasons now and one of the league’s top scorers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season he’s in the top-15 among in points per game among all players with at least 100 games played, and has climbed into the top-10 over the past two seasons.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s probably a lot of people that would put him at the top of a most overrated list, and it’s truly one of the more baffling narratives in the league right now. Nylander is a constant lightning-rod for criticism and is always the first player that gets mentioned as being dangled as trade bait. What makes it so baffling is that he is an outstanding hockey player. Outside of the 2018-19 season (disrupted by his RFA saga) he has been a possession-driving, 60-point winger every year of his career, is still only 23 years old, and is on pace for close to 40 goals this season. Here’s a hot take for you: His $6.9 million salary cap hit will look like a steal before the contract expires. 

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have a pretty good core of players that get their share of recognition — Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler specifically. Even Conor Hellebuyck is getting the proper level of respect this season and is going to be a Vezina Trophy front-runner. But Connor just quietly slides under the radar casually hits the 30-goal mark every season. His pace this season would have put him close to the 45-goal mark.

4. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators. Ellis is underrated in the sense that he seems to be generally regarded as a really good defenseman and another in a long line of outstanding defenders to come through the Nashville pipeline. He is much more than that. He is actually one of the best all-around defensemen in the entire league.

5. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Over the summer I thought the Canucks were insane to trade a future first-round draft pick for Miller given where they were in their rebuild. It is not looking all that crazy right now. If anything, it is looking pretty outstanding. He was always a good player with upside in New York and Tampa Bay, but Miller has blossomed in Vancouver and become a bonafide top-line player.

6. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. As if the Lightning were not already dominant enough, they had another young talent come through their system to make an impact. Cirelli is only 22 years old and is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards while also showing 25-30 goal, 60-point potential.

7. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars. Klingberg is an interesting case because he’s received some serious Norris consideration on occasion (sixth-place finish two different times), but he still probably doesn’t get enough recognition for how good he has consistently been in Dallas. He is one of the top offensive-defensemen in the league and is much better defensively than he tends to get credit for. Heck, he’s better in every area than he tends to get credit for.

8. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Slavin might be starting to get into that Backstrom-Barkov area of underrated where he’s referred to as “underrated” so often that he is no longer underrated. But he is not quite there yet. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard or put up huge offensive numbers, but he is one of the best pure shutdown defensemen in the league.

9. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. Gallagher is generally viewed as a pest, but he is also on track for his third straight 30-goal season, is strong defensively, and is always one of the best possession players in the league. You may not like him when he plays against your team, but you would love him if he played for it.

10. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. He is a recent No. 1 overall pick and just signed a huge contract extension so there is a certain level of expectation that comes with all of that. Maybe you think he has not matched it. But that is probably setting an unfair bar. Not every top pick is going to immediately enter the NHL and become a superstar at a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid kind of level. Sometimes it takes a few years. In the short-term, Hischier has already proven to have 20-goal, 50-point ability while playing a strong defensive game. There’s a lot more upside here, too. Don’t let the draft status and contract term trick you into thinking he hasn’t been good. He has been. He is also only going to get better.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Petry (Montreal Canadiens), Brian Dumoulin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Evgenii Dadonov (Florida Panthers), Tomas Tatar (Montreal Canadiens), Roope Hintz (Dallas Stars), Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals), Torey Krug (Boston Bruins), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars), Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild)

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Pressure is on Maple Leafs

NHL Playoff Race
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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

There is a potential Round 1 playoff preview in Toronto on Tuesday night when the Maple Leafs play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is still only a potential Round 1 matchup at this point because the Maple Leafs are suddenly feeling quite a bit of pressure from a Florida Panthers team that is not quite ready to go away just yet.

Toronto enters Tuesday’s action riding a three-game losing streak (all on a Western Conference road trip that saw them lose to three of the league’s bottom teams) while having lost 10 of their past 17 games overall. It has been a maddening run of inconsistency where they have struggled to solidify their standing as a playoff team. Their recent slump, combined with the Panthers stacking a couple wins together (including Monday’s impressive 2-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues) has closed the gap between the two teams to just a single point. They now face a very real risk of not only dropping into a Wild Card spot, but perhaps even out of the playoff picture entirely. It is something that seemed almost unimaginable at the start of the season.

Given the expectations this team had at the start, as well as their struggles at times this season, their precarious spot in the playoff race would create enough pressure on its own. Now they have an absolutely brutal three-game stretch ahead of them this week that will see them play Tampa Bay, Nashville, and Boston. If they are going to solidify their standing in the playoff race, they are going to have to earn it.

While much of the criticism for this year’s Maple Leafs team falls on their defense and goaltending, the big culprit on their recent losing streak has been an offense that has gone cold, scoring just three goals in the three games (including only one over the past two games).

On Monday, coach Sheldon Keefe put his lines into a blender in an effort to help jumpstart the offense. He split up the Auston MatthewsMitch Marner duo, putting Matthews with Zach Hyman and William Nylander, while Marner skated alongside John Tavares and Kasperi Kapanen.

The Maple Leafs are also getting top defenseman Morgan Rielly back on Tuesday night after he missed the past two months due to a broken foot.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

WESTERN CONFERENCE

St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets
Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars
Edmonton Oilers vs. Calgary Flames

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Nashville Predators vs. Montreal Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Detroit Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
New York Rangers vs. Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
New York Islanders vs. Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Boston Bruins — 100 percent
Tampa Bay Lightning — 100 percent
Washington Capitals — 100 percent
Philadelphia Flyers — 99.9 percent
Pittsburgh Penguins — 94.2 percent
Carolina Hurricanes — 76.2 percent
Toronto Maple Leafs — 67.1 percent
New York Islanders — 63.9 percent
Florida Panthers — 44.5 percent
Columbus Blue Jackets — 35.3 percent
New York Rangers — 18.5 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 0.4 percent
Buffalo Sabres — Out
Ottawa Senators — Out
New Jersey Devils — Out
Detroit Red Wings — Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES 

St. Louis Blues — 100 percent
Colorado Avalanche — 100 percent
Vegas Golden Knights — 98.9 percent
Edmonton Oilers — 98.3 percent
Dallas Stars — 97. 9 percent
Calgary Flames — 66.5 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 64.1 percent
Minnesota Wild — 56.2 percent
Winnipeg Jets — 49.9 percent
Nashville Predators — 47.1 percent
Arizona Coyotes — 19.2 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 2 percent
Anaheim Ducks — Out
San Jose Sharks — Out
Los Angeles Kings — Out

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Detroit Red Wings — 18.5 percent
Ottawa Senators — 13.5 percent
Los Angeles Kings — 11.5 percent
Ottawa Senators* — 9.5 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 8.5 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 7.5 percent
New Jersey Devils — 6.5 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 6 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 5 percent
New Jersey Devils** — 3.5 percent
Nashville Predators — 3 percent
Vancouver Canucks — 2.5 percent
New York Rangers — 2 percent
Florida Panthers 1.5 percent
New York Islanders — 1 percent

(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE

Leon Draisaitl, Oilers — 110 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers — 96 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins — 94 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche — 93 points
Artemi Panarin, Rangers — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals — 48 goals
David Pastrnak, Bruins — 48 goals
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs — 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers — 43 goals
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers — 39 goals

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.

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

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.

The Buzzer: Toffoli, others hot after NHL trade deadline

Toffoli hot after NHL trade deadline the buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Anton Khudobin/Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars

With a plethora of games on Tuesday’s dockets, let’s consolidate some of the stars picks as combos.

Khudobin generated 40 saves, only allowing one goal against Carolina. People made plenty of jokes about the Hurricanes actually needing to bring in David Ayers on Tuesday. After all, Alex Nedeljkovic allowed four goals on just 16 shots. It’s easy to overlook the difference Khudobin made in that game where there was a towering 40-16 SOG disadvantage. (The Hurricanes’ long tradition of dominating puck control while being let down by goaltending happened again. The Stars, meanwhile, subsist on their goaltending.)

Hintz provided a strong night of work in his own right, scoring a goal and two assists. Hintz scored the game-winning goal, and both of his assists were primary helpers.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers

Florida left many — myself included — puzzled by trading away Vincent Trocheck for a questionable return. Maybe the Panthers will benefit from a post-trade deadline bump from Bobrovsky much like Columbus did after they decided not to trade him in 2018-19?

It’s way too early to confirm or deny that. Either way, he enjoyed a strong Tuesday, stopping 37 out of 38 SOG. Both the Panthers and the Coyotes needed Tuesday’s game, but Bob made the difference.

Speaking of sticking with players despite the temptation of getting something for a pending UFA, Mike Hoffman contributed to Florida’s two goals with a goal and an assist.

3. Kevin Hayes/Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers

Leafing through the options for third star was especially tough. Matthew Tkachuk, for instance, scored three points (1G, 2A) winning a battle of the pests with Brad Marchand.

An even tougher omission: the combination of Zach Sanford (2G, 1A) and Robert Thomas (1G, 2A) for the Blues. Sanford scored the GWG, and fired nine SOG. He made the difference in St. Louis squeaking by Chicago.

In this case, let’s direct you to this post, where the Blues got some attention.

Hayes (2G, 1A) also scored the game-winner for his team, while Konecny generated a goal and two assists. Both Flyers forwards generated +3 ratings apiece. Are their strong nights better than the comparable evenings for Sanford and Thomas? Your guess is a good, if not better, than mine.

Highlights of the Night

Marchand scored an impressive goal, showing his calm and skill. Then he turned on the menace in staring down Mikael Backlund, which really brought this clip up a notch:

William Nylander added to the bucket of cool between-the-legs goals in helping Toronto beat Tampa Bay. If forced to choose one video for highlight of the night, it would probably be this:

Not sure if this is a highlight of the night in the traditional sense. Regardless, this is just one big, entertaining mess between Tyler Bertuzzi and P.K. Subban. And maybe the officials?

Factoids

  • The Rangers set a franchise record with eight consecutive road wins by beating the Islanders in OT. Mika Zibanejad is on his own eight-game point streak, collecting a whopping 14 points during that span, including Tuesday’s empathic game-winner. (NHL PR)
  • The Stars have an eight-game road point streak of their own. (NHL PR)
  • The Flames beat the Bruins handily. Continuing with the theme of road warriors, Calgary’s 15-4-1 road record since Nov. 23 leads the NHL during that span. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Tyler Toffoli keeps bridging a hot end to his Kings’ days with a hot start with the Canucks following his deadline trade. By scoring Vancouver’s OT winner, he extended his current point streak to five games (7G, 2A). Looking specifically at his time with the Canucks, Toffoli has three goals and two assists for five points in three contests.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins improved to an impressive 29 points in his last 21 games. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Quinn Hughes became the first rookie to reach 50 points this season … not too shabby for a defenseman. He’s six points shy of the Canucks rookie defenseman scoring record. Hughes and Nicklas Lidstrom (1992) are the only two defensemen to reach 50 points before any other rookie during their respective first seasons. (NHL PR)
  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau didn’t win the game for the Islanders. He did make a heck of an impression during his Islanders debut following their big trade deadline investment, though. (OK, this is more of an opinion-oid, but go with it.)

Scores

CGY 5 – BOS 2
VAN 4 – MTL 3 (OT)
TOR 4 – TBL 3
NYR 4 – NYI 3 (OT)
PHI 4 – SJS 2
WSH 4 – WIN 3 (SO)
DAL 4 – CAR 1
NJD 4 – DET 1
STL 6 – CHI 5
NSH 3 – OTT 2
MIN 5 – CBJ 4
FLA 2 – ARI 1
ANA 4 – EDM 3 (OT)

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.

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs avenging loss to ‘Zamboni driver’

Nylander scores Maple Leafs win Muzzin injury
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(UPDATE: The Maple Leafs announced on Wednesday that Muzzin will miss the next month with a broken hand.)

The Maple Leafs heard about it endlessly: they lost to David Ayers, their AHL Zamboni driver. Ayers received celebrity treatment, even appearing on “The Today Show,” while Maple Leafs fans gritted their teeth. (Then the Maple Leafs grimaced about Jake Muzzin.)

Tuesday set the stage for a trying situation following all of that. With desperation and overreactions in the air, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas decided to stand pat during the trade deadline. If all of that wasn’t enough, Toronto traveled to Tampa Bay to face a Lightning team that might just be rounding back into shape as the scariest team in the NHL.

Yeah, it sure seemed like things were going to get uglier.

One thing that adds to the soap opera drama of the Maple Leafs is that they often surprise you, though. Instead of folding following that agonizing loss to Carolina, the Buds persevered, beating the Lightning 4-3 on the road.

Go-to scapegoat William Nylander continues to quietly have a strong season, and this goal was nicer than his summer hair was loud:

John Tavares ended up with two goals, while not-traded Tyson Barrie collected two assists. Auston Matthews set a new career-high with his 74th point of 2019-20.

“We did a lot of good things tonight, in terms of the way we want to play the game, to our identity,” Tavares said, via TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “Just staying with it and understanding that it’s not always pretty but just digging in, playing hard, playing as a group, sticking with it.”

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs win

Pretty impressive all around, right?

Well, maybe … but we’re talking about the Maple Leafs, here. It can never be totally easy.

While the Maple Leafs grabbed a highly valuable win, there was some troubling news. Recently extended defenseman Jake Muzzin left the game and didn’t return after blocking a shot. Sheldon Keefe couldn’t provide a detailed update about how long this might sideline Muzzin:

Sounds ominous.

But, hey, the Maple Leafs won. They can carry something from that, even if the roller coaster readies more dramatic highs and lows.

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.