PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

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

PHT Morning Skate: All-Star tweaks; Best goalie tandems

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

• The Maple Leafs signed Trevor Moore to a two-year contract extension. (NHL.com/Maple Leafs)

• The Hockey News looks at the five off-season acquisitions that have provided the least amount of value to their new teams. There’s more than one Dallas Star on this list. (The Hockey News)

• Take a look back at the Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones trade three years after it happened. (On the Forecheck)

• Caps forward Jakub Vrana has all the tools to become a young star in the NHL. (Washington Times)

William Nylander‘s struggles aren’t a big problem for the Maple Leafs right now. (Toronto Star)

• It’s time for the Florida Panthers to make some significant changes. (The Rat Trick)

• Pens defenseman Kris Letang is making a case for the Norris Trophy. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington looks at a few small tweaks that could help All-Star weekend. (Buffalo News)

• Sabres goalie Carter Hutton got off to a great start, but he’s struggled pretty badly over the last few weeks. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson uses his psychology background to help him with his game. (NHL.com)

• Find out which teams have the best goalie tandems in the NHL. (ESPN)

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: Reality strikes Ducks

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The Anaheim Ducks have held a playoff position for much of the 2018-19 season, but their place in the standings has been the biggest mirage in the NHL.

Their success this season has been driven almost entirely by the play of their goalies (John Gibson and Ryan Miller) and has masked the numerous flaws that exist on this team, from the lack of depth, to the injuries, to the fact their core players are getting older and declining, to the fact they get absolutely caved in almost every night on the shot and scoring chance charts.

Teams like this eventually crumble. They always crumble. Sometimes it takes a few weeks. Sometimes a few months. Sometimes it does not happen until the next season. But it eventually always happens because the goalies, no matter how good they are, can not continue to play that flawlessly for that long.

The dam always breaks, the bubble always bursts, or whatever other cliche you want to use to refer to it.

For the Ducks, that time has come.

After getting blown out by the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, the Ducks have now dropped eight games in a row, find themselves barely hanging on to a playoff spot, and have been outscored by a jaw-dropping 23 goals on the season. That is one of the worst marks in the league and puts them with the NHL’s worst teams.

It is almost impossible to be that bad when you’re getting the level of goaltending they are getting this season (among the absolute best in the NHL!)

They are falling fast in the standings and in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

The elite

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Their 5-2 loss in San Jose was their first loss in regulation since Nov. 27. It happened on Jan 5. That is a hell of a long time to go between regulation defeats. They are just on an unbelievable roll right now, thanks in large part to Nikita Kucherov‘s offensive dominance. They are on a tier all alone this week.

Contenders making their climb

2. Vegas Golden Knights — They have won six in a row, are 17-3-3 in their past 23 games, and they have the dominant underlying numbers to back up their record. They are good. Legitimately good.

[Related: Golden Knights stay hot even beyond winning streak]

3. Pittsburgh Penguins — Matt Murray is back to playing like the franchise goalie the Penguins need him to be. Combine that with the performance of stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang (who has been Norris worthy this season) and you have a team that is 14-5-1 in its past 20 games and has caught up to the leaders in their division.

The rest of the contenders

4. Toronto Maple Leafs –– Imagine how good the offense will be once William Nylander starts to get going.

5. Washington Capitals — Their power play has hit a pretty big slump lately but I am one million percent confident that is not something that is going to last.

6. Calgary Flames — Johnny Gaudreau just keeps getting better. He is on pace for 118 points this season and is the engine that drives this team.

7. San Jose Sharks — On Dec. 1 they lost their fourth game in a row to drop to 12-10-5 on the season. Since then they have gone 11-3-2 and their stars on the blue line are really starting to dominate like we expected. Do not sleep on this team in the Western Conference.

8. Columbus Blue Jackets — This is a really good team as it stands right now and I still feel like some of their best players (Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Sergei Bobrovsky) haven’t played their best hockey yet this season. What happens when they do?

9. Winnipeg Jets — Losing Nikolaj Ehlers will be a big loss, but they still have one of the best collections of forwards in the NHL. They have hit a bit of a wall recently, but they will be fine.

10. Nashville Predators — They are starting to get healthy (Welcome back, Filip Forsberg) so we will once again get to see what this team is capable of when it has all of its key players in the lineup.

Right on the edge

11. New York Islanders — Every team that outperforms its shot and scoring chance metrics thinks it has stumbled on the secret. They haven’t. They just have great goaltending. The Islanders right now are getting great goaltending.

[Related: Goalies are the difference for Islanders]

12. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron has nine points in seven games since returning to the lineup. The Bruins have won five of those games. Getting key players back in the lineup helps.

13. Montreal Canadiens — Shea Weber has really made a huge difference for this team since returning to the lineup.

14. Dallas Stars — Even with their ugly loss to Winnipeg on Sunday and all of the drama surrounding this team because of their CEO and owner, they are still 5-1-1 in their past seven games and hanging around in the playoff race. The top line is still carrying the offense.

15. Carolina Hurricanes — They are on one of those streaks where they start to play up to their potential and make you think they are about ready to turn the corner. Will this be the time it happens?

16. Minnesota Wild — That 13-game stretch where they lost 10 games really put them in a hole. They are trying to dig out of it with wins in three of their past four.

Falling back

17. Buffalo Sabres — That big cushion they built for themselves earlier in the year is really starting to slip away from them. They need to get more out of their forwards other than Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

18. Colorado Avalanche — Speaking of a team that needs more out of players outside of their top line … the Avalanche have lost 12 out of 15 and are now all of a sudden on the playoff bubble despite having three of the best offensive players in the league. Not a great sign!

19. Anaheim Ducks — This is, quite simply, not a very good hockey team.

The playoffs look like a long shot

20. Florida Panthers — It is looking like another wasted year of the Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau core. Unfortunate, because they are such outstanding players. Especially Barkov.

21. Vancouver Canucks — The standings say they open the week just one point out of a playoff spot, but they have already played 45 games this season, way more than everyone else around them in the standings. Their points percentage is in the bottom-six of the NHL. Once every one around them catches up in games played their playoff chances will look a lot worse.

22. New York Rangers — It should be another busy year for this team at the trade deadline. No playoffs in their immediate future and a few veteran players that could be attractive for contenders.

23. Edmonton Oilers — Just speaking in hypotheticals here, but how many more seasons like this before Connor McDavid gets fed up and demands his way out of Edmonton? It has to happen at some point, right? If this circus continues around him?

Lose For Hughes

24. New Jersey Devils — Rookie netminder Mackenzie Blackwood has been a pleasant development for a team that has had a constant hole in net this season.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks should be highly encouraged by what they have seen from Dylan Strome so far. He is up to 14 points in 20 games and scored the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

26. Los Angeles Kings — Even Anze Kopitar is having a disappointing season for this team. It is almost as if they are prohibited from having good offensive players.

27. Arizona Coyotes — You can not question the effort, but the talent is just not there yet. It really hurts when they are down to backup goalies on top of that.

28. St. Louis Blues — They took a run with this core and it doesn’t look like it is going to work. Like the Blackhawks and Kings, this is a team that looks like it might be in need of a teardown and rebuild.

29. Philadelphia Flyers — They’ve fired the coach, fired the general manager, fired assistants (coach, GM), called up the hot-shot goalie prospect, and had the players-only meeting after another loss. They have played every card a bad hockey team can play in a season.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Every year some rebuilding teams that are short on talent overachieve early in the year and then hit an extended slump that brings them back down to where everyone expected them to be. The Red Wings are in the middle of that slump right now.

31. Ottawa Senators — The problem with their spot in the “lose for Hughes” category is their 2019 first-round draft pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche.

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.

Who needs a fresh start in 2019?

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New Year’s Day is right around the corner, so naturally many of us have already started thinking about our resolutions. Maybe you want to get into better shape, eat better, expand your knowledge on a certain topic, spend less time on your phone, or something totally different.

Hockey people and teams are just like us. They need a reset, too. So who’s most looking forward to Jan. 1 in the NHL?

Corey Crawford – Chicago Blackhawks: It’s been a really tough year for the Blackhawks netminder. The 34-year-old played in just 28 games last season because of a concussion. He managed to return to the lineup in October, but he’s now sidelined by another concussion. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, and you have to wonder if the end is near for the veteran. We hope 2019 brings a lot more health to Crawford and we hope to see him back on the ice really soon.

Eugene Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators: It’s been a bad 12 months for the owner of the Sens. This snowball started rolling downhill last December, when he mentioned the possibility of relocating and it’s just gotten worse and worse for his franchise. Hopefully 2019 is filled with a lot less drama for Melnyk, GM Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Senators organization. From the situation between Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman to Uber-gate, the Sens were the organization that kept on giving when it came to headlines. But even we have to acknowledge that this is getting ridiculous. All the best in 2019, Ottawa.

Peter Chiarelli – Edmonton Oilers: Do I really have to explain this one? Chiarelli tried shuffling the duck with a pair of trades over the weekend, but that won’t calm the waters in Edmonton. He absolutely needs to push the right buttons so that his team can get their season back on the rails as soon as possible. The Oilers are still only four points out of a Wild Card spot, but they’re also just six points away from last place in the West.

Kyle Okposo – Buffalo Sabres: Okposo has failed to pick up a single point since late November. That’s right. He hasn’t scored or picked up an assist at all during the month of December. 14 games without any production is a long time for any player, especially one that makes $6 million per year. Okposo also had a significant injury scare last year, when he battled a concussion.

Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov – Philadelphia Flyers: After making the playoffs last season, the Flyers were expected to be back in the postseason this year, too. Unfortunately for them, things haven’t panned out that way. Goaltending has always been an issue for them, but in-zone coverage hasn’t been great either. They definitely expected more from their two young defenders. If this dynamic duo doesn’t figure things out soon, the Flyers will be watching the playoffs on television.

Dallas Stars: Alright, team president Jim Lites made some serious comments regarding Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s time for the Stars to live up to their potential. They may not be the deepest teams, but there’s no denying that there’s talent on that roster. They all just need to regroup and find a way to grab one of playoff spots at their disposal.

William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs: Nylander didn’t report to training camp this year and he also sat out until December because of a contract dispute. Since his return to the lineup, he’s picked up just two assists in 11 games, and they both came in the same game. We know how talented the 22-year-old is, now he just needs to get up to speed with the rest of his teammates. All he needs is a little more time.

Karl Alzner – Montreal Canadiens: After signing a lucrative free-agent contract in the summer of 2017, Alzner found himself as a healthy scratch pretty regularly in the first half of the season. Then, to make matters even worse, the Canadiens assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Laval. Alzner has since been recalled, but he still doesn’t appear to fit in his team’s plans. A fresh start somewhere else may help him, but he’s just not built for this new NHL.

James Neal – Calgary Flames: Neal decided to leave Vegas to join Calgary on July 1st, but that decision is looking shockingly bad right now. The Flames gave the veteran winger a five-year, $28.75 million deal this summer, only to watch it blow up in their face so far. Neal has three goals and four assists in 38 games, and he hasn’t scored since Nov. 1 (24 games). Although he got a fresh start in Calgary a few months ago, it sure looks like he needs another one.

Tuukka Rask – Boston Bruins: The 2018-19 season has been a tough one for Rask. Not only did he have to leave the team for personal reasons earlier this year, he also hasn’t been very good on the ice. The Bruins made a nice move when they signed Jarolsav Halak last summer, but there’s no way they expected him to play as often as he has. Rask has to find a way to be more consistent if the Bruins are going to make a serious push in April and May.

Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils: Not many NHLers had a worse calendar year than Schneider. Not only did he deal with some significant injuries, he also went all of 2018 without recording a victory, as he went 0-14-2 in 17 starts. Keith Kinkaid has done a nice job for the Devils, but they need their starting goaltender to play a much higher level.

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.

Penguins lock up Jake Guentzel with five-year, $30M extension

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford scratched off one more thing from his to-do list on Thursday as the team announced they’ve signed Jake Guentzel to a five-year, $30M extension.

“Jake established himself as an impact player for our team from the beginning, especially during 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs,” Rutherford said in a press release. “He has become a core player on the team and we are thrilled to get Jake signed long-term with the Penguins.”

Guenztel, who was selected No. 77 overall in the 2013 draft, made an immediate impact after joining the Penguins during the 2016-17 NHL season. After scoring 16 goals and recording 33 points during the regular season, he led all players in goals scored during that postseason with 13 and helped them to the first of two straight championships. He followed that up with a 22-goal season in 2017-18 and 10 goals and 21 points in 12 playoff games last spring. This season he has 15 goals and 33 points in 36 games.

The 24-year-old Nebraska-Omaha product has found a consistent home on Sidney Crosby‘s wing and proven he has staying power there by his finishing and playmaking abilities. SInce entering the league he’s averaged 0.72 points per game, which puts him in company with the likes of Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, William Nylander, David Perron, and Jeff Carter. He’s also tied for sixth in playoff points per game (1.12) among players with at least 10 games played since the 2017 postseason.

This is a fantastic deal for the Penguins considering Guentzel’s production so far and the fact that he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. He would have been a restricted free agent on July 1 and held arbitration rights and this deal buys two of what would been his unrestricted free agent years. He’s also now one of only 13 NHL players 25 or younger who have a cap hit of at least $6M.

When you look at how much salaries are increasing as the cap ceiling rises, we might look back on this extension as a huge steal for the Penguins in a few years’ time.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.