Nico Hischier

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.

NHL Trade Deadline: Non-UFAs who could move

NHL Trade Deadline
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The NHL trade deadline is just a few weeks away and we already have a pretty good idea as to which players are a good bet to be traded based on their contract situation (pending unrestricted free agents) and their current team’s place in the standings (out of the playoff picture with little hope of playing back into it).

Ottawa is almost certainly going to trade Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

The New York Rangers are probably going to trade Chris Kreider.

The Los Angeles Kings seem like a good bet to deal Tyler Toffoli.

Montreal should absolutely try to see what it can get for Ilya Kovalchuk following his brief offensive resurgence with the Canadiens.

These are the near-locks, as many pending UFA’s are on non-playoff teams. But every year there is always that surprising trade, usually one that involves in a player that still has term remaining on their contract. Last year it was Los Angeles trading Jake Muzzin and Minnesota trading Mikael Granlund.

Let’s take a look at some potential options this season.

Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

Contract remaining: Three more full seasons (through 2022-23 season) with a $5.5 million per year salary cap hit.

Why he could be moved: The already tried to move him (and very nearly did) on two different occasions over the past year. To be fair, that was a different general manager pulling those strings and it’s possible that Bill Guerin has a long-term vision that includes Zucker. But barring some kind of dramatic second half turnaround the Wild seem destined to miss the playoffs for a second straight year and shouldn’t be opposed to listening to offers on any player. One team that apparently has a lot of interest: Guerin’s former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They have a need for a top-six winger with Jake Guentzel sidelined, Zucker would be a fit with their style of play, and they were one of the teams that nearly acquired him when Paul Fenton seemed hellbent on trying to trade him.

What he might cost: Zucker’s not a star, but he is a fast, two-way player that is going to score 20 goals and 50 points every year while helping out on the defensive end. With still three years remaining the Wild should easily be able to get two or three assets for him if they decide to move on: First-round pick, a good prospect or young NHL player, and one lesser “throw in” asset (late round pick, fringe prospect).

(UPDATE: Zucker has been dealt to the Penguins for a package of Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison, and a conditional first-round pick.)

Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

Contract remaining: One more full season (through 2020-21) with $5.3 million salary cap hit

Why he could be moved: The Canadiens are going nowhere this season and it could be a good opportunity to sell high on Tatar who has been simply outstanding in his season-and-a-half with the team. Since joining the Canadiens he has 43 goals and 104 points in 132 games, while also posting some of the best possession numbers in the entire league. Of the more than 660 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey since the start of the 2018-19 season, Tatar ranks in the top-five in shot attempt share, scoring chance share, high-danger scoring chance share, expected goals share, and goal differential. Even going back to his Detroit days he is a near lock for 25 goals and is an outstanding possession driver.

What he might cost: We have some idea here because Tatar has been traded twice on this very same contract, including once at the deadline when a bad Detroit team traded him to a contender (Vegas) in 2017-18. Vegas gave up a first, second, and third round pick for him. Three assets. It was viewed as an overpayment at the time — and still is — but that’s not entirely fair. Had Tatar worked out in Vegas they would have had a top-line talent for what amounts to three low-ceiling lottery tickets. Unfortunately he got off to a slow start, never had a chance to prove himself over a full season, and was traded for Max Pacioretty (a trade that has worked out for Vegas).

Alec Martinez, Los Angeles Kings

Contract remaining: One more full season (through 2020-21) with a $4 million salary cap hit.

Why he could be moved: The Kings are one of the worst teams in the league and need to re-tool rapidly. Martinez is one of the few players on the team that might bring a decent return.

What he might cost: Los Angeles traded Jake Muzzin last season under almost the exact same circumstances — A bad Kings team trading a veteran defenseman with one year remaining with a $4 million salary cap hit. The only big difference is that Muzzin was 29 (vs. Martinez at age 32) and was having a better season. The Kings received a first-round pick and two prospects (Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi) for Muzzin. Given Martinez’s age and somewhat down season they probably shouldn’t expect quite as much, but the framework should be similar (draft pick and a prospect).

(UPDATE: Martinez has been dealt to the Golden Knights in exchange for second-round picks in 2020 and 2021.)

Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

Contract remaining: One more full season (through 2020-21) with a $4.65 million salary cap hit

Why he could be moved: The Devils have been a spectacular disappointment this season, still seem to be several pieces away from contending, and outside of their pending free agents don’t really have many realistic trade options that can bring a return. Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are the untouchables. P.K. Subban‘s value has to be at an all-time low given his performance this season and remaining contract. Travis Zajac and Andy Greene have complete no-trade clauses, with Zajac reportedly declining a trade already this year.

Palmieri is a really good player, but turns 29 on Saturday, will be 30 when he starts his next contract, and only has a limited no-trade clause, making it easier to deal him. As good as he is, he might have more trade value to the Devils right now than he does as a player for them beyond this season. They’re probably not a playoff team next season whether he plays for them or not.

What he might cost: Very similar to the Zucker/Tatar price. Tatar and Zucker are both probably better overall players, but there is a lot to be said for Palmieri’s ability to put the puck in the net. He’s averaged a 30-goal pace per 82 games with the Devils (a lousy offensive team during his time with the team) and still has another full year remaining on his deal. A first-round pick and a good prospect seems like a must-have starting point for the Devils.

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

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at where things stand around the league as the second half of the 2019-20 NHL season is set to begin.

The top Stanley Cup contenders, the teams making a big move to climb the standings, the teams still on the playoff bubble, and the teams that are already looking ahead to next season (and probably beyond).

Where does every team currently sit? To the rankings!

TOP CONTENDERS

The teams that stand out above the rest as Stanley Cup Contenders right now…

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and Co. are in position to win another Presidents’ Trophy and have all the ingredients to win another Stanley Cup.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are flat out dominating teams again. Two years ago the Capitals finally broke through after years of disappointment. Last year it was the Blues. Maybe this year it is the Lightning.

3. St. Louis Blues. Winning it all two years in a row is an extremely difficult task in the NHL (it has only happened three times in the past three decades) but this Blues team looks just as good as the championship version from a year ago, and is doing it without its best offensive player (Vladimir Tarasenko).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They simply look and play like the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 and they still have some key players to get back in the lineup.

5. Boston Bruins. One of the best lines in the league and two outstanding goalies. Could use a tweak or two to their depth lines and a little more from Charlie McAvoy and some of their defensemen, but they will be there when it counts.

6. Colorado Avalanche. They are positioned for a run of dominance in the Western Conference for years to come.

TEAMS MAKING A BIG MOVE RIGHT NOW

Maybe not Stanley Cup contenders at the moment, but these are some of the hottest teams in the league …

7. Columbus Blue Jackets. Superb goaltending can mask a lot of flaws and carry a team to places no one expected it to be.

8. Florida Panthers. The highest scoring team in the league and one that could be a real sleeper in the Eastern Conference if they can just get a little more out of their goalies and defense.

9. Vancouver Canucks. One of five teams separated by just one point in the Pacific Division, but also probably the hottest with 11 wins in their past 14 games.

THE MIDDLE GROUND AND PLAYOFF BUBBLE

10. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop is playing his way toward another top-three finish in the Vezina Trophy voting. He might even win it this season. He probably should.

11. New York Islanders. They had an amazing start with a 17-game point streak but have struggled ever since. They should still be a playoff team, and a good one, but they still need another scorer.

12. Chicago Blackhawks. Even with their great play recently they are still three points out and there is no guarantee they keep playing at this pace. I’d say it’s more likely they miss the playoffs than make it, but if they get in they are the type of team that could cause problems due to their top-line talent and goalie situation.

13. Edmonton Oilers. A few weeks ago they looked like they were falling out of it, but a 6-1-1 in their past eight has brought them right back into the Pacific Division race. It would be nice to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play meaningful hockey games.

14. Philadelphia Flyers. Still the hardest team in the league to get any kind of a feel for. Not even sure they know what they have or what they are.

15. Carolina Hurricanes. This is a great young team with a bright future, but they slumped going into the break and losing Dougie Hamilton is going to be a big problem in the short-term.

16. Toronto Maple Leafs. How big of a hole did the start under Mike Babcock put them in? They are 16-7-3 since the coaching change — the sixth-best record in the league during that stretch — and one of the hottest teams in the league, and they are still four points out of a playoff spot at the moment. October and November games count, too. A lot more than people realize.

17. Calgary Flames. A big second half from Johnny Gaudreau could swing this mess of a division in their favor.

18. Vegas Golden Knights. I would expect this team to make a big push and rapidly climb the standings over the next month or two, especially if Marc-Andre Fleury gets on a roll (and he can). They are too good and too talented not to.

19. Arizona Coyotes. Taylor Hall has been just what they needed, but the wins haven’t been there very consistently. At least not yet.

20. Winnipeg Jets. They are hanging on as best they can given the state of the defense, but eventually the lack of talent on the blue line is going to be too much to overcome.

21. Nashville Predators. Their biggest advantage in the playoff race right now is the number of games they still have remaining. The key is going to be actually winning those games.

THE PLAYOFFS ARE AN ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE LONG SHOT

These teams are not totally out of it, but are close to it…

22. Montreal Canadiens. They played a little better going into the break, and could get some top players back in the lineup soon, but they have way too much ground to make up. Right now no team in a playoff position in the East is on pace for less than 100 points. Montreal needs 49 points in 32 games to reach that.

23. Buffalo Sabres. Another year of Jack Eichel‘s prime on the verge of being wasted with absolutely nothing to show for it. 

24. New York Rangers. On the plus side, Artemi Panarin is on pace for one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history.

25. Minnesota Wild. The big question here is how bold Bill Guerin gets at the trade deadline. Does he move players with term still on their contracts (Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin)?

START PLANNING FOR NEXT SEASON

26. San Jose Sharks. The single biggest disappointment in the NHL this season, and no other team is even close. Doug Wilson will get a chance to fix this, but he has his work cut out for him.

27. New Jersey Devils. Nico Hischier getting a chance to shine at the All-Star Game is probably the bright spot for the Devils this season.

28. Ottawa Senators. If you squint really hard and look really closely you can see a path for a successful rebuild here. Some good young players, no long-term commitments of any kind that creates some flexibility.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The lack of anything resembling an offense here is staggering.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Not even a bounce back season from Anze Kopitar could make a difference here.

31. Detroit Red Wings. Instead of planning for next season, planning for 2022 and beyond might be a more reasonable and realistic goal.

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.

Hischier replaces Palmieri as Devils’ All-Star Game rep

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Nico Hischier replaced Kyle Palmieri as the New Jersey Devils’ representative for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. (Palmieri suffered an injury blocking a shot during the Devils’ upset win over the Lightning on Sunday.)

This marks the first All-Star Game appearance for Hischier, 21, the first pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There might be a temptation to throw Hischier in with the Devils’ many problems. After all, the Devils lucked into two top overall picks (with Jack Hughes being the latest from 2019), made strong trades including landing Taylor Hall, yet couldn’t get it done.

Don’t blame Hischier, though.

The Swiss-born center ranks among the Devils’ brightest spots — alongside Palmieri, honestly. The young forward brings plenty to the table while rarely taking anything away. Consider his heatmap from Hockey Viz as just one illustration of Hischier’s many strengths:

If standard offensive stats work better for you, Hischier passes those tests, unless you’re grading him too harshly based on his draft status. Hischier ranks second on the Devils in scoring (28 points in 40 games), trailing only Palmieri (31 points in 44). In case you’re wondering, Hall was at 25 points in 30 games before being traded to the Coyotes.

The Devils need more players like Hischier. If his career trajectory continues as such, we also might see more of Hischier in future All-Star Games.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 24 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
All-Star Game rosters
NHL All-Star Game captains
All-Star Game coaches
Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game

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.

Where it all went wrong for Ray Shero and the Devils

Shero Devils
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The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero over the weekend, ending his four-and-a-half year run with the team.

On the surface, it’s not hard to see why the decision was made. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable.

The Devils have been a massive disappointment this season after a huge offseason, and were on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Shero’s watch. Not many general managers are going to make it through that sort of run unscathed. Especially when you consider how high expectations were in the preseason after the additions of top pick Jack Hughes and the acquisitions of Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds.

So where did it all go wrong for Shero and the Devils?

We should start with the very beginning.

1. Shero inherited a mess

While the lack of progress is the thing that will stand out in the wake of the change, it can not be understated how bad of a situation Shero walked into when he was hired by the Devils in May of 2015.

The Devils were coming off of a 2014-15 season where they had one of the worst records in the league, had missed the playoffs three years in a row, had a barren farm system, and had what was by far the oldest roster in the league.

Things were bleak. Very bleak.

Consider…

  • Seven of the top-12 scorers on the 2014-15 season were age 32 or older. Five of them were out of the NHL completely within two years.
  • Of the 35 players that appeared in a game that season, 18 of them were out of the NHL within the next two years.
  • Only two players on the team recorded more than 40 points, and nobody scored more than 43.

It was a team of fringe NHL players that were not only not very good, but were on their way out of the league.

Combine that with a mostly empty farm system and there wasn’t a lot to build on.

He had to start from the ground level and try to build a contender out of nothing. That was always going to take time.

2. The trades always seemed to look good on paper…

… But the timing and the luck was never on the Devils’ side.

Given the lack of quality talent on the NHL roster, Shero had to work quick to bring in talent from outside the organization. And when you break down his individual trades, he almost always seemed to come out on the winning side of them.

Getting Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks was a steal.

He pounced on the Capitals’ salary cap crunch and picked up Marcus Johansson for two draft picks.

Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall was one of the biggest one-for-one steals in recent league memory.

The same thing happened this summer when he managed to get Subban and Gusev for next to nothing. Combined with a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks (Nico Hischier and Hughes) and there was a huge influx of talent on paper over the past couple of years.

But for one reason or another, the results never followed.

For as promising of an addition as Johansson was, his time with the Devils was ruined by injuries that prevented him from ever making an extended impact.

Subban and Simmonds were big-name pickups this summer, but it has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on that he got them at the end of their careers.

There was even some bad luck with Hall when he lost almost the entire 2018-19 season to injury.

3. Cory Schneider rapidly declined, and the Devils never adjusted in goal

This might be the single biggest factor in the Devils’ lack of progress under Shero.

When he joined the Devils he had one franchise cornerstone that he could build around, and that was starting goalie Cory Schneider. And he was a legit building block.

Coming off the 2014-15 season Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league. Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons he owned the best save percentage in the NHL (minimum 100 games played) and was just beginning a long-term contract that was going to keep him in New Jersey for the next seven seasons.

He was also still at an age where his career shouldn’t have been in danger of falling off. But after one more elite season in 2015-16, Schneider’s career did exactly that. It fell apart.  After his 30th birthday Schneider went into a sudden and rapid decline that sunk him to the bottom tier of NHL starting goalies.

This is where Shero’s biggest failing in New Jersey came into play. He never found a goalie to replace Schneider. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and the play of their goalies this season has been one of the biggest factors in their disappointing performance.

Shero’s tenure with the Devils is a fascinating one to look at from a distance. He inherited a team that had absolutely nothing to build around and tried to swing for the fences with some big additions over the years. He made a lot of the right moves and brought in legitimate top-line talent. But some bad injury luck (Johansson; Hall a year ago), a couple of star players declining (Schneider, Subban), and his inability to make the one big move that he needed (a goalie) helped hold back what started as a promising season. The 2019-20 season ended up being one losing season too many for the Devils.

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.