Patrik Laine

NHL Power Rankings: Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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With the NHL just announcing how Phase 2 will work — but not even exactly when it will start — the NHL has a long way to go before a 24-team playoff format might actually happen. That “long way to go” part gives us a lot of time to mull over different possibilities, though. So let’s mull, then.

A lot must still be determined, but if everything holds, there will be eight “play-in” series (four per conference, featuring the 5th through 12th seeds). Each series would include a best-of-five format.

So which of those current, play-in series would be the best? Which would brim with drama, even with fans relegated to watch at home? Let’s rank them. You can also see the proposed 24-team NHL playoff format at the bottom of this post.

1. Penguins vs. Canadiens

Look, it’s true that there’s a lot of evidence that the Carey Price players imagine has not been the Carey Price players actually face most nights over the past, say, three years.

But in your heart of hearts, can you truly dismiss how fun it could be to see “Carey Price vs. Sidney Crosby” in headlines? Especially when you can throw Evgeni Malkin in the mix? Then maybe Brendan Gallagher to add some humorous wrinkles on TikTok?

The actual, not just imagined, hockey would really sell it. Even with a more defensive bent at times in 2019-20, the Penguins remain one of the league’s most electric teams. Sometimes that electricity stems from the static energy of making mistakes. For all of the Canadiens’ flaws, they are the sort of smaller, speedy, skilled team that might carry upset potential during these uncertain times. Montreal boasts the possession numbers of a viable team, too.

Maybe Shea Weber can shoot a puck through a net and make us forget about the state of the world for at least a few moments?

Bonus points if this would set the stage for the Penguins facing the Flyers, who currently stand as the East’s fourth seed.

2. Oilers vs. Blackhawks

When in doubt, go with star power. You could do a lot worse than Connor McDavid vs. Patrick Kane. Heck, you could do worse than Leon Draisaitl vs. Jonathan Toews, too.

In a macro sense, there are some parallels between the way the teams are built, too. McDavid and Draisaitl often feel the burden of carrying not-so-balanced Oilers teams. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are a very top-heavy, deeply flawed team. But their top players are dangerous.

Corey Crawford‘s quietly strong finish to 2019-20 sprinkles in some extra intrigue as well.

If nothing else, this could be messy-but-fun.

3. Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Sometimes you stick to star power. Other times, you subsist on the potential for soap opera drama.

On one side, you have the explosive Maple Leafs, whose explosiveness can backfire. The media will seize on any of their stumbles, and this talented team nonetheless gives critics plenty to chew on.

On the other, you have John Tortorella, who basically has a quota for dramatic press conferences. The NHL basically owes us some controversial calls to leave Torts fuming. It’s basically an unwritten right for us hockey fans. Don’t let us down during this play-in series, then, NHL.

The contrast between a defensive-minded team and an explosive offense can let us olds rattle off “irresistible force vs. immovable object” references if we really feel saucy.

Speaking of saucy, it’s possible the Maple Leafs would go on to face the (gulp) Bruins.

4. Flames vs. Jets

If this happened a year earlier, it might take the top spot. Both teams have fallen quite a bit, though, making this a series where you wonder if they can reclaim past magic.

Even with tempered expectations, the Jets and Flames bring a lot to the table. Matthew Tkachuk has all of that pent-up pest energy from the pandemic pause. Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine can fill up highlight reels. Mark Giordano vs. Blake Wheeler would be fun.

From an actual hockey standpoint, this series might deserve a better spot on the list.

5. Hurricanes vs. Rangers

You have to assume that the Hurricanes will come up with some sort of viral sensation, right? They’ll stumble upon something.

Luckily, the Hurricanes can back up that sizzle with the steak of good hockey. Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho also give Carolina more star power than most might realize.

All of that aside, it will be tough to resist this becoming “The Artemi Panarin Show.” He generated justified Hart Trophy hype, and the Rangers were finishing pretty strong this season.

(I’m admittedly artificially boosting this on the hope that we’ll get one last Rangers playoff run from Henrik Lundqvist, by the way.)

6. Canucks vs. Wild

I’m not sure the hockey world has totally clued in to how great Elias Pettersson is. The play-in for the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a great opportunity to see the light.

7. Predators vs. Coyotes

There’s no way we can sneak P.K. Subban back onto the Predators for entertaining purposes, is there? (*Puts hand to imaginary earpiece*) It appears there is no way.

These two teams can play some high-quality hockey when they’re on. For all of Nashville’s headaches, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis were incredible this season. Maybe Pekka Rinne can get back on track, and create a memorable goalie duel with Darcy Kuemper? (Kuemper deserves more credit for his elite work from the past two seasons.)

Even with no Subban, there are players to watch. How might Taylor Hall perform with a lot to prove, and his next contract hovering? Will Phil Kessel rebound, or at least amuse us?

8. Islanders vs. Panthers

As much as people might want to replay John Tavares‘ series-clinching goal (it ruled), that clip might honestly bother both Panthers and Islanders fans at this point.

*cough* And yet I must …

 

There’s not really much of a rivalry here, yet even as the eighth-ranked NHL play-in series, it’s not that hard to find reasons to get excited.

Can the Islanders contain an explosive Panthers offense starring Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov? Maybe Sergei Bobrovsky can get his mojo back after a wildly disappointing first Florida foray? Joel Quenneville vs. Barry Trotz is kind of fun. And, really, take any excuse you can to witness the splendor of Mathew Barzal.

However you rank the NHL’s potential play-in series, the odds are strong that you’ll get some fun hockey. Will it be strange to watch it without fans? Sure, but the talent and intrigue might just make it all work.

Brushing up on the NHL’s proposed 24-team playoff format, including play-in series

As a reminder, here’s how it might look, and what we’re basing the play-in series upon.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Bruins
Lightning
Capitals
Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
Blues
Avalanche
Golden Knights
Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

Long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets

Long-term outlook Winnipeg Jets Laine Connor Hellebuyck
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Winnipeg Jets.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With the exception of Patrik Laine — who they could theoretically extend during the offseason – the Jets locked down most of their core over the years.

Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck possess two of the “shorter” long-term contracts among that core group, and their affordable contracts run through 2023-24. (Blake Wheeler‘s does, as well, but that’s a little more troubling being that the often-underrated winger is now 33.)

Beyond that Wheeler worry, there’s a lot to like, especially since Wheeler is comfortably the highest paid at $8.25M AAV.

(Actually, Bryan Little‘s contract was troubling from day one, but sadly, he might go on LTIR quite credibly.)

If Kevin Cheveldayoff can extend Laine at a reasonable price, this group could be cost-conscious enough for Winnipeg to even take advantage of other teams possibly facing cap squeezes. It makes me wonder: could the Jets go after another core piece in free agency? Signing, say, Alex Pietrangelo would make them stronger and weaken Central Division rival St. Louis.

Even as a “budget” team, the possibilities are intriguing for the Jets to improve upon their long-term core. That said, improvements might be needed for the Jets to truly soar.

Long-term needs for Jets

It’s remarkable that Hellebuyck (and some star scorers) dragged Winnipeg to playoff contention, because that group was rough this season.

Neal Pionk turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise, to the point that he might be able to join the core to an extent. And, for sure, Josh Morrissey is a steady presence. But things dry up quite a bit beyond that, and an ideal contender probably would ask less of both of them, particularly Morrissey.

So, can Ville Heinola eventually be a key defender? How will Sami Niku’s development go?

Getting steps in development, overall, is a long-term key for the Jets. Jack Roslovic strikes me as someone who can do more, but he needs opportunities. What, exactly, is Laine’s ceiling? Will the Jets actually boost him up to reach it?

The Jets have to hope that they can mitigate the eventual drop-off for Wheeler, who’s already sinking a bit at 33. (By his standards.)

They could also use some more depth. It’s probably not a coincidence that, year after year (Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to even Cody Eakin), they seem to need to burn assets to add 2C and/or 3C help. Laurent Brossoit had a tough season, casting some doubt on the backup position.

I’ll also endlessly wonder if Paul Maurice is all that far above your average coach. But, hey, give the dude credit for being a long-term bench presence even with … meh results more often than not.

Long-term strengths for Jets

The sheer youth of this team is something to get excited about. Laine just turned 22. Kyle Connor seems to be jumping another level at 23, while Nikolaj Ehlers is a transition menace at 24. Hellebuyck is 26, Mark Scheifele is only 27, and Morrissey is 25.

I mentioned possibly pitching a deal at Pietrangelo because the Jets see a lot of space opening up.

Losing Dustin Byfuglien hurts, but his age was making his contract risky anyway. The Jets signing Kulikov furrowed my brow, yet now they can use that money toward … uh, someone good? (Sorry, Kulikov.)

It’s not always easy to lure free agents to Winnipeg, but a) they’ve become a consistent winner and b) might be one of the only winners with cash to burn during the uncertain, upcoming offseason.

That mixture of prime-age talent, solid maneuverability, and a steady-and-solid front office should put the Jets in a solid position to compete for some time. They do need Cheveldayoff to make the right moves to get back at a high level again, as Hellebuyck camouflaged a steep decline — one that quietly brewed even toward the end of 2018-19.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

A best on best mythical tournament: 23-and-under team

Jack Eichel #9 of the Buffalo Sabres prepares for a faceoff during an NHL game against Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next three Thursdays.

The first team to enter the competition will be a roster comprised of players 23 years of age or younger. Think a Team North America in 2020. In recent years, younger players have made an instant impact at the NHL level and this team is filled with already established superstars.

Line Combinations

First line: Sebastian Aho – Connor McDavid – David Pastrnak

Thoughts: Leon Draisaitl has benefitted greatly from playing alongside McDavid this season and the addition of two dynamic goal scorers (Aho, Pastrnak) should produce an explosive top line. Aho’s ability to light the lamp and create plays should be a perfect fit to round out the group.

Second line: Andrei Svechnikov – Auston Matthews – Patrik Laine

Thoughts: Matthews has the puck-handling skill and on-ice vision to be an elite distributor with Laine alongside him. The size of all three forwards will be tough for most defensive pairings to handle.

Third line: Kyle Connor – Jack Eichel – Mikko Rantanen

Thoughts: Can this line match up with the opposition’s best and still produce offensively? The trio has the skill to be a top line for most NHL teams, but these three will be relied upon to play a smart, efficient, two-way game.

Fourth line: Matthew Tkachuk – Dylan Larkin – Mitchell Marner

Thoughts: The inclusion of Larkin over a Mathew Barzal or Elias Pettersson will raise some questions, but he was the best option to be a fourth line center and contribute on the penalty kill. Matthew Tkachuk will provide some toughness and size to add an important element to the group.

First D pairing: Zach Werenski – Cale Makar
Second D pairing: Thomas Chabot – Charlie McAvoy
Third D pairing: Rasmus Dahlin – Adam Fox

Thoughts: The second pairing will likely match up against the opposition’s best, but each combination has a strong mix of complementary characteristics. I initially thought it would be tough to find a strong group of mature defensemen in this age range, but these players have established themselves as high-end D-men.

Starting Goalie: Carter Hart
Backup Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Just Missed: Mathew Barzal, Quinn Hughes, Travis Konecny, Elias Pettersson, Ivan Provorov

Captain: Connor McDavid
Alternate captains: Zach Werenski and Charlie McAvoy

Analysis

This team should not struggle to score with a ton of fire power in the offensive unit. With two of the top three and six of the top 10 goal scorers from the current season, it will be hard to contain this prolific group of forwards.

Two areas of weakness for this team are its ability to play a strong two-way game in even strength situations and kill off timely penalties. Players of this ilk have the ability to play any style but the question will be if players like Eichel and Marner could buy in to a defensive oriented role.

Additionally, their goaltenders are unproven but have the talent needed to play against the world’s best.

Nevertheless, the amount of skill on this team should help them overcome any obstacles and be a formidable challenge for any opponent. The roster has several established leaders, but young stars of the NHL are always eager to prove they belong in the conversation with the game’s best. Channeling that emotion in the proper way could be the difference between a successful tournament run or an early exit.

Surprising omissions:

Quinn Hughes: The young blueliner has been sensational for the Canucks. He is currently in a tight race with Makar for the Calder Trophy awarded to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL. But the team will need size on the backend and cannot carry three undersized defensemen.

Elias Pettersson: The Swedish center is an excellent talent but didn’t fill a need when creating the lineup. While his talent is immense, this is a player that received the short end of the stick in order to build the most complete roster.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

The Buzzer: McDavid injury scare; More Kovalchuk magic

Kovalchuk magic McDavid injury scare The Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets

Consider a handful of Jets as the true recipients of this first star.

To begin, Laine generated a hat trick on Saturday. This marks the eighth hat trick of Laine’s young career, although it’s remarkably his first since Nov. 24, 2018. Laine improved to 51 points (in 54 games) this season, already exceeding last season’s 50. As promising as it is to see Laine become more of a playmaker, it also must be thrilling to see him fill the net like he did against Ottawa:

Other Jets give Laine plenty of competition for the first star of that win, and of Saturday in general. Kyle Connor actually scored more points with four, collecting one goal and three assists. Neal Pionk authored a three-point game of his own (1G, 2A). Laine nabbed a hat trick, including the game-winner, giving him a slight edge.

(Interestingly, Laine scored all three goals on the power play.)

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Couturier comes out on top in another situation where multiple teammates present an argument. Couturier generated one more goal (2G, 1) than Claude Giroux (1G, 2A) as both managed three-point outputs.

And, really, Couturier deserves all the plaudits one can provide as a perennial Selke candidate. Beyond the three points, Couturier enjoyed a +2 rating, fired five SOG, and went 14-4 on faceoffs. Even casual hockey fans should know Couturier is a star by now.

Coutrier and the Flyers blew the game open during this stretch, pushing Alex Ovechkin‘s pursuit of 700 to Monday.

3. Dillon Dube, Calgary Flames

It was tough to leave Mackenzie Blackwood (37-save shutout) and Jake Gardiner (three assists in Carolina’s comeback) out of the three stars.

Dube factored heavily in Calgary’s win and Vancouver’s fourth loss in a row on Saturday, however. Dube scored the game-winning goal and two assists, not needing an empty-netter to pump up his totals.

If Dube can put together NHL-quality work down the stretch, it would be huge for Calgary. He’s been a productive AHL scorer (at least a point-per-game in 2018-19 and 2019-20). There would be serious value in Dube merely becoming a useful supporting cast member for the depth-challenged Flames.

McDavid gets an injury scare

The Oilers are no strangers to crossing their fingers about Connor McDavid‘s knees. McDavid suffered a scare on Saturday, but the early word is optimistic. Dave Tippett told reporters that McDavid only suffered a bruised knee, and that it’s nothing serious.

Still, it’s a situation to watch, what with McDavid getting the knee iced during the game and also afterward.

Pronger honored

The Blues announced that Chris Pronger’s number 44 will be retired. It’s remarkable to ponder just how much Pronger accomplished with the Blues — including winning a Hart Trophy — and yet just as many people remember him most for impressive playoff runs with the Ducks, Oilers, and Flyers.

(On that note: I still believe Pronger should own at least one Conn Smythe Trophy.)

Saturday’s other best highlight

Honestly, this warrants a mention for Ilya Kovalchuk‘s celebration alone. It’s as if Kovalchuk is a totally new person (or his old self?) with the Montreal Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Kovalchuk moved into third place in NHL history with his 17th overtime goal (Sportsnet Stats).
  • Blackwood became the second Devil to generate shutouts in consecutive appearances. Good luck catching Martin Brodeur, though, being that he’s done so on eight different occasions. (NHL PR)
  • Nikita Kucherov ranks as the fifth player during the last 30 years to generate at least five different point streaks of 10+ games during the span of three seasons. Wayne Gretzky managed six from 1989-90 through 1991-92. (NHL PR)
  • Tanner Pearson continues to quietly produce for the Canucks. He’s tied for the second-highest total of points on the team since Nov. 12 with 34. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • Giroux generated his 800th regular-season point on Saturday. That places him fourth in Flyers history, and only 83 behind Bill Barber for second. Bobby Clarke will be tough to catch at 1,210, though. (NHL PR)

Scores

WPG 5 – OTT 2
BOS 4 – ARI 2
MTL 2 – TOR 1 (OT)
TBL 3 – NYI 1
PIT 3 – FLA 2
NJD 3 – LAK 0
PHI 7 – WSH 2
COL 2 – CBJ 1
EDM 3 – NSH 2
DAL 3 – STL 2 (OT)
CGY 6 – VAN 2
CAR 6 – VGK 5 (SO)

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.

PHT Time Machine: Mario Lemieux’s 5 goals, 5 different ways

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back back to Dec. 31, 1988 when Pittsburgh Penguins center Mario Lemieux became the first — and only — player to score five goals, five different ways in the same game.

It was 31 years ago Tuesday that Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux accomplished what was probably his most incredible single-game achievement: Scoring five goals in every possible way during an 8-6 win over the New Jersey Devils.

His goals: An even-strength goal, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal, a penalty shot goal (which was also while the Penguins were shorthanded), and an empty-net goal.

They are all in the featured video above. Notice the commentary just before the first goal that says the Penguins really need a “big game” from Lemieux. He delivered.

It was the first five-goal game of his career, while he also finished with eight total points, factoring into every single goal the Penguins scored. It was his second eight-point game of the season. He recorded at least five points in a game 12 different times, including three seven-point games. He finished the season with 199 points (while missing four games) but only finished second in the Hart Trophy voting behind Wayne Gretzky who had just finished his first season with the Los Angeles Kings. It remains one of the most controversial MVP votes in league history (read about that here).

Some other random facts from that game

  • His five goals gave him 43 for the season. It was only the Penguins’ 38th game.
  • Not crazy enough? His eight points put him over the 100-point mark for the season. In game 38. It was the third-fastest climb to 100 points in league history, behind only a couple of early 1980s Wayne Gretzky seasons.
  • His first three goals (even-strength, power play, shorthanded) came in the game’s first 10 minutes.
  • His shorthanded goal was already his seventh of the season. He would go on to score an NHL record (that still stands today) 13 shorthanded goals that season. He scored 10 the year before.
  • An underrated and completely overlooked performance in this game is that Kirk Muller, the No. 2 pick in the 1984 draft, just one spot behind Lemieux, had five points. His team lost by two goals. The 1980s were really something.
  • Speaking of, this was a classic 1980s game in the sense that there were 14 total goals and 68 total penalty minutes between the two teams. There were no fighting majors in the game, but New Jersey’s Steve Rooney was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for cross-checking late in the first period.

This just seems to be one of those accomplishments that will be nearly impossible to duplicate in the modern game.

Consider the fact that any five-goal performances is almost unheard of now.

There have only been 11 five-goal games in the NHL since this performance by Lemieux, and two of those games belong to Lemieux himself.

There have only been three since 1996 (Marian Gaborik in 2007, Johan Franzen in 2011, and Patrik Laine in 2018).

Since the start of the 1979-80 season, there have only been 134 instances where a player recorded a hat trick with at least one even-strength goal, one shorthanded goal, and one power play goal. There is also the fact that penalties are down across the league from where they used to be (negating the number of power play and shorthanded chances players get) and penalty shots are now extremely rare.

It is probably the one feat in NHL history that you can say with probably 99.9 percent certainty that it will never be accomplished again.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

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.