Sebastian Aho

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.

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.

What is the long-term outlook for the Hurricanes?

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 Carolina Hurricanes.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

This has the potential to be one of the best long-term situations in the league given their collective age (one of the youngest teams in the league), the talent and potential on the roster, as well as the fact that so many of the key players are already signed to long-term deals.

The Montreal Canadiens did them a huge favor this offseason by signing Sebastian Aho to an easily matchable offer sheet, locking him in place for the next five years.

Meanwhile, Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, and Brett Pesce are all signed to long-term deals for at least the next two seasons. Several of them signed beyond that, while only two of those players (Aho and Staal) count more than $5.5 million against the salary cap individually.

Add in the fact that Dougie Hamilton is signed for another year, while Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas are both still on their entry-level deals and will not be eligible for unrestricted free agency for another six seasons and all of the most important players are locked in place.

Out of that core group, Staal is the only one over the age of 30 (currently 31), while the majority of them are still age 26 or younger. That means they are all either in the prime of their careers right now, or are just about to reach their prime years in the coming seasons.

Aho, Svechnikov, and Necas are already outstanding players, and all might still have their best days ahead of them.

Long-Term Needs

Goaltending has been the single biggest question mark for this team for almost a decade now, and that still might be the case.

That is not meant to be a knock on the current duo of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. They have been solid this season when healthy, and a team could certainly do worse than having those two as their regular goalie tandem.

Given the overall strength of the team — and especially the defense when it is healthy — they do not need a game-saving superstar between the pipes to give them a chance. They simply need solid, steady, consistent play. They are getting that.

The question comes from the fact that I just do not know if either one is a true long-term solution in net, and if they have that solution somewhere else in their organization right now.

Both players are signed through the end of next season.

Other than maybe finding a potentially better long-term option in net, there are not a lot of truly pressing needs here. As mentioned above, their core group is locked in place and the addition of Trocheck from the Florida Panthers just before the trade deadline adds what could be an ideal long-term fit in the second-line center spot.

Long-Term Strengths

This current core has been built around its young defense, and that is still by far the team’s biggest strength both now and in the immediate future.

Slavin, Pesce, Skjei, and Gardiner are all signed through at least the 2022-23 season, while the former three all go through the end of the 2023-24 season. Add in Hamilton, who is signed through the end of next season, and that is as good of a top-five as you will find in the NHL right now. They are all in the prime of their careers, they are all outstanding players that fit the modern NHL game with their mobility and puck skills, and they are the backbone of what has been one of the league’s best teams when it comes to limiting shots and scoring chances over the past four years.

If they can manage to get Hamilton re-signed that would be another major piece in place.

Along with the defense, they also have what look to be two of the most important pieces for any contending team already in place with the duo Aho and Svechnikov — impact forwards that can carry the offense.

Aho is already a sensational player and a top-line star, while Svechnikov might end up being the best of the bunch. Aho’s contract could end up looking like a steal over the next four years, while Svechnikov still has one more year on an entry-level contract, giving them a huge advantage when it comes to adding pieces next season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Hurricanes
Hurricanes surprises and disappointments
• John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Carolina Hurricanes

Record: 38-25-5 (68 games), Fourth place in Metropolitan Division; first Wild Card spot in Eastern Conference
Leading scorer: Sebastian Aho 66 points (38 goals, 28 assists)

In-season roster moves

  • Acquired defenseman Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils for Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrik Claesson, and a conditional 2020 fourth-round draft pick.
  • Acquired defenseman Brady Skjei from the New York Rangers for a 2020 first-round draft pick.
  • Traded for Vincent Trocheck by sending Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Eetu Luostarinen, and Chase Priskie to the Florida Panthers.
  • Veteran forward Justin Williams returned mid-season after using the first half of the season to contemplate his future.

Season Overview

After their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final during the 2018-19 season, expectations were sky high for the Hurricanes at the start of this season.

The results so far have been a bit of a mixed bag.

At the time of the NHL’s hiatus the Hurricanes occupied the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference but were in the middle of an intense fight alongside the Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Florida Panthers for those two playoff spots. They still seem to have the inside track for one of them, but the overall results may not be exactly as good as they hoped given their success last year and the improvements they attempted to make to the roster in the offseason (additions of Jake Gardiner, Erik Haula, Ryan Dzingel) and internal improvements from young players like Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas.

One of the biggest things that has held them back — injuries.

Specifically, the injuries to top defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce.

Prior to breaking a bone in his leg in mid-January, Hamilton was not only having a Norris Trophy caliber season, he may have been the best all-around defensemen in the NHL this season. It was a completely dominant performance and one that was not going to be easy to replace.

When Pesce was injured a month later — along with James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, the teams top two goalies — it put a pretty significant dent in their greatest overall strength.

They attempted to address the defense at the trade deadline by acquiring Vatanen and Skjei in separate trades, while also adding another potential impact forward in Trocheck. The latter joins an already impressive core of forwards that includes Aho, Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen.

Assuming everyone on defense is healthy, that is a potentially imposing roster.

Highlight of the Season

What else could it be other than 42-year-old David Ayres, a zamboni driver by day, entering a game and getting the win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

MORE:
Hurricanes’ biggest surprises and disappointments
Hurricanes long-term outlook
John Forslund tells his quarantine story

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.

The Buzzer: Streaks go wrong way for Islanders, Flyers, Stars

Canucks extend Islanders losing streak, streaks go bad for Stars Flyers
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Stars, Islanders, and Flyers don’t get good breaks regarding their respective streaks

Tuesday was a bad day for streaks, whether teams wanted to end them (Islanders, Stars) or continue them (Flyers).

As discussed earlier, Tuukka Rask blanked the Flyers to end Philly’s winning streak at nine games. You can read more about that here, and get more info on Rask’s performance below.

Again, teams that wanted their streaks to end didn’t have luck, either. The Islanders put forth a valiant effort, taking the Canucks to a shootout. Vancouver took home the win, however, pushing the Islanders’ streak to seven straight losses. On the bright side, the Islanders are at least hanging in the wild-card races by managing four “charity points” during this skid (0-3-4). Still, being limited to two wins since Feb. 13 (2-7-4) is no way to secure a playoff spot. The Islanders also play eight of their next 11 games on the road, which won’t make things any easier.

The Stars aren’t in quite the same dogfight to secure a 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs spot, but they must be troubled by the Rangers extending their losing streak to six games (0-4-2). Home-ice looks unlikely after this slump, but Dallas seems reasonably insulated as far as holding onto the third Central spot is concerned … unless this really festers.

Three Stars

1. Nicolas Deslauriers, Anaheim Ducks

With some big performances in bigger games on Tuesday, it was tough to give this spot to a player who won a game between to dreary teams in the Ducks and Senators.

That said, a hat trick is tough to argue with … and a natural hat trick is nigh-undeniable. In this case, it’s fully undeniable, as I’m giving the nod to Deslauriers.

If you don’t like the highlight of the night pick later in this post, soothe your seething anger with this as the alt choice:

Deslauriers generated his hat trick 11:49 into the Ducks’ win, breaking Teemu Selanne’s old mark (12:58) as the fastest in franchise history. It’s also the earliest hat trick since Taylor Hall generated three 7:53 into a March 30, 2013 game as a member of the Oilers (both via NHL PR).

2. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Flyers probably have a point if they argue that they should’ve extended their winning streak to 10 games. They played quite well against the Bruins, but couldn’t accomplish enough to score against Rask. Rask managed a 36-save shutout to celebrate his 33rd birthday on Tuesday.

Rask helped the Bruins reach 100 points before any other NHL teams. This also happens to be the seventh time the Bruins reached 100+ points in 70 games or fewer (this time 70).

3. A tie between players with two goals and one assist

Look, if you have a convincing argument for Evgeni Malkin, Sebastian Aho, or Filip Forsberg authoring the superior two-goal, one-assist game on Tuesday, have at it. All three are excellent players, and I didn’t really see much that made one stand far above the other on this specific night.

Highlight of the Night

Hey, it technically doesn’t need to be the NHL highlight of the night, does it? Maybe not? Kings prospect and WHL goalie Lukas Parik scored a goal, and that’s good enough for me. Parik plays for the Spokane Chiefs, and may have a chance to score an NHL goal, as the Kings selected Parik 87th overall in 2019.

NHL Standings after a bad night for streaks

East, with wild card battles continuing to confuse

West, with a nice jump for Predators

Scores

 

TOR 2 – TBL 1
NSH 4 – MTL 2
PIT 5 – NJD 2
BOS 2 – PHI 0
CAR 5 – DET 2
NYR 4 – DAL 2
ANA 5 – OTT 2
VAN 5 – NYI 4 (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.