Wayne Simmonds

Getty

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

6 Comments

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

Getty
1 Comment

Even during their championship glory days the New Jersey Devils were never a team known for excitement, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are winning and competing for the Stanley Cup.

But as the franchise regressed over the past eight years into a pit of mediocrity they were stuck in one of the worst possible positions an NHL team can be in — mediocre and boring.

General manager Ray Shero and his front office have done a ton of work this offseason to fix both of those problems.

They continued their overhaul on Monday by acquiring — and signing — winger Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights for draft picks.

When combined with the acquisition of P.K. Subban, the signing of Wayne Simmonds, the drafting of Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, and what will hopefully be fully healthy seasons from Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier the Devils have dramatically uploaded pretty much everything about the team.

They added impact talent that not only makes them better, but is also going to be worth watching.

They have done all of that without having to give up anything of value from their NHL roster or farm system. It has been the perfect confluence of luck (winning the draft lottery) and timing as the Devils were armed with a ton of salary cap space to help them load up in the ongoing Metropolitan Division arms race this summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with all of the improvements the Devils still have one very big question remaining that will probably make or break what happens with their 2019-20 season.

That question: Goaltending. It has been a thorn for the Devils over the past three years as they have finished 27th, 18th, and 22nd in save percentage during that time.

Veteran Cory Schneider was once of the best goalies in the league, but is entering his age 33 season and has not finished with a save percentage higher than .908 since the 2015-16 season. His .908 mark over the past three combined seasons is 35th out of the 38 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch. That is obviously not anywhere near good enough.

Mackenzie Blackwood had a promising debut last season, but with only 23 NHL games under his belt he is still a complete mystery. Especially since he did not really dominate at the American Hockey League level before getting an opportunity with the Devils.

The concern here is that if neither one is able to give the Devils an adequate performance in net it can render all of their offseason additions completely useless. There is no position that dictates what happens with a team more than goaltending. The New York Islanders showed us last season that a great performance in net can take an otherwise average team and turn it into a team that is capable of not only making the playoffs, but going reasonably far. Bad goaltending can completely sink a contender.

The good news for the Devils is that even after all of their additions this summer is that they still have more than $12 million in salary cap space to improve their roster and address their remaining weaknesses. The problem is the free agent pool for goalies is completely dry so any potential improvement (if needed) would have to come by way of trade. The Devils do still have all of their future first-round picks to use as trade chips if needed.

The new additions to the Devils lineup are going to go a long way toward putting the franchise back on the NHL map.

They just need to hope two of their returning players can solidify the most impactful position on the ice to make all of the additions worthwhile.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him to two-year deal
Predators send P.K. Subban to Devils
Devils sign Simmonds to interesting one-year contract

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.

Devils sign Simmonds to interesting one-year, $5M contract

Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils were already going to be one of the most fascinating teams to watch next season, and now they added another interesting wrinkle by signing Wayne Simmonds to what feels like a “prove it” contract at one year, $5 million.

After all, the Devils are, in a sense, trying to “prove it,” too. Specifically, they’re trying to prove that they’re a team Taylor Hall should stick with. The winger has one year left on his current contract, and considering all of the frustrations he’s dealt with during his career, Hall probably doesn’t have patience for rebuilding processes any longer.

The Devils could have stuck with that rebuilding script, and many would understand.

If landing Nico Hischier at No. 1 in 2017 wasn’t enough, Hall provided his patented lottery ball luck to the Devils once again for 2019, as New Jersey lucked into hyped top 2019 prospect Jack Hughes. Some GMs might rest on their laurels, hoping that Hall would merely see the longer future.

Credit Devils GM Ray Shero for making aggressive moves, instead, with the amazing bargain P.K. Subban trade standing as the headliner.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Adding Simmonds to the mix makes sense, and theoretically, Shero could simply offer Hall that $5M onto his next contract starting in 2019-20. The dream scenario is that Simmonds can give the Devils’ power play a boost, thus helping them make the playoffs (and ideally keep Hall), while Simmonds proves that he’s not washed up.

There’s another scenario that’s somewhere in the middle: Shero once again shows Hall that the Devils are aggressively trying to improve, even if Simmonds ends up being as limited as some fear. It’s plausible that Shero could eventually flip Simmonds for assets around the trade deadline, if worse comes to worse.

(That could also happen with Hall, which would definitely be filed under “worse.”)

Speaking of scenarios, this might be especially telling about the market for Simmonds. At 30, you’d think some teams would be enticed by his experience, grit, and potential to score goals in the “dirty areas,” but apparently Simmonds’ decline reduced his options? Or maybe Simmonds simply likes what he’s seeing in New Jersey?

Again, if Simmonds doesn’t have much left in the tank, this is an expensive gamble for the Devils, but the one-year term eliminates most reasons to worry.

The variety of good-to-great scenarios is enticing, and frankly, Simmonds probably deserves a shot at getting a contract year “right.” If he does, both Simmonds and the Devils stand to profit from this arrangement.

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.

Flyers’ Fletcher continues to be the anti-Hextall

Getty
6 Comments

When the Philadelphia Flyers fired Ron Hextall back in November it was pretty obvious the organization had become fed up with his patient approach to building the roster.

During his time as the team’s general manager, Hextall completed just 14 (mostly) insignificant trades and made only a handful of headline grabbing free agent signings (bringing back James van Riemsdyk).

Among the trades he made…

  • One of them involved nothing but draft picks as he moved down four spots in the 2016 first round.
  • Two of them were done for the purposes of dumping significant amounts of salary still owed to the likes of Chris Pronger, Luke Schenn, and Vincent Lecavalier.
  • There were a couple of minor trade deadline deals involving rentals and mid-round draft picks. Nothing that was ever going to move the needle. The most significant trade was probably moving Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera and two first-round draft picks.

This type of inaction was never going to sit well with a team like the Flyers whose entire existence is synonymous with chaos, whether it be on the ice or making bold moves to re-shape the roster.

When discussing the firing of Hextall, Paul Holmgren (who had his share of completely insane roster overhaul as the team’s general manager) said the front office and Hextall “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team,” while CEO Dave Scott literally said they were looking for a GM that had a “bias for action.”

Well, Chuck Fletcher has certainly been that, and he continued it on Monday afternoon when he traded restricted free agent Ryan Hartman to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Tyler Pitlick.

It is by no means an earth-shattering trade, and is really only noteworthy for two reasons.

The first being that it shows just how far Hartman’s stock has fallen in a short period of time. Keep in mind, he was traded (from Chicago to Nashville) for a first-round pick not even 18 months ago, and was then sent to the Flyers at this year’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Wayne Simmonds to the Predators.

Now he is off to Dallas for in a one-for-one swap for a fourth-liner that is three years older than him.

The second reason is that it is already the ninth trade that Fletcher has made since December when he was hired by the Flyers, and that number is not counting the two trades he made at the NHL draft over the weekend where he moved down from the 11th pick to the 14th pick in the first round, and then later completed a swap of seventh-round picks with the Montreal Canadiens.

There is your bias for action.

This is already Fletcher’s fourth trade this offseason involving NHL roster players after trading Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen, trading draft picks to the San Jose Sharks for Justin Braun, and giving up a draft pick for the rights to unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes and then signing him to a massive contract to keep him off the open market.

When it comes to roster moves and action he is already the anti-Ron Hextall.

But what does this mean for the results on the ice?

Until the offseason most of the trades Fletcher completed were lateral moves, like trading Anthony Stolarz for a few months of Cam Talbot, or dumping veterans at the deadline in what had quickly become a lost season.

But the summer trades have become a little more meaningful and costly.

Adding Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to your blue line would have probably been a good idea if it was still 2015. But it’s not still 2015. Neither player is what they were a few years ago, their additions added some pretty significant salary to the Flyers’ cap situation, while there is a pretty strong argument to be made that Gudas is better than both new players at this very moment in their respective careers.

As for Hayes, well, he is a pretty good player and would have probably received a similar contract on the open market had he reached free agency, but he is now the third-highest paid player on the roster and currently has one of the 45 biggest cap hits in the league … all for a 27-year-old that has topped 20 goals and 50 points in a single season exactly one time. It seems almost inevitable that within four years (maybe less) they are going to be eating salary in a trade when trying to move that contract to another team.

At the risk of overusing a tired sports cliche when it comes to roster construction, there is a “rearranging the deck chairs” kind of vibe to what is happening with the Flyers so far under Fletcher.

The names and faces are different, but the overall outlook is still pretty much the same.

It was clear that Hextall’s patient approach was not moving the Flyers forward because keeping the same roster in place was only maintaining the mediocrity the team had sunk into.

Fletcher has definitely been more aggressive and proactive in trying to improve the team, but it remains to be seen how much better they are after all of the dust settles.

They are a very different team, yes.

But are they a better team in any sort of meaningful way?

That answer will largely depend on how much Niskanen and Braun still have remaining in the tank and how much you like Kevin Hayes.

More from the Flyers
Flyers acquire Justin Braun as Sharks shed salary
Flyers trade Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen
Flyers, Hayes agree to seven-year, $50 million contract 

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 Power Rankings: Top NHL free agents to sign, and ones to avoid

15 Comments

It almost upon us.

Those few days in early July where 31 NHL general managers prepare to dive head first into the free agency pool looking to add the final missing piece to their Stanley Cup puzzle. It can be an exciting time, until everyone realizes less than a year later that the pool was too shallow for such a dive and everyone is left with a bunch of headaches because they are paying top dollar for players that have almost always played their best hockey for someone else.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the 20 top free agents available and try to separate them into the players that are going to be worth the big money they are going to get, the players that might get overpaid but still be useful, and the players that are going to carry a significant amount of risk and should probably be avoided.

To the rankings!

Best values

1. Artemi Panarin He will not be cheap but he is a superstar talent, one of the most productive players in all of hockey since he arrived in the NHL, a game-changing player, and still at an age where he should have several years of elite production ahead of him. If you can sign him, you should definitely sign him because you will not regret it.

2. Joe Pavelski During his peak Pavelski was one of the best goal scorers in the league and a criminally underrated player. As he started to get further into his 30s the goal-scoring started to decline because, well, that’s what happens when you get older. That aspect of his game saw a resurgence this past season with 38 goals in 75 games for the Sharks. That is great. What is not great is that resurgence was driven almost entirely by a 20.2 shooting percentage that was not only the highest of his career, but also way above his career average (12.5 percent). If you are expecting him to duplicate that in his age 35 season you are going to be in for a massive disappointment. Still, if he averages the same number of shots per game this upcoming season and simply shoots at his career average you are looking at around 25 goals. Combined with everything else he brings to the ice you are still getting a hell of a player, and because he is not likely to get a 5-7 year contract given his age, there is still probably a lot of value to be had here.

3. Jake Gardiner A couple of bad Game 7s will ruin his reputation among some in Toronto, but it would be idiotic to define his career (or define him as a player) based on that. He is the top defender on the market now that Erik Karlsson has re-signed in San Jose.

Boom or Bust

4. Sergei Bobrovsky We need to put Bobrovsky on a tier all to himself because he has the potential to be a worthwhile signing, while also maybe being an overpayment that also carries some significant risk. I just don’t feel strongly enough about any of those tiers to comfortably put him in one.

He has been one of the best goalies of his era and has two Vezina Trophies and an elite save percentage to prove it.

He has, at times, carried the Columbus Blue Jackets through the regular season.

He has also flopped spectacularly in the playoffs and is going to be 31 years old at the start of the 2019-20 season.

He is the best goalie available (and one of the best players available) and is probably going to end up in Florida with a HUGE contract.

His career probably is not going to just immediately crumble because he is 31 years old, but how many more years of elite play does he have in him? It is a worthwhile question to ask.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Potential overpays (but still good)

5. Matt DucheneDuchene might be the second biggest “name” on the market after Panarin, and if this were a ranking of just pure talent and who could make the biggest impact this upcoming season he would probably second or third on the list. But when you sign a free agent you are not just getting that player’s current level of production. You get the contract, the age, the likely decline, and everything that comes with it.

My biggest issue with Duchene is he seems likely to get a $9 or $10 million salary on a long-term contract and I am not sure he is a $9 or $10 million player for another six or seven years. Or even for one season. He does not drive possession, he has never really been an elite point producer, and he is not a cornerstone player that your team will be built around. He is still an excellent player and a great complementary piece, but will probably have a contract that is a tier above what he actually is (and will eventually be in the future) as a player. Such is life in free agency.

6. Gustav Nyquist — He was still a great possession-driving player on some forgettable Detroit teams the past couple of years and he is going to score 20-25 goals for you. Will you pay more than you want for him? Probably, but he is also going to help your team.

7. Mats Zuccarello He is coming off a productive season when he was healthy, and he is still a creative playmaker, but he is set to enter his age 32 season and anytime you are dealing with players on the wrong side of 30 on the open market you run the risk of overpaying both short-term and long-term, especially when they are not truly elite in any one area.

8. Anders LeeAn outstanding net-front presence on the power play and a total wrecking ball around the crease. But how confident are you in a seven-year (or eight-year if it is the Islanders that re-sign him) contract for a 29-year-old forward that plays a physically demanding style and may not age gracefully given his skillset? You might get a couple of 30-goal seasons out of him but he also might be a buyout candidate before the contract ends.

9. Robin Lehner He was never as bad as his final season in Buffalo looked, but if you pay him based on the season he had this past season for the Islanders you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

10. Justin WilliamsAge is obviously a concern but you know what you are getting. What you are getting is great two-way play, 20-goals, 50-points, and a durable player that is going to be in your lineup every night. Eventually father time beats everyone, but Williams has not really shown any sign of slowing down. Yet.

11. Ryan Dzingel It all depends on the term. He should be a good second-line player and does not turn 28 until March, so you are still getting a player that is somewhat closer to his peak level of performance than most of the free agent forwards available.

12. Micheal Ferland He is more than just a big body that delivers hits; he can play and he can score some goals and he can do a lot of really good things on the ice. But there is at least one team out there that is going to look at the St. Louis Blues and think they have to pay a premium to get bigger and more physical just for the sake of getting bigger and physical.

13. Brett Connolly A good player coming off a career year in a free agent class where he will be somebody’s Plan B once the top players get signed. That is a recipe for a bad contract.

Risky signings

14. Marcus Johansson If he is healthy you are getting a productive top-six forward, but injuries have derailed his career the past two years. The recent history of head injuries is concerning.

15. Anton Stralman At one time, not that long ago, he was the perfect shutdown, defensive-defender for the modern NHL. But he is going to be 33 years old and coming off an injury-shortened season. How much does he have left in the tank?

16. Wayne Simmonds During his peak he was probably one of the two or three best power forwards in the league. He is no longer that player and the decline is very real. If you can get him for a cheap price to be a bottom-six depth player you might still be able to squeeze some value out of him.

17. Corey Perry — The Ducks pretty much had no other choice but to buy out the remainder of his contract this offseason. He is a shell of his former self and is coming off an injury-shortened season where his production completely disappeared. Is there any chance for a rebound? Maybe, but do not expect much of one.

18. Alex Chiasson He scored 22 goals, but almost all of them came as a result of getting some significant ice time alongside Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl. They are not coming with him to his new team.

19. Tyler Myers He is not a bad player, but he is the exact player that a desperate general manager trying to save his job with a bad team will give a long-term contract to in free agency, leaving it for the next general manager to try and get rid of.

20. Patrick Maroon Always beware of the free agent role player coming from the current Stanley Cup champion that scored a few big goals during that playoff run.

Current team or bust 

Joe Thornton Thornton still has something to offer a team, but let’s be honest, there is only one team he is going to be playing for (the San Jose Sharks) so it really does not make much sense to rank him with the rest of the class given that there is virtually zero chance he plays for somebody else.

Niklas Kronwall Take everything we said about Thornton and simply replace “San Jose” with “Detroit.”

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.