Predators facing difficult road in playoff push

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Take a quick glance at the Nashville Predators’ spot in the Western Conference standings and it would be easy to conclude that they are in a lot of trouble when it comes to making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, they remain six points out of a playoff spot with four teams still ahead of them in the Wild Card race. Recent history suggests their chances of overcoming that deficit this late in the season would be very, very low (like under 20 percent low) because of how difficult it is to gain ground in the standings. Keep in mind that at this same point in the season last year the St. Louis Blues were only two points out of a playoff spot before going on their second half run to a championship. It’s just not something that’s easy to do.

The one thing the Predators have going for them is the fact they have more games remaining than any other team in the Western Conference, with multiple games in hand on every team they are chasing. That helps.

That is a point that forward Matt Duchene emphasized on Monday before their game against Toronto, while also talking about how he thinks the team as currently constructed can make up that gap without needing any outside help.

Via NHL.com:

“We love our group in here. I think everyone is happy with the talent we have, and it’s time to start playing the way we’re capable of. I don’t think we’re really missing anything in this room. We’re not looking at [the trade deadline] right now. We’re looking at the task at hand, and this is our group.”

“You look at us right now. You know it looks bad on paper, but with the games in hand we have, we have a great opportunity to put a little streak together here,” Duchene said.

He’s not wrong. The games in hand are a great opportunity for them, but it’s a little more complicated than just having some extra games remaining.

First, even if the Predators win all of those extra games they would still fall short of a playoff spot given their current pace. They would still need to make a couple of points somewhere else the rest of the way.

Here are the teams in the wild card race at the moment, as well as their current point paces.

They have two head-to-head games remaining against Arizona and Vegas. Winning those in regulation would be very important for the Predators’ chances.

Complicating matters even more is that the extra games in hand comes with a built-in drawback. They are playing more games in a shorter period of time, which means a condensed schedule, more back-to-backs, and less rest the rest of the way. As the folks at Predators blog On The Forecheck noted this week, the Predators have a league-high eight sets of back-to-backs remaining this season. In four of those back-to-backs, they will be playing a road game against a team that is rested, also tied for the most in the league. Those are not easy games to win.

Adding to all of that is the fact the Predators’ remaining opponents currently have a points percentage of .572, tied for the third-toughest remaining schedule in the league. They also play the majority of their games on the road.

It’s asking a lot to get through that and make up the necessary ground in the playoff race.

This remains a somewhat baffling team.

Their 5-on-5 performance has been mostly outstanding, and exactly what you would expect from a contending team with the roster that looks this good on paper. They control the pace of the game and have one of the league’s best 5-on-5 goal differentials. They take care of business when the game is even-strength.

It’s when the game turns into a special teams and goaltending matchup that they are unable to matchup with anyone.

The latter point — goaltending — has to be the big concern down the stretch. Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros both have sub-.900 save percentages on the team (both mostly hurt by their performance on the penalty kill) and given the tight schedule the rest of the way they are both going to have to play, and play a lot. Better performances from both — especially on the penalty kill — would solve a lot of the Predators’ perceived problems.

Trouble is, even if that happens the team has given itself such a big deficit to overcome, with an unforgiving schedule the rest of the way, that it is still going to take quite a run over the next few weeks to get back in this.

The door is still open, but it is closing fast.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.

Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

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

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

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 Fantasy Hockey: Bounce-back candidates for the second half

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I’d normally focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. For this week though, because we’re coming off the All-Star break, I’m doing something a little different. This week I’m highlighting 10 players who underperformed in the first half and should do better for the rest of the campaign.

Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – LW/RW: With 13 goals and 38 points in 50 contests, you can’t say that Gaudreau is having a bad season, but it is a significant step down from his previous two campaigns. The Flames as a whole have had a rough campaign offensively, going from the second best in 2018-19 to the 25th ranked offense this season. Part of Gaudreau’s problem though might be some rough puck luck. His shooting percentage is significantly off from his career average (9.2% in 2019-20 compared to 12.4% in his career), his PDO is the lowest it’s ever been, and his IPP is the lowest it’s been since the 2014-15 campaign.  Those can be taken as indicators that he’s been rewarded less than he should have been. All that has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even with that qualifier, Gaudreau is a top-tier player so it’s not a bad idea to put your faith in him.

Phil Kessel, Coyotes – RW: The Coyotes added Kessel in the hopes that he would provide them with the one thing they sorely lacked last season: goals. So far that hasn’t quite worked out. Arizona has been a better team offensively this season than they were in 2018-19, but it’s still their main weakness and rather than lead the charge, Kessel has been a decent, but not great top-six forward. Kessel has 11 goals and 31 points in 51 contests after recording 61 goals and 174 points in 164 contests in his previous two seasons with Pittsburgh. Kessel might have needed some time to adjust to his new environment though and he has been doing better lately with seven goals and 17 points in his last 23 contests as well as three goals and 10 points in his last 10 games. The stage seems to be set for him to have a better second half.

Jake Gardiner, Hurricanes – D: Gardiner typically produced solid numbers offensively with the Maple Leafs, but he also was logging over 20 minutes of ice time with them each season. By contrast, he has three goals and 13 points in 50 games while averaging just 16:29 minutes in Carolina. With Dougie Hamilton sidelined indefinitely though, the Hurricanes might need to lean on Gardiner significantly more. He’s averaged 20:22 minutes in the three games since Hamilton’s injury and if that continues then he should have a much stronger second half.

Pekka Rinne, Predators – G: If the season ended today, this would arguably be the worst campaign of Rinne’s career. He has a 16-10-3 record, 2.95 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 29 starts. That save percentage would be the worst he’s ever endured and his GAA is only topped by the 3.80 GAA he had over two games back in 2005-06. Just two years removed from his Vezina win, it’d be quite the collapse. He’s largely been dragged down from one prolonged bad stretch though. From Oct. 31-Dec. 21, he had a 3.91 GAA and .864 save percentage in 12 starts. Before that he was having a terrific season and since he’s bounced back somewhat with a 2.86 GAA and .907 save percentage in nine games. This is probably going to go down as a season where Rinne declined meaningfully, but his second half should still be an improvement on his first.

John Klingberg, Stars – D: Klingberg had two goals and 19 points in 37 games going into the All-Star break. That’s not terrible, but if the season ended today, his points-per-game pace would be the lowest of his career. He’s thawing out though with nine assists in his last nine games. Given his track record, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that he can do better going forward.

Jack Hughes, Devils – C: The first overall pick in the 2019 draft hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. He has six goals and 17 points in 40 contests so far, which means there hasn’t been much reason to own Hughes if you’re in a standard fantasy league. That being said, the more NHL experience he gets, the better he should be. The fact that the Devils are out of the playoff hunt might also strangely work in his favor. The Devils have already traded Taylor Hall and they will likely attempt to continue selling, which may lead to the team handing Hughes more ice time to compensate. There’s also more incentive for them to give their young players plenty of ice time if their focus is on the future and not the 2019-20 campaign.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins – C: This one is a bit of a cheat. I’ve been avoiding highlighting players who spent most of the first half on the sidelines, but in terms of players who missed time in the first half, Crosby is among those who should have the biggest impact in the second. When he’s been healthy this season, Crosby has been his usual dominant self with eight goals and 25 points in 22 contests. As long as he can stay off the sidelines for the rest of the campaign, he should be among the league scoring leaders from the All-Star break onwards.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche – C/LW: Landeskog set a career-high last season with 75 points in 73 games, but he’s had a quiet first half with 13 goals and 21 points in 33 contests. Part of the problem was a lower-body injury that cost him 16 games, but of course that doesn’t explain away his decline in points-per-game. He has a 42.9 IPP, which is very low and might indicate that he’s endured some unusually bad luck. That might be part of the reason for his underwhelming first half and if that’s the case, we might see a better return out of him after the All-Star break.

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: In early January, Eberle described himself as a second-half player and so far he’s backed that assertion up with four goals and seven points in his last eight games. That’s in stark contrast to his three goals and 17 points in 31 contests from Oct. 4-Jan. 6. Eberle has been hit-and-miss in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that his recent run is simply a hot streak, but he underperformed thus far relative to what we’ve seen out of him for most of his career, so it’s not out of the question that he will be better in the second half of the season compared to the first.

Braden Holtby, Capitals – G: Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and his is not the sort of season he’d like to have in his contract year. While he has a great 18-9-4 record behind the amazing Capitals, his GAA and save percentage leave a lot to be desired at 3.09 and .897 respectively. He’s certainly had some good stretches this season though and perhaps the break came at an ideal time for him because it gives him an opportunity for him to step back from his recent struggles. He’s allowed at least three goals in each of his last seven games, which has dragged down his numbers. The time to reflect might be just what he needed and with his contract expiring, he’s not short on motivation to bounce back.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

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.