PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

10 Comments

It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

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: Toews powers Blackhawks, Petterson’s return, first place Isles

Getty
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. The Chicago Blackhawks are having an awful season, which has to be even more frustrating for them when you consider their superstars up front have been great all year. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane continued that on Sunday as both had five points in an 8-5 win over the Washington Capitals, continuing what has been one of the best individual seasons for Toews offensively in his career. Those five points for Toews included a hat trick. Just a shame for the Blackhawks it all happening during a season when everything around the top players has gone away.

2. Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson has been a franchise-changing player for the Vancouver Canucks and has been one of the biggest reasons they are still in the Western Conference playoff race. He returned from injury on Sunday after missing more than two weeks and tallied two points, including his 23rd goal of the season early in the first period to open the scoring. He also assisted on the game-tying goal mid-way through the third period.  He is rolling toward the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and nobody is even close him in this rookie class.

3. Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders remained in first place thanks to their win over the Anaheim Ducks and the Washington Capitals’ loss to the Blackhawks on Sunday. They are not only in first place, but they actually have a three-point lead over the rest of the pack and are top-five team in the league in total points in the standings. They have now won five games in a row and 15 of their past 18. Cal Clutterbuck had the big game for the Islanders on Sunday with a pair of first period goals.

Highlights of the Night

It took Nino Niederreiter just 30 seconds to score his first goal as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night. Then he scored another later in the period as the Hurricanes went on to rout the Edmonton Oilers.

It was not a great game for goalies in Chicago on Sunday afternoon, but we do need to give some love to these two saves by Blackhawks goalie Collin Delia.

Robin Lehner stopped all 19 shots he faced for the now first-place New York Islanders.

Factoids

  • Darcy Kuemper is one of four goalies without a regular loss since the start of the new calendar year. He improved to 5-0-2 since Jan. 1 with the Arizona Coyotes’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday evening. [NHL PR]
  • Nino Niederreiter’s two goals on Sunday were more than Victor Rask, the player he was traded for this past week, scored for the Carolina Hurricanes all season. [@SaraCivian]
  • Andrei Svechnikov recorded his 20th point of the season on Sunday night, making him one of four players from the 2018 NHL draft class to have already hit that mark this season. [NHL PR]

Chicago Blackhawks 8, Washington Capitals 5

New York Islanders 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Vancouver Canucks 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Arizona Coyotes 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 7, Edmonton Oilers 4

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.

Canucks’ Pettersson returns Sunday after five-game absence

Getty Images
5 Comments

The man who will likely be crowned as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year is back in the lineup for the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday.

Elias Pettersson will suit up for the Canucks against the Detroit Red Wings after missing five games with a knee injury. Pettersson sprained his MCL after getting tangled up with Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi back on Jan. 3.

After Saturday’s practice, Pettersson told the assembled media that there was a good chance he would play on Sunday. And with the team activating him off injured reserve today, that chance turned into a confirmation.

“I don’t like to watch hockey, I like to play it,” Pettersson said.

He’s pretty good at the latter.

Pettersson’s start to the season, despite missing two now because of a concussion and the aforementioned knee injury, has been nothing short of sensational.

Pettersson led all rookies with 22 goals and 42 points prior to his latest injury and will return still leading all rookies.

And his absence from the Canucks, who are battling for a playoff spot, has been notable:

Still, they were 2-1-2, picking up points in four-of-five.

The Canucks are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the final wild card in the west.

UPDATE: He’s already scored. 


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

Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

Getty
4 Comments

The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.

Ducks make a hat trick of deals Wednesday as re-tooling continues

Getty Images
8 Comments

When you’ve lost as many games in a row as the Anaheim Ducks have recently — and you’ve publicly backed your head coach — the only thing left to do is throw a stick of dynamite into the locker room to shake things up.

That’s precisely what Bob Murray has done over the last several hours (and the past couple of days). In fact, at the time of writing this, the top three posts on the Ducks’ website are three media releases involving trades. Scroll a little further down, and another trade appears.

That’s four trades in the span of three days. You can’t say Murray isn’t trying (although the debate will rage on whether these trades really move the needle at all).

The Ducks acquired center Justin Kloos from the Minnesota Wild for winger Pontus Aberg late Wednesday afternoon. Kloos, who has only played in one NHL game this season (and the rest in the American Hockey League for Iowa) led the Wild’s farm team in points and was tied for the most goals.

Aberg, meanwhile, has been a healthy scratch recently after initially showing well to start the season. Alas, his 11 goals and eight assists were cutting it, even if he was near the top of the Ducks’ scoring leaders.

[RELATED: Ducks get younger, ship Cogliano to Stars for Shore]

Michael Del Zotto was watching the Vancouver Canucks lose 3-2 in a shootout to the Edmonton Oilers when he was beckoned by Murray in exchange for fellow defenseman Luke Schenn and a seventh-round draft pick in 2020.

Del Zotto was a healthy scratch on Wednesday, something he’s been quite a bit this season. Schenn, meanwhile, has spent most of the season playing for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL.

And the last trade of the day brought a familiar face back to the west coast.

Forward Derek Grant returns to Anaheim after signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent in the offseason. Grant played in 66 games last season with the Ducks, scoring 12 goals and adding 12 assists.

In 25 games with the Pens, he found the back of the net just twice, adding three helpers.

The Ducks sent center Joseph Blandisi the other way. Blandisi was a sweetener in the Adam Henrique-for-Sami Vatanen trade between Anaheim and the New Jersey Devils last season. He only played six games with the Ducks since arriving last winter, an has no goals and no points in those games.

Murray made his biggest splash on the first deal he made on Monday, sending Andrew Cogliano to Dallas for Devin Shore.

MORE: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wildcard race?


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