Jesse Puljujärvi showing he belongs after bumpy start to NHL career

Jesse Puljujärvi’s first few seasons with the Oilers didn’t go as planned. He was disappointing on the ice and the team was disappointed in the No. 4 overall pick from 2016.

Maybe another year to develop and mature in Finland would have been the right route, but that’s now all in the past. After three seasons spent between Edmonton and AHL Bakersfield, then a year-and-a-half back in Finland with Kärpät, the 23-year-old Puljujärvi has established himself as a bonafide NHLer and a key piece to the Oilers’ hopes.

“He was a young kid, thrown into the fire, and didn’t really know what he was doing out there,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid of Puljujärvi’s early days in Edmonton. “Good for him for taking some time, and trying to figure out the game. You can just see his confidence rising each and every day.”

Look at Puljujärvi’s impact during Saturday’s 5-2 win in the Battle of Alberta over the Flames. McDavid got the headlines with his 10th career hat trick, but the Finnish forward made an impact with a goal and two assists. The goal was his second in as many games and gave Edmonton a two-goal cushion early in the third period.

One noticeable change is Puljujärvi using his 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame more in a vital part of the ice — in front of opposing goalies. The Oilers coaching staff encouraged him to make that area his home as Draisaitl and McDavid work their magic in the offensive zone. That strategy worked well last season if you take a peek at his goals-for heat map via Icy Data:

via Icy Data

A resurgence at home

When Puljujärvi went back to Kärpät for the 2019-20 season he scored 24 goals and recorded 53 points in 56 games. Those numbers led the team and put him top five overall in Liiga. After putting up seven goals and 12 points in 16 games last season in Finland, he rejoined the Oilers as they prepared for a January start to the 2020-21 NHL season.

Playing with McDavid as his center, Puljujärvi posted 15 goals and 25 points during the shortened season. The difference in his game and his growth was noticed early on in his return to Edmonton.

“Ever since the start of camp last year he’s started building himself to be a good NHL player and his confidence continues to grow and his game continues to grow,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s playing in a lot of situations, playing with those big guys and he puts a lot of work in the game. He can shoot the puck well, as you’ve seen. His skill set is really strong.”

It didn’t take long for Puljujärvi to show that last season wasn’t a false start. He scored four times during the preseason and has two goals and four points through two games for the Oilers this season.

Puljujärvi is scheduled to become a restricted free agent next summer, which should land nim a nice increase from his current $1.45 million salary. Playing alongside superstars like Draisaitl and McDavid can’t be easy, but he’s found his role on the Oilers’ top line.

“He just feels like he belongs,” Tippett said. “He feels like he belongs in the league. He feels like he could be a good player in the league.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Mohamed Salah is on one

That’s with the outside of the foot, hardly the most exact way to distribute the ball. And it’s so perfectly weighted, it’s just a puppy turning onto its back begging Sadio Mané to rub his belly. It’s beckoning and welcoming and gentle and vicious all at the same time. Mané doesn’t have to take a touch to control it after it’s traveled some 30-40 yards. It’s just waiting to be easily slotted home.

That’s genius enough for one afternoon. But Salah was hardly finished:

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If that looks familiar, it’s because in his last game:

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Perhaps the best way to appreciate Salah’s pièce de résistance yesterday is to see exactly where it started:

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Who does this two games in a row? It’s almost insulting. And it’s how you get labeled the “best player in the world,” when it looks like you’re playing a different game than the other 21 players on the field. That they’re only there to provide a stage.

Of course, weighing down, or balancing out, those who lead with their hearts are those who lead with their brains and have to throw numbers at you. And I’m usually in that crowd, so you can see my conflict.

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By the numbers, Salah is among the best without being anything near definitely so. Karim Benzema at Real Madrid has 13 goals + assists to Salah’s 11, and Erling Haaland has matched Salah’s 11. Florian Wirtz at Leverkusen has lapped the field when it comes to goals + assists – penalties per 90 minutes (all stats from FBREF.com).

When it comes to expected rates, which cross out the noise of other people’s finishing abilities, Salah ranks fourth among the top five European leagues, trailing Lewandowski and Kylian Mbappe in expected non-penalty goals + assists (and Andrei Kramaric of Hoffenheim which… what?). But I could say that Lewandowski plays for the Gashouse Gorillas of Germany in Munich and they’re so far above the competition there that it’s skewed. Or that Mbappe is just beating up Ligue 1 again. There’s probably an element of truth in both, while those statements themselves are exaggerated pretty grossly.

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I could point out that Salah’s massive improvement this season in his chance- and shot-creation for others has Sadio Mané ranking right next to him in the Premier League in a few scoring categories like goals, expected goals, and shots. But you could say that Mané has been one of the league’s best forwards for years now, and maybe Salah is benefitting too. We’ll spin our wheels.

All of that discussion would miss the point. We use numbers and stats to give us context after the fact. To learn what went on. But in the moment, during the game, we’re there to feel. Thrill of victory, frustration of defeat, the release of seeing a goal, to be wowed. Salah at the moment is the one making the most people feel the most things right now. Benzema may be doing more for a worse team. Lewandowski is just clockwork. But your Twitter feed is littered with Salah highlights.

They say your twenties are the best years of your life…

Fake out, hesitate, reverse, laser, game. And sure, why not, let’s chuck the stick into the crowd for good measure!

“I think it was a 2-on-1 for most of the rink, so I had a lot of options going through my mind during the skate — and Gravy (Ryan Graves) drove the net so I had the patience and kind of moved the goalie,” Hughes said later. “I had an empty net after that.”

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Dougie Hamilton, making his debut with New Jersey after signing a seven year, $63 million contract in the offseason, scored just 17 seconds in to help the Devils jump out to a 3-1 lead before Hughes’ OT heroics were needed.

Yes, an overtime goal is just at 3-on-3. Yes, Chicago’s defense is bad. Yes, it’s just one game. It’s also one game that included another Hughes goal. Only 16 more to go until he has as many as he did in his teens.

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There’s a reason you don’t give up on prospects before they’re of legal drinking age.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

Maple Leafs, Rangers, Oilers among teams facing most pressure to win this season

The start of a new season always brings optimism for most fan bases.

Maybe this is your team’s year. Maybe that free agent addition or offseason trade will bring your team that Stanley Cup you have been waiting for. Or perhaps your team going through a perpetual rebuild finally breaks through and makes the playoffs. It is a clean slate and new season for everybody.

Some teams, though, enter the season facing immense pressure where a certain level needs to be reached for the season to be a success.

Here we are going to look at seven teams around the NHL that are facing the most pressure to win this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

No team has the spotlight on it more this this season than the Maple Leafs. They are six years into this thing with this core and all they have to show for it is one North Division championship and five consecutive first-round exits.

Do you know who that is good enough for? Nobody. Not ownership. Not the fans. Definitely not the Toronto media. Certainly not the players. Through all of those postseason disappointments the Maple Leafs have kept their core together and not made dramatic changes, outside of swapping Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe behind the bench.

That will almost certainly not continue through a sixth consecutive First Round exit. There is certainly pressure for Auston Matthew and John Tavares to be the duo that finally brings the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, but before they can do that they have to get through the First Round of the playoffs. There is no way another First Round exit results in anything other than wholesale changes to the team.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are a fascinating situation because they have been wildly successful during their first four years in the NHL, reaching the semifinals three times already.

It is the most incredible start to a franchise in the modern NHL.

It has also raised the bar to a nearly unreachable level. There is already pressure for this team to win it all, especially after back-to-back losses in the Conference Finals to teams that they were favorites against. The Golden Knights are ruthless in their quest for a championship and will make whatever change they need to make. Fire the coach that took you to the Stanley Cup Final in year one? Done. Toss aside the face of your franchise and reigning Vezina Trophy winner? No problem! There is not a blockbuster move that this team is not interested in, and they will do whatever it takes to make it happen. If they do not make another deep playoff run there could be another round of dramatic changes on the way.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are still highly regarded as one of the league’s best teams and Stanley Cup favorites. But they have hit the Second Round ceiling. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point there is going to be pressure on this group to do something more. We saw what happened with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals every time they lost in the Second Round. Heck, we saw what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning for losing in the Conference Final every year (same is true with Vegas). Eventually people want to see those teams and superstar players win, and doubt starts to creep in when they do not. If the Avalanche want to avoid that criticism, a trip to the Western Conference Final would be a good place to start.

New York Rangers

The Rangers’ rebuild seemed to be going along smoothly. They have accumulate a ton of young talent in the form of high draft picks, they have an MVP candidate in Artemi Panarin, they have a Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox, and a young franchise goalie in Igor Shesterkin. They have not yet established themselves as a playoff team, but they are on the right track. That still was not enough — or fast enough — for ownership. They fired coach David Quinn, changed general managers, and made some pretty significant changes to the roster by bringing in players like Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow this offseason. It is clear what ownership wants to see this season: The playoffs. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago’s only playoff appearance over the past four years was the 2019-20 bubble season when they snuck in as the 23rd ranked team. Their drop off from Stanley Cup contender to bottom-tier team has been sudden and unforgiving.

They spent the offseason spending a ton of money to build the team back up, acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, and Seth Jones, spending a huge amount of money in the process. It is pretty clear they abandoned the whole idea of a long-term rebuild with those moves and are back focussed on trying to make the playoffs right now.

Trying to salvage what is left of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane‘s careers with the team? Trying to distract from the sexual assault lawsuits the team is facing? Maybe a little of both? Whatever it is, any team that spend the amount of money the Blackhawks spend this offseason in acquiring the veterans it acquired is going to be expected to win. If they do not make the playoffs does Stan Bowman stay on board through that?

(Some might ask how he has stayed on board to this point.)

Edmonton Oilers

Perhaps the only team that is facing pressure that is even somewhat comparable to Toronto’s.

The Oilers have the two best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom are in the prime of their careers. They have combined to win three of the past five MVP awards and the type of players you should be building a championship contender around. Especially by this point in their careers.

The Oilers, though, have mostly done nothing with them. They have just two playoff appearances to show for them, only one playoff series win, and this past year they could not even get a single playoff win against a good, but not great Winnipeg Jets team. That is just not good enough, and there is reason to be skeptical of their chances this season given their offseason moves, the makeup of their defense, and the question marks in goal.

Most teams never get one player like McDavid or Draisaitl, let alone two at the same time in their primes. It is maddening to see them go to waste. Every year they do not take a step forward seems like a wasted year.

Florida Panthers

This is definitely not a Stanley Cup or bust type of season, but here is a somewhat wild fact about the Panthers — they have never made the Stanley Cup playoffs two years in a row. Ever. Not ever in their entire existence of more nearly three decades. That is stunning. They have a legitimate chance to make that happen this season. The 2020-21 season was arguably the best single season in the history of the franchise, and this year’s version looks even better following the offseason additions of Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton, as well as the possible emergence of Spencer Knight in goal.

The biggest reason the Panthers have struggled to develop a consistent following in South Florida is they have never given the fan base a reason to be excited. This group has a chance to do that. Aleksander Barkov is signed long-term, the roster is outstanding, they have a chance to become a steady playoff team with this core. They can not lose that progress they started a year ago. They have to keep moving forward.

U.S., Canada, among nations to name first players to Olympic men’s rosters

Canada, the U.S., and other countries named the first three players to their 2022 Olympic hockey rosters this week

In the case of the United States, the first three Olympic hockey players are: Seth Jones, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews. After a big trade, Jones joined Kane on the Blackhawks, while Matthews stars for the Maple Leafs.

Stan Bowman, GM of both the Blackhawks and the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, spoke about Jones, Kane, and Matthews being the first three announced.

“It’s no secret we’re excited about the prospects of our team for the 2022 Games,” Bowman said. “Patrick, Auston and Seth reflect the high level of talent that will make up our final roster as we strive to bring gold back home to the U.S.”

Because it’s the Internet, some complained about Jones being announced over, say, reigning Norris winner Adam Fox. That’s likely to be a moot point once the full rosters are announced.

Canada’s first three men’s Olympic hockey players were announced as: Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Alex Pietrangelo.

While final Olympic rosters aren’t expected until sometime around January, fans can narrow down their own lists sooner. Each country must submit its long list of 50 players by Oct. 15.

The 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament is set for Feb. 9, while the gold-medal game is scheduled for Feb. 20. There’s a January 10 deadline for the NHL/NHLPA to pull out of the 2022 Winter Olympics if COVID numbers escalate.

[Olympic men’s roster projections: U.S. / Canada]

Canada
Sidney Crosby
Connor McDavid
Alex Pietrangelo

Czech Republic
Ondrej Palat
David Pastrnak
Jakub Voracek

Finland
Sebastian Aho
Aleksander Barkov
Mikko Rantanen

Sweden
Victor Hedman
Gabriel Landeskog
Mika Zibanejad

United States
Seth Jones
Patrick Kane
Auston Matthews

Latvia
Rudolfs Balcers
Zemgus Girgensons
Kristians Rubins

Germany
Leon Draisaitl
Mortiz Seider
Phillip Grubauer

Russia Olympic Committee
Andrei Vasilevskiy
Alex Ovechkin
Nikita Kucherov

Switzerland
Nico Hischier
Timo Meier
Roman Josi

Slovakia
Andrej Sekera
Jaroslav Halak
Erik Cernak

Denmark
Oliver Bjorkstrand
Alexander True
Nikolaj Ehlers

[IIHF: Full 2022 men’s and women’s Olympic schedules]

To be announced: China

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.

U.S., Canada, among nations to name first players to Olympic men’s rosters

Canada, the U.S., and other countries named the first three players to their 2022 Olympic hockey rosters this week

In the case of the United States, the first three Olympic hockey players are: Seth Jones, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews. After a big trade, Jones joined Kane on the Blackhawks, while Matthews stars for the Maple Leafs.

Stan Bowman, GM of both the Blackhawks and the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, spoke about Jones, Kane, and Matthews being the first three announced.

“It’s no secret we’re excited about the prospects of our team for the 2022 Games,” Bowman said. “Patrick, Auston and Seth reflect the high level of talent that will make up our final roster as we strive to bring gold back home to the U.S.”

Because it’s the Internet, some complained about Jones being announced over, say, reigning Norris winner Adam Fox. That’s likely to be a moot point once the full rosters are announced.

Canada’s first three men’s Olympic hockey players were announced as: Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Alex Pietrangelo.

While final Olympic rosters aren’t expected until sometime around January, fans can narrow down their own lists sooner. Each country must submit its long list of 50 players by Oct. 15.

The 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament is set for Feb. 9, while the gold-medal game is scheduled for Feb. 20. There’s a January deadline for the NHL and/or NHLPA to pull out of the 2022 Winter Olympics if COVID numbers escalate.

[Olympic men’s roster projections: U.S. / Canada]

Canada
Sidney Crosby
Connor McDavid
Alex Pietrangelo

Czech Republic
Ondrej Palat
David Pastrnak
Jakub Voracek

Finland
Sebastian Aho
Aleksander Barkov
Mikko Rantanen

Sweden
Victor Hedman
Gabriel Landeskog
Mika Zibanejad

United States
Seth Jones
Patrick Kane
Auston Matthews

Latvia
Rudolfs Balcers
Zemgus Girgensons
Kristians Rubins

Germany
Leon Draisaitl
Mortiz Seider
Phillip Grubauer

Switzerland
Nico Hischier
Timo Meier
Roman Josi

[IIHF: Full 2022 men’s and women’s Olympic schedules]

To be announced: China, Denmark, Russian Olympic Committee, Slovakia.

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.

U.S., Canada, among nations to name first players to Olympic men’s rosters

Canada, the U.S., and other countries recently named the first three players to their 2022 Olympic hockey rosters. (The first three roster players for China, the Russian Olympic Committee, Slovakia, and a few others have yet to be announced.)

In the case of the United States, the first three Olympic hockey players are: Seth Jones, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews. After a big trade, Jones joined Kane on the Blackhawks, while Matthews stars for the Maple Leafs.

Stan Bowman, GM of both the Blackhawks and the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, spoke about Jones, Kane, and Matthews being the first three announced.

“It’s no secret we’re excited about the prospects of our team for the 2022 Games,” Bowman said. “Patrick, Auston and Seth reflect the high level of talent that will make up our final roster as we strive to bring gold back home to the U.S.”

(Canada’s first three men’s Olympic hockey players were announced as: Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Alex Pietrangelo.)

Because it’s the Internet, some complained about Jones being announced over, say, reigning Norris winner Adam Fox. That’s likely to be a moot point once the full rosters are announced.

While final Olympic rosters aren’t expected until sometime around January, fans can narrow down their own lists sooner. Each country must submit its long list of 50 players by Oct. 15.

The 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament is set for Feb. 9, while the gold-medal game is scheduled for Feb. 20. There’s a January deadline for the NHL and/or NHLPA to pull out of the 2022 Winter Olympics if COVID numbers escalate.

[Olympic men’s roster projections: U.S. / Canada]

Canada
Sidney Crosby
Connor McDavid
Alex Pietrangelo

Czech Republic
Ondrej Palat
David Pastrnak
Jakub Voracek

Finland
Sebastian Aho
Aleksander Barkov
Mikko Rantanen

Sweden
Victor Hedman
Gabriel Landeskog
Mika Zibanejad

United States
Seth Jones
Patrick Kane
Auston Matthews

[IIHF: Full 2022 men’s and women’s Olympic schedules]

To be announced: China, Denmark, Germany, Latvia, Russian Olympic Committee, Slovakia, Switzerland.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL Season (Part 3)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue our look at the top-30 storylines to watch for the 2021-22 NHL season.

We have been looking at 10 storylines each Monday. We continue today with the top-10 including Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Ovechkin‘s run at history, the Olympics, the Seattle Kraken, the Chicago Blackhawks, and Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres.

Which stories make the cut this week?

[You can read Part 1 here] | [You can read Part 2 here]

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

10. Future of the Arizona Coyotes. As always, there is a lot going on here with the Coyotes. On the ice the team is going all in on a complete rebuild that has seen them overturn a significant portion of the roster, trade key veterans (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Christian Dvorak) and stockpile a ton of draft picks in the near future. But they also have that pesky arena situation looming over everything with Glendale cutting ties with them after this season, the team submitting a bit for an arena in Tempe, and the team likely needing to find a temporary solution in between, all while remaining in the valley. It is never boring with this team.

9. Vladimir Tarasenko and the St. Louis Blues. Tarasenko made headlines over the offseason by requesting a trade, but as the 2021-22 season approaches he remains in St. Louis and is committed to playing his best as long as he is there. But what exactly happens here? Is a trade still on the table? And what sort of season is ahead for Tarasenko? Injuries have robbed him of most of the past two seasons, while his production plummeted this past season (almost certainly due to not being totally healthy). When he is 100 percent he should still be one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league, and getting that sort of production would be a huge boost for the Blues. Or a huge boost to his trade value.

8. The Maple Leafs core gets another run. After yet another disappointing First Round exit, the fifth in a row for this group, the Maple Leafs again only made minor tweaks to their roster. No major trades. No major changes. Bringing back the same core, same head coach, same general manager. This season has the feel of a true make-or-break season for pretty much all of them. They are now more than six years into this thing and simply making the playoffs is no longer an acceptable result. They have to do something, and if it does not happen this season there is no way they can bring back the same group next season.

7. Consecutive games streak record. Doug Jarvis’ record of 964 consecutive games played is in danger of not only falling this season, but being passed by three different players. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle is the closest, needing just 42 games to match it (and 43 to pass it). Arizona Coyotes forward Phil Kessel is 64 games behind, while current free agent Patrick Marleau is 54 games away. Playing nearly 1,000 games in a row without missing any is truly magnificent accomplishment in the NHL.

6. Alex Ovechkin keeps climbing the goal scoring leaderboard. Ovechkin has a chance to make a significant leap on the goal scoring leader board this season and could find himself as high as third all-time by the end of the season. He enters the season in sixth place with 730 career goals, just one behind Marcel Dionne for the fifth spot. Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) are also both well within reach this season as he continues to close in on Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 career goals.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

5. Tampa Bay Lightning three-peat attempt. The NHL has not had a three-peat since the New York Islanders back in the early 1980s, while there have only been a handful of teams (Edmonton, Pittsburgh on two different occasions, Detroit) that have even had a chance at it since then. The Lightning are the latest team to go for it. They lost quite a few key players this offseason in a salary cap crunch, but they are still returning a magnificent roster and core that has helped produce the league’s best team for the past seven seasons.

4. The NHL returns to the Olympics. After missing the 2018 Olympic games, the NHL is making its return for the 2022 Games in Beijing. That means Connor McDavid plays in his first Olympics, Sidney Crosby gets a chance to add another gold medal to his individual trophy case, and the United States team gets a chance to disappoint everybody again with its roster selection for an international tournament. Canada has won three of the past four golds in which NHL players have participated.

kraken
Derek Leung/Getty Images

3. The Seattle Kraken. The NHL’s 32nd team begins play this season as the Kraken enter the league. All eyes will be on them to see if they can come close to replicating the immediate success of the league’s most recent expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Maybe that is setting the bar way too high, but given the overall quality of the Pacific Division, and the fact Seattle should have some strong goaltending and spent big money on its defense, the window is open for the Kraken to be competitive this season.

2. The Chicago Blackhawks. The absolute biggest story here is what — if anything — comes from the investigations into the sexual assault allegations and lawsuits the team is facing. Two lawsuits were filed accusing a former assistant coach of sexually assaulting two former players during the 2010 season. The team has pledged to release the findings of its independent investigation, but nobody knows when that will be or what the end result will be. General manager Stan Bowman and several other executives were reportedly made aware of the incidents during that season, but nothing was reported at the time to the NHL or local police. Will any of it result in changes to the organization? Will it all be swept aside? That is what everybody should be watching this season regarding this team.

The secondary storyline here is on the ice, where the Blackhawks made major changes to the roster this offseason to add Seth Jones, Caleb Jones, Tyler Johnson, and Marc-Andre Fleury to the roster, while jettisoning the contracts of Duncan Keith (Edmonton for Caleb Jones) and Brent Seabrook (Tampa Bay for Tyler Johnson). They will also be getting team captain and top-line center Jonathan Toews back after he missed the entirety of the 2020-21 season. The Blackhawks’ only playoff appearance over the past four seasons was the 2019-20 bubble situation when they snuck in as the 23rd ranked team in the league.

1. Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres. What a nightmare situation this has turned into for the Sabres. The team is lousy, it needs another massive rebuild to fix the mess of its previous failed rebuild (which was started to fix the mess of its previous rebuild) and now bridges seem burned with the best player on the roster, Jack Eichel. They can not agree on the best course of action for surgery to fix a neck issue, he has been stripped of his captaincy, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he has already played his last game in Buffalo, and now we just sit back and wait for some sort of resolution, both medically and on the ice. The two biggest questions now seem to be where is he going to be traded to, and how bad of a return are the Sabres going to get after all of this mess? This is not how this rebuild was supposed to go. The Sabres are likely to miss the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.