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NHL Power Rankings Week 3 Edition

Credit: Francois LaCasse/NHLI via Getty Images

We are (almost) officially done with the first month of the NHL season.

At this stage, we can figure out who’s for real and who pulled the wool over our eyes in December. Which teams have legitimate Stanley Cup aspiration, and who should focus on the top prospects for this year’s draft. While contenders will fluctuate throughout the season, the picture on who they might be becomes a lot clearer now, especially in a shortened season like this one.

With this in mind, how do the teams stack up at this moment? Did anyone emerge from last week, or has your favorite team evened out? Let’s find out.

Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to January 31.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (+1): It took a little while, but the Lightning have earned the top spot of these rankings for the first time this season. The usual suspects of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy have been instrumental so far in the team’s success.

2. Montreal Canadiens (+3): The Canadiens have easily been the most fun team to watch this season. The young talent has come along quickly, the metrics support their rise to being a top team, and there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come.

3. Vegas Golden Knights (-2): A tough-luck shootout loss to St. Louis and a COVID-19 outbreak push Vegas out of the top spot, but a post-quarantine hot streak like Dallas or Carolina’s should push them back up there. One word of advice: Marc-Andre Fleury (.951 save percentage and 1 GAA) has earned more playing time.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (Even): 5-2-1 in one-goal games, a 43.33% power play success rate (second in the league behind Washington), and their top stars playing as advertised have been key to Toronto’s hot start. The only sticking point I have with the Leafs is what happens if one or more of their stars goes on a slump?

5. Washington Capitals (+3): A 6-3 comeback win against the Islanders on Thursday followed by a gutsy overtime decision over Boston is enough to push the Capitals into a top-five spot. In the absence of Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek (5-0-2 record and .918 save percentage) has turned a lot of heads with increased playing time.

6. Colorado Avalanche (-3): My preseason selection to win the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche have still struggled with consistency early on in the year. Potentially losing the likes of Nathan MacKinnon or Devon Toews for a while due to injury does not help matters.

7. Boston Bruins (Even): Being top-five on both the power play (5th at 34.62%) and the penalty kill (third at 90%) will lead to any team being successful. With David Pastrnak restoring the Perfection Line, the Bruins should be able to effectively end any scoring issues that plagued them at the start of the season.

8. St. Louis Blues (+1): The rise of Jordan Kyrou has been something to behold. After being a resident of Craig Berube’s doghouse last season, Kyrou has broken out to start the season, tying Brayden Schenn with 10 points in nine games.

9. Carolina Hurricanes (+4): The Hurricanes came back from quarantine in a big way, firing off three straight victories against both of last year’s Stanley Cup Final participants. Vincent Trocheck, who scored two goals and the shootout winner in the series against Dallas, reminded everybody about just who the Hurricanes traded for last year.

10. Dallas Stars (-4): The offensive production will have to tail off at some point, but 3.83 goals per game (second in the league behind Montreal) is definitely not a mark to scoff at. Joe Pavelski (five goals and 10 points) and Denis Gurianov (three goals and seven points) will be counted on to keep the goals coming.

11. Philadelphia Flyers (Even): Just when the Flyers were starting to scare me, they fire off four straight victories against the Devils and the Islanders. Consistency is still something they have to find, but James van Riemsdyk (five goals and 13 points) has been a big part of the positive results.

12. Calgary Flames (+2): Handing Montreal its first regulation loss is a good sign for a Flames team that needed to show something against a top team. Jacob Markstrom (.929 save percentage and 2.18 GAA) is looking like the long-awaited Miikka Kiprusoff replacement Calgary fans have been looking for.

13. Winnipeg Jets (+2): Perennially-underrated Nikolaj Ehlers (five goals, 11 points, +8) has stepped up with the permanent absence of Patrik Laine. The only questions are when will Pierre-Luc Dubois be expected to play, and can the defense and penalty killers help Connor Hellebuyck out.

14. Minnesota Wild (-4): The series against Colorado showed that while the Wild still have a ways to go towards legitimacy, they aren’t as far off as I thought they were to start the year. Kirill Kaprizov has continued his strong start, but the emergences of Jordan Greenway (10 points and +8) and Joel Eriksson Ek (five goals and nine points) definitely help matters.

15. Florida Panthers (+6): The Panthers have yet to face the class of their division yet, but good teams find ways to win the games they’re supposed to. If anyone told you Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe would be leading the team with five goals apiece at the start of the year, your next question should be if they managed to build a time machine.

16. Pittsburgh Penguins (Even): It’s a testament to Sidney Crosby and Co. that the Penguins haven’t bottomed out yet, what with all the defensive injuries and goaltenders struggling to make saves when they have to. They’re strictly in the middle for now, but that can change in an instant.

17. Nashville Predators (Even): Put the Predators in the same boat as the Penguins, as a fringe team at risk of freefall down the rankings. They’ve managed to stay afloat for now, but 2.38 goals per game (fifth-worst in the league), a league-worst 63.64% penalty kill, and paying $16 million for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen to not score a single goal yet could do them in sooner rather than later.

18. Vancouver Canucks (+8): Yes, it was against the Senators and Jets, but a four-game winning streak was just what the Canucks needed to get back into the hunt. If they can get this week’s performances from Brock Boeser (four goals in the last two games) and Thatcher Demko (1 GAA and .971 save percentage in his three starts) throughout the season, the Canucks could shoot up the rankings quickly.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets (Even): The offense has been anemic to this point and drama has unfolded in the wake of the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, and yet the Blue Jackets still managed to pick up points in seven straight games. It’s difficult to find a more hard-working team in hockey.

20. New York Islanders (-8): The big dropper in the rankings this week, the Islanders have seen things unravel the past few games. An absolute implosion against Washington highlighted (or lowlighted) an 0-3-2 skid and a 2.11 goals per game mark, good for the 3rd-lowest mark in the league.

21. Edmonton Oilers (-1): Let me get this straight: the Oilers have the league’s two top point-getters in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (22 and 21 points, respectively), and they still can’t manage to get over .500 in point percentage? If one or both seek trades out of Alberta, you heard it here first.

22. New Jersey Devils (-4): Tough break for the young Devils this week, losing three of their last four games. The good news is that the Devils may have found a strong new line in Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian after they dominated Buffalo in Sunday’s victory.

23. Los Angeles Kings (+2): Anze Kopitar’s twelve points are a promising sign, and they’ve put together some impressive performances against top divisional rivals. It might not be enough to get into the playoffs, but they could surprise people once the divisions return to normal.

24. Arizona Coyotes (-2): The Coyotes have allowed two goals or less in four straight games, and the two games they lost out of those were by 1-0 scores. A fine depiction of goaltending no longer being enough to bail out bad offenses.

25. San Jose Sharks (-1): Allowing 3.88 goals per game (good for second-worst in the league behind Ottawa) is a sign that the Sharks might just be as bad as last year’s trainwreck season indicated. Erik Karlsson (three points and -8 in eight games) might already have the worst contract in the NHL.

26. Buffalo Sabres (+1): Stars like Jack Eichel (11 points), Victor Olofsson (4 goals and 10 points), and Taylor Hall (nine points) have been doing their part to keep the Sabres competitive. That said, the consistency just hasn’t been there for Buffalo to make any noise.

27. New York Rangers (-4): It’s time to just admit an inconvenient truth: the Rangers’ defense is horrible. Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller (9 points and +8 between them) point to a brighter future, but the recently-waived Tony DeAngelo and uninspiring play from the likes of Jacob Trouba, Brendan Smith, and Jack Johnson have and will ensure the Blueshirts miss the playoffs again.

28. Chicago Blackhawks (+2): Patrick Kane (10 points) has been his usual dominant self, and Kevin Lankinen (.937 save percentage and 1.97 GAA) is shaping up to be one of the big surprises of 2021. In a lost year for the injury-ravaged Blackhawks, that’s all they could have hoped for.

29. Anaheim Ducks (Even): Why do the Ducks choose to torture John Gibson like they do? Even if Gibson channels prime Brodeur, the Ducks’ league-worst offense would still keep him on the loser column.

30. Detroit Red Wings (+1): Well, at least the Red Wings had no expectations to begin with. Despite being the better goaltender, Thomas Greiss is still looking for his first win in a Red Wings jersey.

31. Ottawa Senators (-3): They haven’t picked up a single point in two weeks. Allowing one more goal per game than San Jose and having the league’s worst goal differential at -22, the Senators’ season will likely be done early.


The Sports Nerd’s March Madness Notes and Predictions

The Madness is here, everyone.

With Selection Sunday now behind us, we now have the official bracket of the 68 teams hoping to cut down the nets in Houston. While college basketball is already enjoyable as is, the eyes of the nation will be on the tournament for the next few weeks. Outside of the obvious stress of hoping for your team’s championship run, just about everyone is going to be building a bracket to list their predictions.

While your bracket (and countless others, including this one) is probably going to go up in smoke by the time the first weekend is up, it’s still fun to figure out how to go about building it up. Do you go full analytics and immerse yourself into the world of KenPom ratings, adjusted efficiencies, and upset tendencies? Maybe going off of name recognition and prior tournament success is more of your speed? Or just embrace the chaos and go off of which mascot would win in a fight? There’s no real wrong answer to how to build a bracket; that’s just how unpredictable the tournament is.

However, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of research to help you make the best decision possible. It helped me out in 2018, when I predicted the Villanova-Michigan final and guessed correctly on Loyola-Chicago making a deep run in the tournament. Doing well in your bracket doesn’t have to be complicated; you just need to know who are the right horses to bet on and who might bust your bracket. Whether that means going based off of the chalk or hoping Cinderella wreaks havoc in one corner of the bracket, these predictions should hopefully shed some light on the bigger decisions.

So who’s going to Houston? Let’s find out.

South Region

Did Alabama choose who was seeded with them? Arizona needed a healthy dose of luck to beat a banged-up UCLA squad in the PAC-12 championship, and they have a recent history of struggling in the tournament. I’d typically like Scott Drew’s Baylor team, but they’re coming in as losers of four of their last six games. Tony Bennett’s always fielded some great defenses at Virginia, but one bad offensive night leads to…well, this. It’s rare to safely say a team’s going to at least the Elite Eight, but Alabama feels like an exception.

If you’re looking for one of the middle seeds to do some damage and make a surprise run to the Final Four, look no further than Creighton. KenPom rankings aren’t a direct indicator of a team’s tournament success, but they’ve typically been reliable in determining who has the potential to go far. Sitting at number 13 in the rankings, Creighton has the analytics on their side. Outside of a mid-season slump while star center Ryan Kalkbrenner was hurt, they’ve been one of the best and most consistent teams all season long. I’m confident they can beat Baylor in the Round of 32 or Arizona in the Sweet 16…assuming the higher seed make it that far.

Missouri vs Utah State has all the makings of the best matchup in the first round. Both have offensive figures in the high-70s, so the points shouldn’t be too hard to come by. Missouri may have the best player in that matchup in Kobe Brown, but Utah State has the more reliable defense out of the two and has the 18th ranking in KenPom to bolster their resume. This is a game that could go either way, but I’m confident either one has what it takes to beat Arizona in the Round of 32.

If you’re looking for a first-round upset, the reliable 12-5 bid is a great option here. Charleston is one of the mid-major teams to watch in the tournament this year, highlighted by being one of the deepest and fastest teams in the field. They push the pace on both sides of the court, which is a direct contrast to their first two opponents in San Diego State and Virginia. Coach Pat Kelsey will need to develop a gameplan that allows Charleston to dictate the pace and stay efficient; if the team can manage that, they have a great chance to hit the Sweet 16.

In the end, however, this feels like Alabama’s region to lose. Nate Oats has built a monster in Tuscaloosa, guiding it to pure domination over a loaded SEC. It helps that they have the best player in the region, if not the entire field, in Brandon Miller, a projected top-5 pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Yes, the Crimson Tide are dealing with a massive wave of controversy, and the ensuing off-court drama could threaten to derail a promising season. That said, if it hasn’t happened yet, when will it? Someone can play that game, but it won’t be me.

Region Winner: Alabama

Upset Watch: Charleston vs San Diego State/Virginia, Missouri/Utah State vs Arizona

Bracket Buster: Creighton

East Region

Unlike the other regions, there isn’t a single dominant team in the East, which poses some serious intrigue about who’s going to make it out. Don’t assume that team is top-seed Purdue, though. Sure, having the Player of the Year in Zach Edey is nice, but I fear Purdue is using him as a crutch. The rest of team has experienced some inconsistency as of late, showcased in the Big Ten tournament when the Boilermakers let the likes of Rutgers, Ohio State, and Penn State stick around for far too long. It doesn’t help that the committee gave them arguably the toughest 8-9 matchup of all. Edey’s size might help Purdue gut out a win over a tenacious FAU team, but they’re in deep trouble if they draw Memphis in the Round of 32. Kendric Davis is the kind of player who can take over a game, and he has a capable running mate in Deandre Williams to help him pile on the points. Again, Edey will make it difficult to win the rebounding battle, but Memphis can pull off an 8-1 upset if the shots fall regularly; such an upset has happened at least once in the past two tournaments, so there’s precedent to lean on if you’re feeling gutsy.

Realistically, I can see three teams with convincing arguments to come out of this region: second-seeded Marquette, third-seeded Kansas State, and fifth-seeded Duke. Marquette’s fast-paced offense has them averaging almost 80 points per game, and having one of the best point guards in the country in Tyler Kolek certainly helps matters. Kansas State, picked to finish dead last in the preseason Big 12 polls, has roared to the third seed behind first-year coach Jerome Tang and the dynamic duo of Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson. The Wildcats will need to maintain possession to go far, but they have the defense and efficiency rates to propel them. Whereas Marquette and Kansas State win off of efficiency and tempo, Duke wins on sheer size. With two seven-footers in Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II, good luck trying to get anything going inside on the Blue Devils. These contrasts in styles should create some fun matchups late in the tournament, and whoever makes it out will have to earn it.

It breaks my heart to see Oral Roberts paired with Duke. In any other region, the Golden Eagles would have been a favorite to push for their second Sweet 16 spot in three years behind Max Abmas and Connor Vanover. Alas, they get the toughest five seed of the year, so I’m looking elsewhere for first-round upsets. Eleventh-seeded Providence and thirteenth-seeded Louisiana are both good bets to shake things up. Providence taking on Kentucky is arguably the juiciest matchup in the first round, with the Friars being led by Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins. The inconsistencies of the Wildcats have been well-documented this season. and it’s too hard to ignore those when going against a team like Providence that will come with major fire in their bellies. Looking at Louisiana, Jordan Brown is a double-double threat backed up by some solid shooters. That will help against an overseeded Tennessee team who has plummeted in the eyes of college basketball fans and pundits alike. Tennessee’s concerns are identical to another vulnerable fourth seed in Virginia: the defense is great, but the offense is going to get this team bounced early, especially with Zakai Zeigler out with a torn ACL. Is it also a bad time to say Rick Barnes has only been to the Sweet 16 once in the past ten times he’s made the tournament?

Marquette and Kansas State is the best potential matchup in the Sweet 16, but I’m choosing the Wildcats to continue their dream run to the Elite 8. In the battle of first-year coaches between Kansas State’s Tang and Duke’s Jon Scheyer, Nowell’s playmaking becomes the X-factor that the Wildcats need to advance to the Final Four and knock out the Blue Devils in Madison Square Garden.

Region Winner: Kansas State

Upset Watch: Providence vs Kentucky, Louisiana vs Tennessee, Memphis vs Purdue

Bracket Buster: Memphis

Midwest Region

With the chaos that the other regions can easily fall into, the Midwest stands out as a beacon of sanity. The top two seeds feel like the clear-cut best teams in the region, and there’s a few other standouts ranked pretty highly here as well. This isn’t to say to bring out the chalk for this one; Houston’s Marcus Sasser won’t be at one hundred percent, and both Xavier and Indiana have dealt with bouts of inconsistency this season. There’s not as much upset potential here as the other regions, but it still exists if you know where to look.

Houston and Texas feel like the favorites to set up a home-state advantage in the Final Four. Despite Sasser’s injury, Houston has a lot going for itself to justify a Final Four berth. Jamal Shead is the focal point of an amazing defense, while Jacare Walker and J’Wan Roberts have emerged as key pieces. If Sasser comes back and finds his form early, the Cougars will be difficult to stop. Meanwhile, while Texas has had a rough go in the tournament in years past, this iteration of the Longhorns feels different. Coming off a Big 12 title that saw them smoke Kansas in the championship game, Texas has all the makings of a championship contender. A three-headed monster in Marcus Carr, Sir Jabari Rice, and Timmy Allen should ensure that the Longhorns have enough firepower to stay competitive.

Keep an eye on the First Four game between Mississippi State and Pittsburgh. Mississippi State plays some of the stingiest defense in the field, while Jeff Capel has pushed Pittsburgh from last-place prediction to a bubble team. Either one could give an inconsistent Iowa State team fits, but I’m more concerned about Xavier. Sure, the Musketeers earned the three seed, but they’ve been much more difficult to trust since Zach Freemantle went down with injury. Sure, the offense is still in good hands with Colby Jones and Souley Boum, but they’re a cold streak from either one or a hot streak from the opposing offense from danger. Even more difficult to trust if fifth-seeded Miami, where an injury to Norchard Omier compounds their current problems. Isaiah Wong can still take over a game if need be, but defense is going to be a massive issue. Even worse is that they pair up with Drake, a defensive-first team that can fire the ball from long range rather well. Put both of those teams on upset alert, with at least one not making it past the first weekend.

While Indiana could make a good run behind Trayce Jackson-Davis or the 7-10 matchup between Texas A&M and Penn State producing a bracket buster, Houston and Texas both feel pretty safe. While Houston should play pretty well, give me Texas in a nail-biter to fly back into the Lone Star State as the Midwest’s Final Four representative.

Region Winner: Texas

Upset Alert: Mississippi State/Pittsburgh over Xavier, Drake over Miami

Bracket Buster: Mississippi State/Pittsburgh

West Region

You know how the World Cup always has a Group of Death featuring plenty of stacked teams? Say hello to the college basketball equivalent. Outside of the defending champion Kansas Jayhawks, the West is loaded with two additional powerhouses in UCLA and Gonzaga, plenty of middle seeds hoping to secure a run, and a fair share of upset candidates. Make no mistake, this is the region that is going to ultimately decide how well your bracket goes.

Let’s start with the top three teams in Kansas, UCLA, and Gonzaga. Bill Self will be back behind the bench for the repeat, and the Jayhawks will ride a strong trio of Jalen Wilson, Gradey Dick, and Dajuan Harris. While the Jayhawks aren’t necessarily elite in any particular category, they make up for it by being one of the most well-balanced teams in the country. A team that plays with equally fast pace could give them fits, but no one will hold it against you if you choose Kansas to run it back. UCLA can safely rely on Jaime Jaquez and its incredible defense to carry them through, but there are question marks. Jaylen Clark is out for the tournament, center Adem Bona might not be one hundred percent. and UCLA’s offense can let them down just as easily as the defense can lift them up. The first-round matchup against UNC Asheville could be worth monitoring to see how the Bruins cope with such a loss. Gonzaga is the virtual opposite of UCLA, coming it with a fantastic offense and plenty of playoff experience to try and end Drew Timme’s tenure with a championship victory. That said, defense has been a sticking point for the Bulldogs and they haven’t performed particularly well against elite teams. Gonzaga will either make a spirited run deep in the tournament, or get crushed before the first weekend is done.

Outside of those three, there’s still a lot of intrigue that needs to be discussed. Fourth-seeded UConn is a stronger version of Creighton: a serious championship contender that no one talks about due to a rough stretch in the middle of the season. With Adama Sanogo down low and Jordan Hawkins leading a balanced offense, they have serious potential to cut down the nets. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they got paired with some dangerous low seeds. Sixth-seeded TCU may not be a dangerous offensive team, but Mike Miles can carry a game to go with some impressive defense. Expect them to beat their bubble team handily and give Gonzaga all they can handle. Eighth-seeded Arkansas took a hit when Trevon Brazile went down, but Nick Smith and Anthony Black have stepped up in his absence, and Eric Musselman is one of the best coaches in the nation. Don’t be surprised if they end Kansas’s repeat bid in the Round of 32. Even 12th seeded VCU’s stout defense and a Rick Pitino-coached Iona are real first-round upset threats.

In this unpredictable region, it’s fair to go with an unpredictable winner. Despite having the fortune of having higher-seeded opponents bow out, UConn will have to earn every victory. Iona and VCU are prime Cinderella material, Arkansas has great talent and coaching, and UCLA or Gonzaga would make for worthy Elite Eight opponents. In the end, UConn has the right amount of talent, versatility, and analytical support I’m looking for.

Region Winner: UConn

Upset Alert: VCU over Saint Mary’s, Arkansas over Kansas

Bracket Buster: Arkansas

Final Four

In this Final Four, we have Alabama squaring off against Kansas State, while Texas gets home-field advantage over UConn. Alabama should put an end to Kansas State’s storybook season behind a big game from Brandon Miller, but the Wildcats should do enough to stay in it until the end. Even more unpredictable is Texas vs UConn: Texas has the better talent between the two, but UConn would be the favorite in terms of depth and analytics. The home crowd does just enough to push Texas to the championship in a nail-biter. Overtime, perhaps?

Winners: Alabama, Texas

National Champion: Alabama

With the controversy surrounding the Crimson Tide and the home crowd supporting the Longhorns, Nate Oats cutting down the nets could be met with a barrage of jeers and boos. However, it just makes too much sense in the end. Brandon Miller is elite, but the Crimson Tide also have players like Jahvon Quinerly, Charles Bediako, and Noah Clowney that are essential towards winning a championship. They were the best team in the nation, won arguably the best conference in the nation, and have the best player in the nation at their disposal. Why does this championship game sound like it belongs in football?

Ranking the NFL Coaching Hires

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

The 2023 NFL coaching cycle, barring any surprises, has come to an end.

While Black Monday had its fair share of bloodletting, the head coaching scene has barely changed too much. After 10 teams changed head coaches last year, only five made the change this time around, with three moving on before the regular season ended. The bloodbath this year seemed to focus more on coordinators, headlined by half of the league changing offensive coordinators alone.

This could make for an interesting 2024 coaching cycle, but we still have five coaching hires that need to be analyzed. They come from all across the coaching spectrum, ranging from hot prospects to a recent fire looking for a second chance to a legend stepping back on the sideline from the broadcast booth. While there are valid reasons to justify each hire, there are questions that need to be answered, Was the hire each team made the best possible fit at this point in time? What plan does the team have in mind? Was a better option available? All these questions will be answered in these rankings.

So did each team hire the right man for the job, or have they made a potentially costly mistake? Let’s find out.

5. Jonathan Gannon, Arizona Cardinals

In a vacuum, hiring Gannon made a ton of sense for the Cardinals. The Eagles defense was one of the most dominant units in the NFL this season, headlined by a league-leading 70 sacks and one of the best cornerback duos in Darius Slay and James Bradberry. He’s transformed the Eagles into a playmaking unit on defense, which was instrumental in getting the ball back to a high-octane offense (more on that side of the ball in a minute). His experience with defensive backs is fantastic for a team that has no bankable stars in the secondary outside of Budda Baker, and the sack number is music to the ears of a defense that will have a new-look pass rush, likely headlined by a top prospect in either Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. or Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter.

So why is Gannon in last? For starters, the Super Bowl left a lot to be desired for Gannon’s defense, which failed to record a single defensive stop on Kansas City in the second half. If the Cardinals were looking to fix the defense, someone like Brian Flores (the new Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator) or Lou Anarumo (Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator) would have made an equal amount of sense. Also, the offense might be worse than advertised for the Cardinals next season. Kyler Murray is expected to miss a good chunk of next season, DeAndre Hopkins’ PED suspension canceled out his no-trade clause and gives a rebuilding Arizona team a free chance to trade his contract, and recent acquisitions like Hollywood Brown and Rondale Moore are better receivers in Madden than in real life. This looks like a team that new GM Monti Ossenfort is already looking to hit the reset button on; is Gannon the best fit for this transition period?

I wanted to like this hire, but the Super Bowl performance has me thinking Gannon got taken on a year too soon. How the team looks in his first year could be crucial.

4. Frank Reich, Carolina Panthers

This feels like the Panthers copying the Jaguars’ strategy last season: hire a retread to serve as the antithesis to a college coach that failed to make the transition. To be fair, it worked for Doug Pederson and the Jaguars, who went on a tear late in the season that culminated in a massive comeback win over the Los Angeles Chargers (a team that should have also made a new coaching hire, but that’s for another time.) Reich finds himself in a similar position, leading a team in a weak division after his previous stint with Indianapolis ended on harsh terms. Reich should be instrumental in working with a young quarterback, whether the Panthers elect to take a flier on Matt Corral or choose to draft one in April. Despite not having a franchise quarterback in Indy after Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement, Reich still managed to put together a respectable 40-33-1 record in five years.

The issue I have most with Reich is is that he finds himself in a similar situation to last year, where he had the Colts in position to take advantage of a weak division, only to falter and lose his job before the season was done. What makes new owner David Tepper think this would be any different? Would hiring someone like Shane Steichen, who has experience working with young quarterbacks and drum up more excitement, have made more sense? Rather, what was wrong with Steve Wilks? The Carolina interim coach and new San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator went 6-6 in the role and kept the Panthers in the playoff race, despite the team trading Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers at the trade deadline. Wilks clearly had the support of the players, so would it have made more sense to promote Wilks and bring in a brilliant offensive coordinator (Eric Bieniemy, perhaps)?

Reich shouldn’t deal with nearly as much chaos as he did in Indianapolis, which is fine. I just don’t know if this was the right hire yet.

3. Sean Payton, Denver Broncos

There’s no denying Payton’s credentials at this point. While the Broncos courted the likes of Jim Harbaugh and DeMeco Ryans, it’s arguable that they made the right decision to bring Payton along. What Payton specializes in is creative offense and a winning culture, both of which were severely lacking in Denver last season. A healthy offense should work wonders for Denver, but Payton’s most important undertaking will be the reclamation of Russell Wilson. Wilson looked lost at times last season, so Payton will need to be sure he and his franchise quarterback are on the same page. Losing Ejiro Evero to Carolina hurts, and Payton’s preferred choice for defensive coordinator in Vic Fangio already took a job in Miami prior to the hire, but it’s currently expected that the Broncos will bring in Rex Ryan to fill the position.

The thing with Payton is that he’s appropriate for the middle of the pack for a simple reason: he is the ultimate boom-or-bust proposition. Just a year after the Broncos landed Wilson in a massive deal, they put together another big package to acquire Payton from New Orleans. It’s hard to not come away from this thinking the Broncos are mortgaging their entire future on the idea that Payton can fix Wilson and bring the Broncos back to relevancy in a competitive AFC West. Kansas City isn’t going anywhere until either Patrick Mahomes or Andy Reid decline, the Chargers still have Justin Herbert and an impressive array of talent, and who knows what the Raiders will look like when they get their new quarterback? If the Payton-Wilson era fizzles out, the Broncos may have chained themselves to the divisional basement for a long time.

If Payton is exactly who the Broncos hope they are getting, that will go a long way toward re-establishing themselves as a threat. If not, the new era in Denver may be one Broncos fans hope to forget.

2. Shane Steichen, Indianapolis Colts

This hire almost belongs in first simply for the fact that Jim Irsay went against bringing on interim coach Jeff Saturday, despite him looking overmatched most games. Instead, they make arguably the most sensible hire for themselves and land one of the hottest coaching prospects in Steichen. Steichen’s track record goes back to the Chargers, where he played an instrumental role in Justin Herbert winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. However, his stock has only increased since going to the Eagles, where he took Jalen Hurts from a project at quarterback to a legitimate MVP candidate this season. In Indianapolis, he’ll get to work with a top running back in Jonathan Taylor, as well as a decent receiving corps with young targets like Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, and Jelani Woods.

The most important reason why the Steichen hire was huge for the Colts was their position at quarterback. After years of instability at the game’s most important position, the Colts have the chance to make a big move to land a top quarterback prospect in this year’s draft. Whether the Colts trade up or not, they will likely be starting fresh with either Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, or even Kentucky’s Will Levis. While all three prospects have their share of questions, placing them under Steichen’s stewardship gives either one a capable guiding hand to start their careers with.

For a team that needs a reset in many aspects, Steichen makes a lot of sense for the Colts. If they pair him with the right quarterback come Draft time, they have the potential to make some serious noise in the near future.

1. DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

There aren’t too many good things you can say about Texans management right now. They have looked like a haven for chaos and instability, earning some well-deserved heat for bringing in David Culley and Lovie Smith only to cut them like bait after just one season each. This alone made me think that a candidate like Ryans was out of reach, despite the close ties he has with the organization. Instead, the former player signed a six-year deal with the team, hopefully giving him the time he needs to implement his vision. It worked with his former employers in San Francisco, so the strategy itself is certainly worth a try.

While the argument could be made that the Texans should have complemented a rookie quarterback with an offensive-minded coach, it’s hard to think Houston made the wrong decision here. While Ryans started with Nick Bosa and Fred Warner as established stars, he was able to get the best out of many players. Talanoa Hufanga went from unheralded safety to a Pro Bowler this season under Ryans’ watch. Azeez Al-Shaair will get a huge payday in free agency thanks to Ryans, possibly even reuniting with him in Houston. Charvarius Ward outperformed more ballyhooed free agent cornerbacks such as J.C. Jackson this season. All of that, in at least some capacity, was due to the work of Ryans, who should work wonders with a Houston team that has potential, but needs someone to help them take the next step.

Ryans was a near-perfect hire for Houston in a cycle where they had arguably the lowest expectations. That alone is worthy of the top spot.

Nerd Rage: A War-Torn Broncos Country

Image Credit: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Just two weeks away from Black Monday, the Denver Broncos decided to no longer delay the inevitable.

Just a day after being shelled 51-14 by an injured Los Angeles Rams team, the Broncos decided they had seen enough and fired first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett. It’s the fifth time in NFL history (and the first time in back-to-back seasons) that a head coach has failed to make it out of their first season with the team. For context, the recent names on that list include Urban Meyer’s reign of chaos with the Jaguars and Bobby Petrino bailing out of a terrible year with the Falcons for a return to college football. This time, there was no scandal or cushy college job that forced a coach out, just prolonged and infuriating ineptitude.

The optimism that had so clearly defined the Broncos’ offseason has long but given way to despair and anger. A team once viewed as a playoff contender is now staring down the barrel of potential long-term futility. But what happened to cause this?

All we have to do here is rewind back to a simpler time: 2015. The Broncos were riding high, with Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips masterminding a near-perfect squad. Sure, Peyton Manning was well past his prime and his understudy in Brock Osweiler was inconsistent, but the offense had enough skill players like the late Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and Ronnie Hillman to compensate. It was a good complement to the main source of Denver’s success: the defense. There’s a reason why the 2015 Broncos defense is hailed as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. It’s pass rush was near unstoppable, led by an All-Pro in Von Miller and a quality veteran in DeMarcus Ware. Young players like Shaquille Barrett, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and Shane Ray would all get their pound of flesh as well. The linebacker duo of Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan were quality options, while the secondary was loaded with a mix of veterans (Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart) and youngsters (Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby). A 12-4 season that culminated with the ultimate prize: a Super Bowl humiliation of the 15-1 Carolina Panthers. MVP Cam Newton was powerless to stop the onslaught, and the Broncos became champions.

Since then, however, the Broncos have had to deal with instability. Peyton Manning rode off from the mountaintop into the Colorado sunset, while Brock Osweiler elected to go to greener pastures with the Texans. After a disappointing 2016 where they failed to make the playoffs, Kubiak and Phillips would also depart the organization. With the architects gone, the Broncos had to make do with what they had, but nothing seemed to work. Young draft picks like Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch failed to become franchise quarterbacks, while established options like Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater were little more than stopgaps. Coaches like Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio failed to replicate the success of Kubiak and Phillips. While the Broncos had talent at the time, fans always had to wonder how far they could go if they only had a franchise quarterback and coach.

Fast forward to this past offseason, and the Broncos began to ask the same questions. Fangio was gone, there was no QB in the pipeline, and rumors of a sale were starting to swirl. With talks of a nice quarterback trade market forming, this was the time to strike. Their first target would be none other than the biggest fish of all: Aaron Rodgers. The Packers had already drafted his heir apparent in Jordan Love, and it felt like the Packers were ready for a transition. The Broncos quickly pounced by signing Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to extensions, investing serious money in pass-catchers. They even hired Packers offensive coordinator Hackett, whom Rodgers had spoken highly of, to be their new head coach. Everything was lining up perfectly…until the Packers thought twice and locked Rodgers into an extension.

However, shortly after Broncos fans’ hopes of seeing Rodgers in the orange and blue were dashed, a new potential savior became available: Russell Wilson. Wilson had reportedly become frustrated with Seattle and Pete Carroll’s playcalling, and he decided it was time for a change. Denver fans were pleased and bragged about how they had fleeced Seattle, but that never seemed like the right take. The Broncos had to give up a fair share of pieces to make the deal happen, such as a developmental quarterback in Drew Lock, emerging pass-catcher Noah Fant, and two years’ worth of first and second-round picks. The massive extension the Broncos signed Wilson to before a game was even played meant they had even less margin for error. This was no longer a trade that would decide the Broncos’ short-term fortunes, but one that would directly change the franchise for the foreseeable future. The more accurate catchphrase would have been “Broncos Country, let’s ride or die.”

It took about one game for us to find the answers to our questions. It was the perfect scenario: Wilson returning to his old stomping grounds in Seattle. Pete Carroll had apparently chosen journeyman backup Geno Smith as his quarterback over Lock, and all of Denver was licking their chops to see the fruits of arguably the biggest trade in franchise history. With under a minute left and with all three timeouts still left, Hackett had a choice on 4th-and-5: does he trust his new nine-figure quarterback to make a throw to keep the drive alive, or have Brandon McManus try to kick a 64-yard field goal to win? As the clock ticked (much to the chagrin of Peyton Manning), Hackett oddly decided to go for the latter. He helplessly watched his kicker miss, and only used his remaining timeouts to delay the inevitable soul-crushing loss.

It was an inauspicious start…and it would only proceed to get worse. It felt like the Broncos were completely unprepared most games. Their red-zone playcalling was predictable and easily diagnosed by NFL defenses. The offensive line took a collective step back and allowed Wilson to get hit multiple times a game. Their top two running backs were either injured early or released due to ineptitude. Receivers either got injured or never developed as expected. Even worse, Wilson has shown serious signs of regression. Perhaps it’s learning a new offense, but that was never the problem for the likes of Brady or Manning. His twelve touchdown passes have him at a career low, while also on pace for a career-high in sacks. All of this has combined for the Broncos to score a paltry 15.5 points per game, the lowest mark in the league.

If the on-field problems weren’t enough of an issue, the Broncos on the sidelines were even worse. It started with a somewhat passive-aggressive stare from backup running back Melvin Gordon III at Wilson during a Thursday night loss to the Indianapolis Colts. It eventually devolved into defensive lineman Mike Purcell openly yelling at Wilson before the offense took the field, sparking concerns of a divided locker room. Those concerns would rear their ugly head during the Christmas blowout to the Rams, when backup quarterback Brett Rypien would get into a shoving match with offensive lineman Dalton Risner and the rest of the O-line after a sack. When things devolve this bad within your organization, that’s the sign that Wilson and Hackett have shown a tremendous lack of leadership and, consequently, have lost the locker room amidst the team’s season-long struggles.

While Hackett may sound like a convenient fall guy due to Wilson’s immovable contract, he’s been arguably the biggest piece of the Broncos’ shortcomings. The Hackett era will be defined by many things, but none of them will be flattering. The failure to devise an effective offensive scheme, the inability to get the best out of his personnel, and turning a blind eye to the obviously decaying team culture? The blame for all of that has to fall at Hackett’s feet to some extent.

The oddest part about all of this is the interim coach replacing Hackett is an odd choice. Instead of making the logical decision (in my opinion) and promoting defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to see what he’s capable of as a head coach, the Broncos elected to go with *checks notes* Jerry Rosburg. Let me get this straight: the Broncos came to a conscious decision that a 66-year-old who came out of a four-year retirement midseason to help Hackett manage a game clock is suddenly an answer? I get that the Broncos have nothing to play for, but when a tank only helps Seattle increase their pick, why not at least see what you have in Evero before he potentially takes a job elsewhere?

Oh yeah, that reminds me. Seattle came away with Charles Cross and Boye Mafe with Denver’s picks in 2022, both of whom have emerged as solid players with the chance to become major parts of the Seahawks’ future. Now, there’s a good chance the 2023 first-round pick is a top-three selection. That means the pick could be used to draft a new franchise quarterback (likely whoever isn’t selected at first overall between Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud) or potentially traded to a team much more desperate for one in order to acquire more pieces. If Seattle becomes a consistent contender within the next few years, the Russell Wilson trade will be attributed as being a direct catalyst of such success.

I won’t go as far as saying the Wilson trade and extension are the worst in NFL history, if only because what the Seahawks do with the remaining picks is uncertain and there’s a chance Wilson has struggled to get acclimated due to extenuating circumstances. However, what if the problems bleed into next year and beyond? What if Wilson’s off year is a sign of decline? What if the Broncos make another Hackett-sized whiff at the head coaching position? What if players want to avoid going to Denver for fear of locker room toxicity? At that point, we would have to discuss this trade and extension to be arguably the worst decision in NFL history, right up there with the Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams trades. If that ends up being the case, Hackett will be just the first casualty of Denver’s colossal mistake.

It felt like only months ago we felt the Wilson-Hackett pairing was going to take Denver to another Super Bowl. Now, they may have locked themselves into a painful stretch of mediocrity…and that may be the ceiling.

Five Realistic NHL Trade Deadline Blockbuster Scenarios

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First of all, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone!

The NHL season is nearing the halfway point and, as we approach the new year, the landscape has become quite clear. Some teams are emerging as clear contenders, others are firmly entrenching themselves in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes, and the rest stand on shaky ground where one slip-up could end their season in the spring. With every team’s strengths and weaknesses now apparent, the Trade Deadline is already shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.

Obvious non-competitors like Arizona, Chicago, and San Jose boast some of this year’s premium trade assets that can fetch them a decent price on the market. Vancouver and St. Louis have experienced massive bouts of inconsistency, leading both to the brink of a blowup. Meanwhile, while competitors like Boston, New Jersey, and Vegas have all had moments of brilliance, there are still holes that can be patched up in their lineups. This is exactly the point of the Deadline: sellers put up a quality player and initiate bidding wars between the buyers, whom consist of potential contenders hoping to land a final piece and fringe teams looking for a sparkplug to kickstart a journey into the playoffs and beyond.

Here, I want to discuss five potential scenarios that could occur at the deadline involving some of the biggest names on the market. While future ramifications could make these ideas a bit murky, the players going to new teams have the skillset that contenders need right now. This isn’t to say that all of these players are guaranteed to be moved at the Deadline either, given the high prices teams will have to pay to acquire them; consider these more as sales pitches to specific teams to convince them that a certain player is what they need to get over the hill.

So how does this Deadline play out in Nerd World? Let’s find out.

Scenario #1: A Legend Gets Closer to Home

New York Islanders acquire: F Patrick Kane (25% salary retained), 2023 5th Round Pick

Chicago Blackhawks acquire: F Oliver Wahlstrom, 2023 1st Round Pick, 2024 3rd Round Pick

It was clear from the offseason the Blackhawks had that they weren’t interested in being competitive. Trading Alex DeBrincat to Ottawa, letting Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome walk in free agency, and signing mid-tier free agents like Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou to use as trade assets later made that philosophy clear. Once that happened, the focus shifted on franchise legends Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, both of whom have expiring contracts and no longer fit with the Blackhawks’ timeline. While neither of them have had memorable seasons thus far, this can largely be equated to the fact that there is practically no one around them for support. While the argument could be made for Toews’s decline, Kane’s history of production still warrants a high price for his services. Pairing him with a true top center like Mathew Barzal can allow him to do more than he’s been able to in Chicago, potentially setting him up for a strong final quarter of the year. Also, while he has a no-move clause attached to his contract, he’d likely be willing to waive it for a chance to return at least close to home (Kane is a Buffalo native) and compete in the playoffs once again.

While Kane would fetch a high price, the Islanders would still come in relatively cautious. The idea of Kane being an expensive rental is a valid cause for concern, and the Islanders don’t have a farm system that can easily replace anything they might lose. Still, a team as historically offense-starved as the Isles should know that they need to change something, and Kane represents a piece that can turn them from inconsistent fringe team to a tough out in the playoffs. Kane would replace Wahlstrom in the lineup, while Chicago would have a solid young NHL player to build a new core around. Adding an extra first would give the Blackhawks potentially three first-round picks in a stacked 2023 draft, giving them the opportunity to kickstart a rebuild with elite talent. The extra third is a sweetener that can have a condition attached to it, but the Hawks retaining salary and adding an extra pick would likely remove any ideas of protection.

The Islanders have needed an elite offensive option for a long time, while the Blackhawks are firmly in a transition period.

Scenario #2: The Hockey Trade

Minnesota Wild acquire: C Bo Horvat, Conditional 2024 4th Round Pick

Vancouver Canucks acquire: D Matt Dumba, F Caedan Bankier, 2023 1st Round Pick, Conditional 2024 2nd Round Pick

The Canucks seem ready to blow it all up. Extension talks with Horvat seem to have been unsuccessful. Brock Boeser has struggled to mesh with Bruce Boudreau’s system and has been allowed to seek a trade. Thatcher Demko pre-injury was seen as a potential buy-low opportunity. Now, rumors have even begun to circulate that Quinn Hughes can be had if a team is willing to pay the massive price needed. While the Canucks have plenty of pieces that can make a rebuild easier, they also need to build a team with capable players to stay competitive. They have the opportunity to accomplish both goals with this trade to Minnesota. The Wild have needed a top-flight center for a little while, and those flaws have been exposed in their two most recent playoff series with Vegas and St. Louis. The idea of gaining Horvat on a career year should be appealing to them, and it is likely he would be on a line with Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello to form a terrifying top line.

Helping Minnesota’s case is the fact that they can offer Vancouver something they desperately need. Dumba has been a name floating around the trade mill for a little while, and the emergence of a defenseman on the right side in Calen Addison may finally give Minnesota the excuse they need to ship him out. While Dumba does have a 10-team no-trade list, I would doubt the Regina native has any team from Western Canada on that list, especially a team like Vancouver who would pair him with Hughes and give him top-pairing minutes out of the box if the latter stays. Bankier has been impressive enough to be on a stacked Team Canada for the upcoming World Junior Championships. Being able to play center should make him even more appealing for the Canucks to add him to the trade. The 2023 1st is a given for a trade of this magnitude, but the conditional picks added would only be if Horvat or Dumba re-sign with their new teams. Otherwise, the picks will not be added in order to keep the value even.

Vancouver and Minnesota certainly have something the other side wants, and it’s become apparent neither player is returning next season. Not only would this give both teams something for their impending free agent, but put them both in a position where they can be successful.

Scenario #3: Hello, Old Friend

New Jersey Devils acquire: F Timo Meier (25% salary retained)

San Jose Sharks acquire: D Damon Severson, F Alexander Holtz, 2023 1st Round Pick

While the Sharks would be more eager to get Erik Karlsson’s contract off of their books, they are more likely to get what they want out of trading Meier. After a slow start to the year, Meier has broken out offensively and looks sets to complete his third 30-goal campaign. While the Sharks would prefer to keep him, he’s also due a $10 million qualifying offer next year that, if accepted, would push him into unrestricted free agency. The risk of losing arguably their best player for nothing is a risk that the Sharks should be unwilling to take. While a lot of teams will want to acquire Meier, the Devils have arguably the best case for him. He’s the piece that the Devils need for them to take the next step up and be a credible threat, while also being young enough (26 years old) to fit with the timeline New Jersey has. Even better for Meier is that he would likely be on a line with Nico Hischier, his real-life friend and linemate on Team Switzerland. While we know what Meier is capable of at this juncture, Hischier is still an ascending talent. Adding Meier can only make him better as a player, and the 1-2 punch of Hischier and Jack Hughes has the potential to become the best in the league at the center position.

While New Jersey would have to make the financials work between a Meier extension and those of the likes of Jesper Bratt and Fabian Zetterlund, they do have some expiring contracts that can be dangled to make the money work. Severson would be a logical choice, as the Devils have emerging young options like Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec who can slide in on the right side. While the Sharks would have an option for an NHL player that can fit in their lineup, the real prize for them here is Holtz. Holtz was expected to cement a top-six role for the Devils this season, but the success the team has experienced this season and the emergence of guys like Zetterlund have clouded his future with the team a bit. Grabbing Holtz would mean the Sharks can pair him with a friend and former teammate as well in William Eklund. Having two top prospects who know what the other is capable of can assist their development dramatically, and I could see both of them being on a top-six line with either Tomas Hertl or Logan Couture. Again, a first-round pick would be necessary, especially if the Sharks are retaining salary.

One player reunites with a friend to push for a Stanley Cup, the other reunites to help push a team back to relevance. This is as realistic and logical a trade option as it gets for the Sharks to move a top talent.

Scenario #4: The Shoe Finally Drops

Edmonton Oilers acquire: D Jakob Chychrun

Arizona Coyotes acquire: F Jesse Puljujarvi, D Philip Broberg, 2023 1st Round Pick, 2024 2nd Round Pick, 2025 3rd Round Pick

Chychrun has been one of the big names on the trade block for a while, but a combination of injuries and struggling to do everything on a poor Coyotes team has kept conversations from truly getting off the ground. However, a strong return to form this year could change that. While the Kings and Senators have been linked to Chychrun in the past, both teams are struggling to keep pace in the playoff hunt right now. If Chychrun wants to go to a team that can compete and the Coyotes want to find a team willing to give them the assets they want, Edmonton would be a good place to look. The defense has struggled to gain much traction this year, forcing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to try and bail the Oilers out of trouble too many times. That needs to change if the Oilers want to build off of last season’s successful run to the Conference Finals, and Chychrun can be a piece that helps with that. Chychrun has already flashed great potential and still has some term left on his deal, making him an affordable “final piece” option.

The main question with Chychrun is the package that would come back, which the Coyotes described as similar to the deal last deadline that sent Hampus Lindholm to Boston. That means we’re looking at an NHL player, a quality prospect, and multiple high picks. While the Oilers have some options to choose from, Puljujarvi stands out as a player in desperate need of a change of scenery. He’s struggled to do much with either McDavid or Draisaitl, and his lack of confidence has started to show in recent times. Moving him to a place like Arizona where the pressure is drastically reduced and more opportunities to be a consistent top-six presence can only help him out. Broberg could also benefit to a move to the desert, as Arizona has had some success with defenseman like him. Shayne Gostisbehere and Juuso Valimaki have looked like solid reclamation projects, and the development of Janis Moser has been promising. Another gem in Broberg can help create an underrated unit for Arizona to work with. The picks are roughly the same as the Lindholm deal, except one of the second round picks is turned into a third for Arizona to compensate for a higher-ceiling player in Puljujarvi. Regardless, this deal gives the Coyotes a potential 21(!) picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts. That’s a rebuild trending in the right direction.

Arizona is hoping to get some franchise talent in their system as they try and finally find a combination that works on the ice. Trading away Chychrun for this type of return would help in achieving their ultimate goal.

Scenario #5: Blowing Up the Blues

Toronto Maple Leafs acquire: C Ryan O’Reilly (50% salary retained)

New York Rangers acquire: F Vladimir Tarasenko (25% salary retained)

St. Louis Blues acquire: (from Toronto: F Calle Jarnkrok, F Nick Robertson, 2023 1st Round Pick) (from NYR: F Vitali Kravstov, D Matthew Robertson, 2023 1st Round Pick)

The Blues have had a nightmare season thus far, at least according to their own expectations. Not only have they been insanely inconsistent on the ice, but the team has started to see multiple cracks on the surface. While the dominating headline has been Jordan Binnington trying to become the next Ron Hextall, Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko’s expiring contracts have also come to the hockey world’s attention. Tarasenko has been pushing for a trade out of St. Louis for the past couple of years, while O’Reilly’s up-and-down year has cast doubt over him staying. Toronto has been scouting the Ontario native O’Reilly lately, and a need has arisen for them. A center lineup of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and O’Reilly would be among the league’s best, and adding the veteran would certainly help their penalty kill. Meanwhile, Tarasenko would give the Rangers a quality option on the right side, instantly elevating him to the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, as well as working on the power play with Artemi Panarin. Both would be great options for teams hoping to go far in the postseason.

Meanwhile, what would the Blues gain from trading away two quality forwards. With Toronto needing to shed a little salary outside of the 50% salary retention, the Leafs will look to see who can go the other way. Alexander Kerfoot and Justin Holl would stand as choices, but my first decision would be Jarnkrok. He’s a versatile forward with term left, giving the Blues some options in their middle-six as they rebuild their lineup. Nick Robertson would also be helpful as the prospect going back. While adding him would feel like a punishment to the Leafs for the salary retention, it’s also hard to see where he fits in Toronto’s lineup, especially if they try and re-sign Michael Bunting. He’d get the chance for top-six minutes in a rebuilding St. Louis, likely being paired with Robert Thomas or Jordan Kyrou. Meanwhile, the Tarasenko trade would net the Blues a new power forward and reclamation project in Kravtsov. Kravtsov hasn’t developed as planned in New York, and Gerard Gallant hasn’t been particularly high on him. With a team like St. Louis, Kravtsov would get an opportunity to gain a spot in the middle six. The Rangers also sent Nils Lundkvist off to Dallas due to the glut of young defensemen in their system, and Matthew Robertson would likely also fall victim to the numbers game. With options like Torey Krug and Marco Scandella also on the trade block, a move to St. Louis would give Robertson a path to the NHL. Both teams would have to give their first-round picks in this deal, giving the Blues three picks in the 2023 draft to work with and kickstart a rebuild.

It’s been a tough season for the Blues, but that doesn’t mean it has to end in failure. Getting such returns for their stars would make their transition period easier to swallow.

Ten Cities For the Next NHL Expansion

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Another period of NHL expansion so soon? It’s entirely possible.

It’s no secret that the NHL struggled during the pandemic. Despite landing nice new TV contracts with ESPN and Turner Sports, the NHL continues to be a gate-driven league. When fans were no longer permitted to attend games, owners didn’t just lose out on sales from tickets, but also from merchandise, food and beverage, and parking. According to The Athletic, the NHL lost $3.6 billion as a result of having limited or no attendance at games. This was a massive financial blow to owners across the league, and some have undoubtedly spent the last year or so wondering how they can make money in a post-pandemic world.

That’s where expansion comes in. NHL insider Chris Johnston pitched the idea that continuing the league’s expansion would be a good way to recoup some financial capital, and the idea could be pitched as early as next year. While the idea of expansion might be strange due to the recent additions of the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken, it does come with some merit. The expansion fees paid by Vegas and Seattle topped a combined $1 billion, and the early successes of both teams could allow potential owners to see the value in bringing a team to different cities. With the odds of relocation from teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Ottawa Senators looking slim, expansion may be the best bet for some cities to gain an NHL team for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, there are some logistical questions the NHL would have to work through if they decide to go forward with further expansion. The NHL and NFL are the only two major North American sports leagues that have 32 teams, and none have ever gone beyond that number. The typical scheduling format would also have to be adjusted to support more teams, meaning there is the possibility of having to add games or have some teams not play each other during certain seasons. On top of that, the playoff structure and divisions may have to be reworked, but those at least have some historical solutions (a return to a 1-8 seeding format for each conference and potentially six divisions with six teams each in a 36-team league sounds exciting, in my opinion.) Regardless, the NHL will have to come up with some answers to support more teams.

While there’s no confirmation of expansion, Johnston’s mention of it got me thinking on where a new NHL team would make sense. With any expansion plan likely going to include two or four teams, I wanted to compile a list of ten cities that could conceivably make reasonable claims about how they can support an NHL franchise. Obviously, every city is going to have some level of risk that has to be taken into consideration, but these ten have the means to make an NHL franchise thrive.

So which cities could we see land an NHL team in a few years? Let’s find out.

10. Salt Lake City, Utah

In theory, Salt Lake City would be a quality place to include an NHL team. The city has hosted a few “Frozen Fury” preseason games, including this year between the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights. There appears to be a dedicated ownership group in place to bring another sports team to Utah. Utah is one of America’s best locales for winter sports. Combine this with a growing population and a strong business environment, and Salt Lake City would be able to make a strong argument for themselves to support an NHL franchise.

That said, there are two major problems that have to be addressed. First off, while the Salt Lake City metro area is growing, its current population of an estimated 1.2 million people would make it the third-smallest NHL market behind Winnipeg and Buffalo. This problem can at least be addressed with having no competition in the area, but the second issue is far more severe. The Frozen Fury game this year had me take away one thing: Vivint Arena is simply not viable for an NHL team. Similar to the New York Islanders’ ill-fated tenure at the Barclays Center, Vivint Arena showed the problems with hockey in an arena designed near-exclusively for basketball. These problems include, but are not limited to, the larger ice surface reducing the number of available seats, terrible sight lines that block off portions of the rink, and poor lighting. Even worse, a Vegas goal that should have been disallowed still counted due to the arena not being fitted to have the equipment necessary to make the call. Salt Lake City could make do with the Maverik Center (home of the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies), but a seating capacity of a little over 10,000 people limits it to being a short-term option. If Utah wants to make a serious bid for an NHL team, it would have to come with plans for a new NHL-caliber arena.

Salt Lake City could make an NHL team work, but I have a feeling that other cities will have the edge on them. However, if the NHL is looking for more traditional markets out west, they could do a lot worse than landing in Utah.

9. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

If you’re looking for an outside-of-the-box Canadian option to place an NHL franchise, Saskatoon will likely be your destination of choice. Saskatchewan has a history of angling for an NHL team, with the most recent attempt coming from an ownership group to move the then-Phoenix Coyotes to the province in 2009. Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre has been home to NHL preseason games in the past and, while the city is currently planning to replace it with a similar arena, the process should likely mean a new arena is developed by the time an NHL team arrives. On top of this, Saskatchewan has a proud tradition of having one of the most passionate fanbases in all of Canada. Between Saskatoon hosting the Saskatchewan Rattlers (Canadian Elite Basketball League) and Regina’s Saskatchewan Roughriders (CFL), both teams have been able to build a loyal following throughout the province.

While there’s little reason to suggest an NHL team won’t be able to capture that same loyalty, there’s no denying that Saskatoon has a serious issue attached to it. Even if you were to combine the population of Saskatoon and Regina together, it would still amount to roughly 460,000 people. Needless to say, that would be the smallest market in the NHL by a healthy margin (the next-smallest would be Winnipeg at a little under 835,000 people, nearly double the count of Saskatoon and Regina). While the Jets were able to build a solid foundation almost immediately and avoid financial issues, the NHL might not be eager to try their luck with an even-smaller market. The last thing the NHL wants or needs is another franchise struggling financially and causing the league to bleed money (insert a casual jab at the Coyotes here).

There were a few ideas for a Canadian team outside of the obvious choices, such as Halifax or suburban Toronto. However, Saskatchewan’s rabid sports culture and ideas for an NHL-caliber arena make it the ideal choice for this regard.

8. San Diego, California

One of the most underrated options on this list, San Diego would be a solid landing spot for an NHL team. While the idea of another non-traditional hockey market might cause some eyerolls, San Diego does have a favorable comparison to Las Vegas when it comes to gaining an NHL franchise. Similar to Vegas, San Diego has a long history of minor league hockey to compensate for never having a major league team. This includes a connection to Willie O’Ree, who played for the original version of the San Diego Gulls in the old Western Hockey League. As for the modern version of the Gulls, their attendance numbers are typically high amongst AHL clubs, and their current home in Pechanga Arena has a capacity of just under 13,000, making it a viable short-term option until a new arena can be built.

Even though San Diego hockey fans might not be so bummed out about the Gulls leaving if an NHL team is on the horizon, there are still a couple of kinks a proposal will have to address. First of all, San Diego is within two hours of both Anaheim and Los Angeles, so they will be wary of a new competitor for the Southern California market. Secondly, San Diego has had bad luck in terms of keeping sports teams in the past, with both the Clippers and Chargers leaving the city due to greedy ownership. If the NHL is going to dedicate themselves to a San Diego team, they will want the city and any prospective owners to share that dedication.

With all due respect to the Padres, San Diego deserves to be more than just a one-sport city. With a viable hockey market already in place, the NHL can take advantage of this and build another potentially successful franchise in a non-traditional locale.

7. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

It feels like Hamilton has always been brought up in the discussion for an NHL team, and any new expansion will likely see them in the mix again. At some point or another, there were rumors of teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, and Phoenix Coyotes moving to Hamilton, but all attempts at a deal were blocked. When potential expansion was discussed in 1991, Hamilton was considered for a team before being passed over in favor of Tampa Bay and Ottawa. While this history will be brought up again, Hamilton does have a few things going for it. While it’s population of 776,000 is small by NHL standards, that number can add up quickly due to the surrounding area. An NHL-ready arena in FirstOntario Centre will be renovated next summer, which should hopefully create a more modernized arena experience.

Geography, however, is more of a double-edged sword for any hope of an NHL team in Hamilton. While its close proximity to multiple NHL teams would reduce travel costs, being within 100 miles of Toronto and Buffalo could cause serious issues. While Toronto might be less opposed to the idea (there wouldn’t have been an arena plan in nearby Markham otherwise), a smaller market like Buffalo is more likely to block the move outright. On top of that, who’s going to step up and become an owner of a Hamilton club? BlackBerry founder Jim Balsillie was the architect of the deals to try and bring an NHL team to Hamilton, but he was blocked every single time. Chances are an ownership group would be involved, but will they be able to convince the NHL of Hamilton’s financial sustainability?

While Hamilton’s best chances of an NHL franchise may have passed them already, they will likely continue to be in the discussion. If the right ownership and concessions are in place, however, there may be a chance after all.

6. Hartford, Connecticut

For my justification on Hartford getting an NHL team, I could just type out “Hartford Whalers” and that would be more than enough. Alas, that explanation is a cop out, so here we go. Outside of the obvious return of the NHL to the city for the first time in what would likely be 30 years, there’s substance behind the argument to give Hartford a second crack at an NHL team. Hartford still has a deep connection to the Whalers, so a return to the NHL would certainly be met with open arms from a rabid fanbase. Even better for Hartford is, despite having a combined population of just over 250,000, the Hartford-New Haven area is just outside the top 30 media markets in the US. The return of the Whalers would also reignite some rivalries with teams like the Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, and New York Rangers, as well as start a new rivalry with the Carolina Hurricanes (the rebranding of the original Whalers).

As perfect as a Whalers return would be, there are some factors to go against it. While Connecticut would almost certainly embrace the team, its top four cities (Bridgeport, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford) would combine for just over 540,000 people, making it the smallest market in the NHL. Another thing is that the XL Center, the current home of the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, is outdated by NHL standards. While a capacity of about 14,750 is nice, the arena was also built in 1975 for the original Whalers. Needless to say, the arena will either have to be renovated to provide a more modern fan experience or replaced outright by a newer arena.

Putting a team in Hartford would be a risk-reward proposition, banking on the Connecticut market and fanbase to carry the team to success. With trends in the positive direction at the moment, consider Hartford a sleeper if expansion is indeed confirmed.

5. Portland, Oregon

If the NHL is looking to continue its expansion out west, there won’t be a better or more logical option than Portland. Portland also has a deep hockey history, with the former Portland Rosebuds being one of the first non-Canadian teams to ever compete for the Stanley Cup. Currently, the city plays host to the Winterhawks in the WHL, a team that typically does well in terms of attendance. A Portland team would also continue to build a strong connection between the NHL and Pacific Northwest, and rivalries with the Seattle Kraken and Vancouver Canucks would begin almost immediately. The best part for Portland is that they are also one of the few cities that can boast an NHL-ready arena. The Winterhawks shared the Moda Center with the NBA’s Trail Blazers until 2021, and a capacity of around 18,300 and its easy accessibility from public transit make it an ideal location.

With all of this going for Portland, why is it ranked so low? First of all, I’m not sure how keen the NHL would be on putting a team in the exact same region as one of their latest expansion teams. The last thing they’d want is for the Kraken and the Portland team to cannibalize each other and cause damage to both franchises. Secondly, unlike the higher locations on this list, any push for an NHL team in Portland has been relatively muted. As great of an idea as bringing a team to Portland is, it’s all a moot point if no one’s willing to lead the charge and create support.

Portland is the right city at the right time for the NHL to continue its westward expansion. All it needs is the right person or group at the helm, and their chances of landing a team will skyrocket.

4. Milwaukee, Wisconsin

With hockey doing well in the Great Lakes region, it’s a little surprising to see one of the more hockey-oriented states in Wisconsin not represented at the NHL level. Milwaukee already has two successful sports franchises in the MLB’s Brewers and NBA’s Bucks, not to mention the Packers in nearby Green Bay. Wisconsin is also home to some of the NHL’s most recognizable stars, ranging from potential Hall of Famers Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel to one of the league’s brightest young players in Cole Caufield. Similar to Portland, Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum would make sense as a hockey arena, and the quick sellout of a preseason game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild highlight that there is a clear market here.

While the Blackhawks and Wild are fine with preseason games in Milwaukee, would either organization be all that eager to accept another competitor? Milwaukee would already be relocating an AHL team in the Admirals and, while I imagine the Nashville Predators may prefer their affiliate closer to home, why would the NHL go through the hassle if they don’t have to? Also, similar to Portland, a push for an NHL team in Milwaukee has been nowhere close to as strong as the teams higher on the list. Milwaukee would be a nice traditional market for the NHL to slide into, but they need someone willing to make a deal happen.

The idea of creating another hockey mecca in America should be appealing to the NHL. They have the chance to create that with a team in Milwaukee.

3. Kansas City, Missouri

The idea of an NHL team in Kansas City already has the Wayne Gretzky stamp of approval, so that alone gives the city some clout. The success and passionate fanbases of the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, as well as the Kansas Jayhawks in nearby Lawrence, indicate that their is a good market for another sports team. Even better is that a team in Kansas City would go roughly unopposed due to being on the opposite side of the state from the Blues, which would allow them to branch out to nearby states like Kansas and Nebraska. Similar to the teams higher up on this list, Kansas City also has an NHL-ready arena in the T-Mobile Center (not to be confused with Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena). The arena sold out a preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011, and a capacity of just over 17,500 people and a convenient location in the city center makes it ideal.

However, outside of Kansas City being a smaller market, the city struggled to build support for its first foray into the NHL. The Kansas City Scouts only lasted for two years before moving to Denver and being rebranded the Colorado Rockies, so that will be a factor that works against the city if it tries to enter the NHL again. Also, in what appears to be a trend at this range, Kansas City doesn’t have an active corporate or private interest in landing an NHL team. There has been at least some effort, but support has not been as substantial as the top two teams on this list.

Kansas City has the advantages of Milwaukee and Portland, but not the drawbacks of a competitor in close proximity. If the NHL chooses to expand, Kansas City would almost certainly be one of the favorites.

2. Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

There is no fanbase more passionate about wanting a return to the NHL than Quebec City is, and they stand out as the best possible chance for Canada to gain another team. Almost everything that has been made public so far has suggested that Quebec wants the return of the Nordiques, from the diehard fanbase to local politicians. There’s no doubt support would come from nearly every facet, including the corporate support that the NHL needs to see when considering expansion. Also working in Quebec City’s favor is the VideoTron Centre, a state-of-the-art arena that would seat approximately 18,250 people.

The only thing that may be working against Quebec City, outside of the obvious American-to-Canadian economic disparity, is the NHL’s interest in going back. While Winnipeg was able to make good on its second chance in the league, the NHL will need to see a similar support system in Quebec to know that a second team in the province is a good idea. It’s also telling that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has fought to keep struggling franchises such as the Atlanta Thrashers and Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes in the fold, denying reports of the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg weeks before the team was sold. While Bettman’s expansion into non-traditional markets have been successful at points, it’s also come at the expense of more sensible locations such as Quebec City.

The Winnipeg Jets’ revival has shown the hockey world that a successful small-market team in Canada can be successful in the NHL. With the lack of options out east and a seemingly endless assortment of opportunities to make money, the NHL would be foolish to deny Quebec City again if another round of expansion occurs.

1. Houston, Texas

Houston was my betting favorite to be where the Arizona Coyotes relocated to, but a team that they can call their own would work just as well. Every box the NHL is looking for in an expansion spot, Houston has checked. Largest city in America that doesn’t have an NHL team yet? Check. A potential owner who is dedicated to bringing the NHL to Houston? Check. An NHL-ready arena that can support a team from day one? Check.

The only real knock against Houston is the fact that it is more of a non-traditional market than the cities just behind them. Outside of the Houston Aeros in the WHA, there hasn’t been a major professional hockey team in the area, so there’s no real connection between sport and city. That said, three non-traditional markets (Carolina, Dallas, Vegas) rank in the top ten of average attendance so far this season, and four such markets (Vegas, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Dallas) are in the top ten of arena capacity. While there are some markets that have struggled to gain traction (hi, Arizona and Florida), the teams listed have shown that a market like Houston can and will embrace a team.

There’s no REASON for why the struggling franchises of the NHL haven’t put relocation to Houston on the table. There would be no EXCUSE if another round of expansion passes and Houston doesn’t have a new NHL franchise.

NFL Hot Seat Predictions

Image Credit: Chuck Cook

The NFL is approaching the final month of the regular season, and it culminates with arguably one of the most exciting days of the year: Black Monday.

Black Monday is usually the day after the conclusion of the season where underperforming head coaches and general managers are given the axe. From there, teams will begin the search to fill the job openings, which could take months as most candidates would be in the playoffs. While teams like the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts have already fired their coaches, they will not be the last.

Here, I will discuss some potential openings that either have already opened up or could be up for grabs this offseason. There will be one candidate that I expect each team will hire, and another logical choice that would make sense. There will be some overlap between the two categories, but this is to show that there are multiple approaches to how a team can find their new coaches.

So which jobs are going to open come Black Monday? Who will be taking those positions? Let’s find out.

Arizona Cardinals

Who they will hire: Sean Payton, former New Orleans Saints head coach

Who they should hire: Shane Waldron, Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator

While every team will do their due diligence when it comes to Payton, the Cardinals are one of the very few teams that have a reasonable pitch. The Cardinals are one of the few teams on this list who have a set franchise quarterback in Kyler Murray, as well as have the necessary compensation to give the Saints what they want for the rights to bring Payton into their organization. For a team that’s been struggling to sustain any sort of long-term relevance, landing Payton would give the Cardinals some level of menace again.

If the Cardinals swing and miss on Payton, however, they aren’t completely out of options. Waldron would be an underrated option for many teams this offseason, and this season with Seattle has boosted his stock dramatically. While Waldron does have two great receiver in Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf at his disposal, his scheme has been responsible for resurrecting the career of Geno Smith, as well as allow for strong performances from a rookie running back and two rookie offensive tackles. The running game and offensive line are two problems for Arizona’s offense, so having someone like Waldron would be helpful in helping those areas grow. If the Cardinals also fire GM Steve Keim, they could do a lot worse than going for a candidate from a mode of organizational stability like Seattle. It’s an interesting organizational fit, but it could be just what Arizona’s looking for.

Carolina Panthers

Who they will hire: Leslie Frazier, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Eric Bieniemy, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator

While Steve Wilks has done fine in the interim for new Nebraska coach Matt Rhule, I find it hard to believe David Tepper won’t use any resources he has to find a capable head coach. I don’t think Carolina’s current situation will warrant an elite option, so Tepper will have to do his homework. With the Panthers keeping Brian Burns and other defensive pieces at the trade deadline, that could indicate the Panthers look for a rebuild centered around a strong defense. There wouldn’t be many stronger options than Frazier, who has taken the Bills defense and turned it into the top-5 unit over the past couple of seasons. While his first coaching run in Minnesota was forgettable, Frazier has learned plenty of lessons in the past decade. He’s ready to be back in the mix.

However, an interesting part of the Panthers’ coaching search will be Matt Corral, a third-round rookie who would likely be starting if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason. I think he’s solid enough to warrant the Panthers holding off until 2024 to start a quarterback search, so an offensive-minded head coach would make sense. Why not place Corral’s development in the care of someone who’s watched the best quarterback in the league? Bieniemy has helped Andy Reid steer the ship in Kansas City for the past few seasons, but he’s never been able to land a coaching job for a supposed multitude of reasons. After this season, however, with Bieniemy’s offense leading the league in passing yards despite losing Tyreek Hill, the excuses are starting to wear thin. Bieniemy will get more interviews this time around, and Carolina could do much worse than being the team that finally gives him his chance.

Denver Broncos

Who they will hire: Ejiro Evero, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Evero

The Broncos have easily been the NFL’s biggest disappointment this season. The Russell Wilson-Nathaniel Hackett duo that was supposed to guide Denver to the postseason has been an objective disaster. There have been multiple games this season that the Broncos have let slip through their fingers as a result of offensive ineptitude, and that result should be completely unacceptable. Hackett will almost certainly be one-and-done, but Wilson’s new extension means the Broncos will be stuck to him for the foreseeable future. If reports are to be believed and Denver’s situation will scare top candidates away, that leaves them in an unenviable position.

The good news for the Broncos is that their best option might already be in the building. While the offense has been putrid, Evero’s defense has been superb, headlined by a passing defense that has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the NFL. The defensive success will see Evero get some calls for interviews and, with Denver likely missing the postseason, other teams can begin the process with him immediately. With that said, it would be smart for the Broncos to promote Evero and give him the chance to rebuild the team. Whether his new coordinators comes from within (Broncos running back coach Tyrone Wheatley and defensive backs coach Christian Parker would be good choices) or outside of the organization (Evero is part of the Sean McVay coaching tree), he deserves the chance to get this team off the ground.

Houston Texans

Who they will hire: Jonathan Gannon, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Gannon

The Texans have been an outright disaster up to this point, and there’s a strong chance they will have the first overall pick in the 2023 Draft. While that pick will be used on a quarterback (most likely Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud), the problems in the organization extend far beyond that. With the Texans firing Jack Easterby earlier this season, they have the chance to free themselves entirely of the Patriots influence and start fresh. That would likely spell the end of GM Nick Caserio and coach Lovie Smith, both of whom have frankly done little to justify keeping their jobs.

Meanwhile, a finalist for the Texans’ job last season is shining in Philadelphia. Gannon’s defense has been lights out for the 11-1 Eagles this season, and they are at or near the top of the league in many different areas. They are second to only San Francisco in yards per game, seventh in points per game, and first in both passing yards per game and QBR. For a team that invested heavily on defense in the draft last season, especially in the secondary with Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre, those are numbers worth paying attention to. There may not be much in Houston at the moment, but Gannon and whoever Houston hires at GM will have at least some time to work with to turn things around.

Indianapolis Colts

Who they will hire: DeMeco Ryans, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Ryans

Another opening with a clearly logical candidate! Firing Frank Reich was a fair choice for the Colts, but hiring Jeff Saturday came completely out of left field. The past few weeks have proven the confusion was correct, especially the blowout loss the Colts suffered against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. The experiment seemed destined to struggle from the start, and Saturday will likely be headed back to the ESPN booth in the offseason. While GM Chris Ballard’s job is certainly in danger, he has to know that he needs a clear plan to stick around. That not only includes at quarterback, which has been a revolving door since the retirement of Andrew Luck, but he needs a home run hire at coach.

While some Colts fans would clamor for a bright offensive coordinator to help their new quarterback, the defense has shown that they miss linebacker Shaquille Leonard and former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Ryans would instantly bring back the fire on the defensive side of the ball, and the success of former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in New York should only help his successor’s case. Ryans’s defense is leading the league in yards per game, rushing yards per game, and points per game. With the Niners now on third-string quarterback Brock Purdy, the impetus for a deep playoff run rests on the defense. If they can succeed, Ryans will vault to the top of many teams’ lists, which is exactly why Ballard (or whoever replaces him as GM) should target him.

Los Angeles Chargers

Who they will hire: Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Sean Payton, former New Orleans Saints head coach

Brandon Staley’s defense has once again completely struggled to stop opposing offenses, and the Chargers have once again completely fallen below expectations. With far and away the most apathetic fanbase in the league and needing to make good on the window of Justin Herbert’s rookie deal, the Chargers have no choice but to be aggressive if they start a coaching search. Payton stands out as the obvious choice, between his Southern California roots, desire to work with a franchise quarterback, and his long track record of success. It’s been widely reported that Payton and the Chargers would be a perfect marriage, and continued struggles will only give the team even more reason to pursue it.

Still, there’s a chance that the Chargers don’t want to pay the asking price the Saints will be asking, but multiple failures with first-time head coaches should have them looking for experience. Look no further than Quinn in that case, as the former Atlanta Falcons coach has turned the Cowboys defense from a turnstile to one of the league’s most fearsome units. Quinn’s watch has turned Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs into household names, while also getting the best out other players. While Quinn will have to show an offensive plan to maximize Herbert’s abilities, the idea of a quick turnaround on defense should be more than appealing to the Chargers.

New Orleans Saints

Who they will hire: Shane Steichen, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator

Who they should hire: Steichen

When Sean Payton moved on from the Saints, Dennis Allen justified taking his place with a strong season. Unfortunately, that result has not taken place this season, as the Saints have struggled to gain any sort of traction. A large part of this problem has been at the quarterback position, where neither Jameis Winston or Andy Dalton has done anything of note. It hasn’t been helped by Michael Thomas’s foot injury and movement on the offensive line, but first-round pick Chris Olave has been enjoying a quality rookie season. If the Saints do have a new franchise receiver on their hands, they need to make good on this, and neither Winston or Dalton have proven they can accomplish that.

What the Saints need is a proven quarterback whisperer who can work with younger players. Steichen should immediately jump to the top of the list in that regard. He worked wonders with Justin Herbert during his rookie season in 2020, and he’s now enjoying similar success with a potential MVP candidate in Jalen Hurts this season. The Saints don’t have their first-round pick this season, so they will have to work with somebody like a Hendon Hooker or Anthony Richardson who will be a project. The good news is that Herbert and Hurts were both projected similarly, and both are amongst the top young quarterbacks in the league. That’s good news for a potential pairing between the Saints and Steichen.

NHL Mock Draft: Early Season Edition

Image Credit: NHL

The 2023 NHL Draft is shaping up to be a special one.

After an odd draft last season that saw two Slovakian prospects (Juraj Slafkovsky and Simon Nemec) go with the first two picks over projected top choice Shane Wright, the 2023 draft will present a choice of three elite talents at the top, with projected number one selection Connor Bedard already being hailed as a generational talent. There are plenty of other projectable NHL stars in this group, and how they continue throughout the season could make teams gun-shy about trading premium selections this year.

While this class isn’t perfect and shouldn’t be expected to match 2003’s overall quality, this still has the potential to be the best rookie crop since 2015 (the McDavid-Eichel year, for the curious). There is still plenty of season to go through, but I’ve decided to project a mock draft in order to give out a general lay of the land and introduce some prospects that are worth a mention.

With that said, the Columbus Blue Jackets are on the clock.

1. Columbus Blue Jackets-Connor Bedard, C, Regina (WHL): We spent all season wondering who Columbus’s top center would be, but their struggles could lead to their answer being Bedard. While he isn’t the perfect prospect like McDavid was considered to be, very few players are as offensively gifted as Bedard is. Legit 50-goal potential right here.

2. Anaheim Ducks-Adam Fantilli, C, University of Michigan (NCAA): Fantilli is playing the Jack Eichel role: an elite talent that certain teams could favor. Not only is Fantilli leading the NCAA with 23 points so far, but his combination of size, skating, and offensive ability is going to make him a bona fide top center in the NHL. Look for him to be stapled to a line with Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry next year.

3. San Jose Sharks-Matvei Michkov, F, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL): While Russian prospects continue to struggle due to political issues and Michkov’s contract will mean the earliest he can arrive in North America is 2026, San Jose strikes me as a team willing to wait on him while they sort themselves out. Michkov is easily the most talented Russian prospect since the days of Ovechkin and Malkin, combining highlight-reel plays with a consistency you rarely see from draft-age players.

4. Arizona Coyotes-Leo Carlsson, C, Orebro HK (SHL): Carlsson is nowhere close to as flashy as the three players above him, but the fact he’s mentioned in the same breath as them speaks to his ability. Consider him a polished version of a top-five pick from this year in Cutter Gauthier: a big forward who has the skill, strength, and hockey IQ to play anywhere in the lineup.

5. Detroit Red Wings-Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK (HockeyAllsvenskan): Detroit has been the go-to destination for Sweden-playing prospects, so why change that now? Detroit has started to pick up some scorers, so picking up a strong two-way pivot who can make plays in Dvorsky to distribute the puck makes a lot of sense for Steve Yzerman. He’s lost a bit of ground on the top prospects of this class, but Dvorsky should still be a comfortable top-10 selection.

6. Chicago Blackhawks-Brayden Yager, C, Moose Jaw (WHL): The Blackhawks haven’t been bad enough to enter Connor Bedard territory, but they’ll be in good position to pick up arguably the next best prospect from western Canada. Combining quality offensive production with the defensive awareness you would hope to find in a center, Yager has the makings of a top-six center for the next decade.

7. Montreal Canadiens-Zach Benson, F, Winnipeg (WHL): With how much of a difference Martin St. Louis has made with Cole Caufield since arriving in Montreal, the prospect of a similar player in Benson joining the ranks is enticing. While not blessed with Caufield’s goal-scoring acumen, Benson’s playmaking and hockey IQ should make him a natural fit.

8. Philadelphia Flyers-Calum Ritchie, C, Oshawa (OHL): John Tortorella’s system requires players to be willing to make plays in their own zone, which is why Ritchie would be a great fit. Not only does he have the defensive awareness and faceoff skill that will make him a coaching favorite, but his playmaking and offensive productivity should make him a fan favorite as well.

9. Vancouver Canucks-Will Smith, C, U.S. NTDP: Smith has been a steady riser on draft boards all season long, with his most recent performance being a tournament-leading nine points at the Five Nations Tournament. With Vancouver potentially losing Bo Horvat in the near future, Smith will make for a reliable plan for a top-six center.

10. Ottawa Senators-Matthew Wood, F, University of Connecticut (NCAA): Another riser up draft boards, Wood’s combination of size and skill should make him a convincing target for an Ottawa team that has had no problem combing the NCAA for prospects. While he can use his six-foot-three frame better, that’s something that can be coached with time and experience; what can’t be taught is his devastating offensive skill that makes him a threat to score every time he hits the ice.

11. Buffalo Sabres-Eduard Sale, F, HC Kometa Brno (Czech): This feels a little too low for Sale, which speaks to the quality of this draft class at the forward positions. Sale’s skating and passing are among the best the class has to offer, which should make him a natural fit on a Buffalo team that looks to have some quality goal-scorers.

12. Nashville Predators-Oliver Moore, C, U.S. NTDP: The NTDP is very well-represented in this first round, as their gold-winning performance at the Five Nations Tournament opened some eyes on them. While Moore may not have the elite talent that some of his contemporaries may have, he stands out as one of the safer selections in that group. Draft him and enjoy landing a middle-six forward in two or three years.

13. St. Louis Blues-Colby Barlow, F, Owen Sound (OHL): Another relatively safe NHL projection, Barlow plays the two-way style that the Blues like to see out of their players. He’s a middle-six forward, but has the potential for more if his speed, shot, and penalty-killing acumen at least mostly translate well at the NHL level.

14. Seattle Kraken-Ryan Leonard, F, U.S. NTDP: I was debating giving the Kraken the first defenseman in this draft, but all of Leonard’s reports have me thinking they go with the energy player instead. Leonard is yet another safe bet for the NHL (notice a pattern yet?) due to his shot and competitive style of play.

15. New York Islanders-Ethan Gauthier, F, Sherbrooke (QMJHL): The Islanders can still use all of the scoring they can get, so why not get someone who can do that AND play the defensive-minded style the team is known for? Gauthier plays hard in all three zones and can impact the game in a variety of ways, regardless of whether the puck is on his stick or not.

16. Washington Capitals-Andrew Cristall, F, Kelowna (OHL): The Capitals have to presume that the player they select here will be for the post-Ovechkin era, so any skill they can get here will be a worthwhile investment. Despite his small stature (five-foot-ten), Cristall can make numerous plays on and off the puck, making him a perfect linemate for someone like Evgeny Kuznetsov in a few years.

17. Edmonton Oilers-Mikhail Gulyayev, D, Omskie Yasterby (MHL): It took until the second half of the first round for the first defenseman to come off the board, which should tell you how tepid this class is on the back end. While Gulyayev isn’t the rugged stay-at-home defenseman Edmonton needs right now, his Quinn Hughes-esque offensive game from the point should make him a good choice to replace Tyson Barrie in a few years.

18. New York Rangers-Kasper Halttunen, F, HIFK (Liiga): The Rangers have built themselves a quality team, but they are a little lacking on the right side. Halttunen has been inconsistent so far this season, but he has the makings of an NHL-caliber power forward.

19. Chicago Blackhawks (from Tampa Bay)-Gabe Perreault, F, U.S. NTDP: While he doesn’t get the recognition of linemates Smith and Leonard, Perreault’s game is more than enough to stand out on its own. His patience and intelligence make him a quality playmaker from the wing, and he would be a great fit with Yager if Chicago ties the two together.

20. Los Angeles Kings-Quentin Musty, F, Sudbury (OHL): Musty may not have turned out as the elite prospect everyone was hoping he’d turn out to be, but his game is more than worthy of a first-round selection. He’s a power forward with some skill to his game, which is something LA needs with Dustin Brown now retired.

21. New Jersey Devils-Cameron Allen, D, Guelph (OHL): With the Devils already being blessed with a cavalcade of impressive young forwards, they can continue to build on the defensive side. While Allen doesn’t have the game-to-game consistency down yet, he’s a strong two-way defenseman who can control play in the attacking and defensive zones.

22. Pittsburgh Penguins-Riley Heidt, C, Prince George (WHL): Heidt may seem like a forgotten man amongst a stacked WHL crop, but he’s already got plenty of NHL-ready tools at his disposal. His skills at the faceoff dot, skating ability, and playmaking should excite the Penguins, who traditionally have a good sense on how to develop talent.

23. Minnesota Wild-Gavin Brindley, C, University of Michigan (NCAA): The Wild have needed center depth for some time now, so adding a dominant freshman in Brindley makes sense for them. His skating and approach to the game should outweigh his five-foot-nine stature, but where he ends up on draft night will depend on whether teams see him as a center or a wing.

24. Winnipeg Jets-Jayden Perron, F, Chicago (USHL): If I were creating my 2023 draft sleepers list already, Perron would absolutely be the marquee name there. While some scouts are worried about his size (five-foot-nine) and low floor, Perron possesses all the high-end skill needed to make an impact. His time at the University of North Dakota next season will be interesting to watch.

25. Calgary Flames-Koehn Ziemmer, F, Prince George (WHL): Not only is Ziemmer leading Prince George with 16 goals and 33 points, but he’s only second in the entire WHL to Connor Bedard in both categories. While he certainly doesn’t have Bedard’s superstar potential, those are the kinds of numbers you’d like to see in a potential second-like winger.

26. Toronto Maple Leafs-Caden Price, D, Kelowna (OHL): Price’s scouting reports read similarly to Kevin Korchinski’s, and the latter’s rise up draft boards last year bodes very well for the former’s chances to land here. His two-way game and playmaking ability from the point certainly help his NHL projection, and he can easily slide into an NHL team’s top four within the next few years.

27. Montreal Canadiens (from Florida)-Michael Hrabal, G, Omaha (USHL): With Carey Price’s future still in question, Montreal’s lack of a future franchise goaltender in their system, and with a high draft pick already in their pocket, the Canadiens decide to take the plunge on a goalie here. Hrabal’s six-foot-six frame and athleticism make him a prototype goalie to today’s game, and his calm and confident approach should help his development.

28. Colorado Avalanche-Danny Nelson, C, U.S. NTDP: Make it five for the NTDP, as the Avalanche decide to go for another power forward to replace Nazem Kadri in the near future. He’s probably a step behind his teammates in terms of quality and potential, but his ceiling is as a Brock Nelson-type second-line center. Teams could certainly use that in their lineups.

29. New York Rangers (from Dallas)-Etienne Morin, D, Moncton (QMJHL): Just like Perron, Morin would absolutely be on my sleepers list if I made it today. Morin has absolutely burst onto the scene in his draft year, leading all QMJHL defensemen with seven goals and third with 20 points. He’ll be a fringe first-round contender with this current trajectory.

30. Boston Bruins-Hunter Brzustewicz, D, Kitchener (OHL): One of the more intelligent two-way defensemen available, Brzustewicz can help his team as a playmaker from the point and defending the rush at his own end. He has some skills similar to Charlie McAvoy, and the Bruins would love to turn Brzustewicz into a similar player at the NHL level.

31. Vegas Golden Knights-Nate Danielson, C, Brandon (WHL): There are very few prospect-team fits that make more sense than Danielson to Vegas. Outside of the obvious Brandon connection to GM Kelly McCrimmon, Danielson effectively plays the two-way style that Vegas has always looked for in their players.

32. Carolina Hurricanes-Otto Stenberg, C, Frolunda HC (SHL): While Stenberg’s projection as a center isn’t a lock, Carolina should have no issues with taking him here. Another dynamic forward that always looks to get involved with the play, Stenberg is as dynamic with the puck on his stick as it gets.

NHL Power Rankings: Scary Edition

Image Credit: NBC Sports

With the first month of the NHL season almost over, we can finally get a fair assessment of how the hockey landscape looks.

During the first few weeks, these rankings have had to be organized and re-organized due to the endless amount of storylines coming early into the season. Some teams have worked to exceed expectations, while others have fallen well short of them. Teams are establishing themselves as Stanley Cup contenders, while others are searching for Connor Bedard highlights already. Whatever the case may be, the shifts we’ve seen already in how strong each team really is are remarkable.

For this week, given it is Halloween, I wanted to have a little fun and figure out what the “scariest” part of each team is. Whether that implies scary good or scary bad is subjective, although these rankings will probably be a fair indication of what to expect. Regardless, every team has some aspect that deserves to be examined closely, as it is something to either build off of or work to fix moving forward.

How scary is each NHL team? Let’s find out.

Disclaimer: these rankings are based on games played and stats recorded from October 30.

1. Boston Bruins (15): The scary part with the Bruins is simple. Their 4.22 goals per game is far and away the best mark in the league, and Brad Marchand just returned to the lineup. Yikes.

2. Carolina Hurricanes (3): The Hurricanes might not even need Max Pacioretty with how scary good the second line has been. Andrei Svechnikov is emerging as a legitimate superstar, Martin Necas is having a breakout year, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been an analytics darling early on.

3. Calgary Flames (7): Despite having the league’s toughest strength of schedule, the Flames have impressed with a 5-2 start. Given that they’ve defeated potential playoff foes like Edmonton, Vegas, and Colorado early, Calgary has some impressive momentum on their side.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (16): Not only does Vegas have the best record in the West, but they’ve done it with dominating defense and goaltending. Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have given the Knights the highest combined save percentage in the league, and they’ve only given up a league-low 1.7 goals per game (for context, the next highest mark is Dallas and Boston at 2.33).

5. Colorado Avalanche (1): While the Avalanche haven’t been as dominant as expected in their Cup defense, they’re also currently missing captain Gabriel Landeskog and leading scorer Valeri Nichushkin. When those two come back, the chance for Colorado to go on a rampage increases dramatically.

6. Florida Panthers (4): Matthew Tkachuk has been as advertised, but the defensive depth has been tested with Aaron Ekblad out with an injury. Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling have a combined 14 points and +10 differential; the rest of the defensive corps has a combined five points and +4 differential (Josh Mahura has +8, for context)

7. Edmonton Oilers (5): The Oilers may have a Jack Campbell problem and a Stuart Skinner solution. While the prized free agent Campbell has struggled so far this season (.888 save percentage and 3.89 GAA), his supposed understudy has provided Edmonton with much-needed stability in net (.955 and 1.59)

8. New York Rangers (9): Stars like Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad have continued to play well, but the Rangers have inconsistent metrics and some bad losses to the likes of San Jose and Columbus on their ledger. This team may very well be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and that’s an aspect that must change sooner rather than later.

9. Tampa Bay Lightning (2): While the Lightning have started to win some games, the metrics still have them as one of the most inconsistent teams in the league. Which version of the Lightning is real: the one that started 1-3, or the one who has currently won four of its last five?

10. Pittsburgh Penguins (10): Losing to the Alberta teams is one thing, but losing to Seattle and Vancouver? These are teams that the Penguins should be beating, so this current losing streak has to be cause for some alarm.

11. Dallas Stars (17): Will the Stars be willing to say goodbye to a long-time leader this offseason? Between Jamie Benn’s poor production (three assists and -2 differential), Stars owner Tom Gagliardi publicly calling him out this offseason, and his potential replacement in Mason Marchment doing well (four goals and seven points), the captain is looking like a sleeper buyout candidate.

12. Minnesota Wild (8): Just when everyone was starting to write his obituary, Marc-Andre Fleury has risen from the dead. After a rough start, Fleury has come alive in the past week, winning all three of his starts and recording an impressive .927 save percentage and 1.95 GAA.

13. New Jersey Devils (24): Jesper Bratt’s next contract meeting is going to be a scary one for the Devils. Currently at fifth in the league with 15 points (ahead of the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby), Bratt will likely be looking for an extension well above the $5.45 million bridge contract he signed this offseason.

14. Toronto Maple Leafs (6): Auston Matthews has been snakebitten thus far, and the Leafs just got swept on a West Coast road trip. It’s probably a case of defensive injuries and bad puck luck, but have the Leafs and their fans ever been known for patience? Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas are in very real danger.

15. Washington Capitals (13): The Capitals were already missing Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, and now the injury list includes T.J. Oshie and John Carlson. There seems to always be a team that can’t play up to its potential due to serious injuries; is Washington playing that role this year?

16. Winnipeg Jets (25): The Jets have started to look better, and Connor Hellebuyck may have regained his form. Just this week alone, the Vezina-caliber goaltender recorded a 2-0-1 record with a .949 save percentage and 1.96 GAA.

17. Buffalo Sabres (27): It took four years to get there, but Rasmus Dahlin is finally playing up to his top overall pick status. His five goals and ten points are only second among defensemen to San Jose’s Erik Karlsson (six and eleven), and Dahlin’s +7 differential well surpasses Karlsson’s -2. He’s effectively on Norris Trophy watch.

18. Ottawa Senators (20): While the Senators are starting to find their form, the potentially season-ending injury to Josh Norris makes them worryingly thin at center. Expect them to be in on the likes of Bo Horvat, Jonathan Toews, and any other center that finds themselves on the rumor mill between now and the deadline.

19. St. Louis Blues (11): Similar to Dallas, the Blues may also be willing to part with their captain next summer. With extensions handed out to Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, Ryan O’Reilly may be finding himself as the odd man out; if he can’t shake off a rough October (one point and -10 differential), there’s a real possibility St. Louis lets him walk in free agency.

20. Detroit Red Wings (19): Good news: Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Larkin are both at ten points already, and Ville Husso looks good in net. Bad news: no other Red Wing has more than five points, and defending Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider only has one across eight games.

21. Los Angeles Kings (14): While Gabriel Vilardi’s breakout has been noteworthy, the Kings won’t return to the playoffs if the goaltending doesn’t improve. After finishing with a .901 save percentage last season, Los Angeles currently has a league-worst .868 mark this season.

22. Nashville Predators (12): After defeating the Sharks twice in Prague, the Predators have only won one of their last seven games since returning to North America. The culprit has been easy to spot; their 2.44 goals per game is only better than San Jose and Anaheim.

23. New York Islanders (21): The Islanders are low for now, but they have the potential to make a big leap soon. They’re currently fourth in goals for, sixth in goals against, and they’ve had some nice wins over Colorado, Carolina, and the Rangers lately. Keep an eye on them as a potential sleeper team moving forward.

24. Philadelphia Flyers (31): In terms of scary, Gritty and the fear of John Tortorella chewing someone out in a press conference comes to mind. Good news is that the latter hasn’t had to happen yet, with the likes of Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, and Carter Hart having bounceback years.

25. Seattle Kraken (26): While I disagree with usage of Shane Wright and don’t think Martin Jones can lead a team to the playoffs anymore, Seattle’s offense has looked much improved this season. After mustering only 2.6 goals per game in their inaugural season, they’ve managed to put up a more respectable 3.3 goals per game this season.

26. Montreal Canadiens (28): Martin St. Louis has had the Canadiens playing at least closer to their potential since getting behind the bench, and nowhere has that impact been more profound than with Cole Caufield. Currently tied for second with seven goals (Connor McDavid has nine), Caufield looks like a Rocket Richard Trophy candidate for now and the future.

27. Chicago Blackhawks (30): The Blackhawks have been extremely inconsistent so far, going from a four-game winning streak to dropping their last three. It feels like only a matter of time until at least one of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews gets traded, and Chicago would firmly put themselves in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes if that’s the case.

28. Columbus Blue Jackets (22): So much for the renewed optimism in Columbus. Despite Johnny Gaudreau playing as advertised, the Blue Jackets go into a series against the Avalanche in Finland after getting blown out in their last three games, including giving up six goals to Arizona.

29. Vancouver Canucks (18): After losing their first seven games, the Canucks have scored their first two wins of the season, including a blowout victory over Pittsburgh. That said, the team still misses the likes of Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes, and Thatcher Demko’s start (.874 save percentage and 4.05 GAA) leaves a lot to be desired.

30. Anaheim Ducks (23): Anaheim’s defense is starting to approach lost cause territory. John Klingberg has been one of the more disappointing free agents this season, Jamie Drysdale will likely lose a season of development with a shoulder injury, and only Columbus and Arizona have given up more than Anaheim’s 4.22 goals against per game.

31. San Jose Sharks (29): Mike Grier may have avoided trouble by not extending Timo Meier this offseason. After scoring a career-high 35 goals and 76 points last season, Meier has been ice cold to start this campaign, only scoring once in 11 games.

32. Arizona Coyotes (32): It appears the Coyotes’ fate will be left to the polls in November, as their proposed arena project is likely going to a public referendum. If any problems arise between now and then, what happens next?

NHL Power Rankings: Season Start Edition

Image Credit: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

With the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks officially kicking off the NHL season in Prague on Friday, the preseason is officially almost over.

Every team is going to have some level of expectation headed into the year. The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning have lost key contributors, but they will both look to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final. The Florida Panthers were the President’s Trophy winner last season, but they will be hoping that new acquisition Matthew Tkachuk will take them to the next level. Teams that missed the playoffs last year like the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, and Columbus Blue Jackets all made high-profile moves this offseason, but will it be enough to knock some of their competitors out of the playoff hunt?

Meanwhile, other teams will face a fair amount of questions coming into the year. The bottom four teams are in varying stages of their rebuilds, but all are expected to be on Connor Bedard watch all season long. The Vegas Golden Knights lost some key pieces due to their cap woes, and another disappointing campaign could see another summer of bloody transformation. The Boston Bruins are dealing with significant losses on the injury front; will that cost them going forward?

1. Colorado Avalanche: The Avalanche lost several key pieces to their Cup run (Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Darcy Kuemper), and injuries to the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin could pose problems in the early going. This team still has some of the best talent available, however, and the defending champs deserve the top spot until further notice.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh became cap casualties, but this is still a deep team led by all-world talent and a capable power structure. They are still firmly on dynasty watch until a team is capable of consistently bringing them down.

3. Carolina Hurricanes: Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty (when the latter is healthy) will add recognizable talent to a team that’s been quietly building itself up over the past few seasons. They are now where Colorado was: a team more than capable of winning the Cup, but another disappointing postseason could raise some red flags.

4. Florida Panthers: Matthew Tkachuk is the type of player that Florida lacked in their postseason run last year, and the Panthers committed heavily to him in the blockbuster trade. The aggression in the front office could cost them in the near-future, but none of that will matter if the Panthers finally get one on their in-state rival and win a Cup of their own.

5. Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers made it all the way to the Western Conference Final last season, and they brought in Jack Campbell to hopefully give them some stability in net. Last season’s finish cannot be the exception in the McDavid-Draisaitl era: it should be the new standard.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs: This roster has a ton of talent on it, but Toronto’s gamble on a Matt Murray-Ilya Samsonov goaltending tandem will be the tipping point on their season. Ownership has been patient with the Dubas-Keefe regime despite continued postseason struggles, but how long can that reasonably last?

7. Calgary Flames: It’s rare to see a team that lose its two top players be this high on any rankings list, but the Flames did a great job acquiring the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Mackenzie Weegar to give the team a facelift. They got a lot of career years last season; can Calgary build on that?

8. Minnesota Wild: Despite the cap crunch that cost the Wild Kevin Fiala, there’s still a lot to like in Minnesota. Kirill Kaprizov proved he was worth his large extension last season, the depth and young players should provide some excitement, and the goaltending duo of Marc-Andre Fleury and (Sports Nerd favorite) Filip Gustavsson is a sleeper for the Jennings Trophy.

9. New York Rangers: The Rangers did make it to the Eastern Conference Final, but they relied heavily on Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin to make it that far. If Vincent Trocheck jells with his new team quickly and/or some of the younger players take the next step up in their development, they can ensure that they can make it back to that level and beyond.

10. Pittsburgh Penguins: While we can debate the long-term merits of the Penguins keeping Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for one final crack at glory, it essentially guarantees the Penguins will remain at least competitive. They were one win away from knocking out the Rangers with their third-string goaltender. so better health could be the difference for them.

11. St. Louis Blues: The Blues locking up Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou long-term were some of the best moves of the offseason, but they’ll still be hoping to rely on internal replacements for the pieces they lost. The key question: are we going to see the Jordan Binnington who lost his starting job in the regular season, or the one who regained it in the playoffs?

12. Nashville Predators: The Predators re-signing Filip Forsberg was a huge victory, while bringing in Nino Niederreiter and Ryan McDonagh suggests that they can see a playoff contender with this group. They’ll need some help to get there, but Nashville might not be ready to go quietly just yet.

13. Washington Capitals: These next few teams are all interchangeable due to their similar outlooks: good enough to make the playoffs, but not a guarantee to make it there. Alex Ovechkin’s still hunting Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record and Darcy Kuemper should be an improvement in net, but injuries to leaders like Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson won’t help them.

14. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings’ strong showing against the Oilers in the playoffs helped their long-term outlook, and adding Kevin Fiala and a healthy Drew Doughty should help them out immensely. They need the prospects to start taking the next steps, and the goaltending can’t let up after a better-than-expected campaign.

15. Vegas Golden Knights: Despite losing Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov, the Knights still have more than enough talent to push them over the top and remain competitive. That said, they have a Robin Lehner-sized question mark in net, and the front office’s devil-may-care attitude with asset management could be their downfall just as easily as it could be their saving grace.

16. Boston Bruins: Boston being in a deep division, dealing with injuries to key players, and getting older in the offseason are some major red flags to keep in mind to their potential. Keep an eye on them in the early going; how they weather the early storms could be indicative of their ultimate fate.

17. Dallas Stars: The Stars’ offseason is still incomplete until they can finally bring back Jason Robertson. If he gets signed, Dallas is a firm middle-of-the-road team; if they have to deal him, they will drop dramatically.

18. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks locked up their core by re-signing JT Miller, made a couple of underrated moves by signing Ilya Mikheyev and Andrei Kuzmenko, and have a front office that knows how to win games. Still, the defense is a massive work in progress outside of Quinn Hughes, and Bruce Boudreau’s playoff record…leaves a little bit to be desired.

19. Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings already had a promising young core in the works, and they bolstered it with several veteran free agents this offseason. There are very few teams in greater position to make the jump to the playoffs this season, which would be huge for a young team trying to find its way.

20. Ottawa Senators: The Senators looked to be in position to return to the playoffs by adding Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux to create a devastating top six, but Cam Talbot’s injury means the Senators will have uncertainty in net again to start the season. With the defense already a question mark, they have the potential to make the playoffs or fall apart based on their early record.

21. New York Islanders: The Islanders had a lot of thing go wrong last season, but they did nothing to fix what has long been a mediocre offense. It doesn’t matter how good the defense or goaltending is if the Islanders don’t have any consistent scoring threats, so they need something to break their way on that end of the ice.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus shocked the hockey world by landing Johnny Gaudreau, and he and Patrik Laine will create one of the more exciting duos on the ice. That said, there are still some questions as far as center and defensive depth are concerned, so those will have to be addressed for the Blue Jackets to make any significant noise.

23. Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish lead an exciting group of players, and adding free agents like Ryan Strome and John Klingberg can only help their chances to make noise in a wide-open Pacific Division. They’ll need a bounce-back campaign from John Gibson, however, to live up to the potential they have.

24. New Jersey Devils: Adding Ondrej Palat and Vitek Vanecek to a younger team will help in a deep Metropolitan Division, and Jack Hughes has all the potential to become one of the league’s superstars. The problem is that they’re in a deep division and conference, which might lower their ceiling below what it could and should be.

25. Winnipeg Jets: While Connor Hellebuyck and a strong offense could keep the Jets competitive, the drama surrounding this team has reached a fever pitch. This is a pivotal season for a team once considered a Cup contender, and a bad year on the ice could create irreparable damage off of it.

26. Seattle Kraken: An interesting one-two punch of Matty Beniers and Shane Wright should set the Kraken up for years at center, while Andre Burakovsky and Oliver Bjorkstrand should give them some much-needed punch. They’re certainly a more traditional expansion experience compared to Vegas, but that might not be a bad thing.

27. Buffalo Sabres: There’s a lot of young talent in Buffalo right now, which should put them in nice position for the future. However, goaltending and the fact that the teams near them in the Atlantic got better likely means another year without a postseason.

28. Montreal Canadiens: You can essentially copy-paste Buffalo’s statement here. I like the young talent pool and coaching they have, but they don’t have the defense and goaltending to make much noise compared to their counterparts.

29. San Jose Sharks: The Sharks traded Brent Burns, but they’re still locked in to some awful contracts and can’t seem to commit to a rebuild just yet. The David Quinn-Mike Grier regime has their work cut out for them, and this will not be a quick fix.

30. Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on their roster for now, but once one or both are traded out? This has potential to be the worst team in the league.

31. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers chose to bring in Tony DeAngelo and Nicolas Deslauriers over Johnny Gaudreau, have already lost to Sean Couturier and Ryan Ellis to injury, and the roster has clear signs of a lack of direction in its construction. I feel bad for Carter Hart, who could be the scapegoat for John Tortorella’s postgame press conference…honesty, shall we say?

32. Arizona Coyotes: What can we say about the Coyotes? They are the team most built to tank, but is that a good idea with a long-term relationship with Tempe still hanging in the balance?

Biggest X-Factors for Every NHL Team

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With preseason hockey starting up tonight, the NHL is officially back in action.

After another whirlwind offseason filled with big free-agent signing and blockbuster trades, the teams are now in training camp and preseason in order to do the final bit of leg work before the regular season. Each team is going to come in with at least some level of expectation, and most already know who or what it will take to reach those marks.

But what about the unknown quantities? They are arguably just as important, if not more so, than the superstars in the league in terms of how each team does. It could be the new acquisition expected to make an early impact. It could be the young player getting his first crack at the NHL level. It could be the player expected to step up in the wake of departures and injuries. Whatever the case may be, the success of each team hinges on these players and how they perform.

So who’s going to be the X-factor for each team this season? Let’s find out.

Anaheim: Trevor Zegras made the leap to the NHL last season, and the Ducks are hoping that Mason McTavish can have similar success this time around. McTavish is coming off an amazing run at the World Junior Championships this summer with 17 points, and he’ll be expected to produce offensively as a third-line center and on the power play.

Arizona: Clayton Keller had a career-high in goals with 28 before a broken leg at the end of March shut him down for the season. Even with the goal of the Coyotes being to tank for Connor Bedard, they’ll be hoping that Keller can not only return healthy, but continue to provide some scoring touch to a team that needs everything.

Boston: Second-line center was a massive hole for the Bruins this past season, so they brought back David Krejci from his sabbatical in the Czech Republic for one last run at glory. That will be easier said than done; injuries to key contributors like Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy means they will need Krejci to hit the ground running until they return.

Buffalo: While Owen Power will be the rookie that everyone has their eye on, Buffalo fans have reason to believe that Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka can be equally successful. Buffalo’s first two selections of the 2020 Draft, Quinn (8th overall) and Peterka (34th overall) led their AHL affiliate in scoring (68 points for Peterka, 61 points for Quinn), and it’s possible both will play on the same NHL line and develop together alongside one of the Sabres’ promising young centers.

Calgary: While Jonathan Huberdeau will essentially replace Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri may have the more difficult task of replacing Matthew Tkachuk. There’s serious risk with Kadri’s deal (over 30 years old, coming off of a career season, power forwards tend to decline faster in the NHL), but replicating the success he had with Colorado last year will be crucial for Calgary to continue posing a threat at the top of the Pacific.

Carolina: Father Time hasn’t completely caught up to Brent Burns yet, and the Hurricanes are hoping the 37-year-old defenseman can play a key role towards fulfilling their Cup aspirations. Between being on the top defensive pair with Jaccob Slavin and replacing Tony DeAngelo on the power play, Burns should expect another season of heavy ice time.

Chicago: If there’s any team that can use support from its prospects, it’s the Blackhawks, and no prospect comes with a higher ceiling right now than Lukas Reichel. Reichel was a point-per-game player for Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford (57 points in 56 games), and being potentially locked onto a line with at least one of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane should give a clear indication of whether he’ll be part of their long-term plans.

Colorado: Colorado won the Stanley Cup with Darcy Kuemper, and now Alexandar Georgiev gets his chance to do the same. Now out of the shadows of Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shesterkin in New York, Georgiev likely doesn’t have to be elite, but he must be better than his career 2.94 GAA and .908 save percentage in order for the Avalanche to retain their title.

Columbus: Columbus will have plenty of options for who will center Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, but the best option might end up being Jack Roslovic. A Columbus native, Roslovic scored a career-best 22 goals and 45 points, both numbers he could potentially exceed if he impresses enough to win the role of number one center.

Dallas: It’s likely Dallas will replace the departing John Klingberg’s production by committee, giving Thomas Harley the opportunity to stand out in his first full NHL season. With new coach Pete DeBoer being a fan of offensive-minded defensemen like Harley, he should see an increase in ice time and improve on what was a down year (four points in 34 games).

Detroit: While Ben Chiarot wasn’t the biggest acquisition Detroit had this offseason, his impact comes from beyond stuffing the stat sheet. Detroit’s defense and penalty kill were horrible (31st and 32nd last season, respectively), so Chiarot’s responsibility as Moritz Seider’s new defensive partner will be to set the tone and help create a new defensive identity for the young Red Wings.

Edmonton: Very few free agent signings will be under the microscope as quickly or as often as Jack Campbell will be. Signed from Toronto, the Oilers are hoping Campbell (31-9-6, 2.64 GAA, .914 save percentage) can be the upgrade in net they need to take the next step up in the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl era.

Florida: It took a lot to get him, but the Panthers and GM Bill Zito are hoping that Matthew Tkachuk is the final piece they need to bring a talented roster over the hump. While Tkachuk’s impact will be felt in the regular season (104 points last year), his real impact will come from his physical style of play, especially when it comes to the rigors of the postseason.

Los Angeles: It was a surprise for Quinton Byfield to struggle as he did (ten points, -7 in 40 games), but that could be a sign that the Kings will improve drastically if he plays to his potential. Byfield has put in the work this offseason, hopefully improving on his faceoffs and skating to prove himself as a legitimate NHL center.

Minnesota: Minnesota’s cap situation requires entry-level players to step up, and Marco Rossi is in that position this season. Tied for the scoring lead in Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Iowa (53 points in 63 games), Rossi will have a chance to crack into what is an underrated group of centers in the State of Hockey.

Montreal: While special consideration goes to new captain Nick Suzuki learning French fast enough to appease the Quebec media, Jake Allen gets the nod here. With Carey Price likely not playing this season, Allen will be in position to get most of the starts in Montreal again, with the hope that he improves on a career-worst 3.30 GAA.

Nashville: The Predators need depth scoring to make it anywhere past the First Round, so players like Philip Tomasino will be looked at considerably. Despite playing only eleven and a half minutes per game, Tomasino stuck around the NHL roster and put together an impressive rookie campaign, finishing with 14 points in his last 28 games.

New Jersey: The Devils need their prospect core to push their young roster over the top, and top prospect Alexander Holtz will be one of the first candidates to get a crack at it. Scoring 51 points in 52 games in Utica (New Jersey’s AHL affiliate), Holtz has a chance to prove he belongs on a line with either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes, which would make him a dark horse to win the Calder Trophy.

New York Islanders: The Islanders have been let down by poor offensive numbers for a little while, so players like Oliver Wahlstrom need to do their job. Despite a low shooting percentage, Wahlstrom still potted 13 goals last season, and playing on a line with Mathew Barzal should help give him some opportunities.

New York Rangers: While Alexis Lafreniere will be playing right wing for the first time in his career, it will open more opportunities for the former top overall pick. One of the Rangers’ impact players in the postseason (nine points in 20 games), Lafreniere will now be rewarded with playing on New York’s top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, which should open more opportunities for him.

Ottawa: Using six goaltenders in the last two seasons is not something Ottawa wants to keep doing, and they’re hoping that Cam Talbot stops the carousel in net. While getting a little older at 35 years old, Talbot should provide the stability that Ottawa needs while they develop a future option like Mads Sogaard.

Philadelphia: Philadelphia’s power play was the worst in the league last year at 12.6 percent, so bringing a proven power play quarterback in Tony DeAngelo made at least some sense. With 20 points on the man advantage last year, Philadelphia will hope they can get that production on the ice while avoiding any clashes with new coach John Tortorella off of it.

Pittsburgh: Injuries robbed Tristan Jarry of getting his postseason revenge, but he more than locked down the top goaltender spot in the regular season. Among goaltenders that played at least 30 games, Jarry finished sixth last season in both GAA (2.42) and save percentage (.919).

San Jose: The Sharks offense has been tepid for the last three seasons (30th in the league with 2.58 goals per game), so younger players like William Eklund will be given looks to boost those numbers. With four assists in the Sharks’ first nine games last season, new coach David Quinn will hope to see some progress in the preseason in order to give Eklund some confidence.

Seattle: There’s a fantastic reason why Matty Beniers is one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy this season. With nine points in his first ten games and earning a spot on Seattle’s top line, Beniers could easily lead the Kraken in points in his rookie year.

St. Louis: With Ville Husso off to Detroit, Jordan Binnington is back as the clear-cut starter for the Blues. The question for St. Louis is what version of Binnington they’ll get: the one who lost his starting job in the regular season (3.13 GAA, .901 save percentage), or the one who regained it in the playoffs (1.72 GAA, .949 save percentage)?

Tampa Bay: Ondrej Palat was a cap casualty in Tampa Bay this season, so they now need players to step up in his absence. With the potential to be on a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Brandon Hagel may get a fair opportunity to prove why the Lightning traded for him at the deadline last season.

Toronto: In order for Toronto to break their postseason losing streak, they must rely on the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. Neither goaltender had a GAA below 3 or a save percentage above .900 last season, so at least one of them will have to improve dramatically in order to keep Toronto from having to score their way out of trouble.

Vancouver: The first half struggles of Elias Pettersson last year likely came from his training camp holdout, but it was enough to keep Vancouver out of the playoff race. With potentially two new linemates in Ilya Mikheyev and KHL import Andrei Kuzmenko, Pettersson will need to get his chemistry right away to keep Vancouver in the hunt.

Vegas: With Robin Lehner on the shelf for the season, Logan Thompson will effectively be chucked to the wolves in his rookie season. Thompson put together strong numbers in a limited sample size (2.68 GAA and .914 save percentage in 19 games), and that will have to translate to a full season if Vegas wants to return to the postseason.

Washington: Washington will have to replace the production of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson to start the season, so the signing of Dylan Strome made perfect sense. Scoring a career-high 22 goals last season with Chicago, Strome will be tasked with keeping the Capitals afloat while Backstrom heals up.

Winnipeg: This is looking like a transition season for the Jets, and young players like Cole Perfetti will be instrumental in helping Winnipeg decide which direction to take. Scoring seven points in 18 games before injuries ended his season, the Jets will be looking at Perfetti to step up and claim a role in the top-six forward group.