Five Questions as NHL Enters Final Straight
With the 2016 NHL All Star Game done and dusted, focus switches back to league action tonight with 12 games on the schedule.
While many would consider Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis and probably Florida to be ‘safe’, there are post season places still up for grabs with around 30 games left on the regular season calendar.
The impending February 29th trade deadline adds an extra layer of intrigue for a number of clubs, who will need to decide whether they stick or twist, while Auston Matthews’ continued success in Switzerland should be an enticing carrot for those battling at the bottom.
Here One Puck Short looks at five key questions as the regular season heads toward the home straight:
Can Colorado Hang In There?
The Avs currently hold the first wild card spot in the West, boasting 57 points from 52 games played. It seems unlikely Patrick Roy’s side will be able to catch St. Louis (64 points in 52 games) and secure an automatic berth as one of the Central Division’s top three, so it’s all about fending everyone else off.
All Star hots Nashville find themselves in the second wild card spot, but trail Colorado by just one point, while Minnesota, ninth in the Conference as things stand, are just two points back. Crucially, the Predators have two games in hand over the Avs, while the Wild hold three games in hand.
The Avalanche might also come under pressure from clubs in the Pacific Division as San Jose, Arizona, Anaheim and Vancouver continue to jockey for position.
That Colorado managed to reboot their season at all is impressive, after a shoddy 4-9-1. But question marks remain over their defensive game – particularly if Semyon Varlamov/their goaltending cools – and while most would prefer to have points in the bag, having rivals with games in hand is far from ideal for the Avs.
One would expect the organisation to keep fighting – it’s not really in Roy or Joe Sakic’s nature to quit on a season – but in the ultra competitive Central Division the Avs will need to maintain the form they showed through December if they are to stay in the race.
Does Jonathan Drouin Get Traded?
Tampa Bay still hold the cards when it comes to moving Drouin, with the 20-year old under contract until 2017 when he’ll become a restricted free agent.
That said, it’s not a pleasant situation for any club to have floating around and the Quebec native could still land the Bolts a healthy return if Steve Yzerman plays his cards right – and given the return he got for Martin St. Louis, who was only ever going to one club, there’s no reason to think the Lighting GM can’t maximize returns despite the fractured relationship with Drouin.
Yzerman has already shown he won’t be rushed. The 50-year old has developed something of a reputation as a man that doesn’t blink – which may or may not be a good thing depending on how you look at certain situations – but if Tampa continue the good form they showed before the All Star break, and believe they could take another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup, using Drouin as bait to land another key piece has to be an option for the former Red Wings Captain.
When Do Teams Turn In To Sellers?
Calgary are eight points outside of the playoffs right now. They’d need to pass a minimum of three teams – Vancouver, Anaheim and Arizona – to be a playoff club. But it seems they don’t consider themselves sellers, yet.
Of the 30 NHL teams, at this point it looks like approximately four will actually be active sellers at the deadline – Toronto, Winnipeg (who could pull in a nice bounty for Andrew Ladd), Buffalo and Columbus.
You can probably throw Edmonton in to that mix too, if GM Pete Chiarelli thinks he can help the Oilers long term by moving some depth pieces, but that’s a pretty slim group when we consider only sixteen teams can make the cut.
Are Philadelphia fooling themselves if they think they can overturn a five point deficit and secure a playoff spot? What about Carolina? One point out, but they’ve played the most games in the East and have a prime asset in Eric Staal that they could elect to move.
In the West, Vancouver continue to battle, but seem to slowly slide further and further adrift of a playoff spot.
Realignment and the salary cap have certainly brought greater parity to the NHL, but it’s also killed trade deadline day for the most part – with teams struggling for cap space or desperately clinging to playoff aspirations.
How Many Points Will Sidney Crosby Finish With This Season?
Remember how Sidney Crosby was a fading light in the NHL? Past it. Done.
The 28-year old now has 17 goals and 41 points in 47 games.
Crucially, the Penguins skipper’s return to form came at a time when the club might have become bogged down in a battle for a wild card spot. Instead Pittsburgh is just a point behind the New York Islanders and four back of the Rangers with a game in hand – putting their destiny in their own hands again.
Whether you believe Mike Sullivan’s appointment as Coach has played a part in this resurgence, or simply that the Pens learnt how to operate a powerplay again, #87 has looked pretty darn good of late.
Truthfully it’s probably a little bit of all three – but the point stands (no pun intended), a return to form for Crosby is big for the Penguins and enhances their post season credentials significantly.
Don’t be surprised if he’s one of the NHL’s top ten scorers by seasons end, with Pittsburgh gearing up for another playoff run.
Will Montreal Really Stand By Michel Therrien?
General Manager Marc Bergevin has said Michel Therrien will be the Canadiens coach until at least the end of the season. But the Habs continue to slide.
Despite the continued decline, Captain and leading goal scorer Max Pacioretty is now partnered with David Desharnais and Dale Weise on the clubs top line, Alex Galchenyuk remains on the wing and the powerplay continues to be an issue.
In brief, there are tactical choices which don’t make sense in Montreal, and whether you give Therrien the benefit of the doubt for trying to make it work without superstar goaltender Carey Price, these are issue which are hard to ignore.