Southeast Division Watch (February 7)

With the All-Star break over, it’s time for the NHL playoff races to intensify. Every week, we’ll provide updates for each division’s outlook. The biggest contenders and/or closest races will receive the greatest amount of attention.

Bold = playoff contender; Italics = likely lottery fodder.

Southeast Division outlook (February 7-13)

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (33-16-5 for 71 pts; 54 Games Played)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Two home games: vs. Buffalo (Tuesday), vs. Carolina (Saturday).

Thoughts: The Lightning lost to Washington, but other than that hiccup, they’ve been perfect during their ridiculous 12-game homestand so far.

2. Washington Capitals (29-15-10 for 68 pts; 54 GP)

Current streak: Two wins.

Week ahead: Home vs. San Jose (Tues), home vs. Los Angeles (Sat).

Thoughts: There’s an instinct to say the Capitals are “back to their old selves,” but that’s dead wrong. Instead they’ve turned over a new, defensive-minded leaf. It makes them less fun on some level, but a more dangerous playoff threat on another.

3. Carolina Hurricanes (26-21-6 for 58 pts; 53 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Four road games: vs. New Jersey (Tues), vs. Philadelphia (Thurs), vs. Tampa Bay (Sat) and Atlanta (Sun).

Thoughts: The Hurricanes are going into this week with some serious momentum, but the upcoming five-game road swing will be a serious test for the ‘Canes. It’s not outrageous to say they can lose every single one of these games; the Flyers and Lightning are division leaders, the Thrashers are fighting for the Hurricanes’ playoff territory and the Devils are suddenly looking like their old pesky selves. We’ll see what they’re made of.

4. Atlanta Thrashers (24-21-10 for 58 pts; 55 GP)

Current streak: Three losses in a row.

Week ahead: @ Toronto (Mon), home vs. NY Rangers (Fri), home vs. Carolina (Sun).

Thoughts: With just two wins in their last 12 games, the Thrashers are clearly in disarray. Sunday’s game against what could be a beleaguered Hurricanes team could be a pretty gigantic one for Dustin Byfuglien’s bunch.

5. Florida Panthers (23-23-6 for 52 pts; 52 GP)

Current streak: One win.

Week ahead: Three home games: one against St. Louis (Tues), vs. Buffalo (Thurs) and against San Jose (Sun).

Thoughts: Once again, the Panthers seem like they are a day late and a dollar short for the Eastern Conference playoffs. The next few weeks are crucial for the team to decide if they should go into sell mode during the trade deadline (they should).

Penguins shouldn’t rush to replace Bonino

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Nick Bonino was an important player for Pittsburgh the past two years. So when he signed with Nashville on July 1, it was natural for Penguins fans to want an immediate replacement.

But for GM Jim Rutherford, finding a new third-line center may take some time. The Penguins might even start the season without knowing who it will be.

What Rutherford wants to avoid is panicking and being forced into a mistake. All the other general managers are well-aware of what he needs. He’s probably been thrown a few anvils already.

“There’s a couple of guys I could acquire right now,” Rutherford told the Post-Gazette on Wednesday. “I feel like there’s another group of guys that could possibly be available here soon. Kind of just waiting to see if that happens. Something could happen in the very near future or this could drag on for a little while.”

If nothing is done by the start of the season, the Penguins could give someone like Jake Guentzel a chance to take over Bonino’s role. Or, if they’d prefer to keep Guentzel in the top six, maybe a youngster like Daniel Sprong or Zach Aston-Reese would be game to try, at least on a temporary basis.

It should be noted that Rutherford has proven a savvy mid-season trader. In 2015-16, he brought in Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, a couple of veterans who played big roles on the way to a Stanley Cup title. And then, last season, he acquired Ron Hainsey, who likewise played a key part in a championship.

Perhaps owing to that experience, Rutherford says he’s more comfortable waiting to unearth a solution than “trading for somebody where I’m not sure whether they can help us or not.”

In fairness, it’s not easy to just replace a productive third-line center whose salary was a bargain. The Penguins had Bonino for a cap hit of just $1.9 million, and he turned his time in Pittsburgh into a four-year, $16.4 million deal with the Predators.

One potential target that’s come up in speculation is the Maple Leafs’ Tyler Bozak, who just so happens to be Phil Kessel‘s good friend and former center.

Bozak, 31, has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent, a status that naturally lends itself to trade speculation.

But with a $4.1 million cap hit, making room for Bozak could be a challenge for the Penguins. And on top of that, the Leafs are bound to ask a fair bit for a guy who had 55 points (18G, 37A) last season.

That’s why it’s so hard to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in today’s NHL. The Penguins were lucky to bring back mostly the same roster last season.

Things will be different in 2017-18.

Related: Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

Tavares says ‘no rush’ to sign extension with Isles

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John Tavares keeps saying all the right things about his future with the New York Islanders.

But that doesn’t change the fact he still doesn’t have a contract extension in place.

Tavares, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, spoke with Newsday yesterday, telling the newspaper he was in “no rush” to sign and that he’s comfortable to just “let the process run its course, keep the lines of communication open, keep it all internal.”

It’s been reported that the Isles’ uncertain arena situation could be complicating matters. It’s still not clear where the team will call home for the long term.

On that topic, Tavares chose to avoid making any definitive statements.

“The possibility with Belmont and that RFP coming out, there’s great potential there,” the 26-year-old said. “We’ll see where it goes. A lot of those things are out of my hands. Some things I don’t try to worry about them too, too much. I’m just a hockey player. I try to be as best prepared as I can be. It’s a big decision obviously because it’s eight years of my career, really entering into my prime years and a great opportunity for myself to achieve what I set out to achieve when I was a kid, making it to the NHL, wanting to win a Stanley Cup and wanting to do that with the Islanders.”

There’s more in the interview, including his thoughts on the Isles’ offseason moves. Click here to give it a read.

Tavares also spoke with Newday about the thumb surgery he had in April. All’s well on that front, according to the captain.  

“I felt I didn’t want this reoccurring and the recovery time was only six weeks,” he said, “so it was the right thing to do once the season ended.”

Related: Tavares open to signing contract extension this summer

Under Pressure: Derrick Pouliot (again)

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For the second straight year, Derrick Pouliot is our pick for the Pittsburgh player under the most pressure heading into the season.

Perhaps we should just focus on someone else, but the Penguins gave the 23-year-old defenseman a one-year contract extension in July. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Pouliot knows time is running short to prove Pittsburgh didn’t make a big mistake.

It should be compelling to watch how he fares.

“I’ve got to make an impact right away and show that I belong in the NHL,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “It’s been three years now. I haven’t fully established myself yet. I want to take it one step at a time and build as the year goes on.”

Pouliot felt he had a strong finish to his AHL season, and perhaps that will help his confidence heading into camp.

But it’s worth noting that he’s no longer exempt from waivers. So unless he earns a spot, that could mean a change of scenery, with the Penguins either losing him for nothing or trading him for pennies on the dollar.

Pouliot could feasibly crack the opening roster as Pittsburgh’s eighth defenseman, behind Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ian Cole, Chad Ruhwedel and new addition Matt Hunwick.

He could then languish on that roster until an injury gives him a chance to play.

The first step, though, is coming into camp and building off the back half of last season.

“For me to establish myself as an NHL defenseman, a regular guy in the lineup, it’s kind of playing how I ended the season: solid defensively, consistent in that regard,” Pouliot said, per the Tribune-Review. “That’s been one thing that’s always been brought up about me, inconsistency. So I think it’s starting with that and building each game.”

Looking to make the leap: Zach Aston-Reese

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

With a number of departures from a roster that won back-to-back Stanley Cups, it’s imperative that the Pittsburgh Penguins get a push from some of their prospects in 2017-18.

One of the top candidates to earn a regular spot is forward Zach Aston-Reese, a 23-year-old who just wrapped up an impressive career at Northeastern University.

Aston-Reese signed with the Pens in March, hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow undrafted NCAA products Chris Kunitz and Conor Sheary.

In a twist, Kunitz is one of those departed players that Aston-Reese may help replace.

“He was a college free agent, too, and kind of a goal scorer his last couple years in college,” Aston-Reese said of Kunitz, per NHL.com. “Just made a career for himself playing with good guys and being able to put the puck in the back of the net.”

Aston-Reese scored 31 goals in 38 games for the Huskies last season, making him a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

But despite all the accolades, he knows he’s still just a prospect, with a lot left to learn, and a lot left to prove.

“Whether we start up top or down in Wilkes-Barre, I think it’s important to be in the same mindset that, you’re trying to get better every day you show up to the rink,” he said, per the Post-Gazette. “If we do get that opportunity, we need to have a good mindset, produce and do what they ask of us.”