Sidney Crosby

Top 10 NHL stories to watch…once the All-Star break is over

17 Comments

The NHL All-Star break, which begins Thursday, is the last deep breath everyone gets to take before the playoff stretch drive. So with that in mind, here are 10 stories we’ll be covering closely in the coming months, once everyone’s filled up their lungs this weekend.

Will Sidney Crosby be back this season?

We’ve covered Crosby’s battle with concussions from time to time on PHT (and by “time to time,” we mean “obsessively”), and don’t expect that to change. He’s the best player in the world, and at just 24 years old, it’s not being overly dramatic to say his career is in jeopardy. Not to mention, if he can return in time for the playoffs, the Penguins go from probable Stanley Cup contenders to definite contenders.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline

This one has the potential to be epic, and we’re not just saying that because the trade deadline is great for the blogging business (though it is). Combine a ton of cap space for a number of Cup contenders (Chicago and Detroit leap to mind) with an unusually high supply of big names that have come up in trade speculation – from Bobby Ryan to Jeff Carter to Ryan Suter – and we could be in store for some blockbuster deals.

Teams that were expected to make the playoffs, but might not

The Washington Capitals, for example. Just imagine for a minute if they don’t make it. Would GM George McPhee have any hope of keeping his job? Would a new GM come in and blow things up? How would Alex Ovechkin handle it? Would Penguins fans ever stop laughing? Another team to watch is Los Angeles. The Kings still have the worst offense in the NHL, though things have gotten slightly better under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Teams that were expected to miss the playoffs, but might not

Ottawa, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary – all remain in the mix. To address just one of those teams, nobody expected the Senators (27-19-6) to be where they are right now, and that includes their owner. But while the Sens head into the break with a five-point lead over eighth-place New Jersey, we’ve seen already how quickly surprise teams can fall in the standings. (Ahem: Wild.)

The pursuit of a top seed

A quick glance at the standings and some fairly unexceptional teams occupy the seventh and eighth spots in each conference. Unexceptional compared to last year at least, when Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy and was rewarded with a first-round matchup against defending champion Chicago. The Blackhawks, who were treading water for most of the regular season, kicked it into gear once they got their hate on and took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7. While still possible, a scenario like that seems less likely this time around, meaning a first or second seed could be a significant advantage. Third and fourth? Not so much.

Will the Leafs finally make the playoffs?

The richest team in the league in the capital of the hockey world (self-anointed, but probably true) hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. Miss the playoffs again and it would make seven straight seasons. Which when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. GM Brian Burke’s job is likely safe regardless, but coach Ron Wilson, contract extension and all, would have to be out the door. (Right?) Expect Toronto to be active prior to the trade deadline to boost the top six forwards. The Leafs are one of the rare clubs with a surplus of defensemen, a commodity that’s always in heavy demand heading into the playoffs.

A new CBA needs to be negotiated

The current agreement expires in September, with talks between the league and players’ union expected to start after the All-Star break. For certain, the NHL is in better shape financially compared to the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season. However, if the owners try to cut the players’ share as we saw recently in the NBA, things could get…tense. New union leader Donald Fehr is no pushover, and by blocking realignment he’s already sent a message to Gary Bettman that the players won’t be bullied.

The race for the Hart Trophy

The league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, is the current top candidate, having put the Penguins on his back minus Crosby and a host of other key Pittsburgh players that have suffered long-term injuries. But remember what Corey Perry did down the stretch last year. Anything can happen (including an injury to Malkin.) Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are all in the MVP conversation. Shea Weber should be too, but the Hart rarely goes to defensemen.

Supplemental discipline as the games become more important

OK, let’s say the Capitals have five games left, they’re neck and neck with two other teams for the final playoff spot and, uh-oh, Ovechkin leaves his feet again to hit a guy. What does Brendan Shanahan do? Throw the book at Ovi? Go easy on him? Hide under some jackets? Not saying it’ll involve Ovechkin, but something like this is bound to happen in some shape or form.

The final days of the Phoenix Coyotes?

When the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was announced in May, the playoffs were still underway. And chances are, that deal didn’t come together overnight. So that gives you an idea of how much time is left for the league to find an owner that will keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. That is, assuming the NHL isn’t willing to give status quo another season in Arizona, which would likely necessitate the city of Glendale covering millions and millions more of the team’s losses. This really does seem like the last stand for the franchise in its current location. Granted, it’s felt like that before. Many times actually. But this really, really feels like it.

Allen’s mental reset continues, as Blues will start Hutton in Pittsburgh

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Getty
Leave a comment

St. Louis is giving Jake Allen more time to sort out his struggles.

Today, the club announced backup Carter Hutton will start tomorrow in Pittsburgh, while Pheonix Copley — the AHL call-up that allowed five goals in Saturdays’ loss in Winnipeg — will serve as the No. 2.

Allen, who didn’t even travel to Winnipeg so he could ‘reset’ mentally, will start on Thursday in Minnesota, which will be St. Louis’ last game prior to the All-Star break. Copley will again serve as the backup.

The decision to go back to Allen comes after a horrific stretch in which he was yanked from three straight games, and four of his past six.

It is noteworthy, though, that Allen isn’t getting the Pittsburgh game. Part of that could be the opponent — the Pens are a force offensively, and lead the NHL in goals per game — but it could also be that Allen needs additional time to sort out his issues.

Whatever the case, the plan may have changed. In explaining why he left Allen behind while the team went to Winnipeg, Blues GM Doug Armstrong suggested Allen could get right back in.

“I think taking a day way, getting a total reset — he could reset traveling with the team, but I wanted a complete reset — and then we come back on Sunday, he’s back in the net and he’s ready to go,” Armstrong said, per the Post-Dispatch. “To me, it’s not a huge story; he’s going to take a day to get a reset with his family — he just had a young baby — but the play needs to improve and I want to give him a fresh start.”

Allen’s struggles this year are well-documented (see here, here, here and here). Per the Post-Dispatch, his .897 save percentage ranks 43rd among 47 goalies who have appeared in 14 or more games this season.

Oshie’s contract status underscores urgency in Washington

Washington Capitals' Matt Niskanen (2) and T.J. Oshie (77) celebrate with Alex Ovechkin (8) after Ovechkin scored against the Dallas Stars during the third period an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Dallas. Stars' Jamie Benn (14) skates back to the bench. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP
Leave a comment

The way he keeps scoring, T.J. Oshie‘s next contract isn’t getting any smaller.

The 30-year-old winger was today named the NHL’s third star of the week, after racking up six points (3G, 3A) in three games for the red-hot Washington Capitals.

Oshie now has 31 points (17G, 14A) in 38 games. A pending unrestricted free agent, he’ll no doubt be looking for a raise beyond his current cap hit of $4.175 million.

One comparable contract is Andrew Ladd‘s seven-year, $38.5 million deal with the Islanders.

Loui Eriksson‘s six-year, $36 million deal with the Canucks is another.

And one more for good measure: David Backes‘ five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins.

All three of those contracts have a cap hit of around, or exactly, $6 million. Ladd and Eriksson are a year older than Oshie, while Backes is two years older. They’re all reliable veteran wingers, just like Oshie.

Now, the Caps could always try and convince Oshie to take a home-town discount. They may even be able to keep him without a discount.

That being said, their No. 1 priority has to be getting Evgeny Kuznetsov, a pending restricted free agent, locked up. And they also need to keep in mind John Carlson, their No. 1 defenseman who can become unrestricted in the summer of 2018.

“We’re going to have some decisions to make as far as veteran players, and our young guys are going to be due for some pay raises,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said last season.

When he said it, MacLellan saw his team in a “two-year window.”

Alas, only one year of that window remains. Hence, the urgency to finally win the Stanley Cup this spring.

Like Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner are pending UFAs.

And like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett ConnollyDmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer are pending RFAs.

The Caps host Carolina tonight.

Related: Kuznetsov sets table for Jakub Vrana’s first NHL goal

Galchenyuk re-injures knee, but not believed to be serious

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 08:  Alex Galchenyuk #27 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the warmup prior to the NHL game against the Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre on November 8, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins 3-2.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

Given that Montreal center Alex Galchenyuk‘s already missed 18 games this season to a knee injury, there was some consternation on Monday as head coach Michel Therrien said Galchenyuk had aggravated the ailment, and would miss Tuesday’s game against Calgary.

Thankfully for the Habs, it doesn’t sound like a serious issue.

Therrien said Galchenyuk “slightly injured” his knee, and is listed as day-to-day. This falls in line with what occurred during Saturday’s OT loss to Buffalo — even though Galchenyuk suffered the ailment during the game, he was able to play through it and finish with 16:36 TOI.

It’s unfortunate this knee issue has lingered, as the fifth-year pro is having a great season. Galchenyuk has 11 goals and 27 points through 30 games and, had he been healthy, probably would’ve eclipsed last year’s production, when he scored 30 goals and 56 points.

Looking ahead, it’ll be interesting to see when the Habs opt to get Galchenyuk back in the lineup. After tomorrow’s game against Calgary, they have just one game left until the All-Star break, on Thursday in Brooklyn.

After that, they don’t play again until Jan. 31.

Rangers’ Hayes out 2-3 weeks with lower-body injury

kevinhayesgetty
Getty
Leave a comment

Kevin Hayes, who sits third on the Rangers with 35 points, will miss the next couple of weeks with a lower-body ailment, the club announced on Monday.

The news comes one day after Hayes exited New York’s 1-0 OT win over Detroit after playing just 8:41. Per Newsday, it’s a left leg ailment.

It’s a tough blow for a guy that had been playing well lately. Hayes had been a point-per-game producer in January, with two goals and five assists through seven games, developing chemistry on a line with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s the schedule. Hayes’ absence will coincide with the All-Star break, so he won’t miss as many games as he would’ve under usual circumstances.

Still, if he’s shelved for the full three weeks, that puts his return around Feb. 13 — meaning he could miss up to eight contests.

In related news, the Blueshirts activated Matt Puempel off IR today. He’d been out since December with a concussion.