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

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Blues expect to get Bouwmeester back for clash with Oilers

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The NHL on NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Edmonton Oilers at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here

The St. Louis Blues have been hit hard by injuries so far this season, but that hasn’t stopped them from having some success in 2017-18.

Finally, they’ll be getting some good news, as Jay Bouwmeester is expected to play for the first time this season. Bouwmeester hasn’t suited up for the Blues since suffering a fractured ankle early on in training camp.

“It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp,” Bouwmeester told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.”

The 34-year-old’s return gives the Blues’ top four defense some balance. He skated on a pairing with Colton Parayko, while Alex Pietrangelo was with Joel Edmundson during Monday’s practice.

“He’s a veteran guy, his skating ability, defensive game, I don’t expect him to step in and his game to be exactly where it’s going to be five, 10 games from now,” head coach Mike Yeo said. “We have to understand he’s missed a lot of time but his experience will make the transition. It will come along quickly.”

The Blues have been just fine without Bouwmeester, so they should be even better now that he’s back. They’ll head into tonight’s game with the best record in the Central Division at 15-5-1.

Things haven’t been going as well for the Oilers, who are alarming close to the basement of the Western Conference through 20 games.

Surprisingly, only two teams (Buffalo and San Jose) have scored less goals than Edmonton’s 50 this season. When you look at the individual numbers on the team, you understand why they’re struggling so much.

Only two players (Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) have scored eight goals or more this season. Nobody else on the team has more than five.

Another big issue has been the play of Cam Talbot, who went from one of the top goalies in the NHL to being pretty average this season. Talbot owns a 7-10-1 record with a 3.10 goals-against-average and a .903 save percentage this season.

“He’s part of the team … the goalies have to be better, the defense, the forwards, the coaches have to be better,” said head coach Todd McLellan, per the Edmonton Journal. “None of us have lived up to where we need to be and that’s why we’re where we are in the standings.

“I’m not going to single out the goaltender. It’s team-wide.”

PHT Morning Skate: Top 5 moments from Auston Matthews’ first 100 NHL games

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–The Dallas Stars have been hit hard by injuries lately. On Monday, they announced that Marc Methot and Martin Hanzal would both miss some time. Also, Kari Lehtonen is away from the team after he and his wife welcomed a baby boy into the world. (Wrongsideoftheredline.com)

Jay Bouwmeester, who has been out since the third day of training camp, is expected to return to St. Louis’ lineup tonight. “It’s been a long time, especially at the start of the year when you miss training camp. I’m excited and hopefully and I’ll just jump in and not interfere with what’s going on here.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

–Sabres coach Phil Housley is trying to find solutions to help his team get back on track. Right now that includes mixing up the lines. Jack Eichel finds himself with Zegmus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, which seems like a bit of a demotion. (Buffalohockeybeat)

–Anton Rodin’s time with the Vancouver Canucks has officially come to an end, as he’s been placed on waivers with the purpose of terminating his contract. “Anton asked to be released from his contract,” said Jim Benning. “We value the skill and depth he adds to our team but ultimately it was important to respect Anton’s request to move on.” (Vancourier.com)

–Yes, the Edmonton Oilers are struggling this season. Some people want to blame Connor McDavid for that, but according to NHLNumbers.com, GM Peter Chiarelli should be the one taking the heat. (NHLNumbers.com)

–The swap Mike Cammalleri-for-Jussi Jokinen swap between the Kings and Oilers was nothing more than a weak attempt for both teams to try to get back on track. Don’t expect the move to help either side. (Fanragsports.com)

–Hall-of-famers Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne were honored prior to the game between the Ducks and Panthers on Sunday night. “It was just a perfect way to end a great week and a half,” Kariya said. “Just the most memorable time, certainly in my life and both of our lives. To spend it with Teemu and his family, it was icing on the cake. I’ll always remember the ovation.” (OC Register)

–Like all of us, Jets winger Patrik Laine is impressed by Selanne’s 76-goal rookie record he set in 1993. Laine can’t imagine anyone will ever touch that one. “Thirty-six, that was hard,” Laine said of his own rookie total. “So imagine if I had to score 40 more on top of the 36 I scored. I would say it’s pretty hard.” (NHL.com)

–Jets prospect Jack Roslovic is ripping it up in the AHL, but Winnipeg shouldn’t recall him yet. He needs more time to grow in the minors. (Jetsnation.ca)

–Preds forward Craig Smith had been doing all the right things on paper last season, he just couldn’t buy a goal for long stretches. Now, Smith’s hard work has paid off, as he’s finally starting to produce with a little more regularity. (Ontheforecheck.com)

–The pairing of Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy has worked out well for Boston because there’s a terrific teacher and a willing student. What does Chara like best about his defense partner? “That he’s quickly able to adapt to our system and our game. We saw it in the playoffs [last season]. He stepped in and gave us a contribution right away. He didn’t seem to be nervous, or caught in a situation where he’d be distracted.” (ESPN.com)

–Filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason believes Willie O’Ree (first black player to play in the NHL) and Herb Carnegie (Jean Beliveau said that he was one of the best players to never play in the NHL) should both be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Colorofhockey.com)

–Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the top prospect available for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. How we he help every one of the struggling teams in the NHL? The Hockey News breaks it down for you. (The Hockey News)

–Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi is already on his third team this season. Since he’s been on the move a lot, he’s decided to go with the plain white goalie mask. He should embrace the simple mask. (Puckjunk.com)

–How can the NHL spice up some of the stale rivalries in the league? Scottywazz.com believes that handing out a trophy could help. (Scottywazz.com)

Auston Matthews suited up in his 100th NHL game, so The Score breaks down the top 5 moments from his young career. To no ones surprise, the top moment came in his first game. (The Score)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid have wrong things in common right now

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As the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, faces of beleaguered franchises, and recipients of eight-figure salaries starting next season, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel share a lot in common.

Sadly, though the first quarter of this campaign, their similarities mostly leave you kind of bummed out.

Sure, there are key differences, but if you paint in broad brushstrokes, the similarities are striking.

Varying degrees of blame

Look, it’s almost human nature to blame a team’s failures on its best player. The logic goes: they have the most power to change things, and they often draw the biggest checks (technically not true for McDavid and Eichel until next season), so they need to take the heat, right?

Well, maybe, but in almost every case in a team sport like hockey, it’s usually not on the best guy or even top guys on a team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin sure seemed “in decline” for a while there, and then the Penguins brought in Phil Kessel, played to their strengths as an attacking team with Mike Sullivan in charge, and are now repeat champs.

Here’s hoping that McDavid and Eichel get some help, but with things sour for the Oilers (middle of the pack with contender aspirations) and Sabres (cellar dwellers despite dreams of big strides), the two are getting thrown under the bus at times.

The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington wrote this about Eichel, and keep in mind this was before Buffalo dropped its sixth in a row in falling short against Columbus on Monday:

Eichel has five goals in 20 games, tallying just once in his last 11. He’s got a minus-9 rating for the season. Those are the numbers. Now let’s move to things you can’t measure.

Eichel’s body language has been terrible much of season. It’s a dirty little secret fans are finally figuring out that he floats off the ice far too much on the end of his shifts.

McDavid, meanwhile, saw his defensive struggles magnified during Edmonton’s frustrating loss to the Dallas Stars this past weekend:

Oilers Nation’s Cam Lewis felt the need to defend McDavid, and he wasn’t alone. That’s how bad things are getting for fans of the Sabres and Oilers, two teams who have been through these growing pains so often, they probably wonder if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a mirage.

Varying degrees of success

You really don’t have to dig that deep to see that McDavid and Eichel stand among a handful of Oilers/Sabres who are carrying the scoring burden for their teams.

It’s especially stark with McDavid, who has 25 points while the second-highest Oilers scorer is currently Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has 15). Things are a little more even among Eichel and guys that he spends much of his ice time with, like a resurgent Evander Kane, but the broader view is the same: only four Sabres skaters are above 10 points while the Oilers only have five.

Yes, you can nitpick both players at times, but that requires the willful ignorance of looking the other way on an important point: few, if any, skaters are perfect. Especially during every night of an 82-game season.

The painfully obvious truth is that both McDavid and Eichel need more help and are being asked to do far too much. Harrington made an interesting point with this tweet, as it actually might apply to McDavid more than Eichel:

Deck chairs

From my vantage point, the situation might be more dire for the Oilers than the Sabres for a few reasons.

For one, it seems like Edmonton’s management has made its bed and now must lie in it. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis said it well (sub required) in a piece titled “There’s no retreat from the course Peter Chiarelli has plotted for the Oilers.”

Chiarelli has essentially cast his lot with the likes of Milan Lucic and Kris Russell as key supporting cast members, and that hasn’t gone well, at all. Their bad contracts and trade clauses make them difficult to move.

And, really, how much do you trust Chiarelli to get the most out of moving, say, Nugent-Hopkins after he’s left behind a trail of shaky (at best) moves during his last years in Boston and his stay in Edmonton? To a lot of fans, he’s already a punchline.

Yikes.

In the short-term, the Sabres’ roster probably has bigger holes. Perhaps things might change as Kyle Okposo gets healthier, but the offense is a little slim beyond Eichel, Kane, Ryan O'Reilly, and Jason Pominville (though Sam Reinhart‘s showing some signs of promise).

While Edmonton’s actually fashioned a half-decent defense for itself, Buffalo’s a mess in that regard.

That said, this is the first season of the Phil Housley – Jason Botterill regime, and they deserve time to get things together. The best thing about this situation is that, while there’s a tough deal or two like that of Zach Bogosian, it’s a fairly clean slate in Buffalo. They don’t need to cling to bad moves out of pride or even to protect their jobs like, say, the Capitals stubbornly hanging onto Brooks Orpik and letting quality players slip by.

Essentially, these two teams are on different points in the board game that is team-building. The Oilers are advancing close to that make-or-break spot, which to some extent makes it scarier to see the same old problems bubbling up.

***

No, their situations aren’t exactly the same, but it’s remarkable to see the parallels between Eichel and McDavid right now. You can even meme them in similar ways.

With the right mixture of luck, progression, and good management choices, maybe we can go back to focusing on the delightful things that make them similar: financial security and being absolutely spellbinding at hockey.

Right now, that’s a difficult thing to do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: His name is Joonas

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Choice PHT cuts

Shockingly, Radko Gudas is not on board with a 10-game suspension. Shocking.

Yahoo for Aho.

Johnny B. Very Good.

Blue Jackets are looking like contenders (again).

Players of the Night

  • Joonas Donskoi scored two goals for the Sharks and also found the net during the shootout. The Ducks still won as goaltending continues to shine for them (Reto Berra played the role of John Gibson tonight), but it was quite the game by Donskoi.

This is now his third two-point night of the season.

  • Also in the running: Mikael Granlund, who two goals and also grabbed a primary assist. He collected the last two goals of regulation, helping the Minnesota Wild secure a standings point. Like Donskoi, his work wasn’t quite enough, as the Devils won in overtime.

Highlight of the Night

Kevin Fiala has been on a tear since Kyle Turris arrived in Nashville. Sometimes Turris factors into that, sometimes it’s Fiala, who might be enlivened by the addition. This time around, P.K. Subban deserves a lot of credit for setting up what ended up being just a brilliant goal:

That goal is almost poetic.

Factoids of the Night

The Devils won thanks to this 3-on-3 OT goal from John Moore, which apparently is a fairly frequent occurrence.

We might as well go for a trifecta of specific-but-impressive defensemen facts:

Scores

Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2
Coyotes 4, Maple Leafs 1
Flames 4, Capitals 1
Predators 5, Jets 3
Devils 4, Wild 3 (OT)
Ducks 3, Sharks 2 (SO)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.