Sidney Crosby

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.

Goalie nods: ‘The losses have gotten to’ Dubnyk, so Wild turn to Kuemper

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Devan Dubnyk has started Minnesota’s last four games — all of them losses — so in an effort to try and right the ship, head coach Mike Yeo is going with Darcy Kuemper against Dallas this evening.

“This has definitely not been Dubnyk’s fault,” Yeo said of the Wild’s losing skid, per the Pioneer Press. “Even watching his game and evaluating it closely afterwards, I’m not going to say he’s playing badly. He’s not. But you can tell he’s grinding right now like everybody. The losses have gotten to him.

“Kuemper has been part of this, but not to that level, so he’s probably got a little bit of a different mindset and a little bit of a fresher mind coming into the game.”

Kuemper has been pretty solid this year, going 5-2-4 with a .928 save percentage and 2.06 GAA. That said, he’s only made four appearances in 2016 and his last was a brief one, playing just over 11 minutes in relief against the Isles.

For Dallas, Kari Lehtonen is likely to get the start.

Elsewhere…

— No definitive announcements out of Boston, but Tuukka Rask is likely for the Bruins, and Jonathan Quick is likely for the Kings.

— It’s Roberto Luongo for the Panthers in Buffalo. Sabres are going with Robin Lehner.

Cory Schneider‘s going back-to-back for the Devils after stopping 35 shots in a loss to the Rangers on Monday. Cam Talbot starts for the Oilers.

John Gibson is not going back-to-back after getting shelled by Pittsburgh last night. Frederik Andersen starts in Philly, Steve Mason for the Flyers.

— Columbus will keep rolling with Joonas Korpisalo as it hosts the Islanders. Jaroslav Halak gets the nod after getting hooked against the Red Wings over the weekend.

Ben Scrivens will look to win his third game in a row when the Habs host the Bolts. Ben Bishop‘s in for Tampa Bay.

— Barry Trotz heads back to Nashville and will continue rolling with Braden Holtby in goal. Trotz’s former workhorse, Pekka Rinne, starts for the Preds.

— It’s Connor Hellebuyck versus Brian Elliott as the Blues host the Jets in St. Louis.

— Good matchup in Chicago tonight, as the in-form Corey Crawford starts for the ‘Hawks. The Sharks will counter with Martin Jones.

— After Ryan Miller started the last four, Jacob Markstrom goes for the Canucks in Colorado. The Avs are starting Semyon Varlamov.

— Fresh off today’s blockbuster Dion Phaneuf trade, the undermanned Leafs are going with James Reimer in goal in Calgary. The Flames will give Jonas Hiller another start after he beat Vancouver on Saturday night.

Here’s what TCF Bank Stadium will look like for Minnesota’s outdoor game

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What you’re looking at is an architectural rendering of TCF Bank Stadium for the upcoming outdoor game between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, Feb. 21.

The current forecast for that day in Minneapolis is a high of 27° F and a low of 19° F, with only a 20 percent possibility of precipitation, i.e. snow.

Which is to say, that guy in the Toews jersey is gonna be cold. At least roll up your sleeves, man. Don’t be a hero. 

The game, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET, will be broadcast live on NBC as part of Hockey Day in America, while Hockey Night In Canada and TVA Sports will have the action for the folks up north.

50 years ago today, the NHL’s ‘great expansion’ begins

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 15: The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers fight during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Penguins 8-4. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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“This is the year of the great expansion. For the first time, the league will be composed of twelve teams.”

Those were the words of former NHL president Clarence Campbell as he ushered in six new franchises to join the Original Six for the 1967-68 season.

We only mention this because it was 50 years ago today, in 1966, that the league awarded conditional teams to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis.

(To read more, click NHL.com’s anniversary piece. The Los Angeles Times also has a story on the birth of the Kings, while CSN Philly remembers the Flyers’ beginnings.)

For all you youngsters out there, San Francisco’s team, originally named the California Seals, ended up playing in Oakland, but not for long due to attendance issues. The franchise would move to Cleveland in 1976, where in 1978 it ceased operations and merged with the North Stars.

The North Stars also eventually relocated, though that didn’t happen until 1993 when they moved to Dallas. The expansion Wild were born a few years later.

Of the five surviving franchises of the “great expansion,” only the Blues have never won the Stanley Cup.

The Flyers were the first expansion team to hoist the Cup. They did it in 1974.

Related: Foley is ‘9.5’ out of 10 confident that NHL will expand to Vegas

Malkin (lower body) to miss rest of week

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Evgeni Malkin has missed Pittsburgh’s last three games, and now he’ll also miss at least the next two.

On Tuesday, head coach Mike Sullivan announced that Malkin will be held out for the remainder of this week to deal with his lower-body injury.

Malkin hasn’t played since registering two assists in a 6-5 win over Ottawa on Feb. 2, missing Friday’s 6-3 loss to the Bolts, Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Panthers and Monday’s big 6-2 whipping of Anaheim.

The Penguins next play on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), then again on Friday versus the ‘Canes. It stands to reason Malkin could very well miss the Monday, Feb. 15 game against the Panthers as well, as the Pens would be on a mini two-game road swing through Carolina and Florida, returning back to Pittsburgh for a Feb. 18 home date against Detroit.

On the year, Malkin has 49 points in 49 games and had been producing exceptionally well prior to getting hurt, with 15 points in his last 13 games.