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.

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.

Blue Jackets are trending up

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

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.

Coyotes win again, end Maple Leafs’ run at six games

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Break up the Arizona Coyotes.

After a downright depressing start to a season that opened with some hope, the Coyotes are at least gaining some self-respect, if not some respect around the NHL. That continued on Monday as the Coyotes extended their winning streak to three games.

Remarkably, that 4-1 win came against the Toronto Maple Leafs, ending the Buds’ own run at six games.

That 4-1 margin greatly exaggerates the difference between the two teams, however. This one came down to the wire, especially as a would be 2-2 goal was disallowed. The Coyotes added insurance goals late with two empty-netters.

Instead of being lopsided, the game came down to players who were expected to be difference-makers actually making a difference.

[During their darker days, this post explained that they seemed better than their record indicated]

It hasn’t been the easiest start for hidden-gem-star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so he must have been especially happy to score what eventually stood as the game-winner:

Antti Raanta also had himself quite a game, stopping 27 out of 28 shots as his winning streak is also at three games. Injuries and other issues plagued him to start his debut season with Arizona, but now it looks a lot more like things are going as originally planned.

Heading into a Canadian road trip that began with a 4-1 loss to the Jets in Winnipeg, this sure seemed like it would be a dreadful turn for the already-dreadful ‘Yotes. Instead, they’ve rattled off three straight wins: 5-4 at Montreal, 3-2 in OT at Ottawa, and now tonight’s victory in Toronto. You may note that two of those wins came in regulation, too.

Honestly, you can pull things back and realize that the Coyotes have been scrappy in a month of November that seemed fated to doom them.

(If this team was still the Phoenix Coyotes instead of the Arizona Coyotes, you’d probably see a lot of “rising from the ashes”-type headlines. But alas.)

They began the month winning one and losing one. Starting on Nov. 6, they went on a stretch where they played seven of eight games on the road (a stretch that ended today in Toronto). They lost the first five games of that run, but they managed to get “loser points” in two of those defeats.

Despite a tough schedule on paper, and after going a ludicrous 1-11-1 in October, the Coyotes are now 4-4-2 in November, with seven road games versus three home tilts. Maybe they were inspired by a traveling band of fans?

Now, none of that makes you think that this team is going to set the world on fire. Instead, it indicates that there’s some fight left in this squad, and maybe a nod to Rick Tocchet keeping spirits reasonably high even as things looked especially grim.

With Raanta seemingly healthy, “OEL” back on his game, and Clayton Keller continuing to tear the league up as a rookie (two more assists tonight), the Coyotes might be building some confidence, even if they can’t go too far with that at 5-15-3.

Still, they need only to look at the team they narrowly defeated in Toronto and realize that, with the right players and decision-makers, a quick turnaround is actually quite plausible.

For now, they’ll settle for a resoundingly successful road trip.

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.

Gaudreau, Monahan, Flames too much for Capitals

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When you talk about the best lines in the NHL, don’t sleep on the trio Johnny Gaudreau is leading for the Calgary Flames.

With his 10th goal of the season coming early in a Flames – Washington Capitals game that is ongoing, Gaudreau collected his 30th point of 2017-18. As of this writing, only two other players have hit that mark so far: Steven Stamkos (35 points) and Nikita Kucherov (33), the headliners of a Tampa Bay Lightning trio that’s grabbing a lot of, well, headlines.

Here’s the goal Gaudreau scored against the Caps, keeping in mind that he has plenty of time to add to his lofty totals:

To an extent, it feels like Gaudreau’s fantastic work has been sneaking under the radar, at least compared to the likes of Stamkos – Kucherov. Then again, maybe some of it has to do with the fact that his hot streak is at least somewhat concentrated in the last few weeks?

Gaudreau, no doubt, is the catalyst. His playmaking ability is often spellbinding, and he’s well beyond questions about being a flash in the pan at this point in his career. The 24-year-old came into tonight’s game with 233 points in 251 career regular-season games; he’s scored more than the likes of Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, according to Hockey Reference. (He ranks 12th overall during that span.)

His linemates deserve some of the spotlight, too.

There remains a debate about how much Sean Monahan can accomplish without Gaudreau, yet the counterpoint would be to wonder if it’s really that wise to mess with such a good thing. Such an argument is especially tough to make on the heels of his first career hat trick:

While Gaudreau has eight goals and 10 assists for a whopping 18 points (and possibly counting) during a 10-game point streak, Monahan collected his 21st point of this season on the primary assist. He added a helper to that hat trick the other night, so even if he’s stopped for the rest of Monday, Monahan has five points in two games. He also generated a six-game point streak (three goals, five assists) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 9.

When people haven’t been discussing Monahan’s dependence upon Gaudreau, they’ve wondered who might be the right winger for that dynamic duo.

Micheal Ferland might spell the end of that debate.

The big 25-year-old currently has 12 points in 18 games, but he’s really been revving up his production as of late. The Flyers snapped his five-game goal streak on Nov. 18, yet he extended his point streak to six contests with an assist (5G, 3A).

Logically, Ferland makes some sense for Gaudreau – Monahan. Neither of those forwards bring a lot of beef to the table, and Ferland has also shown some signs that he possesses the ability to finish the chances they can set up. As fun as it is to watch Jaromir Jagr with those two, Ferland might end up being the best fit for them since Jiri Hudler’s better Flames days.

(Ferland didn’t get an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, so he’ll need to generate some offense as this game goes along to keep his impressive streak going.)

***

Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov probably carry the championship belts as the best scoring line in hockey, at least right now. One of the delightful things about this relatively high-scoring start to the season is that there are plenty of contenders for that imaginary title, and Gaudreau’s group shouldn’t be shortchanged in such debates.

Update: Monahan added a goal of his own (the eventual game-winner, with a primary assist by Gaudreau) as the Flames ran away with this one by a score of 4-1. Matthew Tkachuk made his presence felt as well with two assists.

About the only bummer was that Ferland’s point streak ended.

So, Gaudreau finishes the night with 31 points on the season, including 19 during this 10-game streak. Monahan now has 22 points (with six in the last two contests).

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.