Jason Brough

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All hail the Metropolitan, the new best division in the NHL

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The New York Rangers are 20-9-1 and tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the most points in the NHL.

And yet, the Blueshirts can’t get too comfortable, because lurking below them in the Metropolitan Division are…

— The defending Stanley Cup champs from Pittsburgh.
— The Philadelphia Flyers, who’ve won nine in a row.
— The Columbus Blue Jackets, who’ve gone 11-2-3 in their last 16.
— And the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals.

Indeed, the Metropolitan is the new best division in hockey, assuming the mantle from the Central, which only has two teams, Chicago and Minnesota, with a positive goal differential so far this season. The Blues are still a good team, but the Predators and Stars have been disappointing.

The top five teams in the Metropolitan have a combined goal differential of — get this — plus-99.

Pity the New York Islanders, who’ve gone 6-1-1 in their last eight and still sit 10 points back of the fifth-place Capitals.

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The Caps, meanwhile, have won four in a row, and they’re also having trouble making up ground. They’re currently in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Though on the bright side, they’re seven points clear of the fourth-place team in the Atlantic, so a playoff spot isn’t really in serious jeopardy yet.

“You just realize how good the Eastern Conference is this year,” said Capitals coach Barry trotz, per the Washington Post. “I think two years ago, we didn’t have as much balance in the Eastern Conference. There was six or eight teams that you knew they were going to be in, and there was just going to be a fight for the rest. Now, all those teams have drafted well, their young players have developed. Free-agent signings were probably a little more prominent in the East than the West last year, and maybe the last two years.”

The way the standings look right now, the Metropolitan will have five playoff teams, leaving just three spots for the Atlantic.

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The Habs have a comfortable cushion for now, but that won’t be easy to maintain without Alex Galchenyuk for next month and a bit.

The Senators are definitely vulnerable, with one of the lowest score-adjusted Corsis in the league.

The Bruins really need to make the playoffs after missing them two straight years.

The Lightning were considered strong Stanley Cup contenders, but they’ve really been scuffling along lately.

The Panthers will be very interesting to watch after the firing of coach Gerard Gallant.

And the Red Wings, of course, have a lengthy playoff streak on the line — one that looks more and more likely to end in their final season at the Joe.

As for the Maple Leafs and Sabres, well, they’re probably going to draft well again. They could maybe make a run at third place in their division, but failing a dramatic turn of events, a wild-card spot is almost out of the question.

Stars can’t afford any more ‘moral victories’

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With five straight home games before the Christmas break, the Dallas Stars have a good opportunity to get back into the playoff race.

On the other hand, their opponents will be the Ducks, Rangers, Flyers, Blues, and Kings, so maybe it’s not such a great opportunity after all.

The Stars dropped both their games over the weekend. Saturday, they lost 4-2 in Philadelphia. Sunday, it was a 3-1 defeat in Chicago. They’re currently two points back of Los Angeles for the second wild-card spot, and the Kings have three games in hand.

Though Dallas has been playing better lately compared to the start of the season, it still hasn’t been good enough.

“There’s no moral victories. There’s no ‘We played good in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Philly,'” said forward Jason Spezza, per the Dallas Morning News. “It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough with the type of team we have. It doesn’t matter if you play well if you don’t win games. It’s a results-oriented business, and these losses get tougher and tougher because we know we have a hole to climb out of.”

     Read more: What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

If this five-game home stand goes poorly, that hole will only get deeper for the defending Central Division champs.

The Stars only lost 23 games in regulation last season. They’ve already lost 13 this season. There’s still time to turn it around — starting Tuesday against the Ducks — but the pressure is building.

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.

Pre-game reading: Leonsis has Ovechkin’s back on Olympics

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— Up top, relive Carey Price‘s blocker attack on Kyle Palmieri, but this time in French!

— Not for the first time, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll support Alex Ovechkin if Ovechkin goes to the Olympics, regardless of what the NHL decides about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.” Leonsis said essentially the same thing in 2013, before the deal to send NHLers to Sochi was struck. Granted, that was a bit different because the 2014 Games were in Russia and Ovechkin was going to be a big part of them, but Leonsis knows how badly his franchise player wants to win Olympic gold. (NHL.com)

— Wayne Gretzky, who recently rejoined the Edmonton Oilers in an executive capacity, has some thoughts on the Olympic debate: “From my point of view, we play for one thing and that’s a Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. The one spectacle that’s really remarkable is the Olympic games. I’m a big believer in the Olympic games. I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games. I think since ’98 when we first went to Nagano, the NHL players, not only promote our sport but they do a really nice job of being around the other athletes. It helps every sport in our country. I think it’s a positive but I’m not the only guy who has say in this. I happen to love the Olympic Games, but that’s my opinion.”  (Yahoo Sports)

— Hockey is an expensive sport to play, and that means a lot of kids don’t get to enjoy it. Former NHLer Jamal Mayers is trying to change that in Chicago’s inner city. “I think it’s about kids here seeing that it’s actually possible. They’ve never seen a hockey stick before. It’s the same principles as any of the ‘ball’ sports, like soccer and basketball. You’re creating two on one’s all over the place. It’s important that we did this the right way. We can’t just put kids on the ice and say ‘Let’s play hockey.’ They have to get comfortable holding a stick.” (Rolling Stone)

— The Blue Jackets’ power play was bound to slow down. It’s still the NHL’s best, converting at 24.6 percent, but opponents have started to defend it differently. “What we’re doing is not revolutionary,” said assistant coach Brad Larsen. “But teams have made adjustments, and now we’ve had to make little tweaks here and there to answer what they’re doing.” The Jackets went 2-for-6 Monday against Arizona, but that was after four straight games without scoring a power-play goal. (Columbus Dispatch)

— The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted 11 players in 2016, but not all of them were 18 years old. Take Regina Pats center Adam Brooks, who went in the fourth round. He was 20, in his third year of draft eligibility, when he finally heard his name called in June. “It comes down to opportunity. I just didn’t have a chance to get a lot of ice time in my first couple of seasons.” Whether or not this strategy pans out for the Leafs remains to be seen, but general managers across the league will be watching. Brooks, by the way, has 47 points in just 21 games for the Pats this season. (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

The Canucks have a big decision to make with Erik Gudbranson

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Erik Gudbranson got his first goal as a Vancouver Canuck last night in Tampa.

It was not the most beautiful goal ever scored, coming halfway through the first period, after Gudbranson wristed a point shot wide. The puck bounced off the boards, hit Ben Bishop‘s left pad, and slid into the net, giving the Canucks a surprising 2-0 lead.

Vancouver would go on to win, 5-1, handing the Bolts an embarrassing loss to a team they should’ve been able to beat.

But the night was a welcome reprieve for Gudbranson, who’s “struggled a little” since coming to Vancouver in an offseason trade with Florida. The 24-year-old defenseman is a minus-13 in 27 games, partly due to his team’s lack of goal-scoring, but also because of his own inconsistent play.

“I personally struggled a little with the new systems and adapting to it and finding a way within that system to play physical,” he told the Vancouver Sun recently. “I want to be tough to play against. I want guys to know they’re going to get hit if they come to my side. For a while there, I was struggling to find a way to have that presence.”

Gudbranson (1G, 4A) has been paired exclusively with young Ben Hutton, and those two have been playing big minutes with Alex Edler and Chris Tanev out injured.

It’s actually a good opportunity for the Canucks to see what they’ve really got, because Gudbranson is a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights. This is his sixth season in the NHL, so he only needs one more season before he’s into his unrestricted years. His current cap hit is $3.5 million, and he probably won’t be looking to take a pay cut.

What to do with Gudbranson represents a huge decision for Canucks GM Jim Benning, who sent a good prospect in Jared McCann, as well as a second-round draft pick, to Florida to get the former third overall pick. Signing Gudbranson to a long-term contract is one option. But another has to be flipping him for help elsewhere, especially if Tanev isn’t going anywhere.

“We have depth on defense,” Benning said recently. “We’ve rebuilt our defense. (Nikita) Tryamkin is 22 years old, (Troy) Stecher is 22 years old. (Alex) Edler at 30 is our oldest defenseman, so we have a young, good group back there. We have depth back there. So if we look to make a move, we’d have to use some of our depth on the blue line to add a forward.”

Gudbranson, Tanev, and Stecher all play the right side, and Tryamkin can play it, too. Edler, Hutton, and Luca Sbisa play the left side. So does Olli Juolevi, who could be in the NHL next season.

So, do the Canucks see Gudbranson as a top-four defenseman? Or, is he a bottom-pairing guy behind Tanev and Stecher? Because if he’s a bottom-pairing guy, it’ll be hard to justify paying him big money on a long-term deal.

In fact, that’s why the Panthers traded him. It’s not because they didn’t like him. They just didn’t like him enough. They wanted puck-movers like Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, and Gudbranson is about as stay-at-home as it gets in today’s fast-paced NHL.

To be sure, there is a lot to like about Gudbranson. He’s big and he’s tough and he sticks up for his teammates. He’s always got a positive attitude.

“He’s a player that, in the analytics, maybe things don’t always measure out like you’d want them to,” Benning conceded back in September. “But as far as the intangibles, I really think he’s going to help our back end and our whole team.”

But again, how much is that worth?

Because in the salary-cap era, where every dollar counts, teams have to be very careful about overpaying for “intangibles.” The Canucks do have some cap space for next season, but remember that Bo Horvat is a pending RFA whom they’d like to get signed long term. And let’s face it, Vancouver isn’t good enough to waste cap space. If the money’s not going to good use, it needs to go elsewhere.