Roundtable: Surprises, NHL teams that need to make a move, bold predictions

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best NHL goals, saves, stories, players and more as we remember 2021.

Is the playoff picture already set in either conference? If not, which current non-playoff team do you feel will make the jump and why, and which current playoff team will fade?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Look, it’s dangerous to argue that anything is set in stone when teams are only (give or take) about 30 games into what the NHL hopes will return to an 82-game season.

However, the way I see it, the East’s top eight only see room for movement because of quirks in games played. Kudos to the Red Wings for heading into the NHL holiday pause technically in a wild-card spot with 33 points in 31 games played (.532 points percentage). I expect the Bruins (30 points in 26 GP; .577 points percentage) to overtake the Red Wings once the smoke clears.

Meanwhile, the West already established its haves and have-nots.

Don’t fret too much, though. For the sake of drama, there’s plenty of room for competition in division title/seeding/Presidents’ Trophy races, at least.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorI think the Metropolitan and Central will stay the same but Boston will make it in the Atlantic as they should get Tuukka Rask back in the fold and are better than the Red Wings who currently are in fourth place. The play of the Ducks has surprised most who had them finishing last or second last in the Pacific as they are tied for first with Vegas but I think Edmonton and Calgary will pass them and either the Kings or Vancouver under new coach Bruce Boudreau will surpass them as well.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m not sold on Detroit as a playoff team yet. The Wings entered Christmas holding onto the second Wild Card spot, but their positioning is a bit misleading because they’ve played 5 more games than ninth-place Boston, who sits just three points behind Detroit. In the West, I do have some concern about Edmonton’s inconsistency. Since the red-hot start, the Oilers have come back to the pack and are right on the playoff bubble. I don’t feel overly confident in any one team from the outside surging to replace them, but I think it will be done. More on this below.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Not sure the playoff field is completely set, but it is pretty close. In the Eastern Conference I think there is a really good chance Boston overtakes Detroit for that second Wild Card spot, and I could see Winnipeg or Dallas putting something together in the Western Conference. Both teams have the goaltending to make that happen and I do think they have enough talent to make up that gap.

I like what Detroit has done so far this season, and I really like their future, but they are probably not ready for that big of a jump just yet.

In the West, I think the same is true for Anaheim. They finally seem to have some real long-term prospects, but can they sustain this? Edmonton’s bottom-six, defense, and goaltending is bad enough to make me have some pause with them as well.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I can think of only one team outside of a playoff spot currently in each conference that will find its way into the mix before the end of the regular season. In the East, the Bruins are better than they’ve showed. They have the NHL’s worst team shooting percentage, which you’d expect to rebound over time and they will soon bolster their goaltending when Tuukka Rask is ready to return.

Out West, the Jets lost their coach, but have the talent at positions you need to win. Their defense is improved, their goaltender is a Vezina Trophy candidate every year, and their offense can click when it’s on. They’ll miss Blake Wheeler, but their hole in the conference isn’t so deep that they can’t dig out.

The two teams I think will fall back are full of youth and rosters that will only improve are the Red Wings and Ducks. Both have received phenomenal goaltending and their kids are playing beyond their years. But is it sustainable over a second half of a season that could be disrupted by further postponements, COVID outbreaks, and higher outputs regressing?

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What’s been your biggest surprise/disappointment from the first two-plus months of the season?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Paul Maurice resigning was a big shock. His explanation for stepping away — that he has gotten as much out of the Jets as he could — was admirable, but you don’t really see NHL coaches step away like that, especially for reasons like he did. And it wasn’t like this was the final year of his contract, either. He’d improved the team since being hired and it will be interesting to see who GM Kevin Cheveldayoff brings on board to do what Maurice, in his own mind, couldn’t.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Really expected more from the Stars this season. They were so close a year ago while getting almost nothing from Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. Really thought their return, combined with that defense and the goaltending that it would be enough to not only get them back in the playoffs, but maybe even be a sleeper Stanley Cup contender. Just has not worked out that way this season at all. At least not yet. Still think they have the goaltending to put it together in the second half.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe biggest disappointment has been the play of two teams who went to the Stanley Cup semi-finals last season, the Islanders and the Canadiens. The Islanders have been a bigger disappointment as I pegged them for first place in the Metropolitan and they are struggling in last place as they are not getting the defensive play they had last season and are not scoring. Montreal has disappointed and none more so than Cole Caufield as the pre-season favorite for the Calder Trophy, has only one goal in 23 games to date.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: On the positive side, watching Alex Ovechkin continue his assault on the record books has been a treat. Ovi is squarely in the MVP discussion at age 36, which is remarkable considering the average age of the last 10 MVPs is 25.2. The biggest disappointment would be the recent (understandable) decision by the NHL to pull out of the Olympics. There will now be no less than a 12-year gap between an Olympic competition featuring NHLers, which means that a full generation of players will have missed that opportunity. Huge bummer.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Normally, I’d say the Olympics. After all, Gary Bettman made it abundantly clear that, at the league level, they didn’t want to go. But the overbearing omicron presence makes the lack of NHL Olympic involvement a larger relief.

From here, it sure looks like that lack of participation is more about a fear of extreme quarantine restrictions, rather than an abundance of caution. Because, in the NHL and other leagues, it sure feels like people are running with any opportunity to push through a pandemic and just get games played.

While I acknowledge that there is a lot we still don’t know about omicron and other variants, it makes me uneasy to hear so many comments about just rolling with it. It feels like we’ve seen this movie multiple times during this nightmarish pandemic: people try to skip some key steps in the process, only to set things back even further.

Maybe I’m wrong — I hope I’m wrong — and things end up easier to manage. Sports leagues haven’t earned much benefit of the doubt when it comes to handling this situation properly, though, and the NHL is not immune to such criticisms.

NHL Rink Wrap: Sabres lose, but Sharks stay undefeated
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Which contender or bubble playoff team needs to make a move in the new year?

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: It has to be Boston I think. Their entire offense is still all about that first line and they get so little after them. Losing David Krejci has been significant. Also have to wonder if a Tuukka Rask return is on the horizon. You could also look at Edmonton. Most teams never get two players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at any point in their franchise history, let alone two of them at the exact same time. You can not waste that gift and that bottom-six is just quite literally the worst in the NHL this season.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: A ton of teams seem worthy of a mention. For example: at some point the Avalanche need to make a deep playoff push, right? They can’t just be dreamy in highlight reels and on paper forever.

But the teams that really stand out are the ones who are especially time sensitive. The Penguins and Bruins rank among aging teams who might want to go for it before their top veterans truly age out. (Patrice Bergeron and Evgeni Malkin are both in contract years with uncertain futures. Just saying.)

Allow me to throw out an, um, wild card though. After this season, the Wild see the Parise/Suter buyout penalties go from about $4.74M to $12.74M next season, and then two seasons of $14.74M. Bill Guerin should dust off his Blockbuster card and go hog wild on rentals. Maybe buy some extremely old boxes of Sno Caps and long-expired microwave popcorn while he’s at it.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: If these Ducks are for real and a playoff-bound team, interim GM Jeff Solomon owes it to the roster to strengthen for a postseason push or, if they get in, a likely tough First Round matchup. It’s not just the kids leading the way as Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Kevin Shattenkirk have chipped in offensively. But could another impactful, top-six forward be the play?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe Edmonton Oilers need another goaltender as Mike Smith seems to be too old and injury-prone while the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner just won’t do it once the playoffs come around.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Rangers. I think they are still one impact forward away of being a threat to emerge from the Eastern Conference. They have the cap space and the assets to facilitate a deal.

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Give us one bold prediction for 2022

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: A World Cup of Hockey is planned for sometime in the next two seasons and will replace the All-Star Game for that year. The Olympics isn’t happening for at least another four years. The players want international play and a World Cup allows both the owners and players to make money off of it.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Oilers finish with the top two scorers in the NHL for the third year in a row, but this time they will miss the playoffs.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Nashville is going to make some kind of a big move at or near the trade deadline. They have exceeded expectations this season, they have the goalie, and they have a ton of salary cap space to work with. They also have a general manager that loves to make blockbuster trades and moves to build his team. Who is that player? No idea. But the Predators swing for the fences.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe COVID scare will run its course in two-three weeks in the NHL and the only postponements the rest of the way will come in the way of a snowstorm. As well, Bruce Boudreau will lead Vancouver into the playoffs.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Maybe the NHL doesn’t reach 82 games played per team, but they’ll push very close to a full season. For better, and I fear often, for worse.

This league keeps stubbornly pushing through the pandemic, sometimes with surreal moments like packed nights turning into single-game evenings. Over and over, Bettman and others emphasized the importance of 82-game seasons, of getting “back to normal.”

After all these years, the NHL’s revenue still hinges a lot on the box office, and that means forcing through as many games as possible. I’m among those who value a full-fledged postseason as much as anything else, but if the NHL ends up with something along the lines of a 56-game season again, expect some glum people, especially those in expensive suits.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.