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?

paul maurice
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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.