5 likely playoff teams that need to add depth to become contenders

NHL trade deadline
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It was two months ago that we took a look at which teams have done the best (and worst) job building around their star players with some surprising (and not-so-surprising) results. Teams like Tampa Bay, Colorado, Carolina, Florida, and Pittsburgh had done the best, icing teams that were able to still significantly outscore their opponents when their highest paid players were off the ice.

Teams like Edmonton, Chicago, San Jose, and rebuilding teams like Buffalo, Detroit, and Arizona were predictably at the bottom.

Now that the season is at its unofficial halfway point we wanted to take an updated look at that and zero in on some potential playoff teams that still need to better address their depth.

You can read the initial analysis and numbers here. 

Just as a starting point, here is an updated look at the teams with the best goal differentials when their two highest paid forwards are off the ice. Again, this is not a PERFECT barometer, but it does at least give us some idea as to which teams have been able to build around their stars at a reasonable level.

Here are the top-10 goal differentials, and as you can see by their points percentages in the league wide standings, they are some of the best teams in the league.

The Kings are remain the biggest surprise team on there. But everybody else? Legitimate Stanley Cup contenders that not only have superstar players, but are also able to control the game and dominate when those superstars are not playing. Great signs.

Just for comparisons sake, here are the bottom-10 teams.

Not surprisingly, a lot of teams that are struggling in the standings. A lot of those duos are very good (particularly the Larkin/Bertuzzi duo in Detroit and the Couture/Meier duo in San Jose) but they just have so little else around them that it holds the rest of the team back.

But let’s take a minute to look at some teams in the middle of the pack that are likely headed to the playoffs, but still need more around their top players.

New York Rangers

Highest salary cap hits: Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider
Goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither is on the ice: minus-8 (33 goals for, 41 goals against)
Points percentage rank league wide: Seventh

The Rangers are fascinating team because their record is stellar and has them among the best teams in the league. Their success is based on having about five high-level players having great years (Panarin, Kreider, Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad) and arguably the best goalie in the league this season (Igor Shesterkin). A few game-changing superstars and an elite goalie can mask a lot of flaws and take you a long way. But there is a limit to how far that can get you, because at some point those superstars at the top are going to go cold offensively. That is when the secondary players become vital, and right now the Rangers do not have that on their bottom lines. The frustrating thing is the potential for it is there with a collection of young talent that includes Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, and Filip Chytl. The potential is there. It just has not happened yet. But if the Rangers are truly going to become a Stanley Cup contender this season they need to be better when Panarin and Krieder are sitting on the bench.

Nashville Predators

Highest salary cap hits: Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene
Goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither is on the ice: minus-5 (35 goals for, 40 goals against)
Points percentage rank league wide: Ninth

At the midway point of the 2020-21 season the Predators looked like a team that needed to be torn down to the ground and rebuilt. Now they have one of the best records in the league and some of their recent big-money additions that had previously disappointed are now producing. It also helps having an elite goalie in Juuse Saros. The Predators have one of the best records in the league, but like the Rangers have some concerns from their bottom lines.

Calgary Flames

Highest salary cap hits: Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau
Goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither is on the ice: minus-10 (45 goals for, 55 goals against)
Points percentage rank league wide: 14th

The Flames are a tale of two teams. When the Tkachuk and Gaudreau are on the ice they outscore teams by an absurd 40-10 margin. It is seriously one of the best, most productive duos in the league. They are nearly unstoppable. When those two leave the ice? Things rapidly decline and the Flames get outscored by 10 goals. You obviously do not want to separate Tkachuk and Gaudreau to balance out the scoring because they are too good together. But you are also not going to go very far in the playoffs with only one line that is capable of outscoring the other team.

Boston Bruins

Highest salary cap hits: Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak
Goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither is on the ice:
Minus-11 (41 goals for, 52 goals against)
Points percentage rank league wide:

Scoring depth beyond the top line has been a Boston problem for a couple of years now, and they briefly found a solution to it a year ago when Craig Smith and Taylor Hall slotted in around David Krejci on the second line. But Krejci is gone, has not been replaced, while Smith and Hall have not really had big seasons. The Bruins are a playoff team and have a lot of things going for them (amazing top line, Norris caliber defenseman in Charlie McAavoy, goalie depth) but they really need more around that top line if they are going to hang with Tampa Bay, Florida, and Carolina.

Edmonton Oilers

Highest salary cap hits: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl
Goal differential at 5-on-5 when neither is on the ice: Minus-16 (30 goals for, 46 goals against)
Points percentage rank league wide: 16th

The poster child for laughably top-heavy team that needs depth. When we did our first analysis on this subject the Oilers were at the bottom of the league, literally the worst team when their top two players were off the ice. They have improved, but only marginally, and not anywhere near enough to be where they need to be. They decided Evander Kane is worth the risk and that might help on the ice, but that is probably not going to be enough given the state of the rest of the forwards, defense, and goaltending.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.