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Hart to tell: Crowded NHL MVP race has a dozen candidates

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Taylor Hall had just scored two more goals in another big New Jersey Devils victory when his general manager asked him a simple question.

”I said, ‘Taylor, what’d you get tonight?”’ Ray Shero recalled. ”He goes, ‘We got two points is what we got.’ He had a smile on his face. And I knew he was not going to say two goals. I knew it. We got two points.”

That’s what Shero wanted to hear from the player most responsible for New Jersey’s turnaround from lottery afterthought to playoff contender. Hall is without a doubt the Devils’ most valuable player but he is one of about a dozen candidates for the overall NHL honor. The race for the Hart Trophy is one of the most crowded, convoluted and subjective in decades.

An MVP case can be made for Hall, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Boston’s Brad Marchand, Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The award is given to ”the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Reigning Hart winner McDavid leads the league in points and should take home the player-voted Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player, but the Oilers have long been out of playoff race, hurting his candidacy to some extent and showing how valuable the other contenders are.

Shero said matter-of-factly the Devils ”wouldn’t be in the race” without Hall. The same can be said for the Avalanche without MacKinnon, the Capitals without Ovechkin and the Flyers without Giroux.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

”Offensively, he’s such a big part of how we generate goals,” Ovechkin teammate T.J. Oshie said. ”Whether he’s scoring them or not, when he’s on the ice, he’s a concern for the other team. Where we’d be at? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

Washington won the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive year thanks in large part to Ovechkin after losing Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk from a group that captured the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Ovechkin averages 20 minutes a night, has scored 18.7 percent of the Capitals’ goals and leads the league with 46 while not missing a single game.

Kopitar is another ironman who leads all NHL forwards in ice time, is fifth with 91 points and has the Kings on their way back to the playoffs. GM Rob Blake said Kopitar means ”pretty much everything” to Los Angeles, particularly because the two-way star has done it all most of the season without No. 2 center Jeff Carter.

”When I look at that MVP race and importance to a team, I think Kopi’s head and shoulders above everybody: to do what he’s had to do without the advantage of having Carter come back on the ice after,” Blake said. ”He had to go with Nick Shore and Adrian Kempe on the ice every shift after. He leads forwards in minutes. His defensive stats and some of the advanced stats show the commitment that he’s had, and it’s from day one.”

Two-way play extends to Giroux, who has put Philadelphia on his back at times. Giroux has a career-high 97 points – trailing only McDavid and Kucherov – has won 58.6 percent of faceoffs and run the power play and played the penalty kill for a team that has needed to get wins from four different goaltenders.

”When you talk about that type of an award there’s a lot more to it and G does a heck of a lot more for this hockey team than just score points,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”And believe me it’s hard to score points in this league, so I’m not downplaying that. I’m telling you how important a lot of the other things he provides are to our hockey team.”

MacKinnon has provided a spark with 38 goals and 56 assists for the Avalanche, who are still fighting to make the playoffs.

”He’s a threat to shoot, threat to take pucks to the net, delay and find people,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s got a little bit more change of speed and change of gears on his attack this year.”

Given the success of the Lightning, Bruins, Penguins, Predators and Jets, it’s hard to discount Kucherov, Stamkos, Marchand, Rinne and Wheeler. Even Vegas’ William Karlsson or Columbus’ Artemi Panarin could get some consideration.

While Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff thinks Wheeler has shown his value beyond his league-tying 67 assists, he knows nothing about the Hart is a slam dunk.

”It speaks volumes to the league and to the importance these players have on their team,” Cheveldayoff said.

 

NHL Power Rankings: Blue Jackets entering playoffs as one of NHL’s hottest teams

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As of Monday afternoon the Columbus Blue Jackets have not yet officially clinched a playoff berth, but let’s face it, they are going to be one of the eight teams in the Eastern Conference. It would take a monumental collapse over the next three games combined with the Florida Panthers pretty much winning out for the Blue Jackets to fall out of the top-eight. They are returning to the playoffs, and once they get there they are going to be going in as one of the hottest teams in the league.

Let’s just take a look at what they have done over their past 20 games.

The record: 15-4-1, the third best record in the league during that stretch behind only the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators.

They have outscored teams by a 74-48 margin, a goal differential of plus-26. Only Boston’s plus-28 mark over that stretch is better.

Their 74 goals are third most in the league (again behind only Nashville and Boston). Their 48 goals against are tied for the second fewest (with the Los Angeles Kings) behind only the Anaheim Ducks’ 41.

They are also a top-10 possession team during that stretch, meaning that the process is there along with the results.

Driving the offense over that stretch has been Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Panarin’s 30 points over the past 20 games are tied for the third-most in the league (behind only Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon) while Atkinson has really started to find his game after a tough first half. Panarin is the one that has a chance to be the real difference-maker for this Blue Jackets team.

For as good as they were a year ago during the regular season, they really seemed to lack a true go-to-threat offensively. Coming over in an offseason trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad, Panarin has become just that player for Columbus. He is scoring at a nearly a point-per-game rate, has been one of the best possession driving forwards in the league this season, and is playing some of his best hockey right now.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The two big questions for them: Will Sergei Bobrovsky give them a better playoff performance than he did in his first two postseason appearances (where his save percentage is only .896), and how will their center depth (probably their biggest weakness) hold up against a potential first-round matchup against Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay or Boston (all of which are potential first-round matchups)?

Those are two big questions, but for the moment the Blue Jackets have to be excited about the way their team is playing down the stretch. Right now there are few teams playing better.

That has them in the top-five of this week’s Power Rankings.

On to the rankings.

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — They cannot seem to catch a break on the injury front but all they do is keep on winning. They have to be the favorites in the Eastern Conference right now.

2. Nashville Predators — It remains to be seen how much of an impact Eeli Tolvanen can make down the stretch and in the playoffs but he is certainly an intriguing addition to an already loaded team.

3. Winnipeg Jets — With wins in seven of their past eight games they are starting to get on a roll as the playoffs draw near. The only concern is only three of those recent wins have come in regulation.

The Rest Of The Contenders

4. Columbus Blue Jackets — They are the third place team in the Metropolitan Division, so why are they so high? It’s basically all about the way they are playing at the moment as we just described up above.

5. Washington Capitals —  They lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt over the summer. All they did was come back and win a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have cooled off down the stretch and now Steven Stamkos is banged up. Not great.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — We probably have not paid enough attention to the type of season that Mitch Marner has had. Already 69 points in 79 games to lead the team in scoring. He is 20 years old.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Still 9-4-2 in their past 15 games. You sometimes would not know it listening and reading to what people say about them at the moment.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — There probably wasn’t a more fitting way for them to clinch the Pacific Division title crown than William Karlsson scoring an absolutely unbelievable goal. Everything about this season for them — from the overall team success, to the success of a player like Karlsson, to that goal itself — has been absolutely unbelievable.

The Middle Ground

10. New Jersey Devils — They are on a six-game point streak and seem to have opened up enough of a lead over the Florida Panthers to get back into the playoffs. Taylor Hall is still driving the bus for this group.

11. San Jose Sharks — After winning eight in a row they have hit a little bit of a skid by dropping three in a row. They end the regular season with three in a row at home and then will open the playoffs at home. Good chance to get back on a roll.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Claude Giroux has a pretty strong MVP argument given how much better the Flyers are with him on the ice versus when he is not. They get wrecked on the scoreboard when he is off the ice.

13. Anaheim Ducks — Those wins over Los Angeles and Colorado the past two games have been huge, especially that come-from-behind win against the Avalanche on Sunday night. Not a team that will be a fun first-round matchup. The biggest concern: John Gibson keeps getting hurt. Ryan Miller has been really good in his absence, but Gibson is still the best goalie on the team.

14. Los Angeles Kings — Anze Kopitar has always been one of the NHL’s best two-way players and a great player offensively. The latter part of his game has really taken off this season.

15. Minnesota Wild — Don’t let Eric Staal‘s huge season overshadow the breakout year Jason Zucker has had, already shattering his previous career highs in goals and points.

16. St. Louis Blues — They won six in a row to make up all of that ground then dropped two in a row and were absolutely demolished by the Arizona Coyotes.

17. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson for the rest of the regular season is going to complicate things for their playoff push.

18. Florida Panthers — Do not let anybody ever tell you games in October and November are not important. The Panthers are 20-8-2 in their past 30 games, the third best record in the league during that stretch. Even with that they are still seven points out of a playoff spot.

The Lottery Teams

19. Carolina Hurricanes — Carolina Hurricanes goalies have to be cursed.

20. New York Rangers — Neal Pionk has looked pretty impressive down the stretch.

21. Arizona Coyotes — The final record is going to stink, but they are 16-8-2 in their past 26 games and over the past week have beaten Tampa Bay, Vegas, and St. Louis. The Vegas and Tampa Bay games were on the road, too.

22. Calgary Flames — Their seven-game losing streak finally ended with a win over Edmonton. Still a really disappointing season for a team that entered the year with a lot of hype. Their lottery pick is also going to the New York Islanders.

23. Dallas Stars — After winning another offseason they are going to miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, third time in four years and eighth time in 10 years.

24. Vancouver Canucks — Four wins in a row and five of their past six. You are tanking all wrong! The big news in Vancouver right now is the fact the Sedin era is officially coming to a close with their retirement at the conclusion of the 2017-18 regular season. They were amazing for a long time.

25. Chicago Blackhawks — The Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad trade has to be one of the more underwhelming offseason transactions. At least from a Blackhawks perspective.

26. Edmonton Oilers — The most fitting game of their season was the one where Connor McDavid had three points in the first period to give his team a three-goal lead. Then they gave up seven goals in a row to lose 7-3.

27. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha‘s 24-goal season is one of the few bright spots on this year’s team.

28. New York Islanders — They have given up 18 more goals than any other team in the NHL this season. That is astonishing.

29. Montreal Canadiens — They have not beaten a team in a playoff position since February 3, a win over the Anaheim Ducks. They only have eight total wins against any team over that stretch.

30. Buffalo Sabres — At least they are getting a good look at their future with Casey Mittelstadt showing up and recording a pair of assists in his first two games in the NHL.

31. Ottawa Senators — They have lost seven of eight and given up 32 goals during that stretch.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lundqvist, rebuilding Rangers brace for rough road ahead

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WASHINGTON — Henrik Lundqvist got an early glimpse into the New York Rangers’ rebuilding future.

It’s not pretty.

Lundqvist roiled with frustration after a rookie defensemen left an opponent wide open for a tying goal that led to New York’s 44th loss of a lost season. As Zen-like as he was earlier in the day about the new organizational direction toward youth and away from trying to win now, the face of the franchise for more than a decade was bothered by a mistake caused by inexperience that’s sure to be repeated over the coming years.

”So frustrating,” Lundqvist said.

When general manager Jeff Gorton committed the Rangers to a roster refresh that laid waste to 2018 playoff hopes and set the stage for pain that could last longer than Lundqvist’s prime, the star goaltender battled his own internal conflict. The 36-year-old from Sweden had never played in an NHL game with no chance of making the playoffs.

”As a competitor, you want to win, and I never experienced that before where you’re like, ‘We can’t go for this,”’ Lundqvist said Wednesday, hours after the Rangers were eliminated from contention but several weeks since it became clear they wouldn’t make the postseason. ”It was definitely a new experience. But we’re all on board in this.”

Lundqvist and his veteran Rangers teammates have two choices: get on board or be tossed overboard. When it became apparent this team didn’t have the stuff to compete for the Stanley Cup, Gorton traded captain Ryan McDonagh and forwards Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner before the deadline and set a course for the future.

With three years left on Lundqvist’s contract at $8.5 million per season, how far away that future is remains painfully unclear. After 11 playoff appearances and a trip to the final with Lundqvist as the backbone, the Rangers may not get within reach of the Cup in his prime or even his career – but even current players see the need for change.

”I think it’s good for this organization to get some fresh air and some new young players and go from there,” 30-year-old winger Mats Zuccarello said. ”But it’s going to be a process.”

The process began last summer with the trade of veteran center Derek Stepan to Arizona for the seventh overall pick that turned into Lias Andersson and the selection of Filip Chytil later in the first round. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Brady Skjei are young building blocks already in place, and there’s hope that free agent addition Kevin Shattenkirk and trade acquisition Vladislav Namestnikov become part of the long-term solution.

When the Rangers played at Washington on Wednesday night in their first game with no hope of playoffs since 2004, they dressed 15 players age 26 and younger. New York’s future is its present, which can mean blunders like Neal Pionk‘s missed assignment in front, along with the excitement and potential of prospects like the 22-year-old defenseman, Andersson and Chytil.

”When you see the progress of the group, especially the young players, that gives you hope for what’s ahead of us,” Lundqvist said.

With a full no-movement clause and the equity he has built up with the Rangers, Lundqvist can choose his future. Others, like Zuccarello and coach Alain Vigneault, aren’t so fortunate.

In February, when he announced plans to go young, Gorton didn’t want to answer a question about whether Vigneault would be back next season other than to praise his coaching and say, ”We’re all responsible in some way here for what we’re seeing.” This spring will be the first time in a decade Vigneault hasn’t coached in the playoffs, a tough turn for the 56-year-old who almost certainly will be behind an NHL bench somewhere next season.

”A tough decision was made for the long-term future of this organization and you have to respect it and you have to do your jobs,” Vigneault said Wednesday. ”That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what my staff is trying to do and that’s what the players are trying to do.”

Try as they might to focus on the final few games of the season, the Rangers feel the threat of drastic change that hangs over them. Lundqvist said ”now is not the time” to talk about the bumpy road ahead.

Describing one of the most successful runs in franchise history, Zuccarello used words like lucky, fortunate and even spoiled. In a sport with a salary cap, it’s difficult to remain among the top teams for even this long, and now everyone is bracing for the uncertainty of what’s next.

”This is a new situation for most of the guys that have been here for a while, but you have to buy in, you know?” Zuccarello said. ”It is what it is. It’s nothing you can do about it. … Hopefully I have some good years – five, six good years – left and can be part of the rebuild and come to the good times again.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

NHL GM Meetings Wrap Up: Goalie interference review recommendation; salary cap expected to rise

The NHL’s general manager’s wrapped up three days of meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. and came away with a recommendation for the league’s Board of Governors and the NHL/NHLPA Competition Committee.

As we wrote yesterday, the GMs want all decisions on coach’s challenges for goaltender interference centralized and the final say to come from the Situation Room in Toronto where a retired referee part of the NHL Officiating Management Team will be included in the process.

“At their annual March meeting, that concluded today, the general managers overwhelmingly voted to adopt this change to bring an added level of consistency to goaltender interference rulings and add the input of experienced former on-ice officials to the review process,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “While, since the adoption of the coach’s challenge, there have been relatively few controversial calls on goaltender interference – perhaps half a dozen of approximately 170 challenges this season – the objective is to be as close to perfect as possible. However, goaltender interference ultimately is a judgment call.

“The video review process was designed to enable our referees to determine, upon viewing video replays, whether to overturn their original calls. In the vast majority of cases, their final decision has concurred with the Situation Room’s view.

“The recommended change is intended to help resolve the rare cases in which the Situation Room and the referees might have different opinions of a particular play and is intended to produce more predictability for our players and coaches.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The core of the issue here is still the interpretation of what goaltender interference is. Sure, there’s a standard in place in the rulebook, but clearly that’s become a subjective issue depending on who’s officiating that night’s game. According to Bettman, that retired referee in the Situation Room won’t be the same one every night, meaning different eyes will see different things.

The definition of the call is still what many are seeking. How many NHL head coaches have publicly said they don’t know how goaltender interference is defined these days? Phil Housley, Mike Sullivan and Mike Babcock, for starters.

Should the BOG and the Competition Committee approve the recommendation, it will be enacted by the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

According to the NHL, through Tuesday night’s games there have been 172 coach’s challenges for goalie interference (152 have been initiated by head coaches) with 120 calls being upheld and 52 overturned.

UPDATE: The NHLPA reviewed the recommended changes with the Competition Committee and has given its approval.

Per a release from the NHLPA on Wednesday:

The National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has reviewed the NHL General Managers Recommended Change to Rule 78.7 (ii) Governing Coach’s Challenges for Goaltender Interference with our Competition Committee Members – Michael Cammalleri (Edmonton Oilers), Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs), Kevin Shattenkirk (New York Rangers), Cory Schneider (New Jersey Devils), and Daniel Winnik (Minnesota Wild) – along with many other Players in our Membership.  Based on those discussions, the NHLPA has decided to approve the proposed change.  The rule change will now require further approval by the NHL’s Board of Governors.

“First and foremost, the players want consistency in the application of the rule, and therefore support this proposed change in order to help accomplish that goal,” NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director Mathieu Schneider said in a release late Wednesday.

Offside review change fails to garner support

For the second straight year, the GMs failed to support any decision to revise offside reviews. According to Colin Campbell, head of the NHL’s hockey operations department, there were only 10 GMs were supported a change, with a two-thirds vote needed to move it to the governors and competition committee.

Head hits down, boarding up

George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, told the GMs that hits to the head have declined but hits from behind are increasing.

“Particularly with boarding, we do see a lot of younger players these days that turn their backs to the play at the last second, whether they’ve grown up that way not expecting to get hit, whatever it may be,” Parros said. “Those are the tough ones to determine where the fault lies. If a player can essentially get out of the way before making contact before he’s done seeing the numbers, we take that into consideration.”

Seattle gets same rules as Vegas

As has been said for months by the league, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly reiterated that should Seattle be granted an NHL franchise they will have the same expansion draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights did a year ago. For $650 millon, you certainly would hope so.

Salary cap still expected to rise

The projections of next season’s salary cap ceiling remain on point with the range to land between $78 and $82 million. The current salary cap ceiling is $75 million, with an expected increase of at least $3 million for the 2018-19 NHL season. If the Players’ Associations uses its inflator, the ceiling could increase to $82 million.

Miscellaneous

What do you think about the idea of a period beginning with face-off in the offensive zone should a penalty carry over? The GMs apparently had no appetite for such a change. Nor did they see any need to do something about fights that begin after legal hits.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blues bold to trade Stastny; door open for Tavares?

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Forgive Brayden Schenn. He’s probably new to the St. Louis Blues making courageous-yet-painful trades with the future in mind. After all, Schenn was part of a trade that was more about immediate results (and boy were those results brilliant early on).

Schenn vented upon learning about the Blues sending Paul Stastny to powerful division rivals in the Winnipeg Jets, and you can understand why. Schenn thought it was “crazy” to sell off Stastny, a pending UFA, with the Blues barely out of playoff position.

[A deep look at the trade]

As Mike Rupp and Anson Carter discussed on NBCSN yesterday, it’s definitely the sort of trade that can ruffle feathers in the locker room.

Sure, there might have been some weary grunts in the Blues locker room after seeing a quality center go to the Jets. No doubt about it, the move makes an already-scary Jets team a true frontrunner in a fairly wide-open West.

Schenn’s Blues teammates should probably remind him that this sort of thing has happened before, and if they’re being truly honest, it’s worked out quite well for GM Doug Armstrong.

Let’s consider the moments when the Blues “pulled off the Band-Aid” with players, either through trades or allowing them to walk in free agency, where other teams might have panicked and left themselves in a jam:

Stastny: Look, he’s definitely a nice player, and he’ll probably command less than the $7 million cap hit that’s now split between the Jets and Blues. That said, the aging curve has to be a consideration; Stastny is already 32.

Let’s not kid ourselves, either. The Blues went into the deadline on a six-game losing streak, looking pretty lifeless in getting shut out by the Predators the day before on NBC. If you think this team has a lukewarm ceiling even with Stastny – a player you might not want to keep – then why not get a first-rounder for him rather than letting him leave for nothing?

It becomes even more of a no-brainer when you consider that the Blues can use that free agent money on an upgrade. Darren Dreger speaks of the Blues “going all-in” on John Tavares. St. Louis isn’t necessarily the landing spot you’d think of for the superstar Islander, but who knows? And if they can’t get Tavares, maybe they’re keeping the door open for another nice player to supplement Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Alex Pietrangelo, and Colton Parayko.

Ryan Reaves: Another feather in Armstrong’s cap was getting a first-rounder for a dying breed. It was great value, and also softened the blow of sending a first-rounder to Philly in the Schenn trade.

Kevin ShattenkirkAt the time, the price didn’t seem that great for the big fish of free agency, but the Capitals would beg to differ in hindsight. St. Louis grabbed some interesting pieces or a guy who was going to walk in free agency, and who knows if they land Schenn if there wasn’t a first-rounder coming back here?

Shattenkirk stands as an especially brave choice being that he was still in his prime when the Blues decided he wasn’t quite a core player.

Letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk: People who preach the aging curve saw this coming, and plenty of others did … but Backes was this team’s captain, and Brouwer was that sandpaper guy who could score at a nice clip.

More conservative organizations probably would have re-signed one or both of them, closing the door for future upgrades and young players to emerge at cheaper prices. You could bet the Bruins and Flames would like a mulligan on Backes and Brouwer respectively.

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That’s just a sampling of the moves Armstrong’s made, and some have worked out better than others (the return for T.J. Oshie isn’t the greatest, even if he wasn’t meant to stick around either way).

If you want to look at an organization that, aside from Pietrangelo going fourth in 2008, hasn’t really relied on “tanking” to stay competitive, look no further than the Blues. Sure, it’s been frustrating for fans – and sometimes players like Schenn – to see this team stop just short of finding that extra gear, but they’ve been remarkably spry in staying competitive. It wouldn’t be surprising if they slip into the playoffs, even if they end up being first-round fodder.

Of course, praise for Armstrong will grow much louder if the Blues finally make a leap. Maybe moving Stastny will help them move the needle?

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.