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Why Predators are so hot right now

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Last night, the Nashville Predators beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1, reaching 100 standings points in just 69 games.

(Yes, there were a lot of “nice” responses on Twitter.)

The reigning Western Conference finalists aren’t just having a strong season, they’re also playing their best hockey of 2017-18 right now. Yes, the Jets were tired and banged up last night, yet it was another instance of the Predators sending a message that they’re for real. A 3-2 shootout loss to the Devils on Saturday ended a 10-game winning streak, but at 11-0-1, they’ve now collected points in 12 consecutive games. They have a very real chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy, as the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 100 points but have played in one more game.

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

So, which players are really driving this success? Let’s start with the obvious.

Pekka Rinne, Vezina frontrunner?

A week ago, it was noted on PHT that Rinne and other goalies were gaining on Andrei Vasilevskiy in the race for the 2018 Vezina. It’s possible that Rinne has emerged as the new leader as of today, and not solely because of Vasilevskiy seemingly hitting a wall of fatigue.

As of this writing, Pekka Rinne sports an absurd record (38-9-4) with a fabulous .929 save percentage. His backup Juuse Saros is no slouch, either, making it quite likely that Nashville’s goalies will collect the William Jennings Trophy this season, too.

Rinne’s frequently received criticism from the fancy stats community, but this season? He’s been unassailable so far:

The season’s far from over, so Vasilevskiy could regain his lead in this race. Either way, Rinne is the top reason why the Predators are running away with the Central Division crown, the first spot in the West, and possibly the Presidents’ Trophy as well.

The return

Before his 2017-18 debut on Jan. 2, a popular refrain was “Imagine how good the Predators will be when Ryan Ellis is back?”

It felt like a dangerous assumption, however, to believe that Ellis would just bounce back from knee surgery. Plenty of athletes require a year or more to recover from certain procedures, and some are never the same.

As it turns out, the Predators have indeed taken off since the underrated defenseman returned to the lineup, as Ellis has been outstanding. The 27-year-old has generated 23 points in 31 games, and he’s been especially impressive lately. Since Feb. 14, Ellis scored 15 points in 14 games, tying Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Anze Kopitar, Artemi Panarin, and Mark Stone during that span

Plenty of options

Ellis is a rising part of such a deep attack that Peter Laviolette is already resting players for the upcoming playoff run.

The 2017-18 season is proving that Viktor Arvidsson is a legitimate top-line forward, as he’s justified the rave reviews the Predators received for locking him down to a long-term, bargain contract that carries just a $4.25 million cap hit. Arvidsson has 16 points during the same month span that Ellis has been on fire for, and he’s on track for another 30+ goal season with 26 goals (not to mention 26 assists).

P.K. Subban is the Predators’ strongest Norris candidate with a brilliant all-around campaign that includes 15 goals and 50 points, but Roman Josi has been as explosive as ever, contributing 46 points in just 62 games.

[Earlier this season, P.K. was an even stronger Norris candidate]

Kyle Turris‘ numbers have dipped a bit since a hot start after being traded to Nashville, yet he’s been a catalyst for two Predators wingers for much of his time there, helping Kevin Fiala (22 goals) and Craig Smith (21) join Arvidsson as 20-goal scorers. Filip Forsberg‘s experienced an up-and-down season, yet he’s not that far behind them with 18 goals.

That’s the thing. The Predators boast the depth that allows for the team to navigate hurdles more comfortably than much of the league. At this current robust level, they’re simply overwhelming opponents.

***

This is all the masterwork of David Poile, who now boasts the most regular-season wins of any GM. In a way, this renaissance truly stretches back to the hiring of underrated head coach Peter Laviolette, who owns the distinction of bringing three different NHL teams to the Stanley Cup Final after last year’s memorable run.

It remains to be seen if Laviolette can help Poile win his first Stanley Cup, but if that happens, there’s a solid chance that they’ll get it done by one heck of a “committee.”

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.

Phaneuf, Senators react to bizarre night and rare mid-game trade

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PITTSBURGH — On the ice and on the scoreboard it was just another night at the office for the 2017-18 Ottawa Senators as they were on the wrong end of a 6-3 decision in Pittsburgh.

It was what was happening off the ice during their latest loss that made things a little more bizarre and, quite honestly, a little more interesting. That was when the Senators were in the process of completing the rare mid-game trade by sending defenseman Dion Phaneuf and forward Nate Thompson to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for forwards Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore.

From an Ottawa perspective a lot of it was about moving salary, while also signaling the beginning of what will likely be a pre-deadline firesale in the middle of what has been a bitterly disappointing season that comes on the heels of last year’s shocking run to the Eastern Conference Final.

[Trade: Senators send Dion Phaneuf to the Kings]

It was easy to tell something was up in the second period when Phaneuf suddenly stopped getting ice time and word started to leak out that something was up. Things really got bizarre when Phil Kessel, one of Phaneuf’s long-time teammates with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told Penguins television analyst Bob Errey (who was positioned between the benches for the game) that Phaneuf was on his way to Los Angeles during the game.

After the game Phaneuf and the Senators all reacted to the trade.

“I want to thank the Ottawa Senators organization for my time with them,” Phaneuf said after the game. “That is first and foremost, I have nothing but great things to say about the city of Ottawa, about the organization, about my time here. It’s disappointing when you do get moved, but with saying that I am very excited about where I am going, to the team I am going to, and about being a Los Angeles King. I am honored to be going there, I am excited about the team they have, where they are in the standings, I am going to go there and do the best I can to help their team.”

Phaneuf joined the Senators in the middle of the 2015-16 season in a trade with the Maple Leafs and spent parts of three seasons with the team, including their playoff run a year ago.

“I will always remember the run we went on,” said Phaneuf. “As a player that is what you play for. You want to have that success, you want to go on those runs. Now I am going to a team that has won, to a team that has had a lot of success. I am very, very excited to be going where I am going. It is a lot to take in right now, standing here there are a lot of different emotions, but I am excited about where I am going. It is an exciting time for me to think about being a Los Angeles King.”

Phaneuf said he was not told immediately that a trade was close to being completed, but that he knew something was going on when he stopped getting ice time.

He said he was finally told between the second and third periods.

“Guys were kind of wondering why he wasn’t playing in the second period so we kind of knew something was up,” said Senators forward Mark Stone. “Unfortunately when your team struggles you lose teammates and changes get made. It’s obviously a tough day for a lot of the guys in this room. I had a real close relationship with Dion.”

Senators coach Guy Boucher said he did not address the trade in the locker room and instead tried to the focus on the task at hand — trying to get a win.

“Everybody knew what was happening, there was no need to address it,” said Boucher. “It’s a business, it’s a tough part of the business. We’re talking about two players I really enjoyed having around, two character people that brought a lot of positive things to us, two players that I really respect. Two guys I have been far in the playoffs with, [Thompson] with Tampa going to the Conference Final there, then same with Dion last year. You develop relationships with people. I really wish those individuals the very, very best. They are tremendous individuals that deserve the best. I thank them for everything they have done, they were tremendous to work with.”

Phaneuf’s teammates seemed to share that sentiment.

“It’s an unfortunate part of the business,” said Senators captain Erik Karlsson, whose future with the team is also in question as the team continues to lose and his long-term contract situation looms.

“He’s a good friend of mine, a good friend of everyone on this team and someone that did really well for us. He is someone we would have liked to have kept if the circumstances would have been different. That is the unfortunate and sad part of the situation we are in, things like this are going to happen.”

Karlsson also talked about how much Phaneuf helped him in his brief time with the team.

“He was great for me coming here from Toronto,” Karlsson said. “He helped me out a lot, not only on the ice but stuff around the locker room, with the guys, with the media. He took a load off my back and I am going to miss that, most importantly I am going to miss him as a friend.”

If there is anyone that can relate to what Phaneuf’s night was like it would have to be Senators forward Matt Duchene.

Duchene’s time with the Colorado Avalanche came to an end earlier this season when he was traded early in the first period of a game.

“I don’t know how much time was left,” said Duchene when asked when he found out about the trade. “I found out right before we went out for the third. It’s very strange. I know what it’s like obviously, for me it was maybe a little crazier, getting trade a minute into the game then I kind of sat there for a while. I know for him it is probably a crazy whirlwind right now but they [Phaneuf and Thompson] are going to help Los Angeles a lot.”

What makes the night even more interesting for Phaneuf is that he doesn’t even have to go anywhere to meet his new team.

The Kings, after losing 7-3 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night, are on their way to Pittsburgh for a game on Thursday night where Phaneuf will join them.

“It is a different situation,” said Phaneuf. “I am not flying anywhere right now to meet them. My gear is staying here, and I am too.”

————

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.

Report: Price is high for Derick Brassard

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If NHL teams want Derick Brassard, they’ve now been warned.

The 30-year-old former first-rounder won’t come cheap. The Ottawa Senators aren’t interested in a bag of pucks.

Instead, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported Monday that Sens general manager Pierre Dorion is asking for a first-round pick, a top prospect and a third piece to sweeten the deal.

On the surface, the ask seems ridiculous. But take into consideration that other GMs are doing the same thing. Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill wants a willing team’s first, second and third born for Evander Kane. Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin wants a fourth born on top of the first three for Max Pacioretty.

Dorion’s ask is just another added to the top of a growing heap.

Dorion was given a renewed mandate to turn the Senators around last Friday when he signed a three-year extension.

The Senators season is one they probably wish ended yesterday, and thus, the team is in sell mode as they try to rebuild.

But there’s a lot on the line for Dorion. His job, of course, is one of those things. But convincing all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson that something is being done to reverse Ottawa’s fortunes is right up there. Ditto with Mark Stone, who is set to become a restricted free agent.

The Senators currently don’t have a first-round pick in 2018. They also don’t have a second-round draft pick in 2018. And they don’t own a third-round draft pick in 2018 either.

The cost of Matt Duchene was high. As was the cost of Brassard, who Dorion is now reportedly shopping. Duchene is starting (maybe) to pan out. Slowly. And getting a good return from Brassard would be Doiron’s way of making amends after trading Mika Zibanejad away for him.

Dorion’s track record isn’t great, but perhaps recouping something for one of his bad deals would be the start of a new direction.

Time will tell if it’s too late for that. And time will also tell if the price is wrong on some of these exorbitant asking prices.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Senators extend GM, hint at rebuild

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The theme of this week might be “fledgling teams acknowledging a need to rebuild, even as they frustrate their fans in other ways.”

After the New York Rangers acknowledged reality while skirting the Alain Vigneault issue, the Ottawa Senators followed suit, but they also made the questionable decision to hand GM Pierre Dorion a three-year contract extension.

(The Senators did part ways with president/CEO Tom Anselmi, however.)

Press releases often read as dry material, yet in each case it was interesting to see the writing on the wall not get ignored. Granted, the word “rebuild” itself didn’t get thrown around; the Rangers website used “retool” while the Senators stated that Dorion would “concentrate on building a foundation of sustainable success.”

“Today’s announcement reflects a renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development,” Owner Eugene Melnyk said. “It may require changes to our lineup. Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind: building an organization that wins – at all levels – year in and year out.”

Of course, it’s difficult to ignore that the Senators must “tolerate pain” that is, in many ways, self-inflicted.

It’s likely a relief that Matt Duchene has been picking up steam lately, yet the goal wasn’t just to add a player, but rather find a catalyst to at least make the playoffs. Ottawa wouldn’t have placed a first-rounder that will either be in 2018 or 2019 on the line if they really expected things to play out this way. The Mika ZibanejadDerick Brassard deal is another significant trade made under Dorion’s watch, and while many lean toward New York’s take since Mika Z is younger, the two centers’ play has been fairly even so far.

When you look at the Senators’ salary structure and see some shaky deals, it’s important to remember that some of those errors were made by previous GM Bryan Murray rather than Dorion, who’s only been in that position since April 2016.

Whether it’s trading Zibanejad or Kyle Turris, it’s important to remember that the Senators’ budget-conscious ways likely play a role in some of Dorion’s decisions, shedding some light on some deals where the Senators come across as if they’re paying a premium for lateral moves.

Even if you’re easy on Dorion, it’s kind of tough to believe that he’s not that far removed from being a finalist for GM of the Year, although hiring Guy Boucher had a lot to do with that.

Most important decisions ahead

One way or another, Senators fans aren’t most interested in whether or not their GM was getting an extension in the near future.

This merely clarifies that Dorion (and of course, Melnyk) will end up being involved in the absolutely pivotal decision regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, whose bargain $6.5 million cap hit expires after 2018-19.

Karlsson’s made no qualms about getting the best deal possible after Drew Doughty hinted at as much. As dire as the Senators seem at times lately, imagining Ottawa without Karlsson is downright frightening. That said, he’s dealt with some significant – and freakish – injuries during his career, and he’s already 27. Re-signing Karlsson likely means rolling the dice that at least a portion of what you’d expect to be a lengthy contract would cover some time past his prime.

Considering that such a deal might carry an AAV above $10M per year, such a contract could be scary.

The Senators have seen long-term pacts go sideways, too. Bobby Ryan‘s $7.25M cap hit runs through (somehow) 2021-22, while they only get slightly more relief with Dion Phaneuf ($7M, ending after 2020-21).

With Karlsson needing a new deal after next season and Mark Stone headed toward RFA status this summer, there are some crucial decisions to be made, and it looks like Dorion will make them, at least alongside his owner.

(Note: we’ve seen GMs and coaches get fired in situations like these, even sometimes in close proximity to extensions, so you can never be totally certain.)

As of this moment, extending Dorion seems like a questionable move, at best.

That said, it’s also questionable to have your GM in a “lame duck” position with an expiring contract in the first place, particularly with some huge decisions looming. If nothing else, the Senators can focus on the Karlsson decision and other choices now, rather than wondering if someone else will be in charge in mere months.

What a mess. Can Dorion clean it up? The Senators are gambling that he can.

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.

PHT Midseason Report Card: Atlantic Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

• Boston Bruins:

Season Review: The Bruins have been the hottest team in the NHL for over a month now. They went into the All-Star break riding an 18-game point streak (14-0-4). They own a 29-10-8 record (66 points) through 47 games. The Bruins are currently second in the division, just five points behind the Bolts with two games in hand. Grade: A.

Biggest Surprise: We all knew that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were good players, but nobody could have expected this kind of dominance from Boston’s top trio. They haven’t only dominated in the offensive zone, they’ve managed to keep teams in check in their own end, too.

Biggest Disappointment: There aren’t many disappointments in Boston this season, but Brandon Carlo‘s second season hasn’t gone as well as his first. He’s averaging almost less than two minutes of ice time per game compared to last year and he has just five assists this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy, buy, buy. The Bruins have a lot of young assets they can use to acquire some help for their playoff push. GM Don Sweeney could be in the market for another scoring forward. Making a splash at the deadline could be the difference between going to the cup final or not.

Second Half Outlook: They’ll suffer a loss in regulation eventually, but they’ve managed to close the gap between themselves and the first-place Lightning enough that they can challenge for top spot in the Atlantic.

• Buffalo Sabres:

Season Review: Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Sabres in the first half of the season. They head into the break with a 14-26-9 record (37 points), which puts them only ahead of the Arizona Coyotes in the standings. It’s another lost year in Buffalo. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: The fact that Evander Kane is having a strong season isn’t a surprise, but he’s on pace to score a career-high 60 points in his contract year. Kane will almost certainly be traded before the trade deadline. Sabres fans will have to hope that he nets them a nice return.

Biggest Disappointment: There are plenty of disappointing things about the Sabres’ 2017-18 season, but the fact that they’ve scored a league-low 114 goals in 49 games. Kane, Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are the only three players on the roster to hit double-digit goals so far this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: There’s no doubt that they Sabres will be in seller mode at the deadline. There’s absolutely no way that they’ll make the playoffs, which means they’ll be trading pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and futures before the end of the month.

Second Half Outlook: With the playoffs a distant dream, the Sabres should focus on finishing as low as they can in the standings, so they can try to land an impact blue liner like Rasmus Dahlin through the draft. Judging on their first half of the season, it won’t be too hard for them to lose during the stretch.

• Detroit Red Wings:

Season Review: The Red Wings season has gone exactly the way most people had anticipated. They aren’t one of the bottom teams in the league, but they’re still 10 points out of a playoff spot. The Red Wings have a 19-21-8 record (46 points) through 48 games. To make matters worse, they went out and signed veterans like Trevor Daley in free agency. It’s time for them to start embracing the rebuild. Grade: D+.

Biggest Surprise: Dylan Larkin is having quite the bounce back season. He currently leads the Red Wings in points with 38 in 48 games this season, which is strong considering he had just 32 all of last year. The 21-year-old appears to be back on the right track. It looks like he’ll turn into the player they hoped he’d be after his strong rookie season.

Biggest Disappointment: Only the Senators, Coyotes and Sabres have found the back of the net less often than the Red Wings in the first half of the season. Justin Abdelkader, Henrik Zetterberg and Larkin have combined to score just 22 goals. That’s simply not enough if the Red Wings want to make a statement in the East.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Wings front office needs to realize that it’s time for them to sell off veteran assets like pending unrestricted free agent Mike Green. It’s time for them to start piling up young assets and draft picks, so that they can start putting together another dynasty.

Second Half Outlook: Their 10 points out of a playoff spot, so they won’t be able to play deep into April, but they aren’t quite as bad as the Buffalo Sabres either. Expect the Red Wings to play spoiler as the season goes on.

• Florida Panthers: 

Season Review: The Panthers have some talent on their roster with players like Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, but it’s clear that they’re still lacking in the depth department. Florida has 19-22-6 record (44 points), which puts them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Trocheck is coming off a pair of back-to-back 50-point seasons, but he’s been on a roll this year. Trocheck is already up to 18 goals and 44 points in 47 games this season. Nobody expected the Panthers forward to score at nearly a point-per game pace.

Biggest Disappointment: Veteran forward Radim Vrbata‘s production has fallen off the map. After scoring 20 goals and 55 points last season, he has just five goals and 13 points in 35 games this season. The fact that they’re lacking in the depth scoring department is partly Vrbata’s fault.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Panthers don’t have much to trade in terms of rentals, but they could look to make a hockey trade or two to improve their outlook going forward. They’ve built a strong core with Huberdeau, Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, but they clearly need more if they want to get back to the playoffs next season.

Second Half Outlook: Like the Red Wings, the Panthers have enough talent not to finish in the basement of the Eastern Conference. They’ll likely be looking to play spoiler for teams hoping to make the playoffs.

• Montreal Canadiens: 

Season Review: The Canadiens have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this season. They had legitimate playoff aspirations at the start of the year, but they’ve fallen totally flat. They don’t have enough scoring, their defense is mediocre and Carey Price can’t do everything himself. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Brendan Gallagher is having a strong bounce back season after dealing with a few injuries over the last couple of years. Gallagher is on pace to score 30 goals for the first time in his career. But even beyond the numbers, he’s continuously been the heart and soul of his team all season.

Biggest Disappointment: Jonathan Drouin was the major acquisition of the offseason and he just hasn’t lived up to the hype. He’s still young, but his transition to center has been slow, painful and filled with mistakes. Drouin is far from the only disappointment on the roster, but he’s the one they were counting on to be their next local superstar. There’s still time for him to turn it around, it just hasn’t happened as quickly as most expected.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Marc Bergevin will surely look to sell off expiring contracts like Tomas Plekanec, but it sounds like they could be looking to shake things up in the locker room, too. Max Pacioretty‘s name has come up in trade rumors. If they make that move before the deadline that would be a huge wake up call to the players in the locker room.

Second Half Outlook: The Canadiens don’t have much coming through the pipeline, so they need to focus on being as bad as they can be in order to increase their odds of winning the lottery. They’ll be competitive some nights because of Price, but giving Antti Niemi a few more starts down the stretch could be a subtle way to tank.

• Ottawa Senators:

Season Review: Oh how things can change quickly in the NHL. The Senators were a goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but they’ve fallen off the map completely in 2017-18. Ottawa’s 39 points put them just two ahead of the lowly Sabres, who are in the basement of the Eastern Conference. All this talk of trading Erik Karlsson certainly hasn’t helped their team. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: Mark Stone has put up a pair of 60-point seasons in his career, but he’s rolling at exactly a point-per-game pace through 44 games in 2017-18. The 25-year-old’s play is definitely the biggest positive to come out of this season for the Senators even though he’s banged up right now.

Biggest Disappointment: The Matt Duchene trade simply didn’t give the Sens the shot in the arm they were looking for. To make matters worse, the Avalanche and Predators have been rolling since the three-way trade went down earlier this season. This whole year has been a colossal disappointment in Ottawa, and the trade that was supposed to fix everything hasn’t done that at all.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Like most of the other teams in the division, the Senators will look to be sellers at the trade deadline. It’s also important to keep things in perspective. As much as their season has been a disappointment, they’ve still managed to get top prospects Thomas Chabot and Colin White some playing time. They need to find a way to add youngsters to their up-and-coming group.

Second Half Outlook: Well, when you’re 17 points out of a playoff spot it’s easy to see what your second half will look like. One thing they should try to do between now and the end of the season is make Erik Karlsson happy again. They’ve done a horrendous job of doing that since October, so it’s time for them to admit their mistakes and get him signed to a long-term deal. Or else, you might as well blow this team up.

• Tampa Bay Lightning:

Season Review: After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have asked for a much better first half of the season. Sure, they might be slumping a little bit heading into the All-Star break, but that’s bound to happen to every team over an 82-game season. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the gang have emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They have the best record in the NHL at 34-12-3, which gives them a grade I could’ve only dreamed about when I was in school. Grade: A+.

Biggest Surprise: Sergachev was made a healthy scratch in the last two games before the break, but he’s clearly been the biggest surprise on the team. When the rookie blue liner was acquired from the Canadiens last summer, no one expected him to play such a big role on this season. The 19-year-old has eight goals and 27 points in 47 games during his first full NHL season. Honorable mention to Yanni Gourde.

Biggest Disappointment: They have the best record in the league, they’ve scored the most goals in the league and they have the best goal differential in the league, so writing down a disappointment seems unnecessary.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Most people will say that the Lightning need to be buyers. Sure, they could add a complimentary piece or two to their roster, but they don’t have to go overboard. Their team is clearly good enough to make a Stanley Cup run if they stay healthy, and making a major trade might disrupt chemistry. GM Steve Yzerman should be looking to make small tweaks to his roster, nothing more.

Second Half Outlook: As good as they were in the first half, they need to make sure they keep rolling from February through the end of the season. They can’t allow themselves to get complacent. Getting home ice advantage throughout the playoffs should be the goal. They’re definitely talented enough to get the job done.

• Toronto Maple Leafs: 

Season Review: The Leafs came out of the gate like gangbusters at the start of the season. They were scoring goals by the truckload and they were skating everybody out of the building. They looked like they were going to give the Lightning a run for the division crown, but things haven’t materialized that way. Their offense has dried up in recent weeks and many of the players they were counting on to produce haven’t done that. The injury to Auston Matthews earlier this season seemed to have set them back. Despite all that, they are comfortably in a playoff spot with a record of 28-18-5 (61 points). Grade: B.

Biggest Surprise: It’s not necessarily a surprise, but Morgan Rielly has been a real positive on a team that is clearly lacking good defensemen. The Leafs blue liner has taken another positive step in his development and that’s led him to tallying more points. The 23-year-old is already up to 31 points through 47 games this season (his career high is 36). They need him to get healthy.

Biggest Disappointment: The Leafs’ play in their own end still isn’t good enough to be considered an elite team in the league or even the conference. They rank in the bottom half of the NHL in goals allowed, and that’s something that will have to change if they’re going to compete with the Bruins and Lightning.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They have to go out and find themselves another competent, puck-moving defenseman. They clearly have enough offense to get the job done, now they have to find a way to land a blue liner that can play top-four minutes. Making that kind of trade is difficult during the season, but they’ll need to do it if they want to make it out of the first round.

Second Half Outlook: Babcock and his team will never admit this, but they’ve pretty much wrapped up a playoff spot. Now, they’ll have to focus on getting their game in order before the postseason hits in April. Whether they face Tampa Bay or Boston, they’ll have their hands full. And as bright as the future is, another first-round exit would be disappointing.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.