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A Look at the NHL as We Pass the 1/4 Pole

By Scott Lowe -

( photo)

For followers of the National Hockey League, Thanksgiving weekend traditionally has been the first measuring stick by which coaches and teams are judged. As team pass the season’s quarter pole, there is a substantial enough body of evidence for fans to officially panic, presumed pretenders to be considered as real contenders, general managers to make tough decisions in hopes of saving their seasons and early flashes in the pan to show their true colors.

Of course, with GMs of underachieving teams understanding that they have fewer than 75 percent of their games remaining to right their ships, Thanksgiving also has gotten the gut-wrenching reputation as being D-Day for coaches of under-performing teams.

So, while many of us are spending time giving thanks and surrounded by friends and family this time of year, usually one or two NHL coaches ends up cleaning out their offices. Or a coach may be left to call his own cab as the team bus heads off to the airport (see: Gallant, Gerard – November, 2016).

This year was no different as two organizations with tons of young talent and high expectations moved on from their head within the last 10 days – albeit for very different reasons.

For many it was surprising to hear that future Hall-of-Fame coach and Stanley Cup-winner Mike Babcock had been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But those who follow the league closely understand the media circus that is Toronto professional hockey and realized the team couldn’t continue to plod along as a borderline playoff contender – or worse – with players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Mitch Marner on roster.

While it seemed pretty clear to outsiders that Babcock’s defensive-oriented, old school approach was not working with the current group of players, those sentiments were substantiated when stories emerged of cruel mind games from inside the locker room in the wake of his firing.

That leads us to the case of Bill Peters, a Babcock disciple, who also is out of a job in Calgary after a former player tweeted about racist remarks that Peters supposedly made during his time as a minor-league coach. No organization is going to mess around with a situation like that – rightfully so – and Peters ended his tenure with the Flames by “resigning.”

It’s likely, however, that the timing of the allegations simply fast-forwarded a process that was playing out as a Calgary team with superior young talent such as Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm had gone from being the top point-getter in the Western Conference in 2018-19 to a 13-12-4 record this season and a spot outside the wild-card race.

Obviously the Flames and Maple Leafs would be considered two of the league’s biggest disappointments to date. The Leafs have turned their play up a notch since the firing, going 4-0-1 to move into the third Atlantic Division playoff spot at 13-11-4. They are one point behind second-place Florida in a division that was the NHL’s toughest a year ago but now features just one team (Boston) in the top 12 of the league standings.

There are several examples of teams making midseason – or even late-season – coaching changes that have produced miracle turnarounds. The most recent, of course, is the hiring of Craig Berube last January and the St. Louis Blues’ run from last place in the league to the Stanley Cup.

The Washington Capitals turned around their fortunes with the Thanksgiving hiring of Bruce Boudreau in 2007, going from last place in the Southeast Division to a division championship and Alex Ovechkin’s first-ever playoff appearance the following spring. Since that hiring the Caps have only missed the playoffs once and ultimately captured their first Stanley Cup in 2018.

And never one to be completely satisfied, Lou Lamoriello was unhappy with the play of his first-place Devils with just eight games remaining in the 2000 season. They had lost 12 of their previous 17 games, so Lamoriello fired head coach Robbie Ftorek and replaced him with Larry Robinson. Three months later Robinson lifted the Stanley Cup.

With that in mind, here is a look at the NHL season to date, starting with the disappointments.


2019-20 NHL Disappointments: Who is on the Hot Seat?

Since we’ve already covered the two disappointments that have changed coaches, here is a look at some other underachievers:

Tampa Bay Lightning – After a record-tying 62-win, 128-point season in which they won the President’s Trophy and outscored their opponents by more than 100 goals, the Lightning’s slide started with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of last year’s playoffs and carried over into this season. Tampa Bay currently is 12-9-3 with 23 points and 24th in the overall league standings. The Lighting are sixth in the Eastern Conference wild-card race, six points out of the top spot and seven points out of third in the Atlantic. John Cooper has become one of the most successful and respected coaches in the NHL, but after failing to get past the conference finals with strong teams, last year’s sweep and this year’s start, you wonder if Tampa’s star-filled lineup featuring names like Kucherov, Stamkos, Vasilevskiy, Hedman and Point might need more than a mild-mannered guy who is considered player’s coach to light a fire at this point.

Nashville Predators – Considered a Stanley Cup contender just about every year but only able to get over the hump and reach the finals under current head coach Peter Laviolette in 1997, Nashville has struggled to a 12-10-4 start and 28 points this season. That leaves them fifth in the Western Conference wild-card race, five points behind surging Dallas, which sits atop the wild-card standings. Laviolette is another respected coach, but has a reputation of being less of a player’s coach and a little more hard-nosed than Cooper. He seems to be able to turn teams fortune’s around quickly, but at some point the message wears thin with his players. Has that time come in Smashville? That’s hard to say, but to be fair the team has really done nothing to solidify the goaltending situation with Pekka Rinne’s career clearly on the decline. The Preds have a reputation as a strong defensive team, but that hasn’t been the case this year. And the team doesn’t have the offensive star power to run and gun with teams like Edmonton, Colorado, San Jose, St. Louis and Dallas. Something may have to give soon, and you can’t fire the team.

Vegas Golden Knights – Another expected Cup contender, Vegas is third in the Western wild-card chase at 13-11-4. Despite the disappointing start, the Knights are one point out of third in a less-than-stellar Pacific Division and three out of the top wild-card spot. Gerard Gallant is not in trouble here – he’s simply done too much to put the franchise on the map and is too popular – but something is missing on the back end. At 35, Marc-Andre Fleury probably can’t be counted on to play 70 times and be at the top of his game like in years past, and backup Malcolm Subban has been inconsisent. Not having Nate Schmidt for a good chunk of the season’s first quarter didn’t help, and although Schmidt is a steady and strong-skating d-man, is he really the type of No. 1 defender who is going to help a team win a Stanley Cup? Vegas’ high-pressure attack that caught teams off guard early in the team’s existence may have hidden some defensive shortcomings, but the league seems to have caught on to Gallant. There is plenty of forward depth here to make a run. If Vegas can keep Fleury fresh, add someone on the back end at the deadline and find its way into the postseason, the Knights still have the potential to be very dangerous.


The Pace-Setters

These teams were strong out of the gate, but have slowed their pace for one reason or another:

Buffalo Sabres – It couldn’t happen again could it? Buffalo set the pace out of the starting blocks once again by going 8-1-1 to open the campaign, but have gone just 4-9-4 since and are 12-10-5 and four points out of the top Eastern Conference wild-card slot. Led by Jack Eichel, who seems to be coming into his own as a consistent top-tier NHL offensive producer, and a young and swift-skating defensive corps, the Sabres are right in the playoff mix, just a point out of third in the Atlantic Division. The team lacks offensive depth, and the goaltending duo of veteran Carter Hutton and youngster Linus Ullmark is dependable, but neither is the type of top-tier guy to lead a Cup run. Assuming teams like Toronto and Tampa are going to pick up their play and if Florida proves to be for real, it will be tough for Buffalo to find its way to the postseason.

Carolina Hurricanes – Carolina had a storybook 2018-19 season that rejuvenated its fan base, enraged Don Cherry and included a first-round, seven-game playoff upset of the defending Stanley Cup champs – and a trip to the conference finals. The Canes picked up where they left off by starting 7-0 and 11-1-0 this season, but are 5-9-1 since and are in fourth place in the league’s toughest division, the Metropolitan. Dougie Hamilton is off to a tremendous start. He and Jacob Slavin anchor an underrated defensive unit. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov are budding offensive superstars. The team misses Justin Williams’ leadership, but has key depth players such as Jordan Staal, Warren Foegele, Ryan Dzingel and Nino Niederreiter. Carolina has offensive talent and is defensively responsible. The Canes appear to be a playoff team, but may lack the goaltending needed to be a true title contender.

Colorado Avalanche – The Avs were our readers’ pick to win the Western Conference and challenge the Capitals, Burins or Lightning for the Stanley Cup. Their 7-0-1 start didn’t disappoint, but injuries to top forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who combined for 23 points in 21 games before being knocked out of the lineup, have slowed Colorado a bit. Still, the Avs have gone 9-8-1 in their last 18 contests and are right in the thick of the playoff race at 16-8-2, good for seventh overall in the league and second in the Central Division – six points behind the defending-campion Blues. Nathan MacKinnon was the NHL’s second star of the month in November and is fourth in the league with 42 points. Andre Burakovsky and Jonas Donskoi have been bumped up to the first line and produced over a point per game. That experience will benefit the team as it returns to health, and rookie defenseman Cole Makar has emerged as a Calder Trophy frontrunner and legit Norris contender. He was the NHL Rookie of the Month in November with 16 points in 14 outings. Philipp Grubauer is back in goal after battling injury, and if he can return to last year’s postseason form, this team should be one of the favorites to play deep into the spring.


Surprise, Surprise!

These teams may have been overlooked before the season, but not anymore:

New York Islanders – It’s the same old Barry Trotz story. The man can flat-out coach, and may be even better when he has less talent to work with. The Islanders have a solid, but not spectacular top six up front. Their bottom six may be one of the best groups in the game. The defense has zero household names, but also no weak links. Put it all together with Trotz’s preferred style of defensively responsible hockey, and what do you have? A Stanley Cup contender. With Trotz at the helm and a solid group of veterans, New York was always considered a likely playoff team. Losing Vezina-finalist Robin Lehner appeared to be a tough blow, but veteran Semyon Varlamov has come in and teamed with Thomas Greiss and a solid defensive scheme to provide Trotz with a dependable tandem in net. Amazingly, the Isles put together a team-record 17-game point streak at one point, but even more amazingly they are still seven points behind the red-hot Capitals in the Metro at 17-5-2. With their coach, lineup and formula, New York isn’t going away anytime soon. If the Isles can come up with some timely depth scoring in the postseason, look out.

Philadephia Flyers – Philly put together the top month of November in the NHL, quietly going 10-2-4 – the team’s fourth 10-win month in the last decade – to move into third place in the Metro at 15-7-5 and give that division three of the NHL’s top-six teams to date. Carolina’s 16-10-1 record gives the Atlantic four of the top nine overall clubs, with Pittsburgh holding down the No. 12 spot. Pittsburgh and Carolina currently hold down the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots. But back to the Flyers. Stanley Cup-champion Matt Niskanen has come in and solidified a young defensive group, allowing Ivan Provorov to continue his rapid development. Provorov had 10 points in November, and while everyone is familiar with names such as Giroux and Voracek, those two ranked second and fourth on the team in November scoring. Sean Couturier led the way with 15 points, followed by Claude Giroux and Travis Konceny with 12 apiece, Jakub Voracek with 11 and Oskar Lindblom/Provorov with 10. Scoring aside, goaltending has long been the Flyers Achilles heel. Youngster Carter Hart emerged to solidify the team’s netminding a year ago and has eased the burden on vet Brian Elliott this season. Philly scored two or fewer goals in seven of its 16 November games, so the hot streak has been keyed by the goaltending. Hart was 6-2-2 with a 1.91 GAA and .927 save percentage for the month, while Elliott with 4-2-2 with a 2.38 GAA and .926 save percentage. Philly has become famous for putting together incredible in-season hot streaks in recent years, but fading down the stretch. This team is capable of making the playoffs if the goaltending and defense hold up, and it seems that this group has a much higher likelihood of making that happen that the recent Flyer teams.

Edmonton Oilers – Panned as a team that underachieves every year, Edmonton rode the red-hot stick of newly acquired forward James Neal and his seven goals in the season’s first four games – along with the superstar duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl – to a blazing 7-1-1 start. While the Oilers –and Neal –have cooled a bit, Batman and Robin have not. McDavid leads the league in scoring at 19-32-51, and Draisaitl is second with 18-32-50. Their linemate Zack Kassian also has chipped in nicely with 9-10-19, but of major concern for Edmonton has to be that they have only outscored their opponents by seven goals to date and that only the three first-liners mentioned above and depth forward Matt Benning are plus players among the regulars. James Neal is a stunning minus-14. The goaltending duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith has been solid, while Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are strong on the blue line. Edmonton can score with anyone, but is that the recipe for postseason success? The expectation is that the Oilers would slow down considerably after the fast start, but they are hanging in there at 10-8-2 since going 7-1-1 and currently are fourth overall in the NHL and looking like a legit playoff team.


Teams On the Rise

After less-than-spectacular starts to the season, these teams have surged into the playoff mix: 

Dallas Stars – A stingy defensive team with great goaltending and some star power up front in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars figured to be a top Cup contender after giving the Blues all they could handle in the playoffs last year. But Dallas struggled to score goals early this season despite the efforts of Vezina-worthy netminder Ben Bishop, causing head coach Jim Montgomery to call out the team’s offensive leaders publicly. Last year, ownership called out the team’s top players, and the Stars’ season turned around. Well, it’s like déjà vu all over again. Since Nov. 10 when Montgomery made his comments, Dallas has gone 9-0-1 to improve to 15-10-3 overall and move into the top Western wild-card spot. The Stars are tied at 33 points with third-place Winnipeg in the Central Division. With Bishop in goal, talented forwards Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz joining veteran newcomers Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry to provide support up front and stud blue-liners John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen, Dallas figures to remain in the hunt deep into the spring.

Winnipeg Jets – After a summer of turmoil surrounding the re-signing of young superstar forward Patrick Laine and departed star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien leaving behind a depleted defensive unit, not much was expected of the Jets. So it wasn’t surprising to see Winnipeg enter the month of November at 6-7-0, but a 10-3-1 month has the surging Jets in third place in the Central Division at 16-10-1. This team entered the 2018-19 season considered a Stanley Cup contender, but disappointed last season amid public concerns about Laine’s commitment and work ethic. The youngster has bounced back to record a point a game in 25 contests this year and lead the team in scoring, becoming more of a playmaker than a sniper.  Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele give Winnipeg a top-three as strong as most in the league, but opposing teams can’t just focus on stopping those three as Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers each have more than 20 points and eight Jets have at least 11 points. The defensive unit is still a work in progress, but it has been steady and basically has all plus players thanks to the support provided by top-tier netminder Connor Hellebuyck (13-7-1, 2.23, .933). While likely not a Cup contender, the Jets should be in a dogfight all year to earn a bottom-end Western playoff berth.

Florida Panthers – Head coach Joel Quenneville has brought Stanley Cup pedigree and a new culture to Florida that the players have embraced. High on speed and skill, this team can score. The Panthers’ 94 goals scored rank third in the East, but their 93 allowed are third-worst. Sergei Bobrovsky was brought in to prevent this, but by all accounts he has yet to hit his stride. Watch out if he does as Florida is 13-8-5, good for second place in the Atlantic Division, and the Panthers are 12-4-5 after opening the season 1-4. Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trochek and Mike Hoffman will continue to put up numbers, and Brett Connolly is having a career year after bringing his Stanley Cup experience from Washington to Florida. Veterans Aaron Ekblad, Anton Stralman, MacKenzie Weegar and Keith Yandle anchor a defensive group that needs to be better in front of Bobrovsky, but if Bob can find his game the Panthers could be a team no one wants to face in April.

San Jose Sharks – Losing Joe Pavelski was a concern, but with postseason superstar Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier up front; battled-tested veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau providing depth along with players like Kevn Labanc, Melker Karlsson and Barclay Goodrow; and a blue line that includes Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks ice a lineup that stacks up with just about any in the league. Unfortunately, the team’s fortunes seem to fluctuate along with the up-and-down play of enigmatic goaltender Martin Jones. When Jones is on top of his game, as he was at times during the playoffs last year, San Jose can compete with anyone. It remains to be seen if he can carry a team to the promised land, but the Sharks are looking strong again after a slow start. San Jose opened the year by going 0-4 and found itself at 4-10-1 on Nov. 2 after a five-game losing streak, but the Sharks have gone 11-2 since then and are in third place in the Pacific Division at 15-12-1.

Arizona Coyotes – The upstart Coyotes are three points behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division at 15-9-4 and rank eighth overall in the NHL. Darcy Kuemper is emerging as an elite goaltender; he opened the season by continuing a streak of allowing two goals or fewer and increasing it to 13 games before a 4-2 loss to the Islanders Oct. 24. For the year, Arizona’s top netminder is 10-6-2 with a sparkling 1.97 GAA and a .935 save percentage after posting a strong 27-20-8 campaign with a 2.33 GAA and .925 save percentage a year ago. Antti Raanta provides a solid veteran presence as Kuemper’s backup and gives the Coyotes one of the league’s top netminding tandems. The forwards are deep, if not spectacular, with a strong contingent of two-way players along with a sprinkling of high-end skill guys such as offseason acquisition Phil Kessel, Nick Scmhaltz, Clayton Keller and Conor Garland. Veteran two-way forward depth is provided by Derek Stepan and Michael Grabner, with the steady Oliver Ekman-Larsson teaming up with veteran Alex Goligoski and up-and-coming youngster Jakob Chychrun to form a solid core on the blue line. No player has more than 20 points, but 11 have scored in double digits. This team plays a style that can give a more talented team fits in the postseason and should be a serious playoff contender, but it probably needs to find a bit more offensive firepower to make a deep run.


Treading Water

Hanging around and likely to be in the mix:

Pittsburgh Penguins – The Pens currently find themselves in the second Eastern wild-card spot as the tough Metro Division would have five playoff teams if the postseason started today. Pittsburgh has had a glut of injuries to key players, including superstar Sidney Crosby. If the Pens hang around until Sid the Kid is back, it’s a good bet we’ll see Pittsburgh in the playoffs again. The organization is so strong and deep, much like their hometown brethren Steelers, that it’s just plug and play, rinse and repeat and they’re always in the mix.


Ahead of Schedule

These teams have a mix of youth and stars and are already starting to make noise:

Vancouver Canucks – This team is worth the price of admission. Elias Pettersson is one of the game’s up-and-coming superstars and Quinn Hughes, brother of Jack, can really fly on the back end. Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser are extremely talented, youthful forwards, and J.T. Miller does all the little things championship teams need while also putting up points. Jacob Markstrom seems to have the talent to be an elite netminder, but needs to be more consistent. Alexander Edler is a very solid veteran d-man, and there is enough veteran presence on this team that the Canucks could sneak into the playoffs out of a not-so-strong Western Conference. At 13-11-4 they currently are in the second wild-card slot.

New York Rangers – Led by offseason pickup Artemi Panarin, the Rangers are on a nice little run and have been closing in on the second wild-card berth out of the East. And they’ve done it with talented forward Mika Zibanejad out of the lineup for several weeks. Rookie Adam Fox is a future star on the blue line, and free-agent pickup Jacob Trouba continues to progress toward being an elite defenseman. Defenseman Brady Skjei also is locked up for the long term to give New York a strong and young core defensive group that also includes power-play quarterback Tony DeAngelo. First-round draft pick Kaapo Kakko seems to be a can’t-miss prospect, Ryan Strome can play anywhere in the lineup and produce, Pavel Buchnevich is coming into his own offensively and there is some grit and sandpaper mixed in. This should be a fun team to watch over the next few years.


Cream of the Crop

Through the first quarter of the season, and over the past several years, these teams have proven to be the three odds-on favorites to end up in the Stanley Cup Finals. St. Louis and Boston met in last year’s epic final series, while Washington won its first Stanley Cup in 2018.

St. Louis Blues – They are the champs until someone knocks them off. The Blues are a remarkable 17-5-6 – tops in the West and third overall in the league – right now with a plus-11 goal differential despite a glut of injuries that has guys like Nathan Walker and Troy Brouwer currently in the lineup. One of the league’s top defensive units only got better with the addition of Justin Faulk. You won’t find a deeper or more versatile blue-line group then Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Carl Gunnarson, Jay Bouwmeester, Faulk and Vince Dunn. Jordan Binnington has proven to be no fluke in goal, and it is his play in combination with that of the superior defensive group that allows St. Louis to continue winning despite the long-term loss of sniper Vladamir Tarasenko as well as injures to Alex Steen and Sammy Blais. No matter who is in the lineup, the Blues continue to win and should be there right until the end. The main question – as with any team attempting to repeat – is whether the grind of last year’s run will ultimately catch up with them.

Boston Bruins – The one thing that all three of the top contenders has in common is that no matter who gets hurt and who is plugged in, they seem to find a way to keep winning. The Bruins have done it this year despite being without key players David Krejci, Torey Krug, Jake DeBrusk and David Backes for stretches. The top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand is as potent as any in the NHL. Pastrnak has 25 goals in 27 games and 42 points, to rank fourth in the league – one point behind third-place Marchand. Bergeron is the playmaker and the two-way glue that makes that line great. Tuuka Rask is as good as any goalie in the league when on his game, and if he struggles Jaroslav Halak is as strong as any No. 2. The B’s have superstar power on the blue line with Krug, Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara and a solid supporting defensive cast that goes seven or eight players deep. Boston is currently tied with the Capitals at the top of the league and conference standings with 43 points (19-3-5) and leads the NHL with a plus-34 goal differential. The Bruins, who recently dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to Washington in one of the best games of the year, are 8-0-2 in their last 10.

Washington Capitals – Just like Boston and St. Louis, the Caps have won without key players in their lineup. They opened the season missing reliable defenseman Michal Kempny, who was a key to the team’s Stanley Cup run and missed last year’s playoffs, as well as talented playmaking forward Evegeny Kuznetsov, who was serving a three-game suspension. More recently they have played for a stretch without injured top-six forward and special-teams leader Nicklas Backstrom, while speedy third-liner and PK specialist Carl Hagelin has missed more than 10 contests. Still, the Caps find themselves tied with the Bruins at the top of the league and conference standings at 19-4-5. At one point Washington recorded a point in 13-straight games, going 11-0-2 in that span. The Caps have won three straight and are 6-2-2 in their last 10. John Carlson, who just missed being a Norris Trophy finalist last year, is a frontrunner for this year’s award thus far and leads the league’s highest-scoring team with 37 points through 28 contests. Alex Ovechkin continues to amaze, ranking second in the league with 20 goals, but the Caps’ biggest improvement has been the play of their reconstructed fourth line. Defensive depth is a bit of question with Washington, which still has Stanley Cup-winner Braden Holtby in goal.


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