March 9, 2018 | 10:00am ET
BY Hannah Spraker, The Fourth Period
THE WEST SIDE STORY
TORONTO, ON -- The 2018 trade deadline is well behind us, and the home-stretch to the end of the regular-season is the focal point around the NHL.
Looking at the standings today, I doubt anyone thought back in September the Vegas Golden Knights would be THE Cinderella Story to go down in history, the Edmonton Oilers would be nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot, Mike Fisher would come out of retirement, and the majority of the Western Conference would be a fight to the finish for the post-season.
Needless to say, this last month of hockey will be fun to watch. And it’s also time for my outlook of the West from a post-deadline perspective.
Welcome to Smashville
We all knew that Nashville was going to be, and is, a legit competitor for the Stanley Cup this year. After a heartbreaking end to their 2016-17 season in the Stanley Cup Final, they are back with vengeance. Leading the Western Conference, and currently on a 10-game winning streak, the Preds are the most stacked team in the entire league, especially now that they have Fisher back and Ryan Hartman producing right out the gate.
From top to bottom, they are a Stanley Cup roster and they are out to prove it. Their forward depth is in surplus, they have one of the most dangerous bluelines in the league, and Pekka Rinne has been playing out of his mind. As the trade deadline approached, there was really no pressing need to go out and do something, since they already have been dominant in the West, but GM David Poile had a different vision in mind. He went out and gave his fourth line an extra boost to put them overtop.
At first glance, the Preds overpaid for Hartman in a deal that sent a first and fourth round draft pick in this summer’s draft to Chicago, as well as young prospect Victor Ejdsell. But that was never the point for Poile. This team is all in to win this year and Hartman is already fitting in seamlessly, showing a great deal of chemistry with his new teammates. He fits well into the system and looks comfortable where he is playing, already producing in not even a handful of games, and getting the game winning goal against Winnipeg.
Hartman had 19 goals as a rookie last season in Chicago and while he hasn’t exactly been up to par with where he should be, his talents have not gone unnoticed. He is a tough and gritty player with a great amount of skill, and this is exactly what Poile sought out to do. Through this trade, Poile showed the hockey world that this club is all-in. There has been some hoopla on Twitter from fans about this trade, but Poile is the winningest GM in NHL history, so trust the process.
Their problem will be juggling all the depth they have and making roster decisions moving forward. Now that they have Fisher back, they’ve added Hartman and they’ve gotten some guys back from injuries, there’s a bit of line shuffling going on in Nashville, but there are worst problems to have. The Preds have a somewhat comfortable lead in the Central, giving them time to figure it out. They’ve caught fire at the right time in the season and no doubt they will be an absolute force in the postseason. I don’t know what sounds more terrifying, a Stanley Cup celebration in Nashville or in Vegas. #medic
Speaking of Vegas...
What Happens in Vegas... Makes History?
It goes without saying the Golden Knights have been the most entertaining and surprising team of the 2017-18 NHL season. They came like a bat out of hell, stringing together win after win, right from the start.
We all had our doubts; “Neal will be gone by the trade deadline,” “They will burn out, there’s no way they’re making the playoffs.” Around Christmas, fans and media alike began to buy into the fact that this team is good, and they are good right now. They recently set the record for most points by an expansion team in their inaugural season, topping the 1993-94 Florida Panthers who ended with 83 points – and there’s still more hockey to be played. I talked to Neal a bit in Tampa during All-Star weekend, the dude wants to stay in Vegas for the long haul, so keep that in mind as July 1 approaches and before you take to Twitter.
That being said, the narrative of skepticism has changed from “they won’t make the playoffs” to now “they won’t make it past the first round.” Will there come a point where Vegas is seen as a legitimate Cup contender in their inaugural season? Well, on February 20th they were named the favourite to win the Cup by the Westgate Superbook, and are still a top pick to win it all. Their opening odds were 200-1, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up for a Stanley Cup parade down Las Vegas Blvd just yet.
No “One Man Wolf Pack”
I can’t write something on Vegas without at least one hangover reference, right? So what’s the secret to the phenomenon that is the Golden Knights? On paper, this team does not look like a Cup contender when compared to other clubs around the league, so how are they this good?
What’s so interesting about this club’s success is they have no “franchise face” or superstar. Yes, they have Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been lights out for them in between the pipes, but they don’t have a Connor McDavid, an Auston Matthews, a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos. They simply roll four lines that can score night in and night out, and as history has shown us, that kills in today’s NHL. Look at the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions; what do they have? Speed, goaltending, and four lines that can do damage. The workload is dispersed equally and it is no “one man wolf pack,” this is a well oiled machine, and they’ve got great chemistry.
Five players with over 20 goals, the chemistry on this team is something else. Over 180 points combined between the three of them, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith are “the three best friends that anyone ever had” on that top line and doing significant damage. They had really no No.1 centre to start the season, yet Karlsson has taken on that role and he’s running with it. The 25-year-old Swede came out of no where, showing he can be a legit No.1 centre on this team, and produce at an elite level. Last season with Columbus, he had only six goals in 81 games. This season he already has 35 goals and counting, and is over a plus-35 rating, top 10 in scoring in the NHL. It just goes to show that sometimes a guy just needs to be placed in the right role and he can come through big time.
While Karlsson has really taken on the role of number one centre, I think Smith is without a doubt their best complete player. He plays a great two-way game and has really been a dominant factor on that top line, yet doesn’t get the praise that Karlsson does.
Speaking of putting guys in the right roles, Gerard Gallant is the front runner for the Jack Adams. His coaching has been incredible. Not only is his team doing incredibly well in their inaugural season, but they have faced quite a bit of adversity along with way with injuries upon injuries stacking up, and with Neal out, they face even more.
The more and more I watch this team, the more and more I am amazed at the whole organization. From the guys on the ice to coaching, to management and the incredible fanbase in Las Vegas, this has been the dream team, and George McPhee is Shapiro. He built a team that was ready to win out the gate – obviously the rules of the expansion draft this past year aided in that, but no one expected it to so successful, especially without a number one centre or a number one defenseman.
Now as we recently passed the trade deadline, McPhee also had the liberty to explore options with a surplus of draft picks to work with. Vegas was the last team on the table for Erik Karlsson. Could you imagine how dangerous this team would be if that trade came to fruition? While Ottawa decided to keep Karlsson, Vegas went out to get Tomas Tatar instead, in return for a whopping 1st, 2nd and 3rd round pick, but this should pay off for Vegas.
Tatar is a very diverse player, able to play either wing, and can be slotted wherever needed. They were not in the market for a rental, they wanted someone who will be a fit with the organization and help their success moving forward, with Tatar’s age, speed, and talent, he fits that description perfectly. Again, another team who overpaid for a player, but also another team who is going for it this year, so if they can, why wouldn’t they?
As cool as it would be to see, I don’t think Vegas wins a Cup this year. I think they go as far as the second round, at best, and then they’re out.
“Winnipeg is Good”
In the words of the infamous Patrik Laine in his piece for The Players Tribune, “Winnipeg is good”... and ain’t that the truth!
The Jets are having a great year, on pace to break a franchise record of 99 points in a season, and soaring their way into the postseason. Maybe it was all of that Call of Duty the guys have been playing that keeps them on top of their game and their reflexes sharp... Laine recently passed Steve Yzerman to become No.6 on the board for most NHL goals scored by a teenager, so whatever he’s doing is working.
The Jets have never won a Stanley Cup and are adamant on changing that as we saw this team shove all their chips into the middle at the trade deadline. Yet another trade coming at a steep price, and another team willing to take that hit in hopes that the acquisition puts them in the best possible position for the postseason.
The Jets traded a first round pick in 2018, a conditional fourth in 2020, and Erik Foley in order to acquire Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues. Stastny, who waived his no-trade clause has fill that hole on Winnipeg’s third line perfectly, not to mention he’s a veteran with plenty of playoff experience. This is one of those teams that just has no holes up front now, their offensive depth in insane. When your third line in Nikolaj Ehlers, Stastny and Laine, you’re stacked. The perfect playmaker to compliment Laine’s insane skill and shot, Stastny immediately jumped right in to make an immediate impact, and just like that Winnipeg looks a lot more dangerous coming down the stretch, not to mention, Blake Wheeler is having a phenomenal year for himself as well, and should pass his career high in points (78).
Mark Scheifele has had a great year despite injury, and everyone up front is doing their job and proving to everyone in the NHL that they are a force to be reckoned with come playoffs.
Sitting near the top of the league in goals for, scoring is no issue for the Jets, their power play is killer (also near top in the league) and they gave their defense another added boost by trading a fourth round pick in the 2018 draft to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for defenseman Joe Morrow.
Morrow also adds playoff experience to this team as well and that is exactly what Jets management was looking to do at the trade deadline. Head coach Paul Maurice has been rather impressive with how he has formulated these line combinations, really putting emphasis on different styles of play down the lineup.
Another team that can roll four lines night in and night out, the Jets are comin’ in hot as we begin to wrap up the regular season.
A true hero for this team has been Connor Hellebuyck. Standing on his head when need be, he’s hanging up there among the most elite in names in the NHL when it comes to wins, shutouts and save percentage. We’ll likely see Hellebuyck’s name thrown into the conversation for the Vezina.
In for a Wild Ride?
One of the best home teams in the NHL this season, this last month should be one hell of a wild ride if they keep playing at the pace they are. Their schedule could go either way, six of their last fifteen games to be played at home, the Minnesota Wild are going to be scraping for either the third seat in the central or a wildcard spot along with the Dallas Stars and the Colorado Avalanche.
Their trade deadline was rather quiet, waiving Chris Stewart and trading Mike Reilly for a fifth round pick in 2019, I think GM Chuck Fletcher did exactly what could be seen as wise for a GM in his position. Not a popular favourite to win the Cup this season, although they are definitely keeping themselves in the discussion; the Wild are not in desperate need of rebuilding or retooling, so Fletcher simply made moves that better his team both now and in future seasons.
Now with Luke Kunin out for the rest of the season with an ACL tear (ouch), there’s a bottom six role that needs to be filled, and Devan Dubnyk needs to play out of his mind. That’s really a big determining factor for every team as we chip away at these final games: is your goaltender playing at Stanley Cup playoff caliber to not only get you there, but keep you there week after week? Among the NHL’s elite goaltenders, it is no way out of the realm of possibility for Dubnyk to play lights out from now until
The forward depth on this team is sound, and can do doubt score on a regular basis, and they’ve been hot since getting defenseman Jonas Brodin back from injury, so there are no apparent hole on the blue line. This team is good, and they can win, I think again it just goes back to the parity in the league. There are plenty of “good” teams, but the last month of the season always shows those gaps and is unforgiving with even one bad streak, which could make it or break it for a team like Minnesota. They’re on a hot streak now, and they’re heating up at the right time, but they need to keep it up to keep Dallas and Colorado off their backs.
Speaking of goaltenders...
Bish Don’t Kill My Vibe
The Dallas Stars currently sit in a wildcard spot, but Ben Bishop missing time due to a lower body injury could really hurt them. He’s missing two games for sure and will be reevaluated to see what timeline they’re really dealing with. This is not what you want to hear when you’re battling for that final spot in the Central and the competition is fierce. Kari Lehtonen will have to fill in for the time being and while there are worse things, every single game is going to count in these next few weeks and the Stars cannot afford to be without their starting goaltender for an extended period of time, especially with Colorado nipping at their heels in the Central.
So, time will tell, but Bish might kill that playoff vibe if he stays out.
Ricky and the Quack Pack
Sweet jazz band name, huh? The Anaheim Ducks are, in true form, doing what they do in the latter half of the season; catch up. Isn’t this the narrative for the past few seasons? A less than ideal start followed by a sprint to the finish after the trade deadline. Although, one thing will most definitely be different this season; they will not be taking that Pacific Division title once again. For the past 5 seasons, Anaheim has reigned over the Pacific Division, only to discover heartbreak in the playoffs, and more often than not, in a game seven. Maybe finishing second or third in the Pacific will change the story?
No doubt Anaheim’s window is closing, we’ve been talking about it getting smaller and smaller for two seasons now. They have an aging core, and will have to re-tool in a few short seasons. It’s Cup or bust for the Ducks, and they need to do whatever it takes to stay in contention.
I’ve said it before and I stick by my statement: Rickard Rakell has dethroned Scorey Perry, for good. Rakell has been red hot as of late as the Ducks string together win after win, playing alongside apple pickers Ryan Getzlaf and Perry on the top line. On his way to passing his career high of 33 goals, Rakell has been leading the charge when it comes to Anaheim’s scoring production, and he is the only player on the Ducks roster with over 20 goals. Next in line after him? Ondrej Kase, yup, not what we would have expected in September, but they’ll take it, not to mention that Henrique/Vatanen trade proves to be panning out day after day.
It is no secret that the infamous “shut down line” has been on the quiet side this season, although they seem to be picking it up in their past few games. If the Ducks stand a chance in the playoffs, if they make it, they need the Cogliano-Kesler-Silfverberg line to really step it up and start putting up some points. The Ducks absolutely can roll four lines that can score, it is just a matter of who shows up to play, especially when it comes to the postseason.
Anaheim’s defense is really starting to buckle down prove their worth once again. Cam Fowler, after coming of an NHL All-Star appearance last year, is starting to pick up the pace. He’s starting to look like that dynamic 200 foot player once again – probably because these new d-pairings are working out big time for the Ducks, and he’s paired with another dynamic player in Brandon Montour. The pairings are more sound in terms of distributed talent than they have been all season, so hats off to Marcus Pettersson coming in to play alongside Kevin Bieksa.
John Gibson has been playing lights out for the Ducks when he’s healthy. A huge key to a playoff run, is keeping this guy healthy. Yes, Ryan Miller can absolutely come in and steal a game or so here or there, but the Ducks need John Gibson in between the pipes to keep them at their highest echelon on compete.
“Old Guys Rule” T-Shirts will now be sold at Honda Center.
I do not understand the move GM Bob Murray made at the trade deadline, but this is how I imagine the conversation went when the Ducks traded Chris Wagner to the New York Islanders in exchange for Jason Chimera.
Bob Murray: “Hey, let’s trade our promising young 4th line big hitter, who can score, for your 38 year old with 2 goals.”
Garth Snow: “Are you sure?”
Bob Murray: “Yeah, it’ll be great.”
Garth Snow: “Deal.”
Like I’ve said before, Murray is an enigma, you never really know where his heads at or what he is going to do, but this seems odd when you have an aging core and you’re in a win-now mentality. He hit the nail on the head with the Henrique/ Vatanen trade, but this one, not so much.
Sharks Got a Stronger Bite
The San Jose Sharks have been out to prove that they can win a Stanley Cup, and it appeared like that dream was fleeting, but sometimes all you need is a little boost to get the energy, emotion and grit needed to string together some wins... that and Evander Kane.
Kane just made this team a lot more dangerous. The fact that he is a polarizing player aside, I think Kane was a perfect fit for San Jose.
Playing on the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi, Kane is already finding chemistry with his linemates and bringing some sought after speed to the equation. Sixteen points in their first three games together, the Sharks top line has given that team some new life to prepare for the final few, and it’s about time. Without Jumbo Joe in the lineup, the Sharks had a very noticeable gap that Kane could perhaps help bandage up.
Goaltending is going to be a huge factor in San Jose’s success in this next month and the tandem between Martin Jones and Aaron Dell is going to have to be running on all cylinders. Sharks GM Doug Wilson recently announced that he signed Dell to a two-year contract extension, telling NHL.com:
“He’s a very popular guy in the dressing room and we feel that Aaron and Martin give us one of the top goaltending tandems in the League.”
He isn’t wrong, that tandem has proved that they can be lights out for San Jose in do-or-die situations, and if they want to have a fighting chance at the cup, that might have to be the case on occasion.
San Jose gave up conditional first and fourth round picks in 2019 as well as Daniel O’Reagan in order to snag Kane. I honestly thought this was a great trade for both sides and should pan out. Do I think the Sharks will win the Cup? No, but I do think adding Kane to the lineup gives them a fighting chance to potentially be the underdog.
If previous Stanley Cup Champions in the past decade have shown us anything, it is that: If you can get in, you can win the Cup, simple as that. Look at the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. They come out of nowhere with the No. 8 seed and win it all.
(A fantastic instagram page to follow for a good laugh if you don’t already. @overheardla)
If you’ve overheard the Los Angeles Kings could very well make the playoffs, well, you’re right. The Pacific Division is neck and neck and will be until the final few games of the season, with the exception of Vegas. Now that Jeff Carter is back in the lineup, this club could be getting their second wind. One of the best goal scorers out there, and this clubs top six is absolutely deadly when all are contributing.
The Kings stood pat on NHL trade deadline day and it made perfect sense to with Carter returning from injury, although GM Rob Blake did go out and get some more depth in the trade that brought in Dion Phaneuf and Nate Thompson and sent Marion Gaborik and Nick Shore packing for Ottawa. Phaneuf has looked like a different player since coming to Los Angeles and he adds a great deal of leadership to that locker room as well.
The Anze Kopitar everyone knows and loves is leading the charge in sunny Los Angeles, back on track as opposed to an off season last year. He is without a doubt one of the best two-way players in the game and deserves full credit for his Hart-trophy-worthy play and his leadership in his second year as Captain. “Doughty drama” aside, the Kings have one of the strongest bluelines in the NHL, and their schedule is absolutely doable. They 100% can make the post-season, and they should.
Flame Turning to a Flicker?
Calgary, on the other hand, is really struggling without goalie Mike Smith. Arguably the most valuable player for the team; not only is he great in between the pipes but he is great at playing the puck, which is something that the Flames most definitely take advantage of.
Another team with four players with at least 20 goals, it looks like the burning flame is starting to flicker in Calgary as they struggle to snag some wins since losing Smith in early February to a lower body injury, and although he returned to practice, there is still no timetable to return. Even if they do manage to make the playoffs, thanks to superstar Johnny Hockey and the dynamic top six players up front, if they don’t have Smith, they don’t have a fighting chance.
After a rather embarrassing end to last season, the Colorado Avalanche have stepped up their game big time, fighting for that wildcard spot in the Central Division. The big influencers? Their top line. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen account for nearly 40% of the goals scored by the Avalanche this season. MacKinnon in particular is having the year of his career, averaging over a point per game, and nearly 80 points in under 60 games played. Are we forgetting that this guy is only 22? Dude has been an absolute catalyst for this team and most definitely making a sound argument for himself when it comes to the Hart.
In terms of the Avs making the playoffs, it could happen. If they do, I can’t see them making it past the first round. This team just doesn’t match up the much of the competition in terms of depth from top to bottom. As Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers know, you can have a top line that produces like crazy, but that won’t win you a Cup.
Disappointment for EDM
After one hell of a playoff push last season, did anyone expect to see McDavid and the Oilers disappoint like this? Nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot when they were expected to be a sure thing for the post season as discussions began before the start of the season. Due to the lackluster performance, the Oilers became sellers come the deadline, sending Patrick Maroon to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a third round draft pick in 2019 and J.D. Dudek.
Edmonton also dealt Mark Letestu for Nashville’s Pontus Aberg, who quickly traded him to Columbus for a fourth round pick, and Brandon Davidson to the New York Islanders for a third round pick in 2019.
I think GM Peter Chiarelli could have gotten a better return for Maroon, but as I understand it, it was a last minute trade, and Chiarelli just wanted to get it done. My biggest concern for the Oilers isn’t a now-thing, its what they have to carry for quite some time. That Milan Lucic deal is looking pretty atrocious and could hurt the Oilers down the line.
Nevertheless the Oilers can kiss their hopes of a 2018 playoff run goodbye, so no revenge matchup between the Ducks and the Oilers will be had. Is it too soon to hashtag #fixed? Asking for a friend.
Chi-Town Shares the Blues
Doesn’t look like it is going to be in the cards for the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues this season. The Blues could most certainly have a hot streak and string together some wins to potentially snag that wildcard spot in the Central from a team like Dallas, but it seems unlikely with how tight that race is, especially with how they’re playing as of late.
The Blackhawks have struggled tremendously without Corey Crawford and were sellers at the trade deadline, which tells us exactly what we need to know about their future plans. Although this is a team you never like to count out when it comes to the playoffs, it just isn’t going to happen this year. Time to focus on the future and redefine their team.
Tough Luck Canucks
Not that anyone was banking on the Canucks making the post season anyway, but brutal news out of Van City. Brock Boeser suffered a gnarly injury this week after taking a nasty fall, hitting his back against an open door on the Canucks bench and fracturing his lower back. He’s done for the season, after making a very strong case for himself as the next recipient of the Calder Memorial Trophy with 55 points, 29 of which were goals. I think it is safe to say that it is time for the Canucks to make future plans, focus on next season, and get Boeser healthy.
Lost in the Desert
The Arizona Coyotes are dead last in the league with a minus-54 goal differential. Hey, at least they’ve got Paul Bissonnette to lighten the mood.
East or West, Biggie or Tupac?
This next month is going to be interesting to say the least. Lots of potential, lots of talent, and a few injuries, but it’s going to be a dogfight for those last few spots in the West. Let’s see if a Western Conference team can take back the Cup from the East and prove that the West is the best. Well, “let’s do that hockey.”