Last night we talked about the leaders of the Eastern Conference pack. But barring the league being dipped in amber for permanent preservation, the seven teams on the outside looking in will have a say in the final disposition of playoff contention.
Some will stand pat, correctly guessing that a run is either out of the question or can be accomplished with talent already on the roster. Some will sell, sell, sell. And a few will make acquisitions to get into the post season.
Below the fold we'll break down the bottom seven of the Eastern Conference and see who's poised to challenge and who should be mortgaging today's assets in exchange for future glory.
Toronto Maple Leafs - Holders - The tandem of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel are paying dividends for Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. Their selection to the All-Star Game along with Dion Phaneuf illustrates the youthful hopes of Burke in rebuilding the storied and Cup starved franchise. And while the addition of a center capable of making plays would help, their biggest weakness is when down a man.
They have an abysmal penalty kill. Too often they allow their goalies to get screened and even when they aren’t, the net minders are failing to make the necessary stops on the man advantage. Going deep into the post season is dependent on minimizing the opposition’s scoring chances and capitalizing on your own. With Kessel and Lupul providing the scoring punch the latter half is under control.
To solve the first part of the equation, time may be the best remedy. The Leafs are very young, especially on defense. Seasoning will enable them to improve their instincts on the penalty kill. It’s somewhat the fault of Wilson that he hasn’t adjusted their schemes to enable his personnel to excel in the role. Right now Toronto is outside the playoffs looking in. But with the same 55 points as the Caps, Panthers and Devils, they are very much in the thick of the race for one of the final two playoff berths. Post season experience would help elevate the youngsters’ games.
Winnipeg Jets - Holders - The relocated Atlanta Thrashers have had an uneven season, scoring too little and yielding too much. But they linger around the periphery of the post-season, capable of sneaking in but likely to be shown the exit quickly.
The biggest problem Winnipeg faces is the unusual splits between home and road play. Their 32 points at home is solid. But with just 18 points outside of Manitoba they’re tied with Buffalo for the second worst in the Conference. Such are the travails of a relocated franchise facing longer travel to opponents and whose foes endure the reciprocal when journeying to face them. Without some kind of realignment, those differentials will remain.
The team needs to address the paucity of scoring punch. They lack a goal scorer up front; as top scorer Blake Wheeler is more of a playmaker than a sniper. The acquisition of a scorer would likely rob the team of pieces they could build a consistent contender with. Sneaking into the post season with their home ice advantage (The NHL hasn’t seen a Winnipeg White-Out in forever) could help, but the Jets need to be patient and would be well-advised to sell as the deadline approaches. Opening the second half with four straight road games will make that point far better than I can.
Montreal Canadiens - Should be Sellers but won’t be - The Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge leave the break still in search of an identity. Back to back wins over fellow original six teams to close out the pre-break portion of their schedule (7-2 over Detroit and 3-1 over Toronto) allow them to cling to hope of a Cup run. Still they are sitting on the outside with 47 points and as recently as the beginning of the month Pierre Gauthier was throwing around crazy cash to Josh Georges and apologizing for hiring a unilingual coach after dismissing Jacques Martin in December. Just another day in Montreal.
No team endures as much withering scrutiny as the Canadiens. But unlike past editions, this year’s squad struggles to shut out the distractions and playing to their ability. Though that ability level may be in question, in some instances, the talent is unquestionable. What’s lacking is the "want tool" as baseball talent evaluators are fond of calling it. Hockey fans know it better as heart.
If you’re not thinking of P.K. Subban by now, let me dispel the notion entirely. Our own Laura Astorian touched on Subban and how the league’s mixed messages on discipline help perpetuate his often confusing play. I am not as hopeful as Laura is that Subban will excel in Montreal precisely because I, too, "often question his attitude and how he approaches the game."
I chalk that up to a lack in his ability to actualize the talent his so obviously possesses. And in Montreal, the scrutiny only makes it harder to help a player with such gifts develop them. He’s thrust into that glare and his margin for error is minimal and every mistake is amplified. The Canadiens would do well to consider moving the talented defenseman and gain some pieces that will help their necessary overhaul, rather than leave him in an environment where his develop will be hindered.
Despite the character wins of last week, it will take a good run in February to convince all but the most eager partisans that the club shouldn’t be sellers on the 27th.
Tampa Bay Lightning - Holders - Last year’s Eastern Conference runner-up sits near the bottom of the pile. They are sstill within striking distance, but relieved of the magic that powered their run to within a win of the Cup Final. Reading a few Lightning bloggers, especially the one who called for fans to avoid bailing from the bandwagon, suggest that their playoff chances are slim. And slim they might be. They are getting outscored terribly and are a year older and a year slower, thanks in part to the deep playoff run.
This however is Steve Yzerman’s team and that means a sell off is not going to happen. The club’s personnel could be parceled off to the highest bidder, but that’s admitting defeat. And for a team with the league’s leading goal scorer (Steven Stamkos) and another forward (Martin St. Louis) who’s checking in at about a point per game the possibility that a reversal of fortune is too tantalizing to just abandon.
Their special teams play is partially to blame with a whopping eight shorthanded tallies against, a less than average 79.79% success rate on the kill and just 22 power play goals in 162 chances for a 13.58% success rate with a man advantage. Also adding some fuel to the fire Dwayne Roloson is showing every single one of his 42 years. His save percentage has dipped to .882 and his goals against has swollen to 3.65, a far cry from his .924 and 2.51 numbers last spring. His sieve-like tendencies have enabled the Lighting to allow a whopping 165 goals against, worst in the NHL.
Apart from Roloson and St. Louis, the roster is full of players youthful enough to bounce back and put together another big surprise in the playoffs. Standing pat doesn’t work for all clubs. And as applies to the Panthers and the Jets, the Caps are showing every sign of vulnerability making surrender an unpalatable option.
New York Islanders - Holders - There just isn’t that much Garth Snow can do. His team has a respectable power play unit and a good penalty kill. But they are below average in both goals scored and goals allowed. Rick DiPietro is done, again (it's possible "still" is the right word), and they possess maybe one quality tradeable asset - Evgeni Nabokov.
They have shown a deep seated reticence to shift a designated core player. Their position in the standings makes a late-season rental cost prohibitive. So sitting tight and letting John Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey develop while re-upping Frans Nielsen and P.A. Parenteau makes the most long-term sense for the team.
If Nabokov can fetch a prospect, a pick or preferably both, then selling him off is warranted and giving either Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson the backup duty behind Al Montoya. There will be no takers for Brian Rolston, but big Milan Jurcina might tempt someone to see just his size and not the horrible numbers he puts up. Steve Staios is another aged vet, who could lure someone into taking a chance for a pick up as a last defensive pairing guy.
The future rests in Bridgeport, where the youngsters have shown some fire in the AHL. Giving them some shots at proving themselves NHL ready could help fill out the team beyond Tavares’ line and the pairing of Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald.
Buffalo Sabres - Sellers - Less than two weeks ago, the boss made this case better than I could. Here it is:
Fast forward to January 20th, 2012. The Sabres currently sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a deplorable total of 43 points. They've seen their fair share of injuries and have almost no cap room to make any changes. The backbone for this team, Ryan Miller, is dealing with confidence issues while posting the worst season of his career. Meanwhile, the new owner has slipped into the shadows after his cheerleading-like escapades were in the spotlight during the first six months.
If I'm Darcy Regier, I have no choice to make up for my mistakes by trying to get Miller out of the door. If I can get a 1st round draft pick paired with a strong defensive prospect, I do my best to make it happen. And even though trading Miller will leave a gaping hole in my roster, the longer I let mistakes simmer the longer I deprive the fans of something they can be proud of. There has to come a team where Pegula, Regier, and Miller have to realize that the Sabres won't win a Stanley Cup in their current set up. And since the past gaffes cannot be fixed by replacing the GM or the coach, a player has to be the recipient of the burden.
The bottom line is that trading Ryan Miller gives the Sabres the best shot at saving their future.
In identifying Miller as the best trade chip the Sabres have, J.P. is calling for a total reconstruction of the franchise, which I think is the right call. The scraps that the team had with Boston following Milan Lucic’s hit on Miller and the lack of immediate response from Miller’s teammates pointed to a club lacking the fire and drive necessary to compete in the long regular season. Miller is the guy you most want to build around, but he also holds the biggest value in exchange.
Much needs to be done in Buffalo, and their free fall enables them to get to work on it. Trading Miller is a drastic step. But the mistakes that J.P. identified and their impending cap crunch illustrate that drastic is quite possibly the sole saving grace.
Carolina Hurricanes - Sellers - The Canes have settled on selling. But they won’t be selling Alternate Captain Tim Gleason who agreed to 4-year extension with the club today. Gleason’s reputation as a defense first defenseman made him the apple of many GMs’ eyes. So with the worst record in the East and a -29 goal differential, the decision to shop some players is an easy one for Jim Rutherford.
Equally compelling are the poor performances on special teams for the ‘Canes. Below average on when shorthanded and with the man advantage. The goalie play of Cam Ward has been solid. But he can’t play every night and the three netminders who have auditioned for the back up duties have failed to register a win. Justin Peters and Brian Boucher in particular have been lacking yielding a combined 29 goals on 266 shots faced.
With Gleason off the block fellow veteran defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen as well as winger Tuomo Ruutu are expected to be shopped as rentals. Ruutu will fetch the biggest price for teams seeking scoring, where Allen and who will be a UFA next year could warrant a decent return from a club in need of a bulwark on the blue line.
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