As usual, in the 30-team NHL, there are plenty of story lines as we take our weekly look around the league.
A surprise team has emerged at the top of the Eastern Conference, while a couple of others are floundering badly. In the West, the early leader has faded badly and the true contenders have risen to the top. A hot goalie has the Leafs on a roll. A couple of veterans reach notable career goal-scoring milestones and one of them is the subject of trade rumors. Speaking of trade rumors, a number of NHL stars are also hearing their names on the rumor mill.
The New York Rangers have snuck past the Boston Bruins to sit atop the Eastern Conference standings as teams reached the halfway mark in the regular schedule. They sport the Conference's best home ice record with a mark of 13-3-2 but are also road warriors with an equally gaudy 14-6-2 record away from Madison Square Garden. For years this club relied heavily on the performance of their superb goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who has been the model of consistency during his first six years in the league as he has recorded at least 30 wins in each campaign. This season, he is having a career year, having recorded 19 wins in 30 appearances. His 1.85 goals against average and .939 save percentage in the 2011-12 season are also career highs. However, in stark contrast to most Ranger teams during his tenure, there are a number of offensive weapons, which make this the most complete Ranger team in recent memory.
Brad Richards has joined Marion Gaborik as the featured performers on offense, but the surprising development is that the two veteran scorers are anchoring separate forward units, usually only appearing together on the club's top power play unit. Instead of their union, they have been partnered with homegrown talents as Gaborik works on a line centered by Brandon Dubinsky, while Richards is flanked by Ryan Callahan, to anchor two productive scoring lines. On defense, a quartet of young and highly-regarded prospects has matured together and now Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonough and a healthy Marc Staal make this unit another strength of this revitalized team.
As good as the news has been in New York, the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres appear headed in the wrong direction.
The Penguins put on a brave face, on the ice for a few weeks after losing Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, both to concussion issues. However, they are now mired in a five-game losing skid that has seen them fall to the edge of playoff contention as they have a precarious hold on the last playoff spot in the East. To make matters worse, Jordan Staal suffered a knee injury last week and is expected to miss between four to six weeks. It seems that the grey area and slow recovery of their injured stars has really put a strain on the rest of this team and now they are faced with the prospect of seeing their injury list swell to 10 players out of the lineup. If they don't get some good news from the infirmary in the next few weeks, their season will end with the conclusion of the regular schedule.
In Buffalo, the concern for the Sabres' current struggles is just as great, if not worse, just because the Sabres were among the biggest spenders in free agent market and they simply haven't received a "bang for their bucks". Consider that they made a long-term commitment, with an annual cap hit of $4.5M through the 2016-17 season and he has chipped in a paltry three goals and 10 points in 31 games played. On defense, they signed Christian Ehrhoff, to a 10-year, $40M contract and he has produced three goals, 17 points and an ugly (-11) rating, before going on the injury list with an upper body injury that will sideline him for a few weeks.
The Sabres have a number of other key players out of the lineup with nagging injuries and have slipped badly in losing seven straight road games and falling below the 8th seed in the conference. Even the ever-reliable goalie Ryan Miller has struggled, posting a 10-12-2 mark with a career-high 3.01 goals against average in his 25 appearances. For a team, which was highly rated in pre-season predictions, their 18-19-5 record has to rate among the biggest disappointments in the NHL.
In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild, were on top of the conference standings before going on their current 2-7-1 slide. While their top-notch goalie tandem of Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding has held up their end of the bargain with their very strong play, the offense has sputtered and faltered, ranking among the lowest-scoring teams in the league. Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley were acquired in a deal that cost the Wild a top puck-moving defender in Brent Burns, along with Martin Havlat. Setoguchi has produced only 14 points and a (-7) rating, in addition to running afoul of team management and has been a healthy scratch this week. Heatley has produced 29 points but that is a pace that will result in his worst totals for a full season of play in his 10-year career. At the current pace, perennially consistent captain Mikko Koivu is the only forward who is likely to exceed 60 points for the season.
The news is a lot better in Toronto, where the Leafs have figured out how to be a dominant team on home ice. They have five straight wins at the Air Canada Centre, the last four of which have occurred in consecutive games played, during a key portion of the schedule where they are slated to play a string of nine out of 10 contests in their friendlier confine. The highlight of this solid streak is the stellar play of Jonas Gustavsson, who has earned two shutouts and all four wins in the current homestand. Among the other highlights is the improved play of Mikhail Grabovski, who has revived the fortunes of the second line by chipping in with 11 points in his last 12 games played. The club has also received a boost with the improved play of Nazem Kadri, who has been the key playmaker on the third line. Defensively, the Leafs are still without puck-moving specialist John-Michael Liles, but his absence has given the seldom-used Cody Franson a chance to strut his stuff and he has done just fine, in recording four points in his last seven games. The defense did receive a further boost with the return of defensive-zone specialist Mike Komisarek. This team has also endured a lengthy injury list, but the outcome from their adversity has been much more positive, owing to organizational depth in Toronto.
We would like to tip our cap to veteran right-wingers Daniel Alfredsson (400) and Jarome Iginla (500), who recently reached significant career goal-scoring plateaus, both achieved entirely as members of their respective clubs. They represent a rarity in the modern NHL with this distinction. However, in the case of Jarome Iginla, he is surrounded by trade rumors involving the transfer of his services.
Iginla has one year left on a contract with a $7M cap hit, so the list of potential suitors is likely not a long one. Nonetheless, his name is being linked to the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings. You could make the case that Iginla's leadership and skills would be a welcome addition for each of these contending teams and the power forward may be the ultimate difference-maker if he lands with any of these contending teams.
He is not the only big name being cited in prevailing rumors. In New Jersey, Zach Parise has proven to be back at peak efficiency after injuries wrecked his 2010-11 season. He has 37 points in 42 games with the Devils and finds himself in the final year of his current contract. He has to realize that there may not be enough room to accommodate him and Ilya Kovalchuk, who already has a big-dollar multi-year commitment with New Jersey. It's quite likely that Parise will be among the most sought after players in advance of the trade deadline because the Devils will not just sit and watch his contract expire without trying to get anything in return. In Anaheim, GM Bob Murray, perhaps dismayed by his team's poor record, come out and said that the only untradeable commodities on the Ducks' roster were Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. That immediately translated into more Bobby Ryan rumors, but Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were intriguing names added to the rumor mill.
If these names are truly in the mix, this could be the most intriguing trade deadline in recent memory. The intrigue will only heighten in the coming weeks. Stay tuned...
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