Today in From the Pressbox:
Could a goaltending injury derail the high-flying Wings? A veteran winger, currently in a very comfortable is among those who are likely going to move. Hal Gill has become a coveted commodity. Which unheralded winger has landed a plum assignment in Chicago? Will Alexander Semin survive the trade deadline and remain with the Capitals? How do we account for a stunning defensive turnaround in Toronto? A perennial Eastern conference power is in a precarious position.
The Detroit Red Wings have defied the fact that they are icing the team with the highest average age and have battled their way to the top of the Western Conference Standings. The usual suspects have led this surge as we noted in last week's column, however, this upward trajectory faces a real challenge after a recent finger injury has sidelined starting goalie Jimmy Howard anywhere from two to six weeks. The Wings are not going to get any help in trade talks with Western Conference clubs or most other teams in the league because they now have one perceived area of weakness and opponents will want to exploit this aspect.
Howard had quietly earned his stripes with a three-year stint with the Wings' AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids and has been similarly rock-steady since becoming the team's number one goalie since the 2009-10 season. He has been a workhorse, appearing in 63 games during each of the last two campaigns. Last year, he had to miss a number of games due to minor injuries and career minor-leaguer, Joey MacDonald stepped in to do a credible job with a 2.56 goals against average to show for his efforts. This season, MacDonald has just been called up top split duties with current backup Ty Conklin, who will likely take on most of the load in the short term.
The bottom line, here, is that while, most teams who faced the prospect of a long-term absence would need top pursue a trade option, the Wings are confident in their remaining goalies and will rely on the tremendous experience of the rest of this roster to overcome this temporary obstacle.
Ryan Smyth returned to the team that drafted him, the team he cheered for as a youth, the Edmonton Oilers, prior to the start of this season. Oiler fans will recall the emotions that he showed when he was originally traded away during the '06-07 season. He stated then, that Edmonton would always be his preferred place of residence. When he returned to the Oiler fold this season, it was widely speculated that he would play out his career as a mentor and leader of Edmonton's excellent crop of young forwards. The Oilers are stumbling through what appears to be another non-playoff year and that has led to some surprising speculation that Smyth is on the trading block. If he is agreeable, the impending unrestricted free agent is probably only interested in one possible destination. That would be the New York Rangers, because of a debt of gratitude for Rangers GM Glen Sather, who drafted Smyth into the Oiler roster in the 1994 Entry Draft. The Rangers sit atop the Eastern Conference standings at the moment and Smyth would surely boost the offensive brigade with an upgrade in productivity and toughness, on a team that has to rate among the Stanley Cup favorites right now.
A number of players are going to be on the trade market, as usual, before the month-end trade deadline. One prominent name is Hal Gill, the huge defensive defenseman of the Montreal Canadiens. He is another aging player with an expiring contract, who is currently toiling for another team that is probably not going to the playoffs as Montreal currently holds down 13th place in the East. What makes him so marketable at this time is his reputation as a defensive zone specialist who can key on the best opposing players and his imposing size and defending skills are most apparent in short-handed circumstances. Pittsburgh is thought to be among those teams, and is probably favored to re-acquire his services, because the defensive side of the puck remains a problem for the Penguins, despite the heroic work of goalie Mark Andre Fleury. His value might result in a bit of a bidding war because Gill is so good at what he is known for, as a top-notch, defensive-minded blueliner.
Chicago has remained a contender after the team was dismantled following their Cup win in the 2009-10 season. One of the reasons why are the shrewd moves of Stanley Bowman and the relatively young management team of the Hawks. In one of their good recent moves they picked up Viktor Stalberg in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Stalberg had been a second or third line player with Chicago since he debuted with them last year. Most recently he has been moved to the top forward line, along with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, arguably the club's top two forwards.
This new line makes a lot of sense when you add Stalberg's blazing speed in with the offensive skills of the two Hawks' stars. Stalberg has used that speed to cause opposing defenders to back off, unless they want to concede top his penchant for moving outside and around them. This has opened up more ice for the whole line, with the result that this line is feasting offensively.
The Washington Capitals find themselves in an unexpected dogfight with the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division title. As an aside to this situation, the eventual division winner is probably going be the only playoff qualifier from this division. It is surprising to note that trade rumors swirled around Alexander Semin last season and are once again surfacing. Outsiders observe that Semin is miscast in the Caps' new system, introduced by former coach Bruce Boudreau and championed still by current bench boss Dale Hunter. Fueling this speculation is the fact that he is playing out his expiring contract and is also headed to free agency in the upcoming offseason.
There are still some games where Semin has had a dominant impact, but they are becoming fewer and farther in between as he is on his way to a career low with only 13 goals scored to date. The Caps might be wise to sell him based on his previous track record and see if they can acquire other assets that would make them a more difficult team to play against. It sure looks from this vantage point, as if Semin is not showing a lot of commitment or interest on a consistent basis and he may benefit from a change of scenery, which might refuel his offensive flair.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs made some changes in their playing style and the team is being rewarded by a steady climb into the thick of the Eastern Conference race. Buoyed by a commitment to better puck pursuit, particularly in playing with more pressure on opposing puck-carriers, the Leafs have significantly reduced their goals against (2 per game since January 1, 2012 and they have used the same tactic to complete overhaul their penalty killing unit, which has not yet yielded a power play goal against in the new year.
The relatively inexperienced goalie tandem of Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer thrived with this new approach and has combined for five shutouts in the last 15 games. Blessed with one of the fastest skating teams in the league, the Leafs have not sacrificed their offense for this defensive success and remain one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Should they continue to enjoy success with this new approach, they will be a real handful for any team once the playoffs begin. Yes, that's right. The Leafs are going to make the playoffs, for the first time since 2003-04, unless the wheels fall off.
On the other hand, the Philadelphia Flyers, usually a solid contender in the East and currently holding down the fourth seed in the Conference, are showing signs of big trouble as they have stumbled recently. The losers of their last three games heading into a Thursday home date against the Leafs, desperate to turn their recent fortunes around. That may be easier said than done. We have noted in previous columns that this is no longer a team with great offensive depth, long a hallmark of the Flyers' recent profile. Missing the likes of Chris Pronger and James van Riemsdyk while hoping that Daniel Briere and Jaromir Jagr can overcome nagging injuries have taken quite a bit out of this team's capabilities. This has also exposed the club defensively as they have allowed four or more goals against in five of their last 11 games.
The Flyers need to bolster a suspect defense and are expected to kick lots of tires before the trade deadline. A failure to address this shortcoming may well cost them a playoff spot, given that they are only eight points ahead of the ninth place team in the Eastern Conference.
I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Tuesday nights, at 9:30 EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on "THE FANTASY DRIVE", Sirius 210 and XM 87.