Today in From the Pressbox:
A big fish enters the trade pool, fully intent on controlling his destiny. Logjams at the bottom of each conference's playoff spots will create plenty of intrigue in many NHL cities, so what does that say about the current playoff structure and the "three point" games? A showdown of the top two teams in the East is quite revealing. Somebody not named John Tavares is turning heads in Long Island, while a young Edmonton Oiler is reviving memories of the club's halcyon days. The Devils and the Predators are both making a strong push to solidify their playoff positioning.
With the trade deadline looming in two weeks, the rumor mill got a huge boost with the recent news surrounding Rick Nash. He was drafted first overall in the 2002 NHL Amateur Draft by Columbus and quickly took on the role as the face of this franchise. That mantle is something he took great pride in, while representing the Blue Jackets on and off the ice. Though the club has not enjoyed much success during his tenure (one brief playoff appearance in 2009), he was buoyed by the club's signings of James Wisniewski and Jeff Carter. Now, it appeared that they finally had a power play quarterback and a top- ranking center.
Well, things have gone very badly for these new co-leaders of the Columbus squad and the formerly high expectations have been replaced by the realization that the Blue Jackets may have to start a major rebuilding process. That news has caused their 27-year old captain to realize that he is not likely to enjoy team success in Ohio. So, it comes as no surprise that his management team has approached the team with a list of contending teams that he might like to join via a trade. While Nash has two 40- goal seasons and four 30-goal campaigns, a large percentage of hockey people believe that he is capable of much more, in playing for a contending team. That perception should create a huge windfall of assets that would assist in rejuvenating the struggling Columbus team.
The current NHL playoff structure is designed to allow 16 of 30 teams to secure a playoff invitation. The rewarding of a point to teams that lose a game in overtime or a shootout also ensures that more clubs will stay in contention for the post-season. The net result of these factors has had the effect of giving almost all of the teams a lingering hope for possible playoff participation. As of today's date, perhaps only two teams (Edmonton and Columbus) can be eliminated from the competition. All the other clubs are at least within nine points of a playoff birth. Of course, those teams sitting outside the top eight seeds in each Conference have a tough task in having to climb over a number of teams and contending with the high percentage of games decided beyond 60 minutes of play. So whether or not realistic playoff hopes do exist, more fans are remaining hopeful to a later date in the season and that is a positive thing for league revenues. For that, Commissioner Gary Bettman is to be lauded.
In the long NHL season, a few games will stand out above the rest. Those are the contests between the top teams in each Conference. Again, the current schedule is set up to guarantee at least four of these games, in each Conference, on an annual basis.
In the East, Boston was thought to be the cream of the crop and the Bruins were running over their Conference foes in fine style until they first opposed the New York Rangers on January 21 in "Beantown." That game was hotly contested and ultimately decided in the waning seconds of the overtime session as Marian Gaborik scored the winning goal. The shots on goal (34-33 in favor of the Bruins) further underlined no clear territorial superiority. Though they lost at home, the Bruins and their fans could point to the fact that their backup goalie, Tuukka Rask, took the loss against Ranger star Henrik Lundqvist. The two teams met again in Boston this week and the Rangers again emerged victorious-this time by a more decisive 3-0 score. In dissecting this game, the Rangers jumped out to a 2-0 lead while outshooting the home side by a 12-10 tally. Once again Bruin fans will point to their clubs' 32-8 shot advantage over the final 40 minutes, but New York would prevail largely due to Lundqvist's stellar play.
As a result of a confidence boost from these two games, the Rangers have passed the Bruins in the battle foe supremacy in the East and have injected a much-needed sense of uncertainty into the post-season. The Bruins, no doubt stung by these defeats, have slumped a bit of late, but have no doubt circled the dates of their two remaining games, trips to New York, that remain on their schedule this season.
Turning our attention to individual player performances, many people have been waiting to see where Sam Gagner fits among the ranks of the entire talented young group of forwards on the Oiler roster. Through much of this season, he was struggling to find some offensive magic and had been limited to five goals and 17 assists in the club's first 43 games. His name was being tossed into trade rumors because he was deemed expendable, and yet retained some promise given his youth and solid skill set. In the month of February, he has probably taken himself off the market, by scoring 14 points in five games, including a franchise-tying mark of eight points in a game versus Chicago. Suddenly, he is third in team scoring and playing with loads of confidence and showing his potential upside. He is not going anywhere in trade talks, any time in the near future. The Oilers may wind up grateful in adhering to the old saying, "sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make."
On Long Island, the imposing shadow of the Islanders' star, John Tavares has caused little attention to be paid to some of his teammates, because of his emergence as a top scorer in another losing season for this team. Before looking away from the rest of this roster, though, one more Islander player is making a strong case for being noticed. P.A. Parenteau has proven that a 53-point campaign during his first full season (2010-11) was not a fluke. He is on pace to shatter that total as he has already accumulated 51 points in 56 games played. While most of those totals have been achieved as a linemate of Tavares, Parenteau has continued his productivity since being moved off that line a couple of weeks ago. In fact, his 39 assists rank him fifth in the entire NHL in that statistical category. Coupled with his 33 "helpers" last season, Parenteau has pushed himself into the discussion of the best playmakers from the wing position.
When we look for reasons for team success, they usually begin and end with the strong and consistent play of their best players. Well, we have explored the divergence of this season's edition of the New Jersey Devils from their historical consistent attention to defense, in previous columns. This season they have overcome a 12-12-1 start to insinuate themselves into the playoff hunt with an impressive 22-8-3 streak over their last 33 games. Their best players through this period have been their top gunners, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Elias and Zack Parise.
Consider their efforts in the new calendar year:
Kovalchuk 19 GP, 13 G, 13 A
Elias 19 GP, 6 G, 14 A
Parise 19 GP, 8 G 11 A
Obviously these stars are all healthy and playing great but when you factor in the improvement over a shaky start by Martin Brodeur you really see the other key reasons for the turnaround. After the first three months of this season, Brodeur had posted the highest goals against per game totals of his long career (at almost three per appearance). In 2012, he has turned the clock back to his better days and his goals against is back down around his usually average of slightly higher than two goals allowed per game. So with the top players scoring and their star goalie starring once again, the Devils are on pace to be a threat during the post-season.
In Nashville, the Predators have parlayed their own recipe for success to date and are currently one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference. They have no signature players among their forward ranks, yet no fewer than eight of them have scored at least 11 goals to this point in the season.
They boast two of the league's top defensemen, in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who are not only among the top offensive rearguards in the NHL, but they are also near the top of the rankings for their defensive zone work as well. The Predators are also nurturing the development of their former first round pick from the 2009 Draft as Ryan Ellis (nine points in 20 games, along with a +8 rating) is fueling talk of a "big three-D" to lead this rearguard.
In goal, the Predators boast one of the best goalie tandems in the league as they are getting very consistent play from both Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback. While Rinne has been spectacular as the workhorse (2.41 GAA in 51 appearances) his large backup, 6'6" Lindback, has been steady as well (2.70 GAA in 10 appearances). The sum of each of these components has the Predators solidly entrenched as a playoff destination this season.
I invite you to send your feedback and you can follow me on Twitter (statsman22). You can also listen to me on Saturday afternoons, at 3:15 p.m. EST on Sirius/XM Radio, on "THE FANTASY DRIVE", Sirius 210 and XM 87, with host Ray Flowers.