Today, in From the Pressbox:
A surprising change in the Oilers management team...A three team race for the Northeast title...Islanders on the brink of a playoff spot with an evolving superstar leading the way... Rangers also in the Eastern playoff hunt, but heading in the opposite direction...Dallas, Columbus and Buffalo are three teams that are on a roll after being sellers at the trade deadline.
The Winds of Change in Edmonton
This was expected to be the season where the Oilers were supposed to make a breakthrough and compete for a playoff spot. After all, they had accumulated a number of the very best junior prospects (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Nail Yakupov) in the last few NHL Amateur Drafts, thanks to being among the league's lowest ranking teams in that period.
It was felt that this core of young speedsters, all of whom were top scorers throughout their junior careers, would jell together and bring fire-wagon hockey back to Edmonton.
Instead, this year has been quite a disappointment because, outside of Taylor Hall (41 points in 38 games), none of the above-noted players has even recorded 30 points. Their modest point totals are even more surprising when we are reminded that Justin Shultz (signed as a highly touted power play quarterback-type of defenseman) and veteran, high scoring blueliner Ryan Whitney were expected to mesh with them.
This dynamic has finally been challenged Edmonton's management group as Kevin Lowe, the club's President of Hockey Operations, has relieved GM Steve Tambellini of his duties. In his place, the Oilers have elevated a former Edmonton coach, Craig MacTavish to the GM's office.
In his introductory news conference he noted that the Oilers roster has no depth and little support for its young offensive parts. He promised to bring in some experienced hands and improve the toughness of the team.
This team shouldn't be far away from becoming a real threat in the West because they do have some solid pieces. Adding the right character players could catapult them as quickly as next season.
The Northeast Division- Suddenly a Three Horse Race at the Wire
This Division was expected to play out the abbreviated season with the Bruins as the runaway favorites. Through the first month of the campaign that was looking to be the case as Boston played to a 17-4-3 mark by the halfway point. They were met early on by the challenge of the Montreal Canadiens, who had worked towards their own impressive 15-5-4 ledger. That was a surprising result because the Habs, who were at the bottom of the standings in the East last season, were expected to be a non-playoff team again this season.
As the second half of the season is winding down the Maple Leafs, another non-playoff team last year, have entered this race with a strong recent push, climbing to within four points of the Division lead.
Here's the record of these clubs in the second half:
Toronto - 9-4-5 = 23 points
Montreal – 11-6-1 = 22 points
Boston – 9-7-1 = 19 points
The Bruins' slide was precipitated by the compact schedule that they have faced in recent weeks after a soft opening portion, where they often had three or four games in hand on the Leafs and Canadiens. As a result of this crowded slate of games, they have seen a sharp rise in players felled by the injury bug, most notably front-line players like Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who are currently sidelined with concussion symptoms. Similarly, their defense had been impacted by the to Adam McQuaid and checking line center Chris Kelly.
They have lost their aura of invincibility and intimidation in recent weeks and that's a very key revelation on the eve of the playoffs, They certainly don't scare the Leafs or Canadiens any more.
Montreal, for their part has been a very consistent team, relying mostly of the fast-skating talents of their entire roster, keyed by the strong offensive skills of defensemen P K Subban and Andrei Markov, as potent a power play defense combination as there is in the NHL. They have also leaned on Carey Price (2.50 GAA, .908) who has been one of the top goalies in the East for the last three years.
The Leafs have forged their way into this race on the strength of their most recent 9-1-4 pace. This high-water mark has been the result of a systematic season-long rise along the learning curve set out by Head Coach Randy Carlyle and his staff. This is a club that is on the verge of snapping the longest non-playoff drought (nine years) in the league.
Their fortunes have turned because this team (second youngest average age in the NHL) has evolved into a three line offensive attack, where a different line has emerged on a nightly basis and a well-conceived defensive plan has been put in place to get the most out of the expected leaders, like Dion Phaneuf (26 points) and to allow lesser known players like Cody Franson, (24 points, +8) and Mark Fraser (8 points, +18) to thrive as well.
Goalie James Reimer has quieted all the concern about a lack of experience in goal as he ranks among the league leaders in wins (17), goals against average (2.36) and save percentage (.925).
Oh and if you think a team is going to push the Leafs around, you can probably dismiss that notion because they lead the league in fighting majors and overall penalty minutes.
It's very likely that while one of these teams will finish first in the Division and grab the second playoff seed, the other two clubs will meet in the 4 vs. 5 bracket of the East Playoffs. Regardless of which of those teams slide into the latter matchup, that could be the best series on the first round of the playoffs.
Islanders and Rangers – Headed in opposite directions
While both New York teams are currently holding down the final two playoff rungs in the East, they probably have different feelings as a result of earlier expectations. The Islanders are another perennial outlier team, with a string of non-playoff participation in recent years, which has been trying to build toward their current success for the last few years.
At the forefront of their rise, is the emergence of center John Tavares, whose 42 points rank him among the league leaders. He has been a nightly threat despite the fact that he is the best offensive player on his team, faced with the toughest checking foes in every game. He's also among the most accurate scorer, with his 24 goals coming on only 139 shots, for a 17.3% clip. More than these numbers, he is a physical presence, whose ability to hold onto the puck in the offensive has created more opportunities for his teammates like Matt Moulson, who has 13 goals and 39 points.
The fact of the matter is that veterans, like Brian Boyes (31 points) and young forwards like Josh Bailey (nine goals) and Michael Grabner (13 goals) have boosted the offense with steady secondary scoring production.
With a playoff-tested goalie in Evgeni Nabokov, offensive skill from defenders Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit, the Isles have all the ingredients of a foe that can pull off an upset in the first round.
The Rangers and their fans, on the other hand, have to be somewhat disappointed that their club is in a battle for a playoff spot, when much more was expected. Once again, all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist (2.06 gaa, .928 save pct.) is the team's lynchpin.
However this team was expected to shed its defense-first persona with the arrival of Rick Nash. The big fellow has certainly done his part, in leading the Rangers with 17 goals and 18 assists. On the down side, Brad Richards, another big ticket here, has floundered with only six goals and 23 points, while the third expensive component of this team's purported offensive juggernaut, Marian Gaborik, was dealt to Columbus after compiling only 19 points in 37 games.
So, once again the Rangers have fallen back into becoming that defense-first team that has failed to make the jump into the top tier.
The Blue Jackets, Stars and Sabres – sellers on the rise
Oddly, these three teams all sold off significant talent in trade deadline deals, but they each have gone on recent winning streaks to give some indication of better days ahead. In recent days they have all rebounded despite figuratively waiving the white flag at the trade deadline.
First, the Blue Jackets picked up the afore-mentioned Gaborik in a multi-player trade with New York and he has thrived in this smaller market with six points in his first five games there. He basically replaces Nash as the main offensive threat here, but seems more content to be in Ohio than his former teammate. As well, the Jackets have quietly solidified themselves in goal (Sergei Bobrovsky with a 2.03 gaa and a .931 save pct. in 33 appearances). Young Jack Johnson and veteran Fedor Tyutin anchor a deep defensive contingent.
Next, the Stars moved out a host of veteran forwards, looking like they stripped away much of their offense, but they are 5-1 since the trade deadline, having outscored all comers by a 21-14 count. They will retool this offense in the offseason, filling in behind the faces of the franchise, Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson. They also have a trio of solid blueliners in Stephane Robidas, Trevor Daley and Alex Goligoski in front of one of the NHL's best goalies, Kari Lehtonen, to form an impressive core on which to build upon in the near future. They're already proving to be a tough out even with their recently depleted roster.
Finally, the Sabres are 4-2 since the trade deadline and are still clinging to an outside shot at the postseason. In winger Tomas Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller, they retain two of the very best players at their positions and perhaps they are playing free and easy from any pressure, which was dissipated by the deals, which moved key pieces off their roster and probably were a sign that all bets were off for the rest of this campaign. They still represent a dangerous foe down to the wire because there is still significant talent and potential on this roster. Maybe they just got stale under departed coach Lindy Ruff and needed some time to pick up the systems on the newly installed bench boss, Ron Rolston.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).