Today, From the Press Box:
The talk around Vancouver is about having missed the boat. What about the new axis of power in California? Some players have hit the ground running thanks to a recent change in their lot since the trade deadline. Others have stepped up to fill in for injured teammates. We highlight them for you.
Vancouver's Window of Opportunity is Closing
The Canucks have had a very nice run in the last few years, winning the NHL's President's Trophy in two of the last three seasons, so it is somewhat surprising to see their recent struggles, dropping them from the ranks of contenders as this season winds down.
It seems as though the team's fortunes have been in decline ever since the controversy surrounding Roberto Luongo and the aborted attempts to trade him, which began last year.
There are a number of other forces at play here, though. The eventual trade of Corey Schneider in the off-season was supposed to again bring stability to the Canucks' goalie situation. Luongo grabbed the bit and played very well at the start of the year. The coaching emphasis of John Tortorella seemed to be at odds with the strengths of this roster. He wanted a more defensive and physical posture from his entire lineup. This seemed at odds with the high-end talent on the roster, to say nothing of the stresses it would put on some players who have played very hard over the last few years. The most difficult obstacle in their way has been an inability to cope with that transition and some injuries have made the situation worse. The Sedins are in this mix of turmoil, which has seen them both slump to a total of only 81 points between them so far. Their secondary scoring has all but disappeared and a veteran defense corps seems to be slowing down quickly. Looking ahead, a goalie tandem of Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom is nowhere near what is needed to compete in the deep Western Conference.
Perhaps we are about to see a major rebuild and steep decline in team fortunes for this perennial former power in Western Canada.
California is a Hockey Battleground- a Minefield for Visiting Teams
It may seem a bit odd that the balance of power in the Western Conference has clearly shifted to California, a state that is not known as a hockey haven, but you cannot overlook the play of the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings this season.
These teams are all built the same way - with an imposing combination of size, speed and solid goaltending. Road trips to the sunny southwest for NHL teams have become similar to the Texas triangle in the NBA. If you win one game out of three over there, you may consider yourself lucky.
With the newly shaped divisional playoff format, the prospect of two series involving some combination of these three clubs, the prospect of some quality late-night viewing is what lies ahead for hockey fans in the East.
What I have observed with these teams is a similar style of play, characterized by their ability to play at a face pace, rolling four lines that are all capable of playing an offensive style but not leaving themselves to vulnerable to the counter-attack.
The top lines of each team each feature some of league's best players, with dynamic duos of Getzlaf and Perry, Thornton and Marleau and Kopitar and Carter leading the respective attacks. Similarly, these are all equipped with strong two-way defenders in Beauchemin/Fowler, Boyle/Vlasic and Doughty/Voynov. In goal, they each rely heavily on their top options-Hiller, Niemi and Quick.
So, as their team profiles and roster depth is similar, their really isn't much that separates these teams.
I can't wait to see them battle each other in the postseason.
After the Trade Deadline - Some Players to Watch
Lee Stempniak - The early candidate for the "I've died and gone to heaven" award, he was toiling without any hope for playoff duty in Calgary, mired with a (-20) rating and only 23 points, when the Penguins acquired him last week. Well, he now finds himself playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz on Pittsburgh's top line. He picked up two helpers on Monday night and that should ensure that he retains this plum assignment at least in the short term. This looks like such a great fit because Stempniak is blessed with a skill set that is similar to Kunitz, primarily due to their speed and ability to shoot off the rush. Stempniak will surely benefit from Crosby's on-ice vision and should provide a nice boost to fantasy owners who take a chance on him.
David Legwand - This Michigan native was the original draft pick of the Nashville Predators and while it may have caught people by surprise that he was dealt last week, I am sure that he could not be happier than with his landing in Detroit. The Wings are in dire need of offensive help, owing to injuries that have put Pavel Datsyuk and Stephen Weiss on the shelf. Legwand should expect to see plenty of ice time and looks like the go-to guy, when the Detroit power play hits the ice. He already has a three-point game under his belt in his new surroundings and will get every opportunity to pad his offensive numbers as the Wings face an uphill battle to qualify for the playoffs.
Tim Thomas - The Dallas Stars are another of those teams that are battling for playoff spots and some observers may have paid little attention when Thomas was dealt from the Panthers to the Stars last week. He was not expected to see much work, playing behind Kari Lehtonen, who has been one of the top workhorses among all NHL goalies in the last few years. The acquisition of Thomas was viewed as nothing more than an insurance policy. Well, that all changed a few days ago, when Lehtonen was bounced head first into his net and sustained concussion-like symptoms. In his absence, the battle-tested Thomas will surely receive a heavy workload, likely every start for as long as Lehtonen is out of the lineup. The Stars have a shaky grip on the final Western playoff spot and can't use anyone but their best remaining option going forward. The combative Thomas is well equipped for this key assignment.
Mats Zuccarello/Carl Hagelin - The Rangers are in the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference and will look to these two players to play a bigger role in getting there. Zuccarello suffered a hand injury at the OIympic Games and was expected to be out a couple more weeks. He has returned early, however, and vigilant fantasy owners need to get him back on their lineups immediately. He has been the most dangerous ranger forward for much of the season and with his second line role, he should see ample opportunity to build on his 44 points in 60 games. The reason he is a second line guy is because of the newly formed top unit, which was formed when Marty St. Louis was acquired from Tampa last week. That meant a reunion with Brad Richards, who was his linemate for eight years with the Lightning. Hagelin, a speedster with an offensive flair has scored 13 goals in 55 games, but seems capable of much more and he will see his scoring chances rise as long as he continues to play with this experienced tandem.
Loui Eriksson/Carl Soderberg - The Bruins continue to chase down top spot in the East and recently have benefitted from the scoring exploits of these two Swedish imports. Much was expected of Eriksson, when he was picked up in the Tyler Seguin trade last off-season. Concussion issues have derailed him for much of this campaign, but he has rewarded the Bruins for their patience with seven points in his last seven games, finally playing with the offensive flair that was expected of him. At the same time, Soderberg who came to the Bruins, making his NHL debut as a 27-year old last year, has finally started to show some of his highly-touted offensive skills, chipping in six points in his last seven games. Both players should be considered dependable late-season pickups, if they are available in your pools.