After a flurry of moves over the past two weeks, there was only one transaction of note, with the Lightning trading veteran defenseman Eric Brewer to the Ducks. It was a trade born of necessity more than anything. After carrying a glut of defensemen all year, the Ducks swapped Bryan Allen for Rene Bourque with the Canadiens the week prior, but within a couple of days learned that Francois Beauchemin (broken finger) and Clayton Stoner (mumps) would be out of action for lengthy periods of time.
Traditionally, the months of December and January have been a huge nuisance for teams as injuries begin to pile up. It's the inevitable result after blistering starts to the new season, but as the air miles begin to ramp up and time zone changes start to blur, fatigue and general wear and tear will start to set in.
The Ducks are really throwing their kids into the fire with Bruce Boudreau showing little confidence in his minor league call-ups. The young triumvirate of Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler and Sami Vatanen are all logging heavy minutes, much more than what they've averaged so far this season. Vatanen in particular has averaged more than 30 shifts in his past two games and playing well over his average of 22:07 per game. The same goes for Fowler, who's played over 25 minutes in each of his past two games, and Lindholm played 29:25 in a 4-1 loss to Chicago on Nov. 28. Meanwhile, former second-round picks Mat Clark and Jesse Blacker are being used sparingly, with Clark averaging just 12:58 per game and Blacker playing just 6:03 in his NHL debut.
Only time will tell if the three youngsters can hold the fort, but after holding down top spot in the Pacific Division for most of the season, now sit in second place behind the Canucks and just one point ahead of the Flames. Their goal differential is just plus-2, after starting with a plus-11 differential to start the month, and the 63 goals they've allowed is ranked eighth among the 14 Western Conference teams. Boudreau's an offensive genius so fantasy owners should look forward to having Lindholm, Fowler and Vatanen scoring their fair share of points, but their team defense is looking very porous at the moment. The Ducks are 4-3-3 in their past 10 games.
Around the League
Speaking of porous defenses, the Oilers and Stars continue to have trouble keeping the puck out of their net, though the bright side for the Stars remains the fact that they're still very much in playoff contention. Asides from the Blue Jackets, who without any sort of formal calculation most certainly have suffered the most man games lost, the Oilers and Stars are the only teams to concede more than 80 goals this season.
For the Stars, it's a work in progress as general manager Jim Nill re-tools the defense into a younger and more mobile bunch. Head coach Lindy Ruff can call out his team all he wants, as he should after surrendering 10 goals in their past two games, but even coming into the season everyone knew the Stars would have to outscore their opponent to win. The good signs are still there, though, with John Klingberg skating well, Jason Demers seems to have a little more jump after coming over from the Sharks and Jyrki Jokipakka's ice time slowly creeping up. In fact, it's the Stars' top defenseman, Trevor Daley, who has really been struggling, seeing his ice time dip in his past three games and posting a minus-4 rating in that span. Though Daley leads the team's defensemen in points with 12 in 24 games, advanced stats suggest he isn't quite as good as everyone suggests.
Meanwhile, way up north in Edmonton the Oilers' defense continues to be a complete mess. Head coach Dallas Eakins has tried just about everything, including sitting prized prospect Justin Schultz, top summer acquisition Nikita Nikitin, and demoting and promoting a bevy of players in the hopes of stumbling on the right mix. Poor goaltending is certainly part of the problem, as it is in Dallas, but the difference is that things don't seem like they'll be getting any better any time soon. This is all the more perplexing with general manager Craig MacTavish insistent on nabbing a No. 1 center rather than fixing its defense or goaltending, though maybe going after Connor McDavid in next year's draft is the Oilers' new M.O. Keep in mind that the Oilers recently fired goaltending coach Fredric Chabot because he couldn't turn so-so goalies Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth into all-stars, and dammit, overhauling management just makes too much sense.
On the other hand, Central Division rivals Blues, Blackhawks and Predators continue to feature the stingiest defenses in the league. In the Eastern Conference, it's the Penguins, Red Wings, and (bonus points if you guessed this one) the Panthers.
None of the West's representatives are surprising, though the Predators should receive an extra nod. Peter Laviolette preaches a more offensive style, usually at the expense of defense, but the Predators' 45 goals allowed is league-best. A big part of that has been the outstanding play of Pekka Rinne, but the team also allows just 27.6 shots per game, sixth in the league. Shea Weber continues his solid play while Roman Josi is one of the league's most underrated defenders. None of the team's six regulars have a minus rating, the worst being Seth Jones' plus-4 (slacker!). In fact, Laviolette's Predators have actually outperformed Barry Trotz's squad in his last two years with the team.
For the Panthers, though Roberto Luongo provides a steady presence in the back end, much of the credit has to go to captain Willie Mitchell and super rookie Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers are allowing 31.1 shots per game, sixth-worst in the league, but have managed to get scored on just 50 times this year, eight fewer than the Bruins and four fewer than the Penguins. It's quite an amazing feat and if not for one of the league's worst offenses the Panthers would certainly be in playoff position (they're three points out of a wild card spot) right now. This, after allowing the second-most goals in the league last year. (No bonus points if you guessed Edmonton allowed the most last year).
Tyson Barrie notched three assists against the Stars on Saturday, bringing his season total to 18 points. There's still the perception that bigger is better when it comes to defensemen, but the 5-foot-10 third-round pick from 2009 is silencing all doubters. In that year's draft, Ryan Ellis, who was drafted 11th overall by the Predators, was hailed as the premier puck-moving defenseman, but Barrie is really giving Ellis a run for that title. It shouldn't be a surprise that Barrie has found success at the NHL level - he's dutifully paid his dues in the minors (54 points in 93 games) and he's also a product of the Kelowna Rockets, a team renowned for producing some brilliant defensemen, including Ellis' teammate Shea Weber and Devils rookie Damon Severson.
After missing more than a month with a broken hand, the Lightning's Victor Hedman is ready to pick up where he left off, and that's in the race for the Norris Trophy. Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie are dominating the conversation through the first two months of the season, but Hedman was one of the league's most complete players last year. He was held pointless in his return but fired three shots on net and finished with a plus-2 rating. Meanwhile, after Dan Boyle scored goals in consecutive games was forced to sit out Saturday's game against Philadelphia due to illness. The 38-year-old is still an elite puck mover, but his age works against him.
Andrej Sekera was considered a hot commodity on the trade market but interest in him must've cooled off with his five-game pointless streak. The Hurricanes are winning (slightly) more games, so that's good, but Sekera now has just eight points on the season after posting 44 last year. The 28-year-old is a No. 4 defenseman at best, so count me as one of those guys who's not really surprised that he's regressed.
Who's Not But Not Really
Dalton Prout has the team's second-worst plus-minus rating with a minus-10 and has just three assists on the season, but boy is the former sixth-round pick making headlines. In what will possibly be the highlight of his career, in a game against the Bruins on November 21, Prout dropped Milan Lucic with one punch, a right hook right on the chin that would've made Rocky Marciano proud. Of course, Lucic, as one of the league's biggest sore losers, called the punch gutless, but nearly everyone else in the league disagreed, with refs, players and fans from Montreal and Vancouver giving Prout a pat on the back. Prout followed up his knockout performance with a minus-6 rating in his next three games, but really, that's beside the point.