Around the League
Jackets' Murray Nears Return
The Blue Jackets just can't afford to play catch up any longer. After winning two games during their four-game road trip, keeping whatever hopes they have of making the playoffs alive, the BJ's have dropped two straight games, allowing 10 goals in the process. In Toronto, they never recovered after allowing four goals in the first period, and in their next game at home against the Islanders, allowed three goals in the middle frame. In both games, the BJ's lost 5-2, putting their goal differential at minus-27, the fourth-worst mark in the league.
Those numbers aren't totally indicative of the team's capabilities, since they've been without the services of their key players, including Sergei Bobrovsky, Artem Anisimov and Boone Jenner, for much of the season. But there's some hope on the horizon with defenseman Ryan Murray back on the ice and practicing with the team. Placed on the IR on Nov. 1 after undergoing knee surgery, the second overall pick from 2012 is the team's future franchise defenseman.
As a 20-year-old rookie last year after four outstanding seasons with the WHL's Everett Silvertips, the smooth-skating Murray scored 21 points in 66 games, finishing 11th in scoring among rookie defenseman and averaged 19:52 per game, behind only Jacob Trouba (22:26), Danny DeKeyser (21:38) and Calvin de Haan (21:01). Originally predicted to go first overall to Edmonton before the Oilers decided to say “screw defense” and draft Nail Yakupov to make a Frankenstein re-creation of the dynastic squads of the ‘80s, Murray was the first defenseman to get drafted in a year in which eight of the top 10 picks were defensemen. He's on the smaller side at 6-foot-1, but he skates well, moves the puck well and plays good ‘D' at both ends of the ice.
There's still no timetable for when Murray will return, and he'll certainly need some time to get back into shape, but for those that have already stashed him on their IR or are in need of defensemen off the waiver wire, get ready to make your play. The BJ's may not hurry him back if they really fall out of the playoff race, and as it stands they're 11 points out of the last wild card spot that will likely be taken by either Toronto or Florida.
Vancouver's Frank Corrado made his season debut on Saturday in a 1-0 loss against Calgary and was very impressive. A fifth-round pick in 2011, Corrado's been a pleasant surprise, though the Canucks have shown an ability to find valuable defensemen in the later rounds. Corrado played 17:30 with three shots on net, a blocked shot and a hit, taking the place of Yannick Weber on the right side of the third pairing. Willie Desjardins was careful to shield the 21-year-old rookie, starting him in the offensive zone 75 percent of the time and matching him against Calgary's weaker lines, which resulted in a on-ice Corsi rating of 44.04… meaning that if you extrapolated Corrado's limited performance over a 60-minute stretch, the Canucks would've outshot the Flames by 44. Forty-four! (FYI, the Canucks outshot the Flames by 13).
Corrado's performances have been inconsistent, as is the case with most rookie defensemen, but if he continues to provide quality minutes for Desjardins, Weber will continue to sit. Under the current set-up, Kevin Bieksa and Chris Tanev are the team's only right-hand shots, and since Bieksa's offensive game has regressed and Desjardins has stubbornly refused to use Tanev on the power play, Corrado could get some power play time. (The Canucks didn't get a single power play against Calgary). Weber has the experience and the heavier slap shot but hasn't scored a single power play goal this season. The left side will likely continue to feature Alex Edler, Luca Sbisa and Ryan Stanton if Desjardins wishes to stick with the three lefty, three righty model. Corrado has far less upside than Murray but may have the freshest legs on the Canucks defense.
Habs' Power Play Change Up
In Montreal, Michel Therrien is tinkering with a power play that really should be better than its 27th-place rank. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov have three power play goals apiece and will be split up into two units. Time will tell if the new tactics will work, but for Subban and the first unit, much of it will depend on P.A. Parenteau and David Desharnais' ability to win puck battles and generate passing lanes on the walls. Parenteau's been disappointing with six goals and nine assists and Desharnais will always have his size working against him. Markov has stronger players on the wall with Sergei Gonchar and Tomas Plekanec, but sophomore Alex Galchenyuk (zero power play goals) plays the important trigger man role in the slot while Max Pacioretty has that role on the first unit.
The Habs will go only as far as Carey Price takes them and he is unquestionably their best player, and if Therrien can't get their special teams going, their playoff run may be short-lived. They're still the favorites to finish second in the division, especially with the injury to Jimmy Howard for Detroit, but that power play and plus-16 goal differential needs to improve. There's room for improvement for Subban, who was left off the All-Star Game rosters, but for Markov and Gonchar (average age: 38), don't hold your breath.
Sharks' Mueller, Flyers' Grossmann, Caps' Schmidt Placed on IR
San Jose's Mirco Mueller didn't look quite right at the World Juniors for Switzerland and we may have found out why: he's been placed on the IR with an upper body injury. A swift skater with good size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), Mueller's seen limited action this season with three points in 24 games. His inconsistent play has led Todd McLellan to dress Matt Irwin and Scott Hannan instead, both of whom offer far less upside. The Sharks are clinging onto third place in the Pacific Division but have won just four of their past 10 games and their minus-2 goal differential suggests they're not as good as everyone thinks. Brent Burns remains the only Sharks defenseman worth owning but Justin Braun could provide some nice returns and will establish a new career-high in points by the end of the season.
Philadelphia's Nicklas Grossman has also been placed on the IR, which means the Flyers are going to fall even further with their lack of depth on defense and Steve Mason on the shelf. Mark Streit is the team's only reliable puck-mover and if teams clamp down on him, offence will be hard to generate, which may put Claude Giroux and leading scorer Jakub Voracek in tough spots.
Washington's Nate Schmidt was also placed on the IR with a fractured shoulder blade which leaves the Caps a little short on defense. Jack Hillen will hold down the fort and Steve Oleksy was recently demoted, but watch for a call up for either Connor Carrick, who appeared in 34 games last year, or Tomas Kundratek, who suffered an ACL injury early during the 2013-14 season. For Carrick, a 5-foot-10 offensive defenseman with speed to burn, think Colorado's Tyson Barrie, while Kundratek's got a heavy slap shot. Both can add value to the Caps offence and power play.
Performers of the Week
Adam McQuaid, Boston - In a 3-1 win over Philly, McQuaid notched an assist and 21 PIM in his fifth game back. In roto leagues, a lot of ground in the PIM category can be gained in just one night, so that's one reason to own McQuaid for a short period. He's never finished with over 100 PIM though.
Shea Weber, Nashville - Everyone knows that Weber is one guy you don't piss off. Not only is he not afraid to turnbuckle players (just ask Henrik Zetterberg), he became a league-wide hero after pummeling known rat Matt Cooke, whose ill-advised jab at Weber's chin after the whistle set off Weber's trademark lumberjack rage. He also scored two goals against Dallas in the previous game.
Erik Johnson, Colorado - Johnson's 11th goal of the season against Ottawa marked a new career-high and an outstanding total for a guy who was known to be stronger on the defensive side of the puck. He followed that up with his league-leading 12th goal and is on his way to the All-Star Game.
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis - The Blues' best all-round defenseman is on a three-game point streak with four assists after going four games without a point. He had an okay first half of the season so he should see his production spike in the second half. That he's often on the ice with David Backes' line, which has been on fire, will certainly help.
Torey Krug, Boston - His ice time has dipped a little with the B's getting healthier, but that hasn't stopped Krug from starting another three-game point streak one game after his previous three-game point streak was snapped. He's got six points in his past seven games.
Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg - The Jets are hard to play against because they're big, fast and hits anything that moves. That starts with Big Buff, who has three assists in his past two games. The strongest player in the NHL became Francois Beauchemin's worst nightmare after he sent the veteran flying into the boards, and even 6-foot-4 captain Ryan Getzlaf seemed hesitant to confront him after the hit. Byfuglien prefers playing defense and obviously enjoys it a lot. Let's hope he stays there for the Jets and the highlight reel's sake.
Alex Edler, Vancouver - He's pointless in his past three games and the Canucks have scored just four times in their past three games. He's doing the right things, but again, the production just isn't there. The Canucks are one of the league's weaker teams 5-on-5.
Kris Letang, Pittsburgh - He has just one assist in his past three games and three points in his past seven games, but is battling a lot of bumps and bruises. His production should climb once he gets healthy.
Mark Giordano, Calgary - First it was T.J. Brodie falling off the map a little, but now the Calgary captain is mired in a slump of his own with one assist in his past six games. The Flames will go only as far as he can carry them. Best case scenario: it's a minor slump with nothing to worry about. Worst case scenario: he's starting to fatigue.