Each Monday during the NHL season, Rob Mixer takes a look at the biggest storylines from the hockey week that was.
We are halfway through the NHL regular season.
As Jon Bon Jovi would say, some teams are living on a prayer while others are heading into 2018 feeling quite content with their position. Others (looking at you, Buffalo) can’t wait for the season to end — mercifully — as their first 40-some games have been nightmarish.
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Normally, we use this space on Mondays to look at the major storylines around the NHL. We’ll be doing that again today, but with a slightly different twist: Who are the real contenders and who are the phonies? You can’t tell me 80 percent of the league is legitimately in playoff contention, right? There’s got to be some demarcation between the legitimate and the imposters.
Maybe there’s not, and maybe I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But let’s give it our best shot to see who has a strong chance of being there at the end, and who might be in a playoff spot now but without strong long-term hopes.
Note: Not every team in playoff position will be mentioned here, so please don’t get mad if your team isn’t featured. I don’t hate them, I just don’t like them.
Tampa Bay Lightning
If you describe the Lightning to a friend using only one word, just go with the fire emoji.
Despite coach Jon Cooper delivering a statement-only press conference after a loss to Ottawa Saturday night, Tampa Bay is unequivocally the team to beat not just in the East, but in the entire 31-team derby. They’re the league’s most skilled team and that skill extends up and down a deep forward group, to a sturdy and aggressive defense, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goaltender in the business at this moment.
We’re going to see and hear so much about the Lightning both this spring and in the years to come that many of us will be able to spell “Vasilevskiy” correctly on the first attempt.
Vegas Golden Knights
It’s going to take a lot to talk me out of thinking the Golden Knights can win a playoff round.
An expansion team, inaugural season, in the Western Conference. Yeah, I think it’s gonna happen.
Gerard Gallant’s pushed all the right buttons so far and his influence is all over the team; they survived a potentially catastrophic run of injuries to goaltenders early in the season and kept their heads above water (and then some). Now that Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban are the tandem in net, Gallant’s got a feel for the schedule and how much work each guy can handle.
Their playing style is frustrating, in that they’re literally everywhere. They pursue the puck as if it stole their valuables, they skate teams out of the rink, and rarely do they beat themselves. I’m all in on the Golden Knights. They’re in the “legit” category.
Toronto Maple Leafs
I’ve seen a few people who are skeptical of the Leafs’ ability to go deep, but I just like the way they’re built. Their coach has been there a few times, too, and has a strong grasp on his young team.
When you headline with a guy like Auston Matthews and surround him with skilled teammates like Mitch Marner, William Nylander and others (to think, James van Riemsdyk is a complimentary piece on this Leafs team), you’re off to a good start. Frederik Andersen looks like he can handle being the No. 1 guy in Toronto and their defense is holding together.
They’re going to have rough nights (don’t we all?) but I’m bullish on the Leafs being there in May, maybe into June. They’re too skilled and they don’t need much time or space to break a game open, which is what you look for in a tight playoff series.
All of a sudden, the Bruins look like one of the best teams in the business.
They’re trying to make up ground on the Lightning after plodding along in the first couple months of the season. It’s getting a tad bit interesting now, with the Bruins sitting nine points behind Tampa Bay and having played two fewer games as of Sunday afternoon. Boston’s 23-10-6 record (heading into Sunday’s games) is fueled by a 10-game streak of points, by way of an 8-0-2 record in that span. The Bruins are for real, and their stars are cooking right now.
After coming so close a season ago, you knew David Poile would find a way to strengthen his team for another run at the Stanley Cup championship they’ve come within arm’s reach of.
What did Poile do? Ho hum, just added another top-six center in Kyle Turris and made his team even deeper in the Western Conference, where no one waits for you to get going. And with another entry (Vegas) wasting no time in racking up wins and points, the Predators’ early jump on the trade market looks like a wise decision.
They’re three points back of division-leading Winnipeg going into the week but have played fewer games than both teams ahead of them (Winnipeg — 57 points, St. Louis — 55). Where Nashville has succeeded is on the road, which is a strong vital sign heading down the stretch; the Predators have as many wins at home (23) as they do away from Bridgestone Arena and have shown they can bring their hard-charging, aggressive game to any rink.
Columbus Blue Jackets
I watch the Blue Jackets on a regular basis, and while removing bias, I think they’re close to “legit” status when they’re healthy and playing their best. Right now, they’re neither of those things; they’re missing three important forwards (Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky and Alexander Wennberg) and a top-four defenseman in Ryan Murray. Their power play stinks (though it did score twice last night, so take that, Rob!) and they’ve had to adjust their style of play because their depth has been ravaged by injuries.
When they get back to full strength, we’ll have a better idea about where they stand. But if the Blue Jackets can hang tough in the Metropolitan Division, they’ve got a chance to make noise.
The Capitals lead the division and might take the mantle for weirdest team in the Metro so far.
They lingered around third, fourth and fifth place in the division at different parts of the season, but lately, they’ve made a steady climb to the top — a place in which they’ve become comfortable. We’re accustomed to seeing the Capitals leading the Metro Division (and the Eastern Conference, too) and while their current lead isn’t anything to feel confident in, they’ve won five straight and look the part of a team that’s ready to create some separation.
Couple that with the Devils and Blue Jackets dragging their feet and the Capitals have a chance open up some breathing room if they continue this run. I think I need to see a little more from them to be convinced, but Washington’s headed in the right direction.
Their body of work is strong and they’ve avoided prolonged slumps to this point, but the sole factor keeping the Jets from “legit” status in my book is that they’re simply unproven as a group. Can Connor Hellebuyck be a playoff difference-maker for them? Can their defense stay healthy down the stretch? Let’s hope so, because they’ve got a few teams hot on their heels and those happen to be talented competitors like Nashville with plenty of offense.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are impressive, but for them, it might come down to the toll the Central Division race takes on them. That, and Mike Yeo’s over-reliance on guys like Jay Bouwmeester, who haven’t had great seasons but continue to draw big minutes.
With the weapons (Vladimir Tarasenko) and a GM in Doug Armstrong who reportedly has a desire to add a significant piece — the Blues are rumored to have interest in Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman, who would be a big upgrade to their offense — the Blues can make a jump to “legit” if the pieces fall into place. As they’re currently constructed, I’m skeptical about their chances to beat out Nashville and maybe Winnipeg.
Here’s what bugs me about the Stars: They play way too slow.
Last week, with the Blue Jackets in town, Dallas looked like it had skates on the wrong feet. Columbus played a simple game and beat them to loose pucks, but the Blue Jackets were also quicker through the middle of the ice, where a team like the Stars — with forwards that want the puck on their stick — should have a significant advantage.
The West is full of teams the can push the pace and attack in waves, and the Stars don’t seem like a team that can handle it. They’re playing well right now and making a bit of a run, but they’re three games below .500 on the road (8-11-2) and a full six points behind the Jets through 43 games.
New Jersey Devils
Just not sold here. The Devils have lost five straight and blew a two-goal lead in the third period Sunday to the Islanders. They haven’t looked good enough for long enough to give me reason to believe in them.
Minnesota’s tied on points (47) for a wild-card berth in the West, but they’re one of five (!) teams with either 46 or 47 points. That’s a ridiculous race, and one you’d guess will go right down to the wire. Do I think the Wild have the talent to get one of those two wild card spots? Yeah, I do. But does the math work against them? It does, and they’ve only treaded water lately — which isn’t close to good enough in the spot they’re in.
New York Rangers
Give the Rangers credit, man. They looked wiped out less than a month into the season. It was ugly.
Thanks to a couple of quality spurts in the points department and some leveling out ahead of them, they’re in the mix. Two huge pieces from last year’s Rangers team, Chris Krieder (surgery) and Derek Stepan (traded to Arizona), are gone and many of the hard minutes have gone to Mika Zibanejad, who’s played really well. Beyond that, they’re going to need more from Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Mats Zuccarello and others if they’re going to squeak by one of New Jersey or Columbus into the top three.
That’s their best bet, because it’s going to be a bloodbath for a wild card spot in the East.