Spicy NHL storylines to watch for the rest of the season


With the All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror, teams are hunkering down for a big stretch run. Plenty of teams are still in the race, so it should be a good one.

For this week’s column, I did a big notebook dump to tell you about the 10 storylines I’ll be following for the next two months: everything from trade deadline goalie controversies, to coach firings, to which teams could find themselves sneaking into the postseason picture. Let’s roll:

1. Can the Buffalo Sabres save themselves, or are we looking at another implosion?

Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Sabres in 2011. The team made the playoffs that spring, lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, and hasn’t been back to the postseason since. Buffalo is now on its sixth coach in that span, and third general manager. And for the second straight season, a promising start by the Sabres has been derailed. Entering this week, Buffalo is 10 points out of a playoff spot. Fans are frustrated. Word is the owners are, too.

If the Sabres end up making the playoffs, it’s likely because Jack Eichel — having a Hart Trophy-worthy season, already setting a career-high with 31 goals through 51 games — dragged them there. If they miss, it’s because Eichel didn’t have enough support.

Back in October, GM Jason Botterill reminded me: “Something that is kind of forgotten at times is just how young we are.” The Sabres are young, and it doesn’t help that players like Casey Mittelstadt (the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft) haven’t been able to make an impact. Mittelstadt is currently on an AHL demotion.

We’ll see if the Pegulas want to make more change in the offseason if the Sabres miss the playoffs yet again, extending their NHL-high drought. But I’d be shocked if coach Ralph Krueger is a one-and-done. Eichel is the team’s most important player, and he was gushing about his coach at All-Star Weekend. It’s clear Eichel has a ton of respect for the coach, and is responding to his style well.

“He’s a special human being,” Eichel said of Krueger. “He’s a privilege to be around every day — the way that he handles his business, the way he handles our team, it’s very impressive. His energy and his enthusiasm and his positiveness is very impressive. For a group like ours that has obviously been through a lot the last few years, for him to be so patient with us as he has, it’s really fed into the locker room. He never carries his emotions from one day to another. He’s so good at resetting after a bad game or a bad day and getting us back on track, and that’s so important for our team this year.”

In 2017-18, the Caps entered the playoffs with a bit of a goalie controversy. Backup Philipp Grubauer got the nod in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets over a struggling Braden Holtby, which produced shockwaves. It didn’t last long. Holtby replaced Grubauer by the third playoff game, then led the team to its first Stanley Cup.

This season, it’s worth monitoring Washington’s situation in net yet again. Top young goalie Ilya Samsonov got the nod as Holtby’s backup this season (over Pheonix Copley) and the 22-year-old Russian has been fantastic. He’s 10-0-0 on the road, joining Brent Johnson as the only goalies to win their first 10 road decisions in the NHL.

On Sunday, the Caps gave Samsonov the start against Pittsburgh — in a nationally televised game, no less — marking his second consecutive start of the season. The Caps have quashed any controversy, especially since Holtby has been strong after a shaky start, and was named an All-Star. But it’s hard not to read the tea leaves here. Holtby is on the final year of a five-year deal, and unlike with Nicklas Backstrom, the team is not negotiating with Holtby during the season. With Samsonov on a rookie contract, he’s a far cheaper and more viable future option; Holtby may simply be too expensive to fit into future plans, especially after the Capitals pay Backstrom. Keep an eye on how this plays out.

3. The Battle of Alberta rages

The two games between the Oilers and Flames last week were the most hyped non-Winter Classic regular-season games I can remember since I began covering the NHL beat. After escalating tension before the All-Star break, the NHL sent Director of the Department of Player Safety George Parros and Head of Officiating Stephen Walkom to be on site for the game on Wednesday night; everyone knew something would go down.

“Whether or not my presence here adds to the circus effect, I don’t think so,” Parros told reporters before the game. “I’m just here to make sure everyone is paying attention.”

Nothing too unruly ensued, though Matthew Tkachuk fought Zack Kassian, and in a rematch two days later, we got a goalie fight between Mike Smith and Cam Talbot.

Is this type of rivalry good for the NHL? We can debate the merits of fighting, though there are two things that are true:

1. Players largely believe fighting helps regulate the game.
2. Casual fans find it entertaining.

So if somebody is going to tune in to the game for the antics, and happens to start paying attention to the excellence of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, so be it. It’s getting people to watch, and it’s adding importance to regular-season games.

The teams have just one more contest in the regular season, on April 4. They’re nearly neck-and-neck in the standings, and both are fighting for a playoff spot. Just imagine if these teams square off in the postseason.

Last season, the Blackhawks started slow, fired coach Joel Quenneville, then took time to adjust to rookie coach Jeremy Colliton. But from Jan. 20 on, they were one of the best teams in the league, tying for sixth in points in that span, and second in goals (3.70). Chicago’s second-half surge almost led the Blackhawks to the playoffs, though they missed by six points.

Don’t look now, but the Blackhawks are gearing up for another push. And lucky for them, they started about a week earlier this season. The Blackhawks have won six of seven since Jan. 11, and sit just three points out of the wild card. They’re also getting healthy at the right time, welcoming back Drake Caggiula, Brandon Saad and Dylan Strome.

“I think we have a pretty dangerous team, to be honest with you,” Patrick Kane said at All-Star Weekend. “Some teams might look at us and think we’re easy to play against, but I think we’re kind of changing that. I think we’re playing a more controlled game and a better team game lately. We have a lot of experience, but we haven’t been in the playoffs for a little bit, so it would be nice to get back there and feel that pressure of playing some meaningful games and playoff hockey. I think that would be huge for our team.”

GM Stan Bowman is taking a patient approach ahead of the trade deadline; if his team is in good position, I wouldn’t expect much action from it (i.e. don’t look for either Corey Crawford or Robin Lehner to be traded, but maybe Chicago will take an offer on Erik Gustafsson, who hits free agency this summer). If the Blackhawks crumble, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an offseason shakeup in either the coaching staff, management, or both.

5. Who is going to improve the most at the trade deadline?

The two teams in which I’m most interested have been two of the best teams in the NHL’s first half: the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.

Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford is a transaction-happy guy, and he typically telegraphs when he wants to make a move. He has expressed an interest in adding to his group, rewarding it for performing so admirably despite unrelenting injuries through the first half. Ideally, the Penguins add an elite wing to replace Jake Guentzel. In an even better situation, they find a trading partner who will take on Alex Galchenyuk, who hasn’t been the best fit since coming over in a trade this summer.

As for the Blues, the key is Vladimir Tarasenko‘s health. The sniper underwent surgery on his left shoulder in late October, and a timeline for return was right around the end of the regular season. If Tarasenko returns before the end of the regular season, the Blues need to account for his $7.5 million salary in order to be cap-compliant. If he doesn’t come back before then — and makes his return in the playoffs, a la Patrick Kane in 2015 — the Blues can spend that money. And I get the sense that GM Doug Armstrong wants to, despite how impressive his team has been in its Stanley Cup defense.

6. The case for a quiet trade deadline

One thing a GM told me recently: This season, everyone is looking for player with term. The pure rentals just aren’t as attractive. Will that quiet the trade deadline market? Possibly.

Two of the most coveted rental players, Chris Kreider and Ilya Kovalchuk, could be on the move, but it seems just as likely that they stick with their respective clubs. The Los Angeles Kings are happy to get rid of any aging contracts, which mean they could be the busiest team, trading away mainstays like Alec Martinez (who hits free agency in 2021) and Tyler Toffoli (a free agent this summer). It’s unclear what another bottom feeder, the New Jersey Devils, will do under interim GM Tom Fitzgerald. Defenseman Sami Vatanen is the big name to watch there.

Plenty of teams will be interested in Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau, but could the Senators’ asking price be too high? And while there is some scuttlebutt about goalies on the move, it feels like the Rangers could get a better deal for Alexandar Georgiev if they wait until the draft; and as mentioned earlier, the Blackhawks aren’t itching to get rid of either of their goalies, who have been fantastic so far.

7. A new record for goal scoring?

Parity has never been more apparent in the NHL, and games have never been more dynamic. By midseason, we had 33 wins by teams that were trailing by multiple goals in the third period — the highest total in NHL history through 638 games of a season. And we’re seeing a record pace of scoring: Through 805 games, the NHL was averaging 6.10 goals per game — an uptick from last season’s 6.02, which was the highest total since 2005-06 and the second-highest total since 1993-94.

8. The MVP race will come down to the wire

In the Professional Hockey Writers Association midseason awards, Connor McDavid was voted No. 1 for the Hart Trophy, followed by Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Boston’s David Pastrnak. All players are worthy, and this race could swing in a few different ways down the stretch.

And if their respective teams make the playoffs, don’t count out the Rangers’ Artemi Panarin or Eichel as dark horses.

9. Will we see more coaching turnover?

It’s been a brutal season of firings in the NHL, as the coaching carousel has been spinning nearly nonstop. Seven teams had fired their coach by midseason. It feels like we’re past the worst of it, but in this climate, who knows?

Most likely, we’ll get a few more changes this offseason. Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman is building a contender from scratch, and Jeff Blashill’s status feels tenuous. Similarly, the new GM in Minnesota, Bill Guerin, may want the opportunity to hire his own guy, meaning he will part with Bruce Boudreau this offseason. Paul Maurice in Winnipeg is on the last year of his deal. And as mentioned earlier, keep tabs on the Blackhawks, depending on how they finish.

Florida and Arizona both have self-imposed pressure to return to the playoffs this spring. They both spent big money to bring in big names — for Arizona, it was Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall; for Florida, it was Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky — which was designed to help the teams win, but also drum up excitement in two markets that are always looking to grow their fan base. (As Quenneville told me in November: “If we win, the place will be full. But we’ve got to win.”)

The Panthers are sitting just outside the playoffs in the East, and Arizona is clinging to the last wild-card spot in the West. That means performance over the next two-plus months is crucial for each franchise.

Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn’t like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

Emptying the notebook

Last February, I traveled to Nashville to attend a meetup of the Black Girl Hockey Club, a group that created a safe space for women of color to discuss and watch the sport they love. Renee Hess, an academic from California, founded the club, and the members had their inaugural meetup in 2018.

I wanted to check in with Hess and see how things were going, as it had been a little time since we’d last spoken. I talked to Hess on Sunday, right after she got off a flight from Pittsburgh to New York, and she is quite a busy person. BGHC has six events in five weeks; it kicked off Jan. 31 in Pittsburgh, where Hess says the Penguins “rolled out the red carpet for us.” Hess brought a group of 50, and not only did they go to the Penguins game plus a reception, but they also hosted a screening of “Soul on Ice” and did an activation of ball hockey in an elementary school in the Hill District, a predominantly black neighborhood. The Penguins also set up a group link for tickets to the game under the Black Girl Hockey Club umbrella, and sold another 350 tickets.

Hess will participate in a panel discussion before an upcoming Rangers game, then the BGHC will be in New Jersey on Feb. 8, Brooklyn on Feb. 11, Raleigh on Feb. 16 and Columbus on March 1. Hess does most of the legwork herself, coordinating with the individual clubs, but she has felt strong support from the NHL.

“I really feel like the National Hockey League has gotten behind us,” she said. “Maybe they’ve felt they’ve been pushed to participate in more diversion and inclusion activities. But it’s really good they’re taking these necessary steps, talking to their upper management and acknowledging there needs to be a culture shift. It’s cool Black Hockey Club has been a part of it.”

It’s been a troubling few months for diversity in hockey. In November, Akim Aliu came forward and said that then-coach Bill Peters used racist language toward him when they were in the minors 10 years ago. Even though there were witnesses (who later corroborated the account), Aliu said he didn’t feel comfortable for nearly a decade to come forward with his story. Last month, AHL defenseman Brandon Manning was suspended for using racist language toward Ontario Reign winger Bokondji Imama in a game.

“I wouldn’t even say these incidents were setbacks,” Hess said. “If you are a black hockey fan or black hockey player, you know these things happen all the time.”

Hess said she sent a message to Aliu after he went public, and said, “I just want you to know there are a group of black women who have your back, and want you to succeed.”

Since Hess lives in California, she is trying to arrange some time to meet Imama, and let him know the same thing she told Aliu.

“That’s all we can do,” Hess said. “The club is all about creating communities, and a space where not only can we have a good time and enjoy games, but also provide support.”

What we liked this week

  • Really cool gesture by Elias Pettersson following the All-Star Game, per Harman Dayal of The Athletic. Pettersson won $10,000 for a charity of his choice after hitting over 100 mph on both of his tries in the hardest shot competition. He split the donation between the Parkinson Society of British Columbia and the Minnesota chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association, in honor of teammate Brock Boeser‘s father, Duke. You can read more about Boeser and his father in this feature I wrote last season.

  • Super interesting charts at the end of this piece by FiveThirtyEight. There’s 63 minutes of game action in an average NHL broadcast — which is quite a bit more than in the NBA, MLB or NFL (but not as much as in the EPL).

  • It’s hard to understate how impressive the Blue Jackets’ goaltending has been, which is a big reason they’re in playoff position. As Joonas Korpisalo still works his way back from a torn meniscus, Elvis Merzlikins improved to 6-0-0 in his past six appearances, extending the longest win streak by a rookie goaltender in Blue Jackets history.

  • I absolutely love this. According to Michael Smith of the official Hurricanes website, Jake Gardiner‘s brother-in-law is a multisport Special Olympics athlete in Minnesota. So his teammates showed up in support, and did the polar plunge in Lake Raleigh:

What we didn’t like this week

  • The San Jose Sharks‘ season from hell continues as Tomas Hertl is out for the season after tearing his ACL and MCL in his left knee. Hertl — second on the team in goals, and one of the true bright spots for this team this season — is scheduled to have surgery on Monday.

  • I hated how viral the “leak” of Seattle choosing the Kraken as a team name became this week — mostly because the reporting felt flimsy. If you listen to the SiriusXM NHL Network radio interview with John Hoven of mayorsmanor.com — where he broke the news — he wasn’t exactly 100% confident. “I do just want to say, in one of these situations like this, I’m always a little reluctant if there’s somebody trying to do the ultimate swerve and mislead information,” Hoven said. “I was told by a source that’s very connected to the situation that it is the Kraken. I believe that it’s the Kraken. But save your tweets if they end up doing a giant swerve on everybody and going with something completely different like the Totems, or the Seattle Swarm, or whatever one of the million other names are out there.” At the All-Star Game, I learned that Seattle is close to revealing its name, but nothing is imminent. (Don’t expect an announcement this week.) It has been a tedious process for all involved, and the team is still debating how it wants to make the announcement. The team responded to the Kraken rumors with some humor:

  • It stinks that Alex Ovechkin had to miss a game for a suspension (due to not playing in the All-Star Game) because he rarely misses time at all. In his NHL career, which began in 2005-06, Ovechkin has missed 17 games for injury, 10 games for a suspension, two games for family reasons, one game for oversleeping a morning skate, and one game when a lot of starters rested for the final game of the season.

Three stars of the week

The Lightning are back, and so is their captain. He had five goals and three assists in four games this week, a sweep of the California teams. Stamkos is riding a seven-game point streak.

Draisaitl added to his 11-game point streak by scoring two goals and eight assists in three games this week, including a pair of goals against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues. He’s up to 83 points in just 52 games.

Price, who has now started six straight games for the Habs, has been red hot, seemingly trying to will this team into the playoffs by himself. He won two of his four starts this past week, but saved 108 of 115 shots (a .939 save percentage) including a 29-save shutout over the Panthers on Saturday.

Games of the week

Taylor Hall has been out of the news for a bit. That’s going to change in this important Pacific Division battle. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl & Co. visit the desert, where they’ll square off against Hall — you know, the one who got away.

The Blackhawks are making what is now their annual second-half push, winning six of seven entering this week. The Bruins, meanwhile, have looked like an Eastern Conference contender pretty much all season. Patrick Kane loves to face off against fellow superstars, and it will be fun to see Kane and David Pastrnak try to one-up each other. Also, expect some stellar goaltending in this game.

The Lightning have woken up from their early-season slumber, and are once again looking like one of the best teams in the league. They have a league-high 31 points since Dec. 23 (15-2-1). No better way to test yourself than against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.

Quote of the week

“Thanks, kid. I appreciate you doing this.” — What Zack Kassian said he told Matthew Tkachuk right before they fought in the Battle of Alberta, according to Ryan Rishaug of TSN. Hockey culture, everyone.

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