Five weeks until the trade deadline.
A little more than two months until the playoffs.
The NHL regular season hasn’t quite entered the homestretch, but the teams are starting to jockey for position.
The conclusion of the NHL All-Star Game means the most meaningful segment of the schedule is set to begin. Yes, the games played in October are, of course, worth just as much as those played in March and April. Two points is two points. But there’s no denying the intensity gets ratcheted up as the playoffs approach.
The closer the post-season gets, the more fiercely contested the games. Teams want to make sure they’re peaking at the right time, so they try to ensure everyone is on the same page – or at least using the same playbook – as the post-season nears. A player can be forgiven for a slow start to the season, but don’t go cold when your team is desperately trying to win in the spring.
With that in mind, here are a lucky seven players who can salvage their season – and maybe that of their team’s – with an improved showing in February and March:
Ales Hemsky, Edmonton
Granted, Eric Cole and Sam Gagner need to forget about the first half of the season and finally start contributing some goals on a semi-regular basis. If they don’t, it’s difficult to imagine the Oilers sneaking into the playoffs. But it’s Hemsky who drives Edmonton’s offense; the team can’t afford for him to miss any more time. They’re a different – and much more dangerous – team when Hemsky is in the lineup.
Daniel Briere, Philadelphia
In Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, the Flyers have two young, skilled centers around whom they can build a championship-contending team. And if Briere can come back from the groin/abdomen problems that have limited him to nine games this season, Philadelphia can start contending right away. The latest reports suggest Briere, who underwent more surgery last week, will be out until at least early March.
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina
By this point, you’re probably aware Brind’Amour is an NHL-worst minus-29, a galling figure for one of the league’s lead-by-example types. But did you know the career 435-goal scorer is only on pace for 14 this season? At least he’s still dominating on the dot, winning more than 62 percent of his faceoffs. The Hurricanes are hanging around the edge of the playoff race and desperately need Brind’Amour to lead the way.
David Legwand, Nashville
Two seasons ago, Legwand appeared ready to finally meet the expectations that saw him drafted second overall in 1998 (behind Vincent Lecavalier). He set career-highs with 27 goals and 63 points in 2006-07, easily surpassing previous bests of 18 and 48. But injuries limited Legwand to 65 games last year and he returned to the 40-point output level. This year, it’s more of the same. With 10 goals and 23 points in 43 games, Legwand is on track for 15-20 goals and maybe 40-45 points. But the Predators need more than that, especially with all of the offense (Alexander Radulov, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky) they’ve lost in the past couple of years.
Mats Sundin, Vancouver
The Canucks brought in Sundin to score, period. If his line isn’t generating at least one goal per game, Vancouver isn’t getting its money’s worth. Sundin has had a slow start on the West Coast – and the team has been ice-cold with him in the lineup – but he’s a notoriously slow out of the gates. Look for Sundin to pick it up and – with Roberto Luongo helping out in net – Vancouver to be a playoff upstart.
Tim Connolly, Buffalo
First of all, let’s not let Maxim Afinogenov off the hook. Two goals in 32 games? Who’s coaching the forwards in Buffalo these days, Rob Ray? But the old storyline in Buffalo is how the Sabres lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency a couple of years ago, received nothing in return, and haven’t been the same team since. Connolly has the skill set to capably hold down a job on one of Buffalo’s top two lines. But he also has a propensity for injuries – usually concussions, but he’s had back problems, too – and has missed as much time as he’s played since joining Buffalo in 2001. The good news is Connolly is healthy and productive at the moment. But you might want to check back in after lunch.
Nathan Horton, Florida
Projected as a top-flight power forward when the Panthers drafted him third overall in 2003, Horton has mostly frustrated those expectations. It hasn’t been all bad, not by a long shot. After 14 goals in 55 games as an 18-year-old rookie in 2003-04, Horton has scored 28, 31 and 27 goals and he has another 13 in 37 games this season. It goes beyond goals, though; Florida wants Horton to do the kinds of things Jarome Iginla does for Calgary: skate hard, lead by example and hit anything that moves. He’s only 23 years old, so there’s still time for Horton to take the next step and be a true impact player. Right, Stephen Weiss?
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