COLUMBUS – Well, that was some “showcase of skill” wasn’t it? Unless of course, you consider bodychecking, backchecking, stopping pucks and skating hard for pucks to be valuable skills.
There’s a good chance that you’ve forgotten whether Team Toews or Team Foligno won as you read this. But it was a good weekend and good on the city of Columbus for being so hospitable and welcoming. And good on the players for letting their hair down a little and letting the fans in on the fun.
Now to more important matters, specifically the second half and stretch run leading up to the playoffs. Here are 10 storylines that should provide some compelling moments as we hit the most crucial part of the season:
1. The Los Angeles Kings: With 35 games to go, the defending Stanley Cup champions are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. The Kings have been in this position before and rallied and they certainly have the personnel to do it again. But the way defenseman Drew Doughty was talking about his team during the all-star break – suggesting the Kings have been as bad as their record this season – suggests the Kings are either really tired from all the hockey they’ve played the past three seasons or are perhaps getting a little complacent.
2. The Slava Voynov Saga: The Kings defenseman’s trial for domestic abuse begins March 2, which just happens to be the day of the NHL’s trade deadline. The league has granted the Kings cap relief on Voynov’s $4.1 million salary, but the Kings are in a quandary. If they use that relief to go out and acquire players at the deadline, what happens if Voynov is found not guilty and returns? The Kings might have the cap relief, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to use it because of the uncertainty surrounding Voynov. And if he’s guilty, his work visa and contract will almost certainly be voided.
3. The Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are on pace to win their first Presidents’ Trophy in team history, but none of that will matter if coach Bruce Boudreau can’t coax some playoff success out of his team. Boudreau has a career record of just 2-5 in playoff series and is a disturbing 1-5 in Game 7s. The thinking is if Boudreau can’t get the Ducks to at least the Western Conference final, he’ll be looking for work.
4. The Rookie Race: The three frontrunner for the Calder Trophy – Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators, Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers and Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames – were all in the All-Star Game. Ekblad is putting together a season for the ages for a rookie defenseman, Forsberg has slowed but is scoring at a pace of almost a point a game and Gaudreau is showing flashes of stardom.
5. The Turtle Race: With generational talents Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel up for grabs and a load of other potential stars available, this will be a fortuitous year to finish among the bottom feeders. The Sabres have lost 11 in a row and look to be a lock for the No. 1 seed in the draft lottery. But the all-star hosts are without their goalie for a month and should be headed downward. The Toronto Maple Leafs are sinking like a rock and there are four teams with fewer than 40 points.
6. The Winnipeg Jets: It wasn’t long ago – last season to be precise – that the Jets looked like a moribund organization that was spinning its wheels. But a kickstart from coach Paul Maurice and some career years have put the Jets comfortably in a playoff position. The question now is whether GM Kevin Cheveldayoff makes a significant move at the trade deadline to bolster his team. The Jets have the assets to do it and need to make a statement to their players and fan base that they’re serious about contending.
7. The Nashville Predators: The Predators enter the post all-star break No. 2 overall in the NHL standings and have four potential trophy winners this season – Forsberg for the Calder, coach Peter Laviolette for the Jack Adams, Shea Weber for the Norris and Pekka Rinne for the Vezina. And they finally look like a team that has the offensive weapons to do some damage in the playoffs.
8. The trade deadline: The March 2 deadline is one of the most anticipated days on the hockey calendar, even if it has diminished a little in importance over the past couple of years. But there are still some compelling players out there in the form of Ryan O’Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche and Chris Stewart of the Buffalo Sabres. The Avs are making a run for the playoffs after a terrible start and the next couple of weeks should determine whether they’ll be sellers at the deadline.
9. Race for the Rocket: Rick Nash, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos have all won the Rocket Richard Trophy before, but they’ll have to better current co-leader Tyler Seguin in order to do it again. Only Nash, who is on pace for 52 goals this season, and Seguin, on pace for 50, are scoring at a 50-goal clip to this point in the season.
10. The New York Islanders: The Islanders are the biggest, most pleasant surprise of this season. They’re currently on pace to record 112 points, which would mark a 33-point improvement over last season and be the second-highest point total in franchise history. Wouldn’t it be something if the Islanders managed to win the Stanley Cup in their last season at the Nassau Coliseum? Even if they don’t, they look like they’re on the verge of great things once they move to Brooklyn.