The NHL continues to play catchup with the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning playing just one game from Monday to Sunday, while the Oilers play a league-high five games.
The disparity in games played from week-to-week makes it difficult to gauge team performance in a start-and-stop-and-start-again type of season, but with COVID restrictions slowly being lifted, there’s a lot of optimism that the league can finish an 82-game schedule for the first time in three seasons.
The top teams have started to really separate themselves from the pack, but the much-maligned Pacific Division is demanding more attention.
The Flames have been aggressive in their playoff hunt and acquired Tyler Toffoli on Valentine’s Day, re-uniting him with Darryl Sutter after winning the Cup together with the Kings. He’ll bolster their forward depth and it’ll take some pressure off Johnny Gaudreau’s line – probably the best in the league – and maybe help re-ignite Sean Monahan’s declining offense.
All eyes, of course, will be on Jack Eichel’s Golden Knights debut against the league-leading Avs. We should temper our expectations since this will be Eichel’s first game since March 7, 2021, and the Knights will be without captain Mark Stone (insert LTIR joke here) and the Avs are by far the best team in the West.
Eichel’s return has dropped Chandler Stephenson to the third line, but there’s no guarantee that Eichel, who will center Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov, will play more minutes. The reasonable expectation is to ease him back into the lineup; the Knights aren’t in desperation mode at the moment and Eichel’s recovery from an unprecedented – at least from a pro hockey standpoint – neck operation demands caution.
(All fancy stats are 5v5 and courtesy naturalstattrick.com)
1. Colorado Avalanche (34-9-4, +56. CF%: 5th, xGF%: 7th. PR: 1)
Even when they’re losing, they don’t look that bad. The Avs had more than double the number of shots as the Stars but couldn’t find a way to beat Jake Oettinger. They dropped just their ninth game of the season, the only team to remain in the single digits.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (32-11-6, +30. CF%: 11th, xGF%: 5th. Previous Rank: 2)
They narrowly escaped defeat against the Coyotes with Brian Elliott in net, and you wonder if that’s a position they should bolster despite being up against the cap, even just to give Vasilevskiy some rest. The drop-off from Vasilevskiy, who is already on pace for a 63-game season, is huge; he’s fourth in GSAA while Elliott is 42nd.
3. New York Rangers (30-13-4, +23. CF%: 32nd, xGF%: 29th. PR: 3)
The Rangers keep losing the possession battle and yet they just pull off wins in a variety of ways thanks to Shesterkin. Their latest win against the Bruins was bizarre; after being forced to leave the game by concussion spotters with 40.5 seconds left in a 1-1 tie, Shesterkin returned to win in a shootout.
4. Florida Panthers (32-10-5, +55. CF%: 1st, xGF%: 3rd. PR: 4)
The last time the Panthers had a break this long, it came at an opportune time because they had lost three in a row, including 8-2 to the Sens. Wednesday will be their first game in two weeks and hopefully there’s not too much rust.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-11-8, +37. CF%: 9th, xGF%: 8th. PR: 7)
There was no way the Pens would lose to the dreaded Flyers on Jaromir Jagr’s birthday, and certainly not after Crosby scored his 500th, with the lone assist going to Evgeni Malkin. Crosby’s career has been like a fairy tale; you can’t even make this stuff up. Their four-game winning streak is the second longest active streak in the league behind the Flame’s seven-game scorcher.
6. Calgary Flames (27-13-6, +48. CF%: 2nd, xGF%: 2nd. PR: 11)
They took the division lead thanks to a seven-game winning streak and should be the favorites to win the division. There’s more balance among forwards with Toffoli, who scored a goal in his Flames debut, and they’ve got solid defense and even better goaltending.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs (31-12-3, +42. CF%: 7th, xGF%: 4th. PR: 5)
The Leafs' offense is nearly unstoppable when Marner is going off, but it was a mixed bag punctuated by a 5-2 loss to the Flames in a showdown between the two best Canadian teams. There was no doubt which team was better.
8. Minnesota Wild (30-11-3, +43. CF%: 15th, xGF%: 11th. PR: 8)
Seven of their next nine games will be played on the road, and there are tough stops in Toronto and Calgary, which they play twice. Expect the Talbot and Kahkonen rotation to continue, and the Wild’s lack of depth on offense seems to have resolved itself with the continuing strong play of Matt Boldy, who is coming off a hat-trick performance against the Wings.
9. Carolina Hurricanes (32-11-3, +52. CF%: 3rd, xGF%: 6th. PR: 6)
The Canes are mired in a bit of a slump, going 1-2-1 in their four-game road trip that included losses to the Leafs and Wild that dropped their ranking. To be fair, all of their losses were by just one goal, but they’re losing ground in the Metro.
10. St. Louis Blues (26-13-5, +32. CF%: 22nd, xGF%: 24th. PR: 12)
This should be the last we see of Binnington, right? Granted, it was another easy win for Husso, who faced just 20 shots against the Sens, but no matter the metric, he’s been the better goalie. Craig Berube rolled with Husso back in mid-January and the rational decision would be to roll with Husso for the rest of the season.
11. Nashville Predators (28-17-4, +12. CF%: 16th, xGF%: 15th. PR: 9)
Just when you think the Preds are going to leap to the top, they end up playing possum. They’ve lost three in a row, getting outscored 13-6, including losses to division rivals Dallas and Winnipeg.
12. Vegas Golden Knights (28-16-3, +25. CF%: 10th, xGF%: 10th. PR: 10)
Given their cap issues and the way their season has gone, it’s basically impossible for Vegas to ice their full lineup until the playoffs. Eichel is in but Stone is out, and their season would’ve been a lot tougher if the Oilers and Canucks haven’t struggled so much.
13. Edmonton Oilers (26-18-3, +5. CF%: 8th, xGF%: 12th. PR: 16)
They’re 3-0-0 with only three goals allowed under Jay Woodcroft, and if they continue to dominate puck possession and their goaltending isn’t terrible, they should shoot back up the standings. They’re a talented group with a ton of holes in their lineup still, but the early returns have been excellent.
14. Dallas Stars (26-19-2, -1. CF%: 19th, xGF%: 17th. PR: 14)
The Stars were 11-3-1 at home and 4-9-1 on the road before Dec. 31, but since then have normalized going 6-4-0 at home and 5-3-0 on the road, including an impressive revenge win against the Avs on Tuesday. It’s still a very mixed bag under Rick Bowness, and despite an excellent top line that rarely disappoints, they need to commit to Oettinger and decide what to do with Klingberg.
15. Boston Bruins (27-16-4, +4. CF%: 6th, xGF%: 1st. PR: 15)
Losing games without Bergeron and Marchand in the lineup comes to no surprise. What was particularly noteworthy, however, was Swayman getting his second straight start after Ullmark struggled for most of January even though he still managed to notch eight wins.
16. Anaheim Ducks (23-17-9, +3. CF%: 20th, xGF%: 23rd. PR: 13)
The Ducks have played only one game since Jan. 31, a 4-3 loss to the Kraken. The upcoming three-game road trip across Western Canada will be vital; they’re tied for third in the Pacific and a poor showing may dash their playoff hopes. It’s still unknown if they will be buyers or sellers at the deadline a month from now.
17. Washington Capitals (27-15-9, +24. CF%: 13th, xGF%: 14th. PR: 18)
A win against Nashville was a good start to their four-game road trip, and they’ll need Samsonov to stay sharp to get back on track. Peter Laviolette doesn’t seem to have much confidence in Pheonix Copley, so good thing they get a game against Philly on Thursday before taking a week off.
18. Vancouver Canucks (22-21-6, -9. CF%: 18th, xGF%: 20th. PR: 17)
The Canucks have a lot to think about, but one thing for sure is that if they want to make a playoff push, they cannot trade J.T. Miller and Demko might need to start every game. They’re 14-6-4 under Bruce Boudreau, the fourth-best P% of his career, but they lost too much ground at the beginning of the season.
19. Los Angeles Kings (24-17-7, +3. CF%: 4th, xGF%: 9th. PR: 19)
They held fast against the Oilers up until the last five minutes of the game where everything kind of fell apart. With the loss, the Kings fall down to the last wild-card spot with the Ducks and Canucks nipping at their heels.
20. Winnipeg Jets (20-18-8, -6. CF%: 12th, xGF%: 16th. PR: 20)
Wins against St. Louis, Minnesota and Nashville were impressive as they try and claw back into the Central Division race, but they also represent the only three wins in their past 12 games. Using both the 10-game and 25-game rolling averages show an uptick in performance, but overall, the Jets continue to be in a downtrend.
21. Ottawa Senators (17-25-4, -26. CF%: 29th, xGF%: 25th. PR: 22)
The Sens goaltending has been… good?! Entering Tuesday’s game, Murray and Forsberg combined for three wins in six games with a .946 save percentage and a 2.03 GAA, and since Feb. 1 rank sixth with a 2.17 GA/GP. The loss to the Blues was a reality check, but the bigger loss was Murray, who left the game with an injury late in the third period.
22. San Jose Sharks (22-21-4, -19. CF%: 30th, xGF%: 19th. PR: 21)
New week, same problems. The Sharks were shutout 3-0 on Valentine’s Day against the Oilers, highlighting again an offense that has completely disappeared and goaltending that can’t steal games. The key question that's far more important than their record: does Hertl re-sign?
23. Columbus Blue Jackets (23-23-1, -24. CF%: 21st, xGF%: 28th. PR: 24)
An assist Tuesday against the Flames extended Laine’s point streak to six games, and he’s now scoring at a point-per-game pace even though many thought he’d be far worse in Columbus due to their lack of playmaking forwards. Laine’s next contract will be very interesting.
24. Detroit Red Wings (22-22-6, -30. CF%: 26th, xGF%: 22nd. PR: 26)
It was a pretty strong showing against Minnesota, all things considered, and overall, the Wings are still performing above expectations. Moritz Seider seems to have really separated himself from the pack in the Calder race.
25. Buffalo Sabres (16-24-8, -36. CF%: 24th, xGF%: 30th. PR: 27)
The line of Thompson between Skinner and Tuch has been outstanding, operating at a 54.17 Corsi-for percentage and generating over a shot attempt per minute. Tuch’s been playing at a point-per-game pace since returning from injury, and along with Thompson, has enough size to keep opposing defenses preoccupied while Skinner continues his resurgent season with 20 goals, already one shy of his combined total over the previous two seasons.
26. Seattle Kraken (16-29-4, -44. CF%: 17th, xGF%: 21st. PR: 25)
Ron Francis has always been a quiet GM, but it’s been so quiet you wonder if there’s really anything going on upstairs. The Kraken should be aggressive sellers, but nothing yet even though the losses keep piling up.
27. New York Islanders (17-20-6, -17. CF%: 27th, xGF%: 18th. PR: 23)
We’re done with the Isles this year, right? They won just one game on their four-game road trip and nothing is going right; Varlamov was held out of action due to Canada’s stricter COVID protocols, and even when both goalies are playing well, they can’t provide any goal support.
28. Chicago Blackhawks (18-24-7, -43. CF%: 28th, xGF%: 27th. PR: 31)
The Hawks have a chance to sell Fleury back to the Knights for an exorbitant price after getting him for free. They’re literally playing with house money, which is not the way Vegas usually works.
29. New Jersey Devils (17-28-5, -36. CF%: 14th, xGF%: 13th. PR: 28)
They had the lead against the Lightning but, unsurprisingly, ended up losing the game. They’re stuck in the marshes as long as Jon Gillies is their No. 1 option in net.
30. Philadelphia Flyers (15-24-9, -45. CF%: 23rd, xGF%: 26th. PR: 29)
The Giroux rumors are in full bloom, and despite the possibility of trading their long-time captain, the Flyers also believe they can get back on track next season. I’m not sure those things are mutually inclusive, but then again this is the same management who thought a Carter Hart-Martin Jones tandem would work.
31. Arizona Coyotes (12-32-4, -72. CF%: 31st, xGF%: 32nd. PR: 30)
I am prepared for a Phil Kessel playoff run. Pick up the phone, Bill Armstrong!
32. Montréal Canadiens (8-33-7, -85. CF%: 25th, xGF%: 31st. PR: 32)
The bad news is the Habs are still losing games under Martin St-Louis and will be auctioning off their veteran players over the coming weeks. The good news is Cole Caufield has excelled under St-Louis, scoring two goals in three games and ranked third among Habs forwards in TOI on Sunday against the Sabres.
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