Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about the crowd of teams at the top of the standings, the Flyers mess, and how the Martin Brodeur saga will play out in St. Louis.
• So we've passed Thanksgiving, the date by which the teams that are planning on making the playoffs traditionally need to be sitting at the big kids' table. Taking a look at the standings, where the top 11 teams are within five points of each other, there are more than a few surprises both in and out of the postseason mix. Give us a team in the East and one in the West that is capable of clawing its way back into the race.
SAM PAGE: In the West, the Wild seem destined to take a spot. While their results have been inconsistent, the process seems better than ever: Minnesota leads the league in Fenwick percentage. Usually the top team in that category is a lock for a high seed, as well as a Stanley Cup favorite. That may not be true of this team—its goaltending is suspect—but it should be at least enough to get the Wild in.
And with the Penguins and the Islanders securely atop the Metropolitan Division, surely someone will be able to catch the depleted Rangers. The Capitals seems like a good bet, as Washington will need just average goaltending the rest of the way to see a massive improvement in goals-against. Braden Holtby has played better in years past and new goaltending coach Mitch Korn has gotten dominant seasons from lesser netminders.
SARAH KWAK: I like Minnesota to make it to the postseason, too, but for the sake of mixing things up, I'm going to throw my support behind the Sharks. After years and years of telling themselves that only the postseason matters, I wonder if San Jose has taken that sentiment too much to heart. The Sharks are a much better team than their 12-10-4 record suggests, but they have had a rather tough early schedule, with 16 games on the road already. They’ve had two extended road trips, which can really sap the energy from a team if it’s not playing well. San Jose, however, is historically a much better team at home, and I suspect that a good run could spark them into contention.
In the East, I'll go with the Senators, partly because they still have 20 games to play against the lackluster Metro Division. There are points to be stolen there, and anyway, they'll hopefully get defenseman Marc Methot back soon. Their team leader in blocked shots last season should help stabilize a blue line that's left goalies Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner out to dry too much. Things may get worse before they get better, but if the Sens can tread water until they get a healthy lineup, coach Paul MacLean should be able to get them to the postseason. It will help if a couple of teams go south, though.
AL MUIR: So we all like Minnesota, eh? I look at the sub-par shooting percentages of guys like Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Charlie Coyle and think, man, if they can even get close to their career averages that offense should carry the day. These guys were key to a power play that was 17.9% last season, so you have to think that 29th-ranked, 9.6% mark will improve significantly at some point and get the Wild back into the hunt.
As for the East, how about the Panthers? They're playing terrific defense (eighth in the league at 2.39 goals-against per game) and they're sixth in the East (12th overall) at five-on-five. The key for them will be figuring out how to squeeze an extra goal here and there from their offensively challenged group. This is a real test for GM Dale Tallon, who I think is willing to move a couple of veterans to create more ice time for some promising kids like Vince Trochek and maybe Rocco Grimaldi. It doesn't have to be a big deal, just the right fit. And if he gets it done before Christmas, I think they've got a shot.
••If one team moves up, another has to drop out. Which teams do you think are most vulnerable?
KWAK: The Maple Leafs are so touch and go these days, and living on the playoff bubble has never really suited Toronto. And the Jets are the only team now in playoff position that has a negative goal differential. The remainder of their schedule will be Western Conference heavy. Unfortunately, so far, they're 4-6-1 against the West. That could catch up with them.
PAGE: I already mentioned the Rangers, but I'd add the Leafs and Jets to that list. I don't believe that Ondrej Pavelec has suddenly figured things out after five abysmal seasons in Winnipeg's net. And Toronto seems primed to implode at any moment.
MUIR: I'll go off the board here and offer up the Bruins as a possibility. I know they've been crushed early on by injuries and that they won't be without their No. 1 center (David Krejci) and No. 1 defenseman (Zdeno Chara) forever, but there's just something not right with this team that goes way beyond its struggles to score. The depth isn't there, the physicality isn't there, the defensive commitment is hit or miss ... I'm just not sure that this group has an identity anymore. It just feels like a bad mix.
• The Flyers have lost five straight and nine of their last 10 to fall well off the pace in the East. GM Ron Hextall has preached patience, but he may not be able to afford that luxury much longer. Does he make a move to shake up his club, or take his lumps and let this season play out?
PAGE: No team that uses Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto as big-minute defensemen is going anywhere. Even if you rightly assume that the Flyers will stay in the basement, though, this question is tough. What moves can Hextall realistically make? The underperforming veterans they'd probably most like to move — R.J. Umberger, Vincent Lecavalier, and MacDonald — boast maybe the three most untradeable contracts in the NHL.
Assuming Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn are untouchable, that leaves Hextall the unenviable choice of shipping out underperforming youngster Sean Couturier—a move that could haunt them a la what Washington did with Filip Forsberg—or a useful role player like Wayne Simmonds. Moving Luke Schenn or Matt Read for late-round draft picks may be the best course, if just for the cap relief.
KWAK: Harsh, but true. As much as the Flyers would want to make moves, Hextall's hands are largely tied. Trading Couturier, while unpalatable, may be possible, but would he yield an upgrade on the blue line? Is anybody even shopping blueliners?
MUIR: Shopping, no ... but if you want to get someone to loosen their clutch on the talent they have, you have to offer some serious talent in return. There's a lot to like about Couturier but I don't see any reason to fall in love with the guy, especially when you've got a reasonable facsimile in Scott Laughton working his way up the chain. Couturier is at his best shutting down top players on other clubs. They need guys who other teams worry about shutting down. I'd move Couturier in a heartbeat for the right deal.
All that said, I have a feeling that if Hextall does anything it'll amount to a shuffling of the deck chairs. He knows there are too many pieces missing this season to make a real run for it. Better to take the beating, draft well, clear some cap space and try it all over again next season.
• Finally: Martin Brodeur said he'd wait around until a contender came calling and that's exactly what the St. Louis Blues did. How do you see this playing out?
KWAK: His is a one-year contract that has more bonuses than a Goldman Sachs division. The structure, however, is largely meritocratic—that is, the better Marty plays, the more dough he makes. If he proves worthwhile, he'll be rewarded. I kind of like it. That said, what it means for the Blues will be really interesting. Short-term, it's great. Brian Elliott was off to a career season before being sidelined with a knee injury last week. But when he returns, what will the dynamic be? I've never found Brodeur to be the dramatic, high-maintenance type, and to my knowledge, he's had very good relationships with his fellow goalies in New Jersey. But then again, there's never been a question about where he stood on the team. Still, I think this is good for St. Louis and good for Brodeur. The hope for the Blues is that Elliott thinks so too.
MUIR: GM Doug Armstrong was caught with his pants down having Jordan Binnington as his No. 3, so clearly the Blues had to do something. Was Brodeur the right solution though? Tough to look at his numbers over the past few years—especially his .901 save percentage that was 20 points worse than partner, Cory Schneider's—and do anything more than hope that a change in scenery or a last-chance adrenalin surge revitalizes him. I'm with Alphaville on this one: hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
PAGE: This stop in Brodeur's career seems destined to become a trivia question. Yet, the Blues are pretty much a playoff lock and their two incumbent goalies have very little combined playoff experience. Could get interesting in the spring.