Post-season races start to come to the fore around the midpoint of the season, but with the all-star break having come and gone, there should be nothing to distract from the back half of the campaign.
Through this point in the season, we’ve seen some clear cut favorites start to emerge in the Eastern Conference, including the trio of Metropolitan Division powerhouses in the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. We’ve also seen some Western teams step up in a big way, with the Minnesota Wild wowing in their first season under Bruce Boudreau and Connor McDavid putting the Edmonton Oilers into position to earn their first post-season berth in what feels like an eternity.
For those teams, the all-star break was a pitstop on the way to the post-season, but for another handful it was a welcome distraction as the post-break schedule brings with it big questions and intriguing storylines. Here are five teams to watch in the second half of the season:
The departure of coach Patrick Roy in the off-season came as a shock if for no other reason than how sudden it was, and it’s safe to say that Roy’s resignation has left a cloud over the entire campaign. Coach Jared Bednar came into the organization fresh off a Calder Cup victory, but the team has yet to respond to the new bench boss and it’s looking like the Avalanche are destined to finish with one of the worst campaigns of the modern era.
Despite the team being so woeful, there’s a lot to pay attention to when it comes to Colorado. They have potential to be the biggest mover at the trade deadline, with high profile players Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog reportedly on the trade block and the Avalanche seeking to make some waves in search of something to kickstart a turnaround. It’s not just the star players who will be interesting to watch, though.
With Jarome Iginla in the twilight of his career, does he find his way to a team in the Stanley Cup hunt? And could that possibly mean a return to the Calgary Flames or (dare we say) a chance to play for his Edmonton Oilers?
What the avalanche do in the next few months could change the course of the franchise for the next few seasons, and even a trade involving Iginla could have lasting impact in Colorado.
Los Angeles Kings
It wasn’t all that hard to imagine this season being a write-off with Jonathan Quick going down with injury on opening night, but Peter Budaj has come in to be the Kings’ savior. He’s not exactly posting world-beating numbers, but his 2.06 goals-against average and .919 save percentage have been enough to keep Los Angeles in the playoff hunt.
That’s the thing, though: they’re only in the hunt.
Heading into Tuesday, when the schedule resumes, the Kings are one point out of a wild-card spot and in line to fight tooth and nail for one of those berths for the remainder of the season. As has often been the issue in Los Angeles, the team simply can’t find a way to score with any consistency. Only six teams have fewer goals for. But don’t count out the Kings with GM Dean Lombardi at the helm.
Lombardi has done some clever wheeling and dealing, and there’s a chance he finds scoring somewhere to help get his team over the hump and into the playoffs, and just in time for Quick to make his return. If that’s the case, the Kings could be a great dark-horse pick in the post-season.
If Los Angeles fails to make the post-season, though, what do they do next? That will make two post-season misses in three seasons under coach Darryl Sutter and only one playoff win. It can’t be easy for the Kings, who won two Cups in three years from 2011-12 to 2013-14, to be hitting the links when they should be fighting for another championship. Does missing the post-season prompt change in Los Angeles?
Tampa Bay Lightning
No one would have predicted the Lightning would be on the outside of the post-season race looking in come the all-star break. Even with the injury to Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay possesses enough talent to get the job done. Unfortunately for the Lightning, though, their goaltending has been far worse than they ever would have guessed and defensively the team has had more than its share of forgettable nights.
It wasn’t a major move, per se, but Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman took his first stab at trying to ignite the Lightning by dealing away defenseman Nikita Nesterov. That might not be the only trade there is to be made, though.
Some have speculated there could be a fit between the Lightning and St. Louis Blues in a swap of Ben Bishop for Kevin Shattenkirk, and there continues to be talk about where Bishop will end up next. If the Lightning aren’t in a position to make the playoffs, trading Bishop becomes more likely and we could see Yzerman make another move or two to shake up his club if this becomes a lost season.
The Lightning’s window is still wide open. With Stamkos, this could have been a true Stanley Cup contender. But this risks being a lost season for Tampa Bay if they can’t sneak back into a post-season position in the near future.
Is there any current coach whose fate relies as much on second half success as Boston’s Claude Julien? He has been one of the league’s best coaches over the past several years with the Bruins, making the most out of some rosters that wouldn’t amount to much under any other bench boss. Still, the potential of a third-straight post-season miss has Julien on the hot seat.
The most unfortunate thing about the position Julien finds himself in is that it has basically all boiled down to his team’s inability to finish this season. Though Boston has continued to be the league’s most dominant possession team, the Bruins have the second-worst shooting percentage at 5-on-5. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are scoring, but the goal scoring has really dried up outside of the team’s top two scorers. Julien has openly said the roster doesn’t have enough talent to have anything that resembles a bad game, and that has to lead one to wonder whether there’s another potential move on the horizon.
Right now, the Bruins are holding a post-season spot, one point up on the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Boston has underlying numbers that would suggest they can make a deep playoff run, but that could require adding a piece. And if the Bruins fail on their chase for the playoffs, how long before Julien’s out the door?
Toronto Maple Leafs
The plan in Toronto was supposed to see the team make a slow build to playoff contention, but one season into Auston Matthews’ time with the Maple Leafs and already the club is right in the thick of things. The Maple Leafs are trailing the Bruins by one point for the final spot in the Atlantic Division, one point out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and have the best goal differential of any non-playoff team.
Making the playoffs would be a big deal in Toronto this season, but the more interesting thing to watch will be how the Maple Leafs handle being in contention for the post-season. The plan all along has been a gradual build, and there hasn’t been much talk about mortgaging the future to win now. But with the playoffs a possibility, does Toronto attempt to buy at the deadline? And, if so, at what cost?
One would think the Maple Leafs see the value in attempting to stay the course. This is a team on the rise, not one yet ready to actually win the Stanley Cup. But stranger things have happened, and sometimes it’s hard to resist the allure of the playoffs.
Even if Toronto fails to make the post-season, it’s going to be interesting to keep an eye on the team. How do they respond down the stretch if the playoff race stays tight? And can Matthews keep up his scoring pace and become the first Maple Leaf to win the Calder Trophy since Brit Selby in 1966?
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