We are now over half-way through the 2016-17 regular season, and as we get closer and closer to the All-Star break, we will continue to get a better idea of who the real contenders are at the top of each conference and which bubble teams seem poised to make a late-season surge.
Out West, one team has floated to the top with a familiar face leading the way. Meanwhile, in the East, eight teams are vying for the final two playoff spots.
At the bottom of the standings, the Colorado Avalanche have some big decisions to make.
Here are your weekly news and notes from across the league.
The Wild, Wild West
Move aside, Chicago, we have a new best in the West.
Winners of seven of their last ten, the Minnesota Wild are the West’s hottest team and are now tied with the Blackhawks atop the Western Conference with four games in hand.
Don’t call it a comeback, but Eric Staal has led the offensive charge for Minnesota, entering Wednesday’s action with a team-leading 15 goals and 39 points in 43 games. The former Hurricanes cornerstone is on pace for 74 points, which would be his highest point total since the 2010-11 season.
Devan Dubnyk and his league-leading .937 save percentage and 1.85 goals against average has played a key role in Minnesota’s conference-best 2.19 goals against per game. That, combined with a top-end defensive core anchored by Ryan Suter, has made Minnesota an incredibly tough team to play against.
The Wild’s six-game point streak (5-0-1) was snapped by the Devils in Tuesday’s 4-3 regulation time lost.
With so many games in hand, Minnesota seems like the odds-on favorite to get the number one seed in the West, and the way they play suits them very well for a strong playoff push. That being said, they can’t slip up. The Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks are right on their tail.
A Log Jam in the East
Right now, you can make a case for seven or eight middle-of-the-road teams in the East for the final three playoff spots.
The Metropolitan Division has turned into the premier division in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers pulling away. Meanwhile, a less-than-stellar Atlantic Division has only produced one dominant team in the Montreal Canadiens, thanks to another good season from Carey Price and great showings from the likes of Max Pacioretty, Shea Weber, and Alexander Radulov. They’ll also benefit from the return of Alex Galchenyuk, who is finally back in the lineup after missing more than a month due to injury.
After the top-five, things get interesting. Boston, Toronto, and Ottawa are contending for the final two playoff spots given to the Atlantic Division. The play of Toronto and Ottawa as of late has now made it plausible that we’ll have a four-and-four split between the Atlantic and Metro in terms of playoff teams.
After going on a ten-game win streak, the Philadelphia Flyers have fallen off and have won just two of their last ten games, being overtaken by the Sens for the eight seed in the East with the Carolina Hurricanes on pace to leapfrog them as well.
Games in hand has started to become a very important part of the equation in the East. Philly has played four more games than Toronto and Ottawa and two more games than Carolina.
Looking at Carolina individually, it gets very simple. They need to be better on the road. The Hurricanes are 14-1-1 at the PNC Arena since November 1, but they sport an Eastern Conference-worst 6-12-6 record on the road. A win in Columbus on Tuesday would have put them in the top-eight. Instead, they sit in the tenth spot.
A Dumpster Fire at Mile High
The Colorado Avalanche are bad. Very bad.
With an abysmal 27 points in the standings through 42 games, they have equal or fewer points than seven NHL teams have wins.
This dumpster fire has made them a prime candidate to make some drastic changes at the trade deadline with big names like Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, and Erik Johnson all rumored to be available, but it will take a lot for any team to acquire one of these player’s services.
Duchene and Landeskog are, unsurprisingly, going to bring back the biggest haul for Joe Sakic and the Avs. Reports suggest that Colorado wants a top-end young defenseman, a first-round draft pick, and potentially more for each of their two stud forwards.
On paper, the Carolina Hurricanes appear to be the perfect trade partner. They could use help in their top-six and they have all the defense that Colorado could possibly want.
According to Bleacher Report’s Adrian Dater, the Ron Francis and the Carolina front off are doing their due diligence.
My understanding is this:Carolina management having internal discussions whether to deal top young D player/prospects for Duchene. We'll see— Adrian Dater (@adater) January 18, 2017
The slogan of Francis’ tenure has been “patience and realistic expectations”, and he has stuck to that so far. Is this where we will finally see him stray away from this philosophy in attempts to bolster Carolina’s offense and potentially make them a clear playoff team?
It’s a tough call, and the Hurricanes know it.
Deals involving Colorado’s highly coveted players could get done tomorrow, a month from now, or even in the offseason. All we know is that there is a high price tag, the Avs have all the leverage, and there will be many teams interested.