1. Washington Capitals: 71 Points (32-17-7)
The big news in the nation’s capital this week was that the Capitals re-signed their third-line center, Lars Eller, to a five-year, $17.5 million contract. Eller has had a great season with the Caps registering 11 goals and 19 assists l, which is on pace to be his best season since 2014-2015 when he was with Montreal. The signing makes sense for the next few years, but the last season or two of the contract has the potential to be rough. At 28, he will be signed until 33. Forwards normally drop off in production after turning 26, so the seasons at 32 and 33 might be something similar to what we’re seeing with Brooks Orpik now.
On the ice, the Capitals started their longest road trip of the season with an overtime loss against the Winnipeg Jets. Tuesday’s game against the Jets saw the Caps lose the lead with 15 seconds left while on the power play. The Jets were then able to win the game in overtime. In the closing moments of the third Jay Beagle was slashed viciously by Dustin Byfuglien in the ribs and looked injured on the play. Beagle is questionable for tonight’s game and Byfuglien was fined $5,000, the max allowable under the CBA, for the slash.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 68 Points (32-22-4)
The Penguins are about to play three games in four days, with a game at home tonight against the Kings followed by a back to back this weekend at home against the Leafs and on the road against the Blue Jackets on Saturday and Sunday. This will be a huge test for the Pens, who have been surging. The Kings are fighting hard to get into a wild-card position in the West, and the Leafs are the hottest team in the league with five straight wins.
GM Jim Rutherford now has under two weeks to solve the problem with the third line center. The issue is going to be what can they do salary-wise after the Riley Sheahan trade. With under $1 million in deadline cap space, they may be forced to do something with their midseason acquisition. With both their first and second round picks still in hand, the Pens have a little ability to pick up a player like Derick Brassard, who would cost $5 million. With the Senators hurting for draft picks, Rutherford could package Sheahan and picks to convince the Sens to retain salary, and still have the potential to save a penny-pinching owner some money.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: 66 Points (28-19-10)
I still don’t think the Flyers will be able to maintain their position this high in the division. The latest hit to the Flyers is losing goaltender Brian Elliot for 5-6 weeks to an abdominal injury. Elliott was 4-0-0 since his return, but the 32-year-old underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair the issue and has been placed on IR.
The Flyers will now have to rely on Michal Neuvirth to pick up the workload. Neuvirth is 7-7-3 this season with a .915 sv% and a 2.8 GAA. The good news for Philly fans is that the next six games they play include no back-to-back sets and have no games against teams that are currently in a playoff position.
4. New Jersey Devils: 64 Points (28-20-8)
Jersey has struggled in their last 10 games with a 4-6-0 record. Starting goaltender Cory Schneider went on IR on January 23rd when this most recent 10-game stretch started. Coach John Hynes recently stated that Schneider is expected to miss this week while continuing his rehab. This is great news for the Hurricanes who are going to face either Keith Kincaid or Eddie Lack tonight in a game with the top wild card position on the line.
Despite the goaltending struggles, Taylor Hall has been willing the team to victories. On Tuesday Hall had a two-goal performance, including an equalizer with 1:21 left in the third, to force overtime against the Flyers. The Devils were able to pick up two valuable points with a shootout win in the game keeping them in the top wild-card position and within one game of Philly.
5. Carolina Hurricanes: 63 Points (27-21-9)
I should start out by saying that I guess I was wrong about the Carolina Hurricanes roster moves. Last week, I wrote that I disagreed with the moves and thought that they weren’t good enough to compete with the moves they made. However, the Canes have looked really good in their last three games and have 14 goals in that time. In the most recent game, we got a taste of what Sebastian Aho looks like at center, and it balanced the offense out more.
The Hurricanes are one of the hottest teams in the league at the moment with three straight wins and a record of 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. The Hurricanes now have a game on the road against the Devils before returning back home for two more games against the Islanders and the Devils again.
Due to the wacky NHL scheduling, we are in February and the Canes haven’t played Jersey yet - but are about to play them three times in the next four weeks. This stretch will be one of the most important of the season. The big advantage for the Canes is if they can get two games against one of the Devils’ backups in the next two games. On top of that, the Canes also face the slumping Islanders between these two games. These are very capable games for the Canes, but anytime we feel that way, they tend to make things...interesting.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets: 62 Points (29-24-4)
The Blue Jackets are on the worst streak in the division. There has been more talk about the Rangers and their decision to sell, but Columbus is just 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Despite their recent struggles the Athletic still has the Blue Jackets at a 79% chance to make the playoffs. Granted, this was before their 6-3 loss last night to the Leafs, but the projection had them losing that game anyway.
I’m not sure if I agree with this prediction. The Blue Jackets have 14 out of their 26 remaining games coming against playoff teams and an even split between home games and away games.
This is a tough remaining stint for them and have to rely on the Canes, Devils, and Islanders on stumbling down the stretch to give them a chance to get into a spot. Sergei Bobrovsky has had a dip in performance and is down to a .920 sv% this season which is part of the problem. Early in the season, Bobs was keeping teams in games with shutouts and .940 sv% night in and night out. Since he has come back down to Earth they are struggling.
7. New York Islanders: 60 Points (27-25-6)
Oh boy, the Islanders are really making this deadline tough for GM Garth Snow. At just 3-5-2 in the last 10 games, they are not looking great. However, with a week and a half until the deadline the Isles still have some time to figure out what position they are in. Until then, they are stuck in a holding pattern until they can figure out if they are in a position to buy or sell.
The issue isn't a surprise: it's goaltending. Since the midway point of January, the Isles have let up a league-worst 54 goals in 14 games. This equates to 3.85 goals against per game which is, simply put, horrendous. The Isles have been struggling in this department all season, and by not addressing it earlier they may have sunk their chances to make the playoffs. (Hey, if Tavares want’s to be part of a playoff team, there’s plenty of room at PNC - and a lot of cap space!)
8. New York Rangers: 59 Points (27-25-5)
With the Rangers’ asking price for some of their players it can limit their trade options. One destination I could see for Rick Nash before the deadline is Dallas. What if they can get a first-round pick and Valeri Nichushkin back for Nash? Despite Nichushkin being in the KHL currently, I could see him coming back to the NHL to play in a market like New York. He is still just 22 years old, and the Rangers could use a big bodied forward.
"It really puts things in perspective." @ChrisKreider practiced Wednesday with #NYR for the first time following surgery last month to treat a blood clot. https://t.co/wIDKP0kyaR pic.twitter.com/ludOTnrs9m— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) February 14, 2018
Another intriguing prospect for the deadline is what can they get in return for captain Ryan McDonagh? That is more of a realistic first and a prospect return. McDonagh is 28 and still has some good years ahead of him and another year left at $4.7 mil. There are a couple of teams that could be interested, like Montreal, who originally drafted him and doesn’t want to commit to a rebuild, or the Bruins, who are now all of a sudden feeling like they are Cup favorites.