1. Washington Capitals: 65 Points (30-15-5)
I know last week we covered buyers and sellers, but Mike Green to the Capitals is gaining some steam. Between Alex Ovechkin talking to Green at the All-Star Game, and his comments after that he would love to have him back, it does seem like a good fit. The Caps could use some help on the blue line, but the toughest thing is going to be the salary. Green is in the last year of his contract that pays him $6 million per season. Washington has just $1.9 million in deadline space, so they are going to have to sweeten the pot for a retained salary transaction or give a piece back in return to get some salary off the books. Either way, the trade feels right.
Caps rookie Jakub Vrana was a healthy scratch in Wednesday’s game against the Flyers. The Czech rookie has 10 goals, but they all came before the new year. The move is likely to send a message to Vrana who has the fifth most goals on the team and causes defensive issues with his speed. The issue that I see is that they have to give him top-nine minutes but he keeps getting shifted around on lines. It’s hard for a young player to develop and gel if he’s consistently playing with the same guys. I just can’t see a case that either Chandler Stephenson and/or Brett Connolly deserve more time on the third line than Vrana.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: 59 Points (28-21-3)
The Penguins have now won three straight and have won eight out of their last 10. Six of those wins came without starting goaltender, Matt Murray, who returned last night in the 5-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. Murray played well in his return since the passing of his father, stopping 40 of the 42 shots he faced. The Penguins have also activated forward Bryan Rust and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel from IR, which means the team is the healthiest it has been all season. That’s huge for a thin line up that has struggled to deal with injuries. Just remember: in December, amazingly, they were in last in the Metro.
Congratulations to the NHL's first star of the month, @emalkin71geno!— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 1, 2018
Malkin's 12 goals equaled the highest single-month total of his career.
Read more: https://t.co/kfZZYwxPk3 pic.twitter.com/PEWSaXxTek
Something to keep an eye on is their shots against. Last night they let up 42 shots against and previous to that they let up over 35 or more shots three times in their last four games. The Penguins have been able to deal with this currently on the back of great special teams play. 26.67% of all of their goals in the month of January came on the power play, while they only let up five goals while shorthanded despite being the fourth most penalized team in that time span with 38 penalties in 12 games played.
3. New Jersey Devils: 60 Points (26-16-8)
I know many Hurricanes fans were excited at the prospect of starting next season in Finland but they were not selected for a European game to start the season. The New Jersey Devils were one of the teams selected and will start the 2018-2019 season playing in Sweden against the Edmonton Oilers. On top of this, they will also play a preseason game in Switzerland, the home country of Nico Hischier and Mirco Mueller. This will be an exciting time for them, not to mention the Swedish contingent of Jesper Bratt and Marcus Johansson.
The Devils came out of the All-Star break with two wins of their own, over the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday and the Flyers on Thursday. Tuesday’s game did feature controversy as Taylor Hall boarded Kyle Okposo in the first period and received only a minor penalty. After the game, in which Hall scored the eventual game-winner in the third, Hall was fined the maximum $5,000 for boarding. This was his second offense in his career; he received a two-game suspension in 2013 while with the Oilers for kneeing Cal Clutterbuck.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets: 58 Points (27-19-4)
The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed former Carolina Hurricane Nathan Gerbe to a one year, two-way deal. Gerbe has been playing the past year and a half in Switzerland after his contract with the Hurricanes expired. Though this isn’t an earth-shattering move, this is another move like claiming Jussi Jokinen, to build depth and to relieve the team from the injury problems the Jackets been battling with.
Much like the Penguins, the All-Star Break was kind to Columbus who activated forwards Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky from IR. The Blue Jackets are hoping that these recent moves can help them with their mediocre play as of late. They have a 5-4-1 record in their last 10 games and are on the playoff bubble. Unfortunately, it takes time to gel with new line combinations, and that showed Tuesday in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Wild. As time moves on, you can expect the team to look better and better with these players back.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: 56 Points (24-19-8)
The Flyers have the toughest draw in the division coming out of the break. They had a back to back against two of the top three teams in the division and came out of it with zero points. It’s a tough break for the Flyers, who are clinging to the last playoff spot in the East going into the break.
Despite the Flyers’ recent struggles Jakub Voracek leads the league in assists (50) and is third in the league in points (60) while playing on the second line with Nolan Patrick and Wayne Simmonds. Simmonds has had a good season with 17 goals and 15 assists, but rookie Patrick has struggled. Last year’s second overall pick only has 11 points and four goals. The Flyers were really hoping for more production out of the rookie. The issue is that his skill set is for the top six, but he is producing like a bottom-six forward.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: 56 Points (24-19-8)
The Carolina Hurricanes had every reason to lose the game on Tuesday. They were down late, they were coming off of a break, and they were trying a new lineup - yet they came out victorious. The win was huge for momentum as the Hurricanes start an eight-game homestand and come out of a break. They were then able to parlay that win into a shutout win against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. The most important thing about this homestand is that six of the teams are currently not in a playoff position and are very beatable. They are in a relatively easy stretch of the schedule that could easily produce 12 to 14 points.
The Canes are the healthiest they have been all year with Lee Stempniak back in the lineup, which also makes for more balanced lines. Stempniak was a playmaker last season, and the Canes need more of that this year. The Canes have struggled to convert the leading the league in shots, to leading the league in goals. With another talented playmaker, they will be able to create more high danger scoring chances in place of low and medium danger chances.
A lot of fans have been calling for Valentin Zykov to get a call-up to the Canes since he has 22 goals with the Checkers. While I would like to see what he can do at the NHL level, the Canes would run into a very similar situation with the Caps and Vrana. The wings are super crowded and we’re seeing Jeff Skinner play on the third line. It does the Canes and Zykov no good to bring him up to play on the fourth line. I am very interested to see if a trade could potentially open up a spot for him in the top six.
7. New York Rangers: 55 Points (25-21-5)
The Rangers have continued their decline winning only four of their last 11 games including losing four of their last five. What has caused this downward turn? Surprisingly, it’s goaltending and defense, two things which normally aren’t problems for the Rangers. In the month of January, the Rangers allowed 44 goals, third-most in the league. Nine of these goals came down a man, which is also ranked third to last in the league. In addition, the Rangers are struggling offensively and have only been able to net 32 goals, one less than the Hurricanes, in January.
The goal scoring totals are on par for the Rangers, who had 37 in December with only one more game played. However, the Rangers only let up 27 goals in the previous month, and the addition of 14 goals across 12 games has pushed them down the standings. The loss of their top defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, is huge. Shattenkirk is out on IR indefinitely with a meniscus tear, and that has greatly impacted their goals against average. Before he went out, in January they averaged 3.28 GA/G and without him, that has shot up to 4.5 GA/G.
8. New York Islanders: 55 Points (25-22-5)
And now it’s time for “Today in Islanders arena news”: The plan to keep the Islanders on Long Island has been a complicated one. First, it required a new arena at the Belmont Park site, which has been approved. Then it required a place for the Isles to play until that arena is finished. Despite Gary Bettman saying time and time again that the Islanders would not be returning to the Nassau Coliseum, they will...um...be returning to Nassau Coliseum.
The plan calls for the Isles to play 60 games over the next three seasons at their old home, with no current determination on where playoff games will be played. The Coliseum will have to undergo some quick upgrades including potentially adding some seats to fulfill the needs of the Isles. With that settled, the Islanders now have 26 days to put together a winning team together around John Tavares to get to the playoffs and to convince him to stay for the long run.