1. Washington Capitals: 40 Points (17-5-6)
The Washington Capitals are hoping that center Nicklas Backstrom can return from injury as soon as Wednesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. Backstrom was upgraded to a full practice participant last week and is now hoping to be able to rejoin the team after a lengthy absence. Backstrom has been skating separately from the team for probably the last month, so he should be close to game shape. His return also points to the fact that the Caps are in first place in the division despite not having their top center.
The KHL is negotiating with the NHL to host the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning in Russia for a couple of exhibition games against their teams. They are targeting September of 2022, and obviously Ovechkin and Kucherov are the big draws.— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) December 13, 2021
Since 2019 the Capitals have explored the opportunity of playing preseason games in Russia against KHL teams. The Pandemic quickly halted most of those plans, but the dream hasn’t fully died yet. The Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning are still pushing to play games in Russia as soon as September of 2022. The NHL has had a focus on getting more international eyes. Sending two teams with seven Russian stars between them to their home country to play teams in that league is a great way to accomplish that goal.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: 39 Points (19-7-1)
The Carolina Hurricanes had Tuesday’s game postponed due to the number of players recently added to COVID Protocol, with the list hitting six by yesterday afternoon. As of now Thursday’s game with the Red Wings is on as scheduled. The NHL has been inconsistent with COVID postponements, and the Canes have seen both sides. They had to first play through an outbreak in the defense and now a larger teamwide outbreak. The biggest difference this time around is the fact that the total outbreak extent is not known.
Two dozen NHL players have gone onto the COVID-19 reserve list in the past few days, including six Carolina Hurricanes. It’s time to pause, and take advantage of an unexpected break in the schedule. https://t.co/gMLSUXGI76— N&O Sports (@nandosports) December 14, 2021
It is better for teams like the Canes and Calgary Flames to have games postponed not just to protect themselves, but other teams. With so many players being added, it is going to be hard to track the outbreaks on either team. Now the league is seeing positive cases in Edmonton, where the Canes played two days after the Flames, now they will also need to monitor the Canucks. Either of those teams could also have explosive growth.
All of these positives around the league, over 24 in two days, also highlight a bigger challenge in the Olympics. China has a quarantine that could last up to five weeks which would keep players away from their teams for over a month and that is also without pay. Players would be taking massive risks that could put entire teams’ seasons on the line. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that we will be seeing NHL players in the Olympics.
3. New York Rangers: 39 Points (18-7-3)
The Rangers are tough to get a read on this year. They have largely been successful this season on the back of their goaltending. They have a mediocre offense that scores 2.89 goals for per game which is dead middle, 16th in the league. A lot of this is due to their best center Mika Zabenejad struggling. Over the last two seasons, he has had declining production. The 2019-2020 season was his best with 41 goals, 34 assists for 75 points. Last season playing just one less game he had 24 goals and 26 assists for 50 points.
Now this season at almost halfway to that same 56 game number, he has just five goals and 16 assists for 21 points. That’s certainly not what they hoped for in his final season before his raise to $8.5 million AAV that runs through the 2029-2030 season. The Rangers have relied on Chris Kreider for their offense who has 17 goals so far this season. This is a huge outlier pace for him, and it should be expected that he comes down to Earth. When he does it will be a real bad time for the Rangers.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins: 35 Points (15-8-3)
The Pittsburgh Penguins GM, Bill Guerin, has been named the GM of the USA Olympic men’s hockey team. Guerin was expected to replace Stan Bowman since he was previously the assistant GM. USA hockey was hesitant to make the move before the investigation to the Wilkes-Barre sexual assault allegations against former head coach Clark Donatelli. While no formal report has been announced, USA hockey must be satisfied with the preliminary results. Guerin will have a tough job likely building two teams based on NHL participation. Normally Olympic rosters are built with a balance of skills and roles, but that’s going to be tougher without knowing who will be available.
Kasperi Kapanen with the bunt goal to put the Penguins on top. pic.twitter.com/6PZJC5JSt9— Danny Shirey (@DannyShireyPGH) December 15, 2021
On the domestic front, the Penguins have been playing well even without their leading scorer, Jake Guentzel, winning three straight games since the forward was injured last week. While Guentzel will be out for the next few weeks, Evgeni Malkin looks ever closer to returning. Malkin has been a full participant at practice, even practicing with the second power-play unit. While Malkin did not play Tuesday, it looks like there is a significant chance that he could be back in the lineup this week.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets: 29 Points (14-11-1)
Patrik Laine returned to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday. Laine suffered an oblique injury that was expected to keep him off the ice for four-to-six weeks. During that time, Laine lost his father unexpectedly at the age of 54. He has spent the last few weeks back in Finland with his family before flying to Vancouver to meet the team on Monday. He has returned to practice with the team but has still not returned to game action.
zoom zoom zoom, make my heart go boom boom pic.twitter.com/KVcuVPKIAD— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) December 15, 2021
Another story out of Finland is affecting the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their starting goaltender, Joonas Korpisalo, must complete compulsory military/civilian service this year. Finland requires all men to complete this service before they turn 28. With an expiring passport, he would need to complete this service to renew his passport. He is set to begin service in Early April which could be during the NHL season and likely wouldn’t be able to return until after the start of training camps at the earliest. As an unrestricted free agent, this could make for an interesting summer for him and any team looking to sign him.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: 26 Points (11-12-4)
After losing 10 straight games, the Flyers have been able to turn it around with a 3-2-0 record since firing head coach Alain Vigneault. The Flyers are on an upswing with three straight wins powered by their offense who has scored at least four goals in each game. Cam Atkinson really looks to be thriving in the new system with four goals in these five games including a hat trick last night. Another player who has thrived under Mike Yeo is James van Riemsdyk who is currently on a four-game point streak that includes three goals and two assists.
This is big for the Flyers, van Riemsdyk has just 10 points in 26 games. The winger was originally brought back into Philadelphia to provide high-end offense and goal-scoring but has only scored 20 goals in a season just once since heading back to Philadelphia in 2018 despite a $7 million cap hit. This contract was questionable at the time but has looked much worse in recent times and still has one more year left after this season. The Flyers aren’t going to see much success unless they are getting contributions from van Riemsdyk. With a tight cap environment, you just can’t miss that big and recover elsewhere in the lineup.
7. New Jersey Devils: 25 Points (10-12-5)
The Devils’ playoff aspirations and expectations have been corrected to the appropriate levels. The Devils had a stronger start than many expected with a 7-3-2 record in their first 12 games. Since they have a 3-9-3 record in their last 15 games. The Devils have lacked stability in the net this season. Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders saw the Devils start their fifth goalie this season. Akira Schmid became the first goalie to go from the USHL to the NHL without going to the CHL or NCAA. Schmid was called up after Jonathan Bernier suffered a hip injury.
#NJDevils Lindy Ruff says he's "worried and concerned" for the long-term health of goaltender Jonathan Bernier who was placed on IR today.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) December 10, 2021
The injury surrounds his hip, which he has been dealing with all season.
Bernier has been placed on injured reserve as he deals with a nagging hip injury that has kept him in and out of the lineup since early in the season. Head Coach Lindy Ruff expressed concern about Bernier’s long-term health and condition. Hip injuries can be extremely hard for goalies to come back from. The Devils could keep using Schmid as a short-term stopgap, but they could look into a season-long replacement if Bernier hits LTIR. With Anton Khudobin clearing waivers, they could look to make a retained salary trade with the Stars to bring in the long-time vet.
8. New York Islanders: 19 Points (7-12-5)
The New York Islanders are now without Matt Barzal, who entered COVID protocol yesterday. They would now be without him for 10 days which has him out through Christmas. This continues the Islanders' horrible luck with COVID. The Isles were one of the first teams to have an outbreak along with the Pittsburgh Penguins but had a gradual build of COVID which allowed them to get people in and out of the lineup fairly regularly. They were the first team to have games postponed and hoped that would be the end of their team in the protocol, but that ended after only six games.
The NHL's COVID protocol is symptomatic players will remain out for 10 days. Asymptomatic players can test out of protocol by testing negative on consecutive days.— Brendan Burke (@brendanmburke) December 14, 2021
No #Isles player has been out for fewer than 10 days (except Beauvillier's false positive).
Barzal’s 12 assists and 17 points are both the most on the team and were just getting hot before entering protocol. Barzal had an active six-game point streak with one goal and eight assists in those six games. The Islanders were unable to overcome the loss of Barzal and now have a 2-10-3 record in their last 15 games. They have 2.17 goals for per game which is only better than the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes. If they are unable to score with their leading player, its going to get ugly without him.