1. Tampa Bay Lightning: .750 P% (20-6-2) 42 Points
The Lightning are already getting their star winger Nikita Kucherov back in practice. Kucherov has been injured all year and was not scheduled to come back until the start of the playoffs, so his early return is good news for the Lightning, but it’s complicated. The Lightning cannot play him in the regular season because they cannot afford his cap hit so the EARLIEST he can return is the first round of the playoffs. This seems a little odd. There was a similar case a couple of years back when Patrick Kane returned for the Blackhawks in the playoffs, but he had at least played some games in the year, so he was on the active roster at some point.
500 down, many more to come. ⚡️— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) March 17, 2021
Thankful for you, Heddy! pic.twitter.com/AzHTrp0TSG
This situation just seems like such a bigger loophole because they will actively have to keep him out so they can use him in the playoffs. Since there is no cap restriction for the playoffs all of this is perfectly legal and they will be able to add a $10-million winger to the team. It just feels like this will be something that should probably be addressed by the league. There should be a game cap that a player should have to play before they can just be added back to the roster. Granted the loss of that player should be a challenge for them, but it’s not an issue for the Lightning, who are good enough to overcome his loss.
2. Florida Panthers: .750 P% (19-5-4) 42 Points
The Florida Panthers got both Anthony Duclair and Anton Stralman back from injured reserve last week. Duclair has slotted in with the top line with Carter Verhaeghe and Aleksander Barkov. In his first game back, he made an immediate impact with two primary assists. Duclair has been one of the top playmakers for Florida. He ranks third on the team when it comes to his assist rate at 1.74 A/60. He sits behind only Jonathan Huberdeau and Mason Marchment in the category.
The Panthers are also excited to have Sergei Bobrovsky back playing well. He is 6-0-0 in his last six starts. He now has 10 streaks of six or more wins in his career, which ranks sixth all-time for goalies. During this stretch started at the beginning of March, he has a 2.82 GAA and a .914 sv%. This is quite the turnaround from the 3.02 GAA and .899 sv% that he had from the start of the season through Feb. 27th. For $10 million AAV, the Panthers are finally starting to get what they paid for.
3. Carolina Hurricanes: .732 P% (20-7-1) 41 Points
The Carolina Hurricanes' eight-game winning streak came to an end, but Dougie Hamilton’s point streak was extended to nine games. The Canes can’t go out and win every night so no one should be upset with the loss to the Red Wings. What is more impressive is that they kept the streak alive at all while missing their top goal scorer, number one goalie and Teuvo Teravainen. Every part of this month has been a positive for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Going into the four-game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Canes are going to have to look into the goaltending situation. While you can’t blame James Reimer for every goal against, Alex Nedeljkovic HAS earned the crease. Since Feb. 20 he has the best save percentage and goals-against average of any goalie who has played five or more games. The other interesting goaltending move was bringing up Beck Warm to the taxi squad and sending down Antoine Bibeau to Chicago. Warm was signed to an ELC earlier this season while on a Wolves AHL contract. Now he moves up to practice with the Canes and serves as the third goalie.
That might not be the final move. Last night Warren Foegele left the game with an injury and did not return. They will now have to find the next man up to replace Foegele with the other two forwards still looking to be out for a longer-term. The only forward on the taxi squad is Max McCormick who played earlier in the season when the Canes had COVID issues.
4. Chicago Blackhawks: .550 P% (14-11-5) 33 Points
The Chicago Blackhawks got mini-swept by the Florida Panthers despite having a lead in both games. On Monday Chicago had a two-goal lead at 3-1 but eventually lost by a score of 6-3. This pivotal month is not going well for Chicago with just a 2-4-1 record so far in March. Now according to both MoneyPuck.com and The Athletic, the Dallas Stars now project to finish ahead of the Blackhawks for the final playoff position in the Central Division. It doesn’t get any easier moving forward as six of their next eight games are against the Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes.
Signed on ️— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) March 16, 2021
Forward Josiah Slavin has inked a 2-year entry-level contract ($842,500 salary cap hit)!
He will begin his pro career by reporting immediately to the @goIceHogs on an ATO. #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/MnUoNNXFPu
In the most recent game, the loss also highlighted the poor play of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill. The Panthers scored two power-play goals, the second of which started a five-goal rally. Over the last 30 days, Chicago’s PK unit ranks dead last in the NHL. They have only killed 64.3% of the penalties taken which accounts for 15 goals against. That equates to 30.6% of their total goals against.
5. Dallas Stars: .500 P% (9-9-7) 25 Points
The Stars have been happy to get Alexander Radulov back in the lineup. He spent five weeks on injured reserve and scored in his second game back. Radulov was part of a crazy finish last night as he scored the game-tying goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Radulov and the Stars scored two goals with an empty net in the last 2:06 of the game. The Stars sit just eight points behind the Blackhawks with five games in hand and pull virtually level with the points percentage.
The future also looks bright for the Stars in net with Jake Oettinger. Oettinger was drafted with the 26th overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft by the Stars. He is only in his second full professional season. This season he has been adjusting to the NHL admirably with a .917 sv% and has outplayed Anton Khudobin. The only problem with this for the Stars is they already have both Ben Bishop and Khudobin sighed through the 2022-2023 season. When Bishop comes back they will have a difficult decision since Oettinger wouldn’t be served well by spending more time in the AHL.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets: .483 P% (11-12-7) 29 Points
The Columbus Blue Jackets have had their last three games go to overtime, but only one went their way. The weirdest game of these was the first on Thursday. Columbus had a 4-1 lead before the Panthers were able to come back and force overtime. In the third period, Patrik Laine was benched again despite having a goal and an assist in the game. He ended his seven-game scoreless drought, but that wasn’t enough to see him play in the last half of an important third period.
"I think it'll be like a playoff series - that kind of atmosphere." - Nash on the Blue Jackets upcoming four-game stretch vs. Carolina. pic.twitter.com/KaYWyYeFnq— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) March 16, 2021
Laine was on the ice for the first three goals against in the game but was playing with effort on each play. Even Laine at the time said that he thought it was a strange decision and that he thought he was doing everything that he needed to do to get ice time. With a potentially important game, the decision was made to not have him play at all in the rest of the game including overtime, where they still lost. They lost without playing their best offensive player in the game, so the move didn’t work in the end. At some point, something has to give in this situation.
7. Nashville Predators: .431 P% (12-16-1) 25 Points
The hot topic around the Nashville Predators is the impending rebuild. There are two players going in opposite directions. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has already said that he has no interest in chasing a cup and that he wants to stay and retire a Predator. The hottest name going around is defenseman Mattias Ekholm. Ekholm’s contract has an additional year remaining and at just $3.75 million AAV he becomes an affordable contract for many contending teams. Ekholm is a top-pairing defenseman who has been playing 28.7% of the team’s power-play minutes.
Ekholm is important in the rebuild because he is an affordable top-four defenseman. When you look at the Canes trade for Brady Skjei, the Canes gave up a first-round pick for the 26-year-old. While Ekholm is older, he is better established as a successful defenseman so they should certainly expect to get at least a first-round pick. This is also a tricky draft with less time for GM’s to evaluate around the pandemic so they could be more willing to trade more picks for this year’s draft and keep future draft picks.
8. Detroit Red Wings: .367 P% (9-17-4) 22 Points
The Detroit Red Wings have been the worst team in the Central but only find themselves tied for second to last in the league. They are tied with three other teams with 22 points. It’s just insane that no one is talking about them because of just how bad the Buffalo Sabres have been and the Senators in Canada. In the last two weeks, Detroit has been surprisingly competitive with a 2-1-1 record against the Hurricanes and the Lightning with a positive goal differential. There are only two teams that have beaten the Hurricanes more than once, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings.
What this has shown us is that the Red Wings don’t look to have quit in them this year. They have all the reasons to whimper away each night but refuse to give up which is exactly what you need a young team to do when they are developing a new core. One nice thing last night was seeing Evgeny Svechnikov back in the lineup. It is unfortunate it was due to the loss of Bobby Ryan who is having a resurgent year, but the elder Svechnikov brother has looked like he belongs. He has four points in five games despite playing 9:00 per game.