Who needs what, and will they go for it? While it is tempting to call everyone in the west below 3rd place a bubble team, I think I’ll limit my writing time by leaving off a few teams.  In the east the bubble is a bit smaller, 10 points separate the seventh place New York Rangers and the eleventh place Florida Panthers.

The Colorado Avalanche are fifth in goals for, and yet somehow 12th in the Western Conference in the standings. That “somehow” becomes a lot easier to pin down when you notice they are 29th in goals against, and that their penalty kill almost doesn’t exist. Their penalty kill ranks 27th in the NHL, the only two other teams with a PK in the same zip code who can see the playoffs from their house are the Dallas Stars and Atlanta Thrashers. Clearly they need to scramble their resources and pick up a PK specialist or two, and certainly a defensive defenseman. If they decide to sell, Chris Stewart, and Owen Sound Attack (OHL) prospect Joey Hishon would bring a nice return.

The Phoenix Coyotes. They are eleventh in goals for, and 16th in goals against. They could really pick either position to improve at, and move forward contently. If they are going to make moves they certainly have the cap space to do it. They also have some very nice assets if they decide to become sellers, they do have plenty of assets that could bring them good picks or prospects. Jovanovski’s contract is expiring, and while he has an NTC, he might waive it if the Coyotes decide to run up the white flag.  While it don’t see it happening unless the budget in Phoenix is going to shrink next year, Yandle is a skating blank check. As a different GM, I’d cheerfully send two first round picks on a sign and trade deal and probably include a prospect or player in their.

The LA Kings are possibly the most puzzling team outside the top 8 in either conference, along with the BlackHawks they have the highest goal differential of any team not currently in their conferences top 8 at +20. While they are 17th in goals for, they are 6th in goals against. As it has since before training camp, the lack of talent on their left wing is dragging down an otherwise strong team.  As sellers, Brayden Schenn is probably the premier prospect yet to graduate, and UFA to be Justin Williams could add scoring to a team looking to make the jump into the second season.  As buyers  goal scoring couldn’t hurt, but they may just need to play consistently from here until April to make it in.

Chicago has an aggressively mediocre defense this year at 15th best. While Corey Crawford is showing he’s got some mojo and putting out a very solid 2.19 GAA and .919 Sv%, he’s started exactly half the games this season, is a rookie. While the Blackhawks won the cup last year despite Niemi, this is a notably weaker team than last years edition, and with some key players banged up right now. I don’t know if the defending champions are good enough to win because of Crawford. As little cap space as they have, I’m not sure they will be buying. As much talent as they traded away since winning the cup I don’t see what they have left to sell without spiraling into obscurity again.  Like their LA competitors, consistent play is probably what they need to make it to the playoffs. One intriguing trade piece (which management has already stepped on) might be Brent Seabrook. A team like the Carolina Hurricanes who don’t use high picks on defensemen might be willing to take a swing at him especially if they are in the mix at the deadline.

Calgary Flames, with an “interim” general manager all things are possible. They are right in the mix for a return to the playoffs, but with essentially zero cap space making moves will probably be as picturesque as making laws or sausage. They are right up against the 50 contract limit, and have several unproductive large contracts some of them attached to no trade or no movement clauses. I’d be shocked to see any large moves, and the off season doesn’t look much better. If they can somehow manage a few tweaks that will galvanize the team, either end would be good, they are 16th in goals for and 17th in goals against.

The Blue Jackets probably have to be blown up if they can’t make it out of the first round this year. They are just four points out of the playoffs right now. How this is possible while being 25th in goals against and 21st in goals for is anyone’s guess. Me personally, I’d start the fire sale now and see what draft picks can be grabbed for this years draft and what prospects can be grabbed.  They have a pretty deep system, and adding a few other good picks to it means they can probably make a good run in two years and spend about what they are now.

Call it a NFL strike, call it a lockout, call it a stoppage the NHL should call it a golden opportunity. Matt Jordan (@InfamousMJ) and I were discussing how the National Hockey League should respond to a non season by American sports rating juggernaut. The short and simple answer is aggressively. There are three key things they need to do. It’s arguable that they should do them regardless of what happens to the NFL, but inexcusable to do nothing in the even of a work stoppage.

Step one, secure a better national television deal.  Easier said than done, but with the popularity of the Winter Olympics, a lack of the NFL, and the success of the Winter Classic, easier now than five years ago, and probably easier than at any time since Gretzky was on the ice.  The deal should specifically include former NHL players as announcers and analysts. They should be low on bias, high on knowledge and above all engaging. We all know how deep the homerism runs in many of the regular announce guys, and while hearing the virtues of a certain number 87 or 8 or 91 extolled on a nightly basis work great when you are calling for the home squad in a regionally available game, doing the same when two other teams are on the ice is just inexcusable.

Step two, attack the NFL time slots. People who are football fans arrange their entire week around the game, tailgating, the game, pregame shows, post game shows and yet more games and coverage. Stacking Sunday with three high profile, high energy, and may play into traditional geographic rivalries of the NFL would be a huge boon. The first three weeks of the stoppage would be critical. Having a 1pm Boston Bruins – New York Rangers game, followed by a4pm Chicago Blackhawks – Detroit Red Wings tilt, and a 7pm Dallas Stars – Colorado Avalanche could draw huge ratings from traditional hockey fans and traditional sports fans alike. Following it the next week with a Stanley Cup Final rematch, and then the Capitals – Penguins,  and Sabres – Kings or something similar that drew on big name talents, and big markets. Monday night could be even more critical than the Sunday games though. Having a top flight on announce and studio team, a long enough time slot for pregame, and post game show and a good half hour of general NHL chatter to point to other interesting games on the weeks schedule. Ideally all of the Monday Night Hockey games would be playoff rematches or competitive rivalries from within divisions.  Realistically, their should be just one game Monday that everyone can talk about the next day.

Step three, don’t apologize. The shameless courting of soccer moms as the saving demographic for hockey is so nonsensical I won’t waste any more wordage on it. Mixed Martial Arts has blown up faster than Charles Barkley did after he hung up his sneakers.  Movie franchises like Saw, and the never ending series of vampire movies, books and television shows such as Underworld, True Blood and Twilight show that the American populace as a whole has no real aversion to blood or violence in its entertainment.  So when Shawn Thornton and Derek Boogard square off, the camera crews should not have been directed to pan the audience or get a nice shot of the ice girls, or the announce crew.

With even decent execution of these three things, the NHL could slide up the American sports ladder, and maybe, just maybe not only avoid contraction, but be able to expand in both America and Canada. If things were executed well, it’s not outside probability for the teams struggling in Tampa and Sunrise Flordia, and in Phoenix Arizona, or Columbus Ohio to grab enough new fans to take root and grow the sport hugely. Its conceivable that with a work stoppage, proper exploitation of it by the NHL and NHLPA that in ten or twelve years we could have a forty team NHL. New teams could be set down in places like Indianapolis, Houston, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Las Vegas, Seattle, and who knows, maybe the Toronto and Montreal areas could support second teams.  On top of the potential work stoppage by the NFL, the NBA collective bargaining agreement was made for six years back in 2005.

The Boston Bruins seemed set to close out the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tim Thomas was doing his best to convince the world he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Greg Campbell and Nathan Horton had given the team a 2-1 lead. The team had returned the physical play of the home team at every turn.

Then the tide was turned. The teams top penalty killer, best three zone forward and emotional epicenter was sent to the box with two and half minutes left. The Leafs leaped forward peppering Thomas with shot after shot and eventually pulling Giguere to skate six on four. Moments later Kris Versteeg, once traded by the Bruins to Chicago for Brandon Bochenski, sticks in a sweet feed to tie it up. Not content with the previous substandard call, the officials proved they could scrape the bottom of the barrel a little more and allow a Toronto player to draw a call in overtime by stuffing Boychucks stick into his shirt.  We go to overtime.

The first goal against Thomas was indisputable, even in a league with the “intent to blow” rule. The Phil Kessel goal has been ruled both ways any number of times. The puck was not in sight, no angle showed the puck anywhere before the officials raise their hands.

Sadly, as bad as the officiating was, and it would need to improve greatly just to be putrid, I can’t blame them entirely for the loss. For the first time this season the Bruins hung Tim Thomas out to dry. In all three periods of regulation, and in overtime the Bruins were outshot. The Leafs had 26 hits and 21 blocked shots to the Bruins 22 and 17. Despite Bergeron going 60% in twenty five faceoffs, the Bruins barely held even with the Leafs in that stat. Complacence, overconfidence, or just lack if commitment, those things will fuel a loss regardless of the individual play of even as skilled and important a player as Tim Thomas.

Today’s game is the second of back to back games for both teams. The Bruins downed the Rangers in New York, the Panthers went into the ATL and stole the Thrashers cookies. Former Bruin’s Denis Wideman and Marty Reasoner (part of the trade that shipped out Samsanov, and brought in Lucic) will no doubt get a warm reception, or at least Wideman will.  The Panthers are having a surprisingly good season so far and have an even record 8-8-0, but still rest securely at the bottom of the Southeast division. A closer look at their schedule reveals wins over the nearly simmering Flames,  the Minnesota Wild, Atlanta Thrashers and the New York Islanders for half their win total.  The Flyers, Stars, and Senators were a different story.  For the Bruins, Adam McQuaid must again be nervous of his roster spot with Boychuck staring hungrily over his shoulder.

  1. Will the Garden faithful come up with a cheer just for Wideman as they did for the equally missed Phil Kessel?
  2. Can Patrice Bergeron pierce the strippers veil the Panthers insist is a defense to light the lamp?
  3. Can a Bruins forward not named Patrice Bergeron finish the night at over 50% in the faceoff dot?
  4. Can the officiating possibly be as bad as last nights?
  5. Will anyone finally recognize Blake Wheeler or Matt Hunwick for the hard work and solid play they have exhibited this season. Both have played well in the last two weeks or so.

I’ll be at the Garden tonight for the game, probably won’t have time for a pregame meeting, but tweet me @pucksage and say hi.

Central:

Detroit:

The Grey Red Wings are hands down the oldest team in the NHL. With nine players 35 or older on the roster to start the season one has to wonder if there is enough heat left to make the team viable. I suspect the answer to that is no, certainly they are no longer contenders, but they are savvy enough to expose younger teams like Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on a regular basis. They are also deep into “cap jail” with less than a million in cap space. Last years 102 points is probably they last time they hit the century mark for a season or two.

Columbus:

This teams position is improved almost without their own efforts. Detroit is older and creakier, Chicago is less deep and in theory sated and exhausted by a championship winning post season. Nashville had their captain and best offensive player smacked around by the oh-so-rugged Evgani Malkin in the preseason and who knows what’s going on in Saint Louis… That said they got back Nikita Filatov and his explosive speed and shot and Steve Mason’s likely looking to build on his reemergence late last season.

Chicago:

With the long discussed post Cup salary dump the BlackHawks are undeniably a much different team than the one who brought the rest of the hockey world to it’s knees. It remains to be seen if they are as capable. They have improved their goaltending by jettisoning Niemi and picking up the still hungry, Turco. And their true core is still largely in tact with Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook all still ready to answer the bell. Sharp, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, the rest will have to see if they can replace the contributions of the traded Sopel, Byfuglien, and Versteeg.

Nashville

This is a make or break year for the Music City. With years of failing to make the playoffs and then being knocked out early, there have to be major changes if the core of the team can’t drag it into at least the second round. This probably means that there will be major off season changes come next June. A forward group that features Flames and Leafs castoff Jamie Lundmark, the always news worthy Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo to support Weber, Suter, Hornquist, and Erat isn’t exactly inspiring. And yet, last season they finished with a strong 100 points. Don’t be surprised by this team, good or bad. They may not have much up front, but they arguably have the best top defensive pairing in the NHL.

Saint Louis

After a legendary run to vault from last place to sixth in the west they fell short of the playoffs last year with play that was mostly mediocre. Not much changed in the off season. Well, except they picked up a goal tender who can just short of win playoff series himself. Jaroslav Halak is probably the single biggest reason to expect this team to make the post season. The biggest reason to expect them to miss out again is their hot and cold running forwards. Brad Boyes went from 33 goals to 14 over the last two seasons, and newly acquired Vladimir Sobotka is capable of playing well enough to make a fierce claim upon a number two center spot on most NHL rosters, and also of making one wonder how he ever got called up. On top of that last season offensive bulwarks MacDonald and Perron were a combined -19 on a team that despite mediocre goaltending managed to score more than it allowed.

Southeast:

Atlanta:

When there’s a post Cup fire sale, there’s always a team that benefits most. Atlanta is that team. They grabbed defenseman Brent Sopel, defenseman turned forward turned defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, and Ben Eager for in exchange for spare parts and acquired draft picks. That said, the Caps and Panthers had better defense in the division last season, and with the additions to their defense, particularly as both men can skate they have a very good chance of making the playoffs. Alexander Burmistrov’s signing adds yet more spice to the Evander Kane, Little, Bergfors contingent. Anyone who writes this team off for lacking a superstar is probably doomed to fall to them.

Florida:

Well, they drafted well, but they still gave up a solid fourth line center and penalty killer in Greg Campbell, and former 30 goal scoring Nathan Horton. On top of this they lost hit machine Dennis Siedenberg, and shot blocking maestro Jordan Leopold. Their supposedly notable acquisitions include, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, and the redoubtable Denis Wideman, sounds like a roster made for the lottery. Almost certainly the worst team in the NHL as their roster stands.

Tampa Bay

A lot of this teams fortunes depend on three people. One, Vincent Lecavelier. Can he return to the form that had him earning mention as one of the top players in the NHL? And can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis put together a backstop to a shaky defense and make the team a playoff contender? If the answer is yes, to each question their climb out of the basement might be quick enough to save us yet another season of the “Vinny to Montreal” rumors we all know and love, and possibly even spare us a fresh round of “relocate the sunbelt teams to Canada”, I’m slotting them into third in the division.

Carolina:

With the injury buy already gnawing the bones of the Canes roster, its tough to see how this already thin team can make any positive moves this year. Staal will be again expected to throw the team, and hockey in the entire state on his shoulders and carry them to the playoffs. With a defense that has to rely on Joe Corvo for name recognition, and probably the ceiling for it’s quality its doubtful the Canes can combine that and an offense that starts, and nearly stops with Staal to do anything worthwhile in front of the enigmatic and mercurial Cam Ward.

Washington:

The Capitals are largely unchanged from last season. Ovechkin being named captain probably counts as the biggest change from the start of last season to this one. Knowledgeable Capitals fans probably watched the playoffs and off season in horror as GM George McFee did squat to implement a defense worthy of the name. Sure the front office can point to youngsters Alzner and Carlson and call it improvement via draft and development, but this is a bill of goods unrivaled in the NHL this season. Well, except maybe for Backstrom being named a top ten star in the NHL.

More to come: The four other divisions, and how the top and bottom of the NHL will look.