10 Questions As the NHL Season Resumes
10 Questions As the NHL Season Resumes
Now that the Olympic medals have been given out and all the players have made their way back from Russia, the NHL gets back underway tonight with a makeup game in Buffalo. It's the most glorious time of the regular season as teams scratch and crawl over one another down the stretch to the playoffs. A couple of losses here and there could be enough to absolutely sink a team's chances. Over the next month, we'll see the postseason berths start to take shape.
Since it's been over two weeks since skates touched ice, we'll forgive you if you've forgotten a thing or two about what was happening before the break. There were a number of burning questions that the Olympics rudely made us wait to have answered. Some big trades could be poised to go down before teams head into the homestretch. Many clubs could be looking to load up for that push to the club with one final piece to the puzzle while others could be mailing it in and unloading assets to prepare for a long and daunting rebuilding process.
One thing the Olympic break does is it allows the postseason to really sneak up on NHL fans in a hurry. This fact will become evident fairly quickly for those teams just fighting to keep their heads above water in the late-season push for playoff hockey.
After the jump, we break down 10 things to get you ready on as the season gets underway tonight.
10. Is The Paul Maurice Honeymoon Over In Winnipeg?
The Winnipeg Jets put together a great string of wins immediately after Paul Maurice took to the bench, but they started to slip a little heading into the break. It's possible it was just a minor stumble and they'll get back to where they were in late January, but it's ever more possible the team still has too much of the old Atlanta Thrashers in them.
The team is barely within sniffing distance of a playoff spot, but a few losses out of the gate will doom the franchise to yet another long summer. Sometimes coaching changes are good for a shot in the arm, but other times it takes time for the new system and voice to settle in. Jets fans hope the shot hasn't worn off yet.
9. Are the Colorado Avalanche for Real?
In fairness, this question has been being asked of the Colorado Avalanche since the first week of the season and all signs point to "YES." They have a comfortable lead over the Minnesota Wild in the Central division (10 points) and would have to actually try to miss the playoffs.
But the expectations Patrick Roy has put upon his players is going to go well beyond the regular season. They've been a surprise team not because they've been good, but because they've been SO good. Winning a playoff round or two would prove this season isn't just a flash in the pan and that the team stacked with young talent has finally arrived. If that happens, be afraid. Be very afraid.
8. Where Will Ryan Miller End Up?
This isn't going to be one of those trade sagas that gets a ton of hype only to fizzle away without action. (Looking at you, Rick Nash.) Ryan Miller will be moved before the deadline, and the Buffalo Sabres will get a good haul for him. In their position, they can't let him go to free agency and lose such a coveted player for nothing.
Minnesota and the St. Louis Blues seem to be the front-runners on the trade. The Washington Capitals have been linked as well, but their problems aren't with goaltending, so it would be idiotic to realistically expect them to make a trade.
Of course, all the speculation and rumors will be pointless until the day he actually moves. Mar. 5 is barely a week away, so luckily this drama will be over soon.
7. Is Thomas Vanek A Lock For The Wild?
Speaking of speculation...
The rumors about Thomas Vanek this summer have been loud and clear. He has personal ties to the city, and it's all but certain that's where he'll be when the puck drops to open next season. But there is still a lot of hockey to be played until then, and there are a lot of teams that are interested in the Austrian winger.
Turning down a contract offer from the New York Islanders assured he'll be moved by the deadline. It was a good gamble on their part, and now that they know they won't be making a playoff push they can start wearing out the telephones to see who will pay the highest price. The best part for the Islanders is Vanek does not have a no-trade or no-movement clause, so he can't stop them from making the best deal.
6. Will Anyone Pull Away In The Metro?
No one is going to catch the Pittsburgh Penguins, but only six points separate second place from seventh place. Every night has the potential to completely reshape who is in the playoff picture and who is not, just in the Metro division.
Currently, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers occupy the last two spots, but the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals are just behind them with the Carolina Hurricanes and New Jersey Devils still not out of it yet. Like so many teams will find out, the division picture may be decided by who resumes play the hottest. It's not enough to just win games anymore. Teams have to hope that the squads above them lose, which is going to make gaining ground extremely tricky.
5. Will Pekka Rinne Return For The Nashville Predators?
The Nashville Predators' star goaltender, who has only played nine games this season, has been on the ice and doing more strenuous workouts recently. The club is looking at getting him some conditioning stints with their farm team in Milwaukee.
General manager David Poile has said getting Pekka Rinne back would help the team push for a playoff spot better than any trade they could make. He has a point, since Rinne is one of the best goaltenders in the world. The other net minders have struggled at times to keep their team in games and have been difference makers at others. Carter Hutton has been playing very well of late, but he is still no substitute for the gigantic Finnish goalie.
Whether he gets playing time is up to Rinne and the organization. Nashville's playoff hopes are very dim, but they are alive nonetheless. Getting him back could very well be the difference in their season.
4. Who Will Be the West's Wild Card?
Dallas, Phoenix, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Nashville all have a legitimate shot of being in the last Wild Card spot in the Western Conference come season's end. Each team has looked great at times and awful at others. The Canucks were happy to see the Olympic break happen just so it could put a hiatus on their standings free fall and they can sit back and get their heads together.
Most of these teams still have games to play against each other. One loss in the proverbial four-point game could snuff their playoff dreams for good. Circle your calendars -- these games are going to get messy.
3. Which Toronto Team Will Take the Ice First?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been an extremely hot or cold team this year. They are either plowing down their competition without mercy or doing a tailspin in the standings that makes the hockey-crazed city have ulcers. Obviously, one of those teams can't be the one to start the rest of the season, and I'll give you three guesses as to which one it is.
Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk both played fantastic at the Olympics. The disappointing Team USA loss needs to be stripped from their minds, and they need to build off their performance to keep the Leafs afloat.
The Detroit Red Wings are still six points behind, but with as many shots as Toronto gives up every game the losses could come quickly and in numbers. Many have said last year's abbreviated season was the only reason the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. It's time to prove they aren't a fluke.
2. Who Will Score For The Kings?
The Los Angeles Kings are 29th in the league right now in goals for. They are a team built to win in the playoffs, but they have to get there first. Jonathan Quick can only do so much for them.
Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are leading the way with 20 and 17 goals, respectively. The two players they need to step up are Dustin Brown and Mike Richards. Richards has been dishing the puck a lot this year (second on the team in assists), but he'll have to look for the selfish play once in a while to help the Kings get out of their funk.
Dustin Brown, on the other hand, is statistically having his worst season since his rookie year. With only 16 points on the campaign, L.A. needs their captain to step up and be their captain. He may not be an offensive juggernaut, but he's certainly a better player than the score-sheet would suggest.
Dwight King is having a career year, and Tyler Toffoli is a rookie to keep an eye on to have a big finish to the season.
1. Are the Anaheim Ducks Ready for the Playoffs?
Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau knows exactly what being the best team in the league during the regular season means in the playoffs. Nothing. The stigma he gained with the Washington Capitals, of losing in the playoffs despite a great regular season, followed him to Anaheim last year. The No. 7 seed Red Wings dispatched the Ducks in Game 7 of the opening round.
The Ducks are the best team in the league right now and very well could win the President's Trophy. Whether they do or not, their season won't matter until they start the first round of the playoffs. The team is immensely talented and will be expected to make a run for the Stanley Cup. That's a lot of pressure.
That same pressure could also be applied to the St. Louis Blues. They've been bounced by the L.A. Kings two years in a row but now have a team that's deeper than almost any in the league. The Blues are built to be Cup contenders, but another loss in the first or second round could give them the dreaded label of not being able to finish when it matters.
It could be very possible to see these two teams meet in the Conference Final. Until then, there are games to be won and playoff berths to be secured. The season has just over a month left, and the stretch run is going to be one of the best hockey fans have seen in a long time. Buckle your seat belts.