Part 2 of my team by team breakdown 3/4 into the season
Montreal Canadiens Not many pundits thought this would be a playoff team and questioned many of the off season moves but right in the mix to grab a playoff spot. Carey Price has stayed healthy and has bounced back nicely and Max Domi has exceeded expectations coming from Arizona. They have had good production from Thomas Tatar and goal scoring from Brendan Gallagher. Also the return of perennial all star Shea Weber has solidified the blue line. 18 year Finnish rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has a chance to be special. A killer schedule for their last 5 games could be make or break getting into the playoffs.
Nashville Predators Still a major threat to win it all and made some nice February offensive additions with Brian Boyle, Mikael Granlund, and Wayne Simmonds. Have had to overcome a plethora of mid season injuries but the goaltending has been solid again with Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros. Rinne had a nightmare meltdown in game 7 of the Western Conference semi-finals against Winnipeg so he should be more than motivated for redemption in this years playoffs.
New Jersey Devils After a 27 point improvement and a playoff spot last season not much has gone right this year with last years MVP Taylor Hall being sidelined since December 23rd and now out for the season. The goaltending has been abysmal and the Devils would love to move on from Cory Schneider.
New York Islanders The biggest surprise of the NHL season considering they lost their franchise star John Tavares to Toronto in free agency and a roster devoid of true star quality. But when you add Barry Trotz as your head coach and have one of the greatest GM's in hockey history Lou Lamoriello guiding the ship you can't be to surprised about the season they are having. Robin Lehner is having a Vezina like season in goal with Thomas Greiss equally impressive. When the playoffs start they will play their home games in Long Island which is a major home ice advantage but will go back to Brooklyn if they advance. No moves at the trade deadline and the question for them is will they have enough scoring in the playoffs.
New York Rangers Weren't seen as a playoff team before the season started so no real surprise they were sellers at the trade deadline trading Mats Zuccarello to Dallas and Kevin Hayes to Winnipeg. Henrik Lundqvist has had a Hall of Fame career and wants to finish as a Ranger but if he wants a chance at a cup he will need to go elsewhere since this team is in rebuilding mode.
Ottawa Senators No real surprise they have been a bottom feeder this year and even with no real expectations they fired their coach Guy Boucher yesterday. They traded their top 2 scorers Matt Duchene to Columbus and Mark Stone to Vegas so this team will need a major rebuild. The future could be bright if they secure the #1 draft pick and have the chance to draft super prospect Jack Hughes. Hughes along with 19 year old rookie stud Brady Tkachuk would have a lot of Senator fans excited for the future.
Philadelphia Flyers Flyer fans have to grumbling why they didn't bring up their young goaltending prospect Carter Hart earlier in the season especially since they used 6 different goaltenders and struggled mightily early in the year. Have come on strong since mid-season even with Hart on the shelf but probably not enough to grab a playoff spot.
Pittsburgh Penguins It will be a dogfight to get into the playoffs as their goaltending has been mediocre and have been very suspect defensively. They still have the front line scoring with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel and with all of their playoff experience would still be a tough out but with so many talented teams in the Eastern Conference I just don't see a Stanley Cup run this year.
San Jose Sharks As talented as any team in the league they have the capabilities, especially in a wide open Western Conference, of making another Stanley Cup run. They can score with anyone and can adapt to any style of play but is Martin Jones good enough in net?
St Louis Blues A team that was all but dead at mid season has had a remarkable turnaround with an 11 game winning streak and the most improbable story of the season in goaltender Jordan Binnington. He wasn't even in the goalie rotation at the start of the year but once he got his chance he has gone 15-2-1 with a 1.61 GAA and a save percentage of .936. Is Binnington a flash in the pan and be exposed in the playoffs or will his greatness continue leading to a Stanley Cup run?
Tampa Bay Lightning The best team in the league and anything short of a Stanley Cup will be a disappointment. No real weaknesses with deep scoring power and probable MVP in Nikita Kucherov. The Eastern Conference is much more rugged and will be a battle to get through. A Victor Hedman injury would the biggest worry going into the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs High expectations in the biggest NHL media pressure cooker for the Leafs to end their Stanley Cup drought. They have all the pieces in place with high scoring forwards Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Auston Matthews for a Stanley Cup run. The ship will be sunk if goaltender Frederik Andersen gets hurt. Head coach Mike Babcock has preached patience to the fan base but these next few years will be there window to make a run.
Vancouver Canucks Much like the Buffalo Sabres have slowly faded from playoff contention but the future is pointing up for this franchise. They have likely rookie of the year in their leading scorer Elias Pettersson and a good core of young players.
Vegas Golden Knights Their improbable Stanley Cup run from last year has not slowed down this franchise and unless they fade badly down the stretch will be back in the playoffs and be a big threat to get back to the final. The Mark Stone acquisition adds more scoring depth and the big playoff question is how Max Pacioretty in his first year with Vegas will perform per being a flame out for Montreal during the playoffs.
Washington Capitals Won't be the favorites to repeat but still have the capabilities of going on a Stanley Cup run. Alex Ovechkin hasn't slowed down with 44 goals and on pace for 50+ and pretty much the same support cast from last year. Goaltender Braden Holtby has had a mediocre regular season but was mediocre in the regular season last year and got hot in the playoffs so Caps fans are hoping history repeats. 1st year head coach Todd Reirden has stepped in nicely but will feel the pressure to live up to last years run.
Winnipeg Jets Looking to take the next step after losing in the conference finals last year to Vegas and will be one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Scoring depth and lethal on the power play they can score with anyone but still questions in net with Connor Hellebuyck. Will Dustin Byfuglien be healthy for the playoffs per struggling with injuries throughout the season at age 33.