The 20 game mark in the NHL season is usually a time when the strengths and weaknesses of a club have been fully exposed, giving not only team executives but also fans time to ruminate on where their franchise needs to improve.
The LWOS hockey department has done the same, taking a division-by-division snapshot of where each team is at at the quarter pole, and where they are heading as a result.
The NHL at the Quarter Pole: Metropolitan Division
New York Rangers – 14-2-2, 30 points, 56 GF/31GA, 1st in the Metro
Surprises: Oscar Lindberg. Swedish center Lindberg was a long time coming for the Rangers, but he was well worth the wait. Drafted back in 2010 by the Coyotes, he didn’t even arrive in North America until the 2013-14 season. So far this year, his rookie season, Lindberg has been lights out (though he’s cooled a bit recently), scoring seven goals and 12 points in 18 games, while averaging only 12:31 a night. The early Calder contender is second in rookie goal scoring, just one goal behind Arizona’s Max Domi.
Disappointments: Dan Boyle and Rick Nash. The two veterans (and Olympic Gold Medalists) can be easily clumped together for the same reason: Goal scoring. The 31-year-old Nash, who produced 42 goals just last season, has but two so far this year, and a very lackluster 4.7% shooting percentage. While he likely will be able to turn things around, things don’t look so rosy for the 39-year-old Boyle, who has zero goals and just three assists, despite playing 17:47 a game and plenty of power play time.
Outlook: The Rangers have won nine in a row and taken a point in their last 13 games, propelling themselves to the top of the East. With a deep (if unspectacular) group of forwards led by Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, one of the best shut-down D corps in the league and the sublime Henrik Lundqvist playing the best hockey of his life (amazing but true), there’s no reason why the Rangers can’t continue this run all the way through the regular season and deep into the playoffs.
Prediction: The Rangers Stanley Cup window is wide open, and they’re going for it. The team will add a piece or two at the deadline, easily win the Metro, and at least make the Eastern Conference Final.
Washington Capitals – 12-4-1, 25 points, 51GF/38GA, 2nd in the Metro
Surprises: Evgeny Kuznetsov. If one was to guess who was leading the Capitals in scoring so far this season, Alex Ovechkin would be an easy answer. Despite missing three games, center Nicklas Backstrom, quietly one of the best point-producers in the league for several years, would be a pretty good guess too, or maybe T.J. Oshie or Justin Williams. However, it’s the 23-year-old Kuznetsov leading the parade. So far in his sophomore season he has 18 points (10th in the NHL) in 17 games, and has been doing it without the same league-wide fanfare of his countryman Vladimir Tarasenko in St. Louis.
Disappointments: Is it fair to say there really isn’t one? The club as a whole is in the top ten of almost every appreciable statistical category, and most of the players on the roster have either progressed or regressed as they were expected to prior to the season. The team’s bottom-six centers have been a point of contrition however, as Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson have combined for just four goals so far.
Outlook: The Capitals look to have their best chance at the Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin era, and will continue to be one of the top teams in the East.
Prediction: Ovechkin finishes runner-up for the Rocket Richard, Backstrom finishes runner-up for the Lady Byng, goaltender Braden Holtby finishes runner-up for the Vezina, and the Capitals finish runner-up in the Metro.
New York Islanders – 10-6-3, 23 points, 54GF/43GA, 3rd in the Metro
Surprises: Kyle Okposo. Everyone knew Okposo was a top-six winger, but he was usually relied upon for goal scoring. With 12 assists in 19 games, Okposo is bringing a new dimension to his game. The goals should come later in the season and keep him in the 20 goal market, but he could end up a 60-point winger going into the summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Disappointments: Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. The former Leafs duo costs $9.811 million on the salary cap and has only five goals combined to show for it. With two more years on each, the Islanders need more production from these two if they plan on going anywhere with them. Less pineapple stabbing, more goal-scoring.
Outlook: With fantastic goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, the Islanders should stay up with the best in the Metropolitan division. They do need to allow a few less shots on their goaltenders (27.4 against per game) if they wish to contend in the playoffs.
Prediction: Second-best New York team in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins – 11-7-0, 22 points, 39GF/40GA, 4th in the Metro
Surprises: Goals against. For all the contrition about the Penguins blueline, many would be surprised to learn Pittsburgh has allowed the second-fewest goals against in the Metro, behind only the notoriously stingy Rangers, despite being a bottom-10 team in possession (48CF%).
Much of that is due to the incredible play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has carried over his fantastic form from last year to sit top-ten in wins (nine), goals against average (2.08) and save percentage (.929).
Disappointments: Goals For. With the addition of 40-goal man Phil Kessel, the Penguins were supposed to set the East on fire offensively. Instead they’ve stumbled to just 2.17 goals per game and a woefully anemic power play at 14.3% (both are 27th in the NHL). Sidney Crosby has but two goals in 18 games, the secondary scoring is nearly non-existent, and Evgeni Malkin (16 points in 18 games to lead the team) is the only forward who looks to be giving a real effort. A big issue is the defence. Kris Letang is an outstanding puck mover, but the rest of the Penguins blueline is having real issues starting the transition and getting the puck to the big name forwards.
Outlook: Has Crosby, at age 28, suddenly gone from extraordinary to ordinary? He’s the key to the Penguins potential turnaround, and history shows his poor shooting percentage (4.2%, a full 10 percentage points below his career average) is unsustainable. The offense will turn around, and the Penguins will be in better shape by the half-way mark.
Prediction: The Penguins snag a playoff spot but are bounced in the first round, finally forcing this franchise to address concerns that have been growing for years.
New Jersey Devils – 10-7-1, 21 points, 44GF/42GA, 5th in the Metro
Surprises: Mike Cammalleri. 17 points in 17 games for the smallish sniper that signed to the Devils in the offseason. Along with Kyle Palmieri (14 points in 17 games) and PTO walk-on Lee Stempniak (14 points in 17 games), the Devils are getting scoring from guys folks originally wrote off.
Disappointments: Jiri Tlusty. Originally looking like a half-point-per-game forward, Tlusty has only three points in 14 games to show in New Jersey, a team open to give opportunities to anyone willing to take them.
Outlook: The Devils are a major surprise in the NHL. With the 8th-best powerplay and the 10th-best penalty killer, they can certainly get it done in special teams. However, that 26.1 shots-per-game stat gives one the feeling that goals are going in that might not be sustainable. That said, a good goalie can take you to places you shouldn’t be, and Cory Schneider is one of the best in the East.
Prediction: The new Cinderella team in the NHL fights for a wildcard spot down to game 82.
Philadelphia Flyers – 6-8-4, 16 points, 34GF/52GA, 6th in the Metro
Surprises: Luke Schenn. At age 26, Schenn might finally be starting to understand how to play a solid two-way game. He is (perhaps shockingly but perhaps not giving the blueline corps around him) second on the team in scoring by defensemen with two goals and five points in 14 games (on pace for career highs), while his 52.1 CF% at 5-on-5 is tops. Schenn may be playing himself from trade bait to a piece the Flyers will want to build around.
Disappointments: Jakub Voracek. Wither Jake? The dynamic 26-year-old was brilliant last season with 81 points in 82 games to finish 5th in league scoring. Prior to the Flyers game against Carolina on November 14th, Voracek had managed five points and zero goals in 16 games. His four points in two games since might be an indication he’s turned things around, but without the one-two punch of Voracek and Claude Giroux, the Flyers pretty much have nothing else.
Outlook: This is going to be a tough slog for Flyers fans. The special teams are a disaster, the goals against are atrocious, and the goal-scoring has been extremely lackluster. Goalie Michal Neuvirth (who seems to have stolen Steve Mason’s job) might keep them afloat for a while, but if nagging injuries catch up to him, all might be lost.
Prediction: The Flyers continue to nosedive, a big name gets traded to jumpstart the rebuild, and the team wins the draft lottery, finally getting one over their state brethren in Pittsburgh for winning it back in 2005.
Carolina Hurricanes – 6-10-2, 14 points, 35GF/53GA, 7th in the Metro
Surprises: Justin Faulk. We knew he was good when he put up 49 points last season, but not leading the Hurricanes in scoring kind of good. It’s easy to ignore his -12 plus/minus since the Hurricanes are so bad, but his six powerplay goals are quite impressive.
Disappointments: Jordan Staal. One might look at Jeff Skinner’s four points and consider him the biggest disappointment, but at least we know about Skinner’s injury issues. Jordan Staal is supposed to be the new top centre of the Carolina Hurricanes and six points in 18 games just isn’t going to cut it. Those 49 point seasons in Pittsburgh look like aberrations now instead of his true potential.
Outlook: With putrid attendance numbers, this is the year the Carolina Hurricanes realize there’s no going up without getting into the basement, unloading Eric Staal and others to prepare for a bleak future. The only way they end up winning anything close to a respectable number of games is if Eddie Lack finds his groove in Carolina.
Prediction: Welcome to the basement of the Eastern Conference, Carolina.
Columbus Blue Jackets – 7-12-0, 14 points, 48GF/63GA, 8th in the Metro
Surprise: The coaching turnaround. Since John Tortorella has stepped in replacing Todd Richards, the Blue Jackets have been 6-5 and have shown massive improvements in some major aspects, including their goaltending, penalty kill, and power play.
Disappointment: Sergei Bobrovsky. Fan favorite goaltender Bobrovsky has seen his share of downs so far this season. Bobrovsky started out the season losing his first six starts, while allowing a league high 4.33 goals against and a save percentage of .839. Since then Bobrovsky has seemed to settle in and has brought his record up to 6-9 and the other two respective statistics to 3.33 and .891 – numbers still a far cry from Vezina quality.
Outlook: With Tortorella at the helm of the team, the production of players like Boone Jenner and Scott Hartnell, and the upswing in the play of Bobrovsky, Columbus seems to be heading in the right direction as a club and will look to put pressure on the likes of Carolina and Philadelphia to move themselves out of the basement.
Prediction: The Blue Jackets record surely improves, but the playoffs are impossible.
Stay tuned for out in depth analysis of the Pacific, Atlantic and Central Divisions in the coming days!