As NHL teams enter April, the pressure is quickly mounting. The 56-game season is more than halfway through and the trade deadline looms ahead. Within the NHL East Division’s bottom teams, everyone has different circumstances to contend with. Some are still vying for a coveted playoff spot. Others have already turned their focus to the future. But for all, the decisions, changes, and improvements made in April will help determine the course of the rest of this season and beyond. To kick off this high-stakes month, here’s a preview of what the NHL East Division’s bottom teams will aim to do in the next thirty days. Be sure to check out the top half’s goals as well.
Goals for the NHL East Division’s Bottom Teams
Philadelphia Flyers: Make the Trade Decision
Although the Philadelphia Flyers are just one spot removed from a playoff bid, their performance last month was nowhere near reflective of a postseason contender. Now, with Carter Hart scratched, Shayne Gostisbehere having cleared waivers, and a trade in the works, they appear to be preparing for some drastic changes. In April, the Flyers will need to figure out if – and how – they can knit their players back together into some semblance of a playoff-worthy team.
Given the hints the Flyers’ management dropped at the end of March, a trade will likely happen early this month. They could try to obtain a goaltender like the Detroit Red Wings‘ Jonathan Bernier or a defenceman like the Nashville Predators’ Mattias Ekholm. However, the new acquisition is only a single piece of the puzzle. Even the most capable player can’t drag the Flyers to the playoffs on his own. The rest of the team will have to up its level as well – March’s sluggish-looking group just isn’t enough to overtake the fourth-place Bruins. If Alain Vigneault’s reports are to be believed, Hart needs to work harder to overcome his slump. The defence, of course, has to minimize its breakdowns to ease the goaltenders’ workload. And the offence needs to muster full 60-minute efforts rather than desperate third-period comebacks. In April, all of the components of the Flyers’ team, new and old alike, will have to take a major step up if they are to have any chance at all of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
New York Rangers: Keep Up the Offence
At sixth place in the East Division, the New York Rangers will have to play exceptionally well through the remainder of the season to have a shot at the playoffs. Fortunately, they looked more aggressive and dangerous in March than in previous months. If they can keep that momentum going through April, they have a chance (albeit slim) of finding themselves in the postseason picture.
The offence will play a key role in determining where the Rangers end up. From February to March, the Rangers’ defence performed about the same, recording goals-against averages of 2.45 and 2.63, respectively. It was ultimately an uptick in scoring that made last month so much more successful. In February, the Rangers were 24th in the league with a 2.45 goals-for average. In March, they were second in the league with a 3.88 goals-for average. Even excluding the two blowouts of the Flyers, their 3.21 average was good for eighth in the league. To sustain that level of offensive production into April, the Rangers will rely on the scoring and play-driving abilities of key forwards like Artemi Panarin and the recently-reinvigorated Mika Zibanejad. Month after month, New York’s offence has steadily improved; now it’s just a matter of continuing that trend.
New Jersey Devils: Develop the Youngsters
The New Jersey Devils are a team that’s dealing with lingering growing pains from a recent rebuild. At seventh place in the East Division, ahead of only the Sabres, they’re not likely to make the playoffs this year. Nevertheless, the Devils, and in particular their younger players, can utilize the rest of this season to gain valuable experience.
New Jersey is the second youngest team in the NHL, with an average age of 26.3 years. 10 of their players entered this season with two or fewer years of experience in the league. Of those players, rookies Ty Smith and Yegor Sharangovich, in particular, have been relied upon to shoulder integral roles. 21-year-old defenceman Smith plays on the first pairing and first powerplay unit. 22-year-old Sharangovich is the first-line right wing. While they’ve performed decently this season, they are both still inexperienced players. Consequently, the mentally- and physically-gruelling month ahead will provide a healthy challenge for them and the rest of the team’s young core. Though this year may not be their year, the Devils can still make the most of April by giving their future stars the time and experience needed to develop further.
Buffalo Sabres: Sell, Sell, Sell
If there’s one team that’s safely out of playoff contention, it’s the Buffalo Sabres. Their recent 18-game losing streak tied the record-holding drought of the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins’. At this point, the Sabres’ sole focus is on constructing a stronger team for next season.
In March, the Sabres fired head coach Ralph Krueger and shipped goaltender Jonas Johansson to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2021 sixth-round draft pick. They also traded Eric Staal to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks. In April, they should look to continue the rebuild by shopping as many players as possible. Unfortunately, the Sabres probably won’t get much in trade returns. They just don’t have much leverage in their current state, as evidenced by the two picks obtained for Staal, who had been one of their better players. But because every draft pick has the potential to improve Buffalo’s train wreck of a team, they still need to be selling like mad as the trade deadline closes in.