The All-Star Game is now a memory and the stretch drive is upon us, hockey fans.
The contenders, for the most part, have separated themselves from the pretenders. However, there will be some exciting races for wild card playoff spots and division second and third place finishes.
Vegas, the greatest surprise expansion team ever, already matched the record for most wins in a season by a new club with their 33rd (in just 49 games), with a 4-2 victory over Calgary on Jan. 30. It’s even more impressive when taking into account that the record holders, Anaheim and Florida, each took 84 games to register 30 W’s.
One hot team, the Boston Bruins, finally lost a game in regulation Tuesday night, dropping a 3-1 decision to host Anaheim. They had been on a 14-0-4 streak prior to that defeat.
Tampa Bay, the top club in the league with 71 points as of Jan. 31, lost a tight one to a surging Winnipeg on Tuesday, 3-1.
Prior to the beginning of the season (which seems so long ago, now) we were looking forward to seeing guys like Connor McDavid improving on his Hart and Art Ross winning 2016-17 season. Despite his team’s awful play, he is 13th in scoring with 54 points. Ditto Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, who has 42 points (second among all defencemen) but is a dismal -23. Calder winner Auston Matthews has played to his level, as has Vezina recipient Sergei Bobrovsky.
Here is the fourth update to the inaugural monthly NHL rankings, with a twist, in that it will only be who we think are the top 16 squads (i.e. 16 teams make the playoffs). Here they are, in ascending order.
16. Colorado Avalanche – December Rank: N/A
Somehow, the trade that send Matt Duchene to Ottawa has had the reverse effect most hockey literati originally predicted, and that is a complete turnaround for the surprising Avalanche. Before that big early season deal, the Avs didn’t tweak their line-up much, other than to add back-up goalie Jonathan Bernier, as well as rookie Alexander Kerfoot, role player Colin Wilson and erstwhile former first overall pick Nail Yakupov. Colorado was horrible in 2016-17 and it was hoped that with a couple of small moves and a good second year from coach Jared Bednar the team would improve. They won 22 games in 2016-17, so there is nowhere else to go but up.
January Results: The Avs started out January by winning seven straight games to climb into the playoff picture. And they weren’t all victories against slouch teams, with wins over Winnipeg, Minnesota, Dallas, Anaheim, San Jose, Columbus and Toronto. They finished the month with a sound 8-2-1 record, with much credit to leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon, who had eight goals and seven assists in those 11 contests.
A look ahead: Colorado may be in tough to start February, if the injury MacKinnon suffered in a 4-3 OT loss to Vancouver Tuesday night keeps him out for a stretch. In the 28 days that comprise this month, the Avs have 14 games, not leaving a lot of time to rest. They have nine on the road, where they don’t have a great record (9-11-3) as well as 11 games against Western Conference opponents.
15. Anaheim Ducks – December Rank: 15
The time for the Ducks to win again, like they did in 2007, was likely yesterday. The third oldest team in the National Hockey League at an average age of 28.442, will again rely on 30-somethings Ryan Getzlaf (32), Corey Perry (32), Patrick Eaves (33), Andrew Cogliano (30), Antoine Vermette (35) and, when he gets back from injury, Ryan Kesler (33) to score goals. The Ducks, who made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last year, will be in tough early on without Kesler (58 points last season), who has no clear timetable for return after off-season hip surgery. Defenceman Sami Vatanen (24 points last season) is also out for a while after shoulder surgery, ditto Hampus Lindholm (20 points, +13), who is out until November after shoulder surgery to correct a torn labrum. The Ducks brought back oldster and 2007 Cup champion Francois Beauchemin to shore up the D and will have to count on relatively untested but decent puck-mover Brandon Montour for big minutes. In net, the Ducks made a bold move to bring in veteran Ryan Miller to back up John Gibson.
January Results: Anaheim caught a break in January, having to play just 11 games. Other than a couple of hiccups, the Ducks fashioned an admirable 7-3-1 record, including a big victory over Boston (3-1) on Tuesday night to end the month. The star of the show for Anaheim has been goaltender John Gibson, who saved his team’s bacon on many a night. He was 5-2-1 in the month, having a huge game in a triumph over the New York Rangers, stopping 41 of 44 shots.
A look ahead: Just like Colorado having to do with Nathan MacKinnon for a spell, the Ducks may have to go into a 14-game February without Gibson. He left the game against Boston late and his injury is TBD. Anaheim plays nine of 14 on the road, where they are 11-8-6. They start the month with four straight away from the Pond with stops in Buffalo, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal and have another four-gamer through the midwest in the middle of the month.
14. Minnesota Wild – December Rank: N/A
While the playoff result, a first round, five-game loss to St. Louis doesn’t show it, the Wild’s first year under Bruce Boudreau signaled a big change. The team scored the second most goals in the NHL (266), with the scoring spread all around, led by Eric Staal’s 28 markers. Fully 12 players scored double digit goals and nine players had 40 or more points. Jason Zucker, who had 22 goals and 47 points, was tops in the NHL in plus-minus at +34. They return their six top scorers but will have to do without Zach Parise for the early going, as he has a back injury. They picked up plenty of grit and some scoring by acquiring Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis from Buffalo and signed free agents Daniel Winnik and former Wild forward and Stanley Cup champion Matt Cullen. On defence, their top four are formidable, with a great top pair in Ryan Suter and Mathew Dumba. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk is coming off a stellar campaign, where he got in 65 games, winning 40 and posting five shutouts.
January Results: A 7-2-2 January put the Wild in the thick of a big pack of seven teams within two points of each other (they have 59, smack in the middle). Veteran Eric Staal has been rejuvenated and leads the team with 43 points, including 20 goals, tying him with youngster Jason Zucker in that department. Staal had five goals and five assists in January, while Zucker also posted the same numbers. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk was decent, posting a 6-2-1 record, highlighted by a 32 save effort in a big 4-1 triump over Winnipeg.
A look ahead: Minny gets to play eight of 13 games at home in February, where they have an admirable 17-4-4 record. Not an easy month though, as nine of those 13 games are against opponents either higher or near them in the standings. It all starts with a big test against visiting Vegas on Friday night.
13. Pittsburgh Penguins – December Rank: N/A
Until proven otherwise, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins are still the class of the NHL. Sidney Crosby and the gang may have dropped a few pieces to a second consecutive title (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley), but on paper they are still scary good. As it is, none of the departed were in their top six in scoring and most are long past their prime. So instead of big name free agents joining the Pens for a possible three-peat, the team welcomed some bottom six depth in guys like Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves, along with defenceman Matt Hunwick. Matt Murray will continue on as undisputed no. 1, with Dallas cast-off Antti Niemi riding shotgun (they better hope a change of scenery is the tonic). Do all signs point to another Cup? Don’t count Crosby and the Penguins out.
January Results: The defending champs return to the rankings for the first time in months, thanks to a 9-3-0 month. Now second place in the Metropolitan with 59 points, the Pens are by no means home and cooled. However, their scoring has returned with a vengeance, with 45 goals in 12 January games. Phil Kessel, who got no love by the All-Star voters, piled up 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in January to boost his team-leading total to 59 points. Before goalie Matt Murray returned to beat San Jose Tuesday night, lesser-knowns Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith carried the load well. The Pens are back, baby.
A look ahead: Pittsburgh has 12 games in February, equally split between home and road. Not an easy slate, either, as nine of those contests are against teams above .500 and in the playoff hunt. These teams include Vegas, Washington, St. Louis, Toronto and Columbus, to name a few.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets – December Rank: 12
There will be a few new wrinkles to the Eastern Conference’s fourth most potent attack this season. The Blue Jackets, who scored 249 goals last year, but bowed meekly in five games to Pittsburgh in the first round, weren’t content with status quo and made some changes. First, they traded Brandon Saad back to Chicago for elite playmaker Artemi Panarin. They waived by bye to veterans Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell, which opens up prime spots for young gunners like rookie Sonny Milano (second line left wing), third-year man Oliver Bjorkstrand (second line right wing) and 2016 third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois (third line left wing). They will all learn well with veteran centermen Nick Foligno (second line) and Brandon Dubinsky (third line). The defence is as solid and mobile as any, with super sophomore Zach Werenski anchoring a first pair with Seth Jones. And, Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will nearly always give them a chance to win.
January Results: It was a middling month for the Jackets, hence the reason they stand pat in the rankings at no. 12. At 5-4-1 they weren’t horrible, but losses to bottom feeders Buffalo and Vancouver couldn’t have sat well with Coach Torts. Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky had a bounce back month, if not for two rough starts against Vegas and Vancouver. Scoring by committee still seems to work, with newcomer Artemi Panarin leading all scorers with 41 points (seven in January).
A look ahead: Thirteen games in February sees the Blue Jackets doing battle with Metropolitan Division foes on 10 occasions, including three tilts with Washington. To their credit, they won’t leave the Eastern Time zone once in February.
11. Calgary Flames – December Rank: N/A
Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr came and went, but Calgary is still a pretty darned good team without him. Their top two lines are loaded with young talent, including first liners Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Michael Ferland, along with second liners Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund. The addition of Travis Hamonic to the defence was an off-season coup and gives the Flames a frighteningly good top four with Hamonic, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie. The biggest concern for the Flames is how their goaltending will fare. Gone are Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, replaced by veteran Mike Smith and journeyman Eddie Lack. Smith, 35, was decent in 55 games with the woeful Coyotes last year, winning 19 games with a .914 save percentage, 2.92 goals against and three shutouts. Lack, late of Carolina, has played in 135 NHL games and has a career goals against of 2.56, with nine shutouts.
January Results: The Flames won their first six games of the month, then lost their last five, but picked up points in four of them with extra-frames to go 6-1-4. That run puts them into the aforementioned pack of seven teams in the West within two points of each other. Johnny Gaudreau continues to be the team’s engine, compiling 13 of his team-leading 56 points in those 11 games. Their overall balance has been decent but with four losses in OT/SO the Flames have lacked finish. They’ll have to correct that, as extra points are at a premium.
A look ahead: This will be the make or break month for Calgary, as they play a thunderous 15 games, including 10 on the road. Good thing, then, that they have a stellar 13-5-5 mark outside the Saddledome. Their road swings see them go east for six straight between Feb. 6 and Feb. 15 with the remaining road contests in the Mountain Time zone.
10. San Jose Sharks – December Rank: 14
A 99-point campaign in 2016-17 was good, but a first round playoff exit — after making the Stanley Cup finals in 2016 — could not have sat well with players or management. Long-time veteran Patrick Marleau headed to free agency and signed with Toronto, and stay-at-home D David Shlemko was picked up by Vegas and then dealt to Montreal. Even with Marleau gone, the core is still fairly old, with Joe Thornton (38), Joe Pavelski (33), Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns (32) and D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (30). Much more will be expected from youngsters Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc and Chris Tierney, if the Sharks are going to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are one of the best one-two tandems in the league.
January Results: San Jose was a little all over the map in January, going 6-4-3 — which isn’t bad — and playing streaky hockey. The end of the month was a little alarming, as Aaron Dell surrendered six goals on 29 shots in a 6-5 loss to the Rangers on Jan. 25. Then, star netminder Martin Jones coughed up five in a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh Tuesday night. Indicative of how Jekyll and Hyde the Sharks have been has been the play of Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. He took the lead in team scoring with 17 points in January, but was -7 and carries an abysmal -23 rating for the whole season. They will need to clean up their act in their own end, if they want to make the playoffs.
A look ahead: After playing in Detroit on Jan. 31, part of a five-game road trip from east to west, the Sharks have 14 games in February. Eight of those 14 are on the road, where San Jose is 12-9-4. A grueling midwest swing through St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago and Minnesota near the end of the month looms large.
9. Dallas Stars – December Rank: 11
We’ll believe it, when we see it. Most pundits predict that the re-vamped Stars have done enough to help erase a lost 2016-17 campaign. They added enigmatic playmaker Alexander Radulov to a top line featuring Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, as well as veteran pivot Martin Hanzal to the third line to give them more depth. Free agent Marc Methot joins an underachieving blue line, headed by homegrowns Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. The biggest, and most important changes for the Stars come in net and behind the bench. Ben Bishop gives the Stars the goaltending they have lacked for some time, pushing the mediocre Kari Lehtonen to back-up duties (which may suit him better). Bishop was so-so in 2016-17, playing in 39 games and posting a 2.54 GAA and .910 save percentage. With a change of scenery and renewed commitment to defence under Ken Hitchcock (more on him), Bishop may regain the all-star form he had during the 2015-16 campaign. Hitchcock is back for another go-around in Big D, where he won the franchise’s only championship in 1999. He’s a taskmaster who will get more out of the troops than they were capable of last year.
January Results: A 6-4-1 December kept Dallas closer to the top of the playoff contender pile than the bottom, but not by much. They have 60 points to lead a pack of seven teams within two points of each other. To their credit, the Stars did beat Boston (in OT) and got two solid performances out of back-up goalie Kari Lehtonen, both wins. To their detriment, the Stars dropped two clunkers to Toronto (4-1 on Jan. 25) and Los Angeles (3-0 on Tuesday) to end the month. Fourth-year defenceman John Klingberg continues to impress, scoring a goal and adding 13 helpers to tie him with teammate Alexander Radulov for the team lead with 48 points (his total is also tops among all rearguards).
A look ahead: Big D has a lighter slate than most teams in February, with just 12 games on the horizon. However, just two are against eastern clubs. A three-game California road swing at the end of the month looks imposing, which is followed by visits from Winnipeg and Calgary to end proceedings.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs – December Rank: 10
Depending on who is talking, the Leafs are either a) primed for a major move toward a Stanley Cup or b) due for a tumble because their young core won’t sneak up on anyone this year. With the load of talent up front and a capable goalie in Fredrik Andersson, the former may be a more realistic outcome than the latter. Auston Matthews leads this team into a season where many expect the team to push a little further than last year. He was a 40-goal man and the Calder winner in 2016-17 and will only get better. The veteran/youngster mix up front is sound and got a boost in leadership when they signed Patrick Marleau. The defensive corps looks a little better, given that Cup-winning veteran Ron Hainsey was added to the mix and will help in the further development of Morgan Rielly. Undrafted Swede Andreas Borgman, a sturdy defenceman who surprised all by making the opening night roster, might be this year’s Nikita Zaitsev.
January Results: Prior to a month ending home game against the New York Islanders, the Leafs came out of January with a 5-3-3 record and a virtual lock on a playoff spot. With 61 points and a third-place standing in the Atlantic Division (first second and third guaranteed in), the Leafs are 15 points clear of Florida, Detroit and Montreal. Barring a complete collapse, they’re in. The Leafs biggest problem, it seems, is holding early leads. In their three OT losses, they had a lead each time, only to cough it up and lose. They also gave up way too many shots, however, the bright side is Frederik Andersen is playing like a champ.
A look ahead: It’s a favorable February for the Buds, who play eight of 14 at home, where they are 13-8-2. None of their games are outside the Eastern Time zone either. But, they get Boston and Tampa Bay twice each, which will provide a looking glass into their playoff readiness. The returns of injured d-men Nikita Zaitsev and Morgan Rielly will be welcome.
7. St. Louis Blues – December Rank: 9
The Blues didn’t do much to tweak a roster that ended up with 99 points last year and ended up going to the second round of the playoffs. Which was either a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on optics. The biggest pick-up was Philadelphia Flyers playmaker Brayden Schenn (55 points in 79 games last year), who slotted in right away on the Blues top line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. The team also welcome third line center Oskar Sundsqvist from Pittsburgh and rookie defenceman Vince Dunn (45 points in 72 games for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves in 2016-17). As it was in 2016-17, Jake Allen handles full-time netminding duties (33-20-5, 2.42 GAA in 2016-17), with very capable back-up Carter Hutton ready to spell him.
January Results: The Blues became one of four teams with over 30 wins by registering a 7-3-1 mark in January, which was ended with wins in five of six games. At 65 points and a tied with Nashville for second in the Central, St. Louis is poised to make the post-season. Back-up goalie Carter Hutton was stellar in place of starter Jake Allen, going 7-2-1 with a shutout in January. Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko are tied atop the team scoring ledger with 50 and 46 points respectively and both have a team-leading 21 goals. They do have lots of balance, though, to keep things on an even keel going into the stretch drive.
A look ahead: With 13 games in February, it will be a bit of a slog, but the Blues don’t venture outside the Central Time zone much. They do play seven on the road, where they sport a 13-8-3 mark, including stops in Winnipeg, Dallas, Minnesota and twice in Nashville.
6. Washington Capitals – December Rank: 6
The magic potion to winning a Stanley Cup continued to elude the Capitals in 2016-17. Despite boasting some of the game’s great scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom), great defence and a yearly Vezina candidate in goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps succumbed to the eventual champion Penguins, yet again. So, this year, instead of fishing about in free agency to try and buy a championship, the Caps stood relatively pat and will go at it with a still very formidable line-up. They lost trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency, which will open up more ice time for the likes of Dmitri Orlov and John Carlson. Up front, Marcus Johansson and his 58 points are gone, which opens the door for former first rounder Jakub Vrana to pick up the slack on the first line with OV and Kuznetzov. The most changes came in the bottom six, with newcomers Alex Chiasson (24 points for Calgary), Tyler Graovac (seven goals and nine points in 52 games with Minnesota) and Devante Smith-Pelly (nine points in 53 games for the Devils), providing checking, grit and a little scoring.
January Results: A really light month that saw the Caps compile a so-so 5-2-2 record ends Wednesday night with a visit from a resurgent Philadelphia Flyers team. Even still, the Capitals are in first place in a tightly packed Metropolitan Division with 63 points (Carolina is last with a respectable 54). OV continues to be the centerpiece of the offence, scoring six times and adding six helpers in nine games. The team does have seven players in double digit goals, however, we can’t help feel that they still rely on Ovechkin too much.
A look ahead: Washington plays 14 (eight on the road) in February, front-loaded with top-end competition. They play five of their first eight away from D.C. with tilts against Pittsburgh, Vegas, Columbus (twice) and Winnipeg, Minnesota and Chicago (all on the road). They will be tested, hard.
5. Nashville Predators – December Rank: 5
Smashville came pretty close to winning it all last year and with the line-up they have now, will beat teams on the scoreboard and in the trenches. On the grit side, the Preds picked up noted banger D Alexei Emelin (1,235 hits in 380 games) as well as bringing back gritty scorer Scott Hartnell, who will man the left side on the second line. Speaking of that second line, the Predators poached the Penguins for center Nick Bonino, who will ably replace Mike Fisher. Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are two of the better offensive defencemen in the league and man the point in a scary good first powerplay unit that also sports Hartnell, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Pekka Rinne returns for a 12th season and will mentor up-and-coming countryman Juuse Saros, who looks like the goalie of the future. The Western Conference is tough but the Predators have the horses to go far.
January Results: Word out of Nashville on Wednesday was that workhorse center Mike Fisher was coming out of retirement. Which could be a very good thing for a Predators team looking to take over the lead in the Central Division. Prior to February action, the Preds trailed front-running Winnipeg by three points, but had three games in hand. After dropping back-to-back games to open January, Smashville reeled of five straight wins and finished the month an admirable 6-2-2. The goaltending from Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros has been outstanding, with both netminders sporting near identical numbers, like save percentage (both .927) and goals against average (2.33 Saros, 2.35 Rinne). Saros, who has played 14 games this season, also has three shutouts, including one in January.
A look ahead: The Predators will hit the ice 14 times in the next 28 days, including eight in the friendly confines. Other than St. Louis, twice and one against Winnipeg, it’s a pretty steady diet of Eastern Conference teams — eight to be exact. Five of those are on the road, where the Preds are 13-7-4.
4. Winnipeg Jets – December Rank: 4
The Jets are opposite their confreres in Montreal, in that they will score in buckets, but may be nip-tuck to keep the biscuit out of the basket. There was virtually no change to their starting four forward lines, headed by leading point producer Mark Scheifele (82) and followed by top goal scorer Patrik Laine (36 in his rookie campaign) as well as Blake Wheeler (74 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (64 points, tied with Laine). The Jets also get an offensive boost from a blue line that features heavy hitter Dustin Byfuglien (13 goals, 52 points) and Jacob Trouba (33 points in 60 games). Winnipeg did make one major move in free agency, scooping veteran netminder Steve Mason from Philadelphia. A renaissance year of sorts will be required of Mason, who wasn’t brilliant for the Flyers last year (2.66 GAA, .908 save percentage in 58 games). He forces incumbent starter Connor Hellebuyck to the second banana — nice insurance if Mason flames out.
January Results: It was a tough month, with seven of 11 on the road, but the Jets weathered the storm and picked up points in nine games, going 7-2-2. The Central Division leading team also laid claim to contender status by ending the month with a huge 3-1 victory over top dog Tampa Bay. Veteran Blake Wheeler continued to do his thing offensively, adding 11 points to his team-leading total of 56, while super sophomore Patrik Laine scored five goals to up his team best total to 21. The production from a variety of sources has been welcome in the absence of gunner Mark Scheifele. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was his steady self, going 5-2-2.
A look ahead: After the grind of seven of 11 on the road in January, Winnipeg gets paid back with 10 of 12 at home in February. They are 18-3-1 there and start February with nine straight on home ice. Some good clubs come calling though, starting with Vegas on Feb. 1 and followed by teams like Colorado (twice), St. Louis, Washington and Los Angeles.
3. Boston Bruins – December Rank: 3
The Bruins were good last year, just not good enough. After missing the playoffs in two straight seasons, the B’s made it back to the big spring dance, only to lose in six to the Ottawa Senators in the first round. There wasn’t a wholesale changing of the guard in the off-season, as they shed some veterans in Dominic Moore, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes and John-Michael Liles to make room for youngsters. Among the new faces in the line-up are D Charlie McAvoy, who debuted in the playoffs, as well as C Danton Heinen (116th overall pick in 2014), LW Jake DeBrusk (14th overall in 2015), LW Anders Bjork (146th overall, 2014), C Sean Kuraly (133rd overall to San Jose in 2011) and D Matt Grzelcyk (85th overall, 2012). Tuukka Rask still mans the pipes as the no. 1, while very capable back-up Anton Khudobin bides his time.
January Results: It took a rival team 19 games, but the Bruins finally lost a game in regulation on Tuesday night, 3-1 to Anaheim. In a stretch dating back to the middle of December the B’s went 14-0-4 to put the pressure on Atlantic Division leading Tampa Bay (they have 66 points to the Lightning’s 71 with two games in hand). In January, Boston finished 8-1-2, which included three victories over Montreal. Brad Marchand, who had an incredible 18 points in nine games, has been suspended for the last two, part of a five-game ban for an illegal check to the head on New Jersey’s Marcus Johansson. That will hurt one of the most dynamic lines in hockey for another three games, as Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron have 21, 20 and 20 goals, respectively.
A look ahead: Boston has 13 games in February, however, eight are on the road. A five-game swing starting Feb. 17 will test their stamina, starting in Vancouver then going to Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Buffalo. They already have a playoff spot virtually clinched, so motivation might be key, too.
2. Vegas Golden Knights – December Rank: 2
The Knights, for a throw together team, plucked a few gems out of the dispersal draft, as well as free agency. GM George McPhee had his work cut out for him but did well with dispersal and entry draft wheeling and dealing to stock the cupboard. Of the more notable names available in the dispersal draft, they got James Neal, Reilly Smith, Nate Schmidt, Jonathan Marchessault and Marc-Andre Fleury. Other reliable veteran acquisitions included David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Cody Eakin, Colin Miller, Oscar Lindberg and Erik Haula. McPhee’s wrangling at the entry draft netted him three first round picks, including Cody Glass (6th overall), Nick Suzuki (13th) and Erik Brannstrom (15th).
January Results: The good times keep on rolling in Vegas, where the expansion Golden Knights show no signs of folding or fading. They tied the mark for expansion team victories at 33, already, and had a 7-3-2 record in January to give them a Pacific Division leading 70 points. Unless they completely crap the bed, the Golden Knights are going to the playoffs, maybe with home ice through the Western Conference portion. A look at their scoring shows tons of balance, starting with Jonathan Marchessault’s 48 points and William Karlsson’s amazing 27 goals (both team bests). And Marc-Andre Fleury, back from injury, is providing the kind of all-world goaltending a contending team needs. This team plays hard and will be a force to be reckoned with in April.
A look ahead: February could be an ass-kicker for Vegas, as they play 14 in 28 days, with five straight on the road to start (they have six road and eight at home). That trip part of a six-game swing that started Tuesday night with a victory in Calgary, continues with a stop in Winnipeg on Feb. 1, then on to Minnesota, Washington, Pittsburgh and San Jose. Seven straight at home after that, however, will be the tonic, since they have a 19-3-2 record in Sin City.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning – December Rank: 1
Like the Stars, the formerly glorious Bolts are due for a climb in the standings after narrowly missing the playoffs last season. With a healthy Steven Stamkos back (he missed all but 17 games last year), the rudderless Lightning have their captain. The Lightning fixed a couple of holes with kids and vets in the off-season. They brought in D Dan Girardi to provide grit on the blue line, then signed former Penguin Chris Kunitz for scoring depth on the left wing. In a bold move, they flipped playmaker Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in return for highly touted young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who will be tutored by partner Anton Stralman. The forward lines have great depth, with leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (40 goals) only getting better and the defence is very capably quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets a second season as starter after a fairly decent 2016-17 season.
January Results: Some of the shine off a very hot start to the season was taken off with a 6-5-1 record for the Bolts in January. Yet, they are still in first place overall and with a 25-point bulge on fourth place in the Pacific, not likely to miss the post-season. Rather, it’s a question if the Bolts can hang on to first overall and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lightning did rebound nicely from a 3-4-1 start to January by beating Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before bowing to a tough Winnipeg club to end the month. NHL leading scorer Nikita Kucherov wasn’t quite as hot in those 12 games, picking up just eight points. This is a deep club, though, that has many other weapons like Steven Stamkos, to name one.
A look ahead: The loss in Winnipeg on Tuesday was the fifth of a grueling eight-game road trip that continues with visits to Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton to start the month of February. After that, Tampa plays six of 11 at home. Of the 14 games in February, eight are against teams with losing records, so they should pick up max points.