Snapping pucks around the divisions and their trade possibilities, with fewer than six weeks to go before the March 3 deadline …
▪ The Atlantic Division has separated into three tiers: The Bruins, the Maple Leafs and Lightning, and everyone else.
The Bruins are so far ahead of the pack — winning 36 of their first 45 games — that they can keep chasing the NHL wins and points records. Or, they can dial back the minutes for Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and others. Given the way this season has gone, at some point in March they’ll deploy Tomas Nosek as the No. 2 center and he’ll have a 3-point night. Wondering if they’ll see Jake DeBrusk (possible return after the All-Star break) as their big trade deadline addition.
What is clear is that the Leafs and Lightning are on a collision course, barring a collapse or total servitude to resting veterans by the Bruins — neither of which is likely — or a hard charge up the standings by the Panthers, Sabres, or Red Wings.
Toronto and Tampa Bay might be angling over the same type of deadline pickup: a scoring wing who plays fast and doesn’t cost a lot. Tyler Bertuzzi, whose $4.75 million cap hit is expiring, could cost a first-round pick and a prospect. Most of the teams trying to add him would have to send salary back to Detroit, which has nearly $6 million in space.
The Panthers have been flirting with DNQ territory for a while, and last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners have seen their top two netminders (Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight) get hurt in recent weeks. Not ideal. They greatly need another top-pair defenseman to help Aaron Ekblad, who is having a down year.
The Red Wings and Sabres have produced a few spicy stretches, but they clearly aren’t there yet. Buffalo, whose highlights are always worth a look because of Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson, looks to be ahead of Detroit, where the Yzerplan hasn’t quite unfolded yet.
It feels worse in Ottawa, where the Senators (fourth-worst in five-on-five goal differential) have made the Summer of Pierre Dorion feel like it was years ago. They aren’t looking like they’ll play meaningful games down the stretch, as was Dorion’s goal. What will he do with pending restricted free agent Alex DeBrincat, who entered the weekend with 15 goals and is due a $9 million qualifying offer? Does anyone want Travis Hamonic, Austin Watson, Cam Talbot, or Nick Holden (all unrestricted free agents)?
The plan for the banged-up Canadiens is clear. Sean Monahan could interest teams at the deadline, but Kent Hughes is probably more worried about a Cole Caufield extension.
▪ It seems like the Metropolitan Division will be looking west.
Sharks general manager Mike Grier has a chance to get major assets for Timo Meier, and could make a blockbuster deal involving Erik Karlsson. The Ducks and Canucks could be moving on from a host of players whose ages and salaries aren’t lining up with their windows of contention. The Coyotes could launder someone else’s contracts.
All three New York-area teams could use Meier. The Devils need a scoring winger to play with Jack Hughes — Erik Haula, a solid player, is not optimal in that spot — and Meier has World Championships chemistry with fellow Swiss star Nico Hischier. The Rangers need a finisher to play with Artemi Panarin. The Islanders are letting far too much of Mathew Barzal’s wizardry go to waste.
Teams could rent Meier, who is due a $10 million qualifying offer, or extend him. The Sharks will want a bounty, and rightfully so. He had 24 goals and 43 points in his first 44 games.
As of Thursday, the Devils and Rangers were chasing the Hurricanes for the Metropolitan lead. The Islanders were 1 point out of the wild card but sixth in the division behind those three and the two wild-card teams, the Capitals and Penguins. They should make a move, particularly since they have a goalie (Ilya Sorokin) who can steal a playoff series.
Then there’s the Hurricanes, whose needs are similarly clear.
They have Sebastian Aho as a No. 1 center, and Jordan Staal as a No. 3 — remember how he owned his matchup at home against the Bruins last playoffs — but Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Paul Stastny, and Derek Stepan are not legitimate options in the two-hole. Vancouver’s Bo Horvat, who had 30 goals and 48 points in his first 43 games and is on an expiring $5.5 million deal, would be a game-changer.
The Capitals look stronger after Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson’s January returns from injury, but like the rival Penguins, any additions would likely come as hockey deals, not futures. The Penguins have sputtered of late, winning 3 of 12 games between Dec. 22 and Thursday. No one’s in a rush to count out a Sidney Crosby-led team, but they’re in a dogfight for a playoff spot.
The Blue Jackets, despite the buzz the Johnny Gaudreau signing created last summer, will do well to add another lottery pick. Same goes for the Flyers — if losing to the Blackhawks this past week wasn’t enough of a sign that they need to cut bait on this season, not sure what else they need to see. Anyone want a discounted James van Riemsdyk?
▪ The Avalanche still feel like the favorites in the Central Division, even though they’re not even a guarantee to make the playoffs.
They entered the weekend 2 points out. The extended absences of Gabriel Landeskog (yet to play), Josh Manson, and Bowen Byram have hurt. They found their game this past week, outscoring the Senators, Red Wings, and Flames by a 17-4 margin. The Avalanche were 0-6-2 before that.
Given the injuries, it’s tough to diagnose the Avalanche. They have not filled the hole at No. 2 center. A Ryan O’Reilly (pending UFA) reunion makes sense in theory, but how much will the Blues captain’s foot injury impact him come playoff time?
The Blues (49 points entering the weekend) were tied with the Avalanche, and the Predators were 1 point behind. Neither of those teams wants to concede to Colorado, but are either going to make a run?
Nashville might have the bleakest cap scenario in the league. They have some $56 million in cap charges committed to Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund, Colton Sissons, Roman Josi, Ryan McDonagh, Mattias Ekholm, and Jeremy Lauzon through 2025, with everyone but Johansen and Granlund signed through at least 2026. Juuse Saros and Josi are elite players, but that is not a Stanley Cup-contending core.
Injuries have been the story in St. Louis, which had O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, Torey Krug, Marco Scandella, and Robert Bortuzzo sidelined entering the weekend. It’s time to ship out O’Reilly and Tarasenko, both UFAs this summer, but trading partners won’t want to pay premium prices for past performance.
The ideal scenario for the Wild includes adding offensive pop while offloading pending UFA Matt Dumba, who was a healthy scratch on Thursday. If they can’t afford Dumba, having a down year on a $6 million cap hit, can they make a play for Horvat?
The best-in-the-West Stars could always use scoring, but they’ve found something under Peter DeBoer.
Meanwhile, anyone want a really good goaltender (Karel Vejmelka) or top-pair defenseman (Jakob Chychrun)? The Coyotes have both. The Blackhawks have two expiring-deal forwards they might not have the stomach to trade (Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews) and two more they probably would flip (Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou).
▪ The Pacific Division looks like the most volatile in the league.
Like Colorado, Vegas has been banged up all season. Anyone on The Strip have a remedy for Mark Stone’s back? Bruce Cassidy’s club is just hoping to enter the postseason at full strength.
It’s easy to see the Oilers surrendering a lot of goals when Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Evander Kane aren’t on the ice. They need to find a home for Jesse Puljujarvi — a good defensive right winger whose confidence is shot — and his $3 million cap hit. Would the Bruins be interested in unloading Craig Smith ($3.1 million, also expiring) for the 24-year-old Finn? Taylor Hall could help him get over the bad vibes from Edmonton, anyway.
The Kraken are crushing teams at five on five while leaning heavily on players such as Andre Burakovsky, rookie Matty Beniers, and Jordan Eberle. Maybe some of their three second-round picks could be used to get a player they might have acquired in the expansion draft: Tarasenko.
Did not see the Jets coming. The Rick Bowness effect is real for Winnipeg, which is enjoying a Norris-caliber season from Josh Morrissey (8-42–50 in his first 46 games). The big question there centers around Pierre-Luc Dubois, T-24th in scoring and having an excellent season. He’s due a $6 million qualifying offer and has not made it a secret that he wants to play in Montreal at some point. Tough to make that move now, given the Jets’ chances in a wide-open West.
The Kings need a regular defenseman better than 36-year-old Alex Edler. They could also use a goaltending upgrade, unless they really think Pheonix Copley is a No. 1 going forward. Given all the young talent and prospects Los Angeles has, would they offer a package for Chychrun and Vejmelka?
It seems the preseason projections for the Flames were a bit high. A supposed Cup contender currently clinging to a playoff spot, Calgary would be better than middle of the pack if some of the players who produced last season — Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund, and Jonathan Huberdeau (with Florida) — weren’t slumping.
It’s a mess in Vancouver, where anyone not named Elias Pettersson is available. Bruce Boudreau, who has been twisting in the wind since the opening weeks of the season, isn’t the only Canucks fan who deserves better. The way they’ve treated Boudreau, by all accounts a good guy who is outwardly positive and passionate about his profession, is disappointing.
As for the Ducks, Connor Bedard would probably have fun learning the NHL ropes in Anaheim, but he wouldn’t be winning much.
Hit by Lucic a lasting memory
Ryan Miller, whose No. 30 was retired by the Sabres this past week, deserves his flowers. Miller is one of the greatest American goalies, finishing his career in 2021 with a strong, but not overwhelming, Hall of Fame case: 391 wins, .914 save percentage, and an Olympic silver medal in 2010, when he was named tournament MVP and best goalie.
Unfortunately for Miller, he is perhaps best known in Boston for being involved in one of the highlights of the swashbuckling Bruins of the last decade. Charging after a loose puck in a Nov. 12, 2011 game, Milan Lucic ran over the 2010 Vezina winner.
“They ought to clean his clock!” howled legendary Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret on the visiting broadcast. “He took dead aim at Miller! That was not an accidental collision!”
All of that was true. Lucic took his two minutes for charging, and the Sabres did nothing.
A grinning Looch took to the ice in the teams’ next meeting, Nov. 23 in Buffalo, to thunderous boos, and rained blows upon fellow big man Paul Gaustad.
L’Affaire Miller was brought up during the Zoom call involving the Cup-winning 2010-11 Bruins, who held a 10-year reunion for our entertainment in April 2020.
“Shouldn’t have been standing there,” Lucic cracked. “Stay in your crease, no?”
“Yeah, I agree,” Brad Marchand said. “You wanna play with the big boys ... ”
“You ruined their entire season that year,” added Chris Kelly. “Ruined it.”
Marchand: “They’re still trying to recover.”
The Sabres, who had made the playoffs the previous two seasons, missed that year’s playoffs by 3 points. They have had six head coaches and zero playoff appearances in the 11 years since. Not sure if Lucic has ever paid for a drink in this town.
Not Provorov’s finest hour
Ivan Provorov’s refusal to participate in warm-ups during Pride Night in Philadelphia saved the defenseman from wearing a rainbow-accented jersey, and alerted everyone else to his lunkheadedness.
Provorov, who is Russian Orthodox, explained his decision as a religious belief. His church doesn’t perform or recognize same-sex marriage.
“I respect everybody. I respect everybody’s choices,” the 26-year-old said after last Tuesday’s game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”
Though others around the league — Connor McDavid among them — made milquetoast statements of support for all parties involved, Provorov would not be a popular trade acquisition based on the eventual media firestorm alone. The Flyers already looked like they were stuck with Provorov because of his play.
Only 17 defensemen as of Thursday had played more minutes at five on five than Provorov (803). The Flyers were being outscored, 35-29, with Provorov on the ice. Only one defenseman who had played more than 800 minutes (Anaheim’s Cam Fowler) had a worse share of expected goals. Provorov isn’t coming close to living up to a $6.75 million cap hit that lasts through 2025.
Flyers coach John Tortorella looks bad in this, too. In 2016, amid the Colin Kaepernick controversy in the NFL, Tortorella said he would bench a player who kneeled for the national anthem. He has since backed off those comments.
“I still feel the same way about that flag,” Tortorella said this past week, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “But I have no business to push my type of thought on to players at that particular time. Made a huge mistake back then.”
This was a comparatively minor gaffe, but it made Tortorella look small-minded in a sport that’s trying hard to be on the inclusive side of social issues.
Feels like Steven Stamkos should have hit the 500-goal mark years ago. Wonder how many Hall of Famers this Lightning squad will produce (prediction: three, maybe four) … That was Bruins defensive assistant John Gruden’s son, Jonathan, debuting for the Penguins this past week. He prefers the full spelling of his name, to avoid confusion with the former football coach … Sharks assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky (Marshfield) returned to the bench this past week after taking a deflected puck to the head. They make ‘em tough around here … One of the worst sights of the week was seeing Max Pacioretty suffer a non-contact, lower-body injury, shortly after returning from Achilles’ rehab. Pacioretty, who had three goals in five games, debuted on Jan. 5 and went on injured reserve after 15 days of action … Joe Bertagna, the longtime hockey coach and administrator, said this summer’s 50th edition of his goaltending camp will be the last. Bertagna, ex- of Harvard and the coaching staffs of the Bruins (1985-91) and US Olympic team (1994), called on anyone who has been involved in the camp — in any manner — to show up at the Burlington Ice Palace on Aug. 4 for an on-ice group photo.