Less than 10 games remain for each team in the NHL, and while some of the races for berths in the Stanley Cup Playoffs have cleared up, there is plenty to be decided as we hit the home stretch. Here are some things I've been noticing and that I'll be watching over the next week.
VINNY VIDI VICI
One of the best players from the past decade reached a career milestone Sunday when Philadelphia Flyers center Vincent Lecavalier scored his 400th (and later 401st) NHL goal. When someone hits that kind of a milestone it's hard not to look back at his career and marvel. What makes Lecavalier's career so interesting, though, is how good it's been for him to make the change he made this offseason.
He didn't come into Philadelphia playing in good form. Lecavalier had struggled his last few seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and it didn't help that for a lot of those seasons the Lightning weren't very good. Finishing near the bottom of the standings multiple times can be good for a franchise if it can turn draft picks into Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman or Jonathan Drouin. But for an older player it can wear on you. Lecavalier had been great for most of his career. He'd won a Stanley Cup and he was the face of a new organization for a lot of years. Going from that kind of success, particularly when you're young, to being on a team that struggles can wear on an older player.
It's now clear that he needed a change, and getting bought out by the Lightning was a necessary wakeup. Signing with the Flyers has rejuvenated him, and when you look at what players like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias or Martin St. Louis are doing as they get up in age, there's no reason to think Lecavalier can't be productive for four or even five more seasons. He's only 33. I don't think he'll be scoring 40 goals anymore, but he could definitely be a consistent 25- to 35-goal scorer. You've got to think that by the time he retires he'll have at least 500 goals. If you can score 500 goals in the NHL, you're a pretty good hockey player.
CATCH THE RISING STARS
When you look at the Western Conference playoff race, two teams currently occupy the wild-card spots: the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes. However, the Dallas Stars entered Monday one point behind with a game in hand. I personally don't think Dallas will overtake Phoenix for the final spot. The Stars have been a little inconsistent and the Coyotes are starting to look like the Coyotes we've come to know.
But despite the way I see this shaking out, when you look at Dallas you have to think this team has one of the brightest futures in the NHL. They've got solid goaltending with Kari Lehtonen; a good young defensive corps with Brenden Dillon and Alex Goligoski; a potential star in Valeri Nichushkin; and there may be no team in the League with a 1-2 offensive punch that can match Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. This is a team that is not only promising, but I think it's one of the five most entertaining teams in the NHL. They score a ton of goals, they play a really fast game and they're physical at the same time.
Whatever happens at the end of this season, I think general manager Jim Nill and the Dallas front office will be pretty happy when they evaluate the season. In his first season in Dallas, Nill has made a lot of strong moves, among them bringing in Seguin and hiring coach Lindy Ruff. This has been a big step in the right direction, and if the Stars end up missing the playoffs you could say that's the only negative of their season. Everywhere else this is a team that has made great strides.
BE-DEVILED IN THE SHOOTOUT
We've seen the shootout have an impact in the NHL many times. One moment that comes to mind is when the Flyers and New York Rangers had a shootout on the final day of the 2009-10 season to determine who would earn a playoff berth; the Flyers won and ended up reaching the Stanley Cup Final. This season, however, we've seen not only just how much of an impact the shootout can have in an individual instance, but how important it is to compete in them all season long. For evidence, look no further than the New Jersey Devils, who are five points out of a wild-card spot and an astonishing 0-for-10 in the shootout this season.
Think about that. Those are 10 potential points New Jersey has lost, and it probably will end up costing them a playoff spot. Some teams aren't great in the shootout, but to win zero out of 10 is just crazy, and it's not just bad luck. This is something coaches and general managers need to prepare for, because if this is the system we have and it's not changing, you can't just ignore the points in the standings that are available. I would be very surprised if New Jersey doesn't go out and get players that have a knack for the shootout after what has happened this season.
There are players out there who are better in the shootout than others (think T.J. Oshie or Jussi Jokinen), and the Devils will need to get one. When I coached in Tampa Bay I had Jokinen on my team and his skill wasn't random. He knew what he was doing. When he played for me I always used to use him first in the shootout. Jussi came to me once and said, "Barry, I'd like to go second. That would give me one chance to get a look at the goaltender. I think that would help me." That kind of logic made a lot of sense for someone who was as skilled at the shootout as he was, and I would have been stupid not to listen.
There are certain things a coach can do to improve his team's chances when you reach the shootout. Some teams already know and take advantage of this. I have a feeling New Jersey will be looking to join them this offseason.
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