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14 storylines to watch during NHL's stretch run

Sunday, 03.02.2014 / 3:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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14 storylines to watch during NHL's stretch run
NHL.com's Mike G. Morreale looks at the key storylines during the final six weeks of the 2013-14 regular season.

With three-quarters of the 2013-14 season complete, NHL.com looks at 14 of the top storylines for the final weeks of the season

Six weeks remain in the NHL regular season, and with the Sochi Olympics in the rearview mirror, it's time to gear up for the stretch run.

Canada was the big winner in Sochi, earning its second straight gold medal by beating Sweden in the championship game. Finland beat the United States for the bronze; the host Russians lost in the quarterfinals.

But there were five key injuries that came out of Sochi. The most significant was to New York Islanders captain John Tavares (Canada), who sustained a torn MCL and torn meniscus in his left knee. He was placed on injured reserve and is gone for the season.

Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg (Sweden) had back surgery on Feb. 21 and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season. New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello (Norway) will be sidelined another could of weeks while recovering from a non-displaced fracture in his left hand sustained Feb. 16.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (United States) had surgery on Feb. 27 to repair a broken hand and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, and Florida Panthers rookie center Aleksander Barkov (Finland) is out indefinitely after sustaining a knee injury in his country's first Olympic game against Norway on Feb. 14.

Those injuries could impact the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here are 14 other intriguing storylines sure to dominate the headlines to close out the regular season.

FANTASY SPIN

Miller has top-five potential with Blues

By Pete Jensen - NHL.com Fantasy Insider
Moving from one of the NHL's most porous defensive teams to one of its best, Ryan Miller could once again become a top-five fantasy goalie option in St. Louis. READ MORE ›

Miller time in St. Louis

The St. Louis Blues made the first big acquisition in advance of the NHL Trade Deadline by acquiring Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres on Friday in exchange for goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, forward prospect William Carrier, a 2015 first-round draft pick and a conditional draft choice. The Sabres said they will receive the Blues' 2014 first-round pick if St. Louis advances to the Western Conference Final or if Miller re-signs with his new team.

Miller, who represented the United States for the second time in Sochi, joins the Blues with a 15-22-3 record, a 2.72 goals-against average and .923 save percentage while playing for the last-place Sabres. The Blues, who are battling the Chicago Blackhawks for first place in the Central Division and have a chance to win the Presidents' Trophy, are counting on the 2010 Vezina Trophy winner to provide an upgrade between the pipes.

"It was more of what I've seen of Miller in the past than what we didn't see here in St. Louis," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I look at our team and I look at all what [Halak] has accomplished in his time here.

"We just think this gives us a better opportunity to have success this year and it also allows us to keep our prime assets."

Trading places

With Miller off the market, who will be next to go before the NHL Trade Deadline arrives at 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday?

There's no question general managers will be working the phone lines over the next 72 hours in an attempt to upgrade their roster for the stretch run.

The Sabres, last in the overall standings, likely aren't done dealing. New GM Tim Murray says even newcomers Halak and Stewart aren't guaranteed to be with the team after the deadline, and that he'll listen to offers for other veteran players. 

With Tavares done for the season, New York Islanders GM Garth Snow will be listening to all inquiries for 30-year-old left wing Thomas Vanek. The impending unrestricted free agent reportedly rejected a seven-year, $50 million extension from the Islanders.

New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan reportedly is looking for a six-year deal at about $6.75 million a season. That's a price tag general manager Glen Sather doesn't seem interested in paying, meaning Callahan could be in play.

Will New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello try to add another goal-scorer to the roster; perhaps Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri? The 31-year-old is making $6 million in the final year of his contract.

Are the Minnesota Wild still looking for a veteran between the pipes, and if so, would New Jersey's Martin Brodeur or Tim Thomas of the Florida Panthers fit the role? Panthers GM Dale Tallon acknowledged his desire to be active in rebuilding his roster, but said he has no interest in dealing Thomas, who inked a one-year contract in September that included a no-movement clause. With the Panthers out of the playoff race, would Thomas waive that clause to play for a contending team?

Jagr keeps moving on up

It's interesting to contemplate where New Jersey forward Jaromir Jagr would be on the all-time lists for goals and points in the NHL if he didn't spend three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League as captain for Avangard Omsk from 2008-09 through 2010-11. He had 66 goals and 145 points in 155 KHL games.

Jagr, who turned 42 on Feb. 15, has 700 goals, 1,040 assists and 1,740 points in 1,452 career games spanning 19-plus NHL seasons. He scored Saturday against the New York Islanders to become the seventh player in NHL history to reach the 700-goal mark; next up is Mike Gartner (708), who's sixth on the all-time list.

Jaromir Jagr
Right Wing - NJD
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 33 | PTS: 52
SOG: 159 | +/-: 21
Jagr also had an assist Saturday to tie Marcel Dionne (1,040) for ninth place. He passed former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux on the all-time scoring list with an assist in a 2-1 victory against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 11 and is seventh with 1,740 points. Steve Yzerman is sixth with 1,755.

The goal scored by Jagr on Saturday was the 123rd game-winner of his career, also a record. He passed former record-holder Gordie Howe on Dec. 18 in a 5-2 victory against the Ottawa Senators.

Brodeur's future

Would the Devils even consider severing their 20-plus year relationship with Brodeur prior to the trade deadline?

Brodeur, 41, beat the Islanders 6-1 on Saturday in his first start in more than a month. Cory Schneider had started seven straight games since Brodeur's last start on Jan. 26 at Yankee Stadium in a Coors Light NHL Stadium Series match against the New York Rangers. He allowed six goals on 21 shots in that game and was pulled after two periods.

Brodeur, whose contract expires after the season, told reporters on Feb. 26 that he hasn't spoken to Lamoriello about a possible trade.

"In the last few weeks, I've been more quiet about it," Brodeur told The (Newark) Star-Ledger. "It's on purpose because I want to make sure my decision is an educated decision and there are no influences from the outside.

"I'm sure I'll talk to [Lamoriello], but there's no plan to do anything."

Will Wings' streak get clipped?

The Detroit Red Wings quest for a 23rd consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is far from a sure thing.

The last time the Wings failed to qualify for the postseason was 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president. It's the fifth-longest playoff streak in NHL history and the longest active streak among the four main professional sports leagues. The Boston Bruins own the NHL record at 29 seasons (1968-96).

As a perennial contender in the Western Conference, the Red Wings were supposed to breeze into the postseason after realignment moved them into the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. They finished third in the Central Division last season and beat the Anaheim Ducks in the first round before taking the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks to seven games before being eliminated.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the Red Wings have won more games (849) than any other team in the NHL. The team's 736 regular-season victories and 113 playoff wins are tops in the NHL over that span.

But key injuries to several players, including forwards Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Alfredsson, defenseman Niklas Kronwall and goalie Jimmy Howard, have forced the Red Wings to dig deep. Still, Detroit enters Sunday in possession of the second wild-card playoff spot in the East; the Red Wings are one point ahead of the Washington Capitals. But a 23rd straight trip to the playoffs is anything but a sure thing.

Playoff posturing

The new playoff format, which the NHL has implemented for a minimum of three seasons through 2015-16, has given teams two ways to qualify for the postseason. The first three teams in each conference receive automatic berths; the next two finishers, regardless of division, will qualify as wild-card entries.

In the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins (84 points) are the frontrunners. The New York Rangers (69) and Philadelphia Flyers (68) are second and third, respectively, in the Metropolitan Division. The Boston Bruins (79), Montreal Canadiens (75) and Tampa Bay Lightning (73) are the top three teams in the Atlantic Division. Two other Atlantic teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs (72) and Detroit Red Wings (68), own the wild-card spots in the East, but the Washington Capitals (67) are on their heels.

In the Western Conference the Anaheim Ducks (89), San Jose Sharks (82) and Los Angeles Kings (74) are all but assured of being the top three finishers in the Pacific Division. The Chicago Blackhawks (86), St. Louis Blues (84) and Colorado Avalanche (79) lead the way in the Central. The Minnesota Wild (73) and Dallas Stars (66), both from the Central Division, own the two wild-card playoff spots. The Vancouver Canucks (66), Winnipeg Jets (66) and Phoenix Coyotes (65) are on their heels.

West is best

The top team and five of the top six in the League standings play in the Western Conference heading while seven of the bottom 10 teams are from the Eastern Conference.

The only West teams with sub-.500 records against the East are the Dallas Stars (9-11-2), Edmonton Oilers (11-12-3) and Calgary Flames (9-10-4). Nine of the 16 teams in the East are at or below .500 against Western opponents.

It's also worth noting that 15 of the 17 goals scored by gold medal-winning Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games were by players representing the Western Conference.

Seen Stamkos?

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has targeted Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres for his return to the lineup. Stamkos is slowly getting back into the swing of things after sitting out more than three months after crashing into the goal post and breaking his right tibia at TD Garden in Boston on Nov. 11.

Stamkos had 14 goals and 23 points in his first 16 games. He had a titanium rod inserted into his leg a day after the incident and was named to the Canadian Olympic team roster on Jan. 7 with the hope he would be strong enough to play. That never happened.

Stamkos had an X-ray taken on Feb. 24 that revealed his leg is improving but not yet 100 percent. He has missed 43 games.

"It did feel good [Feb. 5], but it feels even better now," Stamkos told reporters on Feb. 24. "Maybe I wasn't as far along as I thought, knowing how much better it has felt now that I have kept working on it and taking a couple of days off. It's just going to continually get better and that's positive knowing it's doing that."

Getting a healthy Stamkos back would be a major boost for the Lightning, who have managed to stay in the top three in the Atlantic Division without him but have had trouble scoring.

Runaway for the Rocket

Alex Ovechkin is turning the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy into a one-man show.

The Washington Capitals captain leads the NHL with 43 goals in 57 games (he's sat out five others). He's 10 ahead of runner-up Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ovechkin has won the Richard Trophy three times, including last season, but he hasn't scored 50 goals since 2009-10.

Ovechkin set a franchise record with his sixth 40-goal season in 2013-14. Mike Gartner held the previous mark with five 40-goal seasons. Ovechkin not only leads the League in goals, but he's tops in power-play goals (17), overtime goals (three) and shots (311).

Ovechkin is averaging 5.46 shots per game and scoring on 13.8 percent of his shots. Those numbers are pretty comparable to his 65-goal season in 2007-08 when he averaged 5.4 shots (446 in 82 games) and scored on 14.6 percent of them.

Surging Jets

Will the Winnipeg Jets continue their rise up the Western Conference standings under interim coach Paul Maurice?

The Jets are 11-3-1 since hiring Maurice on Jan. 12 and are even with the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks in the race for the second and final wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference. All three teams have 66 points; the Stars own the wild card because they've played two fewer teams.

2013-2014 Standings

Central Division
GP
P
ROW
1
62
86
31
2
59
84
32
3
60
81
35
4
61
73
26
5
60
66
25
6
62
66
24
7
61
62
25
ROW = total number of regulation plus overtime wins. For tie-breaking purposes, wins obtained in a shootout are not counted. For full standings tiebreakers, click here.
03/02/14 12:50AM

The biggest challenge for Maurice upon his arrival was helping the team forge an identity.

"It's the No. 1 thing," Maurice told the Winnipeg Sun. "But it's built in pieces. It's not something where we come in and say, 'OK, this is our identity.' It has to be shown on the ice. This is what we're supposed to look like in this zone and that's where it started. This is what it looks like when we're playing our game in our end of the ice. And once they can sit and watch that, they can say, 'That's our identity. That's what we're good at.'"

Maurice has the team playing to its strengths: speed, size and youthful exuberance. His bumping of Michael Frolik onto the top line with captain Andrew Ladd and center Bryan Little has given the unit more of a defensive presence while not sacrificing much offensively.

Defensive zone coverage was an issue earlier this season, but things are starting to come along with the shutdown pair of Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom logging big minutes. Rookie Jacob Trouba and veteran Mark Stuart have formed a solid second pair along the blue line.

Checkmate?

The Los Angeles Kings hope to continue the momentum they've established in an attempt to claim a fifth straight playoff berth.

The Kings entered the Olympic break having won just two of 11 games and six of 22 dating back before Christmas. But a 3-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday was their fourth win in a row and third straight since the Olympic break.

The Kings finished 5-8-2 in January and were 3-2-0 in February. They rank 26th in the League with an average of 2.32 goals per game, but have been in most games this season due in large part to their defense and goaltending. Los Angeles has allowed the fewest goals per game in the League (2.08).

Goalies Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones, along with recently traded Ben Scrivens, have combined for 10 shutouts this season. That's one short of the single-season franchise record set in 2011-12.

One concern has been the power play, which ranks 27th in the League. The Kings have scored four power-play goals in the past 46 chances.

The Kings had players scattered throughout Sochi during the Olympics. Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter won a gold medal for Canada, Quick and Dustin Brown played for the U.S., Anze Kopitar for Slovenia and Slava Voynov for Russia. Even Kings equipment manager Darren Granger was called into duty for Canada.

March of the (battered) Penguins

It hasn't come easy for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who entered the weekend with a League-high 357 man-games lost to injury. It's a credit to the coaching staff and young players filling in that the Penguins remain comfortably on top of the Metropolitan Division and are the only team in the Eastern Conference with more than 80 points.

"Last year, there was not much struggle," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "This year, we've had more injuries than I can remember from before, and we're always the injured team, right?

"Maybe it's good, all these bumps. Maybe it gives other guys a chance to be ready for the playoffs. We'll probably need them with the way things are going."

The Penguins did welcome back forwards Joe Vitale (upper body) and Taylor Pyatt (lower body) on Thursday for a 6-5 shootout loss against the Montreal Canadiens. Their return enabled Deryk Engelland to move back to his natural position on defense instead of filling in at right wing.

The loss of Pascal Dupuis to season-ending knee surgery has given Brian Gibbons an opportunity on the top line with center Sidney Crosby and left wing Chris Kunitz. There have also been key losses on defense. Kris Letang (stroke) is at least a month from being re-evaluated to determine whether he can stop taking blood-thinning medication. Paul Martin had surgery on his broken right hand on Thursday and is out at least four weeks.

Despite the health issues, the Penguins have continued to win.

"Injuries are not an excuse," rookie defenseman Olli Maatta told NHL.com. "We had players in and out of the lineup in December and just needed someone to step up. We have those guys and we know we can win games; there are no excuses."

Wild about Kuemper

Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper was not a household name at the start of the season, but if the team has thoughts of qualifying for the playoffs he'll need to be.

Kuemper was thrust into the spotlight by default. Veteran Niklas Backstrom (abdomen) has played just 21 games and has struggled to remain healthy. Josh Harding remains out indefinitely as he continues to get adjustments to his medication for multiple sclerosis. Harding was on pace for a career season with a 1.66 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 29 games (18-7-3).

With both regulars out, Kuemper is carrying the load with 10-3-2 record, a 2.20 GAA, two shutouts and a .924 save percentage in 17 games.

Darcy Kuemper
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 10-3-2
GAA: 2.20 | SVP: 0.924
"He's handled things very well to this point and I emphasize that," Yeo told the Edmonton Journal.

"He's a kid trying to prove himself, and I give him an awful lot of credit for staying grounded, staying focused, in the moment. The challenge is continuing to do it.

"There's no reason why he can't. We've been so impressed with the mental part of his game."

Kuemper has won his past four starts, including consecutive road wins against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 27 and Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28. Coach Mike Yeo will probably have to ride Kuemper the rest of the season, unless general manager Chuck Fletcher decides to bring in a veteran at the trade deadline.

The Wild hold the first wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference with 73 points and 21 games remaining. Kuemper's play will help determine whether they can remain there.

Final scouting meetings

Will forward Samuel Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League maintain his status as the top draft prospect in North America?

That question will be determined later this month when NHL Central Scouting holds its final meetings to determine the top 210 skaters and 30 goalies from North America eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on June 27-28. Bennett was the No. 1 skater in Central Scouting's midterm ranking released in January.

The five-day selection process will be held in Toronto from March 26 through April 1. From a separate location, NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb will offer his recommendations to Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr on the top 120-plus European skaters and 10 goalies.

"It's never easy to produce a final ranking list and this year is no different, but it's always interesting when our discussions involve excellent NHL prospects for the first overall spot," Marr said.

In addition to Bennett, other future stars expected to hear their names called early in the first round of the draft are forward Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders in the Western Hockey League, forward Sam Reinhart of the WHL's Kootenay Ice, defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the OHL's Barrie Colts and European forwards Kasperi Kapanen of Kalpa in Finland and William Nylander of Sodertalje in Sweden's second division.

---

Quote of the Day

Not only is it a great idea, but if you don't [start using analytics] you're going to fall behind. You have to be on the cutting edge. It was [Arizona Coyotes assistant general manager] Darcy Regier who said, 'If you didn't invent it, you have to be the second- or third-best copier, because if you're fourth or fifth you've got no chance.'

— Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on his interest in advanced statistical analysis