Which teams within the Metropolitan Division do you see as the last in and the first out of the Stanley Cup Playoff race? -- @theashcity
There are four teams vying for what I believe will be two spots behind the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. I think the Toronto Maple Leafs will catch fire (their 5-2 win against the Nashville Predators on Monday is a good start) and secure a spot in the playoffs as one of four teams from the Atlantic Division, with the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. That leaves the New York Islanders, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers. I can't count the New York Rangers as a legitimate threat seeing as how they're 11 points out of the second wild card.
I'm ruling out the Flyers because of their road woes. They are 10-13-2 away from Wells Fargo Center with 16 games remaining against opponents who have a combined 164-99-36 home record, including two each against the Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Rangers, and one each against the Penguins, Islanders, Panthers, Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars.
I believe in the Hurricanes, especially because they control most games and rarely give up much defensively. However, two things scare me: Losing defenseman Dougie Hamilton (fractured left fibula) is a blow, and it'll be next to impossible to replace on the blue line; and they play 17 of their remaining 32 games on the road, including 13 of 19 from Feb. 4-March 15. Although they've lost four straight on the road, where they are 12-10-2, seven of those 13 games are against the Arizona Coyotes, Vegas Golden Knights, Predators, Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, who have combined to win 41.8 percent of their home games (74 of 177). The Hurricanes will get in.
That leaves the Islanders and Blue Jackets, two teams that have the same strengths (structured defense, goaltending) and major issue (scoring). The Islanders had a 17-game point streak (15-0-2) from Oct. 12-Nov. 23, but they are 13-12-3 since. The Blue Jackets have won six straight games and gone 16-2-4 since Dec. 9. I worry that their current nine-day break, which ends Feb. 1 at the Buffalo Sabres, will negatively affect the Blue Jackets, who also play 17 of their final 31 games on the road, where they are 11-7-6 this season. They may lose some of their momentum just as the Islanders eventually lost some of theirs. The Islanders have two games in hand on the Blue Jackets too. I also give New York the edge if it comes down to the last week of the season. The Islanders play the Blue Jackets in Columbus on March 30 but have three games after that, all at Nassau Coliseum against the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks and Devils. Columbus has two games after playing New York, at home against the Lightning and on the road against the Hurricanes the following day. The Islanders will get in, but barely.
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Who do you think will be the first player to be moved before the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline? -- @TJRinger1
This is an almost impossible question to definitively answer without being privy to the conversations general managers are having these days. But starting with the bottom five teams in the League is the best way to go because all of them must have come to the realization that going on a miracle playoff run is quite unlikely. The Ottawa Senators, Devils, Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings should be trying to get ahead of the market to potentially get the best value for their available players before the Feb. 24 deadline.
Though I still think the Senators should do what they can to re-sign forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau, it's looking more and more likely that he will be traded. The Penguins, Blue Jackets, Islanders and Stars should be in the mix. The Blue Jackets don't have their second- or third-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, which could make it difficult and requires them to be more conservative. The Islanders have their picks in the first three rounds and an aggressive GM in Lou Lamoriello, putting them in a strong position for Pageau.
Steve Yzerman will be a fascinating study in the next three weeks because the Red Wings GM is in the infancy stages of trying to build his roster and doesn't have a lot of valuable rental options. Would there be enough interest in forward Andreas Athanasiou, who can become a restricted free agent July 1, to warrant Detroit moving him?
I'd be shocked if the Devils didn't trade forward Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Sami Vatanen, who could be a good fit for the Colorado Avalanche as another right-handed defenseman with Cale Makar and Erik Johnson. The Maple Leafs could also benefit from having Vatanen, but New Jersey would have to retain salary and/or Toronto would likely have to move a roster player out to make room for that trade.
The Ducks don't have an impact player to put on the rental market, so I'm not sure if they'll get involved before the deadline. The Kings could move forward Tyler Toffoli, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1, but I think the more impactful move they could make is trading defenseman Alec Martinez, who has one more season remaining on his contract.
The Pacific Division is very logjammed right now with the top five teams separated by three points. Who wins the division? Who gets in as the two and three seeds? Who gets in as a wild card? Will all five teams make the playoffs? -- @nyrprpokemon
I'll answer your last question because it's the only one that I can give a definitive opinion on. Those five teams -- the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Coyotes and Golden Knights -- will make the playoffs. Most of the Central Division bubble teams don't inspire me enough to believe a hot streak is coming. The Wild may have the best chance at one because of how many home games they have coming up -- they play seven of their next eight and nine of their next 12 at Xcel Energy Center, where they are 14-6-4 this season -- but they finish the season with four straight on the road against the St. Louis Blues, Islanders, Capitals and Predators. Still, they may get lucky that the Blues and Capitals will have their playoff spots locked up, maybe home-ice advantage, too, so let's not totally discount the Wild.
The Chicago Blackhawks were playing well going into the All-Star break, but can their defense hold up? They have allowed 3.08 goals per game and a League-high 35.2 shots on goal per game. The Winnipeg Jets have similar concerns. They are 5-11-2 and have allowed 3.83 goals per game since Dec. 17. Only the Red Wings (3.94) have allowed more goals per game in that span. It looks optimistic because the Jets have 17 homes games remaining, until you realize they're 11-11-2 at Bell MTS Place, including 1-6-1 in their past eight.
I know we talk a lot about the Predators and whether they could do what the Blues did last season, turning things around in the new year and going on a deep run, but I don't see it. They play seven of their next nine on the road.
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What's your general feeling of where the Rangers are in this rebuild, both how you view it and how the organization views it? They've got a goalie logjam, lots of D in the pipeline, contracts to sort out, Chris Kreider. Do the Rangers go full sell? Do they hang tight? -- @Tweetin_cheeks
They're in a good position, and I think the Rangers executives believe the same thing. They're right where I thought they'd be this season. They have 50 points and are 11 out of a playoff spot, but that's not the point. They're on pace for 85 points after getting 78 last season. That's not good enough to make the playoffs, but it's progress, especially with young players like forwards Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Brett Howden, and defensemen Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek (before his knee injury) developing at the NHL level.
What they do before the deadline will depend on how their next 10 games go. They might be able to get a late first-round pick and a prospect or middle-tier player in a trade for Kreider, but re-signing the forward is still a possibility despite the fact that there haven't been public signs of communication between the two sides. Their three-goalie system won't work in the long term, and I think they will eventually trade Alexandar Georgiev. Can they afford to re-sign defenseman Tony DeAngelo, a pending restricted free agent? Ditto for center Ryan Strome, who is having a big season and has developed chemistry with forward Artemi Panarin? Can they re-sign each of them? Kreider, too? They'd have to open space, potentially requiring them to trade defenseman Brady Skjei, which raises the question of how far away their top defenseman prospects, K'Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, are. Will top forward prospect Vitali Kravtsov develop quickly enough to make the team out of training camp next season?
On the whole, though, the Rangers rebuild is going well to the point that they're close enough in the playoff race to believe they're legitimately playing for something. It never felt that way last season.
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