Nashville Predators the surprise of the NHL playoffs so far

The first round of the 2016/17 NHL playoffs have concluded with the Toronto Maple Leafs being both the last team to make the postseason and the last team to be eliminated in the first round. The Leafs were one of the top stories of the opening round, but there’s no doubt the Nashville Predators pulled of the most unlikely upset by ousting the Chicago Blackhawks in a four-game sweep. Yes, Leafs fans will have you believe their team deserved all the headlines, but it’s par for the course for the Toronto franchise to ultimately let their fans down once again. After 50 years of the same old thing they should be used to it by now.

The Leafs’ penchant for blowing leads cost them in their series against the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals as they held a 2-1 series lead and then lost three straight. They also had a 1-0 lead in the sixth and final game with just over seven minutes to go, but couldn’t hang on to it. It was quite a roller coaster ride for their fans though as all six games were decided by one goal with an NHL record-tying  five games going into overtime. This rookie-laden Leafs team could be a force to reckon with in the future with the addition of one or two good defenceman and another experienced forward.

And speaking of overtime, the first round saw an NHL record 18 games to into an extra period. The Toronto vs Washington series accounted for five of those games and the Ottawa vs Boston series featured four overtime contests with Ottawa winning the series in six games. But no matter what angle you look at it, Nashville’s four-game sweep was certainly more surprising than the Leafs taking Washington to six games, especially when you consider the problems the Capitals have had in the playoffs over the past few seasons.

Nashville was the lowest ranked of the 16 playoff teams this season with 94 points, one fewer than Toronto. They took on the Central Division and Western Conference champions in Chicago and had dropped the regular-season series 4-1 to the Hawks. However, goaltender Pekka Rinne shut the Hawks out in the first two games in the Windy City even though the Predators possessed the worst road record of all 16 playoff teams this season. This was the first-ever four-game series win for the Predators franchise and it was the first time in NHL history that an eighth-seeded team swept and top-seeded team in a conference series.

The 36-year-old Rinne allowed just three goals against all series and only one of those came at even strength. He stopped 123 of 126 shots against for a save percentage of 97.6. It’ll be interesting to see if Nashville’s youngsters and Rinne can keep it up in the second round as they’ll be taking on the St. Louis Blues, who eliminated the Minnesota Wild in five games in the first round. Other first round series saw the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games and the New York Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens in six games in the Eastern Conference.

In the West, the Anaheim Ducks beat the Calgary Flames in four games and the young Edmonton Oilers ousted the San Jose Sharks in six. The second round matchups are the Washington Capitals vs the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators vs the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, St. Louis tangles with Nashville in the West while Anaheim will battle it out with Edmonton. No matter what happens from now on in the playoffs, the Predators have earned a spot in the history books with their first-round performance against Chicago.  

NHL sees coaching musical chairs at end of regular season

With the first round of the NHL playoffs in full swing and all of the excitement surrounding them, some fans may have missed some important news at the conclusion of the regular season. We’ll recap the coaching musical chairs and front office changes that took place once the season ended just in case you may have missed something. There were a total of 11 coaching changes in 2016/17 with five changes being made during the campaign and six more announcements after it ended.

Florida Panthers
We’ll start with the Florida Panthers since they fired Gerard Gallant back in late November after 22 games when they had an 11-10-1 record. This came even though Gallant led the team to a record 103 points the year before and finished as runner up in coach-of-the-year voting. He was replaced by general manager Tom Rowe, who had earlier taken over the GM duties from the displaced Dale Tallon. Florida went 24-26-10 under Rowe and missed the playoffs by 14 points and finished 22 points lower than last season. Rowe was relieved of both his coaching and general manager’s duties when the season ended. Tallon was reinserted as the GM and the club is still in the hunt for a new head coach. Rowe is still under contract for three more years though and will be given a front office job.

Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings dismissed head coach Darryl Sutter at season’s end even though he led the club to a pair of Stanley Cups in his five years behind the team’s bench. These are the only two titles the franchise has won. However, he also failed to make the playoffs twice in the last three years, including this year. Sutter wasn’t the only one the Kings cut loose though as general manager Dean Lombardi also lost his job. Lombardi has been replaced by former Kings’ defenceman Rob Blake who will also serve as vice-president while Luc Robitaille is the team’s new president. Sutter leaves as the Kings’ most successful coach ever with a record of 225-147-53.

Vancouver Canucks
The Vancouver Canucks were another west coast franchise which got in on the action as they weren’t satisfied with the job Willie Desjardins has done for the club over the past three seasons. They missed the playoffs the last two years under Desjardins and have reached the postseason just twice in the last five campaigns and believed a change was in order. General manager Jim Benning managed to keep his job for the time being though even though the club finished 29th out of 30 this season at 30-43-9. Desjardins went 109-110-27 while in Vancouver. Assistant coaches Perry Pearn and Doug Lidster were let go along with Desjardins. 

Dallas Stars
Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars was another head coach who was sacked at the end of the season after four years behind the bench. Ruff went 131-85-30 with the Stars, but still failed to make the playoffs this season at 34-37-11 after they looked like Stanley Cup contenders last year. With stars such as Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Sharp in the lineup it’s easy to see why management was disappointed this season. The Stars have already filled Ruff’s spot as they hired Ken Hitchcock as his replacement. Ironically, Hitchcock himself was fired earlier in the season as the St. Louis Blues let him go while he was in the midst of his sixth season with the club. Hitchcock coached Dallas from 1996 to 2002 and won two President’s Trophies and a Stanley Cup with the team. He said before the 2016/17 that it was going to be his last year as a head coach, but apparently changed his mind to rejoin Dallas.

Las Vegas Golden Knights
We now come full circle as we get back to Gerard Gallant, who was the first coach fired this season when Florida let him go. Gallant was named as the inaugural head coach of the new Las Vegas franchise, the Vegas Golden Knight. General manager George McPhee made the announcement on April 13th. The Knights are the 31st NHL franchise and will begin play in the 2017/18 season. The 53-year-old Gallant, a former player with Detroit and Tampa Bay, has also been a head coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets and an assistant coach with the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. His head-coaching record reads 152-141-31.

NHL playoff matchups finalized and ready to go

After a grueling six-month schedule and a total of 1,230 games, the NHL playoff matchups are now set as the postseason faces off on Wednesday, April 12th. Sixteen teams will be squaring off for the Stanley Cup with the winner having to win 16 playoff games to hoist the silverware. Below is a quick look at the first round playoff matchups.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks (50-23-9, 109 points) vs Nashville Predators (41-29-12, 94 points)
The Blackhawks won the Central Division again this season and topped the Western Conference. They’ll be facing Nashville, who finished fourth in the Central and reached the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West with the second wildcard position. Chicago won the season series 4-1 and outscored Nashville 18-10. This series gets underway Thursday, April 13th with Nashville being the worst road team of the 16 playoff participants.

Minnesota Wild (49-25-8, 106 points) vs St. Louis Blues (46-29-7, 99 points)

Minnesota finished second in the Central Division and the Western Conference while St. Louis was third in the Central and fifth in the West. The Blues won the season series 3-2 with one victory coming in a shootout. Minnesota outscored them 14-11 in the series though. This matchup kicks off on Wednesday, April 12th.

Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13, 105 points) vs Calgary Flames (45-33-4, 94 points)

Anaheim won the Pacific Division for the fifth straight season and enters the playoffs as the third seed in the West. Calgary placed fourth in the Pacific and is the seventh-seed in the West. The Ducks won the season series 4-1 and outscored the Flames 17-14. The series gets underway on Thursday, April 13th.

Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9, 103 points) vs San Jose Sharks (46-29-7, 99 points)

Edmonton finished as runners up in the Pacific Division and as the fourth seed in the West. This is their first playoff appearance since going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2005/06. San Jose finished third in the Pacific and sixth in the West. The Oilers won the season series 3-1-1 and outscored the Sharks 16-13 with San Jose winning a game in overtime. The series faces off on Wednesday, April 12th.

Eastern Conference

Montreal Canadiens (47-26-9, 103 points) vs New York Rangers (48-28-6, 102 points)

Montreal won the Atlantic Division this season and finished as the fourth seed in the East. The Rangers placed fourth in the Metropolitan Division, just a point behind the Habs and are the fifth seed in the East as the first wildcard team. Montreal won the season series 3-0 and outscored the Rangers 12-7. One of the wins came in a shootout. This series starts on Wednesday, April 12th.

Ottawa Senators (44-28-10, 98 points) vs Boston Bruins (44-31-7, 95 points)

Ottawa finished in second place in the Atlantic Division and as the sixth seed in the East while Boston was right behind them in third in the Atlantic and seventh in the East. Ottawa swept the season series 4-0 and outscored the Bruins 12-6 with one win coming in a shootout. The series will begin on Wednesday, April 12th.

Washington Capitals (55-19-8, 118 points) vs Toronto Maple Leafs (40-27-15, 95 points)
Washington finished as the President’s Trophy winners for having the best overall record during the season. Needless to say, they won the Metropolitan Division and the East. Toronto finished fourth in the Atlantic and eighth in the East as the second wildcard team. They won just one of their final four games of the season, meaning they must face the Capitals instead of Ottawa. Washington won the season series 2-1 and outscored the Leafs 12-10 with one win coming in overtime. This series starts Thursday, April 13th.

Pittsburgh Penguins (50-21-11, 111 points) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (50-24-8, 108 points)

Pittsburgh finished as runners up in the Metropolitan Division and as the second seed in the East. Columbus was right behind them in third in the Metropolitan and third in the East. The teams split the season series 2-2 with each team winning a game in regulation and overtime. However, Columbus outscored the defending Stanley Cup champs 13-10. The Blue Jackets lost six of their final seven regular season games. The series faces off on Wednesday, April 12th

NHL races go down to the wire

It looks like the final NHL playoff positions likely won’t be confirmed until the last day of the 2016/17 season. Fans already know which eight teams will make the playoffs in the Western Conference, but the final Eastern Conference playoff spots are still up for grabs. In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators will be in the postseason for sure.

However, the positioning definitely isn’t settled with just a week to go in the campaign. Chicago has locked up the Central Division and Western Conference title, but St. Louis and Nashville are battling it out for third place with the forth place team entering the playoffs as a wildcard team. When it comes to the Pacific Division, we see that Anaheim, San Jose and Edmonton are all still fighting for the top spot and could finish anywhere between first and third place in the division while Calgary could finish between second and fourth. The club that finishes fourth will make the postseason as a wildcard team.

There are also several close races taking place in the Eastern Conference as four teams still have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs heading into the final week. The Montreal Canadiens have wrapped up first place in the Atlantic Division, but the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are all fighting for the second and third guaranteed playoff berths. In addition, those four teams are also fighting for the eighth and final playoff seeding, which will go to the second wildcard team. The New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes of the Metropolitan Division are also in the hunt for that final wildcard position. 

The New York Rangers have locked up the first wildcard spot due to their fourth-place position in the Metropolitan Division. But like the Pacific Division in the West, the Metropolitan is still in the midst of a race between the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. The final positioning will have a huge bearing on the playoff matchups since the winner of the Metropolitan Division will play the eighth-seeded team (second wildcard team) in the first round of the postseason. The second and third-place teams in the division will have to face off against each other.

The only thing that fans can be certain of during the last seven days of the campaign is that the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers won’t make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference while Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Montreal and the Rangers have clinched sports. Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, Tampa, the New York Islanders and Carolina are still battling it out for a berth. The teams missing the playoffs in the West are the Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars, Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. 

For the teams still battling it out for the postseason, their playoffs are basically going to be taking place this week as they jockey for position. To make things even more exciting for the fans, many of the teams in the playoff hunt will be facing off against each other over the next seven days.                 

End of an era for Detroit Red Wings

It’s the end of an era for the Detroit Red Wings as the club’s 25-year playoff streak will come to an end this season and the team will play its last ever game at the Joe Louis Arena on April 9th. The postseason streak began in the 1990/91 campaign and is the third-longest in NHL and pro-sports history. The Boston Bruins posted the longest streak of 29 seasons from 1967/68 to 1995/96 while the Chicago Blackhawks went 28 seasons from 1969/70 to 1996/97 and the St. Louis Blues enjoyed a 25-season run of their own from 1979/80 to 2003/04.

The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups during their streak, which took place over a quarter of a century while playing at the Joe Louis Arena. However, the rink which opened in 1979 will be demolished later in 2017 after the Wings’ new home, Little Caesars Arena, opens in September. The new rink will also be the home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. The Red Wings and Detroit fans will get the chance to say their final goodbyes to Joe Louis Arena with a game against the New Jersey Devils on the final day of the 2016/17 season.

Since the Red Wings streak began, there have been a total of four work stoppages in the NHL, plenty of rule changes, the introduction of a salary cap, five different U.S. presidential administrations, and the Soviet Union still existed. In addition, former NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning was just starting high school. Unfortunately, franchise owner Mike Ilitch, who was also the founder of Little Caesars Pizza and owner of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, passed away earlier this year as the streak was about to end.

The Red Wings have had five head coaches during the streak along with three different team captains and general managers. The Wings have been so good during that stretch that they haven’t had a top-10 draft pick since 1991. The club was cup contenders for so long due to the emergence of draft picks such as Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov and smart deals and free-agent signings including Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan. Stanley Cups were won in 1996/97, 1997/97, 2001/02 and 2007/08.

The first cup win of the streak ended the team’s 42-year drought without a championship. The 2002 cup-winning squad was one of the strongest in league history as it featured 10 Hall of Famers, with Pavel Datsyuk likely making it 11 in the future. Ilitch was a free spender in the early years of the streak and paid millions of dollars for top-name players, but the Red Wings also made the playoffs for the first 11 seasons after the salary cap was introduced after the 2004/05 lockout. They’re the only franchise to reach the postseason every year since the salary cap came in, until this year that is.

The end of the streak isn’t a complete disaster for the Red Wings. Fans may have seen it coming since the team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the past three seasons, but they’ll now start to rebuild with this summer’s draft. Detroit may finish in last place in the Eastern Conference this season for a higher draft pick and also made several deals at the trade deadline for prospects and draft choices. And who knows, a brand new 25-season streak may begin later this year when the Red Wings christen Little Caesars Arena.

The clock is ticking on the Arizona Coyotes

It appears the sands of time are running out on the Arizona Coyotes. The desert sand that is, as the NHL franchise may soon be saying adios to the city of Glendale and the state of Arizona. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has tried to keep the team in Arizona for about a decade now, but even he admits it may be time to relocate. Bettman and the Coyotes want a new arena in Phoenix for the club to play in, but they want taxpayers to fund it. Without a new rink, they’re threatening to leave the city.

The Coyotes currently play in Glendale, which is a city of about a quarter of a million people and approximately 10 miles from Phoenix. The NBA’s Suns currently play in Phoenix and the NFL’s Cardinals play in Glendale and neither team seems to have a problem drawing fans. However, the Coyotes are having a hard time convincing people to drive the half hour from Phoenix to Gila River Arena to see them play.

The rink is relatively new as it opened in 2003 and holds 17,125 fans for hockey. The current lease between the NHL team and the arena allows the club to leave after the 2017/18 season and it appears it may exercise that option. Fans living in Phoenix can’t just walk to the rink like they do in Toronto, Montreal and New York City, etc, and there isn’t a very good transit system in place to take them there. Of course not all Coyotes fans live in Phoenix though, meaning out-of-towners have a longer drive to attend games and moving the club to Phoenix won’t solve this.

Bettman has said the franchise won’t stay in Glendale and is hoping for a satisfactory outcome to the situation via Senate Bill 1149. This bill would provide the Coyotes with $225 million of public money for a new rink in Phoenix or the East Valley area. Of course, the local government doesn’t see the need to build a new arena just 12 miles away from a rink that’s just 14 years old in Glendale. The NHL says the Coyotes are losing tons of money each year playing in Glendale, but politicians blame that on the fact the team has made the playoffs just three times in the past 11 years.

The Coyotes used to play in Phoenix for just over seven years and attracted fewer fans than they did when they first moved to Glendale though, so taxpayers don’t see what will change if the team moves back to Phoenix. The local government used to provide the Coyotes with $15 million a year in an arena-management agreement, but that ended in 2015 and it seems the franchise misses that cash injection. The Suns NBA team doesn’t want to share a rink with the NHL team though, so Bettman may have no choice but to pull the Coyotes out of Arizona.

It’s doubtful taxpayers will be asked by the government to fork over money for another arena in the area, so unless somebody has a change of heart or comes up with another solution it could be lights out for the Coyotes. Of course, the NHL shouldn’t have a problem finding another city to relocate to as Seattle, Portland and Quebec are all reportedly interested in a franchise, whether it’s an existing one or an expansion team.

Veteran goalies grab the latest NHL headlines

Veteran NHL goaltenders took over the spotlight between March 2nd and 11th as several of them set new milestones. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets posted his third consecutive shutout on March 7th by stopping 33 shots in a 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils. The Russian netminder also shut the Devils out 3-0 two days earlier when he stopped all 20 shots he faced. That was his second straight shutout as Bobrovsky began his streak on March 2nd when he made 38 saves in a 1-0 whitewashing of the Minnesota Wild.

Following the March 7th win over the Devils, the 28-year-old Bobrovsky had gone five straight games allowing two or less goals. He then came back to earth on March 10th with a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres, but still managed to post his fourth straight win by stopping 29 of 32 shots. His last loss in regulation time came back on February 19th, a streak of six games. Heading into the week of March 14th, Bobrovsky had a 36-13-4 record with a goals-against-average of 2.07, a 93.0 save percentage and six shutouts.

New York Rangers’ netminder Henrik Lundqvist made the headlines as he won his 404th career game to move past Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr and into 10th spot on the all-time wins list. Lundqvist achieved the milestone on March 7th in a 5-2 road win over the Florida Panthers. The 35-year-old Swedish native stopped 43 shots to win his 30th game of the season. It was the 11th time Lundqvist has posted at least 30 wins in a season and no other goalie in NHL history has managed to win 404 games in his first 12 campaigns and win 30 games in 11 of their first dozen seasons.

The only season Lundqvist failed to record 30 wins was in 2012/13 when the NHL played a condensed 48-game schedule due to a lockout. He still managed to win a league-high 24 games that season in 43 games though. Unfortunately for Lundqvist, he is currently sidelined with a hip injury as he hopes to climb the all-time wins list. He needs 44 more victories to move past Glenn Hall, Tony Esposito, Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk to move into sixth place on the list. Only two other goalies have managed to win at least 30 games in 11 different seasons. They were Hall of Famers Patrick Roy with 13 and future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur with 14.

Another goalie on a hot streak is Craig Anderson of the Ottawa Senators. Anderson took some time off earlier in the season to take care of his ill wife. But he’s gone 8-2 since coming back and won his sixth straight game on March 11th with a 4-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche. He’s allowed two or less goals in seven of those outings and is leading the Senators on a charge to a first-place duel with the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division. The 35-year-old Anderson was tied with Bobrovsky for third in the league with a 93.0 save percentage and had a record of 21-8-1 with a sixth-best 2.23 goals-against average.

Jonathan Quick has returned to the net for the Los Angeles Kings as they attempt a late-season push at making the playoffs. Quick was injured in the first week of the season and returned to action on February 25th. The 31-year-old has won four of his five starts since returning to the crease, including three consecutive victories. Quick appears to be back in top form already as his goals-against-average stood at 2.38 on March 13th and his save percentage was 91.7. The Kings recently traded backup goalie Peter Budaj to Tampa Bay for Ben Bishop, but it looks like Los Angeles will pin their hopes on Quick down the stretch run.

Meanwhile Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins has already won a Stanley Cup, but he’s still technically a rookie this season. Murray has won four of his past five outings and enters the week of March 14th with a very impressive record of 26-8-3. He also had four shutouts along with a 12th-best goals-against average of 2.33 and was sixth best in the league with a 92.5 save percentage. The 22-year-old Murray shouldn’t be forgotten about at the end of the season when the votes are tabulated for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the rookie of the year.

And last but not least, 31-year-old veteran Brian Elliott may have struggled earlier in the season after joining the Calgary Flames in the summer, but he’s been red hot lately. Elliott earned his second straight shutout on March 11th with a 3-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets after shutting out the Montreal Canadiens 5-0 in his previous outing two days earlier. Elliott has now won eight consecutive games as the Flames try to sew up a playoff spot and his save percentage during that streak is over 94.0.

NHL rosters set for stretch run after tame trade deadline day

While the NHL trade deadline is probably here to stay, it appears to be getting less dramatic year after year. Most clubs are beginning to figure out it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to wait so long into the season to try and improve their rosters. Why wait until the final 20 games to make your team better when it could be done earlier? It takes a bit of time for most players to adjust to their new surroundings and teammates and by the time newcomers feel comfortable after arriving on deadline day the season is basically over.

Overall, blockbuster trades are becoming rare these days due to the number of no-trade and no-movement clauses being handed out in contracts. Most NHL stars move from team to team in this era via free agency rather than trades. Unless more players agree to moves in the future, trades such as PK Subban for Shea Weber will become a thing of the past. There will always be deals on trade deadline day though as teams have one last chance to enhance their rosters before the stretch run and to add depth to cover for injuries.

There were bigger trades in the days leading up to this year’s deadline on March 1st than there were on deadline day itself. These included the Pittsburgh Penguins acquiring veteran defenceman Ron Hainsey from the Carolina Hurricanes for forward Danny Kristo and a second-round draft pick in 2017 and Patrick Eaves being dealt from the Dallas Stars to the Anaheim Ducks for a second round pick in 2017. Fans also saw the Tampa Bay Lightning send goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings along with a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 for goaltender Peter Budaj and defenceman Eric Cernak along with a second and seventh-round pick in 2017.    

In addition, the Minnesota Wild picked up centres Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from the Arizona Coyotes along with a fourth-round pick in 2017 for centre Grayson Downing, a first-round pick in 2017, a second-rounder in 2018 and a fourth-round pick in 2019. The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired centre Brian Boyle from Tampa for winger Byron Froese and a second-round pick in 2017 and the Montreal Canadiens picked up defenceman Jordie Benn from the Dallas Stars for fellow blueliner Greg Pateryn and a fourth-rounder in 2017.

The Vancouver Canucks traded left-winger Alexandre Burrows to the Ottawa Senators for left-winger Jonathan Dahlen and the St. Louis Blues dealt defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk and goaltender Pheonix Copley to the Washington Capitals for forwards Zach Sanford and Brad Malone along with a first-round pick in 2017, a second-rounder in 2019 and a conditional seventh-round pick. Other pre-deadline deals saw the New York Rangers acquire defenceman Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa obtain forward Viktor Stalberg from Carolina, the Chicago Blackhawks pick up defenceman Johnny Oduya from Dallas and Montreal trade forward David Desharnais to the Edmonton Oilers for defenceman Brandon Davidson.  

As for trade deadline day itself, there was a total of 20 official trades which involved 37 players and 12 draft picks. There were several veteran players on the move as Steve Ott ended up in Montreal, Thomas Vanek went to Florida, Jarome Iginla was sent to Los Angeles, Kyle Quincey went to Columbus, Mark Streit went to Pittsburgh, Valtteri Filppula ended up in Philadelphia, P.A. Parenteau went to Nashville, Eric Fehr to Toronto, and Drew Stafford to Boston.

While several of these players may have a positive impact on their new teams for the remainder of the season, none of them are considered to be young NHL stars in their prime. There should be numerous deals made between the end of the season and June though as teams try to juggle their rosters prior to the June 21st expansion draft for the Las Vegas Golden Knights and the NHL Entry Draft two days later.  

Toronto’s Jake Gardiner evolving into top-20 NHL defenceman

While the Toronto Maple Leafs may be concerned about the backwards step taken by defenceman Morgan Rielly this season, they should be happy with the production they’re getting out of fellow blueliner Jake Gardiner. Rielly was pegged as being the Leafs’ best offensive defenceman and perhaps a future all-star and team captain, but he’s been struggling in both ends of the ice this season with 22 points after 55 games and a minus-15 rating. Rielly’s just 22 years old though and still has plenty of time to live up to his potential even though he is a minus-61 for his career.

On the other hand, the 26-yar-old Gardiner of Minnetonka, Minnesota, has evolved into a top-20 NHL defenceman in just about every category. Gardiner’s offensive skills appear to be getting better with each season and he had a career-high 32 points after 61 games this year on nine goals and 23 assists. Gardiner had twice hit the 31-point mark previously and also had 30 points in a season. His best goal output in a season is 10, so should be able to tie or better that mark this campaign. He also has two game-winning goals in overtime in 2016/17.

Most fans and critics always knew Gardiner was a pretty good offensive defenceman so being the 21st highest-scoring blueliner may not be such a shock. What may be surprising though, is his plus-23 mark after 61 games, which was by far the best on the Leafs and ranked him 12th overall in the league in that category and seventh-best for defencemen. Gardiner is well known for his high-risk plays during games which often lead to giveaways. He’s far from being the perfect defenceman because of this and due to his lack of physical play for somebody who stands 6-feet-2-inches tall, but he’s obviously doing something right.

Gardiner’s strengths are his skating, passing and offensive abilities. He can usually be depended on to carry the puck out of his own end or make a tape-to-tape pass to one of his forwards. In addition, he’s usually the quarterback of the Leafs’ power play unit, which was leading the league at 23.1 per cent on February 26th. We should also mention that Gardiner’s quite durable as he’s missed just eight games due to injury in the past three seasons and has suited up for every contest so far this campaign. And for fans of NHL analytics, Gardiner’s possession numbers have been excellent this year with a 53.8 Corsi rating.

Gardiner signed a five-year deal worth $20.25 million before the 2014/15 season faced off and it’s proving to be a good contract for the Leafs. He still makes the odd mistake, but so do all hockey players. Except, Gardiner’s gaffes are often magnified in Toronto and some fans use him as a scapegoat, much like Hall of Famer Larry Murphy was when he played for the Leafs. The majority of fans are starting to appreciate Gardiner’s skills though and what he brings to the team on a consistent basis. He has all of the tools needed to be a top blueliner in the NHL and it’s started to show ever since Mike Babcock took over as head coach and the team’s overall talent and skill level has improved.

Babcock has shown confidence in Gardiner and that has resulted in self confidence for the player. The coach has said Gardiner is always willing to improve as a player through practice and that’s why he’s averaging over 21 minutes of ice time per game. The rebuilding Leafs and Gardiner have certainly improved this season, but they’re still in a dogfight to make the playoffs. But even if they fail to make the postseason, the club’s brass and its fans have been pleasantly surprised by the team’s performance so far this season as it appears it’s well ahead of schedule.

Eventful NHL week includes suspensions, milestones and hiring/firing

The past week in the NHL was quite eventful as it featured a couple of suspensions and milestones and the firing and hiring of a head coach. The Montreal Canadiens made the biggest splash early in the week when they announced the firing of head coach Michel Therrien on February 14th and the hiring of Claude Julien as his replacement. Julien was let go as head coach of the Boston Bruins just a week earlier and this will be his second stint behind the bench in Montreal. Ironically, Therrien was hired by the Habs four years ago to replace Julien.

It appears Montreal didn’t want to risk seeing Julien hired by somebody else such as the Las Vegas Golden Knights and jumped at the chance to sign him. However, it came at a price since Julien was hired to see out the rest of this season and was inked for four more years at $5 million a campaign. Therrien also had two coaching stints in Montreal as he was at the helm from 2000 to partway of 2002-03 season. He was fired in 2002/03 after the Habs record stood at 18-19-5. Julien then took over for two and a half seasons before he was also let go.

It’s not often that the coach of a first-place team gets the sack, but the Canadiens haven’t been playing well lately and Julien was a Stanley Cup winner with Boston. Therrien’s record over the past four and a half years stood at 194-121-37. He led the team to two divisional titles and a trio of playoff appearances, but failed to make the postseason last year. However, they were without all-star goaltender Carey Price for much of the campaign. Julien still had two years remaining on his contract in Boston and Therrien also had two years remaining in Montreal at $2 million per season.

There were also a couple of high-profile suspensions recently as veteran forward Antoine Vermette of the Anaheim Ducks was nailed with a 10-game ban and forward Gus Nyquist of the Detroit Red Wings was handed a six-game suspension. Vermette was given an automatic suspension after he slashed the back legs of a referee in a road game in Minnesota. Vermette was officially suspended on February 16th for abusing an official. The 10-game holiday will cost Vermette a grand total of $97,222.22 in salary, but it’s believed the NHL Players’ Association will appeal the verdict. If the appeal fails, he’ll be eligible to return to action on March 12th.

As for Nyquist, he was found guilty of high-sticking defenceman Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild. Nyquist appeared to intentionally spear Spurgeon in the face after being cross-checked by the defenceman. The Red Wing was handed a double minor penalty on the play and fortunately there was no serious damage done to Spurgeon. However, most NHL insiders felt the 27-year-old Nyquist should have received at least 10 games for his actions. The ban will cost Nyquist a total of $158,333.34 from his salary and like Vermette’s suspension, the money goes to the Players' Emergency Assistance Fund.

On the brighter side, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby reached a scoring milestone last week when he notched his 1,000th career point. The year-old centre earned the point with an assist on a Chris Kunitz goal against the Winnipeg Jets at home on February 16th. Crosby reached the 1,000-point plateau in his 757th regular-season game. He’s the 12th-fastest NHL player to hit the milestone and the fastest active player. Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals scored his 1,000th point a few weeks ago, but took more games to accomplish the feat.

In addition, another interesting milestone was reached on February 14th when forwards Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets became the first draft choices to be selected first and second overall to score at least 25 goals in their rookie seasons since 2004/05. Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins were the last pair of top-two draft picks to achieve the feat over a decade ago. Matthews was taken first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft while Laine went second and they both have an outside chance at leading the NHL in goals this season.

Other milestones included ageless winger Jaromir Jagr scoring the 760th regular-season goal of his career in a 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on February 17th. Jagr, who just turned 45 years old, is third on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list and will tie Gordie Howe for second place if and when he reaches 801. Wayne Gretzky tops the list with 894 goals. On the same night, forward Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins recorded his 500th career assist in a 2-1 overtime loss to Columbus.