It’s Dec. 28 and the Florida Panthers are in first place.
How weird is that?
The date matters, of course, because there’s a long way to go before the Panthers can actually claim the Atlantic Division after leapfrogging Montreal and Detroit on the weekend. Florida, which has made post-season play only twice this century, has one lonely division title in team history.
But it also matters because we’re almost at the halfway point of the season, so it’s apparently no fluke that the Panthers stand where they stand at the same time teams like Pittsburgh, Montreal and the New York Rangers are struggling to stay high in the Eastern Conference standings.
It was 2010 when Florida hired Dale Tallon to run the team, highlighting Tallon’s role in building the Chicago Blackhawks into a championship squad by absorbing a series of losing seasons and patiently picking high in the draft. Well, Florida had eight of Tallon’s picks in the lineup Sunday night while defeating woeful Columbus for the club’s sixth straight win, and in Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Erik Gudbranson he appears to have a strong young core in place similar to what was assembled in the Windy City.
The Panthers have gone from being the 17th best defensive team in the NHL to being the second best. In December, they’ve allowed two goals or fewer against in nine of 13 games.
On Sunday, 16,902 fans turned out to watch the Panthers play and win at home, and overall attendance is up more than 2,000 fans per game this season.
It’s Dec. 28, folks, and with the Panthers 12-3 since U.S. Thanksgiving, there’s clearly signs of a hockey pulse in south Florida.
Will Kassian trade open floodgates?
Maybe it will take the Zack Kassian trade to break the logjam.
As reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Hockey Night in Canada’s Saturday Headlines, Montreal told Kassian last week not to report to their minor-league affiliate after being reinstated from the NHL’s substance abuse program and a number of teams had been checking out Kassian and his troubled past for a possible trade.
Kassian, 24, arrives in Edmonton with a $1.75 million cap hit and is a restricted free agent this summer. He never played a game for the Habs after being acquired from Vancouver in the off-season and being involved in a traffic incident during training camp.
Kassian might be the kind of "heavy" forward the Oilers could use. Scrivens and his $1.375 million contract have been buried in the minors all season.
Scrivens gives the Habs a potential alternative to the current tandem of Mike Condon and Dustin Tokarski until Carey Price is healthy again, although Condon has been fine. Really, this is just a way to get Kassian off the books.
There were then four trades in January, including the Jan. 2 deal that sent David Perron to the Penguins from the Oilers and one 12 days later that proved to have a major impact, seeing goalie Devan Dubnyk go to Minnesota from Arizona for a third-round pick.
There were then 18 deals in February, including the big Winnipeg-Buffalo swap, and 24 deals on March 2.
How will NHL handle Evander Kane allegations?
The NHL is again being forced to deal with ugly allegations of one of its players being involved in a sexual assault in Buffalo. Last summer, it was Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, who was never charged and eventually cleared, and now it’s Evander Kane of the hometown Sabres apparently being accused in relation to an incident in a Buffalo hotel room early Sunday morning.
Kane missed practice and later in the day both the Sabres and the league confirmed he is the subject of a police investigation.
Presumably, the NHL will approach this situation in a similar way it dealt with Patrick Kane, who wasn’t suspended or sent home while the allegations involving him went through the legal process in a case that took several strange turns. If there are charges laid against Evander Kane, however, the NHL could take a very different approach.
Evander Kane was acquired last winter from Winnipeg in a blockbuster deal. He has eight goals in 25 games this season, and his status for tonight’s home game against Washington is unclear.
Recent success won't change plan for Leafs
On Oct. 24, Montreal beat its ancient rival from Toronto 5-3, moving the Habs to 9-0 on the season and dropping the Maple Leafs to 1-4-2.
Since that night, the Habs are 11-14-3 for 25 points, while the Leafs are actually better in the past two months at 12-10-5 for 29 points.
Since winning only one game in all of October, the Leafs are 12-7-5 for a .604 winning percentage, including Sunday night’s win in Brooklyn. Even if they play at that rate for the rest of the way the Leafs would end up with 91 pts, likely not enough to make post-season play. So expect them to stick with the plan of moving veterans for draft picks and/or prospects prior to the NHL trade deadline.
As it stands, vets like Roman Polak and Leo Komarov are worth more now than they would have been during the summer. Ditto for centre Tyler Bozak and defenceman Jake Gardiner. Captain Dion Phaneuf was the subject of trade talks between the Leafs and Detroit at last year’s trade deadline, and it will be interesting to see if teams come calling again this winter.
Morgan Rielly would be the only player close to untouchable on the current roster, with James van Riemsdyk close.
Keep your eye on the Predators
If you’re looking for teams to watch on the trade front this month, Nashville would be one you’d want to keep your eye on.
The struggling Predators, held to two goals or less in 11 of the last 18 games, are clinging to the final wild card berth in the Western Conference and impressing no one these days with an oddly unbalanced team that’s again getting more consistent offence from its defence than its forwards.
Shea Weber and Roman Josi have combined for 51 points, including 19 goals, and just like last year, Nashville is getting more offence from its backline than any other NHL club.
Up front, the story is different. Filip Forsberg has been only okay with nine goals, while youngster Colin Wilson is a huge disappointment with only two goals. James Neal is the only Nashville forward who has 10 or more goals this season.
As a team, Nashville has a 6.8 per cent shooting percentage, which puts them in the bottom third of the league. Last year, they made a winter deal with the Leafs to bolster a strong lineup that managed 104 points, but neither Cody Franson nor Mike Santorelli helped and the Preds went out in the first round.
There are always rumours about possible deals involving Weber, who has a $7.85 million cap hit until 2026 but doesn’t have any no trade/no movement protection. The availability of Columbus centre Ryan Johansen, who had no points and no shots in 14:06 of ice time Sunday against Florida, has many making connections between the Preds and Blue Jackets.
Columbus lacking leadership
John Tortorella didn’t mince words on the weekend while his team was losing to Tampa Bay on Saturday and the Panthers on Sunday, questioning his team’s leadership group.
"I see weakness," said the Columbus coach after a 5-2 loss to Tampa. "I think we’re weak mentally, and it’s not the kids."
Tortorella said "some of our veteran guys can learn from our younger guys."
"You understand the leadership part of it. We have nothing there. Nothing," said Tortorella.
The Jackets are now 13-15-3 under Tortorella after an 0-7 start under former head coach Todd Richards.
What's up with Orpik?
There’s not much being said out of Washington where veteran defenceman Brooks Orpik has been missing from the Capitals lineup since Nov. 10 with an undisclosed injury. Orpik isn’t practising or even skating, and there’s no indication when the 35-year-old rearguard might be back.
Orpik’s absence has opened up ice time for 24-year-old Nate Schmidt, who has played more than 20 minutes in three of Washington’s last five games. Still, if Orpik isn’t likely to return, you’d have to put Washington in the market for blueline help before the trade deadline.