5 NHL teams we’ll learn a lot about before the playoffs

Kyle Bukauskas, Eric Francis, and Elliotte Friedman on popular topics of discussion on the first day of NHL General Manager meetings in Florida this week.

It feels like yesterday the puck was being dropped on a brand new NHL season. But after five months we’ve seen a number of on- and off-ice stories unfold and now we’re heading down the last stretch before the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The last day of the regular season falls on Saturday, April 4, so we’ve got about five weeks left to go here. Playoff teams will start to clinch before long, while the last hangers-on will start to fade.

Not all of these teams will end up in the post-season, but we’ll learn something significant about each one regardless of the outcome. Here is a look at five teams I’m looking forward to keeping an eye on in the final five weeks to see what they’re able to muster, and who performs for them.

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: CAN THEY FINISH THE SEASON STRONG AND LOOK THE WAY THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO?

After three straight wins, all is good in Leaf Land, right? They’re making their way through California on a three-game road trip this week and that stretch doesn’t make for such a hellish challenge anymore. By the end of the week Toronto could be “running away with” third place in the Atlantic.

Or, you know, not.

The story with this team is how unpredictable it’s been. Injuries have been a factor, Frederik Andersen not playing to the same level has as well. But the primary concern has been effort level more often than not. And when effort level is a concern, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a team to follow a winning streak with a few disappointing results against also-rans.

Toronto’s western road trip is followed by meetings with Tampa Bay, the surging Nashville Predators and rival Boston, so a poor showing through California would turn these next two weeks into a stretch of six difficult games. If they struggle, this current feeling (dare we call it comfort?) would all but vanish and the Leafs’ grip on a playoff spot would be tenuous once again.

Or they could go another way. Maybe, just maybe, the Leafs can finally turn a corner under the very real pressure of playoff-atmosphere games. What if instead of blowing an easy stretch the Leafs overperform a tough one? If they can just give an effort that looks like the team they were supposed to be, optimism could sprout again and they could peak just as the post-season hits. Don’t forget, they’ll be getting healthier with the key returns of Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci on the horizon.

A lot can change over two weeks. It was just 14 days ago Toronto dropped a 5-2 decision in Pittsburgh that was as uninspiring an effort as we’ve seen. Two weeks from now, we could be calling them Cup contenders again.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: ARE THEY BEGINNING TO COLLAPSE?

Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Columbus set off alarm bells. Not only are the Blue Jackets a hurting unit with eight players on the sidelines, but they also had just one win in their previous 11 games. Vancouver held a 3-1 lead after two periods and a 3-2 advantage in the final five minutes of regulation, only to leave without a single point.

And now the Canucks, who led the Pacific Division on trade deadline day, are holding down the first wild-card spot and are just two points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg. They have a couple games in hand still, but Vancouver has lost three in a row, is 4-5-1 in its past 10 and its starting goaltender is still hurt.

So much of what makes the Canucks go is their young players, specifically Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. And, sometimes, those players can wear down in the face of an 82-game grind with tough travel.

Last year, when the stakes weren’t nearly as high, Pettersson finished with 12 points in his last 22 regular season games. This year he had eight points in 12 February games and then got on the score sheet three times on Sunday. Hughes’ points are still coming in bunches, with 15 in his past 14 games, and he’s still one of the better play-driving players in the league. Since Feb. 1 he leads all Canucks defenders in scoring-chance percentage per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 (50.63), shots-for percentage at 5-on-5 (48.83) and goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.62). The fact those last two are under 50 per cent should lead to greater concern about where the Canucks are trending.

Since the start of February, the Canucks as a team rank near the bottom of the league in shots-for percentage at 5-on-5, Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5, and goal differential. They’re very similar to the Florida Panthers in each of these stats — and that team is quickly fading from the East’s playoff picture.

None of this is a good sign for Vancouver, but hope remains. The Canucks have the best home points percentage in the Pacific and 10 of their final 17 games are at Rogers Arena. Their next four games are at home, in fact, before they face Arizona on the road, so this next stretch is key to just staying alive and in a playoff position. By the time that Coyotes game is over, we should be talking about Jacob Markstrom nearing a return and how he performs off injury will be the next big story to watch.

NEW YORK RANGERS: IS THE REBUILD OVER?

Sometimes (most times?) admitting you need to take a step back into a rebuild is easy to say and much more difficult to successfully pull off. So when the New York Rangers took this step in a letter to their fans 25 months ago, it could have been the start of a long, dark period.

Instead, we’re sitting here today wondering if they can actually get into the playoffs.

It’s not as though the Rangers were expected to languish with the Detroits and Ottawas of the world at the bottom of the standings, but they didn’t really stand out. Through the first two months of the season they were a fine 13-9-3, which was the league’s 19th-best mark. There were various questions about them, too, such as what level of play Henrik Lundqvist could perform at this season, and how likely it was pending UFA Chris Kreider would be dealt by the deadline.

Kreider signed (though he’s injured now) and Lundqvist has all but been replaced by Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. Meantime, career seasons are being put together by Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo and Pavel Buchnevich. Free agent signing Artemi Panarin is third in league scoring and, if the Rangers make the playoffs, will be neck-and-neck with Leon Draisaitl in the Hart Trophy discussion.

The team is turning a corner, and fast. Since Jan. 1, New York is 16-10-0, which is the ninth-best points percentage in the league and fifth-best in the Eastern Conference. There’s certainly still work to do as the Rangers sit four points back of Columbus for the second wild-card spot, with two games in hand, and are one point back of ninth-place Carolina with one more game played than the Hurricanes.

But it seems Shesterkin, who has an outstanding .940 save percentage in his first 10 games and hasn’t allowed more than three goals yet, could be back ahead of schedule. And if it comes down to a tiebreaker the Rangers have a huge advantage right now as their 30 regulation wins (the first measure for breaking a tie) is the fourth-highest mark in the league and far better than their direct competitors.

Pressure will ramp up with each game now, and a lot of players on this roster haven’t felt that at the NHL level yet. You can understand a young team folding in this scenario, so if the Rangers overcome it, they’ll be way ahead of schedule.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: AN UPSET IN THE MAKING?

The Preds backed into first place in the Central last season, were eliminated in the first round by Dallas, and looked like a different team (in a bad way) through most of this season. So questions started being asked: had their window closed? Was 37-year-old Pekka Rinne at the end of the line? Was their core of players, almost all signed long-term, the wrong mix for whatever reason? Should they be sellers at the deadline?

Turns out GM David Poile was uncharacteristically quiet at the deadline, making nothing but depth and AHL moves. He didn’t want to invest more in this team, but didn’t want to give up on it either.

Now Nashville is 6-3-1 in its past 10 games and, behind a defence core that has been excellent all season, the goaltending is coming around. Just not from the source you’d expect.

While Rinne was improved in February, he only played four games because Juuse Saros has taken over the top job. Over the past month, Saros’ .930 save percentage is one of the top marks in the league.

And now the Predators, far from backing into the playoffs, are grinding their way there. If they finish strong and end up in the wild card (because third in the Central is an extreme long shot) Nashville could suddenly become a dangerous first-round matchup.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: A WESTERN JUGGERNAUT WAKING UP

Vegas was a top contender in the Pacific again this season, though from the start it just didn’t jive as naturally as before. On Jan. 15, they made the shocking choice to fire head coach Gerard Gallant when the team was 24-19-6. They sat fifth in the Pacific on that date despite all the positive underlying numbers that you could want. It just wasn’t working anymore.

In came Peter DeBoer from the rival San Jose Sharks, who let him go about a month earlier, and now the Golden Knights are atop the Pacific again. They’re 12-4-2 since the change, but that includes an eight-game winning streak that was snapped by Los Angeles on Sunday.

Now, this could mean Vegas is fully back and is one of the top teams in the West again. If this is the case, they’re easily the best team in the Pacific Division at least and should be able to play their way through two rounds (though, as previously mentioned, a date against Nashville could be tougher than it looks).

But no team is as bad as they look on an extended losing streak, nor as good as they appear on a long winning streak. So whether or not Vegas really has landed on its feet again will start to show itself later this week. Starting on Friday, Vegas goes on a five-game road trip through Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Minnesota and Colorado before returning home for one game against Dallas. By the time that stretch is over we’ll know if Vegas has re-established itself as one of the elites.

The biggest challenge Vegas is facing now is that it has to face this stretch without Mark Stone. One of the best two-way players in the game, Stone is also having his best offensive season, but is now considered week-to-week.

And then there’s the underlying intrigue about the potential for a “goalie controversy.” Marc-Andre Fleury has always been their guy and is the favourite to continue that way, but Robin Lehner wasn’t acquired to just sit quietly on the bench. He should at least give Vegas the option to rest Fleury more regularly than it has before, and if Lehner plays well, there could be a temptation to turn to him quicker than with past backups if Fleury flounders. Lehner won a 32-save effort in his first game with the Golden Knights on Friday and has been named the starter for their Tuesday game against New Jersey.

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