Down Goes Brown: Potential for first-round rivalry matchups on the rise

Calgary won their 10th straight, the Jets fell to Nashville and Brad Marchand brought out the hats.

• West playoff race down to nine teams
• Could we see Battle of Ontario in first round?
• We should all be afraid of Calder discussion

With one month to go in the regular schedule, it’s time for another portfolio check as we take a look around the league to see which stocks are rising and which are falling.

We’ve been doing this every month since the season started, and it’s helped us identify some trends along the way. Some of those have stuck around, like the league-wide youth movement and the rise of Canadian teams. Others faded quickly, like when it seemed like a safe year to be an NHL coach. The markets are volatile; invest at your own risk.

Here’s who things are looking as we head down the home stretch.

Stock falling: The Western Conference playoff race

So, uh, about all that parity…

You remember that, right? This time last month, we were living in a world where 28 out of 30 NHL teams had at least some shot at a playoff spot. There were even some worries that all that parity would torpedo the trade deadline, since nobody other than Avalanche and Coyotes would be selling. Everyone else was still right in the thick of it.

And that wasn’t all hyperbole – as late as the second week of February, everyone outside of Arizona and Colorado was no more than eight points out of a playoff spot, with enough time left to make up some distance with a hot streak or two.

Fast forward to today, though, and the season of parity turned into the season of reality real quick. Heading into action tonight, only two teams in the East are within five points of that last spot. And that’s a traffic jam compared to the West, where only two teams are fighting over the final spot, and that fight may already be over.

Those two are the Blues and Kings, a pair of teams that both came into the season as Stanley Cup hopefuls. So there will be some drama watching them duke it out for one spot, knowing that missing the playoffs will spell disaster for the loser. But after last night’s Blues win in Los Angeles, the Kings are five points back and in big trouble.

Unless somebody like the Flyers or Panthers can make a late push, we’re left with 19 teams still in the mix with a month to go. And in both conferences, plenty of teams don’t have anything to worry about beyond matchups.

Luckily, some of those matchups might be pretty good…

Stock rising: Rivalry matchups

It’s too early to think about first-round matchups. Every year, we get excited about two teams that seem to be on a collision course, only to have it all fall apart on the final weekend.

So we won’t go too far down this particular path when there’s still a month to go. (Check back in a few weeks for a full roundup.) That said, there are some potential matchups in play that we haven’t seen in a long time, and it’s hard not to get at least a little bit excited about the possibilities.

Take the Atlantic, where the Senators, Canadiens and Bruins are holding down the top three spots. That means two of those teams would face each other, giving us a good shot at something like a classic Montreal/Boston matchup or a more recent rivalry like Montreal/Ottawa. We could also get the Sens and Bruins, which has never happened before and would give us our first look at Zdeno Chara facing his old team in the post-season.

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Friedman talks NHL playoff picture
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But as interesting as those matchups could be, things get a lot more fun if the Maple Leafs can make up some ground and crash the party. The Leafs and Bruins have some recent playoff history, as you may have heard. But we haven’t had a Battle of Ontario matchup since 2004, the last of four meetings in five years. And while the Leafs and Habs have met 13 times over their history, we somehow haven’t seen them pair off since 1979.

There’s a similar – and maybe even better – situation shaping up out west. The Flames’ recent win steak moved them out of the wild-card bubble and into second spot in the Pacific. That means they could end up facing the Oilers, reigniting a Battle of Alberta that’s been dormant for 26 years, at least as far as the post-season is concerned. The Flames and Oilers faced each other five times in nine years beginning in 1983, with the winner going to the Cup final in four of those. But after 1991, nothing. This could be the year that changes, and don’t think fans in Alberta haven’t already noticed.

Mix in a shot at some classic old-school rivalries like Blues/Blackhawks and Islanders/Capitals along with some relatively recent ones like Ducks/Sharks, and this year’s playoffs could be shaping up as a rivalry showcase. Let’s enjoy that possibility now, before some random Predators or Lightning game on the final weekend ruins everything.

Stock rising: Deadline pickups

It’s been almost two weeks since the deadline. That’s enough time to start passing judgement, right?

On the one hand, you can really judge a pickup based on a handful of games – small sample size and all that. On the other, when you make a trade with 20 games left in the season, a small sample size is all that you have, and a handful of games could be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting them out.

So far, most of the deadline returns have been positive. The two biggest have been OK; Kevin Shattenkirk had four points in six games for the Capitals prior to his two-game suspension. Martin Hanzal has four points of his own in seven games for the Wild, although he’s also been out of action lately, in this case due to illness.

But some of the smaller deals are already paying off. Alex Burrows has four goals and three multi-point nights in just six games in Ottawa. Boston pickup Drew Stafford has scored twice in five games, including a huge winner on Saturday.

A couple days before Stafford’s big night, Jarome Iginla had two goals including the OT winner in a big Kings win. Valtteri Filppula had a key goal in his Flyers debut, and even Jordie Benn picked up a rare goal for the Canadiens.

Not every deal has paid short-term dividends. Ben Bishop has lost both his starts in L.A., P.A. Parenteau has barely played in Nashville, and Curtis Lazar has yet to so much as suit up for the Flames. And Wild pickup Ryan White did, well, whatever this was.

But overall, the teams that came out of the deadline with added depth have been happy with their results so far. When you add somebody with just over a month to play, you don’t have time to wait around for the move to pay off. So far, GMs who took the plunge have mostly been rewarded.

Stock falling: Goaltending epitaphs

Did you hear the one about Carey Price‘s season spinning down the drain after he posted lackluster numbers in December and January?

What about Henrik Lundqvist, who was clearly showing his age in the first half, leading to a “full-blown goalie crisis” in New York? Or Brian Elliott, whose reputation was all but shot after he face-planted out of the gate in Calgary. Or Frederik Andersen, a bust in Toronto after a shaky start, and then again after the all-star break. Or Jake Allen, left for dead in January after he got his coach fired.

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Frederik Andersen: I put too much pressure on myself at start of season
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You get the idea. It’s been a rough year for those of us who like to craft narratives out of a few weeks of work from starting goaltenders. It turns out that jumping to conclusions, while loads of fun, can make you look silly.

The lesson: It’s tough enough to figure this position out based on a full season – as always, goaltending is voodoo. Sometimes, when a bad month wanders into view, it might be best to just pretend you don’t notice and stick to the long-term view.

Will we remember this the next time a big name strings together three bad games? No, we will not. [Goes back to working on a “What’s wrong with Devan Dubnyk?” piece.]

Stock rising: The Vancouver Canucks coaching staff…

…from 2013–14. Sorry, Willie Desjardins.

While this year’s Canucks have overachieved against pre-season predictions that they’d finish dead last, we’re not buying much stock in Desjardins and his staff at the moment. But if you happen to have a time machine that can take you back to the 2013 off-season, you could get a good deal on some coaching futures.

That was the summer that the Canucks fired Alain Vigneault after seven years (and two Presidents’ Trophies). After days of speculation, the team hired John Tortorella. And about a month later, Tortorella filled out his staff with a pair of assistants: Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulutzan.

It didn’t go so well. The Canucks didn’t make the playoffs and Tortorella and Sullivan were fired after just one season. (Gulutzan stuck around until last year.)

But while the trio didn’t guide the Canucks to many wins, they must have learned a thing or two in the process, because they’ve had plenty of success ever since. Tortorella remains the front-runner for the Jack Adams in his first full season in Columbus. Gulutzan might give him some competition thanks to a late-season win streak that has his Flames soaring up the standings. And Sullivan already has a Stanley Cup to his name with last year’s Penguins, and just might get another this year.

Meanwhile, Vigneault moved on to the Rangers, where he’s on track for his fourth straight season of 95+ points. And one of his assistants in Vancouver, Rick Bowness, just broke Scotty Bowman’s record for games coached.

So chin up, Willie Desjardins and the rest of the Canucks bench staff. There may be brighter days ahead. Just, uh, probably not in Vancouver.

Stock rising: Jack Eichel

It feels like last year’s second-overall pick has fallen off the radar this year. That’s understandable; with Connor McDavid looking every bit like the game-changing prospect he was hyped to be and Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine providing the season’s shiny new toys to focus on, Eichel was probably going to get shuffled aside no matter what he did. Mix in an early-season injury and a disappointing Sabres season, and you could be forgiven for forgetting about the 20-year-old.

Here’s hoping you didn’t, because Eichel is putting up a phenomenal season. Since making his season debut at the end of November, Eichel has scored at nearly a point-per-game pace. On Friday, he was held pointless in Columbus to snap an 11-game scoring streak, then shrugged that off on Saturday to post a goal and an assist in the rematch.

You can crunch the numbers in different ways, but here’s one way to look at it: At a 0.98 points-per-game, Eichel is on pace to post the sixth best season by a second-year player aged 20 or younger since 1990. For perspective, he’s a fraction of a point behind an early-’90s Jaromir Jagr on that list.

The season is shaping up to be yet another write-off for the Sabres, who’ll need a big finish just to get within range of the playoffs. The blueline has been exposed, the coach is on the hot seat, their top goal-scorer is heading towards a summer of contentious contract talks, and critics are starting to question whether the team’s rebuild is on the right path. If you’re a Sabres fan, you take your optimism where you can get it. And you’ve certainly got it in Eichel, who’s looking more and more like one of the very best young players in a league stacked with them.

And speaking of good young players… hey, who likes to argue?

Stock soaring: Award voting rage

We’re getting close to awards-voting time; ballots will be due at the close of the regular season, so we’ve got just one month left to figure out who should win what. Every year, there are a few awards that seem obvious, and several more that will be closer calls.

But then there’s also that one award that isn’t just debatable, and isn’t just contentious. It’s outright war.

Last year, that award was the Norris, as the Drew Doughty-vs.-Erik Karlsson debate lit up the hockey world and tore families apart. That one doesn’t seem quite as controversial this year, although Karlsson is making an impressive late charge at Brent Burns.

Instead, this year’s minefield is shaping up to be the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. And to make things as much fun as possible, there’s more than just two names to worry about. This season has seen quite possibly the best rookie class to enter the NHL together since the double cohort in 2005–06. We’re seeing guys put up stats that are challenging pre-Dead Puck numbers.

It’s all been a lot of fun to watch. But the fun stops now, because it’s time to take sides in the Great Calder Debate of 2017. And the player you pick – or don’t pick – will be used to psychoanalyze your personal faults and weaknesses.

Leaning towards voting for Matthews? Of course you are. He plays for a big-market Original Six team, so let’s ship the award off to Toronto instead of giving it somebody who’s produced better numbers in fewer games. Hockey gods forbid we let somebody outside the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe get any attention.

Leaning towards Laine instead? Nice job, you just ignored all the underlying numbers that say Matthews is playing better hockey at a more important position and got distracted by goals and points. Apparently thinking past the most basic stats possible was just too much for your tiny mind to comprehend.

But wait, aren’t you forgetting about Matt Murray, who you probably didn’t even know was still eligible? Or Zach Werenski, because the small-market Blue Jackets never get any respect? Or Mitch Marner, because for some reason you can’t vote for two players from the same team even if they both deserve it? Or Matthew Tkachuk because you Eastern Conference fans and your early bed times have probably never even watched a Western Conference matchup?

Don’t worry about whether any of that is actually true. The mud-slinging from the diehards and homers has already started, and it’s only going to get worse. You thought you were just arguing about the top rookie in a great class? Nope. It’s a referendum on your value as a person. Get it wrong at your peril.

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