NHL Power Rankings: 31 Big Questions Down the Stretch Edition

nazem_kadri_reacts_after_scoring

Former Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri (43) reacts after scoring against the Winnipeg Jets. (Nathan Denette/CP)

With the trade deadline shrinking away in the rear-view mirror, we can shift our full attention to the playoff races.

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s wagon ride through the Atlantic aside, the race for first in the other divisions could be decided by a point or two. Every night matters.

Lower down the standings, plucky underdogs Arizona and Carolina have embraced the upset while a failure for Pittsburgh, Columbus or Dallas to qualify could spell chaos.

In our NHL Power Rankings: 31 Big Questions Down the Stretch Edition, we ask one pivotal query for each team.

As always, the clubs are ranked below according to their current awesomeness.

The Stanley Cup playoffs start exactly one month from today. It’s go time.

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1. Tampa Bay Lightning

Steamrolling through the league with a mind-boggling .788 points percentage and plus-84 goal differential, the Lightning have turned the Presidents’ Trophy race into a cakewalk. Can Tampa break the 1976-77 Canadiens’ record of 132 standings points? They have a shot.

2. Boston Bruins

Undefeated in regulation — incredibly — with David Pastrnak on the shelf, can the Bruins secure home-ice advantage in Round 1 and force the Maple Leafs to defeat them in hostile TD Garden?

3. Toronto Maple Leafs

With the Leafs’ blue-line depth exposed by the double whammy of the Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner injuries — and one of the few skaters with grit, Nazem Kadri, concussed — can Toronto get back to full health for the post-season?

4. Calgary Flames

The forward group and defence corps are elite, but can Calgary’s goaltenders hold their own against the likes of San Jose and Vegas?

5. San Jose Sharks

How serious, really, is Erik Karlsson’s recurring groin injury?

6. Winnipeg Jets

Can the Jets hang on to the top spot in the Central, ease into the playoffs with a soft wild-card opponent, and avoid the dreaded 2-3 matchup against a resurgent St. Louis?

7. Washington Capitals

How hilarious would it be if the Capitals held on to first in the Metropolitan Division and drew, as their wild-card opponent, Pittsburgh?

8. Carolina Hurricanes

Is this actually going to happen? Will this bunch of jerks in Carolina — the Metro’s hottest team — snuff out the NHL’s longest playoff drought at nine seasons?

9. Pittsburgh Penguins

Sniper extraordinaire Phil Kessel didn’t score a goal in February and has yet to find the net in March. As the Penguins fight for their playoff lives, how long does the drought last?

10. Vegas Golden Knights

Is Marc-Andre Fleury the best goaltender in the West, or the best goaltender it the NHL?

11. Nashville Predators

Can a team with such a pitiful power play (a league-worst 12.4 per cent conversion rate) turn it around enough with the addition of Wayne Simmonds, especially when special teams are so critical to playoff success?

12. New York Islanders

Can the Islanders sustain such an excellent run with the NHL’s 22nd-ranked offence (2.83 goals per game), the worst among all Eastern Conference teams in playoff position?

13. St. Louis Blues

Does Jordan Binnington look nervous?

14. Columbus Blue Jackets

Can the Blue Jackets please qualify for the playoffs and go on a run, encouraging more GMs to take aggressive trade risks?

15. Montreal Canadiens

Will Marc Bergevin regret not adding a significant piece at the trade deadline if his Habs come up a point or two short of the dance?

16. Arizona Coyotes

If the injury-riddled Coyotes — winners of six straight — can squeeze into the postseason with this roster, can coach Rick Tocchet come from behind to steal the Jack Adams Trophy from Barry Trotz?

17. Philadelphia Flyers

Is Gritty hiding around the corner?

18. Dallas Stars

If Dallas — forever on the bubble — fails to make the cut, does Jim Nill take the fall?

19. Minnesota Wild

Is there a Western Conference franchise facing a steeper climb to legitimate Cup contender status than the Wild, who still have more than $15 million in annual cap space tied up in 34-year-olds Ryan Suter and Zach Parise through 2025?

20. Colorado Avalanche

Can a team with only one excellent forward line return to the playoffs? If so, what does that say about the strength of the Western Conference?

21. Florida Panthers

Enduring another season plagued by injury and seeing his save percentage (.897) drop to a career low, how many more seasons of Roberto Luongo will we get to watch?

22. Edmonton Oilers

Drawing within striking distance of Alex Ovechkin, can piping-hot Leon Draisaitl (41 goals) win the Rocket?

23. Buffalo Sabres

Considering the Sabres haven’t strung together consecutive wins since mid-December, how significantly will their performance in this final month impact Phil Housley’s job security?

24. Chicago Blackhawks

Who loses their job if the Blackhawks finish as they sit now, with the NHL’s worst penalty kill (72.8%) and most goals allowed (3.77 per game)?

25. Vancouver Canucks

After five months of rightfully earning props for their work ethic, have the Canucks hit a wall? Do they coast to finish or embrace the role of spoiler?

26. New York Rangers

Who will the Rangers pursue hardest this summer with all the cap space they’ve cleared?

27. New Jersey Devils

Why did it take the Devils’ doctors so long and so many lost games to realize that Taylor Hall — the MVP of the freaking league — needed knee surgery?

28. Anaheim Ducks

Which is more difficult for Bob Murray, trying to manage his franchise out of trouble or trying to coach it out of trouble?

29. Detroit Red Wings

Do the Red Wings purposely tank a bit here to increase their chances of landing Michigan-local Jack Hughes and expedite their rebuild?

30. Los Angeles Kings

Will Norris-winner Drew Doughty finish the campaign with the worst plus/minus in the league? (Right now, only Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen has a more dismal rating than Doughty’s dash-25.)

31. Ottawa Senators

The way things have been going, no one will be surprised when the Senators’ best odds of winning the draft lottery come through and they sheepishly hand the first-overall pick to Colorado, will they?

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