Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted 8:38 p.m.

By Kevin Kurz
CSNPhilly.com

The first half of the NHL season has featured some surprising developments, some unsurprising ones, and another comeback attempt by Peter Forsberg.

Heres a quick look around the league as it shuts down for its annual Olympics-or-All-Star break.
Biggest surprise (team): Tampa Bay Lightning

When your biggest offseason acquisition is in the front office, its usually a sign that your team is in for a long season. Thats not the case in Tampa Bay, though, as NHL legend Steve Yzerman has turned the Lightning into a contender right away. It helps when you have the next NHL superstar (and leagues leading scorer) in Steven Stamkos, of course, but fellow forward Martin St. Louis is having a resurgence as the Lightning enter the break with a five-game winning streak and a four- point lead on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. Veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson was a savvy pickup by Yzerman, and dont be surprised to see the Lightning make some noise in the postseason.
Honorable mention: Dallas Stars

You have to feel for the Dallas Stars, who are quietly leading the ultra-competitive Pacific Division yet struggling to fill their beautiful arena. No matter to Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen, though, as the forward and goaltender look like they are primed to help end a two-year playoff drought for Texas only NHL team.
Biggest disappointment (team): New Jersey Devils
This ones easy. The Devils signed prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a 100 million contract in the offseason and looked like a strong contender for their fourth Stanley Cup, but they have been anything but instead entering the break with the fewest points in the league. The team has gotten a little bit better now that Jacques Lemaire has returned and re-installed his sleep-inducing defensive system, and even Kovalchuk is starting to produce, but their season is essentially over.
Honorable mention: San Jose Sharks
The Western Conference regular season champions the last two seasons, the San Jose Sharks are fighting just to stay in the playoff race. A 4-0-1 stretch before the All-Star break offers some hope, but it came only after a six-game losing streak threatened to derail their season altogether. Rob Blakes retirement left a huge void on the blue line that was never filled, and the so-called Big Three of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau are all off of their career scoring averages. There is some hope, however, as rookie Logan Couture looks like a future star and goalie Antti Niemi has played very well for the past two months.

Biggest surprise (player): Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens were roundly criticized for trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis in the offseason, thereby handing the reigns to Price between the pipes. Price, though, who previously looked like a victim of the tremendous pressure heaped upon him by playing in the hockey capital of North America (sorry Toronto), has been outstanding. His 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage at the break earned him an All-Star berth, but more importantly, he has the Canadiens in good position to challenge Boston for the Northeast Division crown.
Biggest disappointment (player): Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kovalchuk would be the easy pick here, but it already feels like hes old news. Instead, lets go with the Maple Leafs captain, defenseman Dion Phaneuf. The big blueliner was acquired by Toronto last season in the hopes that his defensive presence and leadership skills would lead the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. Well, better luck next year. Toronto is on its way to another long offseason, and while Phaneuf can still hit hard and be an effective player in his own zone, he has a paltry one goal and 10 assists in 33 games.
Rising star: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

On a team full of offensive stars, the Flyers Claude Giroux may possess the most pure ability. Giroux can do it all shoot, pass, defend and contribute on special teams. He leads the first-place Flyers with 47 points (tied with Mike Richards) and has made a number of dazzling, highlight-reel plays that seem to suggest that the 23-year-old will be an NHL star for many years to come.

Falling star: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

Martin Brodeurs numbers are obviously somewhat of an extension of how bad his Devils have been as a whole, but he hasnt done anything to help the cause, either. In fact, backup Johan Hedberg has even started back-to-back games for the Devils with a healthy Brodeur on the bench something unheard of in Brodeurs heyday. The future Hall of Fame goaltender make look back upon the second half of last season and subsequent first round playoff defeat last April as the beginning of the end to a brilliant career.

Second half storylines:
Will the defending Cup champs turn it around?

Sure, theyve been hampered by injuries throughout the year, but the Chicago Blackhawks have been a portrait of inconsistency this season. They already had to deal with a huge roster turnover from their championship team, but they still have enough talent on both ends of the ice to make another run this season. With names like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, dont count them out. They could be the one team no one in the West wants to face come postseason time.Will Sidney Crosby return to form after his concussion?

Sidney Crosby has been, undoubtedly, the best player in the NHL this season. But the fact that hes been out of the lineup for most of the month of January with a concussion has to be concerning for the Penguins (and for the NHL, which endlessly promotes his every move while overlooking some of the games other starsbut I digress). Crosby doesnt have any sort of history when it comes to head injuries, so theres not much reason to believe he wont pick up where he left off before he got hurt. Thats the thing when it comes to concussions, though they are terribly unpredictable.

Will Peter Forsberg return?

Its a shame that Peter Forsbergs name has become a punch line in the last few years, what with his multitude of comebacks always falling by the wayside. Hes again attempting to get back into the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, and it might even happen. Even so, it may be painful to watch him try and regain his form from years past, if he ever makes it back into game action (see 2010 Olympics, in which he had one assist in four games).

Will the Capitals start scoring again?

The NHL leaders for most of last season thanks to a non-stop attack on offense, the Washington Capitals have inexplicably struggled to find the back of the net. That includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who have a combined 10 goals in the last 25 games heading into the break (nine by Ovechkin). Its safe to say that no one expected the Caps to be tied for 17th in the NHL at this point in the year, with just 2.71 goals per game.

Can the Flyers and Canucks keep up their torrid pace?

Stanley Cups arent won in January, and thats likely the message that coaches Peter Laviolette and Alain Vigneault will give their respective clubs coming out of the break. Right now, however, theres little disputing that these are the two best teams in hockey right now. Philadelphia has arguably the deepest offense and deepest defense in the Eastern Conference, while the Canucks are led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are in the prime of their careers and are nothing short of magical on the ice together. Seeing these two teams battle in the Stanley Cup Finals is a distinct possibility.

Blackhawks ink Anton Forsberg, Tomas Jurco

Blackhawks ink Anton Forsberg, Tomas Jurco

When the Blackhawks traded to get Brandon Saad back, they also acquired Anton Forsberg, who they believe is ready to be their latest backup goaltender. On Monday they signed him to a two-year deal.

The Blackhawks inked two players on Monday, Forsberg, whose contract runs through the 2018-19 season, and Tomas Jurco, who agreed to a one-year contract extension.

Forsberg joins the Blackhawks having very little NHL experience – he’s played 10 career games at this level, going 1-8-0. But the Blackhawks’ previous two backup goaltenders, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling, hadn’t made an NHL appearance before joining the Blackhawks. Forsberg led the Cleveland Monsters, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL-affiliate team, to a Calder Cup title in 2016; during that run he went 9-0 with a 1.34 goals-against average and .949 save percentage.

On Friday, when the Blackhawks acquired Saad and Forsberg from Columbus for Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte, general manager Stan Bowman said the team is, “optimistic about Anton’s potential.”

“We like his profile as a goalie,” he said. “He’s a big guy, takes up a lot of net, has that mobility and makes good positional saves as well as athletic saves. A year ago, led his team to the [Calder] Cup championships, so he knows what it’s like to put a team on his back. It was the AHL but he’s had a lot of success there. He’s earned the right to be an NHL goalie.”

Jurco, acquired by the Blackhawks from Detroit in February, played 13 games with them down the regular-season stretch. Bowman said shortly after the trade that Jurco would get a chance here.

“We’ll be patient with him but we really think there’s a good fit there, looking at his skills and the style of hockey we play,” he said. “I think a lot of ways, sometimes guys need different opportunities. It doesn’t work out in every place. A fresh start will be great for Tomas.”

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Eight draft picks in about 3 ½ hours. It was a busy Saturday for the Blackhawks, and when general manager Stan Bowman talked that afternoon about the team’s Day 2 haul, he came prepared.

“I have my little cheat sheet,” Bowman said of the paper on which he had written the Blackhawks’ eight newest prospects.

After a few days’ worth of moves the Blackhawks focused on the future, taking nine players over two days at the NHL Draft. It was a successful weekend for the Blackhawks, who hosted the draft for the first time and built up assets, especially on the blue line. Five of the Blackhawks’ nine selections were defensemen.

“One of the things we talked about was looking at the market. There’s a high value on defensemen. We’re not necessarily looking at the draft but our team this year and over the next couple of years; those are the assets that are valuable around the league,” Bowman said. “Look at the trade Calgary made [for Travis Hamonic], defensemen are a valuable commodity. That was a priority coming in and we were able to accomplish it.”

What comes next

The Blackhawks got what they wanted at this weekend’s draft but the focus will soon shift, as free agency opens on July 1. It remains to be seen what the Blackhawks will have cap-wise come a week from now. Currently, according to CapFriendly.com, they’re $1.445 million over the $75 million cap. It’s doubtful the Blackhawks apply the long-term injured reserve tag on Marian Hossa during the offseason. It’s possible they could still trade Marcus Kruger to gain some space. Bowman said, one way or another, “there will be some movement.”

“We’ll bring some players in, I don’t know how many, what position or what level,” he said. “This is where there’s a lot of activity, the couple weeks in the middle of June until the middle of July. That’s when the most changes happen. We’ll go to work, now that we’re past this.”

Wait for it

The Blackhawks also have to decide whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco. Bowman said that’ll be decided by Monday.

“I’ve had discussions with both agents,” he said. “I don’t have an answer right now but we’ll have that worked out in the next day and a half.”