Oilers are in flux
The focus, as it should be with three weeks to go in the regular season, is on those teams still with a shot at making the playoffs and, thereby, a shot at a championship. But there will be no shortage of drama in the 14 cities where the playoffs end up being unattainable.
That's been the case for a long time in Edmonton, but it doesn't mean the questions surrounding the puzzling Oilers have gone away. Chief among them is whether Dallas Eakins is the answer behind the bench.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, that question is moot. When rookie GM Craig MacTavish, a man who coached the Oilers for eight seasons, went with his gut and canned Ralph Krueger after just one season in favor of hot coaching prospect Eakins last offseason, MacTavish made his bed for the foreseeable future. There are certainly enough questions about how Eakins has handled this team to warrant a change if MacTavish hadn't already played the coaching card last season.
There's also the lack of development of young talent such as Nail Yakupov and the team's miserable defense that ranks 28th in goals allowed per game, has a conference-worst goal differential of minus-61 (only Buffalo is worse in the league) and is 25th in shots allowed per game. But MacTavish is more or less stuck with Eakins for at least another season.
Now it's up to the GM to prove Eakins wasn't a horrific impulse hire by giving him better defensive tools, which might mean moving a top draft pick (the Oilers have the second-worst record in the league as of Wednesday morning) or a top young asset such as Yakupov or Jordan Eberle, and even then precious few game-changing defenders are available for a top return. There is also the issue of whether adding Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth has solved the team's ongoing goaltending woes.
Ah, so many Oilers questions, so few answers, so far away from anything resembling respectability.
Flames' strong foundation
Adding to the sting of the perpetual woes in Edmonton has been the impressive show down the road in Calgary. The common wisdom the past few years has been that whatever problems Edmonton had, the Oilers were still miles ahead of the misguided Flames and had an infinitely brighter future.
But watching the Flames, destined to their fifth straight nonplayoff year, it's hard not to like the team's work ethic, and the foundation in place, even as they struggle to rejoin the playoff fray in the West. While team president and acting GM Brian Burke waits until the dust clears this offseason to find a new GM to replace Jay Feaster, the Flames have continued to stay competitive under coach Bob Hartley.
The feeling is Hartley has earned another shot next season, regardless of who ends up as GM, and it would be a shock if Mike Cammalleri, on a tear lately and the team's only 20-goal scorer, doesn't return despite being able to hit the free-agent market in July. The defense is not where it needs to be, but captain Mark Giordano is a defensive leader around whom this team can build.
Like the Oilers, the goaltending situation is in a state of flux, but Karri Ramo has shown flashes of becoming the man in net. Sean Monahan is the real deal, and Mikael Backlund, who leads the team in faceoff wins, has become a pleasant surprise to give the Flames emerging depth down the middle. They might not possess the raw talent the Oilers have, but the Flames are much more of a team than their provincial rival.
Trotz heading out?
Speaking of change, early hints and rumors suggest seminal changes for a couple of franchises, beginning in Nashville.
General manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have been the steadying hands at the Predators' tiller through waters both rough and calm since the team joined the NHL in 1998. It would seem those days might be coming to an end, and it won't be any surprise if Trotz moves this offseason after having coached every single Predators game.
With two playoff misses in a row, it might be time. It is the nature of the game, and perhaps a change would do both the team and the coach a world of good.
One thing is for certain: Trotz would instantly become the most attractive coaching option on the market. What happens in Winnipeg, for instance, if Paul Maurice isn't offered a new contract or, more likely, decides to move on from the Jets? Trotz is from the prairie city and would be an ideal fit. And what about Vancouver, where the ax is almost certainly going to be swung vigorously by ownership after a disastrous season for the Canucks?
If Trotz does go, what does Poile do? Peter Laviolette is going to get another head-coaching job and would be a good fit in Nashville, with Poile knowing Laviolette's work via USA Hockey.
Winds of change for Canes?
And then there are the Carolina Hurricanes, with rumors abound that longtime GM Jim Rutherford is set to step aside or step up into a different position with the team for which he has handled the reins since its days as the Hartford Whalers. Rutherford told us in an email that a decision will be made in the offseason and suggested to local reporters recently that the offseason will be the time for discussing the directions he and the team are headed.
It's assumed that Hall of Famer Ron Francis, currently the team's vice president of hockey operations, would take over the post Rutherford has held since June 1994. Rutherford remains one of the most respected men in the game and has always been a thoughtful, reasoned voice when it has come to discussing changes within the game. He has worked tirelessly to integrate the Hurricanes into the Raleigh, N.C., community. His teams have advanced to two Stanley Cup finals, in 2002 and 2006, winning a Stanley Cup in ’06. The Canes advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, but that was the last time the squad qualified for the playoffs and they will miss again this spring.
Like with Trotz, perhaps it is simply time for a good man to move on.
In 11 games with the Rangers, two-time NHL scoring champ St. Louis has zero goals and three assists and has recently been battling the flu. His slow start hasn't hurt the Blueshirts, however, who have won four in a row, have gone 7-3-1 since the March 5 trade deadline and are in second place in the Metropolitan Division. That would be good enough for home-ice advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. And let's be honest here: Assuming the Rangers are playoff-bound, they acquired St. Louis not for Game 71 of the regular season but Game 7 of a playoff series.
The Bolts, meanwhile, have seen Callahan adjust much more quickly. The former Rangers captain has chipped in two goals and four assists, and the Lightning have lost only once in regulation (5-1-4) in 10 games since the deadline, good for 14 points.
It's all about defense
Finally, if you need a refresher course in the building blocks to a playoff spot, take a look at the bottom 10 teams in goals allowed per game. How many are going to the playoffs? If you said zero, you might be right.
The Washington Capitals (22nd in goals allowed) have a shot. They are tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs (26th) at 80 points, but the Leafs are in free fall and both teams sit behind the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, both of whom also have 80 points but hold the wild-card tiebreakers as of Wednesday.
Spread the net wider to include the bottom 12 teams and the Hurricanes and Dallas Stars are also looking at a spring without playoff dates. Simple stuff, no?
How about the top 10 teams when it comes to keeping the puck out of their own net? All are locks to still be on the ice when the playoffs start April 16. Again, simple stuff, no?