Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Midseason report: Team-by-team grades
By Scott Burnside
As we hit the All-Star break Thursday, here's a breakdown of where teams stand:
Boston Bruins: A-plus
The Bs held an eight-point edge over Washington with two games in hand heading into Wednesday's action and, barring collapse, will enter the playoffs with the No. 1 seed in the conference. Who woulda thunk it? Great goaltending, the top defense in the NHL (allowing just 2.13 goals per game) and a deep, potent offense that is tied for second in the league. No wonder the Bruins are thinking Stanley Cup.
Washington Capitals: A
In spite of injuries that would have sunk a lesser team, the Capitals are comfortably ensconced in the second seed in the conference. Their 19-3-1 home record is tops in the conference and will make them difficult to topple come playoff time. Alex Ovechkin remains the most dynamic player in the league, but the Caps are far from a one-man show with Alexander Semin, Mike Green and even the mercurial Jose Theodore all bringing it.
Montreal Canadiens: A
The Habs are another team that has persevered through serious injury, and they continue to pile up the points. They won't catch Boston for the Northeast Division, but are in good position to hold down the No. 4 seed (hence the chance to open the playoffs at home) thanks to the play of youngsters like Matt D'Agostini, brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse.
New Jersey Devils: A-minus
Credit coach Brent Sutter for keeping this ship pointed in the right direction with goalie Martin Brodeur out for most of the season with an elbow injury. Zach Parise has emerged as a world-class player and now, with Brendan Shanahan having come full circle and signing back with the team that drafted him, the Devils will be an interesting team to watch come playoff time.
Philadelphia Flyers: A-minus
With Jeff Carter chasing Ovechkin for the goal-scoring lead and Simon Gagne coming back to form, the Flyers are one of the most explosive teams in the NHL. Throw Daniel Briere back into the mix after a stint on the IR, and you can bet the Flyers will be in the hunt for the Atlantic Division crown right to the finish. Martin Biron has put aside some early wobbles and looks more like the goalie of last spring.
New York Rangers: B-plus
Although they've played better of late and were in first place in the Atlantic as of Wednesday morning, there's still something not quite right in New York, where a fast start has been replaced by maddening inconsistency. The Rangers have scored just two more goals than they've allowed, and that's not the mark of a Cup contender.
Buffalo Sabres: B
Slowly but surely, the Sabres are regrouping after last season's disappointing turn that saw them miss the postseason after advancing to two straight Eastern Conference finals after the lockout. Thomas Vanek, third in the NHL with 28 goals, has come of age, and Derek Roy is becoming the leader they lacked last season. Ryan Miller continues to be a steadying influence in goal.
Florida Panthers: B-minus
Go figure. A team that played for much of the first third of the season at a C-minus level is slowly developing the kind of consistency that playoff teams have to have. Can they keep it up? The problem for the Panthers is they have historically fallen off the map at a moment's notice. Under rookie coach Peter DeBoer, they're hoping to reverse that trend. They are one point out of eighth place with three games in hand.
Pittsburgh Penguins: C
When you have the two top scorers in the NHL (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, respectively), anything is possible, and it would still be a major shock if the Pens missed the playoffs. But injuries, inconsistent goaltending and a lack of team toughness have left them in a surprising position, having to fight for their playoff lives. They will hit the All-Star break outside the playoff bubble.
Carolina Hurricanes: C
The Hurricanes continue to flirt with a playoff berth, and won their final two games before the break to jump briefly into eighth place. But they've given up 21 more goals than they've scored, and that's a surefire ticket to a third straight playoff absence if they can't reverse that trend after the break.
Toronto Maple Leafs: C-minus
Average at home, average on the road, goaltending that runs from average to ghastly
it's no wonder this is a team that sometimes looks like it's simply putting in time until new GM Brian Burke clears the decks.
Tampa Bay Lightning: C-minus
Yes, the Lightning have been better of late under new rookie coach Rick Tocchet, but there remains a feeling of the bizarro whenever you look at the Bolts. Are they trying to trade Vincent Lecavalier or not? (Yes.) Do they still make more roster moves than the most avid rotisserie manager? (Yes.) Do they have a plan at all? (Sure, but try and guess what it is.)
Ottawa Senators: C-minus
The Senators hit the break on a high note, having collected seven of a possible eight points through their past four games. And guess what? They're still buried in 13th place in the conference. True, the Sens have played four fewer games than Carolina, but the reality is they have virtually no shot at making the playoffs and must start planning for a future that involves the word "rebuild." The team's assets, though, are either too highly paid or too underachieving to garner much on the open market.
Atlanta Thrashers: D
Like the Sens, the Thrashers will hit the break on something of a high note, having won three straight heading into Wednesday's game in Philadelphia. But like the Sens, with whom they are tied in points despite playing three more games, the postseason is a mirage on the horizon. It's not going to happen, and the Thrashers will end another season without having won a single postseason game. Sadly, nothing will change in Badlanta until ownership can solve its internal issues and can actually focus on how to make this team better beyond asking "How much does it cost?"
New York Islanders: D-minus
How's that 15-year deal with goaltender Rick DiPietro working out? Yikes. Dead last in the NHL, the Islanders can only hope their bad luck doesn't extend to the draft lottery and they land the No. 1 pick that their dreadful play suggests is their right. Bad building, bad team. The highlight for them is going to be playing an exhibition game in Kansas City next training camp. How bad is that?
San Jose Sharks: A-plus
Second in goals per game, third in goals against per game, just one regulation loss at home
the San Jose Sharks are the gold standard in the NHL this season. The Wings have closed ground, but look for the Sharks to hold on to earn the Presidents' Trophy and home ice through the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings: A-plus
The Wings are more explosive offensively, but less sound defensively than the Sharks, but what a tilt it would be if these two powerhouses met in the Western Conference finals. How long until people start asking whether Ty Conklin and Chris Osgood can really get the job done in the playoffs?
Calgary Flames: A-minus
The Flames don't quite occupy the rarefied air the Sharks and Wings do, but they are as imposing as they've been since their trip to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals against Tampa. Miikka Kiprusoff seems to have shaken off the early-season wobbles, and the Flames look like a sure bet to win the Northwest and avoid both Detroit and San Jose until at least the second round.
Chicago Blackhawks: B-plus
The Hawks hit a bit of a skid heading into the All-Star break, but they remain one of the most fun NHL teams to watch (only Detroit and San Jose have scored more in the conference). Could they use another center? Sure. And they'll need Duncan Keith to get over his concussion woes, but the Hawks are definitely playoff-bound. Who would have guessed the Nikolai Khabibulin/Cristobal Huet tandem would work so well?
Phoenix Coyotes: B
Few teams are as desperate to make the playoffs as the Coyotes, who are in dire straits financially off the ice, but are emerging as one of the most interesting stories on it. Ilya Bryzgalov has returned to form in goal after a miserable start, and Phoenix is starting to get more consistent scoring. The Coyotes waxed Detroit 6-3 to hit the break in fifth place in the conference.
Edmonton Oilers: B-minus
You just never know what you're going to get from a team many believed would win the Northwest Division this season. If they can find the same kind of groove they did during the second half of last season, the Oilers will once again be playoff-bound. Heading into the break, they slid into sixth in the conference thanks to a 7-3-0 run.
Anaheim Ducks: C-plus
The Ducks are one of about eight teams that will be fighting for the final four playoff berths. They're hoping they will more closely resemble the Cup-winning Ducks of 2007 when Teemu Selanne returns some time after the All-Star break, but right now, they're pretty far removed from that. Rookie Bobby Ryan has been impressive.
Vancouver Canucks: C
The Canucks hit the All-Star break in more than a little funk. They landed Mats Sundin, and Roberto Luongo has returned to action, but they were 2-4-4 through their past 10 games and slid into eighth place at the break. The prospect of disappearing entirely from the playoff picture in the second half is something Canucks fans are all too familiar with.
Minnesota Wild: C
Still incredibly efficient defensively, the Wild are, likewise, still incredibly weak offensively (they rank 24th in goals per game). Niklas Backstrom is terrific in goal, but with Marian Gaborik out until after the trade deadline, this season has all the markings of a giant disappointment after the Wild had enjoyed a banner start to the season. The Wild have won just eight of their past 22 games and were outside the playoff bracket at the break.
Columbus Blue Jackets: C
Steve Mason and his play in the Columbus goal is one of the more compelling stories of the season, but it still might not be enough to get the Blue Jackets into the playoffs for the first time. They picked up Jason Williams, who had been a bust in Atlanta, but they still lack a No. 1 center for Rick Nash. Heading into Wednesday, they were just three points out of eighth with two games in hand.
Colorado Avalanche: C
Andrew Raycroft, cast off by Toronto, has positioned himself to be the Avs' savior in much the same way Theodore righted his personal ship to lead Colorado to the playoffs last season. Go figure. Still, the playoffs are a pretty tall order for a team that is missing captain Joe Sakic and top forward Paul Stastny.
Dallas Stars: C-minus
Yes, the Stars have been better since Sean Avery was thrown off the island. But they need to be better than they have been -- witness their loss in Tampa this week -- if they hope to make the playoffs. No Brenden Morrow, no Sergei Zubov and not enough Marty Turco all add up to a long season in Big D.
Nashville Predators: D-plus
The Preds have fallen Alice-like down a hole and out of the playoff picture. Given their shallow talent offensive pool and the trials and tribulations of last season's playoff hero Dan Ellis, don't expect them to emerge any time soon. GM David Poile insists the coaching staff is secure. It never bodes well for the future when the GM has to say that publicly.
Los Angeles Kings: D-plus
The Kings hung around for a while, but that's the problem when you don't have a real No. 1 goaltender and a lot of kids. Maybe next season.
St. Louis Blues: D
Injuries have so crippled the Blues, it's hard to get a sense of how bad they are or, conversely, how good they might have been. Still, there are a lot of things to look forward to if the play of youngsters T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron are any indication. Just not now.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.