The end of January is coming into sight. With that comes the fun part of the season for fans.
With the NHL’s Trade Deadline only 36 days away, teams start the process of seeing what they might do come Feb 24. For some teams, it’s easy to know what they’re going to do. The Red Wings will sell. The Senators will sell. The three California teams are likely going to sell too.
But for other teams, it’s not so easy. One look at the standings and you’ll see a slew of teams fighting for their playoff lives.
There are 10 teams that come into Sunday at either 57 or 58 points. One or two wins and you get some separation. One or two losses and things get more desperate.
Among the crowd at 57 points are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes. According to most in the hockey world, these two teams were virtual locks to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But by points, if the playoffs began today, both the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes would miss the playoffs.
While there is plenty of season left for both teams to put a run together, the fact that they are even in this position says something. It says they both have enough issues that need to be addressed at the deadline. It also says teams around them are good enough to make it a fight to the finish. Let’s look at each situation and see how we got to this point.
Toronto Maple Leafs
It’s not that the Maple Leafs’ record of late has been bad. Since Dec 1, they have 27 standing points which is seventh in the NHL. But a combination of the teams around them playing well and their own issues, as evidenced by a 6-2 demolition at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, have put some question marks around this team.
In terms of their competition, Tampa Bay is the league’s hottest team since Dec 1. They’re up to second in the Atlantic. The Florida Panthers have 57 points along with the Maple Leafs, but have played two less games than Toronto. Since Dec 1, the Panthers have amassed 26 points, or just one fewer than the Maple Leafs.
So while Sheldon Keefe’s influence on the Maple Leafs cannot be denied, there’s questions they have to answer. They have lost five of their last six games with their only win being a 7-4 decision over the New Jersey Devils. They’re 1-3-2 in their last six. Look at their goals against in those six games.
- Lost 6-4 to Edmonton (Andersen pulled)
- Lost 4-3 to Winnipeg in a shootout
- Lost 8-4 to Florida (Andersen pulled)
- Lost 2-1 to Calgary in a shootout.
- Lost 6-2 to Chicago.
The Maple Leafs lean heavily on Frederik Andersen in net. If he is just average, the Maple Leafs are in trouble. Success happens for them when their star players do what is expected. That means Austen Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and company are filling the net. That also means Andersen is stopping the puck. He’s been average at best of late.
In fairness, injuries have played a huge role on their defense. They’re without both Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
The Maple Leafs have expectations through the rooftop all the way up to the sky. A failed season is not winning the Cup. Imagine if they miss the playoffs. You can bet there will make some moves by the deadline.
But we all know that the salary cap presents a challenge. They have to be creative in finding the right deal that makes sense for them and keep them cap compliant.
The top of their list is a defenseman. But are they willing to part with a player like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson to make that happen? Kyle Dubas will have some important decisions to make.
To their credit, the Maple Leafs are right at the door of the playoffs. If they play like they can, they should get in, but it’s not as much a slam dunk as we all thought. The league around them has closed the gap and would love nothing more than to shut Toronto out of the playoffs. What a fascinating offseason that would be if the Maple Leafs manage to miss the playoffs.
Here’s another example of a really good team not getting luck. I just saw the Hurricanes dominate long stretches of their recent game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They still lost 3-2 in regulation. The next night at home against the Anaheim Ducks, they lost in overtime.
As for their performance since Dec 1, the Hurricanes are in the middle of the pack in the NHL with 24 points in that stretch. So while the analytics love this team, they are not enjoying the results that would come with it.
Like the Maple Leafs, the Hurricanes were hit hard by the injury bug on defense when they lost All-Star Dougie Hamilton. They will have to try to replace his overall production. That’s no easy feat.
Then add the fact that Petr Mrazek is not having his best season. He currently has a 2.64 goals against and a .904 save percentage. That’s not good enough for a team looking to make a deep playoff run.
Finally, their best players are going through a cold spell. Sebastian Aho has one goal in January. He scored it Friday against Anaheim. Teuvo Teravainen has just 1-4-5 in January. Andrei Svechnikov has just 1-3-4 in January. It’s gone wrong at the same time for everyone.
But just like the Maple Leafs, the Hurricanes are right there in position. You’d expect their stars to find their game sooner rather than later. But it will make for an interesting trade deadline.
If Robin Lehner is available, the Hurricanes make way too much sense here. That would be a game changer in the East wildcard race. And what about on defense? Do the Hurricanes address the hole left by Hamilton?
For both the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes, we have cases of good teams hit with major injuries getting average or worse goaltending finding themselves fighting for their playoff lives. They each have time to right the ship but it’s not a slam dunk.
Teams like the Blue Jackets, Panthers and Flyers are each good enough to make the playoffs. If they do, there’s no room for the Maple Leafs or Hurricanes to join them. These next two-plus months will be fascinating to watch.
What moves will the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes make to address their glaring needs? Can they each find their way without important contributors?