Our NHL experts tackle the pressing questions as we head into the stretch run of the regular season, including whether we'll see another wild-card team make a deep playoff run, which Pennsylvania team has the edge and which backup goalie is poised to take over a starting role next season.
Which wild-card team will make a Nashville Predators-esque run to the Stanley Cup Final?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Los Angeles Kings. A potential first-round matchup with the Predators could debunk my pick; a date with the Vegas Golden Knights would be much more favorable. Either way, I like the Kings to get hot at the right time. Center Jeff Carter is playing with a vengeance; he has three goals and 23 shots in his first five games back since missing 55 games with a lower-body injury. Los Angeles is still one of the league's elite defensive teams (2.5 goals allowed per game) and the whole been-there-done-that aspect cannot be understated.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: It's the Kings for me, too. Goal prevention is a huge indicator of contender status -- and, as Emily notes, L.A. is among the best. In fact, only the Predators, with their loaded D corps and Pekka Rinne, have allowed fewer goals per game. Goalie Jonathan Quick is having his best season in years and Anze Kopitar is playing at a level where I think he could carry this team on a deep run.
Ben Arledge, Insider editor: The Dallas Stars aren't the same high-octane, all-offense team they were a few years back, but they are still dangerous up front with the likes of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov. More important, their defense is drastically improved. Following the acquisition of goalie Ben Bishop and defenseman Marc Methot in the offseason, Dallas sits fourth in the league in goals-against average (2.61). Bishop has played in a Cup final before and knows what it takes to make a deep run. If he gets hot, the Stars won't be easy to dismiss.
Sean Allen, fantasy writer: The Florida Panthers. They're coming in hot to the playoffs with Aleksander Barkov finally earning the credit he's due and Roberto Luongo well-rested because of his injury layoff.
Will the Pittsburgh Penguins or Philadelphia Flyers finish higher in the standings at season's end?
Kaplan: Pittsburgh. Yes, the Penguins' defense is a bit leaky. But the addition of Derick Brassard gives Pittsburgh unparalleled center depth, and this is still a high-octane team -- the Pens have scored less than three goals just once in their past 13 games. Their remaining schedule is quite favorable too; six of their final regular-season 14 games are against teams well out of playoff position. The Flyers only have only two such games.
Peters: I'm going with the Penguins, too. I think they'll want to head into the postseason on a high note, so don't look at them to let off the gas pedal too much. The desire to win a third straight Cup, previously unthinkable in the salary-cap era, is palpable for this team. As Brassard settles in over these next few weeks, I'd expect them only to get stronger. Plus Evgeni Malkin has a chance to win the Art Ross (and maybe even the Hart), which adds a little extra motivation for a player who is already playing exceptionally well.
Arledge: Philadelphia is a little more balanced, while Pittsburgh has relied too heavily on scoring. Goalie Matt Murray has been out for two weeks with a concussion, but honestly, he has been less than impressive even when healthy this season. The Flyers, sans a three-game losing streak in the past week, have been hot over the past month. I like them to hop past the Pens to close the regular season. If they meet Pittsburgh in the opening round, however, I don't like the Flyers' odds. Playoff Penguins are a different breed, and the Philadelphia goalie situation makes me a little nervous in the postseason.
Allen: Murray skated on his own on Monday, suggesting he'll return sooner than later. Brian Elliott won't be back until late March. Give me the Penguins.
St. Louis Blues goalie Carter Hutton leads the league in goals-against average and save percentage, and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. For whom will Hutton play next season?
Kaplan: Considering Jake Allen's inconsistency and the fact that highly regarded prospect Ville Husso might not be ready yet, I could see Hutton coming back to St. Louis -- even if it's for a one-year deal. That gives the Blues a bridge to Husso and presents the option of dangling Allen for a trade. (His $4.35 million cap hit isn't outrageous and he might just need a change of scenery. Perhaps the New York Islanders will bite.)
Peters: Hutton is a really interesting case. He's 32, so I don't know how big the market is going to be for him, especially if he's looking for a chance to start. That's not to say teams won't be interested, but the best spot might be in St. Louis as part of a platoon with Allen. I'd be very surprised if any team out there wanted to go longer than two years with Hutton, so it might be better to stay in a situation he's more familiar with, if both parties are interested.
Ben Arledge: The Islanders' Jaroslav Halak is a free agent after this season, and Thomas Greiss isn't getting the job done for New York. The Isles have a pair of big goalie prospects, Ilya Sorokin and Linus Soderstrom, but it's unlikely either is ready to take the reins next season. With that in mind, signing Hutton to a one- or two-year deal makes sense. GM Garth Snow could see what Hutton can do with the lead role while giving the kids some time to develop and make their way overseas.
Which backup goalie is poised for a No. 1 role next year?
Kaplan: Juuse Saros. OK, so he deserves the shot to be a No. 1 goalie next season. The question is, will the Predators allow him to be one? (The 22-year-old is a restricted free agent this summer.) Saros has been strong through his 17 starts, with a .924 save percentage and 2.42 GAA, his second consecutive season of providing well-above-average backup goaltending. In most organizations, he'd already be promoted to No. 1, but Nashville already has a terrific lead netminder in Pekka Rinne. Since Rinne has an extra year on his deal, I could see the Predators re-upping on Saros, officially tapping him as the heir apparent.
Peters: Philipp Grubauer is the guy for me here. He has been biding his time with the Washington Capitals and has performed well when called upon. The only thing I'd be concerned about is the number of reps he gets. In spot duty, he has appeared in 91 NHL games and has a .923 save percentage, which is obviously strong. He has only appeared in two playoff games, however, for a total of 79 minutes. There's a lot more to learn about him at the NHL level, but you have to respect what he has done when he has had the chance.
Ben Arledge: I touched on this about a month ago. Grubauer and San Jose Sharks No. 2 Aaron Dell strike me as the most likely starters next season. Dell's numbers have sunk a little of late, but the UFA-to-be was near the top of the NHL in save percentage at points over the past two seasons. In fact, there was a time this season when he looked like he was taking the No. 1 gig from Martin Jones. Grubauer, meanwhile, has quietly posted excellent numbers in Braden Holtby's stead for a few years now. He'll be an restricted free agent this summer, and I think the Caps will look to deal his rights to a team in need, similar to what the Chicago Blackhawks did with Scott Darling at the end of April.
Allen: Does Carter Hutton count? If not, Grubauer has shown enough chops to get a gig with one of the teams struggling with goaltending. Saros looks ready in the limited action we've seen, but he's only 22 and it has been just that, limited action.
You're named general manager of one of these teams this summer: the Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks or Montreal Canadiens. Whose roster would you most like to have? And which roster would you least want to inherit?
Kaplan: I know they showed signs of regression, but I'll take a core of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews any day. Add in a fully recovered Corey Crawford and there's more talent in Chicago than any other team on the list. Brandon Saad is just 25 and should rebound; Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat have flashed a ton of promise. I fully believe the Blackhawks can squeeze one more run out of this group. Meanwhile, I'm taking a pass on the Sabres. Jack Eichel is terrific. Rasmus Ristolainen has had a good year. But tell me who else is there to be excited about? Eichel, 21, is one of just four players on the roster under the age of 24. The rebuild here is daunting.
Peters: I think I'd want to go into a situation where it feels more like the ground level. That's the way I view the Coyotes at this point. I like their prospects and young players on the roster. You've got a great No. 1 in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and while his production slowed, I still think Clayton Keller is a cornerstone player long term. The big caveat here: How much am I going to get to spend? Despite the recent overhaul on D, Arizona might have to do even more there and I don't think it's necessarily going to get solved at the draft -- unless the Coyotes win the lottery and get Rasmus Dahlin. The roster I'd least want to have at this point is the Sabres. You're basically looking at another rebuild cycle. If they can add Dahlin to the mix, suddenly things look a bit rosier.
Arledge: Give me the Habs. Carey Price and Shea Weber, elite players at their respective positions, have both missed extended time, so there's that right off the bat. The roster has plenty of young talent in the form of Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk -- the last of which would definitely benefit from new management. Plus, there's the Max Pacioretty case. With a year left on his deal, he could either bring a large haul in a trade or provide top-tier goal scoring for the future if he were to re-sign. The Canadiens also currently have five picks in the first two rounds of the draft.
On the flip, I'll take a hard pass on the Canucks, who somehow managed to acquire zero draft picks at the trade deadline. Outside of Brock Boeser, there isn't much to excite me about this roster. Sure, Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi are good players, but look at the rest of the lineup. Daniel and Henrik Sedin, UFAs on deck, will be 38 next season. Jacob Markstrom has largely underwhelmed in the starting goalie role. The defense lacks game-breakers. No thanks.
Allen: It's a close call between the Sabres and Coyotes, as both have strong prospect pools that are likely to be supplemented by Dahlin in June. While Eichel stands above the crowd of assets, I like the group that includes Dylan Strome, Keller, Ekman-Larsson and Jakob Chychrun as a core. In my mind, that's two elite forwards and two elite defensemen off of which to build in the coming years.
I'll take a hard pass on the Senators. Not a lot of elite-caliber pieces and the one franchise player may or may not want to stick around. Contracts for Marian Gaborik and Craig Anderson almost take them into their 40s at more than $4 million apiece, while the Bobby Ryan deal is going to be costly to unload at some point.