Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the playoff potential of the Blues, Ducks and Avs and the recent surge by the Maple Leafs.
Burnside: Good day, my friend. I watched with interest a couple of Western Conference games last night, and it looks like injury and maybe inexperience are catching up with a couple of young teams looking to take a big step forward this year. The St. Louis Blues were pounded by a surprising Anaheim Ducks team, 7-4, and the Colorado Avalanche were blanked 4-0 by a Chicago Blackhawks team that is suddenly looking a lot more championship-like of late. The Blues have gone five games without a win (0-4-1) and have slipped to 12th in the Western Conference, while the Avs have won just three times in their last 11 outings. Although they still hang onto the eighth spot in the West as of Thursday morning, a second straight postseason appearance is more than a little iffy at this point. Thoughts?
LeBrun: The Avs showed so much resiliency for most of the season dealing with their injuries. But it looks like they've run out of steam right now. Hopefully the return of Chris Stewart sometime next week will give them wind in their sails. Stewart, for my money, was having an MVP-type season before going down Nov. 27 with a hand injury suffered in a fight. But let's be honest, of great concern this season has been the goaltending of Craig Anderson. The Vezina Trophy nominee last season has fallen back down to earth this year, so much that the Avs rank 29th in the NHL in goals against. Pretty hard to make the playoffs with those numbers. The Blues, meanwhile, continue to try to survive without two thirds of their top line in David Perron and T.J. Oshie. Not sure how many teams in the league could do so without struggling, but I want to stress on the positive today and mention the Ducks. They've won six of seven games to stay in a playoff spot in that crazy Western race. The most impressive part is that they began that streak Dec. 28 in a game in which they lost captain and star center Ryan Getzlaf to a facial injury, which will keep him out at least a month. Kudos to GM Bob Murray. Not all signings in July get a lot of fanfare. Toni Lydman? Second in the NHL with a plus-26 rating.
Burnside: I must admit I didn't think the Ducks were capable of hanging around this long, but Cam Fowler deserves Calder Trophy consideration (he was my midpoint pick), and as you wrote recently Jonas Hiller is having a Vezina-worthy season in goal. That's the issue for the Blues, who have to crawl back into the top eight and hope to catch a team on the way down. Anaheim is holding tough. Nashville is on a tear. In the end, it might be the Avs or Blues. Wouldn't it be a shame if Stewart's loss in a meaningless fight was the tipping point in not making the playoffs for an Avs team that has done so much right. (How about that Tomas Fleischmann trade?) The Blues are hoping to bring former Canucks and Leafs player Kyle Wellwood on board to bolster an offense that is ranked 19th in the league and a power play that is 25th. Wonder if they can sneak him through waivers or will another team -- Predators perhaps -- try to foil that plan? Speaking of teams on the rise, I was wondering if you'd seen an upsurge in the number of cars with Maple Leafs flags racing around Toronto now that the Leafs look like world-beaters, having won four in a row heading into Phoenix tonight?
LeBrun: Toronto definitely is playing its best hockey since that 4-0-0 start had everyone in my town going ga-ga. The Leafs are full value for their current win streak, which includes impressive wins in L.A. and San Jose.
"Our team has picked up a lot of confidence with the last few games," Leafs GM Brian Burke told me this morning on the phone from Phoenix. "When we started the season 4-0, the biggest factor was how much we had the puck. And the last few games, we've had the puck a lot. It's hard for the other team to score when you have the puck. We have some chemistry going on a few or our forward lines and we have great puck support. And the goaltending has been solid with [James] Reimer. The kid's been real solid.''
Veteran Jean Sebastien Giguere is close to returning, which will lead to a tough decision for head coach Ron Wilson with Jonas Gustavsson also in the fold. Meanwhile, Burke and right-hand man Dave Nonis have been working the phones hard the last few weeks trying to see if there's a trade out there that makes sense. A four-game win streak has chased away the vultures for now. Suddenly, some players on your roster look a bit more appealing to other teams when they're playing well.
"It improves the quality of your offers," Burke said. "When you're struggling, you get a lot of calls and get offers that don't make a lot of sense. But we're looking to add; we’re not looking to dump."
In other words, he's not looking for draft picks in any trade he makes before Feb. 28. The Leafs want good, young players in return.
Burnside: The good thing, optically, for the Leafs is that their strong play of late has separated them from the teams that will be involved in the draft lottery. They are just one point out of 10th place, and so the possibility that the Bruins could take a second lottery pick from the Leafs as part of the Phil Kessel deal seems remote at this point. On another point, a league source confirmed to you this morning that the Leafs would indeed be fined after head coach Ron Wilson put a cash "bonus" on the board prior to the Leafs win in San Jose (where Wilson used to coach). Seems like a small, petty thing but rules are rules. Since the bounty, which was reportedly to have gone to a team dinner (Wouldn't a team charity have been a better idea? Just asking.), is technically a contravention of the collective bargaining agreement; the Leafs will get a slap on the wrist. Could have been worse. They could have tried to sign Ilya Kovalchuk. But seriously, it will be interesting to see how Burke handles his roster moving forward. Do guys such as Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, who rank second and first in team scoring respectively, represent the kind of assets that could yield building blocks moving forward, or do they represent the building blocks themselves? Not sure even Burke knows the answers right now.
LeBrun: One would think the league had better things to do than to worry about Wilson's money on the board for his 600th coaching victory, but on the other hand an NHL team executive told me this morning he figures the league is trying to make an example out of the Leafs so that other coaches don't do this again. Brent Sutter did it this last March in Calgary against his old team, New Jersey, and I don't think he and Wilson have been the only coaches to do it.
I understand you're going on vacation, my friend; well-deserved. We'll talk next week when you return.