Midseason fixes for NHL teams in the playoff hunt

Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports

With each team having passed the 41-game mark, we've reached the midseason point of the 2019-20 NHL season. While most clubs typically treat the trade deadline as the key point on the schedule for self-reflection and tough personnel decisions, some teams can't afford to wait until then.

Given how tightly packed the standings are thanks to the number of loser points being handed out on a nightly basis, there's an opportunity cost in procrastinating until the Feb. 24 deadline. Each passing day makes it that much more difficult to gain ground in the standings, meaning even more value for shrewd general managers who are proactive when it comes to identifying and addressing their team's current flaws.

Let's help out a handful of these teams with some recommendations on how best to proceed in the short term to generate an impact down the stretch. But we'll begin by breaking down a team that has already seen that kind of impact thanks to an in-season coaching change.

How the Maple Leafs got their swagger back

The turnaround that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made since making a difficult, yet necessary, change of their own is living proof of the power of a midseason fix. At the time they decided to pull the parachute in an attempt to save their season, they were a miserable 9-10-4, with a minus-7 goal differential, and ahead of only the lowly Detroit Red Wings when it came to how often they held a lead in their games.

Since replacing Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe behind the bench, the results have been night and day:

  • 15 wins (first in the NHL)

  • .738 point percentage (first)

  • plus-26 goal differential (first)

  • Held lead for 50.4% of total game time (first)

While the results have undoubtedly been tremendous, the process has been just as important when it comes to sustaining that success. Under Babcock, the Leafs had allowed their recent postseason failures to seep into their playing style, undoing what made them effective in the first place.

The biggest change Keefe has made in his short time with the team is a rather simple one: He's enabled his best players to play to their strengths, using the personnel he was given in the way it was originally intended when GM Kyle Dubas put the team together.

The Leafs are once again playing fast, using their speed to attack off the rush, which is when they're at their most devastating offensively. When there's nothing there, they're able to pass it back and reload even if it means surrendering territory for the time being. It's a play that's more common in soccer than it is in hockey, but it makes sense intuitively because it allows you to keep possession of the puck in the pursuit of doing something more productive with it. It's also a complete 180 from what they were instructed to do under Babcock, when they were routinely opting for the safe play by dumping it in and chasing after it.

It's no coincidence that the new coach has also gotten the most out of his best player, finally unleashing Auston Matthews by using him the way a scorer of his esteemed caliber should be used. The training wheels are finally off Matthews now, with his usage up significantly after years of wondering why he was being handled with such kid gloves by Babcock.

Not only are Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares all playing more under Keefe, but the Leafs have done an excellent job of experimenting with all sorts of different ways to get them out there in advantageous situations. Whether it's pairing up Matthews and Marner at even strength or keeping them all out there for the full extent of power plays and alternating only defensemen, things like that go a long way when the margin between winning and losing is so thin in certain games.

The most important development in Toronto is that the Leafs have clearly gotten back to building their game plan around what their best players do best, and it's immediately made them a frightening offensive juggernaut again after that bizarre hiccup to start the season. It might not seem like a big thing, but it just goes to illustrate the impact small adjustments can make when it comes to roster optimization.

That's the most recent example of a success story, but it's hardly the only way a team can give itself a much-needed face-lift. Whether it's through a coaching change, a trade to fill a glaring hole on the depth chart, or an adjustment to the allocation of minutes to existing players, there are any number of ways a team can improve its performance by removing its weak link.

Let's take a closer look at some other teams that could similarly benefit from a quick fix that's doable, and highlight what it would look like exactly in their respective cases.

Nashville Predators

The fix: Better forward deployment and something from the goalies.

In an act of perfect timing with regard to this exercise, the Predators just made what they hope will be the change they needed to save their season, hiring John Hynes to replace Peter Laviolette behind the bench. There's certainly some logic behind the move. There's an irreconcilable difference between the level of talent on the roster and the team's results thus far, and whenever that happens the attention usually shifts to the coach.

On the one hand, Laviolette certainly isn't blameless. While we don't know how much there is to the idea that his message had grown stale and that he'd lost the room, there are other quantifiable things we can point to as areas where he fell short.

The most glaring is the usage of the team's forwards, in which there's very little difference between how many minutes his top and bottom lines were playing. One area where Hynes can make an instant impact is by simply handing over the keys to his most skilled players and relying far less on the likes of Colton Sissons and Austin Watson.

What throws a monkey wrench into all of this is that it's not necessarily a foregone conclusion that a new voice is going to lead to a tangible change in results -- unless the Predators' goalies remember how to stop a puck at some point in the immediate future. We know how inextricably linked a goalie's performance is with his team's outlook, but it's quite jarring to see how much of a role it's played in the fate of coaches around the league this season. Here's the list of the five worst in team save percentage for the season:

31. Detroit Red Wings
30. Los Angeles Kings
29. San Jose Sharks
28. Nashville Predators
27. New Jersey Devils

Of these five teams, three of them have made in-season coaching changes. The other two never had any delusions about being good this season, and they're perfectly content with losing at the moment (not to mention that the Kings just hired their coach this summer, buying him more time anyway).

To put it bluntly, the Predators need Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros to be a whole lot better than they've been to date. Among 59 qualified goalies this season, they're 54th and 55th, respectively, in goals saved above average, combining to cost Nashville nearly 18 goals against more than we would've expected a league-average netminder to surrender under the same workload.

All of Nashville's other underlying numbers suggest that the Predators are a team that should be winning a lot more games. They're a top-10 team in essentially every underlying 5-on-5 performance metric, from shot share to high-danger chance share to expected goals. But none of it will matter unless the team can start getting saves more reliably. Hynes is stepping into a situation with which he's all too familiar, given what happened at his previous stop. The good news is that the track record of Rinne and Saros is significantly better than what he had to work with in New Jersey, which should present reason for optimism.

Chicago Blackhawks

The fix: Trade-deadline market maker.

The Blackhawks don't technically fit the description of a team in the hunt, because they're not likely to make much of a run this season. They're right there with the New York Rangers as one of the most hapless teams in the league defensively, and if it weren't for herculean goaltending (particularly from Robin Lehner) they'd be even closer to the bottom of the standings than they already are.

They're on this list despite that because they're still uniquely positioned to play a supporting role in the playoff race around the trade deadline. In the obvious sense, they have two goalies on expiring deals who should draw plenty of interest from any number of teams that aren't confident in what they already have at the position.

Lehner is incredibly fascinating because he's been every bit as good as he was last season, despite finding himself in a significantly less forgiving defensive environment. It remains to be seen whether the Blackhawks see him as a future building block or a one-year rental they'll cash in ahead of the deadline, but the potential return for him -- given the possible effect he would have on a playoff team's outlook -- could be too good for Chicago to pass up.

From a more subtle perspective, the Blackhawks suddenly find themselves in a spot where they can play the role of a third-party facilitator in trades after shutting down Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan for the season. They can't take on any tangible future money at the moment because those two salaries will come back on the books at the end of the campaign, but what they can do is help contenders open up salary-cap space by freeing them of bad expiring money in exchange for some kind of sweetener.

It's not the easiest exercise to find a willing trade partner who checks all of those boxes, because most sizeable contracts come in the form of contributing players a contender presumably wouldn't want to pay to jettison, but there are three that fit the bill:

1. The Vegas Golden Knights are up against it financially at the moment, but if they want to upgrade their team somewhere, dumping the cap hits of Cody Eakin ($3.85 million) and Nick Holden ($2.2 million) would go a long way toward creating the room to do so.

2. The Maple Leafs don't have much financial flexibility given how top-heavy their roster is, but if the opportunity presented itself, shedding Cody Ceci's $4.5 million price tag seems like the most logical starting point. After starting the season on the top pair under Babcock, his role has significantly changed under Keefe as the team's system has changed. He's gone from playing 22 minutes, 5 seconds overall and 17:54 at 5-on-5 per game under Babcock to just 20:01 and 16:39, respectively, under Keefe, being eclipsed by Justin Holl on the depth chart.

3. The case for the Buffalo Sabres is more flimsy because you could fairly argue that they shouldn't be trading future assets to improve their team in the short term, given their current place in the Atlantic Division hierarchy. But if they keep hanging around and decide that it's worth it to make a valiant effort to throw Jack Eichel a bone and play meaningful hockey into the spring for the first time in ages, finding someone to take Zach Bogosian's $5.14 million expiring contract off their hands could be handy.

Winnipeg Jets

The fix: Find some D help on the cheap.

We've seemingly written about the Jets ad nauseam already this season, but it's largely because they've done an admirable job of beating the odds by staying afloat after a widespread blue-line talent exodus last summer. Without sugarcoating it, as currently constructed their defensive corps is best described as a patchwork group that's being held together loosely by duct tape and bandages.

Unless something changes, it'll eventually fall apart and crumble around them, and we've already started to see the first signs of that over the past couple of weeks as goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has started to look human. He's still having a remarkable season in totality, but his performance in December started to show some holes in the armor, and the team started taking on water as a result.

The good news is that the Jets find themselves in a wild-card spot at the moment, and while there are a number of other teams in the mix for a small number of available positions, they all have noticeable flaws of their own. With the combination of Hellebuyck and a number of game-breaking talents up front, the Jets should continue to be in the mix the rest of the way.

The most obvious upgrades can be made on the blue line, although the current state of the rental market at the position complicates matters. The biggest names -- Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Tyson Barrie -- are all currently on contending teams that won't be moving them at the deadline, which limits the available options who could realistically make a difference.

That said, that might not ultimately matter for the Jets. After investing premium draft capital in rentals such as Paul Stastny and Kevin Hayes in recent seasons, they'd presumably be cautious about doing so again even if there were big names available, especially considering this current incarnation's underlying numbers, which are much closer to that of a bubble team than one that's just one piece away.

The silver lining is that the bar the Jets need to clear to improve their defense is as low as it gets, making the goal of upgrading it a perfectly attainable one. They currently have players such as Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto eating up valuable minutes regularly, so replacing them on the cheap shouldn't be too difficult. Unless Dustin Byfuglien finally walks through the door and resembles his old self, the Jets likely aren't significantly making over their blue line this season. But in their case, a half-measure -- at a reasonable price -- actually makes a fair bit of sense.

Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders

The fix: Find some scoring help!

It's not necessarily a new development to suggest that both of these teams need more offensive playmaking talent, but it's becoming unavoidable at this point.

For the Islanders, they've done a remarkable job of compensating for it over the past year and a half in various ways and from various sources. But it's really caught up to them of late, and there's a limit to how far their splendid goaltending and team defense can take them if they can't clear a certain bar of respectability offensively.

Here's how they stack up as a team since Dec. 1:

  • 24th in 5-on-5 goals for

  • 26th in 5-on-5 expected goals for

  • 25th in all situations goals for

  • 31st in all situations expected goals for

The good news is that if there's one archetype of player with which the rental market is flush on an annual basis, it's scoring at the wing position. Tyler Toffoli makes a ton of sense, both in terms of fit and reasonable acquisition cost. Kyle Palmieri is going to be pricier, but he's also a superior player, has an extra year of control on his deal, and should be on his way out of New Jersey given its contention timeline following the Taylor Hall trade. Since Isles GM Lou Lamoriello has seemingly been reluctant to invest heavily in rentals, Palmieri would make an awful lot of sense from the perspective of going for it not only this season but next season as well. He'd also look quite good as a triggerman on the receiving end of passes from Mathew Barzal.

For the Sabres, the acquisition of Michael Frolik certainly shouldn't hurt, but it's also not nearly enough given the starting point. He's been a subtly excellent possession player over the course of his career, but even when he was at his best, he was never a particularly proficient scorer. Having players who constantly hover around the puck is never a bad thing, particularly for a team like the Sabres who aren't especially deep with above-average players up front. But at this point, they need someone who can help put the puck into the net, especially with Victor Olofsson out for five to six weeks.

Jack Eichel has been an absolute rock star this season, putting the team on his back and carrying it as far as humanly possible. He's factored into 43.7% of Buffalo's total goals scored this season and has directly created exactly one-third of them himself.

With Eichel on the ice, the Sabres have scored 39 goals in 675 5-on-5 minutes and 75 goals in 921 total minutes. Without Eichel on the ice, the Sabres have scored 46 goals in nearly 1,400 5-on-5 minutes and 51 goals in 1,690 total minutes. The fact that they've scored nearly the same amount of goals in half the time with him on the ice says a lot about all parties involved.

As superhuman as he's been, Eichel can't be on the ice at all times. So as good as he's been while out there, it ultimately doesn't matter if the Sabres are going to continue to be such a black hole offensively whenever he's not. Get this man some help!