10 Biggest Questions as NHL Enters Home Stretch

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IApril 4, 2013

10 Biggest Questions as NHL Enters Home Stretch

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    As we move past the NHL trade deadline, there is less than one month remaining for each team to play its best hockey of the season and clinch a berth into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs.

    There were a lot of teams that made improvements at the trade deadline, and it will be interesting to see how these new pieces fit in, because they will have just three weeks to get accustomed to new teammates and coaches before the intensity of the postseason begins.

    The last few weeks should also be a bit easier for certain players from a mental perspective because the stress that's created around the trade deadline will no longer be a factor.

    Let's look at 10 burning questions as the NHL enters the home stretch.

When Will Sidney Crosby Come Back?

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    Sidney Crosby's Hart Trophy case was strengthened in the Pittsburgh Penguins' last two games, even though he didn't play because of a jaw injury. The superstar center broke his jaw in the first period of Saturday's game against the New York Islanders when a puck hit him in the face. 

    After undergoing oral surgery, Crosby will need a few weeks to recover, but according to Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, it's possible that he could return to the team's lineup prior to the playoffs.

    Crosby continues to be in good spirits. Don't be surprised to see him back before the regular season ends.

    — Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_Trib) April 1, 2013

    The Penguins had their 15-game winning streak snapped in a 4-1 defeat to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday and were then soundly beaten 6-1 by the New York Rangers on Wednesday. Crosby leads the team and the NHL in scoring, and his impact on the team's success offensively is tremendous.

    Crosby elevates the play of everyone around him, especially his first-line wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, both of whom are putting up impressive scoring totals because of Crosby's playmaking skill and the attention that opposing teams give him in the attacking zone.

    It would be beneficial to the Penguins if Crosby returned before the playoffs so the team could play a few games with the line combinations that head coach Dan Bylsma wants to use in the postseason. Crosby's return would also allow the players acquired at the deadline to gain some experience playing with Crosby at even strength and on the power play.

    However, given Crosby's history of head and neck injuries, the most important goal for Pittsburgh is to make sure he is fully ready to return before stepping back on the ice. There will be no Stanley Cup celebration for the Penguins in 2013 if Crosby misses a large portion of the playoffs.

How Does Patrice Bergeron’s Concussion Impact the Bruins?

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    Patrice Bergeron is the Boston Bruins' most valuable player, strongest leader and the heart and soul of the team.

    His consistent scoring (leads team with 31 points), defensive brilliance (reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner) and incredible faceoff skill (leads all NHL players who have taken at least 250 draws with a 61.5 success rate) make him a player that is impossible to replace.

    Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli confirmed on Wednesday that Bergeron suffered a concussion during Tuesday's win over the Ottawa Senators, which is what many people feared when the star center left the game and didn't return.

    I talked to Patrice. Patrice suffered a concussion; described as moderate, said Chiarelli. I talked to him probably about an hour ago. He was in very good spirits. He was out walking today. He was annoyed at it. He was emotional last night. I asked him, I’d like to update the media. He said sure. I don’t know when you’ll see him again. I mean, you’ll see him again, but I don’t think you’ll see him tomorrow or something. He sounded really good and I told him we’ll work together in getting him back. I won’t have any further update until I have some significant information for you, but long story short, he got hit in the back below the ear. He said his neck is very sore. That’s as much as I know.

    This is the fourth concussion of Bergeron's career, so the Bruins need to be very careful with his recovery. Luckily for the Bruins, they have strong depth at center, and young forward Tyler Seguin is also capable of shifting from right wing to the middle if needed.

    The most logical move for head coach Claude Julien to make when shifting his lines is to move Seguin to center on the second line alongside Brad Marchand and newly-acquired winger Jaromir Jagr. This would allow the Bruins' first, third and fourth lines to stay the same.

    Since Bergeron is so important to the team's defensive success, the other forwards in the lineup have to make sure they are responsible in their own zones, back check, play physical games and block shots. First-line center David Krejci will also need to improve his faceoff success, because with Bergeron not available to take important defensive zone draws, Krejci will likely serve in this role.

Are the Rangers Going to Hit Their Stride After Trade Deadline?

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    Ryane Clowe did not score a goal and tallied just 11 points in 28 games with the San Jose Sharks this season, but in his first game as a member of the New York Rangers, he scored two goals and added an assist in the Blueshirts' impressive 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    But he wasn't the only newly-acquired player to make an impact in his Rangers debut.

    Young forward Derick Brassard scored a goal with three assists, while 22-year-old defenseman John Moore scored a goal and played well defensively. Both players were acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets along with Derek Dorsett and a draft pick for star winger Marian Gaborik on trade deadline day.

    Wednesday's win was a good example of how difficult it is to beat the Rangers when they commit themselves to playing strong defense, block shots, win the physical battles and capitalize on their scoring chances.

    The Gaborik trade has given the Rangers much more scoring depth and grit than they had at the start of the season, and now head coach John Tortorella has the players he needs to execute his defensive style of hockey.

    He also won't have to rely on his top-six forwards group to carry the team offensively each night, which was evident on Wednesday when Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin combined for zero goals and one assist in the team's 6-1 victory.

    With a tougher, deeper and more physical team after making several trade deadline additions, expect the Rangers to hit their stride and go into the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season. There is no chance this team misses the playoffs.

Will the Red Wings Regret Not Making Any Trade Deadline Moves?

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    The Detroit Red Wings were one of the few playoff contenders that decided to make no improvements to their NHL roster in the week leading up to Wednesday's deadline.

    As a team in transition that should stockpile young players and draft picks for future success, it wasn't surprising to see Red Wings general manager Ken Holland hold on to his top prospects and 2013 first-round pick instead of pursuing a rental at the deadline.

    Detroit currently sits in seventh place in the Western Conference standings and the team has a three-point lead over the St. Louis Blues, who are in the ninth place.

    The Red Wings weren't going to compete for the Stanley Cup if they added a veteran player at the deadline, so there was no reason for them to make any bold trades.

    This team has won six of its last nine games and has enough experience, offensive talent and goaltending to reach the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.

Will Anyone Catch Sidney Crosby in the Scoring Race?

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    Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby probably won't lose his spot on the list of leading candidates for the Hart Trophy while he's injured this month, but it's definitely possible that his lead in the scoring race could disappear over the next few weeks.

    Crosby leads the NHL with 56 points (15 goals, 41 assists), and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos and Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane trail him by 10 and 13 points, respectively.

    Stamkos has tallied five goals with three assists in his last six games, and he's been one of the league's most consistent scorers this season with points in 26 of the Lightning's 35 games. He also leads the NHL with 25 goals scored.

    If Crosby doesn't come back to the Penguins until the playoffs, or only plays in the final few regular-season games, expect Stamkos to pass the Penguins star and become the first player to lead the NHL in goals and points since Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin during the 2007-08 season.

Which Coaches Are Under the Most Pressure?

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    Players who were acquired by playoff contenders at the trade deadline aren't the only ones who will be under immense pressure to have success in the final weeks of the regular season.

    The head coaches of these teams are also facing high expectations, and there are a few of them that need a strong finish to the season to keep their jobs over the summer or avoid being on the hot seat going into 2013-14.

    Let's look at three of these coaches.

     

    John Tortorella

    The Rangers were a disappointment through the first three quarters of the season, but the additions of Clowe, Brassard and Moore at the deadline will allow the Blueshirts to play the physical game that was responsible for their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Tortorella's job probably won't be in jeopardy if the Rangers miss the playoffs, but it would put him on the hot seat entering the 2013-14 season.

     

    Alain Vigneault

    The Canucks followed their loss in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final with a first-round exit from the 2012 playoffs. Vancouver bolstered its scoring depth by acquiring second-line center Derek Roy from Dallas and kept its strong goaltending duo intact by not trading Roberto Luongo. If the Canucks are eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season, a coaching change might need to be made.
     

     

    Mike Yeo

    The Wild added star winger Jason Pominville at the deadline in a move that proves ownership wants to win this year. Minnesota leads the Northwest Division and has the scoring depth, defensive skill and goaltending needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. An early exit from the postseason would put Yeo on the hot seat going into 2013-14 given the high expectations and the incredible amount of talent on his roster.

Will We See a Motivated Roberto Luongo Post-Deadline?

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    Roberto Luongo has become the backup goalie in Vancouver, and it's clearly not a situation he prefers to be in, even though he has handled the role in a very professional manner. The Canucks tried to trade him on Wednesday (via TSN's Darren Dreger), but his contract, which has nine years remaining with a $5.33 million salary cap hit, is not an easy thing to move.

    Luongo spoke to the media on Wednesday after being told he wasn't going to be traded, and it was one of the most honest interviews you will ever see from an NHL player.

    "My contract sucks," said Luongo in his press conference (via Canucks.com). "That's what the problem is. Unfortunately it's a big factor in trading me and it's probably why I'm still here...I'd scrap [my contract] if I could right now."

    The last few months have been an emotional time for Luongo with all the trade rumors and speculation surrounding him since the start of the season.

    Now that we know that his career with the Canucks will extend until the end of the year at the very least, what kind of performance can we expect from Luongo in the final weeks of the regular season and playoffs?

    Luongo should be very motivated to shine in all of his remaining starts this year, because if he shows teams around the league that he's still a top goaltender, the number of general managers that could be interested in acquiring him via trade in the summer will likely be higher than the number of teams who pursued him at the deadline.

    Expect the 33-year-old veteran to perform at a high level for the final four weeks of the regular season and make the most of any opportunities he gets during the playoffs. The most effective way for Luongo to improve his situation and become a No. 1 goalie for another team is to perform like an elite player.

Which Team Is Most Likely to Fall out of the Playoff Race?

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    The New Jersey Devils are playing poorly at the worst time of the season.

    They have lost four straight games (with just two wins in their last nine games) and will have to battle several teams to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    Making the playoffs will be a difficult challenge without Ilya Kovalchuk, the team's best player and most talented goal scorer. He's been out of the lineup since March 23 because of a shoulder injury, and according to Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, the Devils winger won't be rejoining the team in the immediate future.

    Lamoriello said Kovalchuk is progressing but not yet close to returning

    — Rich Chere (@Ledger_NJDevils) April 3, 2013

    The real issue for the Devils is their tough schedule for the rest of the season. Nine of New Jersey's 12 remaining games are against teams currently in playoff spots, including two matchups each against the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and the rival New York Rangers. The Devils' last four games are against the Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and the Rangers again to end the regular season. That's a brutal four-game stretch to finish the year.

    The combination of Kovalchuk's injury, a tough schedule and their lack of scoring (NJ ranks 24th in goals scored) will all contribute to the Devils missing the playoffs just one year after reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Will the Penguins Develop Chemistry with New Additions Before Playoffs?

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    The Penguins made some major acquisitions at the trade deadline by adding wingers Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, along with defenseman Douglas Murray, to their roster, 

    Since general manager Ray Shero did not have to part with any NHLers to acquire these veterans, head coach Dan Bylsma has been forced to juggle his lines quite a bit over the last few games.

    Now that Sidney Crosby is out indefinitely with a jaw injury, chemistry is a real problem for the Penguins. Developing chemistry after adding three veteran forwards (Morrow, Iginla and Jussi Jokinen) is not an easy task, especially since the Penguins' lines will change again when Crosby returns for the playoffs.

    Morrow, in particular, has not played well since he arrived to Pittsburgh, and he looked lost defensively several times in Wednesday's 6-1 defeat to the Rangers, including the sequence leading up to New York's first goal of the game.

    Before all these trades, the Penguins had four quality lines with players who knew what their roles were and excelled in them. Even when superstar center Evgeni Malkin missed several games with an injury, Pittsburgh was still able to win games on a consistent basis because their lines didn't change very much.

    All of these new additions will force several players to play on new lines and in different roles than what they were accustomed to for most of the season. This is not always an easy transition to make, especially when there are just 12 games remaining before the playoffs to figure everything out.

    The most important goal for the Penguins over the next few weeks is to build chemistry before the playoffs, because talent alone won't help them win the Stanley Cup.

Which Traded Players Will Make the Largest Impacts on New Teams?

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    Trade deadline deals often make a huge impact on a team's chance of getting into the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup, even if the additions only included depth players.

    Finding players to fill specific roles and address certain weaknesses are among the top priorities for general managers ahead of the deadline. The following players will have positive effects on their teams' performances in the final weeks of the regular season and playoffs.

     

    Marian Gaborik (CBJ)

    The former Rangers winger has scored 30-plus goals seven times in his career and will help Columbus' offense (which ranks 29th in goals scored) by adding speed and offensive skill to the lineup. The Blue Jackets have never had a goal scorer as talented as Gaborik in their history as an NHL franchise.

     

    Douglas Murray (SJS)

    Through his first four games in Pittsburgh, Murray has provided the toughness, grit, penalty killing and size that the Penguins needed to add to their blue line before the deadline. The 33-year-old veteran is the stay-at-home who will prevent opposing teams' best forwards from dominating offensively. 

     

    Robyn Regehr (LAL)

    Now that veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell is out for the season (per Dave Pagnotta of The Fourth Period), Regehr's value to the Kings as a top-four blueliner who excels defensively and adds much-needed size and experience to the lineup has increased tremendously.

     

    Ryane Clowe (NYR)

    The veteran winger brings toughness, experience and a bit of scoring to the Rangers lineup. Clowe also energizes his teammates with big hits and the intensity he brings to the ice on each shift. He also makes the Rangers' forecheck a lot more effective.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All salary information courtesy of CapGeek. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.