NHL Teams with Toughest Schedules Heading into All-Star Break

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2017

NHL Teams with Toughest Schedules Heading into All-Star Break

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The NHL schedule has reached the halfway point for most teams, but the truth is that not all schedules are created equal. Some clubs have ripped through the toughest parts of their seasons, while others have long stretches of danger ahead.

    It is difficult to be exact in terms of identifying which teams have the toughest schedules over the rest of the season, but a shorter period of time offers us insight. Most teams play seven or eight games between now and the All-Star break, giving us a good look at the next several weeks. It is important because so few teams have lost track with the pack, so these games over the remainder of January are going to be important for playoff contenders.

    Here are the teams that face the toughest challenges in the time between Jan. 12 and the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 29.

6. Edmonton Oilers

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Record: 21-15-7 (49 points, third in Pacific Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight (five at home, three on the road)



    The Edmonton Oilers haven't made the playoffs since 2006, so this is a new experience for most of the roster. Home games against the Florida Panthers and Nashville Predators will offer them great challenges. The Arizona Coyotes—ordinarily an easy mark—give the Oilers a special brand of trouble whenever the two teams get together.

    The key to this eight-game run for Edmonton may come down to the home-and-home series with the Calgary Flames. Chances are that only one Alberta team will make the playoffs this season, and the Oilers are in a real race for the first time in a long time.

    The final two games in this stretch feature away games against the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks—difficult opponents for an unsure but emerging team.

5. Carolina Hurricanes

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Record: 19-15-7 (45 points, sixth in Metropolitan Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Seven (three at home, four on the road)



    The Carolina Hurricanes are proving to be a far stronger team than expected, mostly due to a young, emerging roster of players. The team has a tough schedule leading up to the All-Star break, but it could be in a good position if it fares well in these seven games.

    Home contests include only two difficult games—against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. The away games are a challenge, with two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and one against the Washington Capitals.

    Carolina is one of the NHL's most fascinating teams because we don't know exactly how good it is, but the club is better than one year ago. It should be exciting to follow its progress, especially during the tough run up to the All-Star break.

4. Ottawa Senators

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    Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

    Record: 21-14-4 (46 points, third in Atlantic Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight (three at home, five on the road)



    The Ottawa Senators approach the midway point of the season with a real chance at the playoffs. The period just before the All-Star break will be important, though, and there are several tough games coming up.

    Home games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals represent a difficult challenge. Road games that should be considered potentially difficult are contests against the Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. Adding to the degree of difficulty for the Senators are home and away games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are emerging as a new force in the Eastern Conference.

    The Senators can't make the playoffs before the All-Star break, but with the schedule ahead, there could be harm done to playoff chances with a poor run through January.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Record: 19-19-4 (42 points, sixth in Atlantic Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight (two at home, six on the road)



    The Tampa Bay Lightning have experienced an unusual season. The games up to the All-Star break include just two home games, one of those against the tough Columbus Blue Jackets.

    The road games will be the biggest challenge, with many against substantial opponents. The long trip includes the three California teams—Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings—with the Ducks and Sharks now appearing to have solved some of their early-season issues.

    After that, the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers await, and they will give the Lightning some real problems. Tampa Bay is not performing at expected levels this season, and it may be difficult to gain ground on a playoff spot with this degree of schedule difficulty.

2. St. Louis Blues

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Record: 21-15-5 (47 points, third in Central Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Eight (two at home, six on the road)



    The St. Louis Blues are having an inconsistent season, and that could continue over the rest of January. St. Louis has all kinds of issues, including an unimpressive goal differential of minus-four.

    The Blues will face all three California teams on the road—a tough task—along with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild. That is a difficult stretch of games for such a short time period. Home games in January include games against the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals—neither an easy opponent.

    St. Louis is having a strange year; the club is a contender but seems to be less effective than a year ago. Sometimes a more difficult schedule can help a team raise its level, and this period could prove to be helpful. The Blues are not what they were in past seasons, and there is a danger here of falling off in the playoff race. For the first time in a while, St. Louis is vulnerable.

1. Winnipeg Jets

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    Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

    Record: 20-20-3 (43 points, fifth in Central Division)

    Games Before All-Star Break: Nine (five at home, four on the road)



    The Winnipeg Jets are not enjoying January 2017, as rookie Patrik Laine suffered a concussion and is not currently in the lineup. The schedule from now until the All-Star break offers little cover, with road games against the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks offering substantial challenges.

    The toughest home games during this period include contests against the Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Sharks. Winnipeg has had some good runs but is in tough as the team enters this period of the season.

    The Jets have a lot of talent, and if they make the playoffs, they could do some damage. Posting a good record over the next couple of weeks could go a long way toward securing a playoff spot for Winnipeg.