What the Haves and the Have Nots in the Eastern Conference Should Do Going Forward

Abbey MastraccoJanuary 21, 2022

Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar (52) and left wing Anthony Duclair (10) congratulate defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) after Ekblad scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

The Eastern Conference playoff race isn't exactly much of a race this season. 

Don't get me wrong, it's great hockey. The two teams that call the Sunshine State home are absolutely beating up on opponents on a nightly basis, while up in the Metropolitan Division, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins have proved doubters wrong and the Carolina Hurricanes remain one of the most entertaining teams in the NHL. 

But if you were looking for the excitement that comes over the second half of the season with teams trying to bump one another out of the standings, you'll have to head west. It's only Jan. 21 and the Eastern Conference playoff grouping is pretty much set, with teams jostling for position the rest of the way through. 

There is such a clear difference between the good teams and the ones that aren't good enough. There is really only one team within striking distance of a playoff spot, the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings, and even they are seven points back of a Boston Bruins team that has played three fewer games.

Overachieving before being ready to not just play in the postseason, but compete in the postseason, can set a team back. The Red Wings would have to make some big upgrades to the roster in order to compete, which would require giving up picks and prospects. Those are valuable assets for a team at this stage in the rebuild. Getting to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and being overwhelmingly overmatched by a much better team in a seven-game series does little good. 

So let's take a look at the haves and have nots of the Eastern Conference to preview the rest of the season and the path to contention. 

Atlantic Division

In: Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins

Panthers: The Panthers went 8-1-1 over 10 games and averaged 5.5 goals per game throughout that span. Then they went to Edmonton and routed the Oilers 5-0 behind a 40-save performance by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on Thursday night. They hung nine on the Columbus Blue Jackets last weekend. This is a ridiculously loaded team that is getting tremendous goaltending. There isn't much room to work with in terms of salary-cap space, so a contract would have to be moved if the Panthers do acquire someone like Jakob Chychrun. Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek confirmed the club's interest in the Arizona Coyotes defenseman on the 32 Thoughts podcast this week. Chychrun is a Boca Raton native and he has three more seasons left on his contract after this year. But maybe it's less about bringing in another player and making a big in-house move: The team should remove the interim tag from coach Andrew Brunette's title. He stepped into a tough situation after coach Joel Quenneville resigned amid the Kyle Beach scandal and has guided them to a 19-8-5 record. 

Lightning: The Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champs twice over, and there is no reason to think they couldn't three-peat this year. This club has made savvy moves at the trade deadline in each of the last two seasons that helped the team in the Stanley Cup Final. In 2020, they brought in key forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Last year, they dealt a first-round pick for defenseman David Savard. But it's going to be tough for general manager Julien BriseBois to do that this season because yet again, Tampa Bay is right up against the salary cap with $0 of space. He even told reporters that he's anticipating an uneventful trade deadline. It's a good thing the team is sitting comfortably in the playoffs with an enviable roster. Standing pat may not be the worst idea.

Maple Leafs: Cautious optimism is the theme in Toronto after that collapse in the first round of the playoffs last year. There is immense pressure on the team to get out of the first round this year, and a lot of that pressure is on the defencemen. Jake Muzzin has been inconsistent this season and he's recently been out with a concussion. But finding a partner to stabilize Muzzin should be a priority given how important a shutdown pairing is. Cap space is an issue in Toronto, as it tends to be with most contenders, but could they take a swing at someone like John Klingberg? It's looking like his time in Dallas is coming to an end. He would most likely require a first-round pick, which is a lot for a rental, and he's an offensive defenseman, which isn't really what the Leafs need. Maybe Ben Chiarot is a better fit, and he's also cheaper, but either way, defensive help is what Toronto should be looking to acquire. 

Bruins: Is Tuukka Rask going to save the Bruins' season? He didn't seem to have much earlier this week when the Bruins were walloped by the Carolina Hurricanes 7-1. Goaltending is crucial, but Boston will need to make some upgrades in order to go deeper into the playoffs. The left side of the defense is an area of concern. The window of contention might be closing on a good team, so general manager Don Sweeney has to decide to whether to go for it and give Patrice Bergeron and Rask one last shot at another Stanley Cup, or whether to hand the team over to Charlie McAvoy in the summer. He could get someone like veteran Nick Leddy from Detroit or a defenseman still in his prime, like Hampus Lindholm from the Anaheim Ducks. But will a defenseman be enough to compete in a first-round matchup against one of the Florida teams? 

Out: Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens

The priority has to be the prospects for the Red Wings, Sabres and Senators. Detroit has some fun rookies to watch this season, like Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. They believe they have the answer in net with Alex Nedeljkovic. This team is nearing the end of its rebuild, but it's not there yet. 

The Canadiens need to start over. They have a new vice president of hockey operations in Jeff Gorton and a new general manager in Kent Hughes. That duo should look to trade Chiarot, Brett Kulak and maybe even people like Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli who have term left on their contracts. Much of the team's short-term future depends on what happens with goalie Carey Price and defenseman Shea Webber, but they're nearing the end of their careers. The Habs should load up on draft picks for the future. The draft will be held in Montreal this summer, so what better way to win back some fan support than with a lottery pick or two in your own city? 

Metropolitan Division

In: New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins

Rangers: The Rangers made a big statement with a win over the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, leading forward Ryan Reaves to declare the team a "contender." New York certainly has looked like a contender this season, especially with Igor Shesterkin in net. The goalie is a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season. His .938 save percentage leads the league, and his 12.19 goals saved above average is second behind Thatcher Demko, per Natural Stat Trick. The Rangers are likely looking at a rental this year considering they have significant money committed against the cap next season already and Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, K'Andre Miller and Alexandar Georgiev will need new contracts in the next two years. Here's a name that probably won't gain me any favors among the Metro Division crowd: Claude Giroux. The Flyers have no choice but to trade their captain, and he could be a fit with the Rangers. He mostly only plays on the wing now, but he could slide over to center if needed. Giroux would infuse the Rangers with some elite talent, giving them a dangerous look in the playoffs.  

Hurricanes: Klingberg would fit nicely in Carolina. He could take over the defensive spot left by Dougie Hamilton and give the Hurricanes some of the production they've been missing since Hamilton signed a free-agent contract with the New Jersey Devils. Carolina's success is heavily based on shot volume, and the roster is ultra-deep. Frederik Andersen is having a resurgent season in net. This is a scary good team, but adding Klingberg would make it even scarier. 

Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin is the story in Washington. At age 36, he leads the league with 27 goals and has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon. Many thought the window for a second Stanley Cup had closed on the Capitals, but that hasn't been the case. They continue to win, but there are holes Washington will need to fill at the deadline in order to keep it open. The goaltending trio of Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek and Zach Fucale has been inconsistent this year. Anthony Mantha will be out for a number of weeks with a shoulder injury. If Mantha isn't healthy by the time the deadline rolls around, the team will have to figure out what to do with his $5.7 million cap hit. One possible solution for their goaltending problems: Marc-Andre Fleury, if the Chicago Blackhawks are willing to retain salary. As long as Ovechkin is still scoring, the Caps have to go for it. 

Penguins: This team needs power play help. Pittsburgh's 18.4 percent conversion rate this season doesn't inspire a lot of hope for the playoffs. A team doesn't have to have a strong power play in the postseason, but it sure helps. When the Penguins won their second Stanley Cup in 2017, they had the third-best power play percentage of the regular season and converted on 20.5 percent of their man-advantage opportunities en route to their second straight Cup win. However, a new regime has been installed in Pittsburgh, and president of hockey operations Brian Burke told NHL Network Radio recently he doesn't want the club to continue to unload assets at the trade deadline as they have frequently done in the past. Pittsburgh has only had four first-round picks since 2012, and two of those came in 2012. A decade of contention with a team built around generational players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will come at the cost of the farm system, and Burke's comments made it clear they are already preparing for life after Sid and Geno. The Pens are cap-strapped, so a big deal likely isn't going to be possible. But after winning 10 straight before a Jan. 8 loss to the Stars, it's clear this team is in good shape. Depth could be an issue, but the cap is a bigger one. 

Out: Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders

The Blue Jackets are undergoing a resetting period of sorts. Pending UFA goalie Joonas Korpisalo will be the team's biggest asset at the trade deadline. Would the team be open to trading Patrik Laine? He's a pending restricted free agent, but the team should want to hold on to him if they plan to get back to contending soon. 

The Flyers have to blow it up and start over. The big offseason acquisitions haven't panned out. They fired coach Alain Vigneault and haven't seen better results under Mike Yeo. Giroux has a no-movement clause, but he'll bring back the biggest return. The Flyers can also try to move defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen, Justin Braun and Keith Yandle. If they're willing to part with someone with term, like Ivan Provorov, they should do it. Stockpile the picks and open up cap space for a rebuild. 

The development of Jack Hughes is the priority for the Devils. This group wasn't supposed to be a playoff team yet, but this seemingly never-ending rebuild has been stalled in each of the last few seasons because of COVID-19 issues and injuries to key players like Hamilton. P.K. Subban is the only pending UFA, but he's a shell of his former self and the club will have to retain some of his $9 million prorated salary in order to trade him. New Jersey also has a big decision to make regarding goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. He has not proven to be a No. 1 goalie and his demeanor, maturity issues and overall body of work bring up questions about whether or not the 25-year-old will become one in the future. But that's a plan for the offseason. The Devils have a road map of where they want to go, but they aren't going to reach the intended destination as quickly as some had hoped. They can get there if Hughes and Nico Hischier become elite centers. 

The one team that could shake up the standings is the Islanders. This team was only a game away from the Stanley Cup Final last season. You could say they have underachieved this season, but they've also been undone by COVID-19 issues and injuries to players like Ryan Pulock and Kyle Palmieri. Coach Barry Trotz's mom passed away and then he contracted COVID. It's been a rough go at it on the Island, but if there is one team capable of turning things around and fast, it's the Islanders. Would anyone be shocked if they reeled off 10-12 wins to edge Boston out of the Wild Card? It's probably not possible at this point, but every year the Islanders are discounted, and every year since Trotz came aboard they've proved doubters wrong. If they do get to a point where a playoff spot is within reach by the trade deadline, then general manager Lou Lamoriello will likely look to add. This is largely the same team that went to Game 7 of a conference final last year, so Lamoriello will want to give a proven group a chance in the postseason. But that's a big if, so if they continue on this same path, they should look to trade UFAs Cal Clutterbuck, Zach Parise, Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara in order to regain some of the draft picks lost over the last few years and then continue the retool in the offseason. 

Salary-cap information courtesy of CapFriendly.com.