NHL Teams Most Likely to Regress in the Final Months of the Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2016

NHL Teams Most Likely to Regress in the Final Months of the Season

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    Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

    The All-Star break has come and gone, which means the push for the playoffs now begins in earnest all around the NHL.

    This year's race is a tight one, with only six teams more than five points out of a playoff spot after the conclusion of games on Feb. 2. That means plenty of fanbases still have reason for optimism; it also means a bunch of those groups will be disappointed when the regular season ends on April 10.

    With an emphasis primarily on teams on the playoff bubble, here's a look at which clubs will take a step backward through the final months of the season and what that will mean for those franchises.

    Teams are listed based on their current positions in the standings, starting with the lowest number of points.

Winnipeg Jets

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    Current Position: 50 GP, 22-25-3, 47 points, seventh in Central Division

    Last 10 Games: 3-6-1

    The Challenge Ahead 

    Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck played tremendously when he first stepped in for injured starter Ondrej Pavelec back in late November. However, the rookie lost three of his last four starts heading into the All-Star break and continued the trend as the Jets dropped a 5-3 decision to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 2.

    Hellebuyck has now given up three goals or more in six of his last nine appearances, making it tough for the Jets to gain any traction in the tough Central Division.

    Blake Wheeler's 48 points in 50 games put the 29-year-old on pace for the best season of his NHL career, but the Jets continue to struggle with discipline. Winnipeg is the NHL's second-most penalized team behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, and with a 27th-ranked penalty kill, that adds up to 42 power-play goals against this season—tied for the worst in the league.

    The Jets got a boost that propelled them into the playoffs last season after trading Evander Kane on Feb. 11. This year, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will be more interested in acquiring picks and prospects than seeking immediate help if he decides to move impending free agents Andrew Ladd and/or Dustin Byfuglien.

    With some big contract negotiations coming up this summer, the Jets' focus will be on sticking to their budget—and possibly trying to maneuver into the best possible position in this summer's draft.

Montreal Canadiens

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Current Position: 51 GP, 24-23-4, 52 points, fifth in Atlantic Division 

    Last 10 Games: 2-7-1

    The Challenge Ahead 

    The Montreal Canadiens were a big story during the first month of 2016—for all the wrong reasons. After starting the season with a 9-0 streak, the Habs have struggled mightily at both ends of the ice since MVP goaltender Carey Price was injured in late November.

    The Canadiens scored just 18 goals as they went 2-7-1 in their last 10 games—an average of less than two goals a game. General manager Marc Bergevin is expected to be in the market for a scorer heading into the trade deadline, but it'll be tough for him to make any major moves while Price's return date remains unclear.

    Montreal's situation shouldn't get much worse than it already is, but that's mostly because the team is already perilously close to rock-bottom. If the Canadiens continue to play at their current level, they'll be among the NHL's lowest-ranked teams by the end of the season.

Ottawa Senators

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Current Position: 52 GP, 23-22-6, 52 points, sixth in Atlantic Division

    Last 10 Games: 4-6-0

    The Challenge Ahead 

    Though the Ottawa Senators sit just five points out of a wild-card spot, the team isn't good enough defensively to leapfrog five other teams and grab a postseason berth.

    Ottawa ranks 29th overall in the league with 157 goals against and has allowed 38 goals in its last 10 games, a hair-raising 3.8 goals against per game.

    Erik Karlsson is a virtual shoo-in for his third Norris Trophy and could become the first defenseman in 20 years to score more than 85 points if he tops Brian Leetch's mark from 1995-96, but he's the only member of the Sens who has exceeded expectations this season.

    Some blame can be placed at the feet of the goaltenders—Craig Anderson's save percentage is a pedestrian .913 while Andrew Hammond's is .906. But Ottawa gives up 33.3 shots per game, more than any other team in the league. There's no reason to think that'll change.

    The Senators also face a tough schedule down the stretch, playing four sets of back-to-back games and 15 games in total in a jam-packed month of March.

    We won't see another fairy-tale playoff push from the Senators this season.

Arizona Coyotes

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    Current Position: 50 GP, 24-21-5, 53 points, fourth in Pacific Division 

    Last 10 Games: 4-5-1

    The Challenge Ahead 

    After finishing last in the Western Conference in 2014-15, the Arizona Coyotes defied expectations with a fast start in 2015-16. Arizona's playoff prospects got a boost in January thanks to the Rookie of the Month performance of goaltender Louis Domingue, who went 6-3-2 and posted a .925 save percentage.

    But much like Hellebuyck in Winnipeg, Domingue started to falter as his appearances mounted. He has now lost four of his last six starts and given up five goals in each of Arizona's losses on either side of the All-Star break.

    As a franchise, the Coyotes are showing plenty of potential, but they'll come back to earth in the next two months. The Anaheim Ducks knocked Arizona out of third place in the Pacific Division on Feb. 2. That should mark the end of this season's dream of playoffs in the desert.

Minnesota Wild

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Current Position: 50 GP, 23-18-9, 55 points, sixth in Central Division

    Last 10 Games: 2-7-1

    The Challenge Ahead 

    When Devan Dubnyk joined the Minnesota Wild a year ago, he strung together a mind-blowing winning streak that catapulted his new team into the second round of the playoffs.

    This season, it's a different story. Dubnyk hasn't won a game since January 9, even though he has given up two goals or less in four games during his current 0-5-1 losing streak.

    The Wild need lights-out goaltending because offense remains an issue. Minnesota's 124 goals rank 21st in the league, and team leader Mikko Koivu's 35 points rank 54th overall in NHL scoring.

    As the Central Division's Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators surge in 2016, the Wild are headed in the opposite direction. Expect to see their first playoff miss in four seasons since bringing in high-priced free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise.

San Jose Sharks

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    Current Position: 49 GP, 26-19-4, 56 points, second in Pacific Division

    Last 10 Games: 7-1-2

    The Challenge Ahead 

    No team in the National Hockey League has been hotter over the past month than the San Jose Sharks, who have charged up the Pacific Division standings and played their way back into the postseason picture.

    San Jose's surge has coincided with the return of Logan Couture, who had missed all but five games due to two separate injury absences before returning to the Sharks lineup on December 30. He's a relatively tame 3-5-8 in the 14 games since his return, but the Sharks are an impressive 9-3-2—a stark contrast to the team's 14-15-1 record when Couture was on the shelf.

    In 2014-15, the Sharks faltered down the stretch and fell out of the playoff picture. This year, they'll finish stronger, but now that they've made their charge up the standings, they can afford to take their foot off the gas.

    Expect to see San Jose assemble a solid but unspectacular record down the stretch.

New Jersey Devils

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Current Position: 51 GP, 26-20-5, 57 points, fifth in Metropolitan Division 

    Last 10 Games: 6-4-0

    The Challenge Ahead 

    Something's gotta give in the Metropolitan Division, where the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers are all playing good hockey—and basically fighting for the same one or two playoff spots.

    Expect to see the Devils be one of the teams that falters down the stretch. A tough schedule in February and March includes five sets of back-to-back games as well as a road trip to visit Nashville and Dallas, then one all the way out to see the three California teams, with only one home game in between.

    Sniper Mike Cammalleri was placed back on injured reserve over the All-Star break as he continues to struggle with the hand injury that caused him to miss eight games in January, per Tom Gulitti of NorthJersey.com.

    The Devils rank 26th in scoring, so they'll struggle if Cammalleri is out for any period of time—and the 33-year-old has a long injury history that has limited him to less than 70 games in every NHL season since he played 81 games and scored his career-high 39 goals with the Calgary Flames in 2008-09.

    New Jersey has taken big steps forward this season with a relatively anonymous lineup, but the Devils aren't quite ready to make the jump to their first playoff berth since they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com and current through Feb. 2.

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