Changes behind the bench and on defence in Winnipeg, rookies raising their game in Columbus and Colorado, Clowe rebounding, quality opportunities for Shaw and King and more in Scott Cullen's latest blog.
1. The Winnipeg Jets sent head coach Claude Noel packing, replacing him with Paul Maurice, which is not out of the realm of possibility for a coach with a record of 80-79-18, including five straight losses preceding the fall of the proverbial axe.
No matter who is behind the bench, however, he's going to have to figure out how to win games despite what has been subpar goaltending.
It's not as though goaltending is the only problem with the Jets, considering that their puck possession numbers are in the lower third of the league too, but consider what the Jets' situation could be with even mediocre goaltending.
When the Jets let Noel go, they had allowed 18 more goals than they had scored to this point in the season. Among 38 goaltenders to play at least 20 games this season, Jets G Ondrej Pavelec ranks 36th with an .899 save percentage (and that includes Monday's 5-1 home win against Phoenix)..
If Pavelec provided even a .913 save percentage, which would put him on the edge of the Top 20, that extra .015 in save percentage applied to Pavelec's 1037-shot workload, would have saved the Jets between 15 and 16 goals against. If backup G Al Montoya would still play at his high level (.921 save percentage), that would bring the Jets to a goal differential of minus-2 or minus-3. That doesn't guarantee a playoff team, by any means, but it would put the Jets in that conversation. As it is now, they are 10 points back of Minnesota and that's a huge deficit to overcome without making drastic changes.
2. Among the changes that the Jets are trying is returning Dustin Byfuglien to forward. Byfuglien played primarily forward for the Blackhawks, after playing defence in junior, then returned to the blueline when he was moved to the Atlanta Thrashers.
Byfuglien is something of a lightning rod on the blueline, drawing criticism for turnovers and poor positional play (it's almost like he's a forward!), yet the Jets have been undeniably better with Byfuglien on the ice as, over the past three seasons, he ranks 14th (or 72) in Corsi percentage among defenceman that played at least 3000 minutes and Byfuglien has been the runaway leader among defencemen in shots on goal, both overall and per 60 minutes.
Whether Byfuglien remains up front will depend on Maurice's preference, since the move was made in Claude Noel's final game with the Jets, but Maurice has said that Byfuglien will stay at forward until Maurice sees a need to change.
With Byfuglien up front, the Jets have some talent. LW Andrew Ladd, C Bryan Little, RW Blake Wheeler and LW Evander Kane are quality top-six forwards and then rookie C Mark Scheifele and veterans including C Olli Jokinen, LW Michael Frolik and RW Devin Setoguchi can all contribute. Throw those nine forwards in a blender and the Jets have decent skill from which to choose.
However, with Byfuglien at forward, the Jets need to fill more than 25 minutes of ice time per night on the blueline. (Well, not exactly, because Byfuglien can man the point on the power play, but still, there are big minutes available). Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Jacob Trouba can handle lots of ice time, but what about Mark Stuart? He's next in line, leaving Keaton Ellerby and Adam Pardy on the third pair.
Hard to look at that group and be confident that they will ease the workload on Winnipeg goaltenders, but if the Jets' forward lines are consistently more dangerous, maybe that's a trade-off that is worth making; at least it's the kind of move that a desperate team makes in the hopes of changing what, to this point, have been subpar results.
3. Bruins RW Loui Eriksson has returned to action following his second concussion of the season. Eriksson didn't immediately resume his previous spot alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Rather, the Bruins left Reilly Smith in that spot and moved Eriksson to the third line with LW Carl Soderberg and C Ryan Spooner.
Even aside from his concussions, it's been a bit of a rough start to Eriksson's Boston tenure. While he has strong puck possession stats, Eriksson has played 16:24 per game this season, after five years of 19-21 minutes per game in Dallas, and his 1.72 shots on goal per game is his lowest since his rookie year, 2006-2007.
Leaving out the game against Pittsburgh, when he suffered a concussion on the first shift, Eriksson has registered zero or one shot on goal in nine of his past 11 games. Tough to be a scorer at that rate.
4. Blue Jackets rookie Boone Jenner is turning into a nice asset for Columbus, definitely more than just a hard-working rookie learning the ropes on the fourth line.
Most recently, Jenner has been skating on a line with Artem Anisimov and Nathan Horton, who has played six games since coming off injured reserve, and Jenner has five goals and two assists in the past 11 games. He's not playing enough to generate huge expectations (12:07 ATOI in January), but Jenner is a physical player who can earn regular work on a physical line. If that line produces some secondary offence, all the better.
5. Andrew Shaw has moved up to Blackhawks' second line, between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, a terrific opportunity for Shaw to contribute offensively. While he has 12 goals and 22 points in 46 games this season, Shaw has two goals and no assists in his past 14 games. A slightly encouraging sign, recently, is that he's generated 17 shots on goal in the past four games, the highest four-game shot total of his young career.
With Shaw climbing the depth chart, Michal Handzus and Marcus Kruger are handling the third and fourth-line centre roles, respectively.
5. Avalanche rookie C Nathan MacKinnon appears to be hitting his stride, scoring eight goals (and one assist) in the past 10 games.
MacKinnon has been spending much of that time on right wing. Most recently, it's been with C Matt Duchene and LW Jamie McGinn, but MacKinnon has also spent time with Gabriel Landeskog and Max Talbot, Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, John Mitchell and Cody McLeod.
MacKinnon now leads rookies, with 29 points in 45 games, but the encouraging part about immediate production is that he's using his tremendous speed to generate shots on goal, -- 2.87 per game for the season, 3.6 per game in five games this month.
6. While the Los Angeles Kings have talked about trying to acquire more scoring, they have been been giving power forward Dwight King a pretty sweet opportunity to skate with Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter.
With 10 points in his past 15 games, King has tallied a career-high 21 points in 47 games for the season. Nice, but not exactly first-line material, either. King is clearly made better by linemates of that calibre, but he's holding his own. Until a proven scorer comes along, it's worth keeping an eye on King.
7. The popular notion, especially after he scored three goals in 40 games last season, was that Devils LW Ryane Clowe was done. He's battled concussions the last couple years and, as a power forward on the north side of 30, it's not unreasonable to think that Clowe could be slowing down.
While this could be merely a small sample blip, there may be evidence to suggest that Clowe isn't done yet. Playing mostly with Adam Henrique and Michael Ryder, Clowe has five points (1 G, 4 A) in the past four games, registering 13 shots on goal in those four games, which stands out as notable improvement after Clowe had nine shots on goal in his first 11 games of the season.
Considering that Clowe is under contract for four more seasons, the Devils need him to stay healthy and fill both a physical and scoring role.
8. While this may only count as keeping a spot warm for RW Alex Burrows, as he nears a return from injury, Canucks forwad Zac Dalpe has been getting a chance to play with Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin on Vancouver's top line.
Dalpe has seven goals and 14 points in 71 career games, so let's not go overboard on expectations, but he's played tough minutes against the Blues and Kings the past two games.
9. Senators GM Bryan Murray has acknowledged that that Senators are open for business when it comes to trades, which immediately starts the wheels churning -- who might the Senators be willing to move?
First off, recently improved play gives the Senators a much more favourable outlook for the playoffs, which makes it very difficult to move core pieces, yet there have been concerns about the Senators' financial situation this year, so whether they will be able to take on money remains to be seen.
But, looking through the roster, there are some players that might hold some appeal to other teams if the Senators are dealing for more immediate help. Defencemen Patrick Wiercioch has played twice since December 18 and is under contract for two more years, at a $2-million cap hit.
LW Colin Greening, a big winger who has nine points in 46 games, has a contract extension kicking in next season at $2.65-million per, which is more than is warranted by his production.
Pending restricted free agents, LW Cory Conacher and D Eric Gryba, as well as any number of prospects could also have some appeal. Do any of those assets bring a significant upgrade in return?
FIRST NHL GAMES
Justin Florek, RW, Boston - A fifth-round pick in 2010, out of Northern Michigan University, the 6-foor-4 winger has 53 points in 114 AHL games since he turned pro. He scored a goal in his third NHL game, at Los Angeles, and was a useful contributor on the fourth line while Shawn Thornton finished serving his suspension.
Karl Stollery, D, Colorado - The 26-year-old rookie was an undrafted free agent out of Merrimack college, and has put up 53 points in 111 AHL games. He's on the small side, but Stollery managed to get the call ahead of Stefan Elliott or Matt Hunwick for one game before returning to the AHL.
Alexey Marchenko, D, Detroit - Taken in the seventh round, out of CSKA Moscow, in 2011, Marchenko is off to a solid start in North America this year, scoring 16 points and posting a plus-15 rating in 33 AHL games. With injuries hitting the Red Wings all over, Marchenko has filled in for one game and the 22-year-old with good size figures to remain on the prospect radar if needed.
Brad Hunt, D, Edmonton - Desperate for change on the blueline, the Oilers gave 25-year-old Hunt his shot. An undersized, undrafted defenceman out of Bemidji State University, Hunt had 55 points in 109 AHL games to earn a look, but was dominated, in terms of puck possession, during his three-game audition.
Conor Allen, D, N.Y. Rangers - An undrafted free agent signed out of UMass-Amherst, Allen has 14 points and a minus-11 rating in 33 AHL games since he was signed last spring. He got into three games with the Blueshirts, and was decent enough to figure that the 23-year-old could get recalled again in the event of injuries.
Eriah Hayes, RW, San Jose - A 25-year-old, 6-foot-4 winger who was signed out of Minnesota State-Mankato last spring, Hayes had a modest 12 points and minus-5 rating in 36 AHL games before the injury-riddled Sharks gave him a call. Hayes hasn't play a lot in four games, but he's mostly held his own in that limited role.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.