Steven Stamkos celebrates his hat trick in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
While the majority of teams are ramping up for a playoff push, all hope is lost for five Eastern Conference clubs.
But being the glass-half-full type of guy that I am, let’s have a look at the silver lining for these present-day dark clouds.
(What of the Avalanche and Coyotes, you ask? I just said I was an eternal optimist, didn’t I?)
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
While the Isles have far and away the best chance at securing the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, where they’ll land blue-chipper extraordinaire John Tavares, that’s not the only glimmer of hope.
After suffering through a miserable, injury-plagued season, goalie Rick DiPietro said recently he expects to be back and healthy in time for ’09 training camp, which would go a long way towards stabilizing the team’s defensive game.
A good chunk of up-and-coming forward talent – Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau, Frans Nielsen, Jeff Tambellini, Sean Bergenheim – and an excellent young coach in Scott Gordon will help fill the ‘W’ column sooner than later, too.
You simply can’t consistently win without solid goaltending and the Thrashers aren’t going to get it with Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg. Thankfully for Atlanta fans, 21-year-old Czech Ondrej Pavelec will soon be ready to take the reins.
After threatening to leave the organization in the summer, things seem to have settled in the Pavelec camp. He’s also putting up decent numbers (2.62 GAA; .908 SP) in the American League one season after leading the Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup championship.
And if GM Don Waddell – or his replacement - comes to his senses this summer and deals Ilya Kovalchuk to increase the club’s depth, things will really be humming in The ATL.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Hmm…maybe, after picking up his first career hat trick Tuesday, all the hand-wringing over Steven Stamkos will be put to a halt. After their extreme off-season makeover, no one knew what to expect out of the Bolts this season. But Stamkos was certainly expected to step in and perform at a high level right away after posting 58 goals and 105 points in his final year of junior and going No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft.
That didn’t happen. In fact, it took Stamkos, who turned 19 in early February, eight games to pick up his first point and he’s been a healthy scratch three times.
Don’t expect to see him in the press box ever again, though, as the former Sarnia Sting standout is up to 25 points, good for sixth on the team. He’s only going to get better with experience and will give Tampa a deadly 1-2 punch up the middle, assuming they don’t do something absurd like trade Vinny Lecavalier.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Other than Jiri Tlusty and his record-breaking five-goal performance, there’s not much to get stoked about prospect-wise in the AHL. But for the first time since the salary cap was put into place, the Buds have ample room below the ceiling and a GM who knows how to use it.
There’s more holes in this Leafs lineup than one summer of spending could fill, so don’t expect a worst-to-almost-first Philly-like turnaround. But there are plenty of top names available – including Jay Bouwmeester, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marc Savard and Mike Cammalleri, to name a few – over the next two years who could hasten the rebuild.
Plus, 2009-10 will be a new beginning for goalie Vesa Toskala, who would be wise to forget everything about this current season and concentrate on reclaiming his spot as an elite goalie.
Want a pick-me-up, Ottawa fans? Look no further than the new man behind the bench. Cory Clouston, who took over for the dismissed Craig Hartsburg on Feb. 2, has installed a system better suited to Ottawa’s skill set and it has resulted in a 5-1-2 record since he came aboard.
Binghamton’s former bench boss will have the interim tag removed in short order and if he’s given the tools – some mobile, puck-moving defensemen and depth at forward – he could return the Sens to the playoffs as early as next season.
And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention 23-year-old Brian Elliott, who could give Ottawa its first true No. 1 goalie since Patrick Lalime was chased out of town.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.
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