The Olympic break is over and after all the hype and celebrating, you may be a little unfamiliar with the NHL’s most pressing storylines. If so, here are five you should be keeping an eye on:
1. Canucks Tailspin. Vancouver headed into the Olympics as the coldest team in the league – losers of seven straight and eight (all in regulation) of 10 games. They’re banged up, although both Henrik Sedin and Kevin Bieksa have been practicing and could return soon, but that’s no guarantee they’ll pull the team out of this slump. The Canucks are one point out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they’re also only three points ahead of 12th-place Nashville. Four of their first five games after the break are against teams ahead of them in the West (St. Louis, Minnesota, Phoenix and Dallas) – and if they lose further ground, it will be fascinating to see what GM Mike Gillis does at the March 5 trade deadline.
2. Sabres/Oilers Selloffs. Both Buffalo and Edmonton find themselves at the bottom of their respective conferences and should be prime players at the trade deadline. But how deep will the changes go? Most expect Sabres winger Matt Moulson and Oilers winger Ales Hemsky to be virtual locks to be moved, but what about Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Sam Gagner? Any one of those players could help a contender either make the playoffs or win a round or two. Seeing who goes and who stays will say something about where each franchise sees itself in the competitive cycle.
3. Stamkos’ Return. Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos nearly pulled off the impossible when he tried to play for Canada in the Olympics after breaking his leg in November. But his return to the lineup is close. And while nobody doubts he’ll make an already-dangerous Bolts squad even more deadly, many hockey people will be watching to see how they re-assimilate him into a lineup that won as much with team defense in his absence as they did with offense.
4. Wither Detroit? The regular-season-ending injury to captain Henrik Zetterberg is a huge blow to the Red Wings’ playoff chances, but it also opens up some intriguing possibilities on the trade front. Detroit GM Ken Holland has never had to consider a massive in-season deal, but their current scenario begs for some move of significance to be made. Thousands of uneasy Wings fans will be watching like hawks and hoping Holland can stickhandle his way through these unfamiliar tough times for the franchise.
5. Ducks Dominance. Anaheim had the NHL’s best record (41-14-5) as of the Olympic break, but five of those regulation losses came in their most recent 10 games. Four of their first five games after the break are against Eastern Conference teams, but any struggles the Ducks experience will lend credence to the theory they overachieved to a degree through their first 60 games. In any case, Anaheim has some $8.6 million in salary cap space to use at the trade deadline – and they could use that to patch holes if they’re slumping, or to add depth if they rebound to their early season dominant form.