The Oilers? In the playoffs? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

Matt Larkin
Jordan Eberle, Connor McDavid and Benoit Pouliot. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hey you. Commenter who calls everything clickbait. Relax. I said RELAX. The Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs? It’s not the most harebrained question in the world.

The Oilers have a mountain to climb in the Western Conference, though it’s more bunny hill than K2. Edmonton sits eight points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the last Pacific Division playoff position, and the Ducks have three games in hand. The Oilers’ more realistic target is the Nashville Predators, who lead them by nine points in the final West wild-card spot but at least have no games in hand. Hockeyviz.com gives the Oil a five percent chance at qualifying for the big dance. TSN’s Frank Seravalli, who woke up this morning with the same thoughts on the brain as I had, estimates Edmonton has to go 21-5-4 for the rest of the season and points out the miraculous Ottawa Senators closed last season 23-4-4 to get in.

So maybe the Oilers have to scale more than a bunny hill after all. Still, seeing what they’ve accomplished since Mr. Connor McDavid returned from a broken clavicle, it’s suddenly worth asking if they’re primed to make a run. Edmonton dismantled the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets and Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 11-3 this week, with McDavid racking up five points in that span. Sure, it was just Columbus and Ottawa, but those two teams looked like they didn’t belong in the same building as Edmonton. The Oilers continue their road trip with, guess what, another team as sturdy as a wet paper bag right now: the discombobulated Montreal Canadiens. The Oilers play 16 of their final 30 games at home in 2015-16. They play 16 of their final 30 games against teams currently out of playoff spots, too, with most of the other games versus teams they’re chasing for the lower seeds.

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Why it’s now or never for Sidney Crosby and the suddenly hot Penguins

Matt Larkin
Sidney Crosby  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

See Sidney Crosby’s natural hat trick against the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night? The telling thing about it was how little time the puck spent on his stick. It might’ve been a second and a half across all three goals combined. That’s the sign of a confident, aggressive player showing very little hesitation.

We wouldn’t have described Sid the Kid’s game that way over the first few months of 2015-16, which went so poorly by his lofty standards that he didn’t get an All-Star Game sniff, not even when Alex Ovechkin’s suspension opened up a Metropolitan Division berth. Evgeny Kuznetsov simply deserved the nod more. When have we ever been able to say that about a healthy Crosby? Never. The rocky start doomed him this season. He had one goal and five points over 11 October games and, by the end of November, five goals and 15 points through 23 games.

But the ugly first act is history as quickly as it arrived. Crosby stabilized with a reasonable December effort of four goals and 12 points in 13 games, then proceeded to douse himself in kerosene and become a human torch. Crosby since Jan. 1: 12 games, 11 goals, 18 points and a hilarious shooting percentage of 25.6. That’s what you call regressing to the ol’ mean. Crosby, a 14.4 percent career shooter, sat at 8.5 on Dec. 31. He’s now all the way back to 13.4. Per war-on-ice.com, Crosby’s score adjusted Corsi was 48.9 in the first three months and is a superb 62.4 during his white-hot 2016 calendar year.

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Five ideal teams to pursue an Andrew Ladd trade

Matt Larkin
Andrew Ladd (Lance Thomson/NHLI via Getty Images)

The strange thing about the tough decisions facing Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff all year: they’ve gradually become easier. Entering 2015-16, his team was fresh off a playoff appearance, with an elite farm system. The arrow pointed decidedly upward. Dealing with his two prominent unrestricted free agents, left winger Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, was a daunting proposition. Winnipeg needed both players if it wanted to remain a playoff contender, so Cheveldayoff would have to ponder retaining them through the trade deadline, even if he hadn’t re-signed them by then, which would risk losing them for nothing in July.

Flash forward to late January, and Winnipeg’s season looks grim. The Jets are closer to last overall in the NHL than they are to a playoff berth. They have games in hand on Western Conference wild-card occupiers Minnesota and Colorado, but a 10-point deficit will be difficult to overcome. Byfuglien and Ladd suddenly look like much more realistic trade options, especially when each would fetch a first-round pick and then some.

Ladd expressed interest in re-signing with the Jets earlier in the year, and negotiations with Big Buff were infrequent, but the tide recently reversed. Talks have broken off or at least stalled with Ladd and resumed with Byfuglien. Ladd, even as team captain, appears more likely to move by the Feb. 29 deadline. What teams are the best fits for his extremely valuable services? Consider these five.

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10 players who need a strong second half to make amends for a poor start

Mike Brophy
Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The second half of the 2015-16 NHL season is upon us and it’s time to get down to business. For some, more than others.

Here are 10 players who need a strong second half to make amends for a rotten first half:

SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: The points are starting to come for Sid the Kid even if his performances are not always as inspiring as they were a few years ago. Crosby has nine goals and 20 points in his past 15 games so maybe he’s out of the woods. On too many nights in the first half Crosby looked too much like just any other player on the ice instead of the awe-inspiring superstar we have come to know. He looks tired and frustrated – ordinary. Crosby was held pointless in 20 games in the first half.

RYAN GETZLAF, ANAHEIM DUCKS: Getzlaf has taken over the team lead in scoring, but let’s be honest, 28 points in 40 games for a player of his caliber is nothing to write home about. Getzlaf didn’t score in Anaheim’s first 13 games and had just one goal in his first 29 games. The Ducks go nowhere without Getzlaf hitting on all cylinders.

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Top 30 draft rankings for 2016: Laine and Puljujarvi ride golden wave

Patrik Laine (#29) and Jesse Puljujarvi (photo by Heikki Saukkomaa/AFP/Getty Images)

The world juniors in Finland were almost unprecedented in terms of draft influence. Four of the six tournament all-stars (as chosen by the media) were 2016 prospects: Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Olli Juolevi and overall MVP Jesse Puljujarvi. The kids aren’t supposed to dominate like that, but here we are. With Alexander Nylander and Matthew Tkachuk also having strong tournaments, the big question around the campfire right now is where to slot defenseman Jakob Chychrun.

The OHL Sarnia star did not make Team Canada, but he’s the only defenseman in the top echelon right now – though Juolevi is seriously threatening that. One exec I spoke with believes Chychrun is in a positional class by himself, while another team scout told me Juolevi is pushing his way into the conversation.

So what happens on draft day? Top D-men are hard to find, but those elite forwards are awfully tempting. Since we’re nowhere near knowing which teams will be selecting early, I’m keeping things conservative, as I generally do. Here’s a look at my current top-30:

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Johansen for Jones: why Columbus will get the last laugh

Seth Jones.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Wednesday evening was glorious. It gave us a good, old-fashioned hockey trade of an impact player for an impact player. No picks, no prospects, no retained salary, all real, no gimmicks. Center Ryan Johansen joins the Nashville Predators. Defenseman Seth Jones joins the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The natural question, commonly directed our way on social media over the past 24 hours: who wins the trade? As my colleague Jared Clinton has already pointed out, Johansen makes Nashville a better hockey team today. He’s the bellcow No. 1 center the Preds have never really possessed unless you count the brief whiff of Peter Forsberg.

But what about Columbus’ perspective? Does turning Nashville into a Stanley Cup contender imply the Blue Jackets lost the deal?

Not necessarily. While it’s true Johansen’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Jackets’ depth chart, Jones becomes a new franchise pillar who could have a larger long-term impact than Johansen.

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These five teams should pursue a Jonathan Drouin trade

Matt Larkin
Jonathan Drouin (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 2015-16 NHL season has taught us smoke rarely yields fire in the trade rumor mill, at least so far. Plenty of names have been tossed out as highly likely candidates to be dealt, from Ryan Johansen to Matt Duchene, and nothing has happened. Heck, Travis Hamonic requested a trade from the New York Islanders to help him with a personal family matter, and even he hasn’t changed addresses almost two months later. The Johnny Boychuk injury makes a deal next to impossible now, too.

So just because Jonathan Drouin, via agent Allan Walsh, formally requested a trade from the Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t guarantee Drouin will be moved. General manager Steve Yzerman has made it clear he’ll do what’s best for his team before he’ll do what’s best for Drouin, so it’s possible Tampa searches for a way to mend fences and retain the youngster. That said, Drouin should attract a ton of interest on the trade front. He’s only 20. He carries the type of raw talent expected of a player taken third overall in the 2013 draft. Whether his early-career struggles are the result of injury, poor play on his part or not getting a proper opportunity on a stacked team, he has plenty of time to make good on his potential. He has another year left on his deal at an $894,166 cap hit, albeit with performance bonuses worth up to $2.3 million.

Bottom line: Drouin is affordable for virtually any team at the moment, as he’s not a restricted free agent until summer 2017, and he’s young enough to appeal to rebuilding teams and buying teams alike. He carries risk in that he still has a high enough ceiling to command a significant return, but we can expect a ton of interest in him.

Who, then, is the ideal fit for a Drouin acquisition? Consider these five candidates.

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Five perfect landing spots for a Ryan Johansen trade

Ryan Johansen (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The time for downplaying Ryan Johansen trade rumors in Columbus is over. Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella all but cemented that by making his supposed star center a healthy scratch for Thursday night’s game in Arizona. Aaron Portzline, team beat writer and THN correspondent, confirmed the decision.

We can believe Tortorella’s claims that Johansen is “an important guy to our organization” and that Johansen will be shown video to illustrate what the team wants from him. Or we can believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who openly supported the scratching, will start making trade calls on Johansen instead of just taking calls, which he was already reportedly doing.

Which teams are ideal fits for Johansen based on what they need and what they can offer the Jackets? Consider these five destinations:

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