It’s time for another Screen Shots column, in which we take a brief look at a few hockey topics. Let’s get right down to business.
– It’s a crucial time for the Dallas Stars, my pick as a darkhorse contender for the Stanley Cup. With an 18-13-2 record, they’re a Jekyll and Hyde group that’s underachieving – especially on the road, where they have an abysmal 4-10-5 mark. Dallas is terrific at home, with a 14-3-1 record that is right up there with Colorado (14-2-1), Toronto (14-4-1) and Florida (19-3-0) for the best home performance in the league.
So, Stars GM Jim Nill needs to make a decision for his team very soon. Is it time for him to start selling off assets and looking to next season? Or does he make a move to improve Dallas’ depth and hoping his veterans step up to make the Stars a true Cup frontrunner? They’ve shown they’re capable of going on a winning run – from mid-November to early-December, they won nine of 10 games, and seven wins in a row, in which they allowed more than one goal-against (and only two goals maximum per game) just four times.
Unfortunately, Dallas followed that win streak with a five-game losing skid that saw them outscored 19-7. They’re currently on a three-game win streak, but their next two games are against the Panthers and defending Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and by the first day in February, they’ll have to take on Washington, Boston and Calgary.
Nill has no salary cap space to use to address the Stars’ issues, meaning he’ll have to make a dollar-for-dollar deal, or have a trade partner assume some salary. They’re also going to have some cap-related decisions for the future: star forward Joe Pavelski is in the final season of his three-year, $21-million contract, and though he has a modified no-trade clause (per CapFriendly.com) that allows him to submit three teams he’d accept a trade to, that can be negotiated to include more than that.
Similarly, star defenseman John Klingberg is publicly talking about his dissatisfaction with negotiations to extend his contract, which expires at the end of this season and makes the 29-year-old an unrestricted free agent. He’ll undoubtedly get a major raise on the $4.25-million he’s earning this season, but it appears unlikely he’ll get it with the cap-strapped Stars. Nill has to get something back for him, but it’ll have to be a young player under team control for a few years at least.
In any case, the next month or so will decide what the Stars wind up doing. They’ve got an experienced group, but they’re not getting the job done consistently enough to land a playoff berth. It may be time for notable change. The stakes are high for them, and they’re at a crossroads in many ways. They’re worth keeping an eye on, no matter what results they generate.
– Avalanche center Nazem Kadri is having a career-best year, right at the best time for him as a money-maker. He’s currently leading the NHL in assists (35 in 30 games-played), and he’s got a whopping 48 points, putting him in third-place overall in the league. The 30-year-old has already demolished his previous career-high in assists (30, with Toronto in 2013-14), and he’s well on his way to setting a new personal-best in points (his current career mark is 61 points in 82 games with the Leafs in 2016-17).
Kadri will be a UFA this coming summer, and there’s no doubt he’ll sign for much more than the $4.5-million he’s making right now. But it’s not likely the Avs will be able to retain his services. They need to sign a goalie – both starter Darcy Kuemper and backup Pavel Francouz will be UFAs at the end of this season – and young winger André Burakovsky also needs a new contract.
Kadri was a luxury Toronto could no longer afford when they dealt him to Colorado in 2019, and the way things are going for the surging Avs, Kadri is a luxury they can’t afford, either. Kadri will be able to pick his new employer at the end of this year, and there’s virtually no chance he’ll take enough of a hometown discount to remain an Avalanche. Some other NHL team is probably going to win the sweepstakes for his services, and Kadri will have to live up to the hype he’s created this season, and the high-end contract he’ll sign.
– The Maple Leafs had a disappointing loss to the awful Arizona Coyotes Wednesday, but if you look closely, there are good things happening with Toronto, even in a loss.
For instance, the Leafs have the NHL’s third-best defense, averaging only 2.49 goals-against in 35 games. That’s a credit primarily to star goalie Jack Campbell, but it’s also a comment about how solid Toronto has been in its own end. You also have to acknowledge the Buds’ excellent special teams: they’ve got the third-best power play (at 29.6 percent), and the eighth-best penalty kill (at 82.8 percent). And they have the NHL’s best faceoff win ratio, at 55.4 percent.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe has done a terrifc job this year harnessing Toronto’s core talents, and supporting them with a productive group of veterans and young prospects. And, very quietly, he’s taken a team famous for its offense-minded elite talents, and made them an excellent defensive squad. That will matter come post-season, when defense often wins the day. And right now, they are looking ready and able to battle in low-scoring games, just as easily as they fare in high-scoring contests. That’s the mark of a team ready to take the next step in their evolution.