As the new year begins, we are nearly halfway through this NHL season which has many surprising teams at both the top and bottom of the standings. Multiple predicted Cup contenders find themselves on the outside looking in for a playoff spot. Which of these struggling teams are bound to turn around soon, and which will be selling at the trade deadline?
The reigning Stanley Cup champions haven’t been terrible by any means, and an extremely competitive Metropolitan division makes it look worse than it is for Pittsburgh. Currently sitting in seventh place in the Metro with a 20-18-3 record, the Penguins are in no way out of it, as they also sit ten points out of first, but there are problems for this team to fix first.
It’s no secret that the Penguins have struggled mightily at even strength and have stayed afloat thanks to their deadly, top-ranked power play. Pittsburgh has gotten subpar contributions from Jake Guentzel, Connor Sheary, and their bottom six, which definitely has missed the likes of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. Even Sidney Crosby is having a down year by his standards with 36 points, just 17 of them at even strength, where he tallied 64 points in 2016-17. Also adding to their frustrations have been their results in one-goal games. They have played in 13 so far (going 4-9) after playing in just 12 all of last season (going 9-3). This just has not been the dominant Penguins team we’ve seen over the past two years. Another situational area where Pittsburgh has struggled has been coming back from allowing the first goal. This season, Pittsburgh is just 4-13-1 when surrendering the first goal; last year they went 20-11-4.
Another key contribution to the Penguins’ struggles at even strength has been their goaltending, where Matt Murray boasts a career-low .906 save percentage. Like many Penguins players, it’s been a subpar start to the season for Matt Murray, as he is also sporting a goals against average of 2.94 through 29 starts.
Even with their struggles, Pittsburgh is still in a fine position to make up ground in a hurry. Just two years ago, the Penguins fired their head coach before going on to win the Stanley Cup, so we would be wise not to count them out.
After making it to the second round in the playoffs, where they lost to Anaheim in seven games, Edmonton figured to be a heavy favorite to represent the Western Conference in 2017-18. However, the Oilers are at the bottom of the conference looking up. Sitting in sixth place in the Pacific with a 17-20-3 record, the Oilers are in a position no one saw coming.
Coming off his first Hart Trophy as league MVP, Connor McDavid has continued to carry this Edmonton team, but the pieces around him have underperformed, to say the least. One of last years’ biggest breakout players, Leon Drasaitl earned himself a massive $68 million payday this summer, but through the first half of this season, Drasaitl has been inconsistent and has yet to register a single power play goal (an area where he had 10 last season) centering Edmonton’s top unit. The Oilers have also been unable to get production from young forwards Jesse Puljujarvi, Anton Slepyshev, and Drake Caggiula, who have combined for a total of just 23 points.
On defense, the combination of a decline in Oskar Klefbom’s game and the absence of Andrej Sekera, who recently returned to the lineup, has resulted in an Oilers team that is tied with Vancouver for the third most goals allowed (130) through 40 games. With the poor play on defense, Edmonton is sitting at the bottom in penalty kill efficiency, succeeding in just 70.8 percent of their kill situations.
Last season’s iron man in the Oilers’ net, starting 73 games (not including the playoffs), Cam Talbot has battled injury and inconsistency in the first half of this season. Missing two weeks in early December, Cam Talbot has seen action in 30 games, going 14-13-2 and sporting a GAA of 3.08.
The Oilers have some ground to make up, and doing so will start with the defense and goaltending getting back on track.
An Eastern Conference finalist last year, the Ottawa Senators are limping into the second half of the 2017-18 season. Gone from last season’s Eastern Conference darkhorse are Marc Methot, Clarke MacArthur, Viktor Stalberg, and Tommy Wingels – a top defenseman and three quality depth forwards – which Ottawa has yet to replace effectively. Furthermore, Ottawa also lost defenseman Chris Wideman and Mike Borowiecki to injuries.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa’s franchise defenseman and a player who should be talked about in the same way as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, has just been off the whole season. Karlsson has been tasked with carrying this Senators team and just hasn’t been himself since returning from injury. Offensively, he does have 25 points, but just three goals after netting 17 last season. On defense, Karlsson just hasn’t been as effective as usual and is sporting a plus/minus of -22. Karlsson’s and the Senators’ struggles have bled over to their special teams, where their power play ranks 25th and their penalty kill sits at 28th.
Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher has also faced criticism about his roster decisions to play veterans like Cody Ceci and Johnny Oduya in key situations, instead of young players like Thomas Chabot and Ben Harpur.
While the aforementioned problems have all contributed to the Senators 12-17-9 record, their biggest problem lies in between the pipes. After a tremendous playoff run, 36-year-old Craig Anderson has struggled mightily in 2017-18. With a save percentage currently sitting at .898, Anderson has gone 9-12-5, and sports a 3.08 GAA through 26 starts. Backup goaltender Mike Condon has not been much better, with a save percentage just a point higher than Anderson at .899. Neither has been able to give Ottawa any stability in net.