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Haggerty's Power Rankings: Atlantic Division looks mostly feeble

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Haggerty's Power Rankings: Atlantic Division looks mostly feeble

It’s an amazing phenomenon in the Metro Division where every single team is within three points of a playoff spot, and there is going to be a massive battle royale between the Hurricanes, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Islanders and Devils for a couple of open playoff spots. At least that’s the way it seems like now with a couple of months still left on the hockey schedule, and the Atlantic Division looking exceedingly feeble beyond playoff teams in Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto. 

All of that makes the Rangers’ decision to sell off some of their players and start rebuilding all the more peculiar this season. It’s also a bold choice that’s potentially being made for the right reasons so they can correctly rebuild a team that’s stuck in the middle, and no longer the club that made it to the Cup Finals a couple of years ago. 

Still, trading off the core veterans is a tough sell in a competitive place like New York City. It’s probably the exact kind of “punting plan” that other teams like Montreal, Detroit, Chicago and Vancouver should be doing in their respective markets as well. 

MORE BRUINS: Backes on Sabres loss: "We were backfiring on everything"

Anyway, without further ado here are this week’s power rankings:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (regular season record: 38-14-3, rank last week: 1)
The Bolts hit as bit of a rough patch, but seem to have righted things with seven wins in their last 10 games. Victor Hedman is again healthy and Steve Yzerman is poised to add to this club ahead of the trade deadline as well. Tampa is still tops around the league. 

2. Boston Bruins (34-12-8, LW: 9)
The Bruins have lost five games in regulation since the middle of November. It’s a ridiculous run that they’ve been on, but at this point the real concern has to be whether or not the Bruins are peaking too early. 

3. Nashville Predators (33-12-9, LW: 4)
Don’t look now, but PK Subban is trending toward another possible Norris Trophy with 15 goals and 43 points in Nashville as their leading scorer. Boy, did the Canadiens screw up when they traded him, as evidenced by his much ballyhooed return to Montreal last weekend.

4. Vegas Golden Knights (36-15-4, LW: 2)
It’s going to be really interesting when a playoff team like the Golden Knights deals off one of their leading goal-scorers like James Neal ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. What a world we live in. 

5. Winnipeg Jets (32-15-9, LW: 5)
The Jets are just trucking along in the Western Conference and looking like they could be a team that advances a round or two based on how the rest of the conference is shaping up. Connor Hellebuyck has been a difference-maker between the pipes for them. 

6. Washington Capitals (32-17-6, LW: 6)
Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are rolling through the regular season once again and shaping up to be the favorite in the Metro Division. But it’s not about the regular season with the Caps. It’s about what they’re going to do during the playoffs that matters at this point. 

7. Toronto Maple Leafs (33-19-5, LW: 10)
The Leafs have won eight of their last 10 games and have their playoff spot well in hand. For them it’s about how Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan are going to approach the trade deadline, and how they’re going to add to an NHL roster that’s going to need some fixes for the postseason.  

8. St. Louis Blues (34-21-3, LW: 8)
In a year where former UMass-Lowell goalies are tearing it up, Carter Hutton is on another level with his 1.70 goals against average and .944 save percentage for the Blues this season. Hutton and Jake Allen have both been pretty outstanding for a Blues team that’s been strong in the Central Division this season. 

9. Dallas Stars (33-20-4, LW: 16)
It’s a very top heavy attack with Alex Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin all looking like they’re going to be 30-goal scorers this season, but give the Stars credit for really putting it together this season. Ken Hitchcock has left his imprint on what Dallas is doing, and it’s made them a better club this time around.     

10. San Jose Sharks (30-18-8, LW: 15)
The Sharks are third in the league in power play, and have the NHL’s best penalty kill as they’re clearly doing it with special teams these days. They’re also doing it without Jumbo Joe Thornton, who has been out after knee surgery since the end of January. 

11. Minnesota Wild (30-19-6, LW: 17)
The Wild are once again in the thick of a playoff spot, but they’ll have to do it without Jonas Brodin after undergoing surgery last week. The good things is that Ryan Suter and Matthew Dumba are both having very strong seasons, and can step up with a void on the back end. 

12. Los Angeles Kings (30-20-5, LW: 7)
Once again the Kings are doing it with defense while ranking second in the NHL in both goals against (2.4 goals per game) and on the penalty kill (killing at 84.6 percent) while just scraping by offensively. Anze Kopitar has been the big gun for the Kings this season. 

13. Pittsburgh Penguins (31-22-4, LW: 18)
What a season for Evgeni Malkin, who already has 30 goals and 63 points and is leading the way for a Penguins group that’s making their second half surge. The road to the Stanley Cup Final is still going to go through Pittsburgh when it comes to the Eastern Conference bracket. 

14. Calgary Flames (29-19-8, LW: 20)
The Flames are fixing to be a playoff team, but they rank 20th in goals against and 23rd in power play this season. For a group that’s got some seriously good offensive talent, those are surprising numbers productivity-wise for the Flames to this point in the season. 

15. Philadelphia Flyers (28-19-9, LW: 22)
Who would have thought that the Flyers would be in line for the playoffs after losing 10 games in a row earlier this season? They have nine players with double-digit goals and are also enjoying a breakout year from Sean Couturier this season, and have a ton of young players on the rise.   

16. Anaheim Ducks (27-19-11, LW: 19)
It’s a good thing the Ducks have Rickard Rakell because there is not a lot of offense going on with a Ducks team squarely on the bubble for a playoff spot. Certainly the Ducks feel like a playoff team, but they’re going to have to earn it based on the way things have gone for them. 

17. Colorado Avalanche (30-21-4, LW: 26)
It certainly speaks to the job done by the Avalanche that they’re a couple of points out of a playoff spot at this point. It also speaks to just how massively they underachieved last season when they were the NHL’s laughingstock. 

18. New Jersey Devils (27-20-8, LW: 3)
The New Jersey Devils have lost seven of the last 10 games, and dropped four in a row as Jersey is quickly starting to fade away from a playoff spot. They battled hard on Sunday night with the Bruins for a valuable two points, but didn’t come away with anything. Story of their last few weeks, I guess. 

19. Columbus Blue Jackets (28-23-4, LW: 11)
A 3-6-1 record over their last 10 games for the Blue Jackets isn’t what Columbus is looking for, and they’re currently 29th in offense and dead-last on the power play. What a monumental struggle to score goals, which can be a really difficult mental hurdle to get over for a hockey club. 

20. Carolina Hurricanes (26-21-9, LW: 12)
Carolina is in the mix for the playoffs, but this season has to be a bit of a disappointment for a team that some believed would be a no-doubter for the postseason after last summer’s improvements. It will be interesting to see what they do at the trade deadline based on where they sit on the Stanley Cup playoff fence right now. 

21. New York Islanders (27-24-6, LW: 14)
It’s the same old story for the Isles, who have some really excellent individual pieces and are right in the playoff mix. But like those strengths, they also have the weakness between the pipes where Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak haven’t been great this season. It remains to be seen what will happen with them, but one thing is certain: Mat Barzal is worth the price of admission.  

22. New York Rangers (27-24-5, LW: 13)
The Rangers are mathematically still very much in the playoff hunt, but they’ve already waved the white flag in the form of a letter to season ticket holders that they’re going to be trading some of their established players. Other NHL teams are certainly licking their chops waiting to see who will become available, wither it’s Ryan McDonagh or Rick Nash.   

23. Chicago Blackhawks (24-23-8, LW: 21)
The Blackhawks are the most disappointing team in the NHL this season. Hands down and no doubt about it. It would stand to reason that some big changes are coming for the Hawks, who look like they’re going to miss the playoffs for the first time in a long time after several recent first round playoff exits. 

24. Florida Panthers (23-23-6, LW: 23)
The bad news for the Panthers is that they are way, way out of the playoff hunt. The good news is that at least they’re beginning to get healthy between the pipes with James Reimer back up and running, and a return for Roberto Luongo right around the corner after a long absence.    

25. Montreal Canadiens (22-26-7, LW: 25)
The Habs lost in PK Subban’s highly-charged return to Montreal, which is appropriate because they’ve lost pretty much every other important game this season as well. What an absolute disaster of a tire fire of a mess with Les Habitants and their performance this year.  

26. Detroit Red Wings (22-23-9, LW: 24)
It’s a beautiful new building in Detroit for the Red Wings in Little Caesar’s Arena, but it’s a sad state of affairs where they can’t even pack the house with a losing product on the ice. They have some young talent, but it seems like they’re pretty far away from being anything special at this point. 

27. Vancouver Canucks (22-28-6, LW: 27)
There is some young talent and a very good, young head coach in Vancouver, but they have some seriously big decisions over the next six months or so. Like, what do they do with the Sedin Twins? Do they really allow things to drop to the bottom before they start building it back up again, or are they going to be able to retool the roster?   

28. Edmonton Oilers (23-27-4, LW: 28)
The Oil are clearly going to be sellers at this point with perhaps Patrick Maroon, and a few other veteran players as well. The bigger question for them is what kind of changes await in Edmonton with Wayne Gretzky taking over a more prominent role within the organization he “made” back in the 1980’s. 

29. Ottawa Senators (19-26-9, LW: 29)
Interesting to note that so many NHL teams that are struggling on the ice amid questions about the management, ownership or perhaps both in some situations. The Senators shook up their management structure in recent weeks and the owner has made vague threats to the fan base about possibly moving the team. It would be amazing if a team could be successful with all that other stuff going on.  

30. Buffalo Sabres (16-30-10, LW: 30)
Things just continue to get worse for the Sabres, who have now lost Jack Eichel for a substantial amount of time to another high ankle sprain suffered in Boston over the weekend. It’s called Sabres. 

31. Arizona Coyotes (13-32-10, LW: 31)
The minus-64 goal differential for the Coyotes is truly putrid for the Coyotes. They have some young talent, but one has to wonder when they’ll be due for changes again with their plan clearly not working out right now.  

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A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

A look at Bruins in free agency: Anton Khudobin

It was a bit eyebrow-raising when Bruins team president Cam Neely last week mentioned backup goaltending as a priority for the Bruins on their offseason shopping list. The assumption was that the Bruins would find common ground with looming free agent Anton Khudobin after a stellar season in which he played 31 games as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

The ability to play well and play relatively often is a mandatory one with the Bruins as the formula for team success includes a plan that gives their No. 1 in Rask ample physical and mental rest in the regular season.

A return for Khudobin, 32, is still the most likely scenario for the Bruins when all things are considered given that he posted a 2.56 goals-against average and .913 save percentage as the perfect backup to Rask, and given that he wants to stick around in Boston.

“I want to be here. I like [it] here. I’ve been in California, I’ve been in Texas, I’ve been in Carolina, I’ve been in Minnesota. I’ve been in a lot of cities and a lot of states, and Boston is my favorite one,” said Khudobin, with the trademark twinkle in his eye as he discussed a city he returned to two years ago after his first stint with the Bruins. “That’s clearly [the truth], and it’s not because I want to give it a shot, or try to say I’m so nice I’m going to just sign here. This is my favorite city. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to sign here, or if I’m going to go away, or if I’m going to sign here. Boston is still going to be my favorite city.

“Don [Sweeney] knows that I love it here. I love the city and everybody knows it. How much is it going to be a factor in signing a new contract, I don’t know? I don’t think it will be a factor. I don’t think it matters. It matters what they can offer and how much I’m willing to take. For me personally, I would love to stay here. I’m 32 right now, and if I’m going to play until 40 I would love to play another eight years here. That’s clear for me. If we will get a deal, today, or tomorrow, or in free agency, I don’t know. But if it will happen in Boston, I will be happy.”

So, the good news is that the B’s and Khudobin are halfway there with the player clearly in love with the city and the team and has already proven he can provide the support Rask clearly needs. Still, it’s also a safe bet that, coming off a strong season, Khudobin is going to want a bit of a raise from the two-year, $2.4 million contract he signed a couple of years ago. Perhaps his season was even good enough to entice a goalie-challenged NHL team into giving him another go-round as a possible No. 1 candidate after mixed reviews in his one and only shot with the Carolina Hurricanes.

The uncertainty of Khudobin as a possible free agent come July 1 and the poor conditioning that factored into an at-times bad opening season in Boston might just be giving the Bruins pause about bringing him back on a multi-year deal. That seems to be bearing out in some of the B’s organizational comments about the backup goaltending headed into the offseason.

“I thought [Khudobin] had a great year for us. He really stepped in when Tuukka was struggling a little bit and gave us an opportunity to win hockey games,” said Neely. “If he we didn’t have that, we certainly have had the year that we did. He’s well-liked in the locker room and starting last year with those two big games against Chicago and the Islanders before he followed it up with a great start this year.

“Obviously it has to make sense for us. When somebody has a really good year headed into UFA they want to see what’s out there, so you can’t blame them for that.”

Certainly, the Bruins could, and should, be willing to go into the two-year, $3-3.5 million range for Khudobin given the stability he helped bring to the goaltending situation. That would be a fair league rate for a backup goalie. The problem for the Bruins is that they don’t have any ready-made alternatives within the organization. Zane McIntyre had a very mixed AHL season with the Providence Bruins and Malcolm Subban was lost to the Vegas Golden Knights via waivers at the beginning of this past season.

“Zane had pushed the previous year. He had an up-and-down year this year. Had some real good pockets of games where he was excellent, and other games where some of the situations, he didn’t necessarily rise up to. He’s in the [backup goalie] mix, certainly, to push for our group. We’re exploring bringing Anton back and see if that might work,” said Sweeney. “If not, we may have to go to an alternative. Daniel Vladar was around, played a lot more games this year. He will be in Providence next year as part of the development process for him.

“[Kyle] Keyser came in at the end of the year, as well, had a good year. He’s part of it. Jeremy Swayman also had a very good year in Maine and took over the starting role there. We feel like we’re starting to make sure we address it appropriately, and hopefully one of these guys emerges as the next number one for the Boston Bruins. It’s an area we have to make sure that we’re spot on. We’ll be looking at [McIntyre] again this summer, and it starts with where our talks with Anton go.”

So let’s be honest about the names mentioned above. The 20-year-old Vladar has played 12 games in the AHL the past two seasons and Swayman is in the middle of his collegiate career with the Black Bears. Keyser was last spotted being taken to the hospital via ambulance after getting hit in the neck with a puck at a Bruins playoff practice. He was expected to be fine afterward, but it’s clear he’s also not ready to be an NHL backup straight out of junior hockey.

So, McIntyre is the only candidate with any qualifications to be an NHL backup next season and his 3.97 GAA and .858 save percentage in eight NHL appearances should give the Bruins a whole lot of pause given the importance of the position. Certainly, there will be some backup goalie candidates in free agency that have experience with the Bruins organization whether it’s Chad Johnson, Michael Hutchinson or Jeremy Smith, or Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen or Jaroslav Halak that might be ready to transition fully into an aging, oft-used backup at a discount in Boston.

The good news is that the Bruins should have a lot of different backup goalie options to choose from if that’s the plan come July 1, but the better news would be if both Khudobin and the B’s come to a sensible agreement to keep Rask and Khudobin intact as a tandem. After all, they finished last season fourth in the NHL in GAA (2.57), tied for ninth in save percentage (.912), and gave the Black and Gold a chance to win just about every night.

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Morning Skate: Don't overestimate Smith's role in this Vegas show

Morning Skate: Don't overestimate Smith's role in this Vegas show

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while wishing I’d put some money on the Vegas Golden Knights at the beginning of the season to win the Stanley Cup.

*Interesting piece on the aforementioned Vegas Golden Knights, and their MVP Marc-Andre Fleury on their unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final. A number of players were mentioned including William Karlsson and Nate Schmidt among others, but one that wasn’t is former Bruins winger Reilly Smith. Smith has been a pretty good performer for Vegas in the postseason, but let’s be honest for all those people harping on the Bruins giving him up a few years back: He’s got two goals through three full rounds of the playoffs, so he hasn’t exactly been worthy of mention for the Conn Smythe trophy either to this point. He’s a good complimentary player on a Vegas team taking a deep run, nothing more and nothing less.

*Speaking of the Cinderella Golden Knights, here’s a piece on their rise to the Cup Final in their franchise’s first year of existence after dispatching the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday afternoon. It looked to me like Winnipeg ran out of gas after a tough series against the Nashville Predators, but full credit to Vegas for seizing their chance. It’s also a great thing for the NHL that Vegas was able to do this in their first season and truly prove to all fan bases that anything is possible. I don’t get what’s going on with people saying otherwise.

*Larry Brooks has a column on the New York Rangers getting the head coach that they wanted in BU hockey coach David Quinn.

*The Golden Knights, at the urging of Marc-Andre Fleury, follow the lead of Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and show no fear in handling the conference championship trophy.

*The Tampa Bay Lightning have done a good job of keeping Alex Ovechkin under wraps as they’ve taken control of the Eastern Conference Final.

*For something completely different: It’s good to see that Janet Jackson has still got it in a Billboard Music Awards show performance this weekend.

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