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What We Learned: Toronto is the league’s most intriguing second-half team

Ryan Lambert
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Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

Now that we're all done complaining about how lame the All-Star Game is, we can really start to focus on what really matters: The final 30 or so games of the NHL season.

It's hard to believe there's only about two months left in the regular season, and that October was so long ago, but we've seen a lot of teams show signs that they might be competitive. There was the collapse of the Buffalo Sabres, the rise and predictable fall of the Minnesota Wild, the Edmonton Oilers leading the West for a few days before settling into its familiar role as the odds-on favorite to win the draft lottery.

But one team that had a lot of early success and looks as though it could elbow its way back into the thick of the playoffs is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Technically, they're tied for seventh in the East with 55 points, alongside the fading Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils.

The difference between Toronto and the two teams currently even with it are easy enough to see. It's hard to tell if Florida's as for-real as it led us to believe a month or so ago, or will ultimately yield to the hard-charging Washington Capitals because its goaltending will start looking like a Jose Theodore/Scott Clemmensen platoon. It's unlikely that the scoring slows down any time soon (if only because it's already sub-average), but if a couple career 1B goaltenders — who were likely only ever intended to be stopgaps until Jacob Markstrom is ready for the show — turn back into pumpkins, then the crash out of the playoff picture could be very precipitous indeed.

And New Jersey's financial situation seems far more pressing than whether it will make the playoffs right now, and the two relate in one very important way: What happens with Zach Parise. If it is determined that he is not going to re-sign with the team either of his own volition or because they don't have the financial wherewithal to get it done, then they might ship him out and would instantly become a painfully mediocre team. If either of those things were to happen, though, the latter is looking far more likely than the former. But then again, ask Dallas how it felt to lose Brad Richards for nothing.

Meanwhile, Toronto is the only team in the league with a positive goal differential not currently occupying a playoff spot. Four of the teams ahead of them in the standings are behind their plus-4 (Florida at minus-14, New Jersey at minus-7, Ottawa at minus-3 and Washington at minus-1). And the Leafs, unlike at least two of those teams above them, are very much a known quantity.

(Coming Up: Jeremy Jacobs supports Tim Thomas; They love hockey in Raleigh; Blue Jackets fans protest; Chara thinks Datsyuk is the tops; Jamie Benn wins the Accuracy Shootout; The Rangers' success and John Tortorella; Corey Perry rumors?; Marian Hossa beauty goal; and a three-way deal for Carey Price.)

James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson will give them average-to-good goaltending on a nightly basis and occasionally exceed that, giving them a chance to win more than half their games as long as Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul keep scoring. The penalty kill, at just 75 percent, is dead last in the league and the team will either be a legitimate playoff contender or drop off depending on what Brian Burke does to bolster that aspect of the team.

Proficient defensive centers and decent mid-to-low-pairing NHL defensemen are readily available from a number of teams every year after the All-Star break and Burke is not one to be shy about working the phones. Anyone expecting some sort of blockbuster swap is likely to go home disappointed, but for teams like Toronto with very specific needs to address — i.e. not the usual, nebulous "second-line scoring help" (not that they couldn't use that too)— good help can usually be found for a song. Look no further than the recent Brendan Morrison trade for the Chicago Blackhawks. Decent player who can fit a number of roles, obtained for the price of an AHL defenseman.

Obviously whether the Leafs make the playoffs at all won't matter much since they're almost certainly going to play one of the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers or Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. That is, unless they finish sixth and draw the winner of the Southeast Division. Hell, that should be every mediocre playoff team's goal at this point, right?

Toronto is probably the best team of that group, and they certainly appear to be the most likely candidate to go on some sort of run roughly the equivalent of when the season began. Don't get me wrong, the Leafs aren't going to be dominant and it would be a shocker if they actually won a playoff round.

But if we're talking about simply the most interesting team in the home stretch here, it's Toronto by a good distance.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Corey Perry entered the All-Star break with 22 goals, good for 10th in the NHL, and some questioned whether he deserved to be there given how much better Teemu Selanne has been this year. However, his coach doesn't see it that way. "How many 20-goal scorers are there in the league?" Bruce Boudreau asked. Well, Bruce, it looks like there are at least 10.

Boston Bruins: Jeremy Jacobs weighs in on the Tim Thomas thing and he doesn't seem to care what the goaltender does as long as he stops the puck. And Tim Thomas is very good indeed at stopping the puck. So much for the trade rumors.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres look like they're gonna start shipping out parts of The Core. Which makes sense since it is rotten. The decision is only like two months too late.

Calgary Flames: For some extremely odd reason, people are acting like shipping out Brendan Morrison, who has four goals and 11 points in just 28 games this year, is somehow a giant loss. He's officially "great in the room" though so I guess that is a big deal.

Carolina Hurricanes: People in hockey like Raleigh. People in Raleigh like hockey. This is important in attracting top free agents and making the Hurricanes successf… wait what?

Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks sent Jimmy Hayes back to the AHL yesterday, which on its surface doesn't seem like a big deal. But it more than likely means that either Jonathan Toews or Patrick Sharp will be returning from injury after the All-Star break.

Colorado Avalanche: Hey this assessment of the Avs' season so far seems a little off. Under "Negatives," there's not a thing about "Young goaltender the team traded a first- and second-round pick for has been complete garbage." An odd omission.

Columbus Blue Jackets: When 250 people show up on All-Star weekend to say that the team management is awful, and there are members of that management meeting them, giving them free coffee and going, "Yeah, we know," that is not a good thing for a franchise.

Dallas Stars: Jamie Benn won the accurate shot competition, which is the most underrated of all All-Star skills challenges.

Detroit Red Wings Presented by Amway: This just in: Pavel Datsyuk is good at hockey. Zdeno Chara thinks he's the best player in the league. He's not, but that is what Zdeno Chara thinks.

Edmonton Oilers: Ladislav Smid is becoming one of the Oilers' most reliable and consistent players. You can decide for yourself if that speaks positively for him or negatively for the Oilers.

Florida Panthers: It must feel really awesome to be Brian Campbell right now. You're rich, your team is in the playoff hunt and you're an NHL All-Star after pretty much everyone figured your career as an elite player was dead and buried.

Los Angeles Kings: With his Kings on All-Star break, Darryl Sutter went up to Manchester, N.H., to catch the AHL Monarchs' game and get an eyeful of some of the team's prospects. That constitutes news during the break.

Minnesota Wild: On Feb. 26, the Wild will have an auction of camouflage jerseys to benefit Defending the Blue Line, a military charity. Good stuff.

Montreal Canadiens: Who would have thought at this time last year that we'd actually be reading articles entitled, "Why the Canadiens should keep PK Subban?" Would have thought the answer is self-evident: He is a very good young player having a bit of a sophomore slump. It happens.

Nashville Predators: Expect to see more of this kind of "Boy aren't Shea Weber and Ryan Suter great together" pieces in the near future because Nashville's going to be putting on a four-man forecheck to retain both long-term before Suter hits the open market. But yes, they are really great together.

New Jersey Devils: If the Devils trade Zach Parise, they are stupid. More self-evident stuff that I can't believe needs to be said, but I guess when your team is getting advanced money to continue operations, the shopping of an expensive and excellent player should be expected.

New York Islanders: Matt Martin and Matt Moulson host veterans and their families at every Islanders home game, one of those things that you don't hear a lot about. Really good stories about why they decided to do it.

New York Rangers: Great stuff from Jesse Spector on John Tortorella and why he has been so successful with the Rangers so far this season. Even Scott Hartnell, who has never played for Torts, was afraid to piss him off in the All-Star Game. "I know he'll call guys out, for sure, and make sure you're working hard," he said. "I don't want to be that guy that he sits there and calls out."

Ottawa Senators: Remember that whole flap about the Senators paying Dany Heatley's roster bonus right before they traded him? They might end up getting that back. Another huge win for Melnyk!

Philadelphia Flyers: What is making Scott Hartnell so good this year? Did you guess "Playing with Claude Giroux?" You did? Of course you did.

Phoenix Coyotes: Congratulations to Gary Bettman on earning his 1 millionth "The Coyotes could be sold in the near future" headline. An important milestone.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin has come a long way in his time in the league, and now no longer leans on a translator for media sessions. Over the weekend, he held court for 24 minutes answering questions, and did a lengthy TV interview as well. Some wondered if this will allow him to become one of the game's top stars. "He's not there yet?" asked a bewildered Marian Hossa.

San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture is the Sharks' only All-Star representative. But is he the Sharks' best, or at least most dangerous, player?

St. Louis Blues: The Blues' rebuild is working and all it took was swapping out like two players and firing the coach. Are you listening, Pegula?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Crazy stat you probably hadn't thought about: Martin St. Louis has assisted on just nine of Steven Stamkos' league-leading 32 goals this season. That speaks well for Stamkos, obviously, but probably speaks better of St. Louis, since he's still producing at a point a game.

Toronto Maple Leafs: With John-Michael Liles locked up long-term, what implications are there for the rest of the Leafs blue line and where does it lead the team in the future?

Vancouver Canucks: So there was that Corey Perry-to-Vancouver rumor, but it seems wholly unlikely. So how did it start? Like all the good ones do: Some idiot made it up.

Washington Capitals: I totally forgot Dennis Wideman was named to the All-Star Game.

Winnipeg Jets: Oh it turns out a bunch of Jets were asked to play in the All-Star Game but they all either couldn't or wouldn't. So all that "THE LEAGUE DOESN'T RESPECT WINNIPEG" garbage from last week turns out to be wrong. Good.

Gold Star Award

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Well hey, Marian Gaborik was named MVP of the whole weekend because he had a hat trick so I guess that'll do it.

Minus of the Weekend

Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette with the cretinous column of the week: "Truth is, [Tim Thomas] felt free to dis Barack Obama, because Obama is black."

Look, feel free to think Thomas is an idiot — because he is! — but outright saying he's racist is probably a little much. Oh wait, though, "free speech." That's Jack Todd's right as a Free Citizen (of Canada).

Play of the Weekend

It was, overall, a good game for Marians. Look at this Hossa goal. Hoo boy.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User "heathfilms" is trying to help the Habs big-time by ... well, just look.

To Montreal:
Halak
Paajarvi
Edm's 1st

To Edmonton:
Price

To St. Louis:
MTL's 1st

Sure.

Signoff

You didn't do anything but sit down. You're lazy, and you're stupid.

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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