It’s a new year, and the holiday break is well behind us. So we pulled together a panel of NHL experts to weigh in on some of the hot topics around the league as the 2019-20 season turns to its fourth month.
In this edition, we’re buying or selling:
1. Yes, the Atlantic Division is loaded. But the Florida Panthers will still finish with a top-three seed.
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Sell, but only because the teams the Panthers will be looking up at in the standings are the Leafs, Bruins and Lightning. Florida is on pace for around 95 points but could go over that if its defense improves and if it gobbles up points against the bottom of the division.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Sell. Behind the Bruins, those spots will be spoken for by the Lightning and Leafs. Since making a coaching change, Toronto has completely flipped the script on its season. Under coach Sheldon Keefe, it is 13-4-1 and has been holding a lead for 51.2% of its game time, both of which are league bests. And while everyone has been making a big deal of Tampa Bay’s seemingly pedestrian record this season, it is quietly lurking as a dominant team too. It’ll solidify a top-three spot in the Atlantic once it finally starts to cash in its games in hand in the coming weeks.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Sell. The Bruins, Leafs and Lightning (looking a lot more like last season’s version these past few games) are too strong to hurdle. But if they tighten up defensively and learn to win on the road, the Panthers will squeeze in as the Atlantic’s only wild card.
Tim Kavanagh, NHL editor: Buy. For a team with a goal differential in the single digits, the Panthers’ point pace is pretty much on track with what we’d expect. However, they haven’t gotten the stellar version of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with any real consistency yet. Once he turns a corner, they have the ability to go on a serious run.
Vince Masi, ESPN Stats & Information: Sell. Statistically, they are one of the roller-coaster-type teams. They join the Wild as the only teams to average a half-goal above expectation both for and against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. Too much inconsistency will be their downfall.
2. The Detroit Red Wings are the worst team we’ve seen in at least five years and won’t reach 60 points.
Wyshynski: Buy. Sixty points? That’s a pretty generous ask for a team that’s on pace for 46 and has absolutely no desire to improve. Prospect Alexis Lafreniere isn’t going to draft himself, you know.
Filipovic: Buy. The Wings are currently on pace to finish the season with 46 points and a minus-134 goal differential. The 2016-17 Avalanche had similarly horrendous numbers, but that was largely due to catastrophically bad goaltending, as their underlying numbers weren’t actually all that terrible. This Red Wings group is the worst team we’ve seen since the Tim Murray Sabres that were actively tanking in the hopes of landing high draft picks. Hopefully for Detroit’s sake, it is rewarded with Lafreniere for its efforts.
Matiash: Buy. Looking at the arithmetic, the Wings realistically need an exceptionally hot run over two to three weeks to even flirt with 60. Who — on a team led by Tyler Bertuzzi with 31 points — is going to provide that boost?
Kavanagh: Buy. With 0.56 standings points per game as of Jan. 2, it’s looking grim. It will be nice for Detroit to get an injection of high-end talent with (presumably) the No. 1 or 2 pick in the 2020 draft, but the Wings are going to need at least two full offseasons for the “Yzerplan” to take effect.
Masi: Buy. Essentially over the past quarter of the season, the Red Wings have been playing at a 28-point pace, and there haven’t been any signs of improvement. One would actually believe they are closer to being the worst team since the 1999-2000 Thrashers who went 14-57-7 for 39 points.
3. To keep pace in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins need to keep starting Tristan Jarry in goal over Matt Murray.
Wyshynski: Sell. This is just a matter of playing the hot hand if you’re Mike Sullivan. Jarry has been the better goalie this season, no doubt about it. But Murray is still a guy who can win you six of seven games as he did back in October.
Filipovic: Buy. At least for the time being, Jarry has clearly proved himself to be the superior option. His .938 save percentage this season is tops among all goalies with double-digit appearances, and his plus-15.2 goals saved above average ranks him behind only Darcy Kuemper. Who knows how long it’ll last considering that (a) the sample size is still under 20 games, and (b) Jarry has never really done this before at this level. But similar to when Murray burst onto the scene and surprisingly took the crease for himself in Pittsburgh, the volatility at the position lends itself to riding the hot hand for as long as you can.
Matiash: Buy, as long as Jarry continues to dominate in net while Murray struggles regularly. And that script doesn’t appear to be flipping anytime soon. Anyone familiar with my fantasy coverage will be well aware of my enduring astonishment at the reluctance to invest in Pittsburgh’s (slightly) younger goaltender. Jordan Binnington‘s sample size of work was even smaller this time last year, and he went on to win the Stanley Cup. Why are we waiting for Jarry to stumble?
Kavanagh: Sell. Echoing what Greg notes, this will be all about the NHL’s version of load management — i.e. finding the right mix of whom to start when. The time to lean on one netminder is during a playoff run, and Jarry gets my vote for that honor if the Pens qualify.
Masi: Buy. Do you know which of these goalies ranks in the top five in save percentage above expectation on unblocked shots, according to Moneypuck.com? Jarry. Do you know who ranks in the bottom three in the same department? Murray. Ride Jarry.
4. The Winnipeg Jets will trade for a defenseman at or before the trade deadline.
Wyshynski: Buy. The Jets will get Dmitry Kulikov back this month, but that blue line could use a bit more than Dmitry Kulikov.
Filipovic: Buy. They’ve been making it work all season with a patchwork combination of smoke and mirrors — and Connor Hellebuyck standing on his head — but that’s not an especially promising recipe for future success. There aren’t any real game-changers at the position readily available on the open market, but it probably wouldn’t make sense for the Jets to push all their chips in with this group even if there were. As long as they keep hanging around a wild-card spot, a half-measure upgrade that shouldn’t cost much makes more sense. Considering the volume of minutes Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto are eating up at the moment for them, it shouldn’t be too difficult to make improvements at the position.
Kavanagh: Buy. It’s amazing how well the Jets have done thus far without a standout blueliner, as they wait to see what Dustin Byfuglien is going to do (and that situation remains as muddled as ever). GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should reward this group for its perseverance by adding someone more closely resembling a No. 1 defenseman — and the sooner, the better.
Masi: Buy. Last year, Cheveldayoff made a whopping six trades on deadline day, and the Jets have their own 2020 draft choices in the first three rounds to make a deal. According to Moneypuck.com, the Jets have two of the five worst defensive pairings in terms of expected goal differential per 60 minutes.