Saying that an NHL team is at a “crossroads” during an 82-game season is almost always inaccurate, at least if you argue that there’s only one such fork in the road.
Instead, there are many times that a team can head down one road filled with peril or one that almost seems gold-bricked. If you don’t pay attention, you can miss fairly obvious contextual clues for different zigzagging paths; sometimes a losing streak or hot run can be pretty easily explained by a stream of home or away games.
Of course, a team can also be like the New York Rangers, a squad that's dangerously close to blowing a nine-game homestand, as they've already lost the first three of their long set of games at Madison Square Garden. The cozy comforts of home can suffocate like a boa constrictor when things aren't going well; it's sort of like how the holidays can often make parents more disappointed with an underachieving child (since they have to see them, and all).
The NHL handed two-game suspensions to Richard Panik and Jared Cowen on Wednesday, but neither are really players of the game-changing variety. Granted, Shawn Thornton isn’t either, but his upcoming decision still seems important in the bigger-picture.
So, without that news, I thought I’d take a look at a few fork-in-the-road players (or even groups of players) who can have a big impact in which direction his team takes … at least until the next turn comes.
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The Detroit Red Wings deservedly get attention for being the gold standard franchise, yet they’ve made enough mistakes lately (see: giving a big deal to a seemingly broken player in Stephen Weiss) that they’re now depending on a small core of outstanding players to do the heavy lifting. With Henrik Zetterberg out until Dec. 28 at the earliest after being placed on the LTIR and Jimmy Howard tweaking his knee, there are a few guys who could very well determine Detroit’s fate (or at least keep the Wings afloat).
Note: this column isn’t going to discuss guys who’ve played very well. After all, can you really expect a whole lot more from Pavel Datsyuk?
Jonas Gustavsson - It was already getting to the point that the Red Wings were probably struggling to justify playing Howard over “The Monster.” The Swedish goalie has more wins (8 to 6) despite playing in almost half as many games (11) as Howard has (21) and the individual stats are pretty convincing, too. (Gustavsson has a .930 save percentage to Howard’s middling .910 mark.)
If Howard’s knee injury is serious, Gustavsson could be looking at an enormous opportunity … and challenge.
The Red Wings are obviously a little banged up right now, which might just prompt them to scratch-and-claw in front of Gustavsson (or they could fall apart with such a small margin of error). He’s in a contract year and the Red Wings - wonky home record or not - will play four straight games in Hockeytown after Thursday's visit to Tampa Bay. Gustavsson (29 percent owned) is easily worth a short-term look in my opinion.
Johan Franzen - “The Mule” has been pretty good this season, which seems like it’s often the case when he can stay off the injured list. Still, with Zetterberg injured, they’ll expect their second-best scoring Swede to carry more of the load, even as he adjusts to a move to center.
It won’t be easy, so the Red Wings need continued quality work from Darren Helm (10 points in 15 games) and Gustav Nyquist (7 in 10) along with a bump from Tomas Tatar to stem the tide.
PROBLEMS IN THE EMPIRE STATE
New York Rangers - Head coach Alain Vigneault isn’t exactly encouraging sympathy by claiming that the Rangers' roster lacks the offensive firepower he craves … but is he wrong, exactly? That’s hard to say.
With that in mind, there are only a couple players you could realistically hope will improve (Mats Zuccarello has 20 points in 31 games? Not bad for a guy who has been battling to keep an NHL career alive …)
Henrik Lundqvist - Obvious, I know, but the Swedish star needs to turn things around. Has the problem been Vigneault’s system vs. John Tortorella’s blocking-heavy setup? The distractions of a contract year? Either way, King Henrik got his money; people won’t feel too much guilt in burying him if he can’t get the job done.
Derick Brassard - He’s been a little banged up lately, but could return as soon as tonight (Thursday).
Admittedly, it probably wasn't realistic to expect Brassard to maintain the near-point-per-game pace he generated after being traded to the Rangers over a full season. Even if he was a go-to guy in the playoffs as well as the regular season.
That being said, with Vigneault in town, it didn't seem impossible, either. Instead, he's been a big disappointment, reverting back to his so-so work with Columbus (he has 14 points and a -9 rating with 53 SOG this season, which looks a lot like the 18 points, -2 and 63 SOG he generated in his last 34 games with Columbus before being traded in 2012-13). Aside from potential permanent doghouse fixture Michael Del Zotto, I can't really imagine the Rangers squeezing much out of other forwards. Brassard seems like the exception. Taking at least two SOG per game would certainly help …
New York Islanders - The Isles broke their losing streak against another team who’s struggling (though the San Jose Sharks are about as different from the Isles as it gets overall), but aside from a surprisingly determined performance from Kevin Poulin, it was a win fueled by usual suspects John Tavares, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo.
Michael Grabner - When the season began, it seemed like this speedy winger [who either is a) generally forgotten or b) occasionally pointed to as a Canucks trade blunder when he’s actually playing well] actually looked like he might make a leap with eight points in 10 games. Since November rolled around, he’s failed to record a single point. That’s zero goals and zero assists with a -8 rating in 19 games played. Let’s all apologize to Mike Gillis.
Josh Bailey - Josh Bailey isn't much better. After notching eight points in his first 12 games, Bailey only has two (both assists) in 19.
Expecting a lot from Bailey (or Grabner) is dangerous, but getting basically nothing from them is a substantial concern. Bailey tends to get his points in spurts - 10 of 19 last season in 13 April games, 16 of 32 points in 2011-12 in 15 March contests - so Jack Capuano (or Capuano's replacement) needs to figure out what can be done to wake Bailey up.
Philadelphia Flyers - The larger story is that Philly is straightening things out, although there may be at least a minor concern that the thing that shockingly kept them from totally falling apart at times this season - Ray Emery and especially Steve Mason's goaltending - hasn't looked as great in December as it did in October and November. Obviously, it's a small sample size, but one to note nonetheless.
Mason is the bigger concern because he's been such a revelation. Before December, he hadn't allowed more than three goals in any single game. He's allowed four in both of his last starts and 11 in three full games (plus one goal on five SOG in relief against Chicago last night, which I wouldn't beat Mason up too much for).
Maybe it can all be blamed on his agent's hilarious claim that he should get a contract that's comparable to what Carey Price is receiving?
(I was going to try to find a way to shoehorn San Jose into this discussion to provide a West team and discuss the Sharks’ four-game losing streak, but Antti Niemi isn’t really playing all that poorly and they’ve out-shot opponents 156-106 in that span. So, really, Sharks fans and those connected with the team should just ask for better luck.)
QUICK HITS AND INJURIES (full list)
While it was easy to justify, I was a little surprised the Kings rode the hot hand in back-to-backs, giving Martin Jones another start over Ben Scrivens. Jones is now Scrivens-ing Scrivens, so why not give the former a shot if you’re the frequent adding-and-dropping type? … Evander Kane (lower body) could be out for a few games, if not more. Not good … Sounds like Zack Kassian might be in line for some serious PIM as Edmonton might be seeking revenge for Sam Gagner’s lost chicklets … One other interesting Islander to watch is Ryan Strome. He’s been touted for some time and was recalled this week. Again, they need scoring from guys not named Tavares, Vanek or Okposo very badly … Joffrey Lupul is back in action … He might not be a world-beater, but Kris Versteeg’s probably going to be productive for Chicago. I bet Stan Bowman occasionally wakes his family up late at night as he just chuckles about that trade … Jakub Voracek's showing some signs of life with a goal in two straight games, and maybe more importantly, a solid seven SOG. Even with health issues in consideration, he's been a huge disappointment, but put him on your watch list and focus on December numbers. Who cares what he didn't do before if he can be a quality sniper for the next few months?
(OK, people who drafted Voracek fairly high care, but still …)