Around the NHL: Islanders on Top, Nino’s New Home, a Pair of Punishments

By Ryan Black, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

As part of the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement, every team is now mandated a five-day midseason break, with no games or practices allowed. This year, the league decided to flank the built-in All-Star break with those scheduling gaps, so from now until the weekend, about half the league will be inactive, and after the festivities are over, the other half will begin their time off. 

The Flyers time comes now, during the week leading up to the All-Star weekend festivities, so maybe go enjoy the Sixers for the time being.

While some of the league’s best players prepare for a light, friendly televised workout next weekend in San Jose, here’s a few nuggets to chew on from around the league.

Islanders on Top

Before the season, few would have picked the New York Islanders to be in a playoff spot nearly 50 games in, let alone a comfortable one. But, as we detailed recently, the Eastern Conference is kind of a mess, with just one team within eight points of the last Wildcard.

And right now, the Islanders aren’t just comfortable, they are atop the Metropolitan Division with 62 points through 48 games played. That’s roughly the territory serious contenders like the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators are in.

Despite a middle-of-the-pack offense, the team has a Top-5 goal differential in the league thanks to the stingiest defense in the game. Coach Barry Trotz, who made his name by getting grade-A defense out of an underwhelming expansion roster in Nashville, must be considered the lead candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy at this point in time.

The Islanders only lead the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets by three points in the division, and the Pittsburgh Penguins by four. But as of this writing they have a 99.2% chance of making the playoffs — something that would have been unthinkable in the days after John Tavares defected to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Trading (sort of) Heats Up

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of depth deals — the Flyers took part in a couple of them — but this week saw one of the first actual hockey trades of the year. The Minnesota Wild sent 26 year-old winger Nino Niederreiter off to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for 25 year-old center Victor Rask.

From the outset, the trade looks like a steal for Carolina. After scoring 45 and 48 points in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Rask only put up 31 last season and had a pitiful six in 26 games for the Hurricanes so far in this campaign. Niederreiter, a large and speedy forward, has struggled to repeat his 57-point campaign from two seasons ago, but has still been a much more steady and consistent contributor. He played his second game in a Carolina uniform Sunday night — the 500th of his career.

The Anaheim Ducks made a flurry of minor moves as their season has begun to spiral out of control. The team has lost 13 of their last 15, including 12 straight. This week, they may have made some Flyers fans chuckle, trading defenseman Michael Del Zotto to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Luke Schenn and a seventh-round pick.

Some Suspension Business

The Flyers’ Jori Lehtera somehow escaped punishment for his blatant boarding of Ryan Donato in last week’s tilt with the Boston Bruins, but a couple of other players found themselves suspended this week.

First, Paul Byron of the Montreal Canadiens got suspended three games for a hit on Florida Panther Mackenzie Weegar. The hit seemed more inaccurate than intentionally vicious, but the Habs’ forward still ended up slamming the Florida player’s head directly into the glass. As the Montreal Gazette notes, Byron is hardly your prototypical dirty player. It’s his first suspension in nine NHL seasons, and he has just six penalty minutes so far this season.

In Nashville, star forward Ryan Johansen got issued a two-game punishment for a pretty ugly slash to the head of Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. As the two jostled in the corner, Johansen turned around and dropped his stick directly into Scheifele’s cheek, briefly felling the big scorer. Johansen does have something of a reputation for borderline plays, notably after an elbow to the head of Colorado Avalanche defender Tyson Barrie during last season’s playoffs (that went unpunished).

Both coaches defended their suspended players’ actions as “accidental,” though Canadiens bench boss Claude Julien was a bit more forgiving than Preds coach Peter Laviolette.