Bottoms Up is a weekly feature on Backhand Shelf that admits that sometimes the underdog doesn’t win: sometimes they just lose and lose and lose some more. This week, I explore how they sometimes win, completely undermining the stated purpose of this feature. Jerks.
Of the four teams currently inhabiting the NHL’s basement, making grilled cheese in their toaster ovens and sleeping on futons, two are scouring the classifieds looking for their own place, while two are rearranging their cinderblock and two-by-four bookshelves.
I might have let that metaphor get away from me, but you get the picture: two of the bottom four teams in the NHL are trending upwards, looking to escape the basement, while two are crashing and burning and setting themselves up for a long stay in the cellar.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks have identical 2-7-1 records in their last 10 games and have both made coaching changes in hopes of reversing their woes. Both teams have only one win since their coaching change, though the Hurricanes have played two more games under Kirk Muller than the Ducks have played under Bruce Boudreau. The two teams also sport the two worst goal differentials in the league: minus-29 for the Hurricanes and minus-27 for the Ducks.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Hurricanes are sitting last place in the Eastern Conference with just 22 points and the Ducks are just one point out of last place in the Western Conference with 21 points. Things are even worse for the Hurricanes when you take into account that they have played 31 games, the most of any team in the league. The one bright spot for the Hurricanes right now is that they managed to get rid of Tomas Kaberle and don’t need to continue paying his $4.25 million contract through 2014. As a bonus, the defenceman they acquired, Jaroslav Spacek, assisted on both Hurricanes goals in his first appearance.
The other two teams in the cellar, however, are on the opposite trajectory, even if their gains are modest. The Blue Jackets still have the fewest points of any team in the league, but are 5-3-2 in their last 10 games and have only lost one of their last four games in regulation. They recently had a streak of five games without a single regulation loss. A big reason for the turnaround – the aircraft-carrier-slow turnaround – has been the play of Curtis Sanford, who has succeeded by virtue of not being Steve Mason.
The other big reason was the arrival of the big Russian defenceman, Nikita Nikitin, who came over from the St. Louis Blues in a trade for Kris Russell. In 13 games for the Blue Jackets, Nikitin has 10 points, but it’s not just his offensive production that has buoyed the Blue Jackets. Despite starting in the defensive zone more than any other Columbus defenceman not named Radek Martinek, Nikitin consistently pushes puck possession into the offensive zone: his Corsi rating is second amongst Blue Jackets’ defencemen. He hasn’t played fewer than 20 minutes in a game for Columbus, sometimes brushing close to 30 when games go into overtime.
Kris Russell, on the other hand, scored 3 points in 12 games for the Blue Jackets prior to the trade and played more than 20 minutes just twice for Columbus. Nikitin has been a major upgrade for Columbus and the defence has been noticeably steadier since his arrival.
The New York Islanders are 4-3-3 in their last 10 games, which isn’t particularly impressive or indicative of an upward trend. In their last six games, however, the Islanders are 4-0-2 and looking a bit more like the team I thought they’d be at the beginning of the season. It’s not a coincidence that Al Montoya has appeared in all six games, five times as the starting goaltender and one time in relief of the injured Rick DiPietro against the Stars, stopping all 13 shots he faced in the third period to earn DiPietro the win.
It should be abundantly clear now that Montoya is the Islanders’ number one goaltender at this point and the best chance the Islanders have of moving out of the basement and into a nice apartment, perhaps with a box garden in the window sill.
It’s a little concerning that the Islanders’ top line of Tavares, Parenteau, and Moulson are the ones doing all the heavy lifting offensively – they’ll need some secondary scoring at some point – but it’s hard to be upset when they’re scoring like they have been recently. Tavares has 7 points in his last 4 games, Parenteau has 8 points in his last 6 games, and Moulson has a whopping 11 points in his last 6 games, including a 4-goal game against the Stars, with every one of those goals necessary in a 5-4 victory. Moulson is also the only Islander with more than 4 games played with a positive plus/minus rating.
While the Blue Jackets and Islanders still have a long way to go – the Blue Jackets still have the worst record in the NHL – there are definitely some positive signs in their recent results. It’s possible that they might be replaced in the basement by the Tampa Bay Lightning or Colorado Avalanche in the near future.