NHL experts buy/sell Lightning winning the Atlantic, Justin Williams' scoring pace, more

ByNHL Insiders ESPN logo
Friday, January 10, 2020

All 31 teams have passed the midpoint of the 2019-20 NHL season, but nothing is settled. After you check out our midseason grades on each team, fixes for a handful of teams in the playoff hunt, our rundown of the biggest shocks of the first half and a look at which teams have the greatest chance for a second-half turnaround, join our panel as we buy or sell another batch of hot topics.

This week, we're looking at:

1. The Tampa Bay Lightning are back on track, and will win the Atlantic Division.

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Sell. The Lightning have woken up from their sleepy early-season struggles and are starting to look like themselves again (since Dec. 1, Tampa Bay has the most points in the league and ranks second in expected goals). They'll ride this hot streak, but I still think it's Boston's division to lose.

Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: Sell. The Bruins have built up just enough of a cushion to keep their distance. I think the Lightning are going to get close, though, particularly since only 15 of Boston's remaining 37 games are at home, where the Bruins have been nearly unbeatable in regulation this season.

Ben Arledge, NHL editor: Buy. The Bruins have a seven-point cushion, but the Bolts have two games in hand, so I'll go bold here. Have we already forgotten that last season's Blues went from dead last in the NHL in early January to a team that finished one point back in the Central (and eventually won the Stanley Cup)? There's more than enough time to make up ground when you have a roster like Tampa Bay's -- as long as it remains healthy. And after nine consecutive victories, Boston's rearview mirror is getting awfully full of Nikita Kucherov & Co.

Sachin Chandan, fantasy hockey editor: Sell. There's no doubt Tampa Bay is the hottest team in the division, but Boston has come away with points in 36 of its 44 games played so far, and very rarely loses in regulation. As we head into the time of the season when three-point games become more frequent, it will be difficult for the Lightning to pull ahead, unless they win their two head-to-head matchups in March.

2. Justin Williams will score higher than 0.50 points per game this season.

Kaplan: Buy. The Hurricanes don't necessarily need him to do it -- at midseason, they were the only team in the league with four players at 37 points or more -- but a refreshed Williams will thrive in a shortened season. Plus, Carolina's system naturally sets up excellent high-danger chances for everyone.

Peters: Buy. Williams has had two seasons (out of 20) where he was under 0.50 points per game: an injury-shortened 2008-09 campaign and his rookie season. Coming off of an extended rest, joining a team that has a lot of solid offensive weapons and probably not forgetting how to play the game over the past few months makes me believe Williams will maintain career scoring norms.

Arledge: Sell. Williams is going to contribute, but I'd pause on him scoring more than a point every other game. For one, you can call it rest, but the truth is he has not played at all for six-plus months. It's going to take him time to even get back up to speed. And at 38 years old, you wonder if he's going to snap back into high-end form after such a long layoff. Secondly, I'd question his role. Williams was on the wing on either the Canes' first or second line right into the playoffs last season and led the team in regular-season power-play goals. But you have to assume he's destined for the third or fourth line and limited -- if any -- man-advantage time this turn around, at least for the first bit as he gets rolling again.

Chandan: Buy. As Ben points out, the long layoff could be rough on the veteran Williams, but I think for Williams to average 0.5 points per game, he would likely need to get to the 20-point mark. If you assume that means 10 goals and 10 assists, he would need to match his career shooting percentage of 9.6 over four shots per game. Then he'd need his new linemates to combine for 10 goals on which he gets an assist. Both of these situations are realistic to me.

3. Quinton Byfield is a better fit than Alexis Lafreniere for what the Detroit Red Wings need.

Kaplan: Sell. Have you watched the Red Wings play this season? Their biggest need is talent, plain and simple. I have no doubt Byfield is talented, but from what I've heard, Lafreniere is more of a sure thing.

Peters: Soft sell. If the draft were tomorrow, the best player available would be Lafreniere. That said, there has been a growing belief among some scouts I talk to that there is potential for Byfield to become a dominant No. 1 center. If the Red Wings share that belief, they might go with the 6-foot-4, 215-pound pivot who skates like the wind and has some great hands as a one-two punch with Dylan Larkin. It's still Lafreniere, but there's a long way to go.

Arledge: Sell. Detroit is 11-30-3 with a minus-72 goal differential. It'll end up being among the worst seasons we've seen in years. Don't overthink it and try to fit a pick to position. Take the best talent available, and that's Lafreniere. Now the Red Wings just have to hope they actually get that top spot in the lottery and even have a chance to make this call.

Chandan: Sell. Should the Red Wings get the No. 1 overall pick, they have to take the best talent on the board and figure the rest out, especially given that they need talent up and down the lineup.

4. A team with a negative goal differential will make the playoffs.

Kaplan: Buy. I think this season it's possible considering how many wacky (and high-scoring) games we've seen. Heck, two of the Western Conference playoff spots are currently being held by teams with negative goal differentials (Edmonton and Calgary).

Peters: Buy. It will be only one, but with how bad the bottom of the Pacific Division is right now, there's a pretty decent chance one of the top three teams in that division sneaks in with a negative goal differential. What a weird season out West.

Arledge: Buy. We haven't seen one since 2016-17 (Ottawa, minus-2), but with the way the West is shaping up, you have to assume someone will sneak in with a red number. But I'm with Chris; it'll be only one.

Chandan: Sell. Currently, the wild-card positions in the West look tumultuous, but I can easily see the positive differential Vancouver Canucks snagging a playoff spot over the negative Calgary Flames, and then it comes down to Edmonton climbing out of the red. As long as the Oilers avoid any more four-goal losses, I feel confident in that take.

5. A goalie in a timeshare (45 starts or fewer) will win the Vezina Trophy.

Kaplan: Buy. A split share in net is a growing trend in the NHL this season -- and, along with canceling morning skates, the league's version of the load-management trend. Even though the Vezina typically goes to a guy with a ridiculous workload, I think we'll have to readjust the standards to fit the modern NHL. It's looking like Tristan Jarry (who still has five fewer starts than teammate Matt Murray) is working his way into the conversation.

Peters: Sell. Since this is an award voted on by the general managers, I think it's going to take more time before they shed the voting norms. The timeshare goalies will get more consideration than ever before, but if you hold up what Connor Hellebuyck has done amid all the concerns about Winnipeg's blue line, in a true No. 1 role, it's hard not to give him more credit than those that have had more even splits. I still think the voters will look at goalies in bigger roles before anointing a timeshare goalie.

Arledge: Sell. My current pick is Dallas' Ben Bishop (.928 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average), who has 29 starts and is on pace toward 54 on the season. It'd be difficult to imagine one of 20 or so goalies -- 21 hit the 45-start mark last season -- won't stand out by season's end. But I'd also venture to guess at least one split-time tender makes the finalist list, with top performers on the Coyotes, Bruins, Islanders and Penguins. Arizona's Darcy Kuemper was certainly trending that way before an injury stole what will likely be a month of his season.

Chandan: Sell. As an end-of-season award, counting stats matter quite a bit. Though a high-percentage goalie such as Jarry or Tuukka Rask might enter the discussion, the likely Vezina nominees will be high-volume goalies with high win totals, such as Hellebuyck or Jordan Binnington.

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