Don't look now, but a defending Stanley Cup champion is lighting the league on fire.
And no, we're not talking about the Washington Capitals.
We're talking about their old coach!
As the NHL enters the All-Star break, the surprise of the season might be that Barry Trotz, not the Caps team he led to a title in 2017-18, is sitting atop the Metropolitan Division. Washington is just three standings points removed from first place in the division, but a six-game slide has them heading in the opposite direction of Trotz's New York Islanders, who dropped a close one on Monday but have otherwise taken the Eastern Conference by storm. Thanks to a defensive turnaround, a 7-2-1 stretch and a goal differential bested only by the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs in the East, Trotz suddenly has the rest of the league's attention, and if he keeps it up, he'll have a playoff spot locked up in his first season behind the Isles' bench.
It's why New York surged up our rankings this week, landing all the way in the top five. Things can change with just a bad week or two, of course, but if you're talking about teams to beat right now, it's hard to find many better than the Islanders. And that includes those defending champion Capitals.
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Washington isn't the only team in danger of falling further, either, as the Maple Leafs are among other clubs on the decline in this week's NHL pecking order:
|If you don't believe in them, what league have you been watching? They own every part of the ice. Barring a 2016-17 Caps collapse, they're easily Cup favorites.||--||13-4-0|
|How about we start the Jack Adams buzz for Bill Peters?||--||9-10-0|
|Pull the trigger at the trade deadline and we'll be cooking with fire here. The Jets are good, but they might need an extra oomph if they're serious about the spring.||--||12-6-0|
|You go, Barry Trotz! This team has legitimate numbers to go along with a killer win streak. Any chance the Caps are missing him yet?||8||10-6-0|
|Where is the juice? A 4-1 handling of Colorado is a start, but we said that earlier in the week before two lackadaisical losses. It's not panic time, but it's adjustment time.||--||8-11-0|
|At some point, we have to talk about their poor road record like a real problem. You can't just win in Vegas.||1||11-4-0|
|Three straight losses wasn't a good look, but they've found enough of their offense to rebound on Tuesday. We like them a lot down the stretch.||3||7-8-0|
|Uh-oh. Perhaps as Frederik Andersen settles in, things will settle down. But we got a lot more Leaf exposure than expected.||2||15-4-0|
|Things haven't quite clicked all the way yet, but they're hanging around long enough to explode when it counts. Does the deadline affect that, though?||1||10-7-0|
|Don't sweat the loss to the Rangers these days, apparently. Still, like Vegas, they could stand to up their game away from home.||1||11-4-0|
|Sergei Bobrovsky controversy or not, his fellow free agent-to-be in Artemi Panarin is balling out. And that is huge for this team.||1||8-8-0|
|Never say never, but if they don't get their act together in a hurry for this week, the slide could get a whole lot worse.||3||10-5-0|
|This still seems high for them considering how they came into this season, but until the losses stack up, they're right there. And they're no pushovers, either.||--||9-6-0|
|They could've easily thrown in the towel, but we know they're coached better than that. The big question, however, is always: How will they finish?||3||10-6-0|
|In Dallas, they look like they can contend with anyone. Elsewhere, not so much.||--||6-5-0|
|Don't get us started again. We don't want to be fooled by their annual tease. Until they unload talent at the deadline, though, Nino Niederreiter and co. deserve their props.||2||12-6-0|
|This might be one of the most wasteful teams if you consider how fun this first line would be back in the playoffs. They've got plenty of holes to fill otherwise.||1||9-6-0|
|Somehow, their slide hasn't technically pushed them out of the playoff picture. But you can't keep scrapping with the Canucks of the world and expect to last.||4||6-8-0|
|Speaking of the Canucks, we really like them as 2019-20 risers. Surround that core and you've got yourself a wild-card contender.||--||8-14-0|
|Beating the Canes and Bruins is nothing to sneeze at. We're just not sure where this organization is headed -- or wants to be headed.||2||6-8-0|
|Craig Berube has helped right the ship, but we wouldn't go as far as saying he's already earned the rights to whatever they call their offseason retooling.||--||10-8-0|
|For the sake of Edmonton, Connor McDavid and the entire NHL fan base, go out and find someone who can score.||2||14-8-0|
|Speaking of scoring, go figure that the team with literally the least offense dropped four on Toronto. These guys aren't dead yet.||--||9-7-0|
|Neither are they, apparently. It's going to be a rough hill to climb to make up for lost ground, but showing up against the top dogs doesn't hurt.||2||13-4-0|
|Stay away from Bobrovsky, as tempting as he sounds. If Carter Hart is working, then ride with him and invest elsewhere.||3||9-4-0|
|They've hovered around .500 for a while, which is a big plus considering how they started but a clear indication of where this team is really at.||3||9-6-0|
|Such a shame what they've become after the revelation of 2017-18. It's time to reevaluate some of the products of the pipeline.||3||7-6-0|
|We'll always have that 8-4-1 November.||3||6-13-0|
|As others have noted, Anaheim's head coaching seat is sure to get hotter as this drags on.||2||6-10-0|
|Matt Duchene was such a nice catch for them. Now let's hope they don't blow it by letting him loose.||1||7-14-0|
|Dropping eight on Washington is nice. But we can't erase their goal differential, as much as we'd like to.||1||11-6-0|