What a difference a year makes. With the first half of the NHL season already in the rear-view mirror and trade speculation for playoff hopefuls just around the corner, most of the usual suspects are in the driver's seat for division titles and home playoff seeds.
But each year there are always a few teams headed in completely opposite position from just a year ago. Just like an escape from hockey weather in mid-January, this year there's no better place to start than Florida.
A year ago the revived Tampa Bay Lightning were the league darlings under Guy Boucher, holding first place in the Southeast Division and the second seed in the Eastern Conference as Martin Luther King Jr. Day came and went. Their younger brothers to the south? Not so hot. The Florida Panthers were mired in yet another fading season, already seven points out of a playoff spot with 44 games in the book.
While the Lightning would make it to the Conference Finals, the Panthers' descent continued until they finished 28th overall.
Fast forward to MLK Day 2012, and the new season has told a different story. After a summer free agent binge by GM Dale Tallon that many saw as foolish -- or at best overly short-sighted -- the near view nonetheless looks good for the Panthers: With 51 points after Monday's games they stand in first in their division.
Granted, there are five Eastern teams above them and the division rival Washington Capitals are nipping at their heels just one point away. But the Panthers' surge has survived 44 games and counting: For the first time in a long time, it's mid-January and there is still hope for NHL playoffs in South Florida.
Not so for last year's darlings, suddenly Florida's "other" team. The Lightning finished the holiday stuck in last place not only in the Southeast but also in the entire Eastern Conference with just 38 points through 44 games. Their defense and goaltending have been abysmal, leaving them with a conference-worst minus-35 goal differential. Only the West offers teams with uglier records.
Speaking of which...
Western Swingers: Anaheim Drops, Dallas Dips, St. Louis Rises
The West's third-place team in January 2011 has also fallen on harder times a year later. On the morning of Jan. 17, 2011, the Dallas Stars stood in first place in the Pacific Division with the third seed in the Western Conference (59 points through 45 games). Many predicted it wouldn't last -- and it didn't, as the Stars missed out on the playoffs by a hair.
But this year the Stars are already on the outside looking in, their 49 points through 44 games leaving them in 10th place in the West.
Elsewhere in the West, Edmonton, Calgary and Columbus were bottom three last year and they're bottom four now. Only the Anaheim Ducks -- a playoff team in 2010-11 tied for fifth in the West on this date last season -- interrupts their trio of misery. The Ducks and Blue Jackets are the only teams in the NHL who look up at the Lightning right now.
While Tampa Bay has fallen furthest (19-point drop from this time last year) and Florida has seen a healthy surge (six more points over last year), the St. Louis Blues have made the most impressive gains in a year's time. Through 45 games this season they have 10 more standings points than their 2010-11 version, but more importantly: That represents a rise from 11th place in the West last season to a share of 1st overall in the league in 2011-12.
An impressive rise to be sure, but as the Stars know all too well these things don't always last. They play 82 games for a reason.