A quick look at several notable points of interest as NHL teams pass the season’s halfway point.
Mid-season playoff prediction. All roads to the 2014 Stanley Cup must pass through the Western Conference. Despite the new playoff format there’s simply too many good teams in the West this season. Start with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks followed by the Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. Compare them to the best teams in the East (Pittsburgh and Boston) and the odds favor another Western club taking home the Cup for the fourth time in five years.
The Metropolitan Division remains the worst this season. Of its eight clubs, only the Pittsburgh Penguins rank among the top fifteen teams in the overall standings. Five of them are in the bottom third in overall points. If not for the weird-ass way the playoff race is structured this season, none of those five would have a hope in hell of clinching a playoff berth. Congrats, Metropolitan Division, you’re the new “South-least” division.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby hasn’t missed a game this season. He’s currently the league’s leading scorer. As of January 4 his 62 points were eight above Chicago’s Patrick Kane, and 15 ahead of Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf. He’s clearly the Penguins best player this season. If he avoids injury this season, he’ll win the Art Ross in a walk, and probably the Hart Trophy. The Penguins are depleted by injuries but Crosby’s keeping them among the league’s elite teams.
San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton remains among the NHL’s elite players. The 34-year-old Thornton currently leads the league in assists (41) and is a very big reason why the Sharks remain among the top teams in the Western Conference. Thornton’s eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer but don’t expect him to test the market. He wants to stay in San Jose, the Sharks want to keep him and it’s expected he’ll accept a slight pay cut below his current annual $7 million salary on a three-year extension.
Will the Edmonton Oilers part with one of their good young forwards in a package deal to land the top-two defenseman they so desperately need? This franchise is spinning its wheels. Landing the top pick nearly every year is cold comfort for their long-suffering fans. Barring a miraculous second-half turnaround the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season. Forget about landing what they need via free agency as there’s really not much available worthy pursuing. Pitch an offer sheet to Montreal’s P.K. Subban? Good luck with that. GM Craig MacTavish undoubtedly hates the idea of moving Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Nail Yakupov, but it could take one of those guys to land the defenseman they need.
Kyle Okposo is (so far) this season’s breakout performer. The New York Islanders winger had 42 points in 42 games, on pace for a career-best 82 points, as well as ranking him among the league’s top 15 scorers. The 25-year-old’s NHL career has had its ups and downs, but he’s finally emerging as the scoring star he was projected to be when the Isles picked him seventh overall in the 2006 entry draft. Okposo’s among the few bright spots in an otherwise rotten season for the Islanders.
What will the Nashville Predators do to bolster their offense? They’re among the NHL’s lowest scoring teams. They won’t find much help in this season’s trade market. The best way to address this issue could be to trade Shea Weber and his expensive contract, but doing so leaves a gaping hole in their blueline which promising Seth Jones isn’t yet ready to fill. They could go the free agent route, but they’re usually a budget club. If they stick to bargain-hunting they won’t significantly improve their offense. They’re no longer a playoff contender and cannot rely on goaltending and stingy defense to get them into contention. They must address their anemic offense as soon as possible.
Mid-season favorite for the Vezina Trophy: Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop (22-5-3, 1.83 GAA, .936 SP, 4 shutouts). He’s arguably the main reason the Lightning remain in playoff contention, especially after superstar Steven Stamkos fell to injury.
Best blueline tandem in the NHL. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks. As of January 4, Keith and Seabrook were first and fourth respectively in scoring among NHL blueliners. Seabrook led the league in plus-minus (+22) while Keith was tied with four others for fifth (+18). Keith led in assists, Seabrook ranked fourth. Seabrook was also among the defensive leaders in hits. They’re two big reasons the Blackhawks won two Stanley Cups in four years and are in good shape to repeat this season.
Will the Winnipeg Jets ever snap out of the mediocrity? Their ongoing inconsistency is testing the patience of Jets fans and cannot be ignored by management. Will they make a trade? Fire coach Claude Noel? Stand pat and hope for an improved second half? Wait until the off-season to make changes? At some point during this calendar year, Jets management must do something to finally turn this underachieving team into playoff contention.
Team worth watching in the second half. The Dallas Stars. There’s some good things happening in the Lone Star State. Center Tyler Seguin is among the league’s top scorers, meshing well with team captain Jamie Benn. Valeri Nichushkin and Alex Chaisson are two of the Stars leading scorers and among this season’s top rookie scorers. They’re still a rebuilding club but the Stars young talent could lift them into a playoff berth when the dust settles on this regular season.
The best over-40 player. Look no further than New Jersey Devils winger Jaromir Jagr, who’s currently the second-oldest active player behind Anaheim’s now-fading 43-year-old Teemu Selanne. Jagr, who turns 42 on February 15, entered this weekend leading the Devils in scoring (34 points) and is on pace to reach 70 points for the first time since 2007-08.
Will the New York Islanders finally acquire a healthy starting goalie who’s still in his prime? GM Garth Snow gambled on 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov staying healthy this season and lost. Yes, Nabokov is good in the room and well-liked by his teammates, but he’s no longer capable of carrying a team into playoff contention. Snow must also improve his blueline and checking line depth, but landing a quality goalie is the priority.
David Clarkson is shaping up to be an expensive bust for the Maple Leafs. I don’t blame Clarkson for opting to play in his hometown. Heck, he spurned bigger offers from other clubs to fulfill his childhood dream. However, his $5.25 million per season for seven seasons is a gross overpayment. He’s currently on pace for 19 points, which would be the second-worst total of his career. Granted, he’s only halfway through the first year of his deal and has plenty of time to turns things around. He’d better, or this could become one of the worst contracts in Leafs history.