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.

Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in scoring this season.

Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in scoring this season.

 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.

Tyler Seguin & Jamie Benn are keeping the rebuilding Stars in playoff contention.

Tyler Seguin & Jamie Benn are keeping the rebuilding Stars in 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.

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8 Responses to Some Observations at The NHL’s Halfway Point.

  1. Jake says:

    In the last few weeks, it seems as though Ben Bishop has overcome some early season troubles and taken the starting spot in Tampa Bay as well as the Vezina trophy from top candidate Tuukka Rask. Sure Steven Stamkos is hurt. He’s one of the top players/ scoring threats in the league. But do you ever even consider what the Bruins are going through? They’ve lost their number 2 d-man in Dennis Siedenberg for the season, have had to dress 6 rookies for their first ever NHL games, and yet, even with injuries to Chris Kelly, Loui Eriksson, Siedenberg, Adam Mcquaid, not to mention Shawn Thornton’s Suspension, they still are the top team in the division. Maybe you look to Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, or any other Bruin as the reason they haven’t fallen off, but I look at took Rask who is still playing at an Elite Level (albeit a short stretch where has been sub-par) and has kept his team as the number 1 team in the Atlantic Division. At least mention his name if you’re going to talk about the Vezina. That’s all I’m saying.

  2. I didn’t mention Rask because Bishop’s currently my favorite for the Vezina. Obviously you believe Rask is the favorite. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I’m sure there’s folks who consider Josh Harding or Carey Price the favorite.

  3. Peterman says:

    Why not trade Weber for Hall straight up? From Nashville’s point of view, Hall is the only Oiler to consider trading Weber for. Then, find a serviceable defenseman from Calgary or Buffalo; both teams have a few.

  4. narfmoo12 says:

    If you look at wins instead of points (because of the OTL/SOL point) the Metro division is # 1, 5, 6, and 8, while the Atlantic is 2, 3, 4, and 7. Detroit is 19-24, but gets 10 points for the stupid OTL/SOL, giving them 48 points in 43 games. If the Flyers beat the Devils on Tuesday, they’ll have 48 points in 43 games and be 5th in the conference, with 22 wins, compared to Detroit’s 19. The Metro may have started slow, but the OTL/SOL point is the only reason Detroit and Ottawa are even in contention.

  5. Nick Badgio says:

    Hopefully Harding will come back soon so we can have a very tight race for the Vezina between Ben Bishop, Harding Tuukka Rask.

  6. FlamesFan says:

    First off, thanks for screwing over Crosby. You just had to go and mention that he hasn’t missed a game yet right? Look for him to suffer some sort of injury in the coming week.

    Next as for the Oilers, I know that everyone is well aware of them being completely out of the playoff race, but I just thought I would show you just how miraculous they would have to be in the rest of the season. Based on the current points paces of all the teams in the West, it is projected that the 8th seed will finish with 100 points. Just 3, you read that right, THREE, regulation losses by the Oilers will mathematically eliminate them from the playoffs if that 100 point projection holds true. Three. They don’t need a miracle, they need the entire rest of the Western conference to fold their franchises and board up the doors of their arenas within the next week!

  7. Boltsfan says:

    The Lightning are sporting 9 rookies.

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