1. Looking for John Law to get it right
Every week brings more hearings for Judge Roy Bean, er, Brendan Shanahan, and every week some other player loses his mind and tries to decapitate (or in the case of Brad Marchand, maliciously submarine) an opponent. Not all injuries are the result of reckless play but enough are that it’s clear that the league’s new office of player safety, of which Shanahan is the head honcho and hangman, isn’t really getting the job done in the way it needs to get done. Once again, consistency remains the big bugaboo in getting players to fly right. Shanahan himself told us in the fall that his mandate was to hammer repeat offenders, the guys who don’t get it. Does Andy Sutton get it? Apparently not. Does Rene Bourque get it? Nope. Or Daniel Carcillo? Not a chance. But still we pussyfoot around with five- or six-game love taps from the league. (Carcillo got seven for another cheap-shot play that has left Tom Gilbert out of the Edmonton Oilers' lineup long-term.) The talk is tough but ultimately cheap, and until we see players such as Bourque -- whose cowardly elbow to the head of an unsuspecting Nicklas Backstrom left the talented center unable to practice and might ultimately cost the Capitals a playoff berth -- sent to the sidelines for 10, 15, 20 games, then the merry-go-round of eliminating the headhunters and backstabbers will continue to turn in perpetuity. Oh well, maybe the back half of this season will see the league finally make good on its promises, although we must admit we remain doubtful.
2. Shots fired! Shots fired!
Talks between the league and the players’ association aimed at creating a new collective bargaining agreement are supposed to begin after the All-Star break. Of course, the two sides have already scuffled in the dirt, with the players refusing to give consent to the league’s hard-fought plan to realign the 30-team league into four conferences next season. Does that bode ill for the coming talks? Already pundits are predicting a work stoppage for next fall. Surely, though, two men who boast as many battle scars on their labor briefcases as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr do understand that one skirmish does not a war make. Or something like that. Bottom line is that neither man has a reputation to forge here; no one has to make a statement in dragging the other side into a protracted work stoppage. The game is, in many ways, as healthy as it’s ever been in terms of on-ice product, revenues and profile. The only way to sour that is to keep spitting in each other’s breakfast cereal and deny the fans (Remember them? No? Didn’t think so) the game that they keep alive with their money and attention. We’ll soon see whether cooler heads will prevail or whether the realignment border skirmish was really the harbinger of dark days many believe it to be.
3. Who will be crowned czars of the Central?
The Central Division is the toughest place to play hockey in the NHL right now. Apart from the embarrassing Columbus Blue Jackets, the four remaining teams should be playoff bound and the battle between Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago for the top spot should make for some compelling moments in the second half of the season. Getting home ice is always nice and winning the Central is a pretty big deal because it’s likely going to mean the first or second seed in the West and, more importantly, if you don’t win the Central there’s a pretty good chance the first round of the playoffs will feature a matchup of the second- and third-place teams. Right now that would mean Detroit and Chicago facing off in the first round. Not a bad way to start the postseason if you’re a fan but you can bet all three of Chicago, Detroit and the current Central Division leaders, St. Louis, would like to avoid that kind of road through the playoffs. The Blackhawks and Red Wings fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders and have the pedigree to support that theory. The Blues, meanwhile, are trying to figure out if they can play with the big boys. Their turnaround under Ken Hitchcock has been exemplary and they are the top defensive team in the conference. The Hawks have defensive issues and a tendency to go completely sideways at times, while the Red Wings have struggled on the road although they've been dominant at Joe Louis Arena. Should be fun, right to the bitter end.
4. Who dat?
There are lots of interesting teams occupying playoff spots at the midpoint that most observers felt weren’t going to be a factor come springtime. The Florida Panthers lead the Southeast Division and the Toronto Maple Leafs are hanging around the playoff fray, and even more surprising, the rebuilding Ottawa Senators owned second place in the Northeast Division at the turn and were actually only a couple of points removed from fourth and home ice in the first round. Go figure. In the West there was Minnesota, although the Wild had already shown signs of significant slippage. Within a couple of points of eighth were Colorado and Dallas, neither of which figured to be in the vicinity of a playoff berth at the outset of the season. So, who hangs around? Well, that’s the beauty of the second half of the season, especially the next four or five weeks leading up to the trade deadline. This is nervous time for GMs and coaches of those teams trying to figure out if they’ve uncovered fool’s gold or the real deal. For us, we like the Panthers to hang around, Minnesota, too. The rest, not so much, even though we tip our hat to Paul MacLean and the Sens, where there is recharged interest in a team that looked to be several years away from being competitive again. And if there are strange interlopers in the mix for a playoff spot, that means some of the mainstays have disappeared, such as Washington, a perennial Cup contender that has lost its swagger. Even firing Bruce Boudreau has done little to restore the fire for a team that was the top dog in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons. Can the Caps make the playoffs? Sure. The Eastern Conference is full of junky teams. But this is a team that lacks confidence and whose best players are either hurt (Backstrom, Mike Green) or struggling (Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Tomas Vokoun). Look for Pittsburgh to join this crew of "can’t-miss" teams on the outside looking in as the Penguins continue to lose bodies at an alarming rate. At the halfway point, the Pens were looking at life without Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal for the foreseeable future. And then there’s Buffalo, a team that went hog wild last offseason, lavishing huge contracts on its own young players (Tyler Myers will have a check for $10 million waiting for him July 1) and free agents galore. And bless new owner Terry Pegula for injecting some much-needed life into the Sabres. Unfortunately, the team has played like a bag of hammers for most of the season and hasn’t managed to win back-to-back games since the middle of November. No way Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff survive this fiasco if the Sabres can’t turn it around in the second half. And given the paucity of leadership shown thus far in Sabreland, there's no reason to suggest anything different is imminent.
5. Should I stay or go?
Ah, The Clash would love the dilemmas facing Nashville’s twin defensive towers Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and New Jersey’s franchise winger Zach Parise. What about class acts Shane Doan or Jarome Iginla? And then there’s Columbus captain Rick Nash, who might or might not be enticed into waiving his no-movement clause to get a taste of respectability given the disaster that is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Feb. 27 trade deadline might create even more big names on the move than normal, given the end of the collective bargaining agreement. Anaheim GM Bob Murray has said his team is wide open beyond Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu (and who knows whether Selanne might want a shot at playing in the postseason one last time, if indeed this is the last hurrah for the Finnish Flash). Parise is the top forward who could be available. He could be an unrestricted free agent in July and said this week he wants to be where he can win a Cup and make lots of money (OK, we’re paraphrasing), and New Jersey doesn’t really seem to be that place, not with the ridiculous Ilya Kovalchuk contract already in place and the team ensconced in the bottom end of the playoff bracket, assuming it makes it at all. Weber and Suter remain intriguing because Nashville GM David Poile would like to sign both, but Suter is about to become a UFA while Weber will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. If he can’t keep both, would Poile try to add offense for a playoff run while dealing Suter to ensure a prized asset doesn’t walk away for free? Stay tuned, folks.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.