|ESPN.com: NHL||[Print without images]|
With the first half of the season in the books, Scott Burnside (East) and Pierre LeBrun (West) evaluate each team's performance:
Summary: The Flyers are without question the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. Even without veteran defenseman Chris Pronger, who should return from injury in the near future, the Flyers haven't missed a beat. They have great balance up front and steady netminding from Renaissance man Brian Boucher. Fewest road losses in the NHL also illustrate the team's maturity. Grade: A-plus. Trending: Up.
Summary: The Penguins have shown how reliant they are on Sidney Crosby, as they've stumbled into the second half with their captain sidelined with a concussion. The Pens need Jordan Staal to get back into Selke form and more production from Evgeni Malkin. Still, assuming Crosby does return to good health and resumes his pursuit of the NHL scoring hardware, the Penguins boast one of the top defensive clubs in the NHL and remain formidable foes. Grade: A-minus. Trending: Down.
Summary: The Caps emerged from an eight-game winless streak as a more mature, disciplined team. Alex Ovechkin isn't scoring like he did in the past, but neither did Steve Yzerman when the Detroit Red Wings began winning championships in the late 1990s. Poised to turn in the best team defense in a decade, which bodes well for a club hungry for playoff success. Grade: A-minus. Trending: Up.
Summary: It hasn't been all warm and fuzzy for the Bruins this season. Still, they're starting to get some wins from goalie Tuukka Rask, which will take some of the pressure off Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas. Boston has good balance up front, even with Marc Savard still trying to find his way back from concussion problems. With the B's boasting the stingiest defense in the league by a wide margin, folks are thinking about a long playoff run in Beantown. Grade: B-plus. Trending: Neutral.
New York Rangers
Summary: The Rangers hit the midpoint on a roll. They rank sixth in goals allowed per game, and coach John Tortorella has cobbled together a fashionable offense that surprisingly ranks 12th in the NHL. The hard-working Rangers also rank first in one-goal games with a 12-2-3 record. Still thin down the middle, and now extremely young on the blue line with the departure of Michal Rozsival (dealt to Phoenix for Wojtek Wolski), the Rangers are one of the surprise teams in the East. Grade: B-plus. Trending: Up.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Summary: The Bolts hit the midpoint atop the Southeast Division and with a shot at the conference crown, but questions still remain about their ability to keep pucks out of their own goal. They have the top-ranked power play in the East, but are the only team in the top eight in the conference with a minus goal differential. Is newly acquired veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson the answer? Rookie GM Steve Yzerman hopes so. Grade: B. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Canadiens are battling Boston for top spot in the Northeast Division while trying to make sure they don't completely slide out of the playoff picture. The Habs are doing it with defense; they have the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL but are just 26th in goals per game. Defenseman James Wisniewski, who should help a power play that has declined over last season, is a welcome addition, but the margin for error is pretty slim. Missing defensemen Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges for the balance of the season may be too much, even with Wisniewski in the fold. Grade: B-minus. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Thrashers were one of the feel-good stories of the first third of the regular season. New coach Craig Ramsay had the young Thrashers in a groove with Ondrej Pavelec playing so well after suffering a dramatic fainting spell in the first game of the season. Dustin Byfuglien, who returned to the blue line after being a force up front for Chicago during the Hawks' Cup run last season, was a beast and continues to lead all defensemen in point production. But the Thrashers have found themselves tumbling through the standings as they hit the second half. Their penalty-killing unit ranks 27th and still allow too many goals (24th goals allowed per game). The playoffs once looked to be a sure thing; now, not so much. Grade: B-minus. Trending: Down.
Summary: The Canes got off to a rocky start, partly because of a grueling travel schedule that included travel to Russia and Finland followed by a West Coast trip. But a strong December has the Hurricanes sitting in ninth place at midseason. With Cam Ward having a Vezina-type season and Eric Staal producing at an elite level, Carolina may be the only team currently out of a playoff spot capable of working its way into the postseason. Grade: C-plus. Trending: Up.
Buffalo Sabres C
Summary: It has been an ugly first half for the defending Northeast Division champs. They lost top forward Derek Roy for the balance of the season to injury and have not played well at home (9-10-1). They do hit the halfway mark playing some of their best hockey of the season, but need to prove they can beat quality teams if they're going to take a run at the postseason. Grade: C. Trending: Neutral.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Summary: The Maple Leafs started well before going into a tailspin for about 20 games, but have suddenly found some life as they prepare for the second half. Mikhail Grabovski has been a revelation and rookie netminder James Reimer has played well after being called up because of injuries. Playoffs are a mirage at this point, but if the Leafs continue this level of play, they may not have to give up a lottery pick to Boston at the June draft. That would be a significant moral victory, if nothing else. Grade: C-minus. Trending: Up.
Summary: The good news for the Panthers is they're in every game. The bad news is they can't find a way to win enough of those games. The Panthers lead the league in one-goal losses (nine), and you can bet GM Dale Tallon will be looking to move some veteran contracts before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Still, one gets the feeling this team isn't as far away from the playoffs as its place in the standings suggests. Grade: C-minus. Trending: Neutral.
New York Islanders
Summary: It's still ugly on Long Island, but the Islanders actually hit the halfway point playing their best hockey of the season, even after trading every-day players Wisniewski and Roloson. John Tavares looks like he's starting to make this team his own, while other youngsters are being asked to assume more prominent roles. Netminder Rick DiPietro is hurt again, so some things never change. Grade: D-plus. Trending: Up.
Summary: The Senators reached the halfway point on yet another losing jag and with coach Cory Clouston's job seemingly hanging by a thread. Alexei Kovalev is out with a knee injury, although how anyone would notice whether he's in or out of the lineup given his disinterested play is a mystery. Top center Jason Spezza is likewise out with an injury. It's hard to believe there won't be wholesale changes from the top on down when the clock runs out on this lamentable regular season. Grade: D-minus. Trending: Down.
New Jersey Devils
Summary: By far the worst team in the NHL, the Devils featured a league-worst minus-55 goal differential at the time of this writing and were poised to produce one of the lowest point totals in franchise history. The worst part is there are few signs things will improve any time soon. Why would Zach Parise ever sign a long-term extension here? And if the soon-to-be restricted free agent won't sign, president and GM Lou Lamoriello is faced with having to trade the franchise's most important asset. Netminder Martin Brodeur is a shadow of his former self, and there is precious little help on the way via prospects. In short, the ugliness is just beginning for this once-proud franchise. Grade: F. Trending: Down.
Summary: With a 27-8-6 record, they're the best team in hockey at the halfway mark. They haven't lost in regulation since Dec. 5, a stretch of 16 games (13-0-3). Ryan Kesler is having the best season of his career and the 1-2 punch behind Daniel and Henrik Sedin is nearly unstoppable right now. Roberto Luongo is in a groove and rookie backup goalie Cory Schneider can't lose a game. Alexander Edler is a stud on defense. Manny Malhotra has proven to be a key offseason pickup. The club is among the league leaders in goals for, goals against, power play and penalty kill. What's not to like? Canada hasn't had an NHL champion since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. This Canucks team is the best bet since. Grade: A-plus. Trending: Up.
Detroit Red Wings
Summary: The Red Wings roared out of the gates at 17-4-2 (their record through Dec. 3). Then the injuries began to pile up, rekindling memories of last season's nightmare, and the Wings went 9-6-3 to hit the 41-game mark with a 26-10-5 record. They've again shown remarkable resilience, dealing with high-profile injuries to Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary, Valtteri Filppula, Mike Modano and Brad Stuart. But there's a flip side to all this: The injuries last season proved to be physically taxing to the Wings, who ran out of steam in the second round. Datsyuk and Clearly should be back after the All-Star break. If the Wings can avoid more key injuries in the second half, they should be in better shape than last season. Grade: A. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Stars were 24-13-4 through 41 games, easily the most stunning development in the West through the first half. GM Joe Nieuwendyk's gamble on Kari Lehtonen in goal so far is paying off, and he made an aggressive move to pick up veteran winger Jamie Langenbrunner from the New Jersey Devils last week. Nieuwendyk has seen enough of his surprising team to believe it's not going to drop off in the second half, and we agree. Brad Richards has been sensational, which only adds to Nieuwendyk's predicament with the UFA-to-be. Hopefully that storyline won't overshadow a terrific story so far in the Lone Star State. Grade: A. Trending: Up.
Summary: How the blue-collar, small-budget Preds do this season after season is truly a marvel. GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz just get it done. Through 41 games, the Preds were 22-13-6 and won five straight heading into Game No. 42. They are smack in the middle of the crazy West playoff battle, where it's a wide-open race between fourth and 12th place. And the Preds have stayed in the hunt without their marquee offseason signing -- No. 1 center Mathew Lombardi has played just two games this season, out with a concussion. There have also been other significant injuries, but others like Sergei Kostitsyn have stepped up. The club still struggles to score goals, but finds ways to squeeze out one-goal victories. Grade: B-plus. Trending: Up.
St. Louis Blues
Summary: The Blues opened the season 9-1-2 and a terrific hockey market was giddy with excitement. But devastating injuries throughout the lineup -- most notably to first-line forwards David Perron and T.J. Oshie -- sent St. Louis sliding into survival mode. Oshie could be back around the All-Star break, which will be huge. Perron? Who knows, as he is still dealing with that serious concussion. Goalie Jaroslav Halak was all-world in the opening month, looking like the playoff hero of last spring in Montreal, but he's come down to earth. He's still providing solid goaltending, but there won't be any Vezina talk until he turns it back on in the second half. Grade: B. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Ducks hit their official halfway point on New Year's Eve, which is their problem right now. They've played more games than anyone in the West. At 20-17-4 through their opening 41 games, the Ducks overcame a brutal early start to jump back into that crazy 4-12 race. Jonas Hiller was sensational in the first half to keep the Ducks in it. Toni Lydman proved to be a shrewd offseason signing by GM Bob Murray. The injury to stud center Ryan Getzlaf really hurts. Still, all in all, probably a first half that exceeded outside opinion. Grade: B-minus. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Avs were 21-15-5 through 41 games and have lost six of their past eight games. The injuries might be finally taking their toll on the young club. Chris Stewart was having an MVP-type season before going down Nov. 27. They haven't been the same team without him. Goalie Craig Anderson, nominated for the Vezina Trophy last season, has struggled mightily (he was injured earlier in the season, so it's hard to tell whether that's had an effect on him). The Avs are in that Nos. 4-12 logjam and need three things to get on the positive side of the race: a healthier lineup, better goaltending and consistency. Grade: C. Trending: Down.
Summary: The plucky Coyotes were 19-13-9 through their opening 41 games. They've been playing .500 hockey for the past month, and that's not going to cut it if they want to grab one of those final five playoff spots. You know coach Dave Tippett will squeeze out every ounce of talent from this lunch-bucket crew. They need Ilya Bryzgalov to step it up just a notch, and more offensive production from the likes of Lee Stempniak would also help. The acquisition of Michal Rozsival may also aid a blue line that never filled the hole left by Zbynek Michalek, who left the team via free agency this past offseason. Grade: C. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Wild won eight of 11 to hit the official halfway point on a decent run and very much in that 4-12 playoff race with a 21-15-5 record through 41 games. Jose Theodore has been a terrific story in the first half, outperforming Niklas Backstrom in goal. Brent Burns is another positive from the first half, as the defenseman's 12 goals are among the league leaders. Martin Havlat has also come around over the past six weeks or so. And what of Cal Clutterbuck's 13 goals? Still, a 23rd-ranked offense remains an issue entering the second half. Grade: C. Trending: Up.
Los Angeles Kings
Summary: The Kings were 23-17-1 through 41 games. Many teams would take that record, but for the Kings it represents a first-half disappointment and a tough grade from us. The Kings had sky-high expectations entering the season and their topsy-turvy first half wasn't what they had in mind. Some of their young core players (i.e., Drew Doughty) haven't played to the consistent level they had last season. The offense lacks a bit of creativity. The injuries to Willie Mitchell have been worrisome. The trade for Marco Sturm so far looks like a dud. The second half represents a chance to get it together and be the team we all thought they were going to be. Grade: C-minus. Trending: Neutral.
Summary: The Stanley Cup hangover doesn't seem to want to go away. The Hawks were 21-17-3 through their opening 41 games, a halfway-point record that wasn't predicted by most even with all the offseason, cap-induced changes. Injuries to Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane had their effect, but the Cup champs just haven't put together long enough periods of consistent hockey. GM Stan Bowman is on the lookout for defensive help ahead of the Feb. 28 trade deadline. They're right in the middle of that ridiculous 4-12 race in the West. Look for the champs to show what they're made of in the second half. Grade: C-minus. Trending: Neutral.
San Jose Sharks
Summary: We grade the teams with the highest expectations the harshest when they don't meet those lofty standards. The Sharks were 21-15-5 through 41 games and maddeningly inconsistent throughout the first half, enough for winger Ryane Clowe to blow his lid on his teammates last week. Good for him; the Sharks need more of that. Logan Couture has been the lone bright spot, positioning himself as the Calder Trophy front-runner. Injuries have hit hard, but the team that beat Detroit in last season's playoffs en route to a Final Four appearance doesn't look like itself. The pressure will be on GM Doug Wilson to get help, mostly notably on defense, before the trade deadline. Grade: D. Trending: Down.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Summary: A Nov. 24 victory over the New York Islanders improved the then-surprising Jackets to 14-6-0 on the season, which it turned out to be the high-water mark so far this season. Columbus next went 6-12-3 to enter the halfway mark as a team definitely back to its old ways. Third-year goalie Steve Mason has been a disappointment and veteran backup Mathieu Garon, who was terrific in the opening two months, had come back down to earth. Plus, Mike Commodore asked for a trade. It's getting ugly in Columbus. Grade: D. Trending: Down.
Summary: Well, as long as the lessons are learned, right? That was the plan all along. Another lottery pick is in the offing, which is perfect for a team whose future looks so bright. Let's see what impressive first overall pick Taylor Hall can bring us in the second half. His chase for the Calder Trophy is the only real thing of interest for Oilers fans this season. Grade: D. Trending: Down.
Summary: GM Darryl Sutter finally got the boot, but it appears the kind of change the Flames really need isn't in the offing. Interim GM Jay Feaster recently announced on "Hockey Night in Canada" that he would not trade captain and franchise player Jarome Iginla. From this vantage point, that doesn't make sense. If you're going to properly rebuild this squad, you begin by trading away your most valuable asset to kick-start the process. Iginla is still a bona-fide star and teams would line up for him. Markus Naslund, Mats Sundin, Saku Koivu and Ryan Smyth were all icons in their respective Canadian NHL cities, but all moved on. It can be done. If the Flames aren't willing to move Iginla and star goalie Miikka Kiprusoff in order to properly rebuild the team, Flames fans are in for more suffering. Grade D-minus. Trending: Down.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.