The best and worst of the first half
Pleasant surprises, huge disappointments abound at season's halfway mark
Nearly lost in the pomp and circumstance of the Winter Classic, the unveiling of the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team and the impending Olympic announcement from Canada on Tuesday is the fact that the NHL has reached the midpoint of the schedule. Which means it's time for our best and worst.
Teams that sputtered
Where did three months go? Well, it must have seemed that time was dragging for a number of underachieving teams. Here's our list of the top three teams that missed the starting bell.
1. New York Islanders: So much for taking advantage of last season's surprise run to the playoffs and the strong series against Pittsburgh. Islanders GM Garth Snow has failed to address key needs in goal and on the blue line, and the Thomas Vanek deal has been a wash at best and a disaster at worst. The Isles are next to last in the Eastern Conference with just 33 points.
2. Edmonton Oilers: We weren't among those who believed the Oilers were ready for prime time this season, but even we weren't prepared for the team's clueless performance through most of the first half. Goaltending was wanting from the outset, and the team's concept of defense varies greatly from most teams that will be playoff-bound in the spring. There are still too many questions for this last-place team, including whether Dallas Eakins was the right man as head coach and when GM Craig MacTavish will stop barking at reporters and follow through on promises to make bold moves to end the misery in the City of Champions.
3. Minnesota Wild: We actually had the New York Rangers on this list, but a surge before the midpoint has us looking at the Wild, who are in a free fall. Minnesota's offense has disappeared, Niklas Backstrom (see below) has been terrible, and the depth that GM Chuck Fletcher thought would emerge from his talented young lineup simply hasn't been there. It's hard to imagine that coach Mike Yeo will survive if the Wild don't find a way to climb back into a playoff spot by season's end.
Individuals who sputtered
Those are the disappointing teams, so how about disappointing first halves for some players?
2. Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild: Whether it's age or the cumulative effect of what seem to be annual injury issues, Backstrom has been a disaster. With Josh Harding adjusting to medication issues related to his battle with multiple sclerosis heading into the Christmas holiday break, Backstrom wasn't able to answer the bell, and the goaltender's tepid play -- losses in eight straight starts, at least three goals allowed in six straight -- might contribute to the Wild missing the playoffs.
3. David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs: It's hard to imagine the script could have turned any more sour for Clarkson, who signed a seven-year deal worth $36.75 million with his hometown team in the offseason. Clarkson missed the first 10 regular-season games with a suspension and then was suspended two more for an illegal check in December. He has just three goals.
Teams that soared
Now, we're not totally glass-half-empty people when it comes to the first half. How about three teams that exceeded our expectations?
1. Colorado Avalanche: Yes, the Avs have fallen back slightly after a torrid start under rookie coach Patrick Roy. But they're still third in the Central Division and, as much as any team in the Western Conference seems like any kind of sure thing, they still look very much like a playoff team. Can they keep it up in the second half, especially with Vancouver playing much better and Phoenix lurking as possible crossover teams come wild-card time? We say yes.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Go on, admit it: When Steven Stamkos broke his tibia in early November, you thought the Lightning would fall off the high dive. We did, too. Although the Bolts relinquished their hold on the Atlantic Division lead, they have remained a bona fide playoff team despite a rash of injuries to key personnel beyond Stamkos, who won't return until early February. Pencil Jon Cooper into the Jack Adams discussion, for sure, because we like the Bolts to stay in the top three in the Atlantic.
3. Anaheim Ducks: We liked the Ducks to win the Pacific, but we didn't know how good the Pacific was going to be as a whole and therefore didn't realize just how good the Ducks were going to be. They're the real deal, challenging Chicago for the overall lead in the Western Conference and the top spot in the league. Anaheim has been unbeatable at home (15-0-2), is getting an MVP-like season from captain Ryan Getzlaf and has a deceptively deep and dangerous lineup.
Teams making a move
History suggests there will be little second-half movement in terms of teams jumping into the top eight in either conference. Given the mediocrity of the Metropolitan Division, there could be more movement in the East, but there are also a couple of teams making things interesting in the West. Here are three teams that could make a move.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets: We figured the Blue Jackets to take a step back after an inspired second-half run left them just short of the playoffs last season, and in the early going that seemed to be the case. But even with defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky out with injury, the Blue Jackets have battled back and are in a clump of teams within a couple of points of a postseason berth. Kudos to Todd Richards for keeping his team pointed in the right direction.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers were left for dead after firing coach Peter Laviolette just three games into the season and looking lost for the first month and a half. But Craig Berube has the Flyers playing their best hockey of the season, and as of Jan. 1 they were riding a four-game win streak and within a point of second place in the Metro Division.
Backups who have stepped up
Finally, how about the backup goalies who've stepped up? Here's a look at backups getting the job done in relief of big-name (and highly paid) starters who are ailing or simply not playing up to snuff.
Martin Jones/Ben Scrivens, Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick is out long-term with a groin injury, and the common thinking might have been that the Kings would fall below the playoff line in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. The opposite happened, with first Scrivens and then Jones turning in quality start after quality start. The two are a combined 15-7-4 with six shutouts to keep the Kings in the thick of the playoff discussion.
Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals: Remember when Braden Holtby was invited to Canada's Olympic orientation camp? Neither can we. Holtby has been up and down for the Caps, who are increasingly turning to German phenom Grubauer, who has seen his career arc accelerate dramatically in the past three seasons.
Jonas Gustavsson, Detroit Red Wings: Who knows where the Red Wings would be without The Monster coming on in relief of the ailing/struggling Jimmy Howard, but they sure wouldn't be in a playoff spot. There's an interesting dilemma brewing for coach Mike Babcock as the season moves along, especially if Howard, named to the U.S. Olympic team on Jan. 1, doesn't rediscover his mojo.
Curtis McElhinney, Columbus Blue Jackets: This is similar to the Kings' situation, with many believing that the up-and-down Blue Jackets would fade when defending Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky went down with an injury. Instead, veteran backup McElhinney has been solid for the most part, and the Blue Jackets are in the thick of the playoff discussion in the middling Metropolitan.
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