Plenty of questions in second half
Playoff races, trade possibilities among most intriguing 2014 storylines
Considering that last year at this time the threat of losing an entire NHL season was legitimate, we're counting our blessings to have witnessed an excellent year of hockey in 2013.
As we close the book on the first half of the season, here are 10 storylines we'll be following in the new year:
1. Which team will come out on top in the Western Conference?
The Chicago Blackhawks are certainly making the possibility of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships look good, with yet another dominant first half to the season. But unlike the lockout-shortened 2013 season, when they ran away with the lead in the Western Conference thanks largely to a record-setting 24-game points streak, the Hawks are in a dogfight for the top spot this season with the high-flying Anaheim Ducks. Chicago's 64 points are one more than Anaheim, though the Ducks have played 42 games compared to 43 for the Blackhawks. And Chicago has made the very notion of a Cup hangover seem laughable, rolling along with a league-leading average of 3.63 goals per game. All of the usual suspects -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith -- have been chipping in with fantastic seasons, but the stiff competition in the West will make it a tough run down the stretch. And it won't be just the Ducks. Both the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks are challenging as well. Hard to imagine the last team standing come June not being one of those top four.
2. Who will win the Hart Trophy?
A jaw injury to Sidney Crosby left the race wide open last season, allowing Alex Ovechkin to secure the honor with a dazzling 32-goal, 58-point effort in 48 games. It was the third straight MVP trophy for Ovechkin, who carried the Capitals on his back to a playoff appearance in the spring of 2013. Now that Crosby is back and healthy, can Ovechkin still make a push to repeat? The Russian dynamo is producing at more than a point-per-game clip with 31 goals and 11 assists in 38 games this season, but Crosby continues to pace the competition with a whopping 22 goals and 59 points through 42 games. It might not even be a two-horse race, though. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos certainly had a place in the conversation before he went down with a gruesome leg injury, and why not some love for Kane, who's having another sensational season with 23 goals and 53 points through 42 games?
3. When will Steven Stamkos return?
Speaking of Stamkos, every fan in Tampa (not to mention the entire country of Canada) is breathlessly awaiting his return to action. The 23-year-old is getting closer every day as he continues to recover from a harrowing leg injury sustained seven weeks ago. With a titanium rod in his right leg, Stamkos has been skating on his own, keeping hopes alive that the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner will be healthy in time for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Whenever he gets back, his presence also will provide a massive boost for a Lightning squad that is currently in the thick of the Eastern Conference race. Even without their best player, the Bolts continue to hang with the top of the heap. Tampa is currently in third place with a 24-12-4 record, trailing the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins by seven points and their Atlantic Division foes, the Boston Bruins, by only four.
4. Which team will Ryan Miller be playing for on March 6?
Despite a dreadful season for the Sabres that has resulted in the firing of both coach Ron Rolston and GM Darcy Regier, starting goaltender Ryan Miller continues to be the lone bright spot in Buffalo. With an awful team in front of him, Miller has played his butt off, an effort that will earn him consideration for the No. 1 job for the U.S. in Sochi. But more important, where will he land after the Olympics are over? With the Sabres in dead last and Pat LaFontaine still looking for Regier's replacement, Miller seems destined to be on the move as the trade deadline approaches. For any team looking to improve in goal, his name will be first on the list. The 33-year-old netminder, set to become an unrestricted free agent come July, will be an attractive target for playoff teams, though he does have a limited no-trade clause. It's hard to imagine Miller won't welcome any change from what has become a dire situation in Buffalo, but he'll be in the driver's seat if and when that situation presents itself.
5. Who will be the next coach to get the ax?
6. Will Toronto make the playoffs?
Relax, Leafs fans. Your team is still in good position to secure a postseason berth, though that might be an indication of the mediocrity of the conference more than anything. We've seen some ugly moments for the Leafs, thanks to the (almost) unfettered access of HBO's 24/7 cameras, but Toronto continues to show resilience despite being consistently outshot by opponents. The Leafs earned a 3-2 shootout win against the Detroit Red Wings in Wednesday's Winter Classic, the team's third straight victory, thanks to a terrific performance by netminder Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs have been beneficiaries of terrific goaltending, but the deficiencies in their overall game have surfaced in the second quarter. The Leafs remain one of the worst possession teams in the league, a problem that must be corrected if they want to avoid another early exit.
7. Will Team Canada choose P.K. Subban for the 2014 Olympic squad?
8. Will Henrik Lundqvist return to form?
One has to imagine that Alain Vigneault felt some sense of relief coming to New York, knowing he was leaving the neverending goalie controversy in Vancouver behind. Who could have possibly guessed that he'd be confronted with more questions in net when he took the job behind the bench in New York? Though Lundqvist has been the Rangers' most dependable, consistent and remarkable performer in recent years, he has not been playing like it this season. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner is going through the most difficult stretch of his career, forcing Vigneault to give 26-year-old backup netminder Cam Talbot more starts than anticipated, despite the seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension given to Lundqvist earlier this month. Though the 31-year-old Swede has recorded two straight wins, his numbers remain a concern. His 12-15-2 record with a 2.70 goals-against average and .908 save percentage is one clear reason the Rangers have been stuck in neutral through the first half of the season.
9. Which team will make the biggest splash at the trade deadline?
Last season's trade deadline was an interesting one. Penguins GM Ray Shero was as aggressive as ever, adding key pieces Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray for a playoff run. Sharks GM Doug Wilson peddled some of his key veterans -- Murray, Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus -- to retool his team into a younger, faster squad on the fly. Which GM makes the biggest moves this season? Look for the Penguins to again be major players, especially if they continue to be dogged by injuries. The Pens have been absolutely decimated, particularly on the back end, yet they remain atop the Eastern Conference standings. The Ducks are poised for a lengthy playoff run and appear to have a surplus in goal. Bottom-dwelling teams such as the Sabres and Florida Panthers will be in selling mode, looking to unload assets and regroup for the future. Heck, goaltender Martin Brodeur might even be willing to part with the Devils should New Jersey fall out of a playoff spot. Count on March 5 to be a busy day.
10. Will Thomas Vanek re-sign with the Islanders?
Islanders GM Garth Snow rolled the dice early in the season, shipping out Matt Moulson and a pair of high draft picks to Buffalo in exchange for Thomas Vanek. Snow landed a marquee talent in the two-time 40-goal scorer, but in doing so traded away one of his heart-and-soul leaders and top offensive weapons. Whether the deal goes down as a shrewd move or an epic blunder (count me among those betting on the latter) will likely hinge on whether Vanek, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, chooses to re-sign with the Islanders. The 29-year-old Austrian would be a nice piece to play on the wing along superstar center John Tavares for years to come, but if he opts for greener pastures in free agency, as many assume he will, Vanek will be remembered as nothing more than a high-priced rental. Considering the Islanders' abysmal first half -- the team is mired in 15th place in the Eastern Conference standings with a woeful 13-21-7 record -- Snow is facing an uphill battle.