And just like that, half a season is gone. We've had teams go on scorching-hot win streaks -- the Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers -- and we've seen some of them crash back to earth. We've had players such as Patrick Kane, Tyler Seguin and Vladimir Tarasenko electrify fans with their individual prowess. We've had trade requests and unanswered contract business involving some of the game's most prominent players. But as we head into the second half of the season, it's going to get interesting. Really interesting.
Here are our top storylines of the second half:
Paying the Price
After sweeping the NHL awards with a season for the ages in 2014-15, Carey Price has missed nine weeks while injured and is not skating yet as he tries to recover from his latest lower-body injury, according to Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien. After a red-hot start, the Habs have struggled without their franchise goaltender, recently adding Ben Scrivens to try to shore up the goaltending. But the longer Price remains out, the greater the chances the Canadiens could fall out of the playoff picture altogether -- the ninth-place Ottawa Senators are five points back of the Habs, with two games in hand. And then there is the issue of what kind of shape Price will be in when he gets back. Maybe he's rested. Maybe he's rusty. Either way, lots of unknowns for a team that no longer looks like a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.
Oh my, what a tinderbox the Tampa Bay Lightning have become. And things are only going to get hotter for the Bolts as we approach the Feb. 29 trade deadline. At some point there has to be a reckoning with captain Steven Stamkos, who continues to inch his way toward the end of his contract and impending free agency. Does he get signed in Tampa? Is there an avenue to work out a trade so the Lightning do not lose the asset without getting anything back, knowing that Stamkos controls his own fate via a no-movement clause if no contract extension is possible? Are the Lightning, last year's Stanley Cup finalists, even a playoff team? Today, they're on the outside looking in. And then there is the not-so-small matter of the No. 3 overall draft pick from 2013, Jonathan Drouin, who is in the AHL but has asked for a trade. In short, general manager Steve Yzerman is facing his most difficult days as an NHL executive.
At the midpoint of the season, the second- and third-place teams in the Pacific, which would be playoff-bound if the season ended today, have fewer points than the Colorado Avalanche, who are sixth in the Central Division and thus out of the playoffs. That's not right and it's going to create headaches for the NHL if this trend continues into the second half. It's entirely possible the sixth and seventh teams in the Central could end up out of the playoffs despite having more points than two playoff-bound Pacific teams. Yikes. As problematic as this potential inequity is, the current divisional playoff system has created a compelling race for those two Pacific Division playoff spots, assuming the Kings are a lock to win the Pacific, and the Central Division is a lock to send five playoff teams (the top three seeds and both wild-card teams) for the third straight season. The Calgary Flames have recovered from a dreadful start, the Anaheim Ducks are slowly grinding their way back into the hunt with the NHL's least potent offense, and the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks continue to surprise by hanging around the playoff picture. Too close to call, really, although shine up the Jack Adams Award for coach Dave Tippett if the young Yotes somehow make it to the playoff dance.
World Cup watch
Shortly after the All-Star break, the first 16 players for each of the eight teams competing in next fall's World Cup of Hockey will be announced. For us, the selection process for Team North America (the under-24 squad of U.S. and Canadian players) is among the most interesting. Young players are more prone to wild swings in productivity. Thus a Dylan Larkin, who was on the fringe to start the season, has blossomed into an obvious cornerstone forward. Meanwhile, GMs Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman have to decide if there's room for potential No. 1 draft pick Auston Matthews, who is coming off a strong world junior championship for the bronze medal-winning Americans. And what of the goaltending situation for Team North America? John Gibson is a lock to make the team and is the likely starter, but Connor Hellebuyck has been solid for the Winnipeg Jets and Matt Murray showed flashes in a recent call-up by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Canada will be interesting as always because of its incredible depth, especially down the middle, but also because some top players such as Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares are having statistically off seasons. Tavares is a given and GM Doug Armstrong has already said Sidney Crosby, just now starting to round into statistical form, will be among the first 16 named, but not so sure on Getzlaf, even though he and teammate Corey Perry were strong in Sochi when Canada won its second straight Olympic gold medal. In short, there will be no shortage of drama to accompany these announcements.
Remember when I picked Florida to win the Atlantic back in September? Wait. I never did that. And neither did anyone except maybe GM Dale Tallon. But the Panthers are the story of the first half as they ride a franchise-record 11-game winning streak into the midpoint of the regular season. This is a team that has made the playoffs only three times and won zero playoff rounds since its strange trip to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals. They've been to the postseason only once in the past 14 years. There has been constant talk of relocation amid poor attendance. But all of that seems to be changing as the Panthers -- led by 43-year-old wonder Jaromir Jagr, Vezina Trophy-worthy Roberto Luongo and a terrific cast of youngsters -- have emerged as the top defensive team in the NHL. So, can they keep it up? As I noted about the Canadiens, there's not much separation between winning the Atlantic Division and being out of the playoff picture entirely. It doesn't appear this Panthers team will fall into that trap unless it is beset by injury, but Florida is definitely in uncharted territory, which will make for interesting moments down the stretch.
Along with Florida in the East, it's fair to say Dallas' high-flying Stars are the toast of the Western Conference. I wrote about them this week as they hit their first bit of adversity in what has been a sterling season, but they will bear watching, as will the entire Central Division given the collection of elite teams that call that division home. Can the Stars keep the defending Stanley Cup champions from Chicago at bay? Or St. Louis? Or Minnesota? There's no easy way out of the Central. Just ask the Blues, who won the division last season and were out of the playoffs in six games thanks to the Minnesota Wild. Or the Avalanche, who won it the season before and were one-and-done in the playoffs too, also defeated by the Wild. Still, it's an important distinction for the Stars to maintain their grip on the division lead, even if it means they won't get any kind of break come the first round. My guess is that in spite of their recent hiccup, they'll get back to form and end up with the top seed in the Western Conference, adding to the already considerable buzz around the team in Big D.
A year ago Price, as noted, was headed to NHL award heaven with his terrific season winning the Hart, Vezina, Ted Lindsay and Jennings trophies. This season, there is no such clear-cut favorite for any of the major awards. I am especially interested in how the Vezina will shake out in Price's absence with Braden Holtby, the mid-point favorite, followed by Luongo and perhaps Jake Allen and Corey Crawford. Artemi Panarin is running away with the rookie scoring race at the halfway point, 10 points up on Max Domi of the Coyotes, although Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres is getting hot. Last season, it looked as if Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators would run away with the Calder Trophy, but he faded and Aaron Ekblad came on to win a close battle over Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Stone. Panarin has been exceptional, so his ability to keep up the pace will be an interesting storyline. Finally, Panarin's linemate Patrick Kane is in a duel with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn for the NHL scoring lead. If Kane, who has an eight-point lead over Benn, hangs on, it would make him the first American-born scoring champion. He has not faded a bit since his 26-game point streak ended and it's hard to imagine he won't also add his first Hart Trophy as league MVP if he wins the scoring race.