The first half of the NHL season has been interesting to say the least, chock full of surprises, drama, and suspense around every turn. Now that we’ve got past the all star break and every team is starting to get back into action, it’s time to reflect on the state of each team headed into the home stretch of the season.
After an unexpectedly good regular season last year, the Bruins have fallen back a little bit (a slew of injuries to your top players will do that). The top line of Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak has been electric when healthy, but depth scoring beyond these three has been lacking for the most part. With a good goalie tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak and solid defense, this team has the pieces to make a deep playoff run, but without secondary scoring, the Bruins may fall flat come playoff time.
After finishing last in the league and getting the number 1 overall pick last year, the Sabres jumped out to a hot start. They went on a 10 game winning streak and were briefly on top of the league standings in November. However, the team has cooled off drastically over the last month or so. Still, the team is very young, and with a young goalie tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, a top defense pair of Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen, and a talented forward group of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Tage Thompson, and Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres will be good for years to come. If they can sign Jeff Skinner (who is on pace for 50+ goals this season) to an extension, the offense will even be that much more potent. So even if the Sabres miss the playoffs this year, the future is very bright.
The Hurricanes had a tumultuous offseason, with a change in owner and management occurring. They made two questionable trades, the aforementioned Dougie Hamilton trade and shipping Jeff Skinner to Buffalo. In the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old same old for the Canes, the team with the longest active playoff drought in the NHL at 10 years. However, the Canes have gotten hot recently, having won 10 of the last 14. If they can get solid goaltending (which has been notoriously bad for years in Raleigh) and their offense can continue to score some goals, the Canes could sneak in as a wild card.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are an interesting team, especially going into February 25th’s trade deadline. The team is all-around solid, with a good forward group that can score goals, a solid blue line anchored by stud Seth Jones, and a goalie tandem that has shown signs of brilliance at times. However, with elite forward Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina goalie Sergei Bobrovsky becoming free agents at the end of the year (and both seemingly unwilling to re-sign with Columbus), GM Jarmo Kekaelaeinen will have to make tough decisions on whether to keep them or trade them for assets at the deadline. It will probably come down to what other teams offer as well as how management views the team: if they’re contenders, keep them; if not, sell them. What they do at the deadline will likely be an indicator of how the team will finish out the year.
Detroit Red Wings
The Wings’ streak of 25 straight playoff appearances came to an end in 2017, marking the beginning of a rebuild. This season has yielded more of the same, with the old core slowly being phased out for younger talent. Unfortunately, with some bad contracts given out by GM Ken Holland, the Wings are up against the salary cap, meaning the rebuild will be slow and complicated. As for this year’s on-ice product, the old core is past its prime, and the new talent is not developed enough, meaning the team is just not very good right now.
Despite a talented forward group, the Panthers once again started the season slow, with a shaky defense and even worse goaltending largely to blame. Starter Roberto Luongo is showing his old age, while James Reimer has been incredibly mediocre in his showings. Recently, though, it looks like the Panthers are gearing up to make some major acquisitions soon, clearing cap space for next summer by sending forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann to Pittsburgh for impending free agent centers Derrick Brassard and Riley Sheahan as well as a 2nd and two 4th round picks. Could this mean they are looking to make a big splash in free agency? As for now, the team is out of the playoff hunt, so they look forward to the offseason to try and build some excitement and get some people in the seats of BB&T Center in Sunrise.
After an abysmal 2018 campaign, the Canadiens made changes in the offseason, most notably trading captain Max Paccioretty to Vegas for forward Tomas Tatar and swapping forwards Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi with Arizona. These trades have worked out wonderfully for GM Marc Bergevin thus far, as the two have been major contributors on a resurgent forward group. New captain Shea Weber has returned to form on the blue line after missing the beginning part of the year due to injury, and goalie Carey Price has bounced back and is having a good season thus far. The key for the upstart Canadiens will be if they can maintain their momentum into the second half of the year and the playoffs. So far, so good though for Montreal thus far.
New Jersey Devils
Like Colorado, the Devils went from the basement to the playoffs last year. Unlike Colorado, they have not built off that and have thus returned to the bottom of the standings. Last year’s MVP Taylor Hall has been out for some significant time, and the other forwards have not produced enough to make up the deficit. Moreover, the defense has been porous, and the goaltending has been subpar. Last year’s starter Cory Schneider has not won a single start after returning from injury, while Keith Kinkaid, the starter for most of this season, has been mediocre at best. Rookie McKenzie Blackwood has provided some stability in net recently, but the rest of the team is just not up to par, especially with Hall and a slew of others injured. The Devils look forward to next year to try and put it all back together for another shot at the playoffs.
New York Islanders
The Isles probably had the most interesting offseason. They fired GM Garth Snow and brought in Lou Lamoriello (who built the Devils dynasty of the late 90s and early 2000s and largely built the current Maple Leafs core), and fired coach Doug Weight for Barry Trotz (who had just led the Capitals to a Stanley Cup). The franchise secured plans to build a new arena in Belmont on Long Island, eventually being able to move out from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, an arena which is unequipped to handle hockey and is far away from its fanbase on Long Island. However, they lost their franchise cornerstone and captain John Tavares to the Maple Leafs in free agency. The team has become a little less lethal offensively, but under the coaching of Barry Trotz, the defense has seen vast improvement, and the goalie tandem of Thomas Griess and Robin Lehner has played marvelously thus far. Most importantly, it seems that the loss of Tavares has made this team bond together and play as one unit, and they have rose to the top of the Metropolitan Division on the strength of this unity. Look out, as this team has plenty of cap space going forward, so the have room to be active in free agency and get even better than they are now. As for now, as long as the Isles play cohesively and responsibly, they are a dangerous team going forward.
New York Rangers
By this time last year, it was clear the Rangers window of contention had shut and a rebuild was in order. They were sellers at last year’s deadline (most notably trading away Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh) to commence the rebuild. This year, the rebuild continues, as the team has struggled in all capacities this year. The offense has been alright, but not good enough to keep up with some of the other high-flying offenses around the league. The defense has been prone to collapse at crucial junctures of games, while goalie Henrik Lundqvist has shown his old age at times. Coming up on this year’s deadline, expect to see names like forwards Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes, and Chris Kreider potentially sold off for futures. Expect the rebuild to go on for a while at Madison Square Garden.
They were one goal away from beating Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. Like Chicago after they were swept, the Sens have not recovered from this moment, and have become a dumpster fire of epic proportions. After drama between forward Mike Hoffman and superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson surfaced over the offseason, both were shipped off to San Jose in separate trades (Hoffman was flipped to Florida), with San Jose fleecing Ottawa in both deals. As a result, the Sens have been forced to dress a very young and inexperienced roster, which has expectedly put them in the basement. Inexperience at forward and defense plus questionable goaltending from an old Craig Anderson mean the Sens are destined to finish somewhere at the bottom of the standings and are going have a good chance at winning the draft lottery. The only problem is they traded away their first round pick this year in the aforementioned Matt Duchene trade, so Colorado gets that lottery pick. With the Senators expected to sell at the deadline, they must get a first round pick in return for names like Matt Duchene or Mark Stone. Not to even mention the off-ice turmoil between the fanbase and owner Eugene Melnyk over the direction of the franchise and a new arena closer to downtown Ottawa. Unfortunately, this is probably the darkest time for this franchise since it was brought back in 1992, and the future doesn’t look all that bright right now.
The odd-year curse continues for the Flyers. Since 2012, the Flyers have missed the playoffs every odd-numbered year, but made them in even years. The pattern looks like it will remain intact, as the Flyers have decided that defense is not important and goaltending even less so. The offense has for the most part been good, although depth scoring has been somewhat suspect, but the defense has been outright awful at times. The goaltending has been the worst part of the team thus far, having gone through a record-tying 7 goalies thus far this season, most of which have been bad. Things got so bad they had to rush their star goalie prospect Carter Hart, a move which has thankfully for them worked out pretty well thus far. Due to these woes, the similarly named head coach Dave Hakstol and GM Ron Hextall were axed and replaced by Scott Gordon (as interim coach) and Chuck Fletcher (Minnesota’s old GM). Recently, their play has been much improved, and they have won 7 straight as I write this. However, it likely will not be enough to salvage their season, but if the trend holds they’ll be back in the playoffs next year.
The Penguins also follow a distinct formula throughout the course of their season: underachieve early, make everyone foolishly hope this early struggle signals their demise, then kick it into high gear, make the playoffs, and go deep into the playoffs. This year, the Pens are right on schedule, having recovered from an abysmal 8-8-5 start. Their stars up front (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel) have continued producing at a high rate, the back end (especially Kris Letang) is contributing and making plays, and the goalie tandem of Matt Murray and Casey DeSmith has improved over the season. Once again, the Pens are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay Lightning
This team is in a league of its own right now. The offense is ridiculous, with the league’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, 30-goal scorer Brayden Point, and captain Steven Stamkos creating one of the most lethal attacks in hockey. Even scarier is the fact that the scoring depth runs through the entire forward group; the Bolts can roll four lines that can all score on you. Couple that with a lockdown back end anchored by defending Norris winner Victor Hedman and the outstanding play of the goalie tandem of Andrei Vasilevsky and Louis Domingue, and you get an elite team that’s waltzing its way to a President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the playoffs. Now they must get it done in the playoffs; they’ve made the Eastern Conference Finals 3 of the last 4 years, but only made one Cup Final and have not won a Cup in this stretch. This is probably the best opportunity they’re going to have to win it all for the first time since 2004; they cannot afford to waste it.
Toronto Maple Leafs
After several years of futility to begin the decade (2013 aside), the Leafs drafted some good young talent to build around: forwards like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and 2016 number one overall pick Auston Matthews, and defensemen like Morgan Rielly. These years of drafting high-end talent are starting to really show, as the Leafs have developed their good young core and added new talent like goalie Frederik Andersen and forwards Patrick Marleau and, most notably, franchise center John Tavares. The Leafs have become the epitome of what I call “Big XII Hockey”-winning games by outscoring the opponent with your firepower up front, with an inferior defense allowing opportunities and goals on the other end. Indeed, the Leafs have been scoring at will, especially with the big three of Tavares, Matthews, and Marner, while the defense (especially on the right side) has not been as good (although they just improved it by trading for Jake Muzzin). The goalie tandem of Andersen and Garret Sparks have held down the fort pretty well when the defense has broken down. This team is one of the best the east has to offer: is it enough to finally get over the hump and win in the playoffs for the first time since 2004?
The Capitals kept most of the pieces from their Cup team last year (they notably lost coach Barry Trotz to the Islanders). Once again, they are one of the top teams in the east, with a dynamic offense led by superstar forward Alex Ovechkin, who is poised to win yet another Rocket Richard trophy for league’s leading goal scorer. The back end is still good, with John Carlson anchoring a stout unit. The goaltending has been iffy at times, but the tandem of Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley have been serviceable for the Caps’ needs. They have struggled recently leading up to the break, but with the pieces they have in place, they will be ready to defend the Stanley Cup come playoff time.