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.
Before the season, I expected this to be the beginning of a transition period for the Ducks, with a changing of the guard from the old core of players like Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Ryan Kesler to younger talent like Brandon Montour, Rickard Rakell, and Nick Ritchie. They got off the a good start, but have since struggled mightily, winning only 2 of their last 16 (including a streak of 12 straight losses). Their offense has been sluggish for most of the season, with the outstanding play of goalie John Gibson keeping them in most games. If the team does not start playing much better (especially offensively), they will be in serious trouble of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
With the franchise having to renegotiate a lease to play in Gila River Arena every year and struggling to get fans to attend their games (their average attendance is 3rd worst at 13.5k per game), the on-ice play of the Coyotes has actually improved from the abysmal start they had last year. However, the offense is still very inconsistent (especially at home it seems), and injuries have plagued the team all year (most notably to captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson and starting goalie Antti Raanta). Despite these setbacks, the team is still contention for their first playoff appearance since 2012, but if they are to reach there, they must improve offensively and get healthy.
The Flames have been the surprising breakout team of the Western Conference, surging up to lead the conference at the all star break. They made a blockbuster trade pre-season that sent defenseman Dougie Hamilton, forward Michael Ferland and prospect Adam Fox to Carolina for defenseman Noah Hanifin and forward Elias Lindholm, a trade which has worked out really well for Calgary thus far. Lindholm has been a big contributor to an offense that has been nothing less than lethal, and Hanifin is anchoring a blue line that has been quite stingy. This team will end up as one of the best of the west; the real question will be whether they can do it in the playoffs, where they have only won one playoff series since 2004.
In 2017, Chicago finished first in the west and were regarded as one of the favorites for the Cup headed into the postseason. They were then swept by Nashville in the first round, and have not recovered since. After a sluggish start, coach Joel Quenneville was shown the door and replaced by first-time NHL coach Jeremy Colliton, but the team has not really improved since. Despite career-high numbers for superstar forward Patrick Kane and a breakout season for Alex DeBrincat, an old defensive core and shaky goaltending (especially with starter Corey Crawford battling more injuries) have sunk the Hawks to the basement of the Western Conference. The decade of success for the Hawks has come to an end.
A historically bad 2017 campaign turned into to a surprise playoff appearance in 2018 after Matt Duchene was traded away and Nathan Mackinnon had an MVP-caliber season. Now, they boast one of the best lines in hockey with Mikko Rantanen-Mackinnon-Gabriel Landeskog, but have struggled to find much depth scoring behind these three. As a result of this as well as at times shaky goaltending from Simeon Varlamov and Phillip Grubauer, the Avs have fell into a slump, winning only 7 of their last 25 after a spectacular start. Drastic improvements must be made to propel themselves back into the conversation as contenders.
The Stars have once again resorted to being a top-heavy team, with superstar forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin picking up the flack for a lack of scoring depth. However, Stars President Jim Lites decided the blame should go squarely on the shoulders of Benn and Seguin despite the underachieving of the other forwards, publically calling them out for not producing as much as their $10+ million contracts suggest they should. Meanwhile, the goaltending has been good, and they have a good top defensive pairing of John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen. Their lack of offense, however, has held the team back to this point, and must improve for the Stars to make the playoffs.
A historic franchise that has been rife with failure over the last decade or so (2017 aside), the Oilers have seemingly descended to dumpster fire status this season. Despite having arguably the best player in the world in forward Connor McDavid, the team around him has been far from good enough, with minimal secondary scoring, subpar defense, questionable goaltending, and no depth. Coach Todd McLellan was fired in the middle of the season for the retired Ken Hitchcock, whose impact seems to have already worn off only about 30 games into his interim tenure. The worst part of the organizational mess, though, is management, especially the recently fired GM Peter Chiarelli, who put the Oilers in an extremely difficult cap situation with terrible contracts. Despite McDavid keeping them relevant, Edmonton could be a mediocre team for a while, until the sins of Chiarelli’s tenure can be undone.
Los Angeles Kings
Last season, the Kings made the playoffs, but were swept in the first round by the Golden Knights. In that series, they only scored 4 goals in as many games, with goalie Jonathon Quick being the main reason the Kings had a chance in the series. In the offseason, management decided they needed to address this lack of scoring by bringing 35 year old forward Ilya Kovalchuck, the first overall pick in 2001, back from the KHL. What the Kings did not address was the lack of speed and old age of their team, which has come back to haunt them this season. Compared to the rest of the league, the Kings are slow and old, a recipe which has yielded a trip to the league’s basement and which may signal the beginning of a rebuild as the current core continues to age. Like many of the other successful teams of the early 2010s, L.A.’s window of contention has shut for a while.
For the last several years, Minnesota has largely followed the same formula: have a good regular season, make the playoffs, but have an early exit from the playoffs. The Wild’s ownership grew tired of the perennial early playoff exits, electing to replace GM Chuck Fletcher with Paul Fenton in the offseason. Under his first year, it appears more of the same may be inevitable. The Wild have struggled at times to score, and they’ve been carried at times by the spectacular play of defenseman Ryan Suter, but they’ve been good enough to be fighting for a playoff spot. If they do make the playoffs, however, their old skating core and inconsistent goaltending will likely doom them against stronger contenders, meaning yet another early playoff exit may be in the makings.
After their coming out party in their 2017 run to the Cup Finals, the Predators have become one of the best teams in the league over the last couple years. This year has seen continued dominance by defending Vezina winning goalie Pekka Rinne and the best blue line in hockey anchored by studs like Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and superstar PK Subban. The forward group is not as prolific, but still can score some goals. They look like they will probably not have as good a regular season as their President’s Trophy campaign last year, but are still well on their way to having home ice advantage and eyeing their second straight Central Division title.
San Jose Sharks
After an inconsistent start to the year, the Sharks have really turned it on recently, winning 10 of their last 14 games. The offense has been pretty balanced, and the defense, anchored by newly acquired superstar Erik Karlsson has been overall pretty good (although they can break down at times). The goaltending has been shaky at times, with both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell below .900 for the season, but is still serviceable with the offensive production the Sharks have been getting. If the defense can limit breakdowns and the goaltending can become more consistent, this team has a legitimate chance at making a deep run in the playoffs and maybe hoisting the Cup for the first time in franchise history.
Saint Louis Blues
GM Doug Armstrong was aggressive in the offseason after the Blues were kept out of the playoffs by the Avalanche in the final game of last season. They brought back David Perron from the Golden Knights, signed Tyler Bozak from the Maple Leafs in free agency, and traded for first-line center Ryan O’Riley from Buffalo. However, everything blew up in their face early in the season, as the offense struggled to score goals, the defense was suspect to put it lightly, and the goaltending of Jake Allen was bad. However, recently the Blues have found some answers, and they have started to play much better. Big name forwards like O’Riley, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Brayden Schwartz have begun picking up their production, the defense has improved, and yet another rookie goaltender in Jordan Binnington has provided solid play in net. If the Blues can continue with this recent momentum, with how bad the rest of the west has been, they can overcome their abysmal start and sneak into the playoffs.
The Canucks seem to be emerging from their long rebuilding period, having acquired some good talent through the draft over the last several seasons. Rookie forward Elias Petterson has been having a tremendous breakout season, and it looks like he could be the franchise centerpiece going forward. He is surrounded by some up and coming pieces like Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Jake Virtanen, who have all gained some NHL experience and should only get better in the future. The defense is not the greatest in the world, but will likely improve as they gain experience and new prospects continue to develop. In goal, the Canucks are starting Jacob Markstrom, who’s been solid thus far, but are starting to get future franchise goalie Thatcher Demko some action. With how weak the west is, they could surprise some people and sneak into the playoffs ahead of schedule, but even if they miss again this year, the future holds a lot of promise for Vancouver.
Vegas Golden Knights
After last year’s run to the Cup Finals, the Knights started the year off slowly, looking like an expansion team at times. Losing defenseman Nate Schmidt for 20 games had a noticeable effect, and new acquisition Max Paccioretty was not producing early on. However, after this sluggish start, they too have rounded into form, with a balanced scoring attack, stingy defense, and good goaltending. No one area really excels on this team (although goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has put up some spectacular performances this season), and the team is still not the most talented in the world, but head coach Gerard Gallant continues to get his team to play hard and unified as a team. They win games mainly by outworking their opposition. Once again, this team looks dangerous to play come playoff time, and is more than capable of defending their Western Conference crown.
Last but not least, the Jets have built off last year’s momentum and become a legitimate Cup contender. They have one of the best forward groups in hockey, with names like Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Patrick Laine leading the charge. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien anchors a solid blue line, while starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck and backup Laurent Brossoit have both been good in net. While Laine has struggled to score recently, others have stepped up to fill this void, making this team even scarier when Laine starts producing again. The Jets face some stiff competition in the west; they certainly have the talent to hang with these contenders, but can they take the next step and go to the Cup Finals for the first time in their history?