Well this was certainly an entertaining first half of the season. As the NHL All-Star break rolls into St. Louis this upcoming weekend, all of us can to look back on the first half and predict what could be a stellar push for the playoffs. While there may not be a Cinderella story like we had last year with the Blues, there’s a lot to keep an eye on and what teams can improve or work on going forward into the offseason. First, let’s start with what we’ve seen in the first half.
- Firing coaches mid-season will become the new trend
As if last year didn’t foreshadow, this year ramped up pressure on the coaches to perform heading into the All-Star break. We’ve had at least seven coaches fired, the most recent one being Gerard Gallant, where he had the rug pulled from under him and can’t coach the Pacific division in the All-Star game. Most of the coaches fired made the playoffs last year, and all of them made the playoffs two years ago. While we can debate on how three deserved their firings for issues away from the ice, the other 24 teams may use this as an excuse for years to come if they want to pull the plug early, just for a chance for a quick turn around and sneak into the playoffs.
The problem with this trend is coaching changes in the NHL happened too often with little value going forward last decade. This season and this decade accelerated the trend, which means everyone could be on the hot seat even if their team reaches the playoffs.
- The Pacific Division is clearly the worst division in hockey, while the Central is probably the best.
The first part of that statement is accurate, because the point total is bunched together between five of the eight teams, which mostly are mediocre at best. The second part may cause fighting words with fans of an eastern conference team. To this I say one thing of both those divisions:
1). Half of the Atlantic division is pretty good, the other half is just as miserable in the standings, so there’s balance.
2). The top two teams in the metropolitan will solidify what power they have with little opposition in the second half.
The Central however could have five, possibly six teams reach the playoffs by the time the season ends. The Minnesota Wild, in last place with 50 points, have the possibility of keeping pace with the third place Dallas Stars, a team they crushed last Saturday night 7-0. While Nashville could be one of the few teams who may not make it, Chicago and Winnipeg have exceeded expectations, and we know St. Louis and Colorado won’t have a problem clinching early.
The divisional games within the Central are must-watch for hockey fans for the second half of the season.
- The Devils are in the worst situation possible.
Going into the season, yours truly thought the New Jersey Devils would be in a pretty good situation to make one of the lower seeds in the playoffs because of who they added to their roster. Then, a lot of that roster amassed injuries not long after, and the team never recovered. This year, audiences can tell that the Devils are not competitive and are nowhere close to playoff contention. While the Ottawa Senators have had jokes made at their expense (and with good reason, but more on that later), they have looked better and are further ahead in their process than the Devils can say.
The Devils did the right thing by firing their coach and GM before the end of the first half of the season. The Taylor Hall experiment proved to be one of the most lopsided deals of last decade, and after all of this, the team must tear everything down, brick by brick. This decade will be a long one New Jersey.
Brian Boucher is a wonderful addition to Doc and Edzo’s announcing crew
There have been valid complaints about Inside the Glass reporter Pierre McGuire on NBC for years, and it intensified last season after he made sexist comments and couldn’t stop injecting himself in play-by-play calls. NBC made the switch before last season ended to putting Brian Boucher by the ice with Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in the booth. Not only has Brian added some polish and youth, the audiences seem relieved knowing it’s one less game without the afore-mentioned McGuire. Boucher adds fresh views about what it’s like being on the ice in the last 25 years, goalie play, coach and captain mentality and using his time wisely in other areas in ways the audience can comprehend. Viewers hope this trio lasts for the rest of the 20s.
31 Takes for the 31 Teams
Now for what each team can improve on or keep doing right in the second half of the season.
Anaheim: conflicted about this team. Gibson could wind up having his pretty years spent during this re-build. Trading for defense is a must at this point. Buffalo could help with that if the Ducks want to clear space and go for some trades.
Arizona: They’re the true division winners if Darcy Kuemper never got hurt. They need a solid backup behind Antti Raanta. Better yet, someone who has proven they can start and take the reins if Raanta gets hurt again.
Boston: Even when Rask got hurt, this team was starting to slip. Their loss Sunday in Pittsburgh has summed up what could be their season: a white hot start but fading fast and then an exit to a much more motivated team. They have to get that early season magic back and have better depth past the second line.
Buffalo: Because the Atlantic has four sensational teams, they can’t do what the Oilers have. Too many defensemen and not enough offense is their recipe for not making the playoffs.
Calgary: Strangely this team knows what improvements they’ve had to make and have executed. Racist and bully of a coach? Fire him. David Rittich slips in performance? Replace with a better coached Cam Talbot. Milan Lucic staying consistent? Current work in progress.
Carolina: Many people leered when yours truly said the Canes couldn’t have a run like last year. While they started off as the best team in the league, they’re now fifth in their division behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. Justin Williams could be a spark and they could turn it up in the second half, but the signs are there this could be rough.
Chicago: The open secret is that Robin Lehner is the clear starter if you live in Chicago. The team defense has shown much improvement with him not just in net but with the culture of the players. Still, it would be bad to let either Lehner or Crawford walk after this year considering how few consistent goalies there are in the NHL. However, it is widely thought that Jeremy Colliton is not the coach this club needs, even if he is someone Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is comfortable with. Colliton couldn’t pull an injured Robin Lehner during a high-scoring 7-5 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on January second. It’s a bad look.
Colorado: last year yours truly wrote a wonderful piece on why the Avalanche are the real deal. They need to stay healthy and Jared Bednar is a top candidate for coach of the year.
Columbus: so is John Tortorella if we have to be fair. Didn’t think goalie play was going to be a strength this year since Bobrovsky took off for Florida. This will be one of two teams (the other being Minnesota) that will be interesting to watch if they can keep up the pace they ended the first half with.
Dallas: a shame Jim Montgomery had to be fired. This team needed the rest after beating Colorado, because they gave up eleven goals in two games to teams that might not make the playoffs. All but two had Ben Bishop in net. Could be disturbing if they enter the second half still playing like that.
Detroit: There’s a really good take on what the Wings can do that would be great….just not this woeful season. Finish this agonizing year, cut the guys loose who are 28 and above (minus Jonathan Bernier), and keep re-building.
Edmonton: There was an article that was never published nor written on this site involving how the Oilers are playoff contenders with coach Dave Tippett at the helm. Regrettably not typed up, the article said most of the things that has happened this season. Tippett has come in, taken what he has and turned it into something opponents are almost scared to face night in and night out. The Oilers should feel good about him being their coach and add depth in after the season.
Florida: this year’s Sergei Bobrovsky is last year’s James Reimer. Keep an eye on Coach Q recruiting Corey Crawford to the Sunshine State if this keeps up.
Los Angeles: it is a shame Jonathan Quick’s body has deteriorated faster than expected. Although the talent on the ice with him isn’t much better. This re-build needs to speed up. Now.
Minnesota: as mentioned with Columbus earlier, this team was scorching as the first half of the season ended. What’s peculiar about both teams is how we as a collective audience assumed the goal-tending would sink them. For this team, that’s still in play. Devan Dubnyk has thrown the towel in on any remaining talent, but if Alex Stalock can keep improving, maybe there’s something. Don’t bet too much on it though.
Montreal: stop infuriating the public by being good and then bad every two weeks.
Nashville: Like Boston and San Jose, this team has to play well to get to the playoffs with the talent they have. The way their goaltenders play though is not encouraging. The Wild and Preds will be on the hunt this offseason.
New Jersey: The main take is above, but this club should play Louis Domingue for the rest of the season to see what they have to work with. There’s a clear need for a starter, but a quality backup would give them a boost.
NY Islanders: this team got worse in the offseason and it’s shown throughout January. Take the eight goal slaughter against Detroit out and this team has scored four goals in three games, two of which were against teams that probably won’t make the playoffs. The other in a 6-4 loss to the Capitals. This team needs better offensive performances if they want to make a run.
NY Rangers: the Rangers have to decide what they want to do with their goalies. Reports were Alexandar Georgiev was going to be shopped, so if they decide to do that, they better request a massive haul. Nashville could be just the team.
Ottawa: DJ Smith has his club buying in, and the Senators, rather than doing nothing before the trade deadline, seem to have bargaining chips for some teams in need. Popular talk is Craig Anderson, who is sure to leave with the rise of Marcus Hogberg playing a factor, could be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Strangely, this could be something that benefits both teams, as Toronto has a lot of offensive pieces to spare, and they desperately need a backup netminder.
Philadelphia: there’s still a good chance they can make the playoffs, but they have to play better in games against playoff caliber teams. It’ll be interesting to see how Carter Hart can bounce back when he returns from his injury.
Pittsburgh: There go any Evgeni Malkin trade rumors. Mike Sullivan too should be up for coach of the year. For the battle in net, Matt Murray has to want the job back to keep it, though it’s possible the play of Tristan Jarry’s made that a little too late.
San Jose: the easy answer is to say get someone in goal who is not Aaron Dell or Martin Jones, but maybe you have to just re-build. While the Pacific is trash this year, the defense was a growing problem last year, and now it can’t be ignored.
St. Louis: while most expected the injuries to Vladimir Tarasenko and Colton Parayko would be huge, this team needed rest more than anything. The two losses to the Avs could sting going forward though.
Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevskiy basically told the press last week, “I play better and am more focused when I face more shots. I don’t zone out as much”, and it’s good he did because that may have been a factor in some of Lightning’s critical losses in the past year. The pace they’ve been playing at not only makes them the favorites to win their division, but also sharper heading into the postseason, knowing that’s where the adversity is.
Toronto: Craig Anderson will be available. Having an Anderson every night in net should bring consistency.
Vancouver: Jakob Markstrom is putting together a fantastic season, and this team deserves a lot of credit for coming as far as they have with not a lot of depth to use. Thankfully for them their division is terrible, so the depth part may not matter until the offseason.
Vegas: Yours truly will take a gamble and break with the public on this issue and side with general manager Kelly McCrimmon on not just firing Gerard Gallant, but hiring rival coach Peter DeBoer. McCrimmon was right about at least one thing: the Knights weren’t playing with the passion they had even last year when Mark Stone was acquired. If hiring the coach of the team you loathe gets the team going, then yeah, it’s worth it. DeBoer needs to know what defense is though.
Washington: the Braden Holtby question won’t stop despite their wins. He has allowed an average of just over three goals a game. While that may be overlooked because of the Capitals’ offense, Ilya Samsonov’s average is one full goal less. Keep in mind Holtby is a free agent and it’s looking more likely he won’t return if he continues this play.
Winnipeg: As yours truly predicted at the beginning of the season, they wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. That remains probable looking at how they have minimal defense and how awful their back-up goaltender Laurent Brossoit is. If Connor Hellebuyck caves in, this team is done.