2020-2021 NHL First Half Analysis

What a wacky and one-of-a-kind first half of the season. This is a later start than usual with no All-Star game and division-only play between seven to eight teams in four new divisions. There’s no solid Cinderella story of the year, but there is a bitter and competitive focus since every team has to face the other six or seven at least eight times. Here’s what we’ve seen in the first half of this unusual and once in a life-time regular season.

The Central Division is the NHL’s powerhouse

Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (88, white) and Blake Coleman block a shot from Anthony Duclair. The winner of the Battle of Florida games has scored at least five goals.

Most fans and analysts knew the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes would be two of the top teams in this year’s re-aligned Central division. Most didn’t think the Florida Panthers would be close to Tampa’s level. Those three teams have some of, if not the best winning percentages in the NHL.

Two of these teams will play each other in the first round, while the division winner will either play the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators or Chicago Blackhawks. As of March 29th, Tampa Bay would win the division and we’d be treated to the two best playoff matchups.

The Winnipeg Jets are Canada’s most complete team

Jets coach Paul Maurice has improved his squad and coached up a lot of the depth. Winnipeg is one of the three teams in the North division competing for first place.

Despite splitting with the Calgary Flames this past weekend, Winnipeg is still the best team in Canada to advance to the conference finals/final four. The addition of Pierre-Luc Dubois will pay off in the playoffs, and the amount of physical play they bring will wear down on teams who play them for more than one week.

One of the more promising parts about the Jets this year is the increased depth once captain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele aren’t on the ice. The Paul Stastny addition on left wing is a big help, but Andrew Copp, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton, Kyle Connor and Mathieu Perreault have grown and evolved with added roles and time. That’s a big credit to coach Paul Maurice, who should be in the Jack Adams (coach of the year) conversation.

The Western division has the most thrilling playoff race.

In one of the most memorable moments of this season, Nathan MacKinnon scored one of the best goals of the season on Marc-Andre Fleury (29, red) in an outdoor game on NBC.

Before the season, the conversation about the West had the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues making the playoffs. After those three, it was open to who would sneak into the fourth spot.

Well, mid-season it’s a much different conversation. Kirill Kaprizov and Kaapo Kahkonen have the Wild comfortably in the third spot, while St. Louis sits in fourth. The Blues’ defense continues to show problems it displayed in the first round of last year’s playoffs against Vancouver, and it could be their undoing if a team like the Los Angeles Kings or Arizona Coyotes catch up. It’s possible the Wild or Blues fizzle out, but it’s likely they stay in their current seeding. Either way, it’ll make for a fun second half and playoff season.

31 Takes for 31 Teams

Now for what each team can improve on or keep doing right in the second half of the season.

Anaheim: The Ducks have played 36 games and have earned 28 points, eleven through wins. Goaltender John Gibson is in his prime and looks great whenever he plays, but he can’t get wins because the offense is non-existent or the defense can’t give him help. Shut him down for the rest of the year and let veteran backup Ryan Miller finish the season. It’s better to see what depth there is heading into next year.

Arizona: Goaltender Darcy Kuemper is again injured (shocking, I know). Antti Raanta’s lower body injury isn’t too serious, but it’s glaring long-term. If the playoffs came down to the top six teams in the west (one of the two not competing is the aforementioned Ducks), the Coyotes miss out at fifth. They don’t have enough offense to keep up, even against Los Angeles, who’s right behind them. Management needs to sit down and decide what they want long-term, because this roster isn’t it.

Boston: We’ve known that the Bruins have problems scoring when their Perfection Line (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak) doesn’t score, but it’s alarming to see how many goals this team has scored this season. They’ve scored 81 this season, 36 by that line. Their fourth best scorer shouldn’t be Nick Ritchie. Boston has to trade some defense for a scorer who can get the second or third line going.

Buffalo: I think we’re all glad we don’t have to watch the Sabres play for a while, especially against Boston. There’s no way this franchise can improve without causing more pain. At least the fans don’t totally hate Terry Pegula since he owns the Bills.

Calgary: If the problem with Geoff Ward was how soft he was with the team, I can get why Flames management fired him. The problem is who replaces him. Darryl Sutter’s dirt came out the same time Bill Peters was fired in 2019. Three coaches in three years looks bad, and further alienates the roster. If the Flames aren’t active at the trade deadline, they need to analyze how good the roster is to keep together. That holds weight if they don’t make the playoffs.

Carolina: Since November 16, 2019, nobody’s had a better a save percentage total than James Reimer, who’s also Petr Mrazek’s backup. Despite that surprising stat, Reimer’s struggled against Tampa Bay and Columbus in March, and the only team currently in the top four they can beat looks to be Florida. Thankfully Mrazek should return in April, and the Hurricanes could play better defensively long-term.

Chicago: The Blackhawks finally beat the Florida Panthers, and swap spots with Columbus to close out March. If they make any trades, they’ll need a defenseman who can make sure team defense doesn’t fall apart against a high-caliber offense. There’s not much else you can ask from this team performance-wise.

Colorado: Everyone’s going giddy over the hot streak the Avalanche are on, but the hype needs to slow down a bit. Just like the criticisms with certain Canadian teams, there are valid ones up in Mile High. This roster cannot stay healthy and hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs in seven games two years straight because of it. Goalie Philipp Grubauer could be exhausted if backup Pavel Francouz isn’t ready by early May, and that could cause problems against a team like St. Louis if that’s who they draw first round.

Columbus: the hot topic is the April trade deadline, but the more important question of will John Tortorella return after this season is pivotal for a franchise rising with a lot of great young players. The Blue Jackets need a plan in place past 2021.

Dallas: I stated in my season predictions that the injuries to Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop were valid reasons why the Stars wouldn’t come close to a repeat Stanley Cup run. Other injuries to stars like Alexander Radulov, Radek Faksa and Roope Hintz have made this a season to forget. While they’re still in the playoff race, it’s better for Stars management to pull the plug on key players to avoid more injuries.

Detroit: Respected starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier is rumored to be on the trade block, and a prize pickup for any team needing a goaltender heading into the playoffs. Bernier’s in his prime at 32 and should have the chance to be on a championship contending team. General manager Steve Yzerman knows this team will need at least five years to accomplish a true re-build.

Edmonton: I’m surprised Dave Tippett isn’t in the coach of the year conversation with how the Oilers have bounced back after their playoff failure. It’s also shocking how starting goalie Mike Smith isn’t in the Vezina talk either. Despite the regular season MVP talk on Connor McDavid, the Oilers aren’t close in the first place North division standings if Smith isn’t starting.

Florida: Blackhawk fans should be tuned in to what the Panthers are up to during Joel Quenneville’s tenure in the Sunshine State. It’s almost the same process he had his first four years in Chicago. The Panthers aren’t in their peak yet, but in two years, they could replace their inner-state rivals as the NHL’s best and most complete team.

Los Angeles: Among the seven teams that didn’t play in the bubble last year, the Kings benefitted from it most. Jonathan Quick looks like his old, championship caliber self, with Calvin Petersen a great backup if Quick needs time off. They’re in sixth however because they took two steps back after beating Vegas for the first time this season, dropping two games to a bad Sharks team. If they don’t make the playoffs, we’ll look at that as a reason why. Todd McLellan should be a candidate for coach of the year for developing the roster faster than expected.

Minnesota: Like the Blackhawks, the Wild have exceeded all expectations this season. They have a great shot at knocking the Vegas Golden Knights out of the playoffs if they face off in the first round. Building around Kirill Kaprizov and maybe adding another goalie should be the objective after this season.

Montreal: The Claude Julien firing has to be the worst of the season. If the controversial goalie interference call in their game against Ottawa is what got him fired, this franchise is not the place for players to be. Nevertheless, Montreal is in the strange position of what to do moving forward. They’re fourth out of seven spots in the North division, but only because the other three teams below them are re-building or a mess. This team isn’t going to go far in the playoffs especially in a four game series against either Toronto or Winnipeg. It may be best to blow the roster up and start fresh.

Nashville: Lost in all the Mattias Ekholm talk is how the Predators have played better with a lot of their core veterans not starting or on the second line. As I stated in my predictions at the beginning of the year, coach John Hynes needs players like Rocco Grimaldi and Calle Jarnkrok to step up, and for the most part they have. I don’t think unloading veterans will weigh Nashville down as many people think.

New Jersey: Brian Lawton said it best, “if Jack Hughes wasn’t the number one pick in the draft, he would’ve played in the minors last year.” Hughes looks like the number one pick the Devils wanted. Even better is the duo of Mackenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood in net. Kyle Palmieri’s name has been put out there as a possibility for the trade deadline, and it would be smart for New Jersey since they won’t make the playoffs. They’ll need more scorers in the offseason and free agency will be loaded with them.

New York Islanders: like New Jersey, this team could use more offense, especially with captain Anders Lee out for the rest of the season. Some guy named Kyle Palmieri is available from what I hear…

New York Rangers: They’re five points back of the fourth seeded Bruins. If Keith Kincaid and Chris Kreider drag the Rangers into the playoffs, they could play spoilers against a Capitals team they’ve pestered this season.

Ottawa: Most fans and analysts had the Senators at the bottom of the North division. What most didn’t expect was how competitive they’d look outside of a rocky regular season start. Coach DJ Smith has shown who’s reliable and who should be sent packing before April. The team needs more defense to help whoever’s in net next season and players who maximize the play of Tim Stuetzle and Drake Batherson.

Philadelphia: There’s this guy named Mattias Ekholm who could be traded by April 12th. They should probably get him and any person alive who can play defense.

Pittsburgh: Another team who could be in the Kyle Palmieri sweepstakes with Evgeni Malkin on injured reserve. They should dump Cody Ceci while they’re at it.

San Jose: Like Montreal, this team needs to decide what it wants to do. Their defense is abysmal, and the offense is among the five worst. Silly to think the Sharks won the Eric Karlsson trade almost three years ago.

St. Louis: It isn’t talked as much as Philadelphia, but the Blues defense is putrid. Despite a six year extension, Jordan Binnington hasn’t looked solid since COVID-19 shut down league play. It doesn’t help a great defenseman left in the offseason but you’d think with Craig Berube being a solid coach they could improve on something.

Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevskiy should be a Hart trophy finalist (MVP nominee). Nikita Kucherov’s May return makes them the favorite to repeat.

Toronto: It’s possible they’ve fixed the backup goaltender situation with Jack Campbell, but if Toronto has to play either Washington or Tampa Bay in the final four, they don’t stand a chance. The lack of defensive talent in the North division is hiding the fact they can’t play tough/physical against quality playoff opponents.

Vancouver: You wouldn’t think losing Tyler Toffoli would be an issue especially when the Canucks were outstanding on defense last year. It’s possible general manager Jim Benning thought the re-build was over and decided to go from there. He needs to add some depth scorers this offseason.

Vegas: An expert gambler knows when to put all their chips in. The Golden Knights aren’t there yet because of Colorado’s peak, but once the Avs face injuries and adversity, expect Vegas to go for the jugular (as long as they don’t play the Minnesota Wild).

Washington: Off the ice, the big conversation after the trade deadline is how many years will Alex Ovechkin want on his next contract with the Capitals. On the ice, it’s who starts in net when playoffs come. If Peter Laviolette let’s his team play defense while keeping the offense running well, Tampa could have some competition in the conference finals.

Winnipeg: Despite his first shutout against the Canucks, Connor Hellebuyck hasn’t looked like his 2020 self, despite some defensive improvements. Meanwhile, backup Laurent Brossoit has taken major steps to being a solid backup. One has to think what decision Paul Maurice makes if Hellebuyck’s 2021 gets bumpier.


2020-2021 NBA First Half Analysis

Whether it’s luck, ignorance or a blessing (or a combination of all three), the National Basketball Association has played the first half of the 2020-2021 season despite COVID problems. Unlike last year’s first half analysis, death of significant figures hasn’t lingered. However, issues such as league parity have grown and will need to be addressed in the offseason/second half.

Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.

Last year there was no clear winner for Coach of the Year. This year there’s no clear winner for League MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo decisively won MVP the past two years, but it’s unlikely by audiences and analysts alike he’ll win it this year. Outside of this thinking, the choices are muddled. 38 year old LeBron James and Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid are the top considerations for the award, but they’re not the only names who should be in the running. Without Stephen Curry, the Warriors would be the worst team in the league. Golden State is in the race for the eighth seed because of Curry.

Bradley Beal (left) and Steph Curry (right) should be in the conversation for League MVP because of how far they’ve been pushing their teams closer to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal should be the other name in this category. The Wizards, like the Warriors, should be the dregs of the league especially after John Wall was traded to Houston. They aren’t because Beal’s 32.9 PPG, 4.8 APG and 1.4 Stl. per game have kept Washington sub .500.

Whoever of the four wins league MVP will deserve the award. It’s worth wondering if the award could be split since there’s no clear choice.

The Houston exodus benefitted everyone except the Rockets

The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets are neck and neck in the Atlantic division, but they both have prominent members in their organizations who were with the Houston Rockets last season. Daryl Morey is the president of basketball operations for the Sixers, while James Harden was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Nets. Brooklyn isn’t just the most interesting team to watch, they’re the funnest because of the lack of league parity they use. Harden’s role changes every other night because of who sits out (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving due to whatever).

The breaking report Daryl Morey left the Rockets because he saw a Harden trade request inevitable proves he made the right move at the right time.

The Rockets meanwhile have lost 13 straight, dropping to second to last in the western conference. Steve Silas is a good hire, and that showed with how early he handled turmoil at the beginning of the season, but the drop-off was coming and now, it’s a free-fall. At least they have first round draft picks after the season.

For one season, Michael Jordan can shut critics up with his management of the Charlotte Hornets

Something that hasn’t changed the past ten years are the criticisms on how owner Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Hornets. Much of that criticism is valid, and this past offseason looked no different. Hornets management decided it was a good move to walk away from franchise star Kemba Walker and go after injury prone small forward Gordon Hayward. They added Terry Rozier and drafted LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick in the draft.

Terry Rozier is the second leading scorer on the Charlotte Hornets, averaging over 20 points a game. Meanwhile, his former team the Boston Celtics are one game over .500

All three moves have turned out to be home runs. LaMelo Ball will probably win rookie of the year, while Hayward and Rozier are the top scorers and defenders. While they’re in second place in the worst division in basketball, they might make the the playoffs as the eighth seed, possibly facing Philadelphia in the first round. Even if they lose that round, the future is bright and there are good cornerstones to build on.

Now for what each of the 30 teams can do to improve upon or keep doing right the remainder of this season.

Atlanta: If Lloyd Pierce was fired because the Hawks blew over 11 fourth quarter leads, then that was the right move. Looks like there’s one team in Georgia that wants a divorce from giving wins away.

Boston: Brad Stevens has to give Tacko Fall more minutes. Daniel Theis the starting power forward trails Fall in both blocked shots and field goal percentage. Theis is in his third year and the only constant is Boston’s need for a big man. It wouldn’t be bad to move on from Kemba Walker midseason. He’s not helping the team as much as was anticipated.

Brooklyn: The Nets have held under five teams to under 100 points five times this year, but three were last month and two of those were in two weeks before March. If they can hold four teams to under 100 in March (looking at their schedule it’s likely), we could see a dangerous and almost complete Brooklyn squad heading into the playoffs.

Charlotte: Strangely, there are talks of trading Terry Rozier for additional players. Charlotte shouldn’t move Rozier for someone unless they know what they’re getting is better. This is a team that can and should sneak into the playoffs, then keep building in the offseason.

Chicago: The Bulls are where a lot of people expected them to be: finding good rhythm at the right time. Coach Billy Donovan will still needs more than a season to implement his system, but the Bulls are much better than last year.

Cleveland: After their hot start, they’ve lost enough games to be the third worst team in the East. With rookie guards and some positive center depth, they could use some forwards this offseason and shop Kevin Love. Their re-build has to be thorough.

Dallas: Stunning how they didn’t start the season better, but it could be how much Kristaps Porzingis was missed. If he and Luka Doncic finish the season healthy, the Mavericks won’t have too much to address outside of bench depth.

Denver: Unlike the past few seasons where they’ve dominated the first halves of regular games, the Nuggets are adapting and seem to want better production heading into the playoffs. They’re learning lessons from past postseason failures. Rookie backup shooting guard Facundo Campazzo and second year center Isaiah Hartenstein will be tested when that time comes.

Detroit: They finally reached double digit wins. Hurray. Now to pressing matters. Dwane Casey has to go. The roster and the Pistons have gotten worse in his tenure. Granted there are five rookies and notable players injured, but what can we say during Casey’s tenure that we like what he’s done?

Golden State: It might be time to let Steve Kerr go. There’s no ill-will towards Kerr or anger now that the Warriors aren’t in the Finals anymore. The Warriors have lost three games they should have won against Orlando, Charlotte and last night Portland. That’s on coaching especially when those losses occur after double digit leads. It leads to quick exits in the playoffs.

Houston: P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo figured out early there’s no reason to stay with the Rockets for a full re-build. This will be a long second-half season for the franchise. Steve Silas is a great coach to keep moving forward. He just came in at a conflicting time.

Indiana: Coach Nate Bjorkgren is a clear downgrade from Nate McMillan, and they traded away Victor Oladipo to the Rockets in the blockbuster James Harden trade. If self-sabotage is the goal they’re doing great.

Los Angeles Clippers: Didn’t think Tyronn Lue would be this good coaching the Clippers, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Outside of playing the Lakers, the team still struggles to beat quality opponents on a consistent basis, especially when Paul George plays a lot of minutes. Despite the upgrade at coach, keep watch of how well the Clippers perform in the postseason.

Los Angeles Lakers: The only knock against this team is Frank Vogel’s unwillingness to learn offense. As we’ve seen since Anthony Davis’ injury, the Laker offense is anemic if he’s not on the court starting. Dennis Schroder was a great point-guard pickup while Wesley Matthews has run out of gas just like Danny Green did last year.

Memphis: They’ll need to fill out the roster more (especially bench depth), but pending a second half collapse, they’ve shown improvement this year. Taylor Jenkins was a great hire for this franchise.

Miami: The Heat’s March schedule is the kindest of the first three in 2021. The clear favorite in the pitiful Southeast division, they’ve found their groove the longer the season’s continued. Just like the Chicago Bulls, this is where we expected them to be.

Milwaukee: With very few changes made even to the defense, it’s inevitable Mike Budenholzer will get the boot at the end of the year. If the Bucks get a great option at coach this offseason (because they will be bounced out of the playoffs), they’ll take the next steps towards winning a championship.

Minnesota: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Timberwolves are one of those two teams.

New Orleans: Since that awful start to the season, the Pelicans have gone 10-10. They’ll have another good start to March, but the second half would be easier if they weren’t climbing out of the western conference hole. Disappointing too with the roster that’s been constructed.

New York: Truly unexpected. Tom Thibodeau has coached the Knicks to the fifth seed in the East. While they need depth at center behind Nerlens Noel, forwards RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are pushing the team forward. The addition of Derrick Rose helps at point-guard and helps the team believe more in Thibodeau’s defense-first philosophy.

Oklahoma City: Fans and analysts didn’t expect much of the Thunder this year. They’re only better than the Rockets and Timberwolves in the west, but it’s free-agency and the draft that will show how well the Thunder make their moves.

Orlando: If the New York Knicks are the pleasant surprise, this is the downtrodden disappointment. Dead last in field goal percentage, they’ve cratered due to injuries involving Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, and Aaron Gordon. One of the few times we’re left wondering if a team will trade or cut players at the end of the season or bring everyone back. It’s a franchise changing decision.

Philadelphia: Doc Rivers has made the 76ers a much more disciplined and better team on the court. It’s important for them to win the number one seed in the East since the Brooklyn Nets could be the better team at home in the post-season. Point guard Ben Simmons has to improve scoring in the second half and heading into the playoffs.

Phoenix: Nick Nurse did deserve to win the coach of the year award last year, but Monty Williams could’ve won it too. The big addition the Suns made was bringing in Chris Paul, a former Williams player who helped the New Orleans Hornets to multiple playoff berths. The Suns should be able to make the playoffs, but it’s important they keep pushing this season to get the best seed possible. The Suns have a shot at knocking out some good teams in the playoffs thanks to their quality leadership.

Portland: If you’ve listened to any of the sports shows I’ve recorded or aired in the past few months, you’re familiar with a topic I brought up to my partner Wesley Woods about the Trailblazers, leading to a thought-provoking conversation. Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league before CJ McCollum injured his left foot. Since that injury, the Trailblazers have ascended to the fifth seed in the west and look much better on defense.

It’s not that Damian Lillard and McCollum can’t play well together. They’ve shown great chemistry for years. However, one has to wonder if McCollum could be the leader of the second string behind the starters. It would help the Blazers preserve most of their leads and would be a problem for playoff contending teams to try and match up against. It probably won’t happen, but it’s something coach Terry Stotts should consider heading into the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Kings are the second of those two teams.

San Antonio: Despite news of COVID scares, the Spurs haven’t been talked about much this season. That is surprising since they have a better record than both Nicola Jokic’s Nuggets and Doncic’s Mavericks. The chances for them making the playoffs are 50/50 but they’re re-building faster than most people thought.

Toronto: Nick Nurse can only do so much with a depleted roster and the team re-locating to Tampa for the season. While the Raptors are in last place in the Atlantic, they’re the eighth seed if the postseason started. They’re one of the few teams who could make excuses this season but aren’t. That’s something to feel good about when they’re knocked out of contention.

Utah: In order for this team to show they’ve taken the next few steps in winning a championship, they need to win a series against a quality opponent in the playoffs. The Jazz blew a lead and lost in overtime to the Philadelphia 76ers after splitting their Florida and Los Angeles Clippers series. Considering Utah is the best team in the NBA record-wise, this isn’t a good look. If they draw a team like Dallas or Denver in the first round, the smart money goes to those two teams until the Jazz prove otherwise.

Washington: As was stated after last year’s first half analysis, Scott Brooks has to get the axe in D.C. Bradley Beal is a worthy candidate for Most Valuable Player this year. Sadly, it’s being wasted on a team that should be vying for the number one pick. The Wizards need to trade Beal and acquire a fortune to rebuild right after the season.