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
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
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.
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.