What a fun and memorable first half of the season. The divisions and conferences are back to alignment with a 32nd team added to the league. While the Seattle Kraken aren’t having the historic season as the Vegas Golden Knights, there are a lot of memories, records and accomplishments. The second half is set up to have one of the funnest and intense finishes we could witness this decade. Here are the top takes as All-Star weekend closes.
The eastern conference is stacked with Stanley Cup contenders
The Tampa Bay Lightning are just one of many teams in the east that look poised for a deep playoff run and possible championship appearance. Tampa isn’t even the top team in Florida. The Panthers lead the east and NHL with 69 points, even with coach Joel Quenneville gone. Yet both teams could be vulnerable if more experienced teams get hot in March.
The Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins are in positions where they’ve gone through ups and downs but have veteran rosters to make more of a push when the playoffs near. Boston needs Tuukka Rask to be the stabilizing presence in net while Pittsburgh needs everyone healthy at the right time. Carolina needs to play a consistent brand of hockey on defense in order to keep their division lead in the Metropolitan.
Last but not least, the New York Rangers and New York Islanders are teams no one wants to face after the All Star break. Since 2022 began, the Rangers have lost to only two teams in playoff contention (Vegas Golden Knights and Carolina Hurricanes), while shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning a high-scoring game against Toronto, and a complete victory over the Florida Panthers. Gerard Gallant’s team is playing their best hockey at a critical time. The Islanders are climbing up in the standings and will be a hard team to knock out if there’s a second half surge. They’re the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
The move from NBC has been a success for both ESPN and TNT despite drastic changes
Many wondered how both ESPN and TNT would handle the transition of hockey coverage after NBC’s last aired game in summer 2021. The plusses outweigh the minuses when it comes to coverage, advertising and educational takes.
ESPN started the season airing a double-header featuring the current champion Tampa Bay Lightning followed by the inaugural game for the Seattle Kraken. Most of the broadcasters need work and are rusty with NHL action. Thankfully commentators such as Kevin Weekes and Brian Boucher help ease the transition. The games have been a boost for ESPN+ and should get better when playoffs arrive.
The winner so far is TNT. Retaining a good number of the NBC commentators and broadcasters gains a quick but familiar audience. The network’s gem is in the studio. TNT found a way to lure The Great One as they wanted the hockey equivalent of Charles Barkley: funny, educational, and not afraid to speak his mind. In their first telecast, Barkley was brought in for a smooth and hilarious welcome. Many have tweeted and posted about looking forward to Wednesday night hockey on the network after the first two broadcasts. Having Liam McHugh as the host sets the tone every pre-game, intermission and post-game. Audiences don’t just laugh, they learn a lot about the game, the stars, teams and coaching philosophies. Plus, having an extra sports night between Tuesday and Thursday night basketball games ensures this program will be on for at least a decade.
The league must do better with social issues
This is not the season Gary Bettman intended when it came to hot button topics such as COVID-19, racism and sexual assault. The league entered the season excited for fans to be back in stadiums and a 32nd franchise joining play. While refreshing, the negative headlines on serious issues hold back the league’s promising increases.
The Brad Aldrich-Kyle Beach Chicago sexual assault allegations have mired play not just in the Windy City, but Joel Quenneville’s job in Florida. Then Rocky Wirtz made the wrong headlines when he ranted at reporters Wednesday night before the Blackhawks lost to Minnesota.
Another hot button issue is the league’s handling of racism on and off ice. The NHL has to address diversity issues in the pros and below. One solution is to ostracize those using racial taunts combined with harsher punishments. Black, Indigenous and Asian players are crucial to the league’s developed style of play. There needs to be more than a commemoration of the first black NHL player with genuine efforts on long-term reform.
Last but not least, the COVID issue hasn’t been handled well. The NHL ruled asymptomatic players can not be tested and is easing other parts of their protocols. Despite good intentions, Canada’s still under quarantine, meaning a certain number of fans can’t go to games. While it’s frustrating, the virus is mutating faster with worrying side effects after two years. Easing pressure is going to make players sicker especially near the playoffs.
32 Takes for 32 Teams
Time for one view for each team. The view can range from improvement to an easier transition during the second half of the season.
Anaheim: Turns out my playoff prediction on the Ducks was a year too soon. They’re fun to watch but also play well when needed. The goalie duo of John Gibson and Anthony Stolarz can be enough for a playoff run. They need to pass the second half test in order to clinch a spot. Either way, the re-build is working.
Arizona: While the Brian Flores story pertains to the National Football League, the Coyotes should keep an eye on that situation. Many believe they’re hockey’s version of the Cleveland Browns, boldly stating this offseason they’ll trade with teams in salary cap trouble during a long rebuild. The Arizona Cardinals though could be in this lawsuit Flores is filing and if that happens, the Coyotes have to go about their plan in subtler, simpler ways that don’t spell trouble for the NHL.
Boston: Linus Ullmark isn’t the answer the Bruins thought they solved in net. What happened to Jeremy Swayman splitting starts with Ullmark? While the return of Tuukka Rask helps (I think?), Boston can’t lose ground to a Metropolitan team needing a second half surge (looking at you Long Island).
Buffalo: Thankfully this team’s been better since Don Granato was named head coach. Despite no Owen Power (still at Michigan) and Jack Eichel (traded), Peyton Krebs, Kyle Okposo and Tage Thompson are developing into reliable, solid players. Whatever strange rebuilding/tooling Buffalo chose could work, but chances of things finally clicking together in a deep Atlantic division run slim.
Calgary: If the Flames were in the Central, they’d be in fifth place behind St. Louis. They’re fourth in the pacific despite some hot streaks. Darryl Sutter’s getting the most out of this team but a serious fan can see it’s a matter of time before a re-build’s coming.
Carolina: Finally a team that has an actual chance at the championship. Last year’s analysis was about the goaltending. Frederik Anderson is playing at a Vezina-type level this year, and the Hurricanes are still scoring in bunches. Carolina has to win the Metropolitan for a top seed and finish their first round matchup fast for a real shot at the Stanley Cup.
Chicago: No other team has been as embarrassing as the Blackhawks this season. There’s a good case to start over from scratch when the season ends. No one would blame the incoming general manager if that’s the plan.
Colorado: Tis the season where everyone’s enthralled with Connor McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the championship beliefs of the Colorado Avalanche. Focusing on the latter, there’s a true concern in net for the Avs. Darcy Kuemper hasn’t played to expectations general manager Joe Sakic had when he executed the trade with the Coyotes. Kuemper has a better defensive unit up front but Colorado’s still playing high scoring games. This could be another second round exit.
Columbus: 41 points at the midway point is a lot for a team many expected to be at the bottom of the Metropolitan. What management has to decide is whether to be competitive every game or a true contender moving forward.
Dallas: The Stars are a disappointment with this much star talent. In net, Jake Oettinger is ok while Braden Holtby looks close to retirement. The offense is hit or miss outside of Joe Pavelski. A coaching change would be the right move to wake this team up.
Detroit: While most knew the Red Wings’ hot start wouldn’t last, they’ve hung around the playoff conversation most of the season despite a mostly young, inexperienced roster. General manager Steve Yzerman may be ahead of schedule with this rebuild. It’s also impressive and understated that despite Tyler Bertuzzi playing eight less games than the other starters, he’s second in team goals with 22.
Edmonton: General manager Ken Holland threw Zach Hyman and Evander Kane onto this mess and said they can contend for the Stanley Cup. Despite their offense, the Oilers are plus one in goal differential. Even if Dave Tippett’s team makes the playoffs, they’ll be a quick out. No easy solutions here.
Florida: The Panthers’ two weak spots are playing on the road and defense. In order to be a favorite past the second round of the playoffs, they have to be a consistent and gritty winner on the road. They’re already close to surpassing Tampa.
Los Angeles: Imagine how good the Kings would be if they weren’t third to last on the penalty kill. Somehow they’re two points behind a lackluster Vegas team. Here’s hoping Todd McLellan doesn’t preside over another second half collapse.
Minnesota: If you asked me today who the top team in the west is, it’s the Wild. From the hiring of Dean Evason to careful building of the roster around Kirill Kaprizov with Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman, to the trust and development in Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, there’s no weak spot on this team.
Montreal: No team will be happier once the regular season ends than the Canadiens. Here are the players that have played few/no games this season: starting and backup goaltenders Carey Price and Jake Allen, captain Shea Weber, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak and free agent acquisition Mathieu Perreault. Firing general manager Marc Bergevin mid-season was reactionary. At this point, use players in the minor leagues.
Nashville: Maybe John Hynes was a good hire to replace Peter Laviolette. The Predators have two 20 goal scorers, a starting goalie with a .927 save percentage, top 15 in goals scored and a top ten power-play unit. They’re also the most aggressive team, leading in penalty minutes with 564. They have a great shot at the final four in the west and maybe a conference championship if these numbers stay.
New Jersey: The Devils have an interesting way of tanking while trying to stay competitive. Their goalie situation is the main reason for a sunken season. The Devils won’t win many games if MacKenzie Blackwood or Jonathan Bernier aren’t in net.
New York Islanders: It’s not often something like this is true, but the Islanders are lower than expected because of one whole month of playing on the road…and that was the first month of the season. Despite being one of the three teams to score less than 100 goals by the All-Star break, they’re second in goals against. Barry Trotz is the reason this team isn’t top three worst in the league. Expect a much better second half.
New York Rangers: Hilarious that after all the years of goaltending being the staple of the Rangers playoffs chances, it’s goaltending that will determine how far New York goes in the playoffs. It’s almost as if…owner James Dolan was in the right to fire John Davidson and Jeff Gorton.
Ottawa: Regardless of up-and-down play, D.J. Smith is developing the roster carefully. Drake Batherson is the Senators’ best player. Brady Tkachuk is a true captain and fighter, and Tim Stuetzle is a super-star in the making. This team will be a problem when the core players hit their mid-20s.
Philadelphia: It’s wild that when defenseman Ryan Ellis got injured, the defense and then the team fell in disarray. When Brian Lawton discussed how close teams are to the playoffs each year (minus a few), he meant this type of situation. If Ellis played until this past week, we’re having different conversations about general manager Chuck Fletcher, former head coach Alain Vigneault, Claude Giroux’s offseason and the roster moving forward.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins would be the fifth seed if the playoffs started today and that’s without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’ll be a headache for any of the top teams in the east that won’t clinch a top three seed.
San Jose: Same situation as Philadelphia. The Sharks would be higher in the standings if Erik Karlsson and Kevin Labanc stay healthy. It’s safe to say the Ottawa Senators won the Karlsson trade. Then the decision to release Evander Kane is a factor when the Sharks can’t score more than two goals a night.
Seattle: General manager Ron Francis bungled every bit of Seattle’s expansion draft outside of the goaltending and defensemen picks. We all understand the need to build gradually but he lowballed the draft so bad they’re the worst team in the worst division. The cherry on top is Carolina doing phenomenal since Francis left.
St. Louis: A Blues-Wild conference finals would be a thrilling watch and is possible since they’re the most consistent and deepest teams in the west. Even if Ville Husso cools and Binnington returns in net, the Blues are still top ten in defense and offense. Here’s hoping we get that matchup.
Tampa Bay: Despite the target on their back, the Lightning will be the favorites for a three-peat until someone knocks them out of the playoffs. No one else is on their level.
Toronto: Until the Maple Leafs find a way to win a first round playoff series, don’t waste energy or thoughts regarding where this team is. We’ll find out when the regular season ends.
Vancouver: The Canucks are bottom five in scoring and have the worst penalty kill in the league (69%), yet they’re just outside the playoff bubble. The hiring of interim Bruce Boudreau makes sure the players go back to playing the game in a simple way without doing too much. At the end of the day, wins mean more than stats to any team trying to make the playoffs.
Vegas: A very underwhelming first place team. Best summarized with this stat-line: top five in scoring but five players have scored 10+ goals, one of which was a low risk free agent signing. Perhaps the Jack Eichel debut will reinvigorate and bring a new layer to a team we’ve seen play better.
Washington: The Capitals are in a lose-lose situation. Alex Ovechkin got the contract wanted but the defense and goal-tending won’t get Washington far in the playoffs. There’s talk Washington could land a goalie such as Marc-Andre Fleury; but Fleury would either want quality years to end his career or Chicago foolishly believes they can still compete with their current roster for a deep playoff run. The Capitals may not have the trade pieces available.
Winnipeg: Deep down we knew when Paul Maurice stepped down, the Jets would crumble. They miss depth players Mathieu Perreault and Mason Appleton on offense. They’re sixth in a loaded central division with long-term issues on defense to address. The run was nice, but it’s time to break the roster up.