With the new year kicking off right around the halfway point of the 2019-20 NHL campaign, it's a good time to look at some of the most talked-about stories at this crucial juncture of the season.
And right now, there really is no shortage of headlines from across the league.
From winning streaks to coaching changes to a little bit of everything in between, this stretch of the season at the turn of the decade has not disappointed when it comes to twists and turns.
Without further ado, here are, in no particular order, the 10 biggest storylines through this season — so far.
1. Who's the next bench boss in the hot seat?
Coaching changes have been a prominent topic through the first half of the 2019-20 NHL season and not for particularly good reasons. The Maple Leafs' dismissal of Mike Babcock spurred an unveiling of unsavory behind-the-scenes stories that led to the Calgary Flames investigating Bill Peters, who subsequently resigned. The Dallas Stars fired head coach Jim Montgomery for things unrelated to how the team was playing, while the San Jose Sharks relieved Peter DeBoer of his duties for every hockey reason imaginable.
So at this pivotal point of the year, whose jobs also might be at stake?
Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper is toward the top of that list , with Tampa Bay seemingly unable to recover from being swept out of last year's playoffs. Bruce Boudreau's name has also popped up, given the Minnesota Wild continue to struggle with finding any consistency. Some outlets have pointed to Jeff Blashill as being a hot-seat contender since the Detroit Red Wings have the worst record in the league, although given the young team is clearly going through a rebuild, he might be safe for a bit longer.
2. Can the Blues keep going at this pace?
Championship hangover be damned.
The Stanley Cup-defending St. Louis squad picked up right where it left off when the season opened back in October, and its firm hold on the Western Conference's top spot hasn't wavered. Heck, the Blues went into New Year's Eve on an eight-game winning streak that put them far ahead of any competition.
There's no mistaking that this is a confident group. But can this push really last?
Health is going to play a huge role in whether St. Louis can sustain its current momentum. The team has somehow managed to stay dominant without Vladimir Tarasenko — among other injured players such as Sammy Blais and Carl Gunnarsson — but losing another piece to the puzzle will challenge its depth...and hurt its case for a repeat Cup Final appearance.
3. Atlantic Division dysfunction
Every sport has that one division that just doesn't match up to the rest, and in this NHL campaign the Atlantic holds that dubious honor. Outside of the Boston Bruins — more on them a little later — no team has shown any consistency through the first half of the season. The Sabres have fallen off after a hot start, the Florida teams continue trading off winning and losing streaks and the Leafs, well, we've all seen how topsy-turvy their season has been so far.
At the halfway point of the season, the competition for a playoff spot is already tight. Even with Toronto and Tampa Bay holding onto second and third place, respectively, in the division race, there's no breathing room between them and a team such as Florida, which could overtake that spot and kick the opposition completely out of the playoff picture. (Currently, two Metropolitan teams hold the wild-card slots.) Unless the Leafs or Bolts go on some spectacular second-half run, their playoff hopes will be short-lived — if they are realized at all.
4. Who takes the East between the Caps and the Bs?
Boston and Washington have been the teams to beat in the East through the first half of the 2019-20 season, and that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. Both squads are playing confident hockey, mixing goal-scoring with relentless physicality and potent special teams to boot.
This could easily be the matchup we see in this year's Eastern Conference Final.
Travel in the second half of the season could affect these teams differently, with the Bruins having a more road-heavy schedule down the stretch — where they have a 10-6-2 record — and the Capitals spending more time on home ice — where Alex Ovechkin and Co. are 11-4-4.
5. Is it time to take the Coyotes seriously?
It seems like every season, Arizona goes through a hot streak at some point early and then comes back down to earth just before the All-Star break. But this season could be different — emphasis on the "could be" part.
The offseason addition of Phil Kessel and the midseason addition of Taylor Hall have added a dimension to the Desert Dogs' forward attack. With the Pacific Division taking an odd turn this season, the Coyotes find themselves in a playoff spot at the start of January.
However, Arizona has to clean up some areas if it wants to keep its playoff dreams alive. The special teams are pretty mediocre on both fronts, and the team isn't playing great at home. If the Coyotes can get their scoring up, especially on home ice, they could potentially stay competitive down the stretch.
Speaking of the Pacific Division...
6. What the heck happened to the Sharks?
There was plenty of speculation that San Jose would experience a drop-off this season following offseason activity that saw some of its depth players shipped off to new teams. But it's doubtful anyone expected the Sharks to get off to one of the worst starts of the season and then have one of the best Novembers in the league, only to flounder miserably again and go through a coaching change. They then ended 2019 with a loss to the league-worst Detroit Red Wings.
Has Team Teal turned the corner, or is the season doomed?
While San Jose has made some notable changes under interim head coach Bob Boughner, the team still faces challenges with depth and consistency. If this team really wants to "pull a Blues" and emerge as a playoff contender in the second half, more improvements still need to be made.
7. Taylor Hall found a new home — who's next?
The trade deadline is fast approaching, and there are still plenty of players out there who could be rocking different sweaters after Feb. 14.
So with Hall off the board, who's the next big fish to be moved?
Washington center Nicklas Backstrom is one such name that has been floated around a lot because he continues to put up good numbers — although he's getting up there age-wise and is reportedly looking for a lengthy contract. Another interesting trade prospect is Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, although with how well St. Louis is playing, it isn't likely the team will want to trade away any pieces of its blue line.
While we are on the subject...
8. The most active team at the trade deadline?
After another season hanging around the bottom of the league, the Ottawa Senators are one team that could be shipping off many pieces as the deadline looms on Valentine's Day.
But they aren't alone.
Look for the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks to also be in the mix in one way or another.
Speaking of Chi-Town...
9. How have injuries affected the Blackhawks?
Sure, every team deals with its bumps and bruises throughout the course of a season. But boy, have the Blackhawks been bit hard by the injury bug through the first 40 games of this campaign.
Defensemen Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan are both done for the rest of the season, forwards Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula have unforeseeable futures due to concussions and Brandon Saad could be out for close to a month with an ankle injury.
Chicago has been in need of a makeover for a few seasons now with the core of its Stanley Cup-winning teams either aging or having moved on from the team. The mounting injuries only further prove this point.
10. Are equipment changes on the horizon?
A couple of freak accidents throughout the greater hockey world have stirred up speculation as to whether changes need to be made to keep players safe. Not long after the scary on-ice injury to OHL goaltender Tucker Tynan in which a skate cut his leg , Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev had to have surgery after his wrist was lacerated by a skate mid-game.
Alterations to hockey equipment are on-going across the different leagues, often for the purpose of increasing performance. With player safety becoming an increasing concern, however, there will hopefully be discussions about improving equipment in the not-too-distant future.
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