The first half of the 2019-20 NHL season is in the books, and not everything went as we expected. There were coaching changes in Toronto, Calgary, Dallas, New Jersey and Nashville, some surprising teams have played their way into playoff contention, and we might have a player who is not Alex Ovechkin lead the league in goals this season. We look ahead to the second half of the season and 25 of the biggest questions to be answered along the way.
After a disappointing first half, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile did something he almost never does — he made a coaching change. Peter Laviolette is out; John Hynes is in. Hynes is just the third coach in Predators franchise history and now has the task of trying to get things back on the right track in Music City. He has a lot of talent to work with, and the Predators have been an outstanding 5-on-5 team this season even under Laviolette. The problem is the special teams and goaltending have completely abandoned them. If Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros do not play better, the coach may not matter.
This is one of the most baffling situations in the NHL this season. The San Jose Sharks were supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender but have instead been one of the league's worst teams. The goaltending duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has, predictably, been a mess for the second year in a row. They have not been good enough as a team this year to mask that, and with Logan Couture now sidelined it is difficult to see the Sharks digging themselves out of this hole. The optimistic might look at the Blues from a year ago as an example pf how quickly things can turn around (bad start, in-season coaching change), but the Sharks do not seem to have a Jordan Binnington card to play like the Blues did.
After three straight first round exits and an underwhelming start this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs moved on from Mike Babcock and promoted Sheldon Keefe to head coach. The early results have been everything they could have hoped for. They are playing a faster, more aggressive style offensively, they are scoring goals like they should be given their roster and they just look like a better team. They are no longer trying to win every game 2-1 and are finally allowing their stars to play to their strengths. Will that be enough to get over Boston and Tampa Bay in the playoffs? Defense is still a question, but you have to like their chances based on the early results under Keefe.
The only reason the Pittsburgh Penguins kept Jarry as their backup goalie at the start of the season is because he cost them less against the salary cap than Casey DeSmith. He has since taken over the starting job in the short term. The combination of his play (which earned him a trip to the 2020 All-Star Game) and Matt Murray's struggles has not only made him Pittsburgh's goalie for now, but he also has probablythe team MVP to this point. Murray has always been seen as the long-term answer and already has two Stanley Cups on his resume, so you cannot count him out, but Jarry has pedigree as well (first goalie taken in his draft class) and has been the better goalie this season.
The Oilers have wasted the first part of the careers for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, making the playoffs just one time in four years. Everything the team does has always been dependent on these two carrying the offense, and that has not changed this season. Thanks to a fast start, the Oilers have managed to stay in the playoff hunt but are far from a lock to make the postseason. What they still desperately need is more secondary scoring to take some of the pressure off the big two. If McDavid and Draisaitl don't score, no one does, and that is no way for a team to contend for a championship.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are not going to need an incredible second half to make the playoffs this season. They are running away with the Central Division and the top spot of the Western Conference at the halfway point, and as of Jan. 8 they have a seven-point lead over the next closest team in both races. They are also doing it without their best offensive player in Vladimir Tarasenko, as he remains sidelined for most of the season due to injury. The Colorado Avalanche have the talent to make up the gap, and you should not count out the Dallas Stars due to their goaltending duo. But the Blues look to be in a pretty good position to secure the top spot in the division and the conference, giving them a great chance to make a run at a repeat championship.
It seems possible that Alex Ovechkin's run as the goal scoring leader could be coming to an end. For most of the first half, it seemed as if Boston's David Pastrnak was going to run away with that title this season, but Toronto's Auston Matthews is making a big-time push. Both are on pace for well over 50 goals this season.
After losing Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to free agency, expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets were at an all-time low entering the season. Early on, those low expectations seem justified as the team struggled and injuries started to mount. But they enter the second half of the season right in the thick of the Eastern Conference wild-card race and hanging around thanks in large part to the play of their young trio of stars in Zach Werenski, Seth Jones and Pierre-Luc Dubois. If they do make the postseason, it will probably be the best coaching job of John Tortorella's career.
Following another bigger postseason disappointment, the Lightning got off to a miserable start this season and looked to be a shell of their former selves. That has quickly started to change. As the second half begins, the Lightning are starting to dominate again and look like the team that won 62 regular-season games a year ago. Still, this team will be measured by what it does in the playoffs. And it is quickly approaching Stanley Cup or bust time in Tampa Bay. St. Louis finally broke through after years of disappointment, as did Washington in 2018 after years of early playoff exits. Maybe now it is the Lightning's turn.
For the second year in a row, the Sabres look to be in danger of turning a great start into another season on the outside of the playoffs. If they fall short, that will extend the franchise's playoff drought to nine years. It is hard to imagine them dumping coach Ralph Krueger after just one season, but you have to think that general manager Jason Botterill is on the hot seat. Now five years into the Jack Eichel era, this team should be further along than it is. Even Edmonton has at least one playoff appearance (and a playoff series win!) out of Connor McDavid.
Only five different defensemen in league history have topped the 100-point mark in a single season, and no one has done it since Brian Leetch for the New York Rangers during the 1991-92 season. Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson enters the second half on pace to do it. If he does it will be one of the greatest offensive performances for a defenseman ever, especially when you consider the era he is playing in. Almost all of the previous 100-point seasons for defenders came during the 1980s when goal-scoring across the league was at an all-time high.
The craziest thing about the Colorado Avalanche is they have one of the league's best teams, have a trio of stars on their top line and still have more salary cap space than just about any team in the league. They can be major players at the trade deadline, especially with their pool of prospects and young players to deal from. They addressed their forward depth over the summer, but could be willing to add just about any player in the league who might be available come trade deadline time. They have a window to go all in right now. Are they content with their goaltending situation? Do they need another defender? Another scorer to complement the top line even more? Every option is on the table.
Everyone had to know that Bobrovsky's contract in Florida was a long-term risk. But it was still reasonable to think he could give them a few seasons of high-level play before it turned into a headache. So far he has not even given them that. His first half with his new team turned out to be a nightmare and one of the worst performances of his otherwise outstanding career. The Panthers are still hanging around in the playoff race but are going to need way more out of Bobrovsky in the second half if they are going to make something out of this season. It's a shame, too, because the forward talent on this team is good enough to contend right now.
As of Jan. 8, there are five teams (Arizona, Vegas, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver) within four points of the top spot in the Pacific, and all of them have reason to believe they can win it. Edmonton has two of the best players in the league, Vancouver's young core is rapidly improving, the Coyotes have two great goalies (when they are healthy) and added Taylor Hall, while Vegas and Calgary have probably the best overall rosters in the division.
After acquiring Phil Kessel in the offseason, the Coyotes made another huge splash in December when they traded for Taylor Hall. It was a bold move and sends the message that they believe they can win right now. It is also a risky move because Hall is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is going to no doubt want a chance to play for a contender. The Coyotes are in a prime position to make the playoffs (and maybe even win the Pacific Division) and have a young, improving roster that should have a bright future. What will it cost for Hall to stay, and will they give him a reason to want to?
With the 2019-20 season quickly becoming another lost season for the Kings, you have to wonder if NOW they will finally start to make some significant changes to their roster. They already parted ways with Ilya Kovalchuk after that experiment failed, but that cannot be the end of it. Tyler Toffoli seems likely to go before the deadline given his contract situation, but there are no shortage of candidates. From depth players like Trevor Lewis to more top-line players like Alec Martinez, there should be no untouchables on this roster outside of maybe Anze Kopitar.
Kovalchuk and the Kings were simply a bad fit. A very bad fit. He didn't fit their style of play; they didn't need a mid-30s winger, and it was a union that was never going to work. Once he became a free agent again, he ended up in Montreal to try and help a banged-up Canadiens lineup find some offense. The early returns have been promising, but Montreal is in a deep hole in the standings and fading fast. Kovalchuk might simply be playing for his next contract and trying to show that he can still make an impact in the right role and the right system.
The Islanders still have the Barry Trotz defensive structure in place, and the goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss is getting the job done in the crease. But the big Achilles heel for this team is still the offense. Yes, the old cliche still says that defense and goaltending win championships, but you still need to score some goals along the way. The Islanders have the salary cap space to be players at the trade deadline.
After taking a break from hockey for the first half of the season, Williams returned to Carolina on a one-year contract. Age is a bit of a concern, but he showed the past two years that he can still be a reliable top-six winger at both ends of the ice. If he can repeat that performance in the second half, that will be a huge addition to an already deep Hurricanes lineup. If he can give them 10-12 goals, 20-25 points and strong defensive play in the second half, it is going to be a steal of a contract and a great situation for both team and player.
It is starting to appear as if the New York Rangers are not going to make the playoffs this season, and that means Chris Kreider's time with the team could be coming to an end as he is set to be a free agent after this season. I can think of two teams in the Metropolitan that could use him (Pittsburgh, due to Jake Guentzel's injury; the New York Islanders) but it seems highly unlikely the Rangers would be happy trading him within the division. Colorado? St. Louis? Edmonton? Calgary? Dallas? Any of those teams would make some sense, as they all could use a rental on the wing.
It is not that Gaudreau has been bad for the Flames this season. It's that he just hasn't been what they have come to expec. There is a fine line between "really good" and "dynamic superstar," and right now Gaudreau is on the wrong side of that for the Flames. He is on pace for one of the least productive seasons of his career. There is an element of bad luck to it (his shooting percentage is currently well below his career average and at a career low), but a big second half from him might be enough to make the difference in a tight Pacific Division race.
This Flyers team is actually a pretty good representation of what their organization has been for the better part of the past decade: a delightfully inconsistent team that at any time will be capable of winning 10 games in a row or losing 10 games in a row, neither of which will come as a shock when it actually happens. Sometimes Philly looks like a team ready to take a big step forward, then as soon as it reaches that point everything unravels and the team heads in the opposite direction. The Flyers have the talent and Carter Hart has rebounded from a slow start to the season, but they have no consistency.
They are not going away just yet, but the Blackhawks are still facing a pretty big second half deficit and look to be on their way to a third consecutive non-playoff season. Will that be enough to push Stan Bowman into a sell mode? Robin Lehner has been outstanding but is a free agent after this season and could be an attractive option for a contender. Brandon Saad's name has been mentioned in trade rumors for a few weeks, while Erik Gustafsson is an unrestricted free agent after this season and has not been able to repeat his big offensive performance from a season ago.
This rebuilding team is loaded with expiring contracts, and you know a lot of them are going to be on the move over the next couple of months. Jean-Gabriel Pageau will be the big-ticket player other teams will want, but Craig Anderson, Mark Borowiecki and Vladislav Namestnikov are others who also could be on the move.
This has been a mystery all season. He stepped away from the team at the start of the season, and his status has remained unknown. If he returns and is healthy, it would be a huge boost to a Jets lineup that has been playing all season with a patchwork defense that was completely rebuilt over the summer due to trades, free agency and the absence of Byfuglien. Getting a top-pairing defenseman back without having to give up anything off the roster in return would be an enormous addition for a Jets team that has probably overachieved this season.
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