NHL at the break: Surprises, disappointments and award contenders from the first half

Detroit News

Detroit — Somehow, the NHL has gotten to the midway point of its season.

Despite more than 100 games being postponed because of COVID issues, and games which went on despite lineups that looked more like preseason game rosters, the NHL has reached All-Star Game weekend, the point in the schedule many correlate as the halfway point.

It’s been quite a ride.

It hasn’t been smooth, but the NHL is hopeful the second half will be much more smoother, given the expectation COVID isn’t going to be as impactful and games will be made up this month during the time the league expected to be at the Olympics.

Playoff positioning will be interesting.

The eight spots in the Eastern Conference appear to be almost set right now, but in the West, it’s likely going to be a thrilling race with many teams still in the hunt.

As usual, there have been surprises, disappointments, and plenty of unknowns heading into the final several months.

Here is a look at the NHL, heading into its halfway mark in the schedule.

Hart Trophy (MVP)

Alex Ovechkin, Washington: At age 36, Ovechkin has carried a Capitals team that’s been riddled with injuries and COVID issues into a secure playoff position. Ovechkin has been a constant, with 29 goals and 29 assists and making an impact every game.

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida: Leads the NHL with 47 assists and 64 points, and finally is getting the respect and notoriety he deserves for his talent. Huberdeau has gotten consistently better throughout his career, and now leads a loaded Panthers lineup that is a Stanley Cup contender.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton: Will McDavid be the top choice at the end of the season? Likely, if the Oilers rebound as many expect them to do. But currently, the two-time Hart winner is, arguably, a hair behind the others at the halfway point of the season.

Norris (best defenseman)

Cale Makar, Colorado: Makar has 18 goals, 44 points, a plus-26 rating, and is making highlight plays every game, it seems. Only an injury, it appears, will keep Makar from winning this award for the first time.

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay: The two-time Stanley Cup champions still have a deep, talented roster, but Hedman is a player that would be nearly impossible to replace given his production, stability and experience.

Roman Josi, Nashville: The Predators have been a surprise team, and Josi, who won the Norris in 2020, is a major reason why. He makes noticeable plays at both ends of the ice and plays big minutes in all situations.

Calder (best rookie)

Moritz Seider, Detroit: The defenseman plays a tough position for a rookie, but you wouldn’t notice it with the poise with which Seider plays. He leads all rookies in minutes played and assists, and he’s been great on the power play. Just slightly more impactful than his teammate at this point …

Lucas Raymond, Detroit: … which is Raymond. From Day 1, Raymond hasn’t looked out of place.  Raymond leads all rookies with 35 points, he has 11 goals, and he’s been more than fine defensively. The Wings’ future is bright with these two part of the nucleus.

Trevor Zegras, Anaheim: Sure, the lacrosse goal highlights are fantastic, and few players in the NHL are as imaginative on the ice. But with 12 goals and 32 points, the important thing is Zegras is simply a really good player in his first full NHL season.

Jack Adams (coach of the year)

Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh: Sullivan has been a successful coach for a long time, but what he’s done with this particular roster has been awfully impressive.

Gerard Gallant, N.Y. Rangers: As he always does, Gallant has stepped into a situation that looked to be a couple of years from big success, and quickly fast-forwarded the timeline.

John Hynes, Nashville: Has made that entire roster better, and convinced the Predators to buy into a grinding, physical style of play that has made them playoff contenders.

Vezina (best goaltender)

Igor Shesterkin, N.Y. Rangers: The Rangers have been a pleasant surprise, ahead of their expected timeline in the rebuild, and having a rock like Shesterkin in net has been a big reason why.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay: It’s surprising Vasilevskiy has only won one Vezina in his career. He’ll obviously have a chance for a second here with a strong second-half finish.

Jack Campbell, Toronto: The Port Huron native is 21-6-3 with a 2.30 GAA and .925 SVS, and is a key reason the Leafs have become nearly unbeatable the first half of the season.

Selke (best defensive forward)

Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay: The Lightning needed Cirelli to take a step forward given all they lost in free agency, and Cirelli has delivered. The defensive analytics are good. He has 28 points, and playing important minutes.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston: The four-time Selke winner easily will be in the hunt for five if he’s healthy the rest of the way. Bergeron is nearing the end of his career, but his level of play isn’t falling at all.

Joel Eriksson Ek, Minnesota: There are plenty of surprises on the Wild, and this two-way stalwart is helping lead the Wild into Stanley Cup contention. At 25, Eriksson Ek has improved steadily and is becoming a star.

Surprise teams

Pittsburgh: It doesn’t make sense the Penguins have 62 points and are firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. Not with the injuries and COVID issues they’ve dealt with this season. The coaching staff deserves a load of credit.

Anaheim: The Ducks were expected to be a season or two away from playoff contention, but here they are, occupying a playoff spot, and new GM Pat Verbeek is the type of manager to keep them there.

Nashville: Many folks felt the Predators were better off rebuilding, and given many of their veterans were sliding in performance, that seemed the right call. But those same veterans are enjoying banner seasons, rookies have surprised, and Nashville is a dangerous team.

Disappointing teams

Chicago: It’s just been a mess from the start, with off-ice abuse issues, poor play, a head coach getting fired, and stars not playing to expectations. The analysts who felt the Blackhawks had one more playoff run in them were terribly wrong.

N.Y. Islanders: Simply put, COVID completely ravaged the Islanders’ season, and they’re not going to be able to recover. For some reason the NHL didn’t postpone games while the Islanders were playing a lineup laden with minor leaguers, and it sent their season into a spiral.

Montreal: Last spring, the Canadiens were in the Stanley Cup Finals and appeared to have a bright future with several promising young players. Retirements, injuries, free-agent signings who’ve disappointed, COVID … all of it has sent the Canadiens plummeting to the bottom.

Sleeper teams

Pittsburgh: It’s amazing the Penguins are entrenched in the playoff chase given the amount of injuries, COVID issues, and incorporating new personnel into the lineup. This is an extremely dangerous team heading into the playoffs if everything keeps clicking.

Boston: Somehow, the Bruins keep defying the expectations they’re going to slip into oblivion or mediocrity. It helps having two Hall of Famers (Bergeron, Brad Marchand) and several other stars, but getting the right rentals at the deadline could make the Bruins a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Calgary: The Flames have a lot of home games the second half of the season and they’re playing the type of hockey gritty coach Darryl Sutter loves. Nobody is going to want to face them in the playoffs.

Surprise players

Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh: Already with a career-high 15 goals and 32 points,  Rodrigues has been one of the surprises that has propelled Pittsburgh into its lofty place in the standings.

Troy Terry, Anaheim: This is a neat story. Some folks were putting Terry, 24, into the washout category, and all he’s done this season is score a career-high 25 goals and become a threat every time he’s on the ice.

Ville Husso, St. Louis: With the Blues’ goaltending in flux, Husso has been a revelation with a 9-3-1 record, and a sterling 1.90 GAA and .941 SVS. Husso is displacing Jordan Binnington as the No. 1 netminder.

Disappointing players

Elias Pettersson, Vancouver: The Canucks re-signed Pettersson to a generous contract last summer  ($7.35 million per season, three seasons), and he’s been a major disappointment with only 11 goals and minimal impact on the ice. He’s a more dangerous player than this. Isn’t he?

Jamie Benn, Dallas: Benn gives the effort, and he’s a key voice in the Stars’ room, but at age 32, and 6-foot-2, 210-pounds, he appears to be slowing on the ice. The 11 goals and 20 points don’t match the $9.5 million per season (until 2024-25!).

Philipp Grubauer, Seattle: The expansion Kraken made a big splash in free agency ($5.9 million per, for six years) signing Grubauer — and it hasn’t worked out (12-17-4, 3.09 GAA, .887 SVS). Simply put, the below-par goaltending has cost the Kraken at least several games.

Most likely traded

Tomas Hertl, San Jose: The Sharks are likely to work hard to re-sign the prospective free agent, but Hertl, with 22 goals, will be expensive. Then again, the Sharks are likely to receive a nice return if they trade Hertl at the deadline. Hertl, 28, keeps getting better every season and could put several teams over the hump toward a Stanley Cup.

Phil Kessel, Arizona: He’s 34 and only has five goals, but for a cheap rental Kessel would be an intriguing option. Kessel has tons of playoff experience and there’s a gut feeling he’ll be revitalized escaping the dire situation of Arizona. Kessel would improve a lot of teams’ middle-six forwards.

Mark Giordano, Seattle: Giordano, 38, is a rental, but the veteran defenseman brings tons of savvy, experience and leadership to the equation and is still playing fine hockey. A reunion with Calgary might be a possibility.

Keep an eye on

Evander Kane, Edmonton: The wayward winger has quickly given the Oilers a boost. If Kane continues to make a favorable impact, the Oilers could be a tricky team to deal with the remainder of the season, and playoffs.

Jack Eichel, Vegas: The star center has yet to play for Vegas after be acquired in a trade, and needing neck surgery. Eichel could be the final piece to the Vegas puzzle that nets the organization its first Stanley Cup.

Ken Holland: Lots of pressure on the former Wings’ general manager, now in Edmonton. The Oilers, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their prime, can’t afford to miss the playoffs.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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