First half surprises in the NHL

Columbus Blue Jackets  v Florida PanthersBelieve it or not, we are already over halfway through the NHL season. The standings are starting to take shape, but there is still way too much hockey left to come to any solid conclusions as to how they will for sure look in April. There have definitely been some surprises thus far, both good and bad, as well as some not so surprising occurrences. Today we will take a look around the league at some of those surprises, as well as offer up some predictions as to how the rest of the season will unfold.

Let’s get to it.

SURPRISES

The Good

  • How about the Florida Panthers? They just had a 12-game winning streak snapped in Vancouver, and through 43 games Florida sits atop the Atlantic division with 57 points (tied for fourth league-wide). This is due in large part to their defense and starting goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Only one team in the NHL has allowed fewer goals than the Panthers, which is a key statistic. Over the last six seasons, each team to have won the Stanley Cup ranked in the top five in the NHL in fewest goals against. So despite Jaromir Jagr continuing to defy his age, the biggest story coming out of Sunrise, Florida should be the Panthers’ ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
  • This may or may not be a surprise to some people, but the Washington Capitals are a NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitalsvery good team. They currently rank second in the league in goals-scored per game, and are tied for first in fewest goals-against per game. Oh, and they lead the NHL in points with 67. Needless to say, the Caps seem to have everything clicking at the moment. Throw in the fact that Alex Ovechkin just notched goals number 500 and 501, and yeah, it’s been a pretty good half-season in the nation’s capital.
  • The Dallas Stars. Most people had them pegged as a playoff team, but not everyone thought they would be this good this fast. They own the league’s top offense and arguably the NHL’s best line. As of this moment, they lead the Central division with 62 points. They have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last week or so, but every team is entitled to one or two of those over the course of a long season. The biggest question with Dallas is whether or not their defense and goaltending will be strong enough come playoff time.
  • Again, some might not see this as surprising, others may. The Chicago Blackhawks are rolling right now and are winners of seven straight games. Despite another offseason that saw a major roster overhaul, this team has picked up right where they left off a year ago and own the third highest point total in the NHL. Rookie sensation Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals, assists, and points, has become a huge part of the team and is a huge reason why Patrick Kane is having a career year. The trio of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane is as good as any league-wide and has carried the Hawks at times this season. Also, Corey Crawford is having his best season in the NHL and leads the league with 6 shutouts. While the Hawks may still be an addition or two away from being a Cup-favorite, they’re still a scary team to play against.

The Bad

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets are an absolute mess. This was a team that many people had making the playoffs, but that looks to be impossible at this point. To recap their season so far, they have fired their head coach, hired John Tortorella out of desperation, and recently traded their top player, Ryan Johansen, to the Nashville Predators. The Jackets sit dead last in hockey with 34 points and are showing no signs of turning things around. Yes, they did acquire Seth Jones in exchange for Johansen, but that move won’t help them this year. Even with a history of losing in Columbus, this year’s losing ways were not anticipated.
  • Who predicted the Penguins would be having this much trouble, especially after the addition of Phil Kessel? We have come to know the Penguins as a perennial playoff team over the last eight years or so, but this year does not look as promising. Pittsburgh struggled out of the gate, following their captain’s lead, but have somewhat turned things around in recent weeks, as has Sidney Crosby. Still, they cannot seem to put any consistent, successful play together and are stuck winning a game then losing a game, and so on. Could this be the year they miss the postseason?
  • A lot like Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a slow start to the season 130107_gq_trout_aand have since found it difficult to find any consistency in their play. This was last season’s best offensive team, but now they rank 17th in goals per game. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has been surrounded by trade rumors all season. Whether or not his contract situation is affecting his play, there is no denying that he is having an “off year” by his standards. Yes, the Lightning have dealt with some injuries, but now is the time for them to start turning their season around if they want to make another deep playoff push.
  • Ready for another underperforming team? You got it. The Ducks might just be the most surprising team in the league so far, and not in a good way. Their 41 points are good for fifth in the Pacific division, and their 78 goals scored are dead last in the league by quite a bit. Much like the two previous teams we discussed, Anaheim has been unable to consistently play “their” game. However, they do have some things going for them. They are the league’s ninth best team in fewest goals-against per game. If they can keep that up, the law of averages suggests that they’ll find their offense and start to pile up the W’s.

Alright, so there are this year’s biggest surprises to this point as seen through these eyes. Now, here are some quick predictions.

PREDICTIONS

  1. The Ducks will make the playoffs as one of the top three teams in the Pacific division. If they miss the playoffs, Bruce Boudreau will get fired at season’s end.
  2. The Penguins will also make the playoffs, but as a wild card team. There’s too much talent in that locker room for them to not make it.
  3. Steven Stamkos will not get traded this year, but he also will not sign an extension with the Lightning.
  4. Going off those lines, a big name in Winnipeg will get dealt. Whether that’s Byfuglien, Ladd, or Trouba is tough to say. One will go though, that’s for sure.
  5. And lastly, we’ll see the Panthers drop in the standings. They’re a good team, and probably a playoff team, but they won’t win that division.

Thanks for reading.

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More Blackhawks rumors

130107_gq_trout_aAccording to a report from the Ottawa Sun, Ryan Kesler has made it clear to the Canucks’ management that he wants to be traded to either the Blackhawks or Penguins. I’ve talked on here before about the likelihood, or lack thereof, of Kesler actually becoming a Blackhawk, and now I guess I have to do it again since these rumors and reports keep surfacing.

Vancouver is entering a rebuild mode right now. They traded away Roberto Luongo this past spring, they fired their head coach John Tortorella after just one season, and they are really focusing a lot of their attention on their younger players and prospects with the hopes to build a new, younger and better team in the near future. Ryan Kesler is a 29 year old veteran on that team who wants out. If the Canucks are to trade him, which it looks like they certainly will, Vancouver is going to want good, young talent in return. If not that, then they’ll want a star player who will be a good role model to the younger guys on that team. Enter the names Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen, and Brandon Saad.

The Canucks will almost positively be seeking one of those three players from the Hawks in return for Ryan Kesler. The question is, is Kesler worth that price?

Odds are it would have to be Patrick Sharp leaving town to get Kesler simply for the money reasons. Sharp is due $5.9 million annually for three more seasons, so trading his contract would open up the cap space for Ryan Kesler and his five million dollar contract. With Ryan Kesler, the Hawks would be getting a 20-30 goals per season center, as well as a former Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward. Kesler is also one of the more physical forwards in the league, which makes him that much tougher to play against. He would no doubt be as good of a fit for the Blackhawks’ number two center position as anyone. As for Sharp, the Hawks would be losing probably a more talented player than Kesler (especially offensively), a proven leader, and a two-time Stanley Cup champion and one-time Olympic gold medalist. Not to mention his presence would no longer be in that Blackhawks locker room, and I don’t think it’s any secret how well liked he is among the other Hawks players.

Clearly, it’s a tough call to make if you’re Stan Bowman as to whether or not it’s worth trading Sharp for Kesler. I think one thing the Hawks like about Kesler over Sharp is the fact that Kesler is just 29 years old, while Sharp is 32. This is one of those potential trades that has it’s definite positives and it’s definite negatives.

So what about Teravinen and Saad?

Originally it was believed that the Canucks wanted Brandon Saad as part of any deal that involved Ryan Kesler coming to the Hawks. Obviously, the word on the street is that the Blackhawks said “no way” and those talks ended. The only reason the Kesler rumors have picked up again is because it would appear Brandon Saad no longer has to be part of the deal. Some people have said that in place of Saad, the Canucks now want Teuvo Teravainen, the Hawks’ top prospect. While I’m sure they do want him, there’s no way they’re getting him. Even if the Hawks were willing to part ways with Teuvo or Saad, neither of those players has a large enough contract to open the cap space for Kesler (the cap space would be there right now, but not in two years after the Hawks re-sign Kane and Toews). And there’s no way the Hawks trade Saad/Teravainen and Sharp.

So that leaves Patrick Sharp as being the only real possible candidate to get traded for Kesler. I’m sure the Hawks would gladly trade Seabrook and his contract for Kesler, but I’m not sure the Canucks would go for that. The Blackhawks are looking for ways to get their young defensemen (Clendening, Dahlbeck, and Johns) into the NHL, and trading Seabrook or Oduya would open up that door.

Another name that has really come onto the scene recently is that of Jason Spezza. He wants out of Ottawa, and the Senators appear to be trying to grant his wish. Spezza is another center that would fit perfectly on the Hawks’ second line, and he might even come at a cheaper price. Still, a big contract would have to be moved from the Hawks to get him. I’d say the Kesler thing is a bit more likely than this one.

WINTER CLASSIC

7327531TSN’s Bob McKenzie confirmed yesterday that the Blackhawks will be Washington’s opponent in next year’s Winter Classic. This will be the second time that each of these teams has taken part in a Winter Classic, with Chicago having done so in 2009 at Wrigley Field, and Washington in 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Personally, this matchup makes very little sense to me from a hockey standpoint. These two teams have zero rivalry between them, and the Capitals aren’t even a playoff team. The only reason Washington is in this game is because they have Alex Ovechkin and they’re an east coast team. The NHL always seems to need an east coast team in these big games just to be “safe” with their TV ratings.

If I’m a west coast team like Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis, I’m pretty hacked off at this point. All three of them just made the playoffs, and all three could fill up an outdoor stadium for a Winter Classic. Yet other teams are already playing in their second Winter Classic, some of them not even playoff teams. If you put them (Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis) up against a team like the Blackhawks, it would make for a much better game than a Hawks-Capitals one. The Hawks share a “rivalry” with all three of those teams, and the Blackhawks generate large TV ratings, which would make it a “safe” game for the NHL. But what do I know?

Thanks for reading.