With all teams beyond the 41 games representing the first half of the season in the books, it's time to look ahead to the rest of the second half. The condensed schedule thanks to the Olympics should create quite a buzz in the league over the next few weeks as teams prepare to either make a push for the playoffs are start cutting their losses.
Our own Brian Stubits put together the numbers for what each team would need to do to make the playoffs this year. Since the top three in each division make it to the postseason, we're using the current pace of the eighth-place team in the Western Conference (the Minnesota Wild) as a benchmark for making the postseason. The Wild are currently on a 94-point pace this season, so that's the number we have for teams to be shooting for to secure a spot in the postseason.
In addition to how they need to fare in the standings, we also wanted to take a look back at what has gone right or wrong for certain teams and a look ahead at what they may be able to do near the trade deadline.
With the Olympic break causing a trade freeze in the middle of February, there could be a flurry of activity just prior to the NHL temporarily closing down as its stars head to Sochi. So it's almost like there are two trade deadlines this year. The official trade deadline is March 5, which is only one week after the Olympic break ends. So with three weeks to the Olympics, decision time is coming up faster than you think.
Here's a look at how things will need to play out in the Central Division and which teams need to bulk up or sell off.
1. Chicago Blackhawks (30-7-10)
Points needed for postseason: 24 (Record: 10-20-4)
Midseason Grade: A
The Blackhawks have consistently been scoring, which has offset fairly average goaltending. Chicago has 175 goals for this year, scoring at a clip of 3.56 goals per game. Chicago's power play is also much improved this season as they are scoring on 24.2 percent of their advantages, good for fourth in the league.
Perhaps more than anything else, Chicago's stars have been stars this year. Patrick Kane is second in the league with 56 points, Patrick Sharp's 25 goals are tied for second in the league and Jonathan Toews is also top-10 in league scoring with 47 points. Duncan Keith, meanwhile, is probably running away with the Norris Trophy at this point as he has been dominant on both ends of the ice.
There's been no Stanley Cup hangover here.
Trade Deadline Primer: The Blackhawks are in perpetual need of a second-line center. Patrick Kane's production comes in spite of having a revolving door of second-line centers, which has most frequently been the aging Michal Handzus. The Blackhawks don't necessarily have to do anything drastic, but bolstering already solid scoring depth with some versatility down the middle isn't a bad idea.
2. St. Louis Blues (31-8-5)
Points needed for postseason: 27 (Record: 12-23-3)
Midseason Grade: A
The Blues lead the NHL with 3.57 goals for per game and have allowed just 2.20 per game, which is good for third in the league. On top of that, the Blues are allowing an average of 26 shots on goal per game, which is second fewest in the league. They're also one of the league's best teams 5v5. Basically, a lot has gone right for the Blues, a team that has been hard to play against and one that is finding offense from all over.
The Blues have been scoring by committee this season with 12 players already over 20 points and seven over 30 points. St. Louis has done a good job weathering the storm since leading scorer Alexander Steen went down in mid-December, having won seven of their last eight games. The goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have been adequate at worst, while Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes have emerged as offensive standouts. Additionally, the Blues boast an incredible defensive group led by Alex Pietrangelo who is growing into one of the league's best defenders.
Trade Deadline Primer: The one area that always seems to pop up when it comes to trades with St. Louis is what the Blues should do about their goaltending. Is Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott enough to get this team over the hump in the playoffs? As a member of the Blues, Halak has only played in two postseason appearances. In 2010, he was solid in 18 appearances with the Montreal Canadiens, but is having a somewhat underwhelming season on a good team.
If the Blues were going to go out there and look for a goalie, you would think it would be Ryan Miller or bust. He's the only trade target that would make them better in the net than they are right now. General manager Doug Armstrong very well could stand pat and let this tandem ride and the Blues should still contend.
3. Colorado Avalanche (28-12-5)
Points needed for postseason: 33 (Record: 15-19-3)
Midseason Grade: B+
An incredible start to the season in which the Avs were as dynamic as any team offensively and getting some other-worldly goaltending has given this team quite a cushion for a playoff run. Though the goaltending numbers have predictably regressed some, the Avs are still well positioned to make the postseason.
The youth of this lineup is really coming through in a big way. Matt Duchene has stepped into the conversation as one of the league's elite as he leads the Avalanche with 39 points, while young captain Gabriel Landeskog is bouncing back nicely this year with 35 points. Rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon has been as good as advertised with 15 goals and 29 points as well. Semyon Varlamov was not able to maintain his hot start, but he's still put together a strong season with a .926 save percentage to date.
Trade Deadline Primer: Colorado's defense has been far better than expected this year, but it could use a little shoring up at the trade deadline. Nabbing a veteran rearguard or two even would help stabilize things on the back end and strengthen the blue line for a postseason run. The question is, what does Colorado have to sell and can Joe Sakic swing a deal that won't hurt the team's already shallow prospect depth? That's going to be hard to do. The trade deadline cliché is that it's always hard to find good defensemen, but getting one should be a priority for the Avs.
4. Minnesota Wild (25-18-5)
Points needed for postseason: 39 (Record: 18-13-3)
Midseason Grade: C+
The Wild started the season so well, but injuries and a lengthy December skid has this team heading in the wrong direction. Both Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu are on the shelf, as is Josh Harding who was the team's biggest difference maker in the early goings of the campaign and still has a strong case for the Vezina Trophy.
In the absence of two of their best offensive weapons, the Wild are struggling to score. Though that was the case when Koivu and Parise were healthy, too. With an average of 2.33 goals per game, the Wild are 25th in the league and are 27th when it comes to shots per game. Harding has been the star for the team with his .933 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Ryan Suter is the league's busiest defenseman with an average of 29:38 on the ice a night. Jason Pominville has been the team's go-to goal scorer with 18. This team just hasn't had enough offensive bite.
The Wild, as a result, are starting to fall out of nabbing one of those top three spots in the Central and may need to start focusing more on the wild card.
Trade Deadline Primer: There's still a lot this team needs. The Wild probably could use a defenseman to help lessen the load that Suter has been taking on this year. As good as Suter is, playing nearly half the game every night doesn't seem good for any kind of run to the postseason.
There's also the issue of scoring depth. When Koivu and Parise return, it will help, but the team has relied heavily on younger players to supplement the offense. The team has a little wiggle room under the cap, but significant scoring help could be hard to come by at the right price. The Wild do have a pretty rich prospect system to dip into if they need to.
5. Dallas Stars (20-18-7)
Points needed for postseason: 47 (Record: 22-12-3)
Midseason Grade: C
The Stars are heading in the right direction organizationally, but they aren't making that kind of headway this season. The offense is certainly a big positive for this team, as is the play of Kari Lehtonen. The defense has been porous, however. That's going to make it really difficult to go on the run necessary to make the postseason.
Jim Nill has done a nice job of putting some pieces in place to make the Stars better, as it appears Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn could be a dynamic duo for years to come with this team. The defense is missing Stephane Robidas, a significant veteran stalwart, and it shows. The Stars are yielding more than 32 shots per game. Lehtonen is doing the best he can back there, but he's seeing too many pucks.
Dallas is in a strange position as they're not completely out of the hunt, but don't seem to be in a position to make any significant changes to alter their fate.
Trade Deadline Primer: The Stars would be unwise to make any desperation moves to try to make a push for the playoffs this year. Jim Nill has made some significant additions and the future for this team with youngsters like Alex Chiasson, Valeri Nichushkin and Brendan Dillon, they're in a good place. If the Stars were to make some moves, they have some veterans that might bring back some draft picks and/or mid-level prospects. Vernon Fiddler could be a good candidate to ship out and some team may bite on Ray Whitney as a veteran rental. The Stars should consider being light sellers at the deadline.
6. Nashville Predators (19-21-7)
Points needed for postseason: 49 (Record: 23-9-3)
Midseason Grade: C-
Pekka Rinne's infection and a lack of goaltending depth organizationally has contributed to the precipitous fall of the Predators this year. That said, like usual, the team really can't score goals. At 2.32 goals per game this season, the Preds are 26th in the league when it comes to scoring. That's not going to cut it in the high-flyin' west.
The Preds are unlikely to make the playoffs, but there can be some optimism in the development of Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm, as well as the growth shown by Roman Josi. This team shouldn't have a problem on defense for a long time.
What they need are goals and this lineup doesn't have a lot of guys that are doing it often enough. Defenseman Shea Weber leads the team with 29 points and is third with 10 goals. So things aren't going well in the offensive department. The scoring issues aren't easily addressed and probably not worth addressing mid-season.
Trade Deadline Primer: The Preds probably should look to be sellers, but it's uncertain what kind of value they have. David Legwand's contract is up at the end of this year. He has spent his entire career with the Preds and there's sentimental value, but there could be a market for a veteran who can produce some. The same goes for Matt Cullen, who still has another year left on his deal. This upcoming draft doesn't have a ton of attractive offensive players, so if the Preds are looking to go younger, they may need to seek more established prospects from potential trade partners.
7. Winnipeg Jets (20-23-5)
Points needed for postseason: 49 (Record: 23-8-3)
Midseason Grade: D+
Unless newly-installed head coach Paul Maurice is a miracle worker, the postseason is not going to happen for the Jets. Though Claude Noel certainly deserves blame, league-worst goaltending is going to make any coach look terrible and that's what Winnipeg has right now. Among regular starters, Ondrej Pavelec has a .899 save percentage, which is not going to help.
Now it's not all on Pavelec. The Jets haven't exactly been tough to play against, yielding more than 30 shots a game. That, plus the fact that Winnipeg is in the Western Conference for the first time this year since coming back in 2011-12, so that doesn't help either. Only nine of the Jets' 20 wins this season are against Western Conference foes.
The good news for Winnipeg is that some of their individuals are starting to step up this year. Up front, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler have brought a lot of offense. Evander Kane has been oft-injured this year, but when healthy is a threat.
Trade Deadline Primer: The Jets obviously have to be a seller at this point, but they should be careful about what they make available. Much has been made about Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane being potential trade targets, but those seem more like pieces you'd try to build around then ship out. There could be more than meets the eye there, but it would seem foolish to trade them. Winnipeg doesn't have much of a prospect system at this point.
The one thing that is for certain, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to do something. His tenure in the front office has been one of little fanfare and the inactivity has kept this team running in place. His next deal is an important one as it may be the one that saves or costs him his job.