The NHL officially hit the mid-point in its schedule over the weekend, but it still took a few more days for every team in the league to actually get to the 41-game threshold. So with the real fun about to begin, here's a look at some of the top storylines to follow in the second half:
The Sharks push to the playoffs
|Calgary might be looking to ask Jarome Iginla to waive his no-trade clause. (Getty Images)|
Run-up to the trade deadline
The last day of February could be an interesting one with some very high-profile potentially unrestricted free agents such as Brad Richards, Tomas Kaberle and Tomas Vokoun available for the right price. The Richards situation will be the most intriguing to watch because he's been a key reason his Dallas Stars have been one of the league's biggest surprises. But the team is up for sale and might not be able to afford him moving forward, so Richards will remain grist for the rumor mill even if the Stars don't fade.
The Flames aren't throwing in the towel, but they might as well after a first half that saw them get into better position to win the draft lottery than get to the playoffs. Calgary has already moved out the guy who created the mess, but if Darryl Sutter's interim replacement Jay Feaster is really looking at fixing things, he has to be taking an approach that is longer-term than the next three months. And that could mean doing something that would normally seem unthinkable in Calgary -- asking Jarome Iginla to waive his no-trade clause. Iginla is on the back-nine of his career, but there is still some gas left in the tank of this big-time player. A trade to a contender could be enough to put someone over the top and help the Flames speed up their much-needed entry into the NHL's new world.
The league is currently in exclusive negotiating periods with its network carrier NBC and its cable partner Versus. But unlike the last time it sought broadcast deals, the NHL actually has a product people are watching. The Winter Classic, of course, has been a boon to the league and three compelling Stanley Cup Finals in a row with big market teams have broadened its appeal, enough so that ESPN has shown some interest in getting back into the picture. Versus, however, has done a very good job of producing NHL telecasts and when the Comcast/NBC merger gets approved by federal regulations, the cable company will be under that corporate umbrella, so the likelihood isn't necessarily looking to leave that fold. But ESPN is still a powerful brand, and one that many observers believe is necessary for the NHL to really grow in the U.S. Whatever happens, television revenue should end up being a lot more lucrative to the league than it has been since the lockout.
The NHL has actually cracked down on hits to the head this season as it promised, but there hasn't really been all that much consistency in the way discipline has been handed out. The problem is there are still some gray areas in terms of what actually constitutes a bad hit, as the blow with which Calgary's repeat offender Tom Kostopolous broke the jaw of Detroit's Brad Stuart last weekend demonstrated. By some definitions, the hit was legal because it was not from the blind side. Yet a few days earlier, Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby was hit from the blind side by Washington's David Steckel, a play that was not penalized and helped cause a concussion that has already sidelined the face of the league for three games. There are those who believe the real problem is a lack of respect that exists among some players, and that the league has to get really tough with its discipline to counteract that. With Crosby speaking out loudly on the subject, that may happen as the second half wears on.
The Fehr factor
Donald Fehr is officially in as the new NHL Players Association boss and the current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season. Negotiations, at least on an informal level, should begin in the next couple of months, so the signals he will be sending out could offer some insight into whether the league is looking at another potential lockout.
How the West will be won
We're not really talking about the top of the heap because the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings have more or less separated themselves from the pack. And Dallas seems to have the inside track on the Pacific crown, although if anything has become apparent this season, it's that a three-game streak, either wins or losses can change your standing by five or six spots overnight. The reality is that a dozen of the 15 teams in the West are still in contention for postseason spots, and maybe even home-ice advantage to start the playoffs, a situation that is very likely to go down to the wire.
You wouldn't be doing justice to the situations of two Eastern Conference heavyweights if you didn't wonder about the goaltending. So far, the situation between the pipes hasn't been a concern to either the Philadelphia Flyers or the Washington Capitals, but the playoffs haven't started. Chances are, though, that the Flyers will stick with tandem of veteran Brian Boucher and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky, while the Caps seem happy with youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. But these are teams with serious Stanley Cup potential, and until they reach it, the questions about netminding will hang over their heads.
The scoring race
We mentioned that Crosby is out with a concussion and there is no definite timetable for his return, although the Penguins have hinted it will be sooner rather than later. Maybe, but the longer it goes, the more impact it will have on his chance to win a second scoring title. Crosby managed to build up a nice cushion thanks to an amazing 25-game point streak he put up in November and December, but Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos has been hot on his heels all season in terms of goals, and along with the Sedin twins of Vancouver, is close enough to bridge the gap and make it a real race if Crosby is out for an extended period.
What will Lou do?
This season has been an unmitigated disaster for the New Jersey Devils, and GM Lou Lamoriello has to take a lot of the blame for the way he has handled things. Truth is Lamoriello's reputation as one of the league's savviest managers has dwindled in each season since the lockout, but for the most part he has managed to keep his team very competitive with his sleight of hand salary cap manipulations. Now it has finally caught up to him with the ill-advised lifetime signing of Ilya Kovalchuk last summer, so the issue is not about salvaging this season, but how to get things back on track for the future. Lamoriello started shaking things up by trading captain Jamie Langenbrunner to Dallas last week. But he needs to do a lot more because the Devils are a mess right now, and look to remain that way for quite a while.