NHL burning questions: Revisiting every team's biggest issues at the halfway mark
Checking in on our preseason questions for every team in the NHL at the midseason mark
Before this NHL season got underway,faced as they began a new campaign. With the halfway point here already, it's time to revisit those questions and see what answers we have.
Some answers appear much clearer than others, but it's important to remember that this is hockey -- a sport in which things can change rather quickly and, often times, for no discernible reason.
How healthy has Ryan Kesler been?
Kesler was a shell of himself last season (eight goals and 14 points in 44 games) as the result of some health issues, including a pretty significant hip surgery, and it was unknown how healthy he would be heading into this season. The 34-year-old forward has clearly not gotten back to the player he once was and his pace of production has been even worse this season than last. Through 39 games, Kesler has just four goals and six points. Now the question becomes whether he still needs more time to heal or if his best days are just behind him.
How has Alex Galchenyuk looked?
The Coyotes' biggest offseason splash was the blockbuster acquisition of Galchenyuk from Montreal and it was believed that a fresh start could significantly benefit the forward, especially if he was given steady minutes at center. He has still battled bouts of inconsistency in his first season in Arizona and was pretty quickly moved from center back to wing, but he has been decent. Despite missing a chunk of the first half with injury, he's second among Coyotes forwards in points with 18 (6-12).
Has depth been an issue?
Yes and no. The Bruins' offense has largely been carried by their top trio of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who have accounted for 44 percent of Boston's goals thus far. The Bruins let a number of secondary pieces walk last offseason (Rick Nash, Riley Nash and Tim Schaller) in hopes that their younger players would be able to step into bigger roles, but the replacements have struggled to find consistency. A number of those younger guys -- including Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato and Jacob Forsbacka-Karlsson -- have struggled to provide steady secondary help, and Boston will likely look to acquire some help in their top six in the second half. However, the Bruins have done well to stay in contention even with a slew of injuries suffered by several key players during the first few months.
Just how big has their jump been?
The Sabres were the worst team in the league last season, but they were expected to make some progress in their rebuild after adding some nice pieces -- including top overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, veteran winger Jeff Skinner and netminder Carter Hutton -- this summer. That jump has been bigger than many expected at this point, as the Sabres currently hold a playoff spot at fourth in the Atlantic division. Dahlin has been worth the hype, Skinner is near the top of the league in goals and Hutton has been very solid in net. The Sabres' may have jumped from "rebuilder" to "contender" quicker than we anticipated.
Has James Neal fixed their scoring woes?
After finishing last season 26th in goals scored, the Flames attempted to add a spark plug to their front six by signing James Neal to a big deal in free agency. The good news: Calgary is now suddenly an offensive juggernaut, ranked second in scoring behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. The bad news: Neal isn't exactly a huge part of that. The 30-year-old has just four goals (and eight points) in 42 games. That's a surprise considering this would be the first time in his 11-year career that he didn't hit the 20-goal mark. Maybe he still gets there (he ranks sixth among Calgary forwards in shots but is only converting at a 4.4 percent clip) but he'd need to have a huge second half. As it stands now, he hasn't been the solution to Calgary's scoring woes, but they apparently didn't need him to be.
Has their goaltending improved?
Yup, even if the improvement didn't come from the guy you expected. Surprisingly, it's been 35-year-old Curtis McElhinney who has been the Canes' savior between the pipes so far, posting a .923 save percentage in 15 starts during the first half. That's found gold for a guy the Hurricanes lucked into when the Maple Leafs waived him at the start of the season. Both Petr Mrazek (.902 in 17 GP) and Scott Darling (.884 in 8 GP) have been underwhelming behind McElhinney and the combined numbers between the three come out to about average, but the Canes seem to finally have a guy that they can rely on ... for now.
What has been of Corey Crawford?
After missing more than half of last season and the beginning of this season due to lingering concussion symptoms, Crawford finally returned to the Blackhawks' starting lineup in mid-October. He played in 23 games and had a modest .902 save percentage before suffering another concussion in December. Head injuries are always unpredictable but, at this point, it seems fair to not only wonder when the 34-year-old might return to the ice, but if the he'll come back at all.
Can they get back to the playoffs?
It sure looks like it. The Avalanche had a surprising bounce-back season last season and they're on pace for a second-straight playoff appearance this season. They currently hold the third spot in a tough Central division behind two powerhouses in the Jets and Predators. Not shockingly, the Avs have been largely carried by their explosive top line in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen and look relatively average on defense and in net. But they're not regressing and they may be just a bit more dangerous than they were a season ago, so that's a step in the right direction.
Columbus Blue Jackets
What's going to happen with Artemi Panarin?
We still don't know. The star winger is in the final year of his current contract and it's unknown if he wants to stay in Columbus beyond this season. He was reluctant to sign an extension with the Blue Jackets this summer and there's been no tangible progress there. What we do know, however, is that Panarin has been good (Columbus' leading scorer with 45 points in 39 games) and the Jackets are in the playoff picture, which makes it incredibly difficult for the front office to trade him during the season without shooting themselves in the foot, at least in the short term.
How has the team adjusted to Jim Montgomery?
It certainly hasn't been the smoothest of sailing so far under Montgomery, the Stars' third coach in as many years. There have been issues raised over on-ice mentality, and Dallas' two biggest stars got publicly blasted by the team's CEO for "not getting the job done," so that's not great. Maybe Montgomery is still just trying to work out the kinks while managing his players in his first NHL coaching gig, but things could also definitely be worse. Despite all their drama, the Stars are still currently on the right side of the playoff bubble. Let's hope they stay there or things could get (even more) ugly.
Detroit Red Wings
Has Dylan Larkin been a bona fide No. 1 center?
Larkin has been great in the role for a Red Wings team that is still trying to figure things out. The 22-year-old has been very productive and is on pace for a career-best season at the top of the lineup, leading the team in goals (18) and points (40) through 42 games. That's great news, as the Red Wings desperately needed him to step up and provide some leadership down the middle, especially with the sudden retirement of Henrik Zetterberg before the season. He has answered the bell, and there doesn't really seem to be any debating that this is Larkin's team now.
Have they bounced back?
Not really. After falling back into mediocrity last season following a promising playoff run in '17, the Oilers are once again struggling this season. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been very good for Edmonton throughout the first half but there's just not enough talent around them. McDavid and Draisaital have combined for 40 percent of the Oilers' goals this season, while McDavid alone has direct involvement in 53 percent of Edmonton's scoring. As of right now they're only a few points out of the playoff picture, but they're very much a team that is going to have to be dragged into the postseason by a few star players.
Have they hung strong in the Atlantic?
Not quite. After a strong finish to last season and some nice additions this summer, it seemed the Panthers were primed for at least a wild card spot in the Atlantic if they were able to get enough out of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer in net. Well, as it turns out, they haven't gotten enough and they're much closer to the bottom of the division than the top. Between Luongo, Reimer and Michael Hutchinson, the Panthers are second-worst in the league when it comes to collective save percentage. The Panthers have a top 10 offensive unit in the league thus far, but it's pretty difficult to contend when you don't have a single goalie on the roster over a .900 save percentage.
Los Angeles Kings
How good has Ilya Kovalchuk been?
It's been a pretty underwhelming first season back in the NHL for Kovalchuk so far. After returning stateside following a stint in the KHL, Kovalchuk came into the season as one of the most intriguing players to watch because we didn't really know what to expect from the 35-year-old in Los Angeles. He's shown flashes of the high-end skill that once made him one of the NHL's elite wingers, but he hasn't exactly been a difference-maker in the City of Angels. He's got seven goals through 33 games and has battled injuries/demotions in the lineup through the first half. The sad thing is that still puts him top-five among Kings players in the league's worst offensive unit.
Will their playoff streak be snapped?
When we initially posed that question, it had two different interpretations. The Wild have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons. Will that continue? And if it does, will they be able to get past the first round for the first time in four years? As of right now, neither looks like a strong certainty. Minnesota has struggled offensively and is currently on the outside looking in, though they're close enough to still finish on the right side of the picture. However, in what seemed like a "put up or shut up" season, they're trending in the wrong direction.
Have they scored any goals?
Incredibly, yes ... and they've been quite decent overall. That's a shock to many considering the Habs finished 29th in scoring last season and then they turned around and traded two of their four leading goal-scorers (Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty) over the summer. They're not an offensive dynamo by any means, but they're in the top half of the league in scoring and offseason acquisition Max Domi (14-24-38 through 42 games) has looked strong down the middle at the top of their lineup. They've managed to stay in the playoff hunt to this point, which is incredibly surprising, especially given the fact that Carey Price hasn't been dominant in net.
What can we expect from Pekka Rinne?
The Predators' longtime goaltender is coming off a season in which he posted a regular season save percentage of .927 and took home his first Vezina Trophy in the spring. He's following that up with another very strong season in Nashville (.919 through 30 GP) and the Preds are looking predictably dangerous in front of him. Regular Season Pekka is still inspiring confidence, but the biggest question still lies with Postseason Pekka. Last season was the second straight season in which his performance took a dip during a crucial time in the postseason. Can he finish the season strong?
New Jersey Devils
Has Taylor Hall gotten more help?
Not quite. After almost single-handedly dragging the Devils to the postseason (and winning league MVP in the process) last season, Taylor Hall hasn't been able to double down on the one-man show this season. That's not to say he's not having a good campaign (11-26-37 in 33 GP) but he hasn't been incredible and the Devils aren't nearly deep enough to make up for that. As a result, they're back towards the bottom of the Metropolitan division and another playoff appearance is looking increasingly unlikely.
New York Islanders
How much has the loss of John Tavares hurt them?
Not as much as most expected, honestly! The biggest move of the offseason saw John Tavares depart Long Island in free agency to play for his hometown team in Toronto. It was a serious gut punch to the Islanders, who lost their best player, captain and face of the franchise. But the Islanders have been surprisingly competitive and if the season ended today, they'd be a playoff team. Obviously losing Tavares was a tough blow and it's hard to imagine they'd be a worse team with him on the roster, but new coach Barry Trotz seems to be getting the most out of his group this season. The new face of the franchise, Mat Barzal, is following up his Calder-winning season with a worthy sophomore campaign, so things aren't as bleak on the Island as we thought they might be.
New York Rangers
Who's next out of town?
The Rangers announced last season that they're entering into a rebuilding period, then traded some significant names from their roster -- including Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh. Considering New York only has one forward under contract beyond this season and not in contending mode, there are going to more guys shipped out of town. There haven't been any major moves yet, but that seems destined to change as we get closer to the trade deadline. Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes both seem like they're prime candidates to be in another jersey soon.
Do they even have a plan?
In their first post-Erik Karlsson season, things have been predictably shaky for the Senators. They got off to a decent start to open the season but have since fallen to the bottom of the league, where most people expected them to ultimately end up. That's bad, but it's so much worse when you remember they don't even own their own first-round pick this season -- Colorado does. Ottawa is attempting to rebuild over the coming years, so essentially gifting a potential franchise-changer in Jack Hughes to another team at the top of the draft is a brutally tough pill to swallow. That being said, we should have a better scope of Ottawa's long term plans as we get closer to the trade deadline, as they've got to figure out what they're doing with some players on expiring contracts, including Matt Duchene and Mark Stone.
What kind of numbers has JVR put up?
It's been a very modest 2018-19 campaign thus far for James van Riemsdyk to kick off his second stint in Philly. The big free-agent splash battled a knee injury in the first half and has six goals and 14 points through 25 games. The Flyers were likely hoping he'd be closer to the 36-goal pace he had in Toronto last season but plenty of things haven't gone to plan for Philly and they currently sit in the basement of the Metro. We'll have to see if there's more stability in second half and whether that brings more comfort for JVR in his first year back in town. They've gotta hope that he picks up his production and starts commanding more ice time eventually, or else that five-year, $35 million contract is going to look pretty rough outside their top-six.
Has Matt Murray bounced back?
Sort of. Murray came into this season having battled some health issues and inconsistency for Pittsburgh last season, and he's been moderately better this season -- though not as impressive as he was during his official rookie campaign a few years ago. In 18 games this season, Murray has a .913 save percentage and 2.89 GAA behind a Penguins team that has its defensive issues. Overall, not terrible, but also maybe not good enough. The Penguins may have another goalie controversy on their hands, as Casey DeSmith has been outstanding and has played his way into regular starting duties with a .924 SV% and 2.47 GAA through 26 games. However, the Penguins know more than anyone how important it can be to have two worthy goaltenders on the roster while heading down the stretch.
St. Louis Blues
Has Jake Allen dragged them down?
There have been a number of things that have dragged down the Blues to this point but, yes, Jake Allen has been one of them. After handing the reigns back to Allen following Carter Hutton's departure this summer, the veteran goaltender is struggling once again. He's sub .900 and the Blues don't have another great option behind him at the moment, so that's not ideal. But again, he's been far from the only issue on a bitterly disappointing Blues team that is among the worst in the league this season. Despite appearing to bolster their offensive attack with the offseason additions of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon, St. Louis ranks near the bottom of the league in scoring through the first half.
San Jose Sharks
How much better has Erik Karlsson made them?
Karlsson has had a relatively understated first season in San Jose so far, at least in terms of goals and assists (3-32-35 in 41 GP). But the Sharks are certainly a better team with him on their blue line -- better than the standings and statistics show. Karlsson has been the Sharks' top possession driver and has the third-most shots on net behind Brent Burns and Evander Kane. The problem is he's shooting a career-low 2.2 percent right now; that number should rise in the second half. That being said, San Jose's offense has already gone from middle-of-the-pack last season to among the league's top five this season, and their power play unit has also made a jump into the top ten as well. That's not a coincidence. San Jose is third in the Pacific, but they're there with the league's worst goaltending averages, so that should be considered somewhat of an achievement.
Tampa Bay Lighting
Are they still the best team in the Atlantic?
Yes. Actually, more like "oh my God, yes." The Lightning have been the best team in the league through the first half and it's not particularly even close. They hit the official halfway point with a record of 32-7-2 putting them on pace for 64 wins and 132 points. If they keep up that pace, they'd break the NHL's single-season win record of 62 (1995–96 Detroit Red Wings) and tie the single-season points mark of 132 (1976-77 Montreal Canadiens). They've got the league's most prolific offense and are being led by tremendous years from Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos up front. So, yeah, sorry Toronto.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Has the blue line held them back?
Yes and no, I guess. We all knew the Leafs offense was going to be great when they added John Tavares to a unit that already finished second-best in scoring last season, and things have gone pretty well to plan. They're once again in the No. 2 spot in regards to offensive production (behind only Tampa) and they've been able to score enough and get good enough goaltending to counter some weak spots on their blue line. They're still likely going to be in the market for some defensive help considering Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey are averaging nearly 20 minutes a game for them on the back end.
How good has Elias Pettersson been?
He's been incredible. Not only does the 20-year-old Swede lead the Canucks in points (20-22-42) despite missing a chunk of time to injury in the first half, but he's also been a human highlight reel in his first NHL Season. Pettersson is quickly establishing himself as one of the most electric young players in the game today, and that's saying something considering how many great young forwards there are in the game today. He's the real deal and he's almost single-handled turning the Canucks into a must-see show on a nightly basis. Vancouver still has a ways to go before they can be considered a legitimate threat, but they've got some exciting young pieces to build around in the post-Sedin era -- none better than Pettersson.
Vegas Golden Knights
Has there been regression?
Yes, obviously. Given how improbable and insane Vegas' inaugural season was, I think we all expected them to take a step back in the sophomore campaign. They got off to a slow start this season but eventually recovered and found more consistency. They're not as remarkable as last season and their two biggest offseason acquisitions, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, only made relatively modest contributions in the first half. (Stastny was injured for most of the first half.) With that being said, this is still a good team that has a legitimate shot to claim a second straight division title.
Has there been a Stanley Cup hangover?
Nope, not really. Even after a booze-fueled summer, the Capitals still appear to be the team to beat in the Metropolitan. They hold the division lead at the halfway point and have been led by an incredible first half from Alex Ovechkin, who is somehow better than ever at age 33. Ovechkin leads the league in goals with 30 through 41 games, which is just absurd -- even for him. They're top 10 in offense and top 15 in goals allowed, so things are going pretty well thus far. There wasn't a ton of turnover in Washington in terms of roster personnel but they do have a first-year coach in Todd Reirden behind the bench, so it was pretty important to have a good first half.
Will they need another second line center?
As expected, the Jets have been one of the best teams in the Western Conference to start this season, and it's no surprise that their top-end forwards (Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler) have led the way. Their top line has been extremely strong, but you can definitely make the case that they need another playmaker down the middle to help beef up their depth and secondary production, and possibly also help out on their PK. This is the way we saw things play out last season before the Jets went and acquired Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, so there's a decent chance they're going to look to upgrade at that spot once again.
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