Officially, the NHL’s 2011-12 season will reach the midpoint point Monday with Game 615 between the Los Angeles Kings and the Washington Capitals, and it’s an inadvertent, if appropriate bit of scheduling, considering how both teams were involved in the major stories of the first half.
The Kings and Capitals both joined the ranks of teams purging their coaches. Six in all joined the hired-to-be-fired brigade, including Terry Murray in L.A., where he was replaced by Darryl Sutter and Bruce Boudreau, replaced in Washington by Dale Hunter.
Rarely has a year seen so many highly paid, high-end talents sputter off to singularly mediocre starts - Anze Kopitar in L.A., and Alex Ovechkin in Washington were just two players not providing very much bang for their bucks. How can you rationally explain why Eric Staal (Carolina), Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan (Anaheim), Paul Stastny (Colorado), Joe Thornton (San Jose), Daniel Briere (Philadelphia), Jeff Carter (Columbus), Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit) and many others are all massively underperforming?
Ovechkin’s struggles to match his scoring totals of two years ago and Sidney Crosby’s inability to stay healthy after returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup at the end of November also meant that the Sid And Ovie show - the NHL’s favoured story line ever since both entered the league - has been pre-empted again.
It was a season when concussions reached epidemic proportions (in everybody’s minds but the NHL’s powers-that-be) and overshadowed a second, quieter injury epidemic at the other end of the body - so many players on IR with broken feet, ankles and such, because everybody is asked to block shots now - not just Craig Ludwig - and every team plays the same way defensively now, collapsing backward towards the net to create 401-at-rush-hour style congestion in front of the goaltender.
It was a half year that saw Winnipeg return to the NHL after a 15-year absence and reward its fans with a 14-6-1 start a home. In short order, the MTS Centre became one of the most difficult buildings in the league to play in - and everyone gets booed like they’re Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The Edmonton Oilers’ early successes gave way to the sober reality facing many rebuilding-from-scratch teams, and they’ve slipped behind even their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference playoff race. Calgary’s playoff hopes were undermined by the world junior road trip, which they finished Thursday by being on the wrong side of a 9-0 shellacking by the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins started October nursing a bad Stanley Cup hangover, but ran the table in November. Their opponent in the final last year, the Vancouver Canucks, took even longer to get started, but they caught fire in December and, at the moment, they may be the NHL’s two best teams with a much anticipated meeting Saturday in Boston. There is a chance they could make it a Stanley Cup final rematch, the first since Detroit and Pittsburgh went head-to-head consecutively in 2008 and 2009. Good news for Canucks fans: Last time out, the Pens turned the tables on the Wings and won when given a second chance.
Concussions continue to waylay players, not just Crosby, and there is a chance that the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Pronger - already ruled out for the regular season and playoffs - may never play again.
Among Canadian teams, the Ottawa Senators were the biggest surprise, nestled in the top eight after finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. New coach Paul MacLean will be in the conversation for the NHL’s coach of the year award, but the first-half favourite is Kevin Dineen, who was the Florida Panthers, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2000, atop the Southeast Division.
And if there was such a thing as the NHL’s executive of the year award, it would go to the Panthers’ Dale Tallon, who rebuilt the Panthers on the fly and helped a handful of ex-Blackhawks, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Jack Skille, prosper in south Florida. And speaking of the Panthers, who is Jason Garrison again, and why is he leading NHL defenceman in goal scoring, with 11?
The sophomore jinx appears to have gobbled up Panther-for-a-day Michael Grabner, third in rookie scoring last season. Or is that just the New York Islander effect, a perplexing condition that seems to kill young talent in its tracks (see Kyle Okposo, first 20 games, for further proof).
The Maple Leafs Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, two of Brian Burke’s key acquisitions, have prospered as a duo this year, no matter who happens to play centre on the line. No one is prospering in Montreal, where the Canadiens rank right down with the Flames among the most disappointing contributors to the NHL’s Canadian content.
Prominent goaltenders on the slippery slope include the rhyming pair of Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo), two teams of great promise underachieving greatly. No one can explain why Hiller, an all-star last year, has been so bad for so long, unless it is the vertigo that kept him out of the Ducks’ lineup for the last part of last season. The Ducks’ struggles mean that their roster will be scouted fiercely in the second half, as the trade market heats up. Could Getzlaf find a new home? Ales Hemsky? Alexander Semin? Jonathan Bernier? Jarome Iginla? And lesser names - Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen, pick any pending unrestricted free agent on a non-playoff team - could all be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
On the ownership front, Matt Hulsizer did not land the Phoenix Coyotes last spring and now apparently, Hulsizer is not going to get the St. Louis Blues either. There is a new sheriff in the NHL’s front office, Brendan Shanahan, and he is providing great transparency to the NHL discipline system, but making nobody happy either. Colin Campbell looks 10 years younger, Shanahan 10 years older. It really is a thankless job.
And just one final note of caution as we hand out the first-half hardware: A year ago, Crosby was the runaway Hart Trophy choice, and at the 41-game mark, was day-to-day with a concussion. He didn’t play another game. So lots can change in the second half. With that disclaimer, however, here is our first-half choices for the major NHL awards:
Hart (MVP): Jonathan Toews, Chicago. Runners-up: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers, Claude Giroux, Philadelphia. Toews, aka Captain Serious, is challenging for the NHL scoring lead and has the Blackhawks back on track, after winning the Cup in 2010 and then faltering for much of the regular season last year. Giroux, given the opportunity to play as the No. 1 centre following the trades of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, has flourished. Lundqvist has the Rangers in the running for top spot in the Eastern Conference, on a team that features a no-name defence and not much up front beyond Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.
Norris (top defenceman): Zdeno Chara, Boston. Runners-up: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit, Erik Karlsson, Ottawa. If it were just about scoring, Karlsson would be the runaway winner, but he needs to improve his defensive play to be considered a legitimate contender. Chara continues to suffocate opponents’ top forwards defensively and Lidstrom remains uncommonly effective at the age of 41.
Vezina (top goalie): Lundqvist, Rangers. Runners-up: Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles, Jimmy Howard, Detroit. The two top defensive teams, Boston and St. Louis, have both adopted a goalie rotation of late, which will make it harder for Tim Thomas/Tuukka Rask and/or Brian Elliott/Jaro Halak to get consideration for the award. Lundqvist has been phenomenal, as noted above. Quick, meanwhile, has taken on the Miikka Kiprusoff role for Darryl Sutter in L.A. and kept the offensively challenged Kings in the playoff mix; while all Howard does for Detroit is win.
Jack Adams (coach of the year): Kevin Dineen, Florida. Runners-up: Paul MacLean, Ottawa; Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis. Dineen inherited a completely revamped Florida squad which was millions under the cap until Tallon started shopping in July and quickly molded it into a real team; he has the Panthers in the playoff race for the first time in forever. Ottawa is early in its rebuilding program, but MacLean has gotten the most out of Craig Anderson, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Karlsson, making the Sens an unlikely playoff contender. Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne in St. Louis and executed a neat-about face in St. Louis, a team that promptly went from the ranks of the also-rans to a spot in the playoff mix. Among the new coaches working in the NHL since early October, only Hitchcock and Sutter in L.A. have had the desired effect - of getting a stalled team started again. And weirdly, neither of them is bilingual either.
Calder (rookie of the year): Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton. Runners-up: Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Craig Smith, Nashville. Nugent-Hopkins was running away with the award until a shoulder injury knocked him out of the lineup until probably February. That’ll give Henrique, who has made the most of his opportunity to play a top-six role with the Devils, a chance to catch him. Nashville is always looking for more scoring and Smith appears to be the answer to David Poile’s prayers.
AND FINALLY: The Ducks will have a decision to make on Devante Smith-Pelly, who will miss four-to-six weeks because of a broken ankle, suffered while blocking a shot in the world junior tournament. Smith-Pelly said, in a pre-tournament interview, that he was going back to Anaheim. But with the season lost, Anaheim may decide to send him back to junior and save a year on his contract. While Smith-Pelly was away in Calgary, the Ducks landed Rod Pelley, a defensive centre from New Jersey. Now if they can only coax Craig Smith out of Nashville, or Zach Smith out of Ottawa, they will be able to ice one of the great tongue-twisting lines of all time - Smith, Pelley and Smith-Pelley. I’m sure Brian Hayward is in GM Bob Murray’s ear every day, trying to make it happen.