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.