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Officially, mid-season arrived in the National Hockey League on Friday with Game No. 615 between the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks - and if one thing sets the current season apart from last year, it is the absence of the Surprise Factor.

A year ago, with the NHL coming out of a potentially crippling lockout, the first half was all about surprises and revelations, most of them positive. There were new rules and new interpretations of old rules. There were blockbuster trades, including one involving the league's future MVP (Joe Thornton). Perennial sad-sacks (Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes) turned into overnight contenders. Teams were learning the nuances of the salary-cap and all its implications. Arguably, one of the most compelling rookie crops in history, led by Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, arrived en masse. The game was faster; there were more goals scored; there was less drudgery overall; and even some of the warts that emerged - that all-too frequent parade to the penalty box, for one - were passed off as part of the learning curve.

In short, there was an excitement level about the "new" NHL that translated into exceptional television ratings in Canada and reasonable attendance figures in the United States, where the league quietly feared there could be a baseball-style backlash against the longest work stoppage in the history of professional sport.

This year? Where there was once an adrenalin rush associated with so much of what was going on, there is now a sense of blah in many precincts around the league. Where there were once trades, there is now just managerial paralysis. Where there was once great uncertainty, there is now monotonous predictability.

Indeed, just about everything that was supposed to happen this season did - which may say something about the skill of the people making the predictions and establishing the betting lines, but it also does little to create the "wow" factor needed to sustain the gains the NHL made last year. Consider:

Anaheim is a contender. With Chris Pronger in the line-up, everyone thought they'd be good. Buffalo is a contender. With their team returning roughly intact, that was anticipated as well. Carolina is going through the predicted Stanley Cup hangover; with a few hiccups, San Jose is building on its great young nucleus. Atlanta is better, Minnesota is better, the Leafs aren't quite as abysmal as anticipated; and apart from Philadelphia's implosion and Montreal's unexpected rise, there really isn't a team doing anything in the first three months that you couldn't have reasonably predicted.

With one or two exceptions, parity abounds - and there was no better illustration of that than a week ago Wednesday, when Calgary and Vancouver were headed into overtime of a game played two days after Christmas. At that juncture in the match, after each team had earned a point in regulation, all five teams in the Northwest Conference were tied for first place with 38 points. Of course, that meant all five teams were tied for last place as well.

One man's parity is another man's mediocrity. Every Eastern Conference team except Philadelphia started play Thursday within five points of a playoff spot. In the West, a quartet of teams (Phoenix, Columbus, Los Angeles and St. Louis) had fallen between eight and 11 points off the pace, but that was by no means an insurmountable gap. Last year, on Jan. 4, the San Jose Sharks were 12th in the West, eight points behind eighth-place Colorado, but eventually qualified for the playoffs as a fifth seed (while Los Angeles, which was rated second overall with 54 points in 42 games missed the post-season entirely, thanks to a shocking collapse).

So the playoff races threaten to stay tight and that should create some drama in the second half. Meanwhile, in the next seven weeks, leading up to the Feb. 27 trading deadline, teams on the cusp of contention will need to decide if they are buyers or sellers.

Is parity, a natural byproduct of the salary-cap world, a good thing?

Former Islanders' great Denis Potvin, who was part of a dynasty that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s and now does color commentary for Florida Panthers' broadcasts, doesn't necessarily thing so.

"I come from an era when it made sense to have a dominant team," said Potvin. "I think it still does. Everybody gets very excited about Anaheim and the way they started or Buffalo and they way they started, but you see how quickly teams catch up to them. Injuries and other things become a factor and everybody just gets into the pack. We may even see one whole division get in the playoffs this year, which would be quite unusual.

"I don't like the word parity personally because it's good to have a Muhammad Ali. It's good to have a Wayne Gretzky. It's good to have a Bobby Orr. We thrive on dominant players and we want to promote them to the hilt. Well, wouldn't it make sense to have dominant teams? I thought we would have less parity by now, but the rules have changed so often since the last expansion that it's much more difficult to have a dynasty - or even to load up your team with players that you've developed and keeping them."

Individually, at mid-season, the best news is that last year's exceptional rookie class is, with a few notable exceptions, avoiding the sophomore jinx. Crosby may be the best player in the NHL already, at the age of 19. He leads the scoring race. Ovechkin continues to be the human highlight film. He's fifth in overall scoring. Dion Phaneuf continues to bang bodies; while Tomas Vanek, Milan Michalek, Ryan Getzlaf and Chris Higgins are all piling up the points and demonstrating that collectively, they will soon be the new face of the league.

But something is missing too, some sense that scoring would continue to rise, while the penalty parade would subside. Neither development occurred. In fact, the most riveting story of the first half revolved around the Penguins' future in Pittsburgh and the possibility that the best young team in hockey - featuring Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury - could be on the move, either to Kansas City or Hartford or Houston or Las Vegas or maybe even points north. Apart from the Sabres, who are fun to watch virtually every night, the Penguins might be the most entertaining team in the NHL. The fact that they could be sold and moved calls to mind the fate of the 1994 Quebec Nordiques, who featured a similar star-studded young nucleus (Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Owen Nolan, Adam Foote) and eventually won a Stanley Cup their first season in their new home in Colorado.

After four, consecutive fifth-place finishes in the Atlantic Division, the Penguins are closing in on respectability - and the good news is that Crosby, Malkin and Staal are all still five to six years away from unrestricted free agency.

"Yes, but they're also five or six years away from being at their best," argued Potvin. "By then, they'll have played over 300 games in the NHL - and you know as well as I do that a player becomes a real player, a pro, with 300 games. That's when he's really got a handle on everything and as soon as he gets to that level, he becomes totally unrestricted. That's tough."

Potvin, who was playing when Wayne Gretzky emerged as a dominant player in his second year in the league, was asked: Is Crosby at that point where he's about to make the next step and separate himself from the pack in the NHL scoring race?

"What's going to allow him to do that is the emergence of Malkin, Staal, even the (Colby) Armstrongs and the (Ryan) Malones, those guys have to be better players for him to able to take that leap - because you can't take a leap if you don't have a platform. The team can give him that platform and they're well-positioned to do it because they have so many young guys who are core players. The one veteran is (Mark) Recchi, who is a tremendous asset to any young player. He reminds me a little of J.P. Parise in the mid-seventies, or Jude Drouin, or Eddie Westfall, who were so valuable to us as a young group of core players. He needs a platform to separate himself and those guys need to become measurably better for that to occur."

Potvin's point makes a lot of sense. Gretzky's breakthrough came only after Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson came in, replacing the Brett Callighens and B.J. McDonalds, who were their key support players in the beginning.

"Interestingly enough, that's what makes a lot of great players great - when those secondary players come along. Look at Mario Lemieux. Do they win the Stanley Cup if Ron Francis is not there? I don't think so. All of a sudden, that's the platform they were talking about. They may get to that level this year, but maybe next year."

As for the Penguins, they received a great deal of leverage in their bid to stay in the Steel City when the Kansas City group, trying to lure them to the Missouri city, unveiled an attractive package designed to accomplish just that. In a perfect world, Mario Lemieux and Co. will use that option to extract a better overall deal from the city and the state and put an end to all the relocation chatter that overshadowed virtually everything else that happened in the first half of this season.

THIS AND THAT: It didn't get much notice, given the nature of the demotion, but the San Jose Sharks sent two of their best young players, right winger Steve Bernier and Calder Trophy candidate Matt Carle, a defenceman, to the minors earlier this week. At first blush, it looked as if it might be a move to save salary-cap space for later in the season. Often, teams shuttle young players back and forth to save a few dollars here and there - but it turns out, it wasn't that at all. Even though Bernier and Carle were fourth and sixth on the team's scoring list at the time of their demotions (Bernier had 25 points, Carle 21), their play had tailed off in recent weeks and they were particularly ineffective in that embarrassing 8-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last weekend. Coach Ron Wilson made them both healthy scratches the next night, when the Sharks rebounded for the win. The sense was that Bernier just got comfortable, while Carle was playing a little nervously and needed some time outside of the spotlight. It helped the Sharks that rookie Joe Pavelski, who was promoted from minor-league Worcester during a run of injuries to Bernier, Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek, played with the sort of urgency that the Sharks demanded - and also contributed 13 points in his first 18 NHL games. Wilson sounded less worried about Carle's play, explaining demotion this way to the San Jose Mercury News: "He has to get back to playing on his instincts. Just go play and let the game flow. Right now, he's thinking too much. You can see that with some of the empty nets that he's missed. You start dwelling on that and you start missing your assignment defensively. This is just a way of relieving the pressure, letting the steam escape. Do your thing for a few games and come right back." Bernier's stay may be longer, depending upon he responds. "Bernie hasn't done the things that made him very effective early in the season: getting pucks out of our zone and winning every battle in the offensive zone and back-checking hard," Wilson said. "Basically it's working hard every shift. It happens a lot with younger guys. They lose their focus and get caught up in the attention they receive" --- Cheechoo's numbers aren't demonstrably better than Bernier's (12 goals compared to 11, 24 points compared to 25 and a team-worst minus-nine rating), but he is on the first year of a new five-year, $15 million contract, so the decision there is to let him play his way through his slump. Cheechoo led the NHL last season with 56 goals; as of Friday, he was in a 13-way tie for 62nd in NHL scoring with, among others, Antoine Vermette, Matthew Lombardi, Viktor Kozlov, Jeff O'Neill and a pair of defencemen, Sheldon Souray and Phillippe Boucher. --- With the playoff races so tight in both conferences, here's a date to remember if the Oilers squeeze in by a single point. In Thursday night's game against Dallas, which the Stars won 6-5 in a shootout, Edmonton was down by a goal when Patrik Stefan had a wide-open chance from the top of the crease at an empty net. It was over - except that Stefan misplayed the puck, the Oilers sent it right back the ice and Ales Hemsky tied it with two seconds to go in regulation. Even though they lost eventually, the Oilers snared a point that they otherwise wouldn't have, if Stefan hadn't made such a blunder. Oilers' coach Craig MacTavish summed it up, by saying: "All we did was turn a disaster into a debacle" - but who knows? That debacle could end up getting them a playoff spot. The Stars, meanwhile, adjourned to Calgary the next day as their road trip continues, prompting Stefan to quip that he couldn't wait to see his misplay repeated on the highlight channels over and over again for the next 48 hours.  --- The Oilers lost Ladislav Smid to a separated shoulder against the Stars, meaning GM Kevin Lowe's search for a defenceman just became more acute. They may target the Flyers' Joni Pitkanen - and if Pitkanen is on the move, it would almost certainly cost the Oilers a player in the Joffrey Lupul range. --- Lowe's biggest challenge may be getting Ryan Smyth, a potential unrestricted free agent, under contract for next season. Since returning from a broken thumb (and despite playing with a splint that limits his puck-handling), Smyth has nine points in five games since returning to the line-up. The Oilers toyed with the idea of reuniting Smyth, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky against the Stars, but ended up going with an all-Czech line - Hemsky, Petr Sykora and newcomer Petr Nedved, who was just so-so in his Oilers' debut. --- Injuries have been a sore spot for a lot of teams this season, but it's hard to imagine anyone losing a quartet of more important forwards than the Stars, who are currently playing without captain Brendan Morrow, ex-captain Mike Modano, as well as Eric Lindros and Steve Ott. --- Ott was one of four players who've been injured fighting this year. Others, apart from Calgary's Jarome Iginla, include Todd Fedoruk, who broke an orbital bone from a punch; plus Ethan Moreau, who hurt his shoulder, trying to shake off his glove going after the Red Wings' Danny Markov, and the Penguins' Malone, who broke his arm in a fall after a fight. --- There are slumps (of the never-ending variety that Sergei Samsonov, Mark Bell and Vaclav Prospal find themselves in) and then there are slumps that don't necessarily look too bad, in the big picture. The Hurricanes' Eric Staal finds himself in the latter situation. His numbers aren't bad (17 goals in 43 games isn't that far off the overall lead held by Tampa's Martin St. Louis), but Staal hasn't scored in eight games; and isn't nearly as dominant as he was last year, during the Hurricanes' run to the Stanley Cup championship, when he led the team in regular season scoring with 100 points and then led the post-season in both assists (19) and points (28). Last year, Staal finished 24 points ahead of Justin Williams and Cory Stillman, who finished tied for second on the team with 76 points apiece. This year, he is fifth in Carolina scoring, behind Rod Brind'Amour, Ray Whitney, Williams and Erik Cole. "I've dealt with it before, but it's just a matter of continuing to work," Staal said to the Raleigh News & Observer. "If I work hard and skate hard, things are going to come around. Obviously, I'd like it to be sooner rather than later and get on a roll" --- The Penguins, meanwhile, have a decision to make on rookie Jordan Staal next week. If they send him back to junior, they can postpone his eligibility for unrestricted free agency by a year, under terms of clause 10. 1a of the new CBA relating to group 3 players and free agents. Since there has been some confusion about this, here is the clause in its entirety: For (A) the 2005-06 League Year, any Player who is 31 years of age or older and has four (4) Accrued Seasons as of June 30 of the end of the 2004-05 League Year, (B) the 2006-07 League Year, any Player who either has eight (8) Accrued Seasons or is 29 years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of the 2005-06 League Year, (C) the 2007-08 League Year, any Player who either has seven (7) Accrued Seasons or is 28 Years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of the 2006-07 League Year, and (D) the 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11 League Years, any Player who either has seven (7) Accrued Seasons or is 27 years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of the 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10 League Year, as the case may be, and in either case has four (4) Accrued Seasons or more on June 30 of the end of the applicable League Year, shall, if his most recent SPC has expired, with such expiry occurring either as of June 30 of the applicable League Year or June 30 of any prior League Year, become an Unrestricted Free Agent. Such Player shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with such Player, without penalty or restriction, or being subject to any Right of First Refusal, Draft Choice Compensation or any other compensation or equalization obligation of any kind.

"Accrued Season" means any League Year during which a Player was on a Club's Active Roster for 40 (30 if the Player is a goalie) or more Regular Season Games, provided that, for the purposes of calculating an Accrued Season under this Agreement, games missed due to a hockey-related injury incurred while on a Club's Active Roster shall count as games played for purposes of calculating an Accrued Season but only during the League Year in which the injury was incurred and a maximum of one additional season.