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Five crucial second-half NHL storylines to watch

The answers to these questions could dramatically impact the league in the coming months.

The NHL’s all-star break signifies the season’s unofficial halfway point. Good for you, all-star break, but what about the official halfway point? That’s right about now, with 29 of 31 teams having crested the 41-game mark. With every team’s bye week happening this month, too, now’s as good a time as any to evaluate some crucial second-half storylines that could dramatically impact the season right through to June.

WHAT HAPPENS TO JOHN TAVARES IF THE ISLANDERS MISS THE PLAYOFFS?

The Islanders and captain Tavares finished November riding high. They’d won seven of eight games, puffing their record to 15-7-2. Tavares was enjoying his best season in years, with linemate Josh Bailey exploding out of nowhere for a 100-point pace. Second-line center Matt Barzal had vaulted into the Calder Trophy race with his stellar play, forming a great second trio with Andrew Ladd and Jordan Eberle to quell any notion of a lack of depth behind Tavares.

More importantly, they got a joyous piece of news Dec. 20 when they learned they’d won the bid to build an arena in Belmont Park, relocating the team to Long Island. Tavares, set to become the most significant UFA in NHL history should he go to market this summer, openly expressed excitement over the team returning “where it belongs.” If he chooses to re-sign with the Islanders, it will almost certainly be for the max term of eight years, and with new arena’s completion date projected at 2020, Tavares might only have to play two of eight seasons of his next deal in Brooklyn. The arena move was just one influencer on his future, but the odds of him re-signing earned a nice boost with the news.

The biggest influencer of all on Tavares’ decision, though, has to be the team’s success. Since Dec. 1, the Isles are 6-11-2. They’ve reached their bye week having lost five of six games and sit one point out of a playoff spot. And that’s despite the tremendous success of Tavares, Bailey, Barzal, Anders Lee and Nick Leddy this season. If New York fails to reach the big dance a second consecutive season, might Tavares start wondering if he’ll ever win a Cup with this franchise? The Isles have won a single playoff series since their miracle run to the 1993 conference final – 25 years ago.

Per corsica.hockey, the Isles have the NHL’s fourth-worst save percentage at 5-on-5. Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak haven’t been good enough. Might GM Garth Snow have to look at trade options? He should do everything in his power to show his captain this team can be competitive this year and, more importantly, over the next eight years.

WHAT UPGRADES DO THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS MAKE?

The two-time defending champs have done a tremendous job finding unexpected success stories from within the organization, from Bryan Rust to Conor Sheary to Brian Dumoulin, but let’s not kid ourselves: GM Jim Rutherford also fortified his Cup-winning squads with lots and lots of trades. It wasn’t just the off-season moves for Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and Nick Bonino: Rutherford has nabbed the likes of Carl Hagelin, Ian Cole, Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and Ron Hainsey via mid-season upgrades. So it’s fair to expect some major activity for the stretch run.

The question is: does Rutherford think modestly, focusing on his one clear area of need, the third-line center position? Or does he decide to take an aggressive swing at the fences in hopes of a three-peat, pursuing top-line upgrades such as left winger Max Pacioretty? The Penguins badly miss last year’s No. 3 and 4 centers, Bonino and Matt Cullen, but the real culprit to their up-and-down 2017-18 is goaltending. Matt Murray has been injured or subpar throughout this first half. If he can find his game and Rutherford can pad out the Penguins’ depth, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see the Pens catch fire in the second half and float away from that wildcard bubble. They don’t feel like an elite contender right now but could change that status rapidly in a matter of weeks with the right maneuvers.

WHERE DOES EVANDER KANE END UP?

It’s highly unlikely the Isles treat Tavares as a rental chip even if they fall out of playoff contention, so the Sabres’ Kane, a quintessential power forward, is the best pending UFA forward available. Even though he’s a single goal behind Jack Eichel for the team lead since debuting with the Sabres in 2015-16, Kane looks like a must-sell piece for a Buffalo team going nowhere and looking to secure more picks and prospects. Per Pierre LeBrun via TSN, the Sabres’ have set the price as a first-round pick, a prospect and possibly a conditional pick if Kane signs an extension with the team that acquires him.

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Kane, who plays a physically taxing style, has remained healthy this season. He’ll cost a lot to acquire, but he has one of the most unique skill sets on the market. He’s a simultaneously a vicious physical intimidator and good goal scorer who shoots a ton. Plenty of teams could use that.

Depending on where Kane lands, he could turn a good team into a great one. The Boston Bruins, for example, are playing as well as anyone right now but still lack veteran depth at forward. He’d make them much more of a threat to top contender Tampa Bay in the Atlantic. Another team searching for forward upgrades: the aforementioned Penguins. They lack size and snarl on their scoring lines, so he’d give them something new.

CAN THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS SECURE HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE THROUGH TO THE FINAL?

The Vegas Golden Knights have 29 victories through 41 games. That puts them on pace for 58, which would be the fourth-most all-time by any NHL team in one season, trailing only the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, 1976-77 Canadiens and 1977-78 Canadiens. The NHL expansion record for team points is 83, set by the 1993-94 Florida Panthers. The Golden Knights are on pace for 120.

This marvellous, jaw-dropping season, led by reclamation projects Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, James Neal and David Perron, just to name a few, has pushed Vegas way up on the Western Conference pack. The Knights own a seven-point cushion for the Pacific Division lead with a game in hand on the L.A. Kings. Winning the Pacific would clinch the Golden Knights home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs. They also lead the entire West in points with 60 and have three games in hand over the Central-leading Winnipeg Jets, who sit second with 59. If the post-season started today, Vegas would have home ice right through to the Stanley Cup final. It trails No. 1 overall seed Tampa Bay by five points but with two games in hand, so earning home ice for the entire playoffs isn’t impossible.

Every team would love the home-ice edge for the whole playoffs, but the idea is particularly enticing for the Golden Knights considering their NBA-esque home record of 18-2-1, which puts them on pace to equal the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers’ NHL-record 36 home victories. The Golden Knights have stolen their city’s hearts, and rival teams may or may not be susceptible to the ‘Vegas Flu.’ Imagine spending multiple days at a time there during a playoff series. We’d think every player would stay disciplined during that crucial time of year but, hey, we might’ve said that about Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn before the 2012 playoffs.

Rival teams should thus quake in their boots if the Golden Knights lock down that home ice. At this point it’s probable they get it for at least two rounds.

DO THE MONTREAL CANADIENS BECOME A SELLER TEAM?

The Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers, falling nightmarishly short of expectations, have induced the most handwringing league-wide of any teams this season. The Oilers are so far out of the playoff hunt that they’re all but labelled sellers already. The Habs aren’t in much better shape, though, and if their season goes up in flames, they become one of the trade market’s most interesting and influential sellers given some of the high-end talent they can offer up.

General manager Marc Bergevin seemingly never passes up the chance to publicly criticize Alex Galchenyuk, so it’s easy to imagine the underachieving No. 3 overall pick from 2012 changing addresses. Plenty of suitors would take a chance on his goal-scoring ability. He’s still just 23. But whereas Galchenyuk has seemed to be on the block regardless of Montreal’s place in the standings, a season going nowhere and turning the Habs into a seller team opens up several other possibilities. Tomas Plekanec has rental potential as a pending UFA who can win faceoffs and kill penalties, albeit Montreal would likely have to eat some salary to move his $6-million cap hit. Teams hurting for big-game experience might kick the tires on Andrew Shaw. Paul Byron will never be more valuable than he is now and has one season left after this one at $1.17 million before he’ll command a major pay hike. The big question is whether captain Pacioretty, a UFA in summer 2019, becomes available. He’d leapfrog Kane as the highest-impact forward acquisition in that case. ‘Patches’ has obviously struggled this season but is just 29 and had at least 30 goals in five straight non-lockout years before 2017-18. He could be a championship piece for a goal-starved team.