The NHL at the half: From the best team to the worst, to the biggest surprise to the most disappointing, to everything you need to know about defensemen named John.
As the 2017-18 NHL regular season hits the halfway point, what better time to take a look at the best and worst in the world’s best hockey league.
Best Team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Let’s start with an easy one. The Lightning have been the class of the NHL this season, full stop. Tampa Bay has the best overall record, best road record and second-best home record. They were scoring the most goals per game and giving up the second-fewest. Their first line features the league’s leading scorer (Nikita Kucherov) and a couple of Hart Trophy candidates (Kucherov, Steven Stamkos). Andrei Vasilevskiy had the most wins, lowest goals-against average and best save percentage among starting goalies. Victor Hedman is a Norris Trophy candidate, Mikhail Sergachev and Yanni Gourde are Calder Trophy candidates and the Bolts’ supporting cast is deep and talented.
Worst Team: Arizona Coyotes
They started off with one win in the first 14 games of the season, and it hasn’t gotten a whole lot better. Come back, Shane Doan, wherever you are.
Most Surprising Team: Vegas Golden Knights
The expansion team that was forced to use its fourth-string goalie for much of the first half of the season has the best record in the Western Conference and the best home record in the NHL. Jonathan Marchessault is a point-per-game player. William Karlsson is on pace for 40 goals. Nate Schmidt is a two-way, minute-munching blueline machine. There’s hockey in Vegas. Do you believe in miracles?
Most Disappointing Team: Edmonton Oilers
It’s all gone wrong. After last season’s breakthrough, the Oilers were expected to take another step forward and join the league’s elite. That hasn’t happened. Rather, the opposite has occurred and Edmonton is back down near the very bottom of the standings. Their offense is mediocre and their defense isn’t.
THN’s Stanley Cup Final Picks At The Start Of The Season: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Edmonton Oilers
Is it too late to change this prediction to “two teams that won’t make the playoffs”? Because that’s looking much more likely at this point.
THN’s Stanley Cup Final Picks At The Halfway Point Of The Season: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Winnipeg Jets
OK, these are my own newly updated mid-season picks, not the official position of The Hockey News. Tampa Bay is the team to beat in the East, and I like Winnipeg’s top-end talent and top-to-bottom depth.
The Best Hockey Player Award: Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay
Connor McDavid was a heavy favorite entering the season, but Kucherov can’t be denied. He’s leading the league in points and battling Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring lead. He’s a threat every time he steps on the ice. He’s the best player on the NHL’s best team, yet it still feels like he’s criminally underrated. Maybe an Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup will help him break out of jail.
Three Rookies Not Named Boeser, Barzal Or Keller Who Could Win The Calder Trophy: Charlie McAvoy, Mikhail Sergachev, Kyle Connor
To be sure, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser, the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal and Arizona’s Clayton Keller emerged in the first half of the season as leading contenders for the Calder Trophy. But the second tier of first-year candidates includes no fewer than a dozen kids who could vault themselves into the Calder conversation with a big second half. Boston’s McAvoy and Tampa Bay’s Sergachev, as well as New Jersey’s Will Butcher, represent the best among rookie blueliners. Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat, Tampa Bay’s Yanni Gourde, Boston’s Danton Heinen and New Jersey’s Nico Hischier are the second wave of first-year forwards who could rise up and challenge. And there’s still more a little further out on the fringe, from New Jersey’s Jesper Bratt to Colorado’s Alexander Kerfoot to Columbus’ Pierre-Luc Dubois. Finally, don’t forget Vegas goalie Malcolm Subban, who went 11-2-0 with a .918 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average in the first half.
The Erik Karlsson Best All-Around Defenseman Award: Drew Doughty, Los Angeles
As we all rushed to fete Karlsson as the greatest defenseman in the game today, a certain Kings defender decided to take back his crown. Doughty has been huge for L.A. this season, likely due to a perfect storm of events – a coaching change and a switch to a more wide-open style of play; the fact the Kings were bound to bounce back after last year’s playoff miss; and, he has the added motivation of being eligible to sign a very long and very rich contract extension in July.
The Backup Vezina Trophy: Carter Hutton, St. Louis
Hutton had the lowest GAA (1.64) and best save percentage (.947) among all NHL goalies in the first half of the season. Granted, he only had 14 appearances – 11 starts – but Hutton was beginning to push Blues No. 1 Jake Allen for playing time.
The Cy Young Award: Zach Werenski, Columbus
In hockey, the Cy Young Award is given to the player with the most goals and fewest assists. Alex Ovechkin is an annual contender, and he was in the mix again this season with a 26-17 mark. The Islanders’ Anders Lee was 24-15, Vegas’ William Karlsson was 21-14, the Rangers’ Michael Grabner an astounding 18-3 and Calgary’s Micheal Ferland was rolling at 17-7. But a defenseman in the running for the Cy? No chance. Unthinkable. It’ll never happen. Enter Werenski, the Blue Jackets’ second-year blueline bomber, with an 11-8 line, and it’s hockey-baseball history in the making. Or something like that.
The Green Jacket: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes
Let’s steal another one from another sport. The green jacket, as golfers know, goes to the winner of the Masters. In hockey, it goes to the player with the worst plus-minus rating. So, yeah, it’s the kind of award you don’t want to win. Ekman-Larsson, a good defenseman who’s playing upwards of 25 minutes a night for the not-so-good Coyotes, was minus-34. His next-closest pursuer was Montreal’s Jeff Petry at minus-23. Ekman-Larsson is on pace for, gulp, a minus-65 rating this season. To put that into perspective, the worst mark since the 2004-05 lockout was posted by Vancouver’s Alex Edler in 2013-14, when he went minus-39. There hasn’t been a plus-minus worse than minus-65 since a handful of unfortunate players for the 1974-75 Washington Capitals, headlined by Bill Mikkelson’s all-time bad minus-82 rating.
The John Tavares Linemates Award: Josh Bailey and Anders Lee (tie)
How good is Tavares? Bailey is vying for the NHL scoring lead and Lee is vying for the NHL goal-scoring lead. Tavares, of course, is vying for the lead in both. Just give him the $100-million contract already.
The NHL’s Three Best Defensemen Named John: John Klingberg, John Carlson and John Moore
Did you know there are only three defensemen named John playing regularly in the NHL this season? And did you know that two of them – Dallas’ Klingberg and Washington’s Carlson – were 1-2 in scoring among defensemen? New Jersey’s Moore, meanwhile, was merely the second-highest scoring defenseman on the Devils, but with six goals, he had more than Klingberg (five) and Carlson (four). We will continue to follow the NHL-defensemen-named-John story as it develops…