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Ten Key Second-Half NHL Storylines to Watch

Will the NHL award the Stanley Cup by June? Will Claude Giroux stay or go? What will Jack Eichel 2.0 look like? And more.
Claude Giroux

We made it! Sort of.

The first half of 2021-22 hasn’t been perfect, but the NHL season still stands. The NHLers have pulled out of the Olympics; more than three quarters of the player population has landed in COVID-19 protocol at some point; Canadian teams have spent weeks playing in empty barns; multiple franchises have removed coaches and GMs in the midst of off-ice scandals; and teams are anywhere from 47.5 percent to 57.3 percent done their regular seasons based on wild differences in scheduling. Yet the league emerges from the all-star break more or less intact and on target to hand out the Stanley Cup in late June.

What are some key NHL storylines to watch in the second half?

Will the NHL complete its quest for calendar correction?

The 2019-20 NHL season, a.k.a. the COVID-19 bubble year, concluded Sept. 28. The shortened 2020-21 schedule wrapped up July 7. The league is inching closer to restoring its traditional calendar, in which the Stanley Cup final ends by mid-June at the latest, the draft happens in late June and free agency commences July 1. The 2021-22 calendar isn’t synced to that template, but it’s the closest we’ve gotten since 2018-19. The trade deadline falls March 21; the regular season ends April 29; the Stanley Cup final wraps up no later than June 30; the draft goes July 7; and free agency begins July 13.

If the league hits every one of those benchmarks, we can expect a truly traditional calendar by 2022-23. That’s assuming the league makes it through the rest of this season with no additional delays. The adjusted protocols, which include no more daily testing for fully vaccinated asymptomatic players, reduce the likelihood of game postponements going forward.

But that comes with consequences, of course. With schedules rejigged to compensate for previous team quarantines and to make use of what was formerly the Olympic break, the New York Islanders will play 43 games in the next 80 days, while the Ottawa Senators will endure 42 games in their next 82 days.

Will Claude Giroux stay or go?

Giroux, 34, is the longest-tenured captain in Philadelphia Flyers history. He’s also a pending UFA on a team that recently ended a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak. It makes too much sense for him to join a contender for the stretch run, and the Flyers will receive numerous serious offers for him. He’s still a good play driver, he brings lots of leadership experience, and he’s a difference maker on faceoffs. Giroux still holds all the power, however. He has a full no-movement clause. He decides when, where and, most importantly, if he changes teams.

What does Tuukka Rask have left in the tank?

Rask turns 35 next month. He’s not ancient in goalie years. He is, however, fresh off major hip surgery and showed understandable rust upon returning to the Boston Bruins last month on a one-year deal, posting an .844 save percentage in four starts. He sustained some sort of physical setback before the all-star break. It’s unclear yet if he’ll miss more time and/or need an AHL conditioning stint to get his body right.

But the Bruins have to ask themselves whether this is all worth it. Will Rask beat the clock and be his old self by playoff time, or are the Bruins better off relying on Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman? They have to put team success first and honoring one of their all-time greats second.

Will Nazem Kadri deliver the greatest contract year in hockey history?

There’s no official way to label “the greatest contract year,” of course. Scott Niedermayer was a 2005 UFA coming off a Norris Trophy win. But if we factor in expectations, Kadri’s 2021-22 already belongs in its own stratosphere. He’d spent roughly a decade as an NHL regular, posting a career high of 61 points in 2016-17, albeit he was on pace for a lot more in the shortened 2012-13 campaign. But he entered the 2021-22 all-star break with a staggering 60 points in 41 games, one off his career high, in half a season, tracking for 120 points. Will Kadri return to Earth in the second half, or is his momentum unstoppable now?

No matter what happens, if healthy, he’ll smash all his career bests and become an extremely difficult player to appraise this off-season. What if he wins the Art Ross Trophy? Typically, that would command something in the $10-million-per-season range, but Kadri’s market value might’ve been half that before this season, and he’ll turn 32 next October.

What version of Jack Eichel will debut for the Golden Knights?

The 2019-20 Jack Eichel was a frustrated superstar playing at an elite level, scoring at a 94-point pace. The 2020-21 Eichel, laboring through a herniated disk in his neck, was a hollowed-out husk. The disk-replacement surgery, approved by the Golden Knights as part of their Nov. 2021 trade for him, was successful, and Eichel, 25, commenced full-contact practice Monday.

But which version of Eichel joins Vegas for the stretch run? We can expect some rink rust no matter what given he hasn’t played a game since March 7, 2021, but, once he gets his legs, he could be the missing piece that turns the Golden Knights into a true Stanley Cup threat. On the other hand, there’s a reason why the Buffalo Sabres took so long to trade Eichel. The surgery he wanted was unprecedented. They were apprehensive about letting him have it. So it remains to be seen how much his body bounces back from a procedure no NHL player had ever undergone before him. The bet here is he’ll be his old self by next season, but there’s no way to know until we see him compete.

Tomas Hertl: Shark long-term or primo trade-deadline target?

Hertl will carry tremendous trade appeal if he’s available. He can play multiple forward positions and blends scoring touch with steady two-way acumen. He’s the type of acquisition that could win a team a Stanley Cup. The question is whether he’ll be available at all, however. He’s a pending UFA, and the Sharks don’t currently hold a playoff position, but (a) they aren’t buried in the standings yet and (b) there’s something to be said for keeping some veteran leaders around even if you’re rebuilding. The New York Rangers did exactly that with left winger Chris Kreider a few years back and have reaped the rewards. If the Sharks and Hertl can’t work out an extension by the March-21 trade deadline, however, some significant offers will come their way.

Will the Edmonton Oilers finally upgrade their goaltending?

The Oilers deliberately stuck with 39-year-old Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen as their tandem entering 2021-22, and, to the shock of no one but apparently the Oilers, Smith got hurt and the Oilers sit 25th in team save percentage. Will GM Ken Holland finally make an upgrade in time to save Edmonton’s season?

Smith is set to return coming out of the all-star break after a one-month layoff but obviously remains a risk to get hurt again. Any human being is at that age. Marc-Andre Fleury would be the clear No. 1 rental replacement if available in a trade, but even someone like Thomas Greiss or Jaroslav Halak could solidify the Oilers’ crease.

Will the Toronto Maple Leafs go all-in?

Almost to a person, the Leafs indicated last spring’s playoff exit, Toronto’s fifth consecutive opening-round defeat, hurt worse than the others. That sentiment created a sense that this season constitutes a last chance for the team as currently configured. Another first-round defeat would guarantee some major turnover, whether it’s GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe or a major roster piece such as right winger Mitch Marner.

The Leafs, then, are likely to behave aggressively leading up to the trade deadline. As usual, they’ve breezed through the regular season to date, but they’ll want to ensure they have the pieces to finally break through in the playoffs. Dubas indicated in a presser over the weekend that he prefers to acquire players with term left on their contracts, but doing so would theoretically cost more than chasing rentals. If the Leafs pursue a big fish, from Jakob Chychrun to J.T. Miller to Joe Pavelski to Claude Giroux, will they make even their best prospects available, from Nick Robertson to Topi Niemela?

Are we witnessing the closest Norris Trophy race ever?

Try and separate Cale Makar, Roman Josi, Adam Fox, Victor Hedman, Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar and Devon Toews. Good luck. They arguably constitute the frontrunners in what shapes up as an extremely close Norris Trophy race, but what about Charlie McAvoy? Miro Heiskanen? Kris Letang? It feels like the sublimely gifted Cale Makar should start collecting Norrises any year now, but his competition is extremely stiff. The thought of voting on the award right now induces a migraine. Luckily we don’t have to for a couple more months.

When will the Chicago Blackhawks hit bottom?

Abandoning Kyle Beach for a decade after Brad Aldrich’s sexual assault was shameful enough. So was the continued use of a logo that many people consider offensive to indigenous cultures. Then came Rocky Wirtz’s childish tirade against reporters last week for continued questioning about matters relating to Beach. Then came the news Sunday that the Blackhawks fired longtime AHL athletic trainer DJ Jones for sexual harassment in November.

The strikes against this franchise continue to pile up. It’s a bottomless pit, and Wirtz’s words last week sent the message that Chicago just wants the scandals to go away instead of using them as learning experiences. Next up, the Hawks will hire a new GM, but will they think progressively or go with another old-guard decision maker?

What will it take for the Blackhawks to bottom out and begin changing for the better?

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