Some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. These are our picks for teams that will rebound in the second half.
With the all-star break this weekend, we're officially at the mid-way point of the season. Every NHL team has played between 44 and 50 games, and it's certainly time to start scoreboard and standings watching. Thanks to the NHL's artificial parity there are a lot of teams right on the playoff bubble.
That means some teams we thought were going to be good are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. With that in mind, here are our picks for teams currently on the outside that will sneak in come April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa simply has too much talent not to pick things up in the second half and sneak back in (its possession numbers put them in the top half of the league). Steven Stamkos has the league’s second-best points-per-game average, and he’ll be a huge boost when he returns from injury. They also have a nice trade chip in Ben Bishop that they can use to shore up the blueline (Kevin Shattenkirk, anyone?). This team very much reminds me of the Kings, one that knows there’s no need to blow it out in the regular season when playoff seeding is meaningless. Not only will the Lightning make the playoffs, they’ll make a strong push for the Cup. (Edward Fraser)
Los Angeles Kings
About this time five years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were mucking around the Western Conference, losing almost as many games as they were winning and flirting with both a playoff spot and disaster. And we all know how that turned out. After 46 games this season, the Kings are once again mucking around the west, winning a couple more games than they’ve lost, not able to score much and not looking like much of a contender. That will change. First of all, Jonathan Quick has to come back at some point and March seems to be the target date. So the Kings will win the trade deadline when a rested and motivated Quick gets back into the net. Second, the Kings are too good, too experienced and too pedigreed for this to continue. Look for the Kings to make a second-half surge, aided by a healthy Quick in the last quarter, and squeak into the playoffs. Just like they did five years ago. (Ken Campbell)
The Dallas Stars will have to pass four teams if they expect to make the post-season, but they have two of the best offensive horses in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin to lead the charge. I expect the Stars to do something about their goaltending before the trade deadline and when they do squeak in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them favored if they matched up against Minnesota in the first round. (Brian Costello)
One could have been predicted the Lighting would take a step back this season, but not even the most bold prognosticator would have picked the Bolts to be last in the Eastern Conference with the all-star break in the offing. The injury to Steven Stamkos has hurt in a big way, but Tampa Bay still has an incredibly talented roster that is simply underperforming right now. That hasn’t been helped by the lack of consistency from either of their goaltenders. The good news is that with 34 games remaining, the Lightning are only five points out of the final Atlantic Division playoff berth and five points back of the final wild-card spot. That is far from insurmountable for a team that boasts Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman. Stringing together a couple wins could have Tampa Bay right back in the mix. (Jared Clinton)
The Kings are hovering around a playoff spot right now and have been doing it without star goalie Jonathan Quick. Once he returns (a timeline would be nice, but what can you do?), Los Angeles gets a huge boost. Even though Peter Budaj has pretty good stats, I think the Kings will just play bigger with Quick back, because he can be that security blanket. Also, Anze Kopitar has four goals right now and there’s no way his pace stays that low. The big man is shooting at five percent right now, down from 14 percent the year prior. If he even moderately gets on track, the Kings will be back in the post-season, no problem. (Ryan Kennedy)
The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
With 1,000-plus points and nearly 500 goals, Patrick Marleau has been one of the most consistent scorers the league has seen over the duration of his career. Is he Hall of Fame calibre, though?
Patrick Marleau had a third period to remember on Monday night. Less than three minutes into the frame, he scored his 13th goal of the season. Minutes later, he potted goal No. 14. By the midway point, he registered the fifth hat trick of his career, and he capped the frame off with a fourth goal with less than four minutes remaining.
Marleau’s big night made him only the seventh player 35 or older in the past 30 years to score four goals in a night, and the first player to complete the feat since Martin St-Louis managed four goals against the San Jose Sharks almost three years earlier to the day, on Jan. 18, 2014.
It was just another feat in what has been a spectacular career for Marleau, and one that almost certainly ends with him being the last player to ever don No. 12 in San Jose.
He’s the Sharks all-time leader in goals with 497, in points with 1,060 and his 96 game-winning goals isn’t only the best mark in San Jose’s history, but the eighth-most in the recorded history of the statistic. He became the 83rd player in league history to score 1,000 points, has four playoff overtime winners to his name and captured a Western Conference championship with San Jose this past season. During his time as a Shark, Marleau has also won two Olympic gold medals, two World Championship gold medals and has added a World Championship silver.
Even will all that, though, it’s hard to say Marleau’s destined for the Hall of Fame, and he might be the perfect example of a player who would earn his way into the Hall of Very Good.
This is something that was touched on when Henrik Sedin was on the cusp of his 1,000th point, but one of the biggest deciding factors for the Hall of Fame can’t be points alone. There’s a multitude of reasons why that’s the case, but chief among them is that past scoring skews exactly how great a point-scorer some players were and that scoring alone shouldn’t constitute what a Hall of Fame calibre player looks like. Rather, there should be something discernible to show the player was, at one time or another, among or atop the very best players in the game.
For a player such as Sedin, he has the individual awards to prove his dominance. He won both the Hart and Art Ross Trophies during his fantastic 2009-10 campaign, and Daniel Sedin following up with an Art Ross of his own to go with the Lester B. Pearson Award is why he’s deserving to join his brother in the Hall of Fame one day. That’s not to mention that both Sedins were adjudged league All-Stars at season’s end in both 2009-10 and 2010-11.
For Marleau, individual accolades have been hard to come by. He didn’t capture the Calder as a rookie, his best finish in Hart voting was ninth-place in 2009-10, he came in eighth place in Selke voting that same season and he’s twice been the second runner-up for the Lady Byng. And while he’s represented the Sharks at three All-Star Games, he’s never been an end-of-year All-Star, though he came close in 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2013-14.
If a player doesn’t have the individual accomplishments, then sometimes it can be the team accolades that put them over the top in Hall of Fame contention. Everyone knows how that has gone in San Jose, though. Marleau has always been a fixture of the Sharks and one could argue a few of those teams were as true as title contenders come. The results were never there, though. All Marleau has to show in terms of team achievement is a Western Conference championship. That could change before Marleau hangs up his skates, but will that combined with his points even be enough?
Even if you wanted to debate Marleau’s Hall of Fame merits on points, it’s hard to see what would put him over the top. There are 31 players in the 1,000-point club who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, including eight active NHLers: Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Patrik Elias, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin and Marleau. Of the 31 non-Hall of Fame 1,000-point players, Marleau ranks 30th in points per game, ahead of only Dale Hunter. When using Hockey-Reference’s point adjustment figures to help even out the change in scoring across eras, Marleau’s points per game only rises to 23rd, ahead of players such as Rod Brind’Amour, Brian Propp, Dave Andreychuk and Pat Verbeek.
And compared to the 1,000-point players, which includes both active and retired players who are no-doubt Hall of Famers like Jagr, Selanne and Ovechkin, Marleau sticks out. 26 of the 31 players have at least one or some combination of an end-of-year All-Star nod, individual award or Stanley Cup. Hunter, Propp, Bernie Nicholls and Jeremy Roenick are the retired players without any of the three, and among active 1,000-point scorers, Marleau is the only one who fails to check that box.
Marleau deserves to see his jersey retired in San Jose someday and he’ll go down as one of the greatest Sharks in franchise history. And when it comes to the Hall of Fame, Marleau might be close, but he’s not quite there.
The USHL wants to stay competitive with the CHL, and maintain its reputation as a solid developmental league for American prospects.
The United States Hockey League has grown in leaps and bounds in the past decade and now the Midwestern circuit is changing its rules in order to stay competitive with the CHL, and maintain its reputation as a solid developmental league for American prospects.
After meetings with the Board of Governors and USA Hockey, the USHL has decided to institute a number of changes for the next two seasons.
The first significant change regards Canadian import players. Currently, any non-American player is considered an import and teams are allowed four per season. Starting in 2017-18, franchises can count two Canadians as non-imports, hypothetically bringing the total number of non-Americans on the squad to six. On top of attracting more players such as Shane Bowers (2017 draft) and alumni Cam Morrison (COL) and Brett Murray (BUF), the move also allows the USHL to stay competitive with the CHL and particularly the OHL, where a number of high-profile Americans play.
“We’re bullish on American talent,” said USHL commissioner Bob Fallen. “The world juniors and World Jr. A Challenge said a lot for the state of hockey here, but we want to level the playing field. They have an outstanding league, but we think we can compete at that level.”
The biggest difference between Canadian major junior and the USHL is that the USHL is NCAA compliant, meaning players do not receive any money for playing there. Talent-wise, the average major junior team would beat a USHL team, but in terms of high-end players, the USHL is producing many NHL first-rounders now, from Brock Boeser to Clayton Keller.
Two of the biggest names in the USHL this year are import forwards – Finland's Eeli Tolvanen, a 2017 draft prospect for Sioux City, and Russia's Andrei Svechnikov, a 2018 prospect with Muskegon.
The USHL has also become a big incubator for European goalies lately, thanks to the CHL’s ban on import netminders. And while USA Hockey floated the idea of a similar stance, the USHL instead compromised and will limit teams to one non-American goalie, starting in 2018-19. That import goaltender will also count as two import spots, so teams must be sure. Right now, four of the top five goals-against averages in the USHL belong to Europeans and the Green Bay Gamblers have an all-Euro platoon of Maksim Zhukov and David Hrenak.
Fallen said the USHL didn’t want an outright ban because having competition from top European and Canadian kids would push American goalies to be better. For the league’s GMs, finding those import gems is going to be even more important now.
“Certainly you’ll have to be more mindful of who you bring in,” said Lincoln Stars coach and GM Jon Hull. “You want your imports to be impactful.”
Hull, who has a pretty good young American netminder in Cayden Primeau with the Stars, mused that the rules might even bring younger goalies more opportunity in a league dominated by older teens. He thinks the same of the Canadian import rule, because now a team might be more inclined to bring in a younger Canadian skater who would need more time to make an impact, but may have a high ceiling.
For goalies who need an extra year of development before college, the USHL will allow teams to carry an overage netminder without him counting toward the team limit of four overagers (which, this season, refers to 1996-born players).
Another major shift for 2017-18 will be the schedule. Teams will still play 60 games, but the season will begin two weeks later and last 26 weeks instead of 28.
“There was genuine agreement that our season was too long,” Fallen said. “We were saying, ‘Guys, this is junior hockey and we’re here for almost nine months?’ ”
The shift back will also help teams that live in college football-crazy markets such as Madison and Lincoln.
“We’re living in a city where the Nebraska Cornhuskers are No. 1 on every level,” Hull said. “As soon as the football season is over, it becomes a hockey town. So the less games we play in September and October, the better it is for us financially.”
Along with the schedule moving back, the playoffs will be extended from eight teams to 12, with the top two seeds in each conference getting a first-round bye.
It’s a lot to digest, but it will be interesting to watch. The USHL has opened eyes in recent years and trying to keep up with the titans of major junior clearly doesn’t intimidate them.