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Second-half preview: 30 storylines to watch

Jared Clinton
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Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd (Lance Thomson/NHLI via Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

News

Second-half preview: 30 storylines to watch

Jared Clinton
By:

When the all-star break is over, the league kicks into high gear with the trade deadline fast approaching and the playoff push really getting underway. Each team has their own unique set of challenges, and here are the 30 storylines to watch following the all-star break.

Once the all-star break is over, the race to the NHL post-season really begins and every fanbase has something to keep an eye on as the trade deadline approaches and playoff races kick into high gear.

Teams on the bubble will have to decide whether they’re buyers or sellers at the deadline, some clubs near the bottom of the standings will start selling off parts in hopes of landing the first-overall pick and a shot at 2017 top prospect Auston Matthews and some teams will stand pat with hopes that only minor moves will be necessary to take home the Stanley Cup.

We’ve already seen coaching changes and major trades, and there are some big name players who remain without contracts for next season as the Feb. 29 deadline approaches. That means they could be hot commodities on the UFA rental market. But the deadline isn’t the only major storyline. Here are 30 things to keep your eye on following the break:

ANAHEIM DUCKS: Can Ryan Getzlaf finally get going as the Ducks push for a wild-card spot or attempt to take over either the Arizona Coyotes or San Jose Sharks for a divisional berth in the playoffs? The Ducks have to find a way to get their offense clicking and Getzlaf turning his season around would have an immediate impact.

Anaheim could also be a buyer come trade deadline. If they get into the post-season, the Ducks could be a sneaky contender out of the Western Conference. Jonathan Drouin’s name has been mentioned in connection with Anaheim, and colleague Matt Larkin sees the Ducks as a potential fit for Andrew Ladd. That would be a nice fit and one that could make Anaheim a great sleeper pick.

ARIZONA COYOTES: One of the most surprising stories has been the Coyotes, and they need to keep playing at least .500 hockey down the stretch if they want to maintain their post-season position. The play of Max Domi has been inspiring, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been the best player on the ice on a near nightly basis for Arizona. He might not win the Norris Trophy, but he’s certainly played his way into the discussion.

It’ll be worth paying attention to the goaltending situation in Arizona down the stretch. Rookie Louis Domingue has been quite the story in the absence of starter Mike Smith. Will coach Dave Tippett go with the veteran when he returns or does Domingue’s status as the hot hand earn him starting duties?

BOSTON BRUINS: The Bruins had a mediocre offense in 2014-15, but they’re third in scoring in the NHL this season. Few would have expected that, but a big part of that turnaround has been the Bruins’ incredible play with the man advantage. Boston has had the second-fewest power play attempts with 135, yet they’ve scored the third-most goals with 35. That helps.

What could hurt Boston, though, is their blueline. Trading Dougie Hamilton in the off-season hurt, but Hamilton wanted out and there wasn’t much Boston could do. The trade deadline might be a good time for the Bruins to look at what they’re willing to give up to bring in some help on the backend.

BUFFALO SABRES: The future looks bright and the expectations weren’t that Buffalo would be challenging for a Stanley Cup this season. This season was about showing a glimmer of hope, and the Sabres have succeeded in that sense. Going forward, the Sabres will have to decide what to do with a few unrestricted free agents. Most notable is Jamie McGinn, who has had a respectable season in Buffalo.

The real story is Jack Eichel, though. He’s second in rookie scoring behind Artemi Panarin and those in the camp that Panarin has an edge on the rest of the rookie field because of his age and KHL experience may lean towards Eichel as the Calder Trophy winner. That would be a nice feather in Eichel’s cap and a nice highlight at the beginning of what looks like a promising career.

CALGARY FLAMES: The big story surrounding the Flames could have been how Karri Ramo has gone from being demoted to the AHL to Calgary’s starter. Some also would have considered Jiri Hudler’s potential as trade bait at the deadline as something to watch. Even the contract statuses Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau would have been great talking points down the stretch for the Flames. That all changed when Dennis Wideman was suspended indefinitely for making contact with linesman Don Henderson.

No one knows yet what Wideman’s fate will be, but the league announced he will have a hearing with NHL Hockey Operations Feb. 2. Had Wideman been handed a game misconduct, he could have been facing an automatic 10-game suspension. It’ll be up to the league to decide what punishment, if any, Wideman will face.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: In their final game before the all-star break, the Hurricanes beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks 5-0. Saying Carolina beat Chicago, though, is a massive understatement. The game wasn’t even close and it looked like the Hurricanes, not the Blackhawks, should have been the favorite heading into the game.

In their past 10 games, the Hurricanes are 7-2-1 and entered the break on a two-game win streak. They still sitting outside a playoff spot, though, and that leaves a number of questions. Does GM Ron Francis make a decision with regards to Eric Staal? Does Cam Ward or Eddie Lack lead the playoff push? The Hurricanes have eight roster players set to become unrestricted free agents. They’ll be a team to watch come deadline day.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: The Blackhawks are coming off of a 12-game win streak in January and sit atop the Central Division. That’s been helped along by the play of Patrick Kane, who has to be the odds-on favorite to be named league MVP, as well as the emergence of rookie Artemi Panarin as a second-line scoring threat. All seems good in Chicago, except for one thing: Kane and Panarin have accounted for almost all the Blackhawks’ offense.

Chicago’s championships in the past have been won on the backs of depth scoring. Right now, the Blackhawks appear to be a one-line team more than ever before. Chicago GM Stan Bowman hasn’t been afraid to make deadline deals before, so he might be shopping around as the Blackhawks attempt to defend their championship.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: No matter what advanced statistics say, the Avalanche just won’t go away. Colorado has been able to stay afloat in a tough Central Division and currently hold down the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Getting deep into the post-season will likely require the Avalanche to go out and get some more talent on the backend, though.

Dealing away draft picks or prospects could help the Avalanche land some talent at the deadline, but does GM Joe Sakic want to sell his future for a shot at success now? He’ll have to decide before deadline day. If he goes for it and Colorado falls from their post-season position, he could have big regrets.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: The season started out horribly and injuries derailed the rest. The Blue Jackets are so injury-riddled, in fact, that even coach John Tortorella missed two games before the all-star break with broken ribs. When’s the last time you can recall that happening?

Really, all the Blue Jackets should be hoping for is signs of a team that is starting to gel. Well, that and a prolonged period of good health for Sergei Bobrovsky. The goaltender’s past few seasons have been marred by groin injuries. It was sad to see him go down not once but twice this season when he was in the midst of really turning his campaign around. And, hey, if Columbus finishes last, maybe they land Auston Matthews. That wouldn’t be a terrible consolation prize.

DALLAS STARS: Few playoffs teams needed the break as badly as the Stars. Dallas came firing out of the gate and have looked like an offensive juggernaut all season, but the defensive issues continue to plague the Stars. Dallas is first in goals for with a whopping 162, but 18th in goals against having allowed 133.

Stars GM Jim Nill has done some great work in assembling a high-flying team that is incredibly fun to watch, but run-and-gun might not be the soundest strategy come playoff time. If Nill can find a way to acquire a solid defenseman, that could vastly improve Dallas’ chances in the post-season. That’s much, much easier said than done.

DETROIT RED WINGS: The hype surrounding Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel was off the charts entering the season, but it’s Dylan Larkin who has been one of the most impressive freshmen this season. If the season ended today, it might actually be a three-way race between Eichel, Larkin and Artemi Panarin, and it’s anybodies guess who would take home the hardware.

The Red Wings appear on their way to — surprise, surprise — yet another playoff berth. But even with the playoff streak, success in the post-season hasn’t been easy to come by. If Detroit wants to make a run in the playoffs, GM Ken Holland may want to look for offensive help. Getting a defenseman won’t hurt either, because goaltender Petr Mrazek can only do so much.

EDMONTON OILERS: Connor McDavid’s return is going to be the story of the second half of this season, and there’s no doubt about that. Before going down with a broken clavicle, McDavid five goals and 12 points in 13 games. He was starting to heat up and looked comfortable in the NHL, but the injury put a damper on everything. He’s taking contact in AHL Bakersfield and should be ready for the first game back post-break. Can he get back on track?

Fans should also watch Edmonton’s standing in the league, though. If they slip to 30th, they’ll have the best shot at landing Auston Matthews. If they get the first-overall pick, it would be the fifth time in seven seasons that Edmonton has had the top selection.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: Possibly the most lovable team in the league this season, the Panthers, led by Jaromir Jagr and, for some reason, a hoodie with Kevin Spacey’s face floating in space, are sitting atop the Atlantic Division by five points. But while Florida may look the part of a Stanley Cup contender in the standings, this isn’t a team that can afford to rest easy at the deadline.

The Panthers could use some offensive help, and Andrew Ladd’s name has been thrown around because he has connections to GM Dale Tallon from their time in Chicago. If Tallon pursues Ladd, who goes the other way? And after he has been forced to sit out the past three games, something might be in the works involving Panthers winger Brandon Pirri.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Remember the concern about the Kings when they missed the post-season in 2014-15? Well, Los Angeles hopes you had fun while that lasted. The Kings look every bit the bruising, skillful, hope-we-don’t-play-them team they were during their past two Stanley Cup runs. The Kings are the class of the Pacific Division and the odds-on favorites to emerge from the division in the post-season.

It seems like Kings GM Dean Lombardi might be done dealing, too. He acquired Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn from Philadelphia, and Lombardi has less than $3 million to work with at the deadline. There may be an addition or two coming, but it likely won’t be major.

The Kings could very well unseat the Blackhawks as the modern-day dynasty with three Stanley Cup wins in five years to Chicago’s six.

MINNESOTA WILD: The Wild aren’t surprising anyone this season after 2014-15’s magical run to the playoffs. If Minnesota makes the post-season, it will be on the backs of their blueliners and the two-way effort that has made them one of the stingiest teams in the league.

It will be interesting to see what GM Chuck Fletcher does at the trade deadline or earlier, though. He was reportedly very interested in Ryan Johansen before a trade sent him to Nashville, and there have been rumblings of the Wild’s interest in Jonathan Drouin. That shows an interest in acquiring some scoring. Minnesota has defensive depth to spare, but who’s the odd man out?

MONTREAL CANADIENS: When does Carey Price return and how does he perform once he’s back? Those are the two biggest questions facing the Canadiens and it’s not even close. Price was in the midst of yet another MVP-type performance when he went down and his lower-body injury has plagued the Canadiens all season.

That said, even with Price healthy, the Canadiens need to do something in the interim to make sure the onus isn’t solely on Price should they make the playoffs. Does that mean gambling to acquire a big name forward? Maybe. GM Marc Bergevin has shown a proclivity for being a savvy deadline dealer. He could very well pull something off again this season.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Ryan Johansen has been hot in Nashville and the pairing of Roman Josi and Shea Weber might be the best defensive unit in the NHL. If the Predators are post-season bound, it appears it will be as a wild-card entrant, but they could be a sneaky team come playoff time.

The real concern for Nashville, though, is goaltender Pekka Rinne. Once considered one of the best in the league, he’s looked nothing more than average this season. Good games have been few and far between for Rinne. He needs to turn it around somehow before the post-season starts because as good as Carter Hutton has looked at times, the Predators shouldn’t be relying on him in the playoffs.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Who had the Devils on the cusp of a wild-card berth at the all-star break? For that reason alone, rookie NHL bench boss John Hynes deserves serious consideration for the Jack Adams Award. Overall, though, the Devils are in a strange position.

They could very well make the playoffs, but the team, as currently constructed, might be better off being broken up for parts. There are seven players set to become unrestricted free agents at season’s end and most of them will likely be seeking raises. There’s potential for a nice return on some of the UFAs-to-be, too, like Lee Stempniak, who is on pace for a near 60-point season. His previous career-high was 48. Ray Shero is going to have a tough time in his first trade deadline as Devils GM.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Travis Hamonic asking out of New York was one of the most shocking pieces of news of the early season, but both the Islanders and Hamonic have handled the situation incredibly well. Matter of fact, the way Hamonic has played in what is likely his final season as an Islander has probably upped his trade value.

Don’t expect him to be moved at the deadline, though. Johnny Boychuk is injured, which means the Islanders need big minutes from Hamonic during the playoff push. New York doesn’t risk losing him for nothing. The same can’t be said for Kyle Okposo, though, who is an unrestricted free agent next season. He could be a trade chip at the deadline.

NEW YORK RANGERS: The Rangers’ window of opportunity to take home a Stanley Cup with Henrik Lundqvist in goal is closing, but it’s hard to see what first-year GM Jeff Gorton can really do to shake up his roster heading into the playoffs. Keith Yandle, acquired at last season’s deadline, is an option to be moved out of town. He’ll draw interest, but the return likely won’t be close to what the Rangers gave up to acquire him.

Fear the slide, though. There are more than a few teams nipping at the Rangers’ heels. Carolina, New Jersey and Pittsburgh are all climbing the standings, and if New York falls into a wild-card spot, they could have to deal with edging out Boston, Detroit, Montreal or Tampa Bay for one of two spots.

OTTAWA SENATORS: It’s only a three-point difference between the Senators and Penguins for the final wild-card spot, but Pittsburgh has two games in hand. That doesn’t bode well for Ottawa, nor does the fact they enter the break 4-6-0 in their past 10 games.

Playoffs or not, though, Erik Karlsson’s minutes are the real story. He has played nearly a half-minute more per game than workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter, and Karlsson has almost a full minute more per game than Drew Doughty, who sits third in average ice time at 28:01 per game. As Karlsson’s ice time continues to climb, he threatens to reach the 30-minutes per game average. That would make him the first player to do so since Chris Pronger in 1999-00.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Jakub Voracek’s season has been disappointing after a breakout season in 2014-15, but there are bright spots for the rest of the Flyers. Captain Claude Giroux is still playing like one of the best two-way centers in the league, Wayne Simmonds continues to be an offensive threat and could come close to 30 goals this season and goaltenders Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have been a good duo. But, above all, Shayne Gostisbehere is one of the most fun stories of the season.

Gostisbehere has eight goals, 22 points and three overtime game-winners in 29 games. His scoring pace is up there with the Larkins and Eichels of the rookie class, and he could be a sleeper pick for the Calder Trophy. He entered the all-star break on a four-game point streak, over which time he has scored one goal and six points.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: It sure doesn’t look like anything is wrong with Sidney Crosby anymore. In his past seven games, Crosby has five goals and 10 points. After struggling to begin the season, he’s now up to 17 goals and 41 points on the year and is a near point-per-game player. Realistically, he could end the season with 80 or more points. While we watch Crosby work, though, also keep an eye on Phil Kessel.

It seemed like Kessel wasn’t fitting in with Pittsburgh, but he had three goals in three games heading into the break and is on pace to come close to 30 goals this season. He was expected to reach that mark at the very least, and it’s still in his sights.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Early season trade rumors had Patrick Marleau asking his way out of San Jose, but those seem to have died down to the point they’ve almost been forgotten. The Sharks, led by Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns, are right in the thick of the Pacific Division post-season race.

Martin Jones hasn’t looked out of place in his first season as a full-time starting netminder, and he seems like a good fit in San Jose. If he can catch fire in the playoffs, we might be looking at a Sharks team that gets through the first round and plays for the Pacific title.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: It’s taken the entire season, but the Blues are almost entirely healthy. Jaden Schwartz is working his way back, Jake Allen could be back in a matter of weeks and no other major pieces — fingers crossed — are on the shelf. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock might finally get a real look at what he has to work with come playoffs. That’ll be important, too, because it’s likely that Hitchcock’s future rides on the playoffs.

The Blues have been ousted from the playoffs in the first round for three straight years and Hitchcock’s job was interviewed for by Mike Babcock in the off-season. Babcock went to Toronto and Hitchcock got a one-year deal. Without a deep run, Hitchcock could be out the door at season’s end.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Things have been quiet in Tampa Bay. Nothing to see here. Well, nothing interesting, unless you deem one of the generation’s best goal scorers potentially leaving via free agency and an up-and-coming third-overall pick demanding a trade worth talking about. But who cares about that, right?

The most talked about thing surrounding the Lightning for the next few months is going to be Steven Stamkos’ free agent status, with Jonathan Drouin’s trade demand a close second. Drouin could be resolved by the end of February, but don’t expect Stamkos’ situation to have a conclusion until nearly July.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: It sounds terrible, but this season has gone just about as well for the Maple Leafs as they could have hoped. Heading into the trade deadline with eight unrestricted free agents, and most of those are playing well enough to draw at least a decent return.

James Reimer is the best bet for a big return Toronto has, but it’s hard to say if the Maple Leafs will be all right with removing Jonathan Bernier’s safety net. After that, each of P-A Parenteau, Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes could be worth a look from teams looking to stock up for the playoffs. This could all end with the Maple Leafs landing Auston Matthews, too.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: What do you do if you’re Vancouver? Two points out of a playoff spot with an aging roster and a window that is only barely open, if open at all. The Sedin twins aren’t getting any younger and they’re not likely to be traded out of Vancouver anytime soon, so GM Jim Benning has to build around them while also planning for the future.

It’s hard to see Benning selling the farm to try and make any deep runs. If anything, he’ll stand pat, hope the Canucks have enough to make it into the post-season and continue to build through the draft with the hope that the Canucks are back to a top-tier competitor before the Sedins are too old to continue providing top-line contributions.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: The Mike Richards reclamation project was a smart move by the Capitals, and the risk there greatly outweighed the reward. The Capitals have their issues, sure, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of any team that could realistically not only hang with but defeat Washington in a seven-game series.

Braden Holtby got a big-money deal in the off-season and he’s earned every single cent of that contract. Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the greatest goal scorers to ever put on a pair of skates. Evgeny Kuznetsov is emerging as a star before he’s even near his prime. Things are good in Washington, but Barry Trotz has never made it to the third round of the post-season. This looks like it could be his year, though.

WINNIPEG JETS: The Jets season isn’t done quite yet, but there’s a better chance of Winnipeg missing the post-season than there is of them pulling of an incredible run to earn a wild-card or divisional berth. With that knowledge, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to make some extremely tough choices, and that starts with captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

Cheveldayoff will likely need to part ways with one or the other. He’ll have to gauge the likelihood of either player re-signing in Winnipeg and go from there. If he doesn’t have a new deal for either before the deadline, though, Cheveldayoff risks losing one or both for nothing in the off-season.

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Second-half preview: 30 storylines to watch