- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
The NHL's annual All-Star break comes a little after the official midpoint of the season, but is generally seen as the demarcation point between then and now -- the men and the boys, if you will.
By the time play resumes Tuesday, teams will be focused on the Feb. 26 trade deadline and the playoff push, a 30-game mad dash to the end of the regular season.
So here is a look at the story lines that have dominated the first half of the season.
The Detroit Red Wings. Gee, that was tough. The Red Wings have opened up a massive gap on the rest of the Western Conference (they are 17 points ahead of No. 2 seed Dallas with two games in hand) and show no signs of letting up in their pursuit of several NHL regular-season records. The key for the Wings, who have mastered the art of retooling on the fly, is to stay healthy down the stretch. Henrik Zetterberg continues to deal with a wonky back and will miss the All-Star Game, and there always will be concerns about the durability of netminder Dominik Hasek, who turns 43 next week. If the Wings can stay out of the infirmary, however, watch for another classic tilt with the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference finals.
It's good news for the NHL that there are probably half a dozen worthy candidates at the All-Star break. Sidney Crosby has been dynamite and picked up the pace in recent weeks, only to come up lame with a high ankle sprain that will keep him out of action for six to eight weeks. The injury will likely cost Crosby a second straight scoring title and the league MVP award. Even without Crosby's injury, there was strong evidence Calgary's Jarome Iginla was the league's most valuable player, and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier also has many supporters. In our view, however, Ilya Kovalchuk gets the nod, in part because his superlative play has the Atlanta Thrashers back in the playoff mix after a woeful start. More importantly, Kovalchuk has taken great strides in becoming a more complete player. He is blocking shots, back-checking and occasionally killing penalties. In short, he has become a leader. And oh yeah, he can still score like a magician. And by the strictest terms of the award -- most valuable player to his team -- Kovalchuk is a singular bright spot on a very mediocre Atlanta team.
No shortage of candidates here, including Buffalo, Carolina, Atlanta, Florida and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the biggest bust in the East is unquestionably the New York Rangers. After acquiring free-agent gems Scott Gomez and Chris Drury in the offseason, the Rangers appeared to have added the missing pieces to a Stanley Cup puzzle. Instead, the team has sputtered offensively throughout the season (they have the lowest goals-scored average -- 2.38 -- in the NHL at the break) and their strong defensive play and stellar goaltending has turned out to be just average over the past month or so. Unless they turn red hot down the stretch, if they make the playoffs at all, it will be as a seventh or eighth seed. Hardly the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams.
Western Conference: The West, as a whole, has a lot more going for it than its eastern colleagues; but if there's one team that remains perplexing in the West, it's the San Jose Sharks. Picked by many (including this writer) to win the Stanley Cup after several playoff disappointments, the Sharks are woeful at home, can't score, have only an average power play and can't seem to get themselves into any kind of groove except when they're playing on the road. As it stands, they're likely going to draw either Anaheim or Dallas in the first round, and they don't match up particularly well against either.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender)
Once again, it looks like Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur will battle to the wire in a bid to earn honors as the game's top netminders. Both have been horses, playing in virtually every game. Both have been crucial to their teams being in playoff positions even though their lineups suggest otherwise. The Devils, for instance, remain at or near the top of the Atlantic Division despite being among the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL. The Canucks aren't much more prolific. Detroit's Chris Osgood, who gets our nod as the comeback player of the year, would also be on our midseason Vezina ballot.
It's hard to ignore what Ty Conklin has accomplished in Pittsburgh, pretty much saving the Pens' season when starter Marc-Andre Fleury went down with an ankle injury. Conklin is 10-2-2 as a fill-in starter with a 1.97 GAA and .941 save percentage. Honorable mention goes to Toronto captain Mats Sundin, who rebounded from a disappointing second half last season and is on pace for one of his most productive seasons in a decade with 54 points in 51 games.
Western Conference: As mentioned, Osgood has been a huge part of the Wings' dominance in the Western Conference, leading the NHL with a 1.87 goals-against average and ranking tied for third with a .925 save percentage. Overall, he is 20-3-2 and is a worthy fill-in at the All-Star Game (he took Luongo's place after the Canucks goalie begged off being named a starter). Honorable mention goes to Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks, who took half a season to decide that he still liked the game and has helped his team surge back to the top of the Pacific Division standings. He too will take part in the All-Star Game.
Out of the blue -- team award
Eastern Conference: We keep waiting for the bottom to fall out on the Boston Bruins, as it has in so many seasons. Yet the Bruins keep hanging around despite the absence of Patrice Bergeron. Zdeno Chara is back in Norris Trophy form, Marc Savard remains one of the most underappreciated point producers in the game, and there is a quietly impressive supporting cast that includes Chuck Kobasew, Glen Metropolit and Aaron Ward. While Chicago has received well-deserved kudos for its turnaround, the presence of the Bruins in the playoffs would be an unexpected boon to the league if they can hang on. Honorable mention goes to the plucky New York Islanders, who simply defy logic with a threadbare lineup that continues to hold down a playoff position.
Whether it's off the ice, in the standings or on the television screens, the Chicago Blackhawks have emerged from the proverbial wilderness in stunning fashion this season. With the death of owner Bill Wirtz, the team suddenly found itself with a new front-office look, home games on television and fans filling once-empty United Center seats. Although again plagued by injury, the Blackhawks remain in the hunt for a playoff berth and look like a team that has turned a corner. Honorable mention goes to the Phoenix Coyotes, an almost unanimous preseason pick to be the NHL's worst team, who have played terrific defense and boast a handful of emerging young stars, including centers Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal.
Out of the blue -- player award
Who knew Mike Richards was going to discard his "solid young checker" label to become one of the best all-around players in the game in just his third season? That's what we thought. Richards (55 points in 48 games, plus-13, five game-winning goals) has been a key figure in the Philadelphia Flyers' renaissance from rock bottom a season ago to surefire playoff team. Honorable mention goes to teammate Scott Hartnell, who scored three times in his first 27 games, but then exploded with 10 goals and 16 points over his past 10 games.
Remember when Montreal couldn't wait to get rid of Mike Ribeiro because the Habs thought he was unruly and unfocused? Guess he found some focus in Dallas, where he has led the Stars' return to Cup contention with 22 goals, 54 points in 50 games. He'll also be in Atlanta for the All-Star Game. Honorable mention goes to St. Louis Blues winger Brad Boyes, who bounced around from Toronto to San Jose to Boston before landing in St. Louis, where he is now the eighth-ranked goal scorer in the league with 29 goals in 48 games.
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year)
The league is again blessed with a cornucopia of young talent, and while it looked like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were going to run away with the Calder voting, the twin Chicago stars will have company before the final ballots are counted. Toews, of course, has been injured, which has allowed Kane to hold down the rookie scoring lead for most of the season. But Washington's Nicklas Backstrom has turned a slow start into a stellar rookie campaign and first-year defensemen Matt Niskanen in Dallas and Tobias Enstrom in Atlanta will give voters something to think about down the stretch. Our selection at the break still goes to Kane, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft and a cornerstone of the Blackhawks' return to relevance in Chicago.
Why not just have the engraver start now, that's L-I-D-S-T-R-O-M. If there is any drama involved in this discussion, it's who will also end up on the final ballot. Watch for Nicklas Lidstrom's Detroit teammate, Brian Rafalski, to draw some interest. And why not Niedermayer in Anaheim? All the future Hall of Famer has done is turn around the Ducks' collective fortunes after deciding retirement wasn't in the cards for him this season. And what about Sergei Gonchar? Often maligned for his defensive game, Gonchar is a plus player in Pittsburgh, logging 25:45 a night in ice time.
Jack Adams Award (coach of the year)
The New York Islanders are a bit of a freak of nature with a lineup dotted with castoffs and leftovers. Yet coach Ted Nolan has once again forged a surprisingly resilient, hard-working crew out of these parts. For that reason, he gets our nod as the conference's best coach to date. Honorable mention goes to John Stevens, who has taken a revamped Philadelphia team to the top of the Atlantic Division.
How can you ignore the job Mike Babcock has done with the superlative Red Wings? You can't. We can't either. Honorable mention goes to Dallas' Dave Tippett, who survived the firing of his GM, Doug Armstrong, and has the Stars looking like a team that could take a long run come April.
For years, the Central Division has been a laughingstock with St. Louis, Columbus and Chicago offering little resistance to Nashville and Detroit. This season, however, all five teams are over .500, and the three formerly weak sisters are all hovering around the playoff picture.
The Southeast Division produced two straight Stanley Cup winners in 2004 and 2006 (Tampa Bay and Carolina), but is an embarrassment this season. Teams will be lining up to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference for the chance to play the division's winner, which automatically qualifies for a third seed. It's go big or go home in the Southeast, where it appears that if you don't win the division, you'll be home for the playoffs. If ever there was a case for revamping the playoff system, this is it.
Many of the high-priced free agents that flooded the market last summer have failed to have the desired effect. Of the current top 29 point producers, only Philadelphia's Daniel Briere was a free-agent acquisition. That said, there is little doubt the Detroit Red Wings' signing of Rafalski to plug the hole created when Mathieu Schneider signed in Anaheim has been the most successful of the dozens of signings.
Lots of those to consider. We'll start with Drury, who has struggled to fit in with the Rangers (12 goals, minus-13 as of Friday), and Todd Bertuzzi, who has 28 points in 39 games for the Ducks after signing a two-year deal worth $8 million. Talented Slovak forward Ladislav Nagy has just nine goals in 38 games for the L.A. Kings and will likely be on the move again at the trade deadline.
Off-ice disaster award
If they make a movie of the Nashville Predators' story, they could call it "Titanic." With the plucky team gamely staying in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference despite former owner Craig Leipold's mandated offseason fire sale of talent, fans have responded by staying away in greater numbers than ever before. The Preds' average paid attendance at the All-Star break would leave them out of the revenue-sharing pie at the end of the season, which will mean new ownership will have to dig deeper, sooner, if they're going to fulfill their promise to re-ink top restricted free agents Martin Erat, Jordin Tootoo, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Honorable mention goes to the Florida Panthers, a team that regularly plays in front of fewer than 10,000 real paying human beings. Luckily, they're on a collision course with missing the playoffs for the ninth time in the past 10 seasons, so they'll avoid further embarrassment of having to host playoff games in a half-full building. And of course, there's the Toronto Maple Leafs, who regularly set the standard for off-ice embarrassment and didn't disappoint with their recent dismissal of GM John Ferguson.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.