Commentary

Time for our midseason grades

Updated: January 8, 2010, 1:29 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Where did half a season go? And what the heck are the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche still doing in our playoff bracket? Where the heck did the Philadelphia Flyers go? And just how bad are Columbus and Edmonton. Wow ... that bad.

Read on for our midseason grades, and don't look for any grading curve unless it's the curve of a stick.

Eastern Conference

New Jersey Devils: The Devils have taken a significant step ahead of the other Eastern Conference powers, Washington and Pittsburgh. It is difficult to see how they will finish anywhere but at the top of the Atlantic Division and with the top seed in the East come playoff time. Martin Brodeur remains at the top of his game, although one wonders about his workload. Great depth and character up and down the Devils' lineup. Grade: A-plus.

Washington Capitals: Interesting dilemma brewing over the goaltending configuration as Jose Theodore has become an afterthought and Semyon Varlamov continues to struggle with injury. That leaves untested Michal Neuvirth as the go-to guy, at least right now. Still, a tough, deep, big and talented lineup and a guy named Alex Ovechkin (now wearing the captain's "C") make the Caps a formidable foe. Grade: A.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The defending champs hit a rough patch at the midpoint of the season, and the offensive struggles of defending scoring champ Evgeni Malkin are perplexing. Plus, their power play ranks dead last in the NHL. How does that happen? Still, this is a fine team capable of yet another long playoff run. Grade: A-minus.

Buffalo Sabres: See what great goaltending will net you? Third in the league in goals allowed per game thanks to the play of U.S. Olympian Ryan Miller, the Sabres may not wow you offensively, but they are hard to play against every night. If Thomas Vanek ever comes around, the Sabres are a potentially dangerous playoff team. Grade: A-minus.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins remain among the most difficult teams to score on and boast the best one-two goaltending punch in the league with Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask. Still, the fact they've had to turn to Miroslav Satan, a player who hasn't played since June, for offensive help illustrates how thin the offense has been for the Bruins. They will be without Patrice Bergeron for the first couple of weeks of the second half. Grade: B-plus.

Ottawa Senators: Credit coach Cory Clouston for getting as much as he has out of the Sens after the noisy offseason departure of Dany Heatley and the disappointing play from Alexei Kovalev for much of the first half. Frankly, hard to imagine they can keep it up. Grade: B.

New York Rangers: If Marian Gaborik doesn't score, it generally doesn't get done for the Rangers, who scored more than three goals in one game just three times in 26 games through the midway point. This team has enough holes in its lineup to drive a Zamboni through it, but good goaltending and a great penalty-killing unit are enough a lot of nights. Are they enough, though, to get the Rangers into the playoffs? Grade: B-minus.

Montreal Canadiens: The Habs don't win unless Jaroslav Halak or Carey Price stand on their respective heads -- the Canadiens are tied for 27th in goals scored per game. (And GM Bob Gainey wants to trade Halak? Huh?) But having defenseman Andrei Markov back may be just enough to coax the Habs into the postseason in a very ordinary conference. Grade: C-plus.

Philadelphia Flyers: A huge disappointment through the first half as the Flyers' inconsistency on the ice and issues in the dressing room conspired to cost coach John Stevens his job. Peter Laviolette looks like he's got this squad pointed in the right direction. Although goaltending is going to be an issue with Ray Emery still out, making the playoffs is a definite possibility. Grade: C.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are a curiosity. The offense you'd expect from a talented, experienced lineup hasn't been there, except in stretches. Mike Smith looked like he was going to lose his starting goaltending job to Finnish Olympian Antero Niittymaki, but has played well of late and the Lightning have closed back in on a playoff spot. Next week? Who knows. Grade: C.

New York Islanders: A testament to the mediocrity in the Eastern Conference, the Isles had given up 27 more goals than they'd scored (through Wednesday's games) and yet were within hailing distance of the playoffs. Hard-working, but not particularly deep, the Isles still look like a long shot to make the playoffs. Grade: C-minus.

Florida Panthers: Another up-and-down season for the Panthers as they try to sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss are having terrific seasons, but the goaltending isn't as good as it needs to be on a nightly basis. Grade: C-minus.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Apart from a brief period of strong play, the Leafs have been a major disappointment. No team has allowed more goals and they boast the league's worst penalty-killing unit. Star acquisition Phil Kessel has gone dry, and the Leafs are poised to be a lottery draft pick team. The only problem is they've traded that pick away. Grade: D.

Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers are in the midst of squandering a solid first half as they hit the midway point without a win in nine games, while the goaltending and team defense is a shambles. No wonder Ilya Kovalchuk is having second thoughts about signing on long-term in Atlanta. Grade: D-plus.

Carolina Hurricanes: Give the Canes credit for turning in hard-working performances most nights, even though their ghastly start to the season relegated them to a draft lottery position early on. Will be interesting to see how many bodies GM Jim Rutherford tries to offload at the trade deadline. Grade: D-minus.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks are doing it all with balanced offense, stingy defense (they allow the fewest shots per game in the NHL) and the conference's best penalty-killing unit. Never mind the worries over goaltending; Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi don't need to stand on their heads as the Hawks build toward what should be a long playoff run. Grade: A-plus.

San Jose Sharks: If you take a snapshot of the Sharks at the midway point, they are in a dead heat with the Blackhawks at the top of the West standings and the overall standings. They are offensively dynamic and will send a bevy of players, including four Canadians, to the Olympics. Of course, we've seen this movie before, haven't we? Based on that nagging feeling that the Sharks could just go completely sideways come April, we downgrade them from what should be an automatic A-plus. Hey, no one said life was fair. Grade: A.

Phoenix Coyotes: Who woulda thunk it? The Coyotes are holding the fourth seed -- and the home-ice advantage that comes with that position. A year ago, the Coyotes were fifth in the conference at the All-Star break and fell off the map. This season, though, coach Dave Tippett has the team rolling defensively and Ilya Bryzgalov is turning in a Vezina-worthy performance. Whatever backsliding may happen, we figure, will be modest. Playoffs, here they come. Now, the question is whether anyone will show up in Glendale to watch. Grade: A-minus.

Colorado Avalanche: Time to stop wondering when the Avs will retreat to the bottom of the standings, where we all thought they'd be. Great job by rookie coach Joe Sacco in getting consistent production from youngsters like Matt Duchene, Chris Stewart, Ryan O'Reilly and David Jones. American goalie Craig Anderson was denied an Olympic berth, but won't be denied a trip to the playoffs. Grade: A-minus.

Nashville Predators: The third member of the Western Conference "defying the odds" club is the Preds, who have found hidden offense from players like Olympian Patric Hornqvist, Martin Erat and Joel Ward to complement the team's traditional defensive prowess and impressive goaltending. Can they hang on? Why not? Grade: B-plus.

Los Angeles Kings: The Kings have suffered through injury and the kinds of growing pains all good, young teams experience and remain, in our minds, playoff-bound. A big win against San Jose at the midway point was a good statement game, and goalie Jonathan Quick seems capable of shouldering the load as the games become more meaningful. The Kings' goal differential (they were plus-8 as of Wednesday) needs to get a little better, but there should still be playoff games in L.A. this spring. Grade: B-plus.

Calgary Flames: We know, the Flames hit the midseason mark within a point or two of Nashville, Phoenix and Colorado. But the issue for the Flames isn't where they're at, but where they should be, which is challenging Chicago and San Jose at the top of the heap. But they aren't and need a healthy dose of consistency to be considered a Cup-worthy team instead of just a good one. Grade: B-plus.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks hit the halfway point playing their best hockey of the season, but they still have the mother of all road trips looming when the Olympics come to town (they are under .500 on the road so far). The blue line suffered a blow with the long-term loss of Kevin Bieksa, which means the playoffs are likely, but a long run is not guaranteed. Grade: B.

Detroit Red Wings: OK, so we are going to grade on the curve. The Red Wings, of course, have been crippled by injuries to key personnel up and down the lineup and are still within a shout of the playoffs. They are going to get healthy and are going to make life uncomfortable for the teams just inside the playoff bubble. Kudos to Jimmy Howard for shaking off early season yips to deliver consistent starts in net. Grade: B-minus.

Dallas Stars: No team that cannot win more than two games in a row -- something the Stars failed to do through the first half of the season -- deserves to be in the playoffs, so you can expect to see the Stars on the outside looking in for a second straight season. Top 10 in both goals and goals allowed per game, yet cannot seem to get it done in the clinch. How's that Marc Crawford experiment working out, by the way? Grade C-plus.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild managed to rise up after a devastating start to the season, but that kind of hole doesn't allow for much mediocre play the rest of the way. That's a problem for the often mediocre Wild, who rank 21st in goals per game and are a long shot to make the playoffs despite a new GM (Chuck Fletcher), coach (Todd Richards) and sniper (Martin Havlat). Grade: C-minus.

St. Louis Blues: One of the biggest disappointments of the first half, the Blues cannot win at home and lost faith in coach Andy Murray, who was fired over New Year's weekend. Davis Payne takes over, but the chances of the Blues putting on a second-half display like last season (when they surged into the playoffs) is remote at best. Grade: D-plus.

Anaheim Ducks: Another team that was looking to build on a strong second half and playoff performance from last season (the Ducks upended top seed San Jose and took Detroit to a seventh game in the second round), but has flopped mightily thus far. Injuries to Teemu Selanne and Joffrey Lupul, and a slow start by Ryan Getzlaf, have hurt, but the Ducks just never seemed to be in synch from the start and appear unlikely to make a run at the playoffs. Grade: D-plus.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Talk about going from the penthouse to the outhouse. The Blue Jackets qualified for the playoffs for the first time last spring and then followed by losing their defensive marbles this season (they rank 25th in goals allowed per game). They are 23rd in goals scored per game and have two wins in their past 18 games, which explains their position at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Grade: F.

Edmonton Oilers: What a mess. We figured with a top-notch coaching staff that includes Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, the Oilers would take strides forward. Except for brief spasms of life, the Oilers have been woeful and appear ready to vie for the worst record in the league and a lottery draft pick. Maybe it wasn't Craig MacTavish's fault after all. Grade: F.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.