- Jim Kelley
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Reaching the halfway point of any project is always a mixed blessing at best.
Is it going poorly or well? Is the glass half full or half empty? Will the rest of the season be all that one can hope or something less than expected?
All that is especially true concerning the National Hockey League. Most teams will reach the 41-game mark this week, and though there have been several noteworthy accomplishments, there is still no clear indication of how the rest of the season will play out.
That's due in part to a possible work stoppage after the September expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement looming over this season to the point of near-overwhelming distraction. Most everything that is done -- or not done -- off the ice (and sometimes on the ice) this season seems to somehow be related to teams planning an approach to next season.
So while we should take note, we won't dwell on that fact. For here we simply choose to present our very personal look at the top 10 issues and events that have caught our eyes so far:
10. Really good teams
Every season produces teams that separate themselves from the pack, and this one is no exception. This list so far this season includes six such clubs: the Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues in the West, the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers in the East.
These teams have jumped to the head of the class, not just because of their overall point totals, but because they play at such a high level they've shown themselves to be difficult to beat both at home and on the road, in and outside of their conference and whether the opponent plays hard-nosed defense or has a mostly offensive bent. If the season ended today, these teams wouldn't just be in the playoffs, they would be odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
9. Really disappointing teams
Everyone has probably one or more teams they would add to this list, but here's ours: the Ottawa Senators, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Edmonton Oilers.
This list is limited to teams that were expected to be better. Ottawa, which is improving of late, brought a dismal start to the season, totally unexpected given its President's Cup claim last season. Anaheim couldn't avoid a Stanley Cup hangover, despite paying goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere a small fortune and changing its chemistry to include Sergei Fedorov in place of Paul Kariya. Washington is a classic case of underachievement -- among the worst teams in the league with several of the game's best players. Dallas makes the list for pretty much the same reasons as Washington and Anaheim. Carolina's collapse has been all-encompassing and many of Edmonton's wounds appear self-inflicted (especially the row over Mike Comrie).
8. Teams with nagging questions
Colorado tops the list. The Avs were the darlings of many preseason predictors, but they've stumbled to the halfway point looking more like a tease than a rock-solid team. Injuries -- especially to Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg -- have a lot to do with that, but it remains to be seen if this team has the goaltending, coaching expertise, mental toughness and physical depth to truly be a contender.
Also in this group are the Boston Bruins. Are they just slumping or heading toward total free fall? With problems scoring goals and stopping them, the Bruins are looking very much like the team that was dominant at the start of last season and then faltered because of a lack of depth and injuries. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Kings continue to look dangerous in the West. However, despite the stellar play of Ziggy Palffy and a handful of others, the weight of injuries and the still uncertain dependability of goalie Roman Cechmanek make them more of a curiosity rather than a contender through the first half.
7. Teams that are fun to watch
It's difficult to believe the Calgary Flames are holding on to a playoff spot. In any case, the Flames have been entertaining largely because they work hard, have gotten good-to-great goaltending and have just enough offensive threats who can make a difference in the outcome. The Nashville Predators fall into this group as well, especially when goalie Tomas Vokoun is on his game. Still, the runaway leader is the San Jose Sharks, a team that fired its coach and its general manager and had a star-player sell-off. They've returned to fun-to-watch form largely with young players who have performed when given the opportunity.
There's no telling if any of the teams in this group will make the playoffs, but the Sharks look like they are for real and the Flames and the Predators will make it interesting even if they prove to be a late-season tease.
6. Impressive coaching performances
Tops on our list is Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley. Not only does he have his team contending for its first-ever playoff berth, but he's done it while dealing with the death of forward Dan Snyder and the uncertain emotional and legal circumstances confronting an injured Dany Heatley who is arguably Atlanta's best player.
That's a difficult act to follow, but we do like the work Dave Lewis and company have done in keeping Detroit on track through a slew of serious injuries and a goaltending controversy of epic proportions. We also give nods to Ron Wilson in San Jose and Pat Quinn in Toronto, and ask you to keep an eye on Barry Trotz in Nashville and Claude Julien in Montreal, two coaches who have kept their teams in the playoff hunt largely by overachieving.
5. Quality of games
This is not a plus. Scoring, or the lack of it, continues to be a vexing problem. Worse, running the goaltenders in the crease appears to be on the rise as do incidents of high-sticking and fighting. Worst of all, the NHL doesn't even pretend to be trying to uphold to a standard regarding the oft-touted crackdowns on hooking, holding and obstruction fouls.
4. Lack of player movement
To be sure there have been trades this season, but trades of consequence? We just haven't seen them. Despite numerous reports indicating imminent deals, Jaromir Jagr is still a Washington Capital, Eric Lindros still a New York Ranger and Michael Peca is still a New York Islander. Money and the NHL's uncertain future is likely at the heart of deals not done, but come on. Coaches are still getting fired. Even a general manager has gotten the axe. But rosters haven't changed all that much even though change has been needed.
3. Atlanta Thrashers
While the Snyder-Heatley tragedy has drawn most of the public's attention, the night-in, night-out play of the team, especially Ilya Kovalchuk, captures the imagination. This is a team that plays hard and skates hard, but it also scores goals in impressive numbers and with a great deal of artistic flair. You can watch too many teams in the NHL and be bored to tears, win or lose. You can't say that about Atlanta. The Thrashers, win or lose, are fun to watch.
There are aches and pains every NHL season, but there seems to be an increasing number of long-term injuries this season, despite reported attempts to reduce hits to the head and stick fouls. Among the long-term missing in the first half: Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux (hip), Colorado's Kariya (wrist), Toronto's Alexander Mogilny (hip), Los Angeles' Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh (concussion related), Buffalo's Tim Connolly (concussion), Detroit's Dominik Hasek, Derian Hatcher and Chris Chelios (groin and knees respectively) and St. Louis' Al MacInnis (eye). These hurts are too many, too often and too long.
1. The kids are all right
We tip our proverbial hat to the work of veterans like Mats Sundin in Toronto, Robert Lang in Washington, Joe Sakic in Colorado, Markus Naslund in Vancouver and Brett Hull in St. Louis.
In a year in which there is far too much focus on a future still too far away, the kids that are in the NHL right now are among the best things we've seen so far.
Kovalchuk is gunning for the scoring title and he's doing it with panache. Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk is every bit as impressive and right behind in the race while Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy (Phoenix), Rick Nash (Columbus) and Martin St. Louis (Tampa) are new names atop the overall points list, while Trent Hunter (Islanders), Michael Ryder (Montreal) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston) are putting up numbers faster than many rookie classes before them. A special nod goes to the many young offensive-minded defensemen making names for themselves, particularly Marek Zidlicky in Nashville, Joni Pitkanen in Philadelphia and the impressive (and well-rounded) John-Michael Liles in Colorado.
Among the new-name goalies, Miikka Kiprusoff has gone from a castoff in San Jose to playoff puzzle piece in Calgary; there has been solid play from David Aebischer in Colorado and Andrew Raycroft in Boston. Marc-Andre Fleury was intriguing during his brief time in Pittsburgh, and the rapidly improving (and almost unheard of) Vesa Toskala in San Jose threatening to take Evgeni Nabokov's job, as well as the Pacific title.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
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