Ten things to watch down the stretch

Playoff positioning is just one of the many things to watch during the second half of the NHL season.

Updated: January 7, 2004, 7:57 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

Having taken a look at notable issues and events from the first half of the 2003-04 National Hockey League season, we won't shirk our duty to look ahead to what the second half might hold.

With that in mind, here are 10 things to keep an eye on:

10. CBA talks
We do not intend to overplay the impact of the ongoing collective bargaining talks, but we can't ignore them either. We therefore position them at No. 10, where they are noted for their deserving interest but don't overshadow what happens on the ice the remainder of the season.

9. Jagr to ...?

Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr will be a significant player in the second half.
Will Jaromir Jagr remain a member of the Washington Capitals for the rest of the season? Whether he does or not will be indicative of the kind of trading we'll see near the March 9 deadline, the severity of the Capitals' money woes and teams' compulsions to be under a certain salary figure should some kind of "cost certainty" be forthcoming under a new CBA.

8. A three-goalie (hockey)town
Just who is the No.1 goalie in Detroit? Curtis Joseph has been both banished to and recalled from the minors. Yet, the same Curtis Joseph has kept the Red Wings in the race for No.1 overall despite numerous injuries, including "other No. 1 goalie" Dominik Hasek's groin problems. Even when healthy -- which has been rare in yet another comeback year for Hasek -- the former Blackhawk, Sabre and Red Wing has not consistently been sharp. There's a lot of money tied up in all this -- include backup Manny Legace and the cost is roughly $15 million this season -- but if Joseph is the better and healthier goalie, can the Red Wings afford not to keep him? Can they afford to keep Hasek? Should they keep both? What happens if Hasek doesn't accept the No. 2 role? It's a vexing situation for general manager Ken Holland and one that will affect the Red Wings in a huge way come playoff time.

7. Crying foul
Stick fouls appear to be on the rise. So do obstruction fouls, goalie interference (read: running) and fighting. Is the league poised for another crackdown or are collective bargaining matters leaving the on-ice product in limbo until the fiscal issues are decided? It's a pressing question for GMs who want to fine-tune their teams for the playoffs and would like to know which of many ways the game might be policed.

6. Will the West still be best?
Can the Western Conference beat the Eastern Conference? Popular opinion maintains the West is best, but the East won the Stanley Cup last season (New Jersey) and had the best team overall (President's Cup winner Ottawa). This season Philadelphia, Toronto, and New Jersey are proving tough to beat, while Ottawa (running a 11-game unbeaten streak) has rebounded from a sluggish start and Atlanta is rising in the Southeast.

In the West, Detroit and St. Louis are their highly competitive selves, but Colorado has yet to consistently play to its much-touted form, Vancouver is playing well but still has depth and consistency issues, Dallas is alternating between good and struggling, and Calgary and San Jose are showing well now but haven't shown consistent staying power. The playoffs don't usually tell the tale of which conference is better, so watch the head-to-head regular-season matchups among the power elite and see if the physical East overwhelms the finesse West. If the rules aren't revamped, it will.

5. Injured Reserve

Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux officially joined the list of the long-term injured.
Where have you gone Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh)? And you too Al MacInnis (St. Louis), Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh (Los Angeles), Owen Nolan and Alexander Mogilny (Toronto), Roman Turek and Mikka Kiprusoff (Calgary)? There appears to be a rather long list of big-name players suffering from long-term injuries in the NHL this season. That leads to questions as to whether or not the season is too condensed (a popular theory in the media and with some coaches), if the physical elements in the game are becoming overwhelming (also popular in the media and among some coaches) and if there is still too much injury-inducing equipment being worn as weaponry (popular among media, some coaches and general managers, and even some players). Some teams can't afford their stars while too many others can't keep them healthy. Both issues bear watching.

4. The unemployment line
Anybody seen Theo Fleury lately? How about Cliff Ronning, Donald Audette, Phil Housley or Adam Graves? There was always a fine line between being finished and being able to finish on your own terms. That line has been erased by things other than performance issues.

In Fleury's case, it's been all downhill since he re-entered a substance abuse program. The seemingly ex-Chicago Blackhawk reportedly is adhering to the guidelines of the league's substance-abuse policy, but at some point before the season is out, he has to petition the NHL for reinstatement or time will run out on his career.

Audette, scheduled to make $3 million next season, was bought out of his pact largely because the Montreal Canadiens didn't feel they were getting value for the money. Housley, the highest scoring American-born defenseman of all time, has been hoping to catch on with a team for a playoff push, as have Ronning and Graves.

As the trend swings toward fiscal cost-cutting and youth, it's likely we may not see these men again.

3. Trade winds or just a breeze?
Last year, the trade deadline produced a record number of transactions (since at least 1980) as the "rent a player" mentality swept through GM offices. It could be different this year. Several GMs we've spoken to bemoan the fact that few trades of consequence have taken place so far -- a trend that may hold at the deadline as well. It seems that cost-cutting comes before team improvement, as teams keep a mindful eye on the possibility of a salary cap, luxury tax or some other kind of cost certainty and want to be positioned accordingly.

Frankly, we don't buy it. Looking into our crystal 8-ball, we see Cup contenders being active in the market and those who aren't accommodating them. What's likely to be different is whether or not the teams dumping salary will get anything of value in return. If the market is flooded, the trade value for high-priced talent will drop -- a simple supply-and-demand principle. Worse for the dumping teams, the traditional request for draft picks and prospects might well be ignored as the acquiring teams know it's a buyer's market and they'll be looking to move some salary as well.

2. The World awaits
The 2004 World Cup of Hockey isn't usually high on anyone's radar, but with the specter of a work stoppage looming (sorry, had to mention that), there likely will be a rather large turnout of interested players rather than the usual, "Sorry, promised I'd wash my dog" excuses. In the U.S., Canada's win over Team USA in the 2002 Olympics will be a motivating factor. In Canada, well, they like to win everything, so the still lingering disappointment over losing to Team USA in the last World Cup should also play a role. With Russia and Slovakia still steaming over their Olympic outcomes, the North American pool will definitely be contentious.

So while the NHL season may be over for some players whose teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their World Cup tryouts will still be in full swing.

1. And the winner is ...

Markus Naslund
Will this be the year Markus Naslund leads the Canucks to the Cup final?
Who wins the President's Trophy, the Stanley Cup, the Hart Trophy, the Norris, the Vezina, et al? With half a season to go, not only are the races entering crunch time, but they include a host of up-and-coming teams and talent -- and isn't that what ultimately captures our interest in an NHL season?

Can New Jersey repeat as Cup champ? Can Detroit or Colorado bounce back? Is this the year Philadelphia, Ottawa or Toronto breaks through, or does Vancouver ignite like the Mighty Ducks of last spring?

We'll go out on a limb here and make some predictions:

• There will be a Canadian team in the final for the first time since 1994. It will be Toronto, Ottawa or Vancouver and, quite frankly, a Vancouver-Ottawa final wouldn't be a surprise.
• San Jose will make the playoffs and be the darlings of the West until they fall in the conference final.
• Calgary will fall agonizingly short of the postseason for a team-record eighth-straight time.
• The New York Rangers will find a way in, but it will not be at Montreal's expense.
• Pavel Datsyuk will win the Rocket Richard Trophy for goal scoring and do it with 50, on the nose. Ilya Kovalchuk won't hit the plateau, but will come close.
• Martin Brodeur will end the season with a goals-against average under 2.00, but will fall one shutout short of Tony Esposito's record of 15 in a single season. Fatigue will be the reason.
• Vancouver will be the best team in the second half and displace Ottawa as the President's Cup winner. The Canucks will do it on the strength of Markus Naslund winning the scoring crown on the final day of the season, outlasting a stirring stretch drive by Colorado's Peter Forsberg.
• Toronto's Pat Quinn will win coach of the year and head Team Canada's entry in the World Cup.
• Brodeur will win the Vezina Trophy again.
• Chris Pronger will earn the Masterton Trophy for perseverance and the Norris as the league's best defenseman.
• Ray Ferraro will have a new favorite way to eat chicken.

Will all this happen? Who knows, that's why they play the games.

Besides, it sure beats writing about the CBA.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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