The NHL All Star break is upon us and we’ve seen a lot of surprises in the first half thus far.. Connor McDavid is a superstar at the age of 19 and his Oilers are in a playoff spot. The Florida Panthers and New York Islanders have been huge letdowns after a year where they’ve shown a lot of promise and growth. 5 out of the top 8 teams in the east are from the Metropolitan division. Without a doubt the best division in hockey and what a fun division it is to watch. Then of course the story of the NHL thus far has been the emergence of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
While these are the top story lines in the 1st half thus far, there have been a lot of middling teams that should be much better in the 2nd half of the year. Every year there is always a team down the stretch who goes on a massive hot streak and makes at least a deep run in the playoffs. Not only did the Pittsburgh Penguins make a long run, they won Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2016. With all that being said, here are my top 5 teams that are poised for great 2nd half’s.
#5: New York Islanders
I know what your thinking. A last place team with a coach that’s on it’s way out the door. An underperforming supporting cast that’s just not doing much offensively for superstar John Tavares. New York’s biggest offseason get Andrew Ladd has only produced 12 points in 38 games played thus far. There’s not much to write home about the team from Brooklyn. When the best part about this team is it’s 4th line, you know your team has glaring holes. Things cant much worse for this Islanders team right?
To which I say no it can’t. Let’s look at some positives. With Jaroslav Halak assigned to the AHL, Thomas Greiss has taken the reigns in net. Greiss is the best option in net for the Islanders going forward posting a 9-5-2 record with a GAA of 2.31 and Sv%: of .927. The Islanders simply look like a better team with him in net and they proved that with him last year in the playoffs.
Anders Lee shifted over to John Tavares wing and hasn’t disappointed since his move. Lee is only one goal shy of last year’s total of 15 and he still has more than a half a season to play. He could reach the 30-goal plateau if he stay’s the course for the rest of the season.
Along with John Tavares, the Islanders next best power play weapon is Nick Leddy. Leddy is tied for the team lead with 8 powerplay points and is by far their most dangerous offensive weapon on the blue line. He leads the team in ATOI with 22:59 but he’ll need to be better defensively for the Islanders to have any shot going forward.
A lot needs to happen for New York to have a great 2nd half. Whether that coaching change comes or not is a mystery but it might be the spark that the team needs. The roster has the pieces to make it happen, it just hasn’t panned out for them thus far. Not saying this team will make the playoffs but watch out for the Islanders down the stretch.
#4. Tampa Bay Lightning
This is a team that should be on every ones list. The Lightning are in deep, deep trouble right now while only accumulating 42 points in 42 games good for 6th in the Atlantic division. Tampa’s lost key stars Steven Stamkos, Ben Bishop and even Nikita Kucherov for a bits and pieces of the year. For those keeping score at home that’s the Lightning’s 3 best players. Not to mention the supporting cast has suffered injuries as well, players such as Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, JT Brown and Brayden Point. This team needs to get healthy and quick to say the least.
One of the sole reasons why Tampa is still afloat in the playoff picture has been Victor Hedman. Hedman is one of the leagues best defenseman and doesn’t get enough of praise simply cause he’s not in a hockey market. Hedman has 37 points in 42 games with 18 of those points coming on the powerplay. He is sure to break last years total of 47 points. Hedman plays in all situations and has been the Lightning’s rock all season long.
The Lightning will need better play from their young goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy if they want to get over the hump of the playoff picture. Although he is 10-9-2 on the year he’s dropped his last 4 decisions and given up at least 4 goals in all 4 games. With Ben Bishop not going to be back until mid to late January at the latest, it’s important for Vasilevskiy to seize the starting role as long as he can.
The entire defense of the Tampa Bay Lightning aside from Victor Hedman will have to kick it up a notch as well. There’s no excuse how bad the blue line has been for the Lightning. Guys like Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr have been lack luster combining for a +/- rating of -20.
The Lightning can make the playoffs and could make a big run at it. The one thing that’s holding them back from both of those things is health. The longer these superstar players are out for, the more the chances shrink for the Lightning to get into the top 8. Tampa Bay also can’t afford to lose another big name player to injury for a significant amount of time. If they do, the Lightning could be lights out for the 2017 season.
#3. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have hung around on the bubble all year long. This could be their time to strike. Mike Babcock will be a Jack Adams finalist without a doubt if his team reaches the playoffs for the first time since 2013. With rookie forwards William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner leading the way in scoring for Toronto, there’s a good chance that one of them could win some hardware as the Calder Memorial Trophy winner. Let’s dive into some other reasons that are due to the Leafs success.
Veteren Leafs players Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk have not only been great voices for leadership in the dressing room for Toronto but have contributed consistent scoring over the course of the first half. JVR is 2nd on the team in points with 32 and Kadri is 2nd on the team in goals with 16. With that kind of production from the veterans on this team, the young players will only feed off of it, follow their footsteps and will create a strong team bond.
The defense is led by more youth. Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev will be the main stays on the blue line for years to come. All 3 players bring something different to the table for the Leafs. Rielly brings a well-rounded defensive game with lots of leadership qualities and plays on all situations for Toronto. Gardiners bread and butter is his offense creating many opportunities especially on the power play. Gardiner has 8 points on the power play out of his 21 total. Zaitsev has a little bit of what Gardiner and Rielly have. Even though Zaitsev is a little undersized, he has a strong 2 way game on the blue line and he’s a great puck mover and that’s just what the Leafs need to generate offense.
The Leafs biggest offseason acquisition came out of the Anaheim Ducks organization goaltender Frederick Andersen. Andersen has shown signs of up and down play. There are night’s he lets in 6 and looks like one of the worst goalies on the planet. Then there are nights where he looks like Patrick Roy in his prime. Andersen’s record of 17-9-7 and GAA of 2.69 isn’t exactly sparkling but he’s done okay up to this point in his tenure with Toronto. Andersen will need to kick it in another gear for the 2nd half stretch run.
The Leafs have a lot of things going for them right now. They can’t however let themselves get into a big funk in the 2nd half. With a strong metropolitan division, it looks as of 5 metro teams will make it and only 3 teams from the Atlantic will join them. Leafs will probably need help from whoever’s playing the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins in the months of March and April.
#2. Anaheim Ducks
This team does it all the time. Every year this team goes on a strong run in the 2nd half and I have no other reason why they can’t do it again. Randy Carlyle’s Ducks are one of the leagues most exciting teams to watch that no one seems to talk about just because the teams based in Southern California. Anaheim leads the league in fighting majors by a wide margin, have the 5th best powerplay % at 22.3% and superstars like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry who aren’t having the best of seasons as of now.
Despite an All Star season from defenseman Cam Fowler, one thing that needs to improve for Anaheim is their defense. Hampus Lindholm is going to be one of Anaheim’s cornerstone defenseman for years to come and while he has been great defensively this year, they need more from him offensively. With just 1 goal and 4 assists in 30 games that’s not going to cut it. Fellow defenseman Sami Vatanen has been just the opposite. While totaling an impressive 16 points on the year, his defensive game needs improvement. Vatanen needs to limit the turnovers and make smarter decisions.
Lets move on to one of the bigger surprises on this team. Rickard Rakell has been absolutely been everything what the Ducks have wanted this year and then some. Rakell has scored 16 goals on the year, tied for the team with Ryan Kesler. His red-hot play needs to continue especially if Perry and Getzlaf are struggling.
One of the best lines all year long in the NHL has been the line of Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg. This line is so much fun to watch. You get to see Ryan Kesler’s rock solid two way game, the speedy and durable Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg’s finesse and unbelievable shot. With a formula like that, there’s no wonder why these players combined total of 83 points this year alone.
John Gibson has been the man in net for Anaheim for most of the season. He’s posted a record of 16-10-6 with a 2.38 GAA and a save percentage of .918. Not the best numbers from a goalie this year but not the worst. I expect these numbers will be better with better defensive play from the Ducks blue line in the 2nd half.
The Ducks have the right formula to win a Stanley Cup this season. Just a few tweaks at the trade deadline could get this team over the hump. With rookie forwards Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie leaving their mark in the bottom 6, adding faceoff specialist Antoine Vermette over the offseason, Anaheim’s supporting cast has never looked better. Does anybody know who was the coach for Anaheim in 2007 when they won the Stanley Cup? Oh yeah its Randy Carlyle and he’s back in Orange county to make another run at it.
#1. Minnesota Wild
This could be the year Minnesota fans! This could be the year Minnesota breaks free of the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Newly hired Bruce Boudreau is coaching his way into to the Jack Adams trophy conversation. Eric Staal looks like the old Eric Staal. Devan Dubnyk has been on all world level since the start of November. All is right in Wild land.
Except for a few things. One being Zack Parise’s inconsistent play. Lets not forget he’s been hurt for portions of the year already so he could be playing with injury. However with only 8 goals and 12 assists in 30 games, it’s not like he’s setting the world on fire. Parise needs to become more of factor and stay healthy down the stretch for the Wild. Parise is starting to catch fire now however with 11 points in 11 games.
Another thing that could concern me if I were a Wild fan would be the minutes logged by Ryan Suter on a nightly basis. I get it, the guys stamina and conditioning is out of control. When it comes time for a playoff run though your going to rely on him even more. It’s important that the Wild start the cutting of Suter’s minutes before playoff time because you don’t want his gas tank reading empty by Game 3 of the first round again.
Lets talk about some good stuff. The defense of the Minnesota Wild has been a blessing for them all season long to this point. Obviously Ryan Suter leads the way, but it has been the young guns that have made the Wild defense a force to be reckoned with. Lets start with Jared Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s undersized but he has slick puck movement, he’s very fast skater and not afraid to let one rip from the point. Another defenseman that has really caught the eye of most NHL fans is 22-year-old Matt Dumba. The former 7th overall pick in 2014 has seen his numbers go up each season and is on a steady track to blow past last seasons numbers. Dumba has explosive speed and can also provide some big open ice hits and who doesn’t love that?
Devan Dubnyk is leading the league in GAA of 1.80, Sv% of. .940 and shutouts with 5. Sounds like a Vezina trophy award winner to me. The All Star has been sensational in net for the Wild and is their team MVP. A big part to the success is he does not have to start every single game like he has the past 2 seasons for the Wild. Getting him rested for the big run will be a big part to the team’s success.
The Wild have it all in place to make this year their year. Perhaps Boudreau may need to coach this team to 1st place in the Central just for the sheer fact to avoid the Blackhawks at all costs. Out of the last 3 playoff series’ with the Blackhawks, they have not won a single series against Chicago. It looks as if these teams are going to be destined to meet again at some point in the playoffs. If the Wild can slay the dragon, there’s no telling how far they could go. This Minnesota team has the talent, smarts and leadership to go all the way. Now lets see if they can take advantage of this window of opportunity.
Photo cred: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America