OK folks, it's time to get down to business.
The fun of the all-star break is behind us. The four-month "pre-season" is over. The stakes are now getting higher.
The NHL's second half is here, with the trade deadline six weeks away and the playoffs another five weeks after that. Player and team decisions will have to be made and opinions on next season will begin to be moulded based on some of these dynamics.
Before the games begin, we go over one big question facing each of the NHL's 32 teams in the second half.
Anaheim Ducks: Sign or trade Hampus Lindholm?
Anaheim's next GM will have a lot of decisions to make in short order as the Ducks surprise with their success as they transition to a new, younger core. It'll be important to balance keeping key veterans to move ahead with and recouping assets for players who there's room to move on from. Pending UFAs Rickard Rakell and Josh Manson are among them, but the most pressing is defenceman Hampus Lindholm, who is also on an expiring contract. He'd be coveted around the league, but is also the kind of blueliner Anaheim would immediately be looking to replace. Could the Ducks even entertain the notion of keeping him past the trade deadline without a new contract in place?
Arizona Coyotes: How will their arena situation play out?
The big question around the Coyotes right now isn't about Phil Kessel's or Jakob Chychrun's trade destinations (although that is also interesting), but rather: Are they really going to spend a few years in an arena with less than 5,000 capacity? The next important date is Feb. 10 when Tempe City Council discusses the plan for a new NHL-sized rink and, if it goes ahead, the Coyotes would then settle in to play at Arizona State for a couple seasons. That's the plan for now anyway. But if Tempe rejects the plan, where do the Coyotes go from there? Houston?
Boston Bruins: How will the goaltending work itself out?
Tuukka Rask was brought back a few weeks ago and while the plan might be to eventually work him all the way back to No. 1 status by playoff time, it's not been an immediate thing. Rask has an .844 save percentage in four starts and the past four starts have gone to Linus Ullmark, the goalie who is signed through 2024-25. And then there's Jeremy Swayman as the third wheel -- he has the best save percentage of all three in 17 games!
Buffalo Sabres: What do the rookies have in store?
Crashing attendance, 27th in the league by points percentage, and Jack Eichel's near-return in Vegas all sour another Sabres season, but there is hope! Tage Thompson's successful move to centre has been a smash and makes for an interesting middle combo with Dylan Cozens. Rasmus Dahlin is taking a step. This is what the season is all about, and so in the second half we'll also be interested to see any rookie performances. Jack Quinn, sidelined for another couple weeks, excelled in the AHL and had a two-point NHL game before his injury. Goalie of the future Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, also injured, has a .917 save percentage in nine starts. When will Peyton Krebs be back?
Calgary Flames: How will GM Brad Treliving navigate a crucial few months?
After the disaster in the North Division, the Flames -- who were Canada's best team from Nov. 2019 through to the March 2020 pause -- are back on track and could even go on a decent little playoff run out of the relatively weak Pacific Division. We'll see. But aside from decisions on how to approach the trade deadline to boost and reward the roster (bring back Mark Giordano, add another middle-six forward?) Treliving also has to face the fact Johnny Gaudreau is a pending UFA having a monster season and Matthew Tkachuk is a pending RFA looking at a $9 million qualifying offer. So as much as the second half is about what the Flames can do this season, it's also a critical time as to what comes next.
Carolina Hurricanes: Can Frederik Andersen challenge for the Vezina?
With a .929 save percentage, 2.01 GAA and 24 wins, Andersen is tied for second in every major traditional stat category for goalies -- his 16.5 goals saved above average coming in third. Behind one of the best defences and teams in the NHL, can Andersen stay healthy and hang in the race...or even win the top goalie award?
Chicago Blackhawks: Where will Marc-Andre Fleury get traded to?
Whatever happens here seems to be up to Fleury, who was on the fence about continuing his career in Chicago in the first place. Elliotte Friedman has reported the Washington Capitals have interest in Fleury, but that the goalie and long-time Penguin isn't sure about going there yet. On an expiring deal and 37-years-old, Fleury might have an interest in going to a contender for another run instead of playing out the year on a lottery team.
Colorado Avalanche: Can they get Claude Giroux or make another big splash?
The Avs have been in the rumour mill attached to the biggest deadline targets the past few years, but rather than take big cuts GM Joe Sakic has more or less been fine with the deep team he has and finding subtle value adds (like how Devon Toews was acquired cheap and then blew up as a significant player). But after three straight second round losses and a huge extension on the horizon for Nathan MacKinnon in 2023, will the GM feel more urgency to go all-in? Claude Giroux is this year's big name that's tied to the team.
Columbus Blue Jackets: What happens with Patrik Laine?
As discussed in a recent Friday Four, the Blue Jackets face a nearly impossible decision on Laine, who will be an RFA this off-season and one year away from UFA eligibility. He still hasn't captured the elite goal scoring level in Columbus he became known for in Winnipeg, but he'll also only be 24 in April. Extend him to a big number? Walk him to free agency through arbitration? Or trade him?
Dallas Stars: We assume John Klingberg will eventually be traded, but could they do more?
The Stars come out of the break just two points out of the second wild card spot and 10th in the West by points percentage. They're in it, but far from the Cup contender they hoped to be. Klingberg, a pending UFA, is losing ice time and likely to be moved regardless of how the team performs. The questions begin with Joe Pavelski or Alex Radulov, a couple of impact veterans on expiring deals of their own that come with some level of trade protection. Braden Holtby in net is also a possible trade rental. Bu if Dallas is still in the running for the playoffs and the revenues that come with that, how much of a seller will they be and, if they do stand pat, what does that mean for the future with these important, expiring contracts?
Detroit Red Wings: Can Lucas Raymond or Moritz Seider win the Calder Trophy?
Who thought the Red Wings would be the ninth seed in the East at the break? Lots of positives developing this season and, though a real playoff race is probably a long shot, having two candidates for the Calder is one reason why the Wings are worth watching. Raymond is the rookie scoring leader at the half and Seider, the defenceman, sits fifth. Both will have stuff competition as Trevor Zegras puts up numbers and highlights and Anton Lundell heats up on the league's top offence in Florida.
Edmonton Oilers: Can they get back on track and in position to trade a first-rounder again?
Oilers fans are hoping the worst stretch of the season is behind them now and that they can start moving back up into a playoff spot and create a little separation by the March 21 trade deadline. Evander Kane's arrival does a lot on the ice to improve one area of weakness on the team, but GM Ken Holland could still do more if the upward trend continues. It's important to remember Holland's reticence to trade his first-round pick was in the context of adding a rental player and the question posed when the team was in a crisis free fall. In the right circumstance, and if it's clear the pick will not be in the lottery, it could end up back on the table.
Florida Panthers: How aggressive will GM Bill Zito be?
When the biggest names are on the trade block around the league, the Vegas Golden Knights are usually the first team that becomes connected to them. Now Vegas is really capped out and facing a forced trade situation when Jack Eichel does return -- and the Florida Panthers may be replacing them as the "go-to" team in blockbuster rumours. The Panthers come out of the break first in the NHL by points and an absollute force capable of hanging eight or nine goals on an opponent. But the belief is Zito wants to add and give this team everything it could desire to win its first playoff round since 1996.
Los Angeles Kings: Will the team's offence start to find more luck?
The Kings start the second half second in the Pacific by points -- third by points percentage -- and with playoffs in mind. They have a nice mix of veterans and are slowly bringing in some younger players, with Quinton Byfield adding an interesting third centre to the mix. But can we reasonably expect a better second half? The Kings are 19th in the league by goals per game but, according to Natural Stat Trick, are fourth in expected goals, which weigh frequency and quality of shots. Only Florida, Carolina and Toronto rank better in that stat. The Kings have the third-worst shooting percentage in the NHL and if that improves to even middle of the pack, Los Angeles may be a team to watch.
Minnesota Wild: Will GM Bill Guerin consider adding a middle six centre?
With a six-game winning streak the Wild were the NHL's hottest team coming into the break, and hit the second half as an emerging contender. A deep and fast team, the young and evolving Wild aren't their best version yet. Marco Rossi has yet to arrive and Matt Boldy just got here. But, given the team is second in the Western Conference by points percentage and with three years of crushing cap buyout penalties beginning in 2022-23, there's an argument to be made the team should take a swing on a rental in an area of need. If they took a shot, how about on a centre?
Montreal Canadiens: Can they win more games this regular season than they did in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs?
This is actually serious. En route to the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Canadiens won 13 games. Now, through 44 regular season games this season, the team sits last in the league with eight total wins. That's pacing to 15 wins over 82 games. If Carey Price does come back this season than maybe that gives the Habs a bit of a boost, but we're also looking at the likelihood the team being a trade deadline seller -- could any trades go beyond shedding rentals and cut deeper into the core? If so, the Habs could wind up in worse position over the second half.
Nashville Predators: Will Filip Forsberg get a new contract by the deadline?
In last week's 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman had a few good nuggets on the Predators and an interesting quote from GM David Poile on if he'd go past the trade deadline with pending UFA Filip Forsberg unsigned. “I don’t want to box myself in with an answer. It’s not my preference, but I’d never say never.” The Predators come out of the break ninth in the NHL by points percentage and playing well above most pre-season expectations. Forsberg is the team's goal scoring leader making $6 million against the cap.
New Jersey Devils: Will Jack Hughes' rise to stardom continue?
Hughes was a popular "step up" pick this pre-season and though he was injured almost immediately out of the gate, Hughes hit the break with 27 points in 28 games and in the middle of a hot streak. A vitally important part of the Devils' way forward, having the 2019 first overall pick get over that point per game mark in his third pro season would be a great indicator that everything is on track.
New York Islanders: How will the second half inform where to go next?
It's become popular (and accurate) to "never doubt the Trotz-led Islanders" the past couple of years but -- at risk of being burned -- they're out of it now, right? Seventeen points back of a wild card spot with just four games in hand is a tough hurdle. So if the Isles miss what would the takeaways be for a team tight to the cap with one notable contract of expense (Cal Clutterbuck, $3.5 million) expiring? If the Isles miss the playoffs but return as a dangerous team in the second half to make it somewhat interesting, then there maybe aren't too many worries. But if the inconsistency and losses continue how will GM Lou Lamoriello view what he needs to change?
New York Rangers: Are they for real?
The debate is real. The Rangers are fifth in the NHL by points percentage, top 10 in power play and penalty kill and with award contenders in goal, on defence, and at forward. At the same time, New York is dead last in the NHL by Corsi percentage, 30th by shots for percentage, and 29th by expected goal percentage at five-on-five. Will that catch up to them or can some of their top players (ahem, Igor Shesterkin) continue carrying the load?
Ottawa Senators: What life do we see in the second half and how does it shape trade deadline decisions?
The Sens actually finished last season pretty well all things considered -- middle of the pack league wide in their final 30 games. Another bad start and injury challenges contributed to another slow start in 2021-22 and now the Sens face a tough schedule to finish with 42 games in the next 82 days. Drake Batherson and Josh Norris had strong first halves but are on the sidelines to start the second. Tim Stutzle has made an early switch to centre. Questions abound over what to do with Nick Paul at the trade deadline -- eventually you have to keep players to contribute to a winning team.
Philadelphia Flyers: Do the big changes start happening before the trade deadline?
Claude Giroux may have left the door open to his team bouncing back and getting into the race by the trade deadline, when a decision on his future will have to be made, but they're 17 points out and just concluded a 17-game winless streak. Chuck Fletcher has indicated that there aren't many untouchable parts of the roster anymore and all kinds of turnover is possible. While Giroux would be dealt by the deadline if he goes, will any of the other big moves be made before the off-season?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Who signs the next extension between Bryan Rust, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang?
With the Penguins cruising and looking to be back firmly in the contender's circle, management re-signed pending UFA Jeff Carter at 37 years old, which seems to be a clear indicator that no steps will be taken back. However, the team still faces a difficult situation. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust are three important players who are also set up to be UFAs this summer. While Malkin has indicated he'd be open to a pay-cut of some sort, the other two may be more inclined to cash in. It'll be interesting to see which of these three is the next to sign, how much the deal is for, and then we might start getting an idea if all the pieces will be able to fit beyond this season.
San Jose Sharks: Is Tomas Hertl staying or going?
San Jose's leading goal scorer at the half is the 27-year-old Hertl on track for unrestricted free agency in the off-season and their top-line centre. The Sharks are also trying to hang around the playoff race and making strides again, with more youthful pieces on the way. It would be hard for the Sharks to go past the deadline with Hertl on the roster if he hasn't signed an extension, as it's vital for them to not lose a player in his prime for nothing.
Seattle Kraken: Can Philipp Grubauer return to form?
The Kraken have some plusses from the first half even though they're 15th in the West, but as long as they're goalies are letting them down there's no real path to more wins. Even though Chris Driedger was part of the plan in net, Grubauer was the one they bet on with a six-year contract and a $5.9 million AAV and he has been the biggest disappointment. Grubauer's .887 save percentage is by far the worst of his career and he's dead last in the league with a minus-19.33 goals saved above average.
St. Louis Blues: What becomes of the budding goalie controversy?
Explored a week before the break an interesting turn of events in St. Louis' crease, where Ville Husso has been miles better than Jordan Binnington for at least two months -- not enough to dethrone the Cup winner from the crease, but certainly a storyline to unfold.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Can Victor Hedman win the Norris Trophy?
With newer, younger, highlight-generating talents in Cale Makar and Adam Fox (among some others) jumping to NHL prominence in the past few years, 31-year-old Hedman might have a harder and harder time in search of his second Norris Trophy win. A finalist for the award five consecutive seasons, Hedman actually comes out of the break tied as the defenceman points leader with Fox (47) and with a massive minutes workload in all situations. Some of his underlying on-ice measures -- shot attempts percentage, expected goals percentage -- come out better than his younger counterparts. He may not have the same flash, but Hedman is right in the thick of this discussion again.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Can Jack Campbell settle in again?
Right out of the gate the Leafs, and their fans, would breath just a bit easier if Campbell could string together a couple of excellent starts. His last one before the break was a good one versus New Jersey, but that followed an eight-game January where Campbell posted an .890 save percentage and 3.57 GAA. No one is panicking or anything yet -- and they shouldn't -- but it's time to get serious.
Vancouver Canucks: How will the new front office shed salary while not stepping back?
Jim Rutherford, Stan Smyl and Patrik Allvin have all indicated Vancouver has a goal to reduce cap costs, but there's no clear path to it. JT Miller's name has been circulated in trade rumours, but re-signing him isn't off the table either. Conor Garland has drawn interest, but he's on a value contract with term. Brock Boeser may be the one to watch here -- a summer RFA due a $7.5 million qualifying offer, who hasn't reached his rookie season performance yet.
Vegas Golden Knights: How do they make salary cap room for a Jack Eichel return?
Jack Eichel hasn't spent a day on Vegas' active roster yet, but that time is drawing closer. And when he does come off LTIR, a capped-out Golden Knights front office will have to dance around the dollars and deal with the fact not everyone can fit at full strength. Reilly Smith's name has been tossed around as a potential casualty, but what they have to do -- and when -- will be determined by who else happens to be on LTI at that time.
Washington Capitals: Can they swing a trade for a goalie?
The Capitals have a few sore areas, namely both special teams units, and one way to try and offset any shortcoming would be to acquire a goalie upgrade. Ilya Samsonov has had a sub-.900 save percentage for over two months now and while 26-year-old Vitek Vanecek does have promise, the all-in Caps may not want to rely solely on him as their No. 1 and a struggling Samsonov as the back up. Both are up for contract extensions as arbitration-eligible RFAs. Marc-Andre Fleury has been connected to the team if he wants to go there.
Winnipeg Jets: Will GM Kevin Cheveldayoff find his way on to the hot seat?
The only general manager the Jets 2.0 franchise has ever had, Cheveldayoff's patience has defined his tenure, but as this year's team struggles to stay in the playoff race you wonder what the fallout of a missed post-season could be. The Jets were thought by some to be Canada's best team, but are 13th in the West out of the break, 2-6-2 in their past 10, and with a loss to Philadelphia leaving a bad taste just before the break. Their coach stepped away, their top centre is struggling with two-way play and the relative averageness of Connor Hellebuyck is exposing some cracks. Will Cheveldayoff address any of this? Will the team find its footing? Or will hard questions be asked about leadership and the direction forward?