It's hard to believe the NHL regular season is at its midpoint. And with All-Star weekend fast approaching and the final weeks before the trade deadline following in February, the second half of the season always seems to disappear even more quickly than the first.
As part of our midseason review this week, here is a look at five things we expect will transpire during the final half of this already tumultuous regular season:
1. The blindside hit rule will continue to be a mystery
Between now and the end of the regular season, the league's attempts to curb blindside hits and blows to the head will be no closer to being either understood or properly punished. One problem remains: Even though there are words suggesting the league wants to eliminate blows to the head (Rule No. 48.1), no one, least of all the league's head of discipline Colin Campbell, seems comfortable with what kinds of actions actually fall under that new rule.
How, for instance, to explain how David Steckel clipped the game's best player in the head with his shoulder during the Winter Classic when Sidney Crosby was looking the other way and wasn't even given a warning, let alone a fine or a suspension? The rationale was the contact was incidental; but the fact is, it was a blindside hit whether anyone meant it or not.
Players are regularly whistled for high sticking even though they may merely be turning to follow the play. Players must be in control of their sticks. Should Steckel not have been held to the same standards?
Crosby is out for at least a week and the NHL is robbed of its most identifiable player.
A few days later, Calgary's Tom Kostopoulos raced in and clocked Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart, sidelining him for 6-8 weeks with a fractured jaw. Kostopoulos was given a six-game suspension; it easily could have been twice that number, and still there were those who believed it was a good hockey hit. The Flames put out an indignant press release, suggesting the hit was a good one, which merely illustrates no one in the game really knows what's going on when it comes to these kinds of hits.
The end result? Look for more players to spend more time on the disabled list, while the NHL fumbles through the darkness on this one.
2. At least one 'good' West team will miss postseason
At least one, and maybe two, very good teams are going to miss the playoffs in the Western Conference.
Even though we imagined some sort of Stanley Cup hangover from the Chicago Blackhawks and their revamped lineup, we didn't expect them to be as inconsistent as they've been through the first half. Likewise, the talent-laden San Jose Sharks continue to look like a team that doesn't quite get how to be a winner despite advancing to last season's Western Conference finals, where they were swept by the Hawks. The Los Angeles Kings, losers of five straight before a sloppy win over floundering Columbus on Saturday, are also seeking that elusive chemistry all champions possess.
As of Monday, the Sharks were in 11th place in the West after losing four straight games, the Kings were in eighth and the Hawks were sixth (but just three points out of 12th). Although we picked all three teams to be in the playoffs at the start of the season and had Chicago returning to the Stanley Cup finals, we're guessing at least one of these three teams doesn't make it to the dance at all.
Our best guess right now is, shockingly, the San Jose Sharks. Just 10-8-3 at home, they can't count on other teams to make it easy for them, and we're not sure they've got the intestinal fortitude to get there themselves.
3. Will Kings GM Dean Lombardi make a move?
No manager has as much pressure on him to push his team forward as Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi. The Kings emerged last season as a young team that looked ready to challenge the big boys in the Western Conference. After losing to Vancouver in an entertaining six-game set in the first round last season, the assumption was they would use that experience, with the addition of one or two key pieces, to take that next step.
Lombardi was in the hunt for free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, although it was never really clear whether that was ownership's pursuit or his own. The Kings lucked out, of course, when the Devils ended up with the albatross. Sans Kovalchuk, the Kings took a chance and signed oft-injured Willie Mitchell to bolster the blue line, and he has been, well, oft-injured. They also signed Alexei Ponikarovsky (Kovalchuk Lite, if you will), who has continued the disappointing play that saw him flame out in Pittsburgh last season.
Now, Kings fans wait and wonder what Lombardi will do to bolster a roster that has been curiously prone to coming unglued this season despite its nice mix of young talent and battle-tested veterans. The challenge for Lombardi will be in making an impact move when there don't seem to be any obvious ones on the horizon. Brad Richards isn't going anywhere at least until July 1, Jamie Langenbrunner has joined Richards in Dallas, and there is no Marian Hossa or Kovalchuk-type player available before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
Lombardi may hope the answers are already in the Kings' locker room, and they might be. If not, there will be some hard questions asked about this team's makeup if it misses the playoffs or fails to get past the first round.
4. The Iginla watch
The Flames are in serious need of a makeover after taking the dramatic step of dumping GM Darryl Sutter in midseason. Iginla, a classy leader who still has better-than-average offensive skills, would be coveted by literally a dozen playoff-hopeful teams and could return a nice package of picks and assets were he made available. Yet for all the talk that will bubble to the surface in the coming weeks, we believe the Flames have no intention of approaching Iginla about waiving his no-movement clause.
Iginla has made it clear he wants to stay in Calgary (he has two more years left on his current contract at $7 million annually), and the Flames appear content to honor that contract. Now, is it possible Iginla could have a change of heart and ask for a change of scenery? Sure. If that was the case, GM Jay Feaster, looking to earn the full-time spot in the offseason after replacing Sutter on an interim basis, would likely listen. But Feaster's history dictates this: If he says he's not trading a player, he's not. Feaster stuck by his guns in Tampa Bay and resisted the temptation to trade Vincent Lecavalier when the forward was in a down period. The Lightning went on to win a Stanley Cup.
Team sources say the notion of exploring an Iginla trade is a "non-starter," and that means another potential impact player will stay put through the trade deadline.
5. Defense will win for Ovechkin, Capitals
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin will finish outside the top 10 in NHL scoring for just the second time in his career, but the Caps will finish well within the top 10 in the league defensively. The latter should ultimately be a lot more unnerving for opposing teams come playoff time.
Ovechkin finished second in scoring last season with 50 goals and 109 points and earned his third straight Ted Lindsay Award (formerly the Lester B. Pearson Award) as the league's MVP as voted on by the players. Yet the Caps finished 16th last season in goals allowed per game, and the sense was they couldn't batten down the hatches come playoff time, a sentiment borne out of when they were upended in the first round by eighth-seeded Montreal.
This season, much has been made of Ovechkin's downturn in production. At the midway point, he was tied for 11th in league scoring, on pace for his lowest points total since becoming an NHLer. Still, the Caps were seventh in goals allowed per game and battling with Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Southeast Division. (The last time the Capitals finished within the top 12 in goals allowed per game was the 1999-00 season, when they were fourth overall.)
Coincidence? We think not. We're guessing the Caps will maintain their strong team defense, the kind that suggests a trip to at least the conference finals for the first time since 1998.