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Kaplan: Answering 20 big questions heading into the season's final months

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We're more than halfway through the third straight pandemic-affected NHL season -- but it finally feels like we're tracking toward normalcy. We have (mostly) full arenas again, and a (mostly) typical 82-game schedule -- save for those few weeks in December where a flurry of postponements threatened to wreak havoc on everything. While some off-ice issues linger, and the league works to get back afloat with revenue, fans have been treated to incredible hockey since October. The season's first half has been defined by a series of daring, high-skill goals from a new generation of brash young stars not afraid to show some personality and transform the sport. You'll remember 2021-22 as the season you were introduced to Trevor Zegras, trust me.

We also have the old guard standing tall. The veteran two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning refuse to go dull, while Alex Ovechkin is playing like a man on a mission in his age-36 season, as he stares down Wayne Gretzky's all-time goal record. There's also a new group of elites -- the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers -- who all believe their time is now. The trade deadline is just over a month away and then the Stanley Cup playoffs -- this writer would die on the hill shouting that it's the best postseason in all of sports -- will be here before we know it. It's all shaping up to be an exciting second half, but surely you, the fan, have some lingering questions. Behold, some answers.

How does the league feel about where things are as the second half begins?

Cautiously optimistic. The NHL had to postpone more than 100 games (and reschedule 25 more) in a challenging stretch. The league trudged on, and at its most stressful moment, started its Christmas break early to give everyone a reset. All but one player in the NHL is fully vaccinated -- Detroit's Tyler Bertuzzi remains the only holdout -- while league sources have insisted a "large portion" of players and coaches have also been boosted. (The NHL and NHLPA don't intend to mandate a booster shot this season.) Because of that, and while projecting declining numbers as we exit cold and flu season, the NHL and NHLPA decided to stop regular testing for asymptomatic players after the All-Star break. In conjunction, the league also did away with its temporary taxi squads, meaning the NHL and NHLPA feel confident they won't need to reschedule many more games, if any at all.

So the NHL thinks COVID-19 stuff is mostly behind it and it can keep up with the schedule uninterrupted?

Pretty much. I checked in with the league office late last week, and everything still seems on track with our preseason timeline expectations: The regular season will end on April 29 and the Stanley Cup will be awarded the last week in June. Ah, normalcy. The big X factor here is Canada. Commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear at his annual state-of-the union news conference during All-Star Weekend that he was frustrated with restrictions made in several Canadian provinces limiting attendance -- and therefore draining from the league's revenue. Bettman said several Canadian teams have explored the possibility of playing in the United States, and he threatened to move the NHL draft from Montreal if the landscape doesn't change in Quebec. That's a storyline to keep tabs on.

Speaking of arenas and revenue, are the Coyotes really going to play in a college rink next season?

We all know that the Arizona Coyotes are Bettman's Sun Belt baby -- he put the franchise there in 1996 and has helped the Coyotes navigate through bankruptcy and ownership changes, determined to make it work. The Coyotes' biggest road block thus far has been the location of Gila River Arena in Glendale; it's simply too far out from where most of the fan base lives. The team's relationship with the arena and the city of Glendale became fractured (and at its worst, involved unpaid taxes) and the Coyotes were told they needed to find a new home next season. Owner Alex Meruelo has a grand plan to build a new arena and multifaceted entertainment venue in Tempe, an ideal location. Only problem? That proposal is complicated, involving gambling and liquor licenses, and sits at the city council right now, waiting for approvals. So the team needed a temporary solution. Enter the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Coyotes reached a deal to play their next three seasons in the Sun Devils' 5,000-seat arena; the Coyotes will be paying nearly $20 million to get the facility up to NHL code. Bettman said he's OK with the solution because he views it as temporary and thinks the venue will create a unique fan environment. While that's all true, some league owners and the players' association have expressed reservations. Since the NHL and its players operate on a revenue-sharing system, one of the clubs maxing out at only 5,000 tickets for the next three years is less than ideal.

What's the burning on-ice question on everyone's mind right now?

How are the Vegas Golden Knights going to get cap compliant when Jack Eichel is healthy? They'll need to figure it out quickly, because all signs point to Eichel debuting as soon as this week. It's not just Eichel's $10 million salary the Golden Knights need to squeeze in; Alec Martinez and his $5.25 million salary have been shelved, and the defenseman appears ready to return soon. GM Kelly McCrimmon said the team had a plan for how to attack this logjam when it traded for Eichel, and there's plenty of speculation about the players who could be traded (such as original Golden Misfits William Karlsson and Reilly Smith). However, Vegas is waiting as long as possible to make a move -- and for good reason, because the issue could solve itself. Captain Mark Stone has been battling a back injury all season long, and if he's put on long-term injured reserve (with his $9.5 million salary) that could solve a lot of problems. Of course, that will trigger a chorus of groans that this is cap circumvention, a la Nikita Kucherov and the 2021 Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. But those people should be shouting at the NHL CBA, not McCrimmon. Because as long as Stone is legitimately injured, it's all compliant.

We've seen seven coaching changes already this season, what gives?

You heard that number right -- nearly one fourth of NHL teams have switched bench bosses this season. Five coaches were fired (Jeremy Colliton, Travis Green, Alain Vigneault, Dominique Ducharme and Dave Tippett, in chronological order) while Joel Quenneville resigned because of his role in the Chicago Blackhawks sex abuse case and Paul Maurice stepped away for personal reasons. In-season coaching changes are ubiquitous in the modern NHL. This could be somewhat of a course correction; last season there were only three in-season coaching changes, as a lot of teams held on to coaches they might have been borderline on. One of those reasons is financial. Most NHL teams were reeling last season from lost revenue, and paying a coach not to coach isn't exactly for the budget-conscious. This season, as we track toward more normal revenues, teams are perhaps feeling a little more capricious. Players in Philadelphia told me they viewed Vigneault as "untouchable" considering he was making $5 million in salary through the 2023-24 season, but ownership was willing to eat that when results became so poor. The Canadiens are technically paying three coaches this season, as the $5 million deal of Claude Julien is still on the books, as are contracts for Ducharme (who had just signed a three-year extension, yikes) and Martin St. Louis, the Hall of Famer who was coaxed out of his job coaching his son's pee wee hockey team to right the ship of the Original Six franchise.

Are any other coaches on the hot seat?

The carnage should be over for now -- which, of course, is famous last words. I've heard rumblings that the Stars thought about making a change, but it seems they'll stick with Rick Bowness for the time being. Derek King has done a good job restoring confidence and positive vibes around the Chicago locker room, but I haven't talked to anyone who views him as the long-term solution. Once the Blackhawks hire a GM -- and I've heard the search could wrap up soon -- expect that person to bring in a different coach next season. The Flyers are giving Mike Yeo the job for the rest of the season, but given the mess in Philadelphia, it's hard to imagine them not going full reset entering next season and hiring someone else. (Rick Tocchet and ESPN's own John Tortorella are the names I've heard most connected there; remember, the old brain trust of Paul Holmgren and Bobby Clarke is heavily involved in big picture decisions.)

Who are the breakout stars of the season so far?

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Trevor Zegras channels 'Dodgeball' to score filthy goal while blindfolded

Trevor Zegras blindfolds himself in an "Average Joe's" uniform and scores an absolutely filthy goal in the Breakaway Challenge.

It's hard to argue against Trevor Zegras. He pulled off so many viral highlights during the season's first half, the league was compelled to invite him to All-Star Weekend just to be part of the skills competition (where he did not disappoint, pulling off arguably the highest-difficulty move of the night). Zegras is wildly creative, highly skilled and completely fearless -- ushering in a new generation of NHLers who aren't afraid to show off their personality, authentically.

Nazem Kadri's career year is hard to ignore. Motivated by yet another postseason suspension, as the Avalanche were eliminated from the second round for the third consecutive season, Kadri is playing out of his mind right now, and will get compensated accordingly when he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer. And it's not just the offensive numbers. Kadri's overall game is so sound, Avs coach Jared Bednar has him playing an increased role on the penalty kill and has bumped Kadri's ice time by nearly three minutes this season.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, Jordan Kyrou is finally putting it all together after a stop-go start to his career, which was hampered by knee injuries. If you weren't paying attention to Kyrou's speed during the season, you definitely noticed it when he dethroned Connor McDavid at the NHL's fastest skater event.

In New York, Igor Shesterkin is proving why the Rangers felt comfortable parting with the King, Henrik Lundqvist, two years ago. Shesterkin is the real deal, and cool as his predecessor under pressure. Meanwhile, Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau has officially overtaken teammate Aleksander Barkov for the title of "Most Underrated Star" in the league (though Carolina's Sebastian Aho and Winnipeg's Kyle Connor would like a word).

Whom will we be talking about as a breakout star come playoffs?

If you're expecting a long playoff run out of Carolina -- I, for one, am -- then expect the national profile of Aho to rise significantly. While the Canes have a ton of offensive talent, a key storyline for them will be the steady goaltending of Frederik Andersen. Finally recovered from a knee injury that plagued the end of his tenure in Toronto, Andersen is feeling more confident than ever. He's also feeling more comfortable in a market more conducive to his low-key, reserved personality. As his coach, Rod Brind'Amour, said recently: "We've always had good goaltending, but Freddie's won us a lot of games. We've played pretty well this year as a group, but he's got us [wins] himself because he was better than the guy across from him in quite a few games."

Pittsburgh has been playing with dangerous energy ever since it trounced the two-time defending champion Lightning in Tampa in the season opener. Pittsburgh's Jake Guentzel doesn't get nearly enough national attention for his consistency, so perhaps this is his year. He's more than just Sidney Crosby's linemate, people! (Though he's very good at being Sidney Crosby's linemate.)

With the shadow of Tuukka Rask no longer looming, is either Jeremy Swayman or Linus Ullmark ready to take a star turn? Cale Makar gets most of the attention on Colorado's blue line -- rightfully so -- but Devon Toews is a major impact player who will be better appreciated come playoff time. And if it's time to start appreciating underappreciated defensemen, do yourself a favor and watch Jonas Brodin in Minnesota. You're welcome.

How is this year's trade deadline shaping up?

If you're asking if we're going to get a James Harden-to-the-76ers-level blockbuster, you're probably out of luck. More likely, it's a bunch of veterans on expiring contracts who are moved for conditional picks. There's a surplus of capable defensemen available, and a decent number of goalies, too. Phil Kessel's contract with the Coyotes is structured so that he makes less than $1 million for a team that acquires him, so he'll be attractive to any team looking to add a grizzled veteran with a scoring touch to its middle six. Boston's Jake DeBrusk and St. Louis' Vladimir Tarasenko both made trade requests that have not yet been met. Based on how their seasons are tracking, DeBrusk is likelier to move now, whereas a Tarasenko move, if it happens at all, seems more destined to happen over the summer. The Kraken will have a fire sale, and a decision will be made by management and captain Mark Giordano on whether he is a part of it. New Ducks GM Pat Verbeek walks into several tough decisions, such as whether he is going to re-sign Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson or try to recoup some value for both defensemen on expiring contracts.

Which teams are going to be busiest?

Start with Carolina and Florida. Both teams look good now, and believe their time is now. I think they'd both like to add an elite blueliner, and should be in on players like John Klingberg, Ben Chiarot and Jakob Chychrun -- though the latter would be part of a large trade package, as he's under contract through 2025. Colorado GM Joe Sakic has made it clear to his peers that he's all-in, and the team has been sniffing around some big names.

The Avalanche will add. I'd be surprised if the New York Rangers don't add a depth forward. I think the Bruins will make some sort of move, and I would call it gross malpractice if Edmonton doesn't acquire a goalie (and the Oilers need a defenseman, too).

Doug Armstrong in St. Louis and Julien BriseBois in Tampa will both claim they don't have any cap space to get something done, but I don't buy that completely. Those are two GMs who know how to get creative.

One GM who seems content with his team as currently constructed: Nashville's David Poile. Helps when your team is overachieving while staving off a rebuild.

Who are the underrated players who will get moved and make an impact?

There are always one or two depth players moved at the trade deadline who are viewed as the "secret ingredient" to a team's postseason success. (See: Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman in Tampa, 2020). Who's that guy this year? A lot of teams are buzzing about the versatile Artturi Lehkonen in Montreal. Seattle's Calle Jarnkrok is another possibility, and if J.T. Miller is ultimately moved from Vancouver, he'd definitely fit the profile. The Flyers probably overpaid for Rasmus Ristolainen, but he's 27, and is a hard-nosed, physical defenseman who has been in the league for nine years and has yet to play for a winning franchise (yes, it's a bit skewed as his first eight years were spent toiling away in Buffalo). Put Ristolainen around a winning organization in a more sheltered role, and he could be the perfect sixth-defenseman addition who carries a team through. While we're at it, add Buffalo's Robert Hagg to the list. I see him playing the role of Luke Schenn for Tampa in 2021.

Biggest player traded?

Claude Giroux is the longest-serving captain in Philadelphia Flyers history. He has spent his entire 15-year career with the organization. He'll be playing for a new one this spring, with hopes of finally winning a Stanley Cup after coming so close in 2010. If Giroux is comfortable playing for a team in the West (he has two young kids and location will be a consideration) then you might just see him on the Colorado Avalanche this spring. Oh my.

Low-key teams to keep an eye on?

The Capitals aren't exactly thrilled with their goaltending duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. As of now, Vanecek -- whom the team lost in the Seattle expansion draft, only to reacquire -- is a slight step above Samsonov, once regarded the organization's long-term solution in net. But neither is inspiring much confidence for a long playoff run, so it wouldn't be surprising to see GM Brian MacLellan get involved in the goalie market, specifically looking for a veteran (doesn't it feel like ages ago when they signed Henrik Lundqvist for this very reason?). Over the past several years, the trade deadline has been a frustrating time for Kings veterans, who have seen their friends, one by one, sent away. The tide has changed and the rebuild is ending. GM Rob Blake is in the market for a depth defensemen.

How set are the playoff teams?

For weeks now, people around the league have been saying that the playoff picture in the East is set. There won't be much intrigue there down the stretch, just some jockeying for positioning. The West is a little less set, especially in the Pacific Division, where all teams except for the Kraken are within 11 points of each other. That wild-card race could get juicy.

Is Alex Ovechkin going to catch Wayne Gretzky's goal record?

Yes, but hold your horses. Based on current projections, it's looking like Ovechkin should hit the mark in the 2024-25 season. When Ovi is close, expect Gretzky to get on the road and follow Ovechkin so he can be there to congratulate him in person -- just as Gordie Howe did for Gretzky in 1989.

How many goals will Alex Ovechkin finish the season with?

I talked to MacLellan about it in December. He admitted what is pretty obvious for anyone who tunes in to a Caps game to see: Ovechkin is on a mission this season. He's playing smarter in the offensive zone, on pace to record his most assists per season in a decade. But he's still lightning the lamp all right. I see Ovechkin hitting 50 goals this season, for the seventh time in his career.

Anyone challenging him for the goals crown?

The Rocket Richard should come down to the wire this season! Ovechkin isn't even in first place right now. Or second. Or third. Chris Kreider, Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews are all ahead of him on the chart (and all three are on playoff teams, and don't project to be slowing down) while Chicago's Alex DeBrincat is just behind Ovi, breathing down his neck with 27. My gut says Matthews closes this thing out.

How about a predictions reset at midseason -- which award is going to be the hardest to select?

There are a ton of quality MVP candidates right now -- Huberdeau, for the record, has my vote at this juncture -- while the Calder is a crowded race including Lucas Raymond, Anton Lundell, Moritz Seider and Zegras. I've heard quite a few defensemen in the league complain that the Norris award has simply become, "Which blueliner has the most points?" Fair complaint. When Linda Cohn and I had Washington's John Carlson on our podcast last month, I asked him what his criteria would be for selecting the Norris Trophy. Carlson's answer: Go with your gut. You need to win one game, which defenseman do you think will give you the best chance to do that? My gut pick: either Makar or Victor Hedman. How can you pick between those two?!

How about a Cup Final prediction?

Hedman's Lightning and Makar's Avalanche played in Denver last week, and I couldn't help but think: Give me a seven-game series between these teams, ASAP. The Avs should be the favorite in the West, but they'll have to stave off the Golden Knights, who are the closest thing we have to an NHL superteam. (The last time a team just collected captains like this? Maybe the 2002 Detroit Red Wings.) In the East, you can make a great case for either Carolina or Florida -- and Carolina coach Brind'Amour made a strong case for Florida, gushing about the Panthers throughout All-Star Weekend -- but there's something about this Lightning team that's just special. Their chemistry and trust and talent have them within sniffing distance of a three-peat.

And winner?

It's the Avs' year. As long as they make it out of the second round.