Scott Darling

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Price of success finally catching up to Blackhawks

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The Chicago Blackhawks have made the playoffs in each of the last nine seasons, but that streak looks like it’s in some trouble.

After last night’s 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, the ‘Hawks find themselves eight points behind Minnesota for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. Both teams have played 54 games.

If you’re rooting for them to make the playoffs, you’ll likely be disappointed by what general manager Stan Bowman said yesterday.

“I don’t expect us to be a buyer this year,” Bowman said, per The Athletic’s Scott Powers. “It has nothing to do with where we are in the standings. It’s just that each season is a little bit different. Your team is different.

“I think the strength of our team is we’re trying to build some young players we’re going to have. We have a lot of new players this year relative to last year. I think it’s hard when you bring in 11, 12 new players every year.”

The price of success

Obviously, Bowman has a point. Being successful in today’s NHL comes at a price. Eventually, your best players have to get paid. And since you can’t pay everybody, you’re bound to lose players either via trade or in free agency.

Last summer, for example, they were forced to trade Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa had to stop playing because of an allergy and Scott Darling‘s rights were dealt to Carolina. Those are three pretty signifiant pieces of the puzzle to lose in one offseason.

On top of losing those players, the Blackhawks have also been without starting goalie Corey Crawford for a good chunk of the year (having Darling would’ve helped). They’ve watched as “new” acquisitions like Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad have struggled and to make matters worse, long-time ‘Hawks Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith don’t appear to be as effective as they once were.

Thankfully for them, they have young players that have made progress in 2017-18. Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz lead the way in that department. Both players have have shown that they have a bright future ahead of them. The problem is that Chicago doesn’t have a ton of young assets to work with. That’s another down side to winning, you draft late and you have to work harder to find quality prospects.

Heading into this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Bowman is already without his second and fourth round draft picks, but he does have two selections in round five. So using picks to help improve the roster right now shouldn’t be an option.

Fixing the cap situation

Bowman shouldn’t be in a hurry to offload big names either, but if Chicago is going to turn this thing around quickly they’ll have to get their salary cap situation in order, which won’t be easy considering Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Saad and Patrick Kane combine to make almost $39.5 million per season. All five of them are also signed for at least three more years.

We’ve heard that scoring wingers like Rick Nash, Evander Kane, Max Pacioretty and Mike Hoffman are all available, but it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Hawks are willing to unload Saad after a mediocre season. They could certainly use the $6 million in cap space, but getting rid of him when his value is at its lowest probably isn’t a great idea, either.

It would be surprising to see them try to unload Keith and/or Toews, so that’s likely not an option and there’s no way they’re moving Kane. The biggest challenge will be to find a way for someone to take Seabrook off their hands. If they could get rid of his $6.875 million cap hit (signed through 2023-24), that would change the game. Unfortunately for them, his play and no-move clause make that nearly impossible.Bowman will have to continue being creative with the bottom of his roster, if he’s going to help his team make it back to the postseason soon.

It’s clear that the roster isn’t in good shape, but it’s important to remember that this core won three Stanley Cups together. But a lot of teams would sign up for a few years of salary cap hell if it meant taking home three championships.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Scott Darling on his on-ice struggles, leaving Chicago, new ownership (PHT Q&A)

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Scott Darling‘s first season in Carolina has been less than ideal. When the ‘Canes opened the vault to sign him to a contract last spring, they expected that they’d be getting a solid number one netminder. Instead, Darling and Cam Ward have taken turns being less than stellar.

Darling realizes that he needs to be better if the Hurricanes want to make the playoffs. It’s the first time in a while that he’s hit adversity on the ice and he’s hoping that his hard work in practice and off the ice will pay off between now and the end of the regular season.

During Carolina’s recent trip through Montreal, Darling took the time to speak to PHT about his game, leaving Chicago and the team’s new ownership situation.

Q. How do you evaluate your first half in Carolina? 

DARLING: “Oh, I mean, it’s definitely not good enough. I’ve had some good games and some bad games too and some bad luck, but it’s got to be better. There’s been some uncharacteristic nights for me. I’ve been working really hard the last couple of weeks in practice and off the ice working out and stuff like that trying to be as ready as I can the next time I get in the net.”

What are the type of things that have surprised you so far this year?

“I haven’t really faced on-ice adversity in six, seven years. This is uncomfortable (laughs). It’s something I don’t like and it’s something I’m working hard to fix.”

What’s the adjustment like when you go to a new team and a new city after being in Chicago for so long?

“Oh, it’s huge. I was lucky to know a lot of the guys on the team already playing with them before. But it’s a big change in your life. I put down roots in Chicago. I’m from Chicago. I had a house there, I had a life there. So it’s a big change to uproot. New team, new city, new coaches, new system, new everything, so it’s definitely a factor, but I don’t think that’s the deciding factor on what’s going on on the ice.”

How much more difficult is it when you go up on the pay scale? 

“At the end of the day, no matter what, in the NHL you’re making good money. Especially for someone like me who’s played for a lot less. Even making league minimum was huge for me. I don’t really think about the money, it’s just more the outside. The way they look at you, the expectations, but for me personally it doesn’t affect the way I play.”

How has your relationship with a veteran like Cam Ward helped you this season?

“Oh, it’s helped me a lot. He’s a world class guy and a world class goalie. He’s talked me off the ledge a few times. He’s been through the ups and downs, he’s been doing this a long time with this team. He’s seen the dark days, he’s seen the good days. He helps me keep an even keel and keeps motivating me to keep working hard. Everything’s going to turn around. I know I’m a good goalie. I have confidence in myself. Sometimes it rains, but the sun is going to come out eventually.”

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Is this the most adversity you’ve faced at the NHL level?

“Absolutely. At the NHL level for sure. Luckily it’s not the first time in my life I’ve had to face a little adversity. I’m just trying to stay positive because I know what I can do and I know it’s going to turn around.”

What previous experiences have you gone through that can help you get through this?

“I’ve played in the [ECHL], [SPHL], I’ve had dark days down there. At the end of the day, it’s still a great day, you’re in the NHL and you get to be here and play at the Bell Center (on Thursday). So just keeping everything in perspective and staying positive is all you can really do and that’s what I’m doing.”

Did new ownership breathe new life into this locker room? 

“I don’t if it brought new life into the locker room, but it’s changed things which is good. Just our little day-to-day stuff is getting better. The way it’s all ran for us, the resources we have, things we need, just little stuff is already changed. So it’s one less thing to worry about.”

What’s the biggest change so far?

“The big changes are on their way. Right now, just getting more food, healthier food,just little stuff like that. We’re not worried about ordering new equipment. (Thomas Dundon) is doing it right and we’re really excited to have him.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

PHT Report Card

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes should explore goalie trade market with Darling failing

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You can throw stats out there to explain how Scott Darling has been a disappointment for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The hulking goalie sports an atrocious .892 save percentage and a mediocre 9-13-6 record so far as the Hurricanes’ starter, with Cam Ward shining by comparison (yet still not good enough). There are lowlights aplenty.

The Raleigh News & Observer’s Luke DeCock provides a harsh one-liner that really sells the letdown, though: “He’s not even Eddie Lack.”

Ouch.

Looking deeper at the numbers, it’s tough to let Darling off the hook.

The Hurricanes aren’t really allowing a problematic number of high-danger chances, and they continue to hog the puck in the ways that made people so excited about them in the first place (first in Corsi For percentage, via Natural Stat Trick).

DeCock asks a fair question: will GM and team legend Ron Francis get another shot to identify a better goalie after whiffing once again?

In the case of Lack, it was at least not a ruinous contract. Darling’s $4.15 million cap hit runs through the 2020-21 season, so of course Bill Peters and others are doing what they can to throw their support around the big netminder.

But maybe DeCock and others are onto something when it comes to the 2017-18 season.

Proactive approach might be best

Cam Ward’s latest ill-advised contract ($3.3M cap hit) dissolves after this campaign. With that in mind, the Hurricanes will either promote a goalie from their system or search the free agent market for a backup.

Instead of waiting for that latter option, what if the Hurricanes traded for someone who might be able to help them now?

One can apply similar thoughts to the Chicago Blackhawks living without Corey Crawford.

The Hurricanes could aim for someone with some skins on the wall as at least partial starters, if they think they can rejuvenate Jaroslav Halak or Petr Mrazek. If they’d rather aim for potential, there are interesting backups hoping to climb in Aaron Dell and Philipp Grubauer.

There’s a chance that Darling might eventually turn his career around. The Hurricanes would be foolish to just assume that such a rebound will happen, though. They might need to cut their losses and make Darling an overpaid backup at some point, as fans must already be getting impatient with this “if only we had a solid goalie” song and dance.

Soul searching

Finding a solution might mean asking some tough questions.

Are there systemic issues here? Do the Hurricanes need to hire a different goalie coach, or add to their staff? What went wrong in evaluating Darling?

Looking at Darling’s career on hockeydb, it’s clear that he was never really a workhorse, whether that was due to his own shortcomings earlier on or teams never really giving him a shot. Darling never played more than 26 regular-season games in the AHL, though he played well when he did, even in the playoffs. In fact, his career-high was 42 regular-season games with the USHL’s Indiana Ice in 2007-08.

Such factoids make Darling’s success story quite inspiring, but you wonder if the Hurricanes were guilty of too much wishful thinking. Yes, Darling was good (.915 save percentage in 29 appearances in 2015-16) to great (.936 in 14 games in 2014-15, .924 in 32 games last season) with the Chicago Blackhawks. Still, he was dismissed frequently during his career, only getting picked in the sixth round (153rd overall) in 2007 by the then-Phoenix Coyotes.

Draft stature doesn’t mean everything, especially with goalies. Henrik Lundqvist went in the seventh round. Plenty of first-rounders don’t pan out.

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The bottom line is that it’s tough to prognosticate how a goalie will react to a new environment, particularly when they’re going from backup to starter. The Hurricanes would be wise to explore their options in case Darling’s struggles are the rule rather than exception.

Why not get the ball rolling (puck dropping?) on a solution sooner rather than later?

For all we know, the Hurricanes might end up with two effective goalies if they try that approach; Darling might benefit from real competition rather than having a lame duck backup in Ward. They’d gladly take one instead of the far-too-common zero they’ve been dealing with for far too long.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Awards: PHT hands out some midseason hardware

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Almost every team has hit the 41-game mark of the season, which means it’s time to look back at the first half and hand out some hardware. There’s plenty of change since we did our quarter-point awards post and these will most certainly change by the end of the regular season.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at who we think is deserving of the Hart, Norris, Vezina, Adams, Calder and Selke Trophies, along with some first-half surprises and disappointments.

SEAN LEAHY

HART TROPHY
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
2. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

No player has more points since Nov. 1 than MacKinnon. He’s taken his game to another level and is a big reason why the Avalanche are threatening for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. While Nikita Kucherov was the MVP favorite early on, MacKinnon’s play, the goaltending of Vasilevskiy has caused the Lightning forward to be leap-frogged. You also can’t forget the scoring exploits of Steven Stamkos, who could draw some votes away from Kucherov.

NORRIS TROPHY
1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators / John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Doughty has the points (7 goals, 30 points), the ice time (27:10), the possession stats (53.4 Corsi, 6.38 Corsi-relative) to make his case for another one of these. Hedman is right there behind him and a strong second half could see the tide move his way. Just waiting on the outside is Karlsson, who should put up a strong argument after a “weird” first half, and Klingberg, who’s made big strides this season and leads all defensemen in scoring (6-33—39). He’s also plus-118 in shot attempts, which is a monster upgrade from his negative-25 last season.

VEZINA TROPHY
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators
3. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Hopefully Crawford comes back soon from his upper-body injury because he was having a wonderful. Vasilevskiy has not only been the Lightning MVP, he’s also been the best netminder in the league. He leads the NHL in shutouts (6) and even strength save percentage (.941).

JACK ADAMS AWARD
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. John Hynes, New Jersey Devils

Whoever ends up being a finalist with Gallant for the Adams should just skip the awards show and hit up a craps table because we all know who’s going to win this.

CALDER TROPHY
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
2. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins
3. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

Remember the days when Clayton Keller was the big-time favorite? He’s slowed down a bit with only three goals since Nov. 6. During that time Boeser and Barzal have been on scoring tears, while McAvoy continues to be a rock on the Boston blue line averaging 22:53 a night alongside Zdeno Chara

SELKE TROPHY
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

This is going to be Bergeron’s award to lose every season until he retires or his game finally falls off a cliff. This season he’ll have some very stiff competition from Couturier and Kopitar, who is having a fantastic bounce-back season. Bergeron is once again a possession monster (58.28 Corsi, 7.39 Corsi-relative) while continuing to produce (16 goals, 32 points). Couturier has the possession numbers (54.25 Corsi, 1.28 Corsi-relative) and has already set career highs in goals (23) and points (42)

Biggest Surprise (Team): Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest Surprise (Player): William Karlsson
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Edmonton Oilers
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Scott Darling

Second half storyline to watch: Can the surprise teams — Vegas, New Jersey, Winnipeg — maintain their success to earn playoff berths?

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SCOTT BILLECK

HART TROPHY
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

Stamkos has been splendid in his return to form. Kucherov is simply the best goal scorer in the NHL and Wheeler might be the most important player to any team in the NHL with his versatility and his point production.

NORRIS TROPHY
1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
3. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

Hedman’s the best defenseman in the NHL thus far this season, and it’s a runaway at this point. Doughty would probably be leading this in any other year. Karlsson is still Karlsson, and that’s had Norris written all over it before.

VEZINA TROPHY
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets
3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Vasilevskiy has been sensational, and while Bob has done Bob things all season, he’s just not there this year. Hellebuyck deserves recognition as one of top goalies, especially if you compare him to himself last year.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets

What Gallant has gotten out of his troops in Vegas is outstanding, and barring a complete flop, he’s the clear-cut winner here. Cooper leads the best team in the NHL, but also has some remarkable talent (likely four all-stars). Maurice has turned an underachieving Jets team into one of the best in the west.

CALDER TROPHY
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
3. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes

Boeser and Barzal are going to go back and forth for the title until the end of the season. This is really a 1 a. and 1 b. scenario. Keller has done well in a terrible situation on a very bad team.

SELKE TROPHY
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
3. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

Two perennial contenders and then there’s Scheifele, who before his injury, was on a different level, both in terms of points and how he plays the game defensively.

Biggest Surprise (Team): Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest Surprise (Player): Brayden Schenn
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Edmonton Oilers
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Matt Duchene

Second half storyline to watch: Will the Golden Knights stay the course and sell, even with their high position in the standings, or will they be buyers at the trade deadline?

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ADAM GRETZ

HART TROPHY
1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
3. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

It’s hard to ignore the guy that is running away with the scoring title, that is on pace to finish with more points than any player has had in about seven or eight years, and is doing so for the best team in the league. So Kucherov gets my mid-season pick. Anze Kopitar isn’t far behind given the minutes he is playing and how dominant he has been all over the ice, and the fact the Colorado Avalanche are even in playoff contention at this point is largely due to MacKinnon having such a breakout year.

NORRIS TROPHY
1. P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lighting
3. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Subban isn’t just an exciting offensive player, he has become one of the best shutdown defenders in the league. Hedman is right there with him and John Klingberg is very quietly having a stellar season in Dallas. Tough race at this point with all three being very worthy.

VEZINA TROPHY
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
3. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Vasilevskiy has been amazing and doesn’t seem to get a ton of attention. His save percentage at this point would be one of the best single season performances in league history. Lundqvist is once again masking a ton of flaws for the Rangers and deserves to be in the discussion. Crawford has been sidelined (and still is) but when he has been healthy has been outstanding. If he misses too much time he might be out of the discussion toward the end of the season, but we are talking about first half at this point, and for the first half he has been one of the best goalies in the league.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. John Stevens, Los Angeles Kings
3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lighting

How can it be anybody other than Gallant at this point? An expansion team with the second best record in the league? Yeah, it is his award at this point. The Kings look like a completely different team with largely the same roster as last season.

CALDER TROPHY
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islander
3. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes

Boeser looks like the type of core player the Canucks need to be the centerpiece of their rebuild, while Barzal could be an excellent complement to John Tavares in New York for the next eight years (assuming, of course, the Islanders can re-sign Tavares).

SELKE TROPHY
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

Bergeron is the centerpiece of the NHL’s most dominant line. They don’t get scored on, he has the best possession numbers of any forward in the league. He is simply a force and the best two-way player in the league right now. Couturier has always been an outstanding defensive player and now he has the offensive numbers that will get him noticed.

Biggest Surprise (Team): Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest Surprise (Player): Nathan MacKinnon
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Edmonton Oilers
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Matt Murray

Second half storyline to watch: Will the Penguins and Blackhawks, two of the most dominant teams in the NHL over the past decade, make the playoffs?

Getty Images

JAMES O’BRIEN

HART TROPHY
1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders

When it comes to the Hart Trophy, I think it’s better to take the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) approach. You can tie yourself in knots trying to argue “best player” versus “most valuable” and overly penalize someone like Kucherov for (gasp) having good teammates. Kucherov is head-and-shoulders above everyone else right now, and if you ask me, his 27 goals seal the deal.

It was tough to leave Connor McDavid off this list, but hey, he won’t suffer from such a snub during many healthy seasons. Honestly, he’ll almost certainly finish as a finalist through 82, anyway.

NORRIS TROPHY
1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

I can feel the tomatoes coming my way from Hockey Twitter right now, but this has been a rough season for Karlsson, who may still be a Martian sent to our planet to play hockey at a maximum level of efficiency.

Anyway, Doughty’s really flourishing and is an enormous part of the Kings’ transition to a modern style. He’s generating the points you’d want, is a two-way dynamo from a possession standpoint, and is checking all the boxes. That said, the field is very competitive, with John Klingberg, P.K. Subban, and Mark Giordano just a few of the guys who also deserve consideration. With Karlsson slipping – by his standards – it makes for a perplexingly deep field.

VEZINA TROPHY
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

My goodness, a .935 save percentage is approaching golden age Tim Thomas territory (without the bunker, which seems like less of a silly investment in 2018). Vasilevskiy probably benefits from a great Lightning team, but he’s reminding the hockey world why TB opted for him instead of Ben Bishop.

The rest of the pack is really close, with Connor Hellebuyck, Pekka Rinne, and Corey Crawford all deserving consideration. One thing that stands out with Andersen is degree of difficulty; he leads the league in saves with 1,133, which is 101 more than the nearest contender (Lundqvist at 1,032). When records and save percentages are that close, I’ll go with the difficulty of an assignment.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins

I’m not a huge fan of making the Jack Adams the “overachiever of the year” award, but how could you not name Gallant here, at least halfway through the season? The Golden Knights aren’t just an expansion team; they’re an expansion team that plays a modern style and, while the goaltending’s often been strong, they’ve dealt with a ton of injuries at that key position.

While he has his quirks like just about any coach, this is the year where Cooper deserves some credit for ranking among the NHL’s best. Meanwhile, Cassidy and the Bruins are (darn it) overachieving.

CALDER TROPHY
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
3. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

Who would have guessed that this rookie crop would follow up 2016-17 so well? Boeser’s a terrifying sniper making the Canucks less depressing, Barzal is an absolute sensation in Brooklyn, and McAvoy is playing the role of a veteran defenseman at age 20.

SELKE TROPHY
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
3. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Bergeron is basically a mutant at this point. Casual hockey fans still probably don’t understand how great he is. Kopitar’s resurgence has been a delight to observe. Meanwhile, Couturier’s proven that he can be a first-line center in a thunderous way.

Biggest Surprise (Team): Vegas Golden Knights
Biggest Surprise (Player): Dustin Brown
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Edmonton Oilers
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Second half storyline to watch: Will the Oilers and/or Canadiens make the trade deadline more interesting or remain in denial?

Getty Images

JOEY ALFIERI

HART TROPHY
1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. John Tavares, New York Islanders
3. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Kucherov has been one of the most dominant forwards in the league dating back to last year.  The Lightning forward has built up a nice lead at the top of the scoring leader’s board this season and he should continue to roll in the second half of the season. Tavares, who is a pending UFA, and Giroux have both had terrific season, but their teams need to make the playoffs to be in the conversation.

NORRIS TROPHY
1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
3. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars

Hedman continues to be the key cog for the Bolts on the blue line. He has less points than Klingberg and less goals than Doughty, but his all-around game has been nothing short of terrific. Hedman plays almost 26 minutes and, like other top defenders, he sees the opposition’s top players on a nightly basis. It’s his Norris trophy to lose right now.

VEZINA TROPHY
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
2. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
3. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Yeah, I’m giving the league’s three major awards to Lightning players. Vasilevskiy’s first full season as a starting goaltender has gone incredibly well. He’s been dominant between the pipes and he’s clearly been the best goalie in the league. Hellebuyck has been a pleasant surprise and Crawford has kept the Blackhawks afloat, but they still aren’t at Vasilevskiy’s level.

JACK ADAMS AWARD
1. Gerard Gallant, Vegas Golden Knights
2. John Hynes, New Jersey Devils
3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning

Prior to the start of the season, nobody in the hockey world had any kind of positive expectations for Golden Knights. Not only are they in the playoff conversation, they currently lead the Pacific Division. That alone gets Gallant the award. The work Hynes has done in New Jersey is also very impressive. Cooper deserves plenty of credit for everything the Bolts have accomplished in the first half of the season. But nothing tops an expansion team leading their division at the midway point of the season.

CALDER TROPHY
1. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
2. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
3. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning

Boeser is rolling at a point-per-game pace, which is impressive considering he’s a rookie and he’s playing on a mediocre Canucks team. Barzal and Sergachev have both been impressive during their first full seasons in the NHL, but Boeser is clearly the leader in the clubhouse as of right now.

SELKE TROPHY
1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
2. Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings
3. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Anyone who follows hockey knows that Bergeron is the top two-way forward in the game right now. Up until last week, Bergeron’s line hadn’t given up an even-strength goal all season. Kopitar and Couturier are both in the running, too. The Kings forward is having a terrific bounce-back year, while Couturier, who has always been a strong two-way player, has come into his own offensively.

Biggest Surprise (Team): Vegas Golden Knights (too easy). Honorable mention: New Jersey Devils.
Biggest Surprise (Player): Josh Bailey
Biggest Disappointment (Team): Ottawa Senators were a goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last year. They’re near the bottom of the East now.
Biggest Disappointment (Player): Jonathan Drouin

Second half storyline to watch: Can the Golden Knights make a long playoff run?

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Who are your favorites for the major awards at the midpoint of the 2017-18 NHL season?