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.
- Anaheim Ducks
Season Review: A fully healthy Ducks team would be a disappointment where they are: on the Western Conference playoff bubble, currently out of the top eight. How often have we seen this team at its full potential, though? Maybe the 13 games Ryan Kesler‘s been healthy for? Less? Tough not to give the Ducks a mulligan, so that’s what they get. Grade: Incomplete.
Biggest Surprise: Their goaltending. John Gibson continues his climb up the ladder of great goalies, but he’s not the only netminder helping Anaheim scrape wins together. Ryan Miller has a .929 save percentage, even better than Gibson’s .920 mark. Even Reto Berra’s been good in rare moments where he gets NHL reps. The Ducks would be waddling in the basement without their goalies.
Biggest Disappointment: No doubt, it’s been their poor health. Again, Kesler’s only been in action for 13 games. Ryan Getzlaf‘s not much luckier, playing 26 so far in 2017-18. Others have missed serious time, too. This troubling pattern may continue if Gibson’s lower-body injury costs him serious time.
Trade Deadline Strategy: The Ducks would be wise to dip their toe in the market, but they can’t go too wild, not with some much uncertainty regarding their actual chances of making the playoffs. In other words, they might be buyers, yet it would be best to go the dollar store route. Either that, or focus on additions that can be more than rentals.
Second half outlook: Anaheim can probably just see how they play over the next few weeks and make a true decision about buy, sell, or stand pat. A five-game road trip awaits their return from the break, and they play nine of their next 11 games on the road. If they thrive despite those challenges, then the Ducks could be a very dangerous team. That’s a significant if, however, considering their poor luck so far in 2017-18.
- Arizona Coyotes
Season Review: So, uh, maybe it wasn’t time to take the Coyotes seriously after all.
With the worst record and worst goal differential (-54) in the NHL, this has been another dire season in the desert. Grade: F.
Biggest Surprise: Gang, Max Domi has been almost as frustrating as the Coyotes’ endless arena woes.
Domi has connected on a horrendous 2.9 percent of his SOG, generating a pittance of three goals this season. His shooting percentage has dropped in each of his three seasons in the NHL, and with 21 points in 50 games, he’s not making up for it enough in other areas.
Much like with the Coyotes, the bright side is that it’s tough to imagine things getting worse in 2018-19.
Biggest Disappointment: Look, Dylan Strome might have his problems, but is it really better for him to be buried in the AHL considering the limited scoring options in Arizona?
His AHL stats are nutty-good: 40 points in 29 games. Yes, he could be a “Quadruple A” player, so to speak, what with a mere assist in 11 NHL games this season. Are you really going to find out when he’s averaging a miniscule 12:26 TOI, though? Even if you ultimately want to trade Strome, this is far from the optimal way to make the most of the third pick of the 2015 NHL Draft. Shades of Nail Yakupov.
Trade Deadline Strategy: Sure, you want to sell, but who’s buying?
The Coyotes don’t really have a ton of veterans to move, especially if they aren’t interested in punting on Antti Raanta. You’d also expect them to be more comfortable trading a big-deal-guy like Oliver Ekman-Larsson during the offseason, too. So aside from Jason Demers (and maybe Alex Goligoski, though he seems like he could be part of the solution), there’s only so much merchandise to move.
Second Half Outlook: The Coyotes are on track to have the best draft lottery odds. If not, they’ll be in the top three.
So why not use this time to experiment? If Rick Tocchet or his assistants want to try different things, now’s the time to tinker. They might find a few things that work … and regain a little dignity in the process.
- Calgary Flames
Season Review: The Flames are the opposite of that Godfather III line: every time you start to believe, they push you back out. After winning seven games in a row, Calgary dropped four straight. Even that wasn’t straightforward, as they grabbed a charity point in all four games. If the Flames are an emoticon, they’re a mixture of a fairly happy face and the _(ツ)_/¯. Grade: C+
Biggest Surprise: Unquestionably, Mike Smith‘s stellar play.
Now, Smith’s shown flashes of brilliance before, but injuries, inconsistency, and poor play in front of them have combined to make him seem like an uninspired choice. Especially at age 35. Instead, he’s a serious workhorse, generating the best work of his career with a .926 save percentage; Smith was an eventual All-Star, but deserved the nod from the start.
Biggest Disappointment: Travis Hamonic seemed like the missing piece of a would-be beautiful defensive puzzle in Calgary. Instead, it turns out that his rough 2016-17 season with the Islanders might be the new normal rather than an anomaly. Go fancy or traditional, either way, Hamonic’s stats underwhelm.
Trade Deadline Strategy: Add away.
The Flames could use supporting scoring beyond their excellent top two lines, and could use a defenseman if a useful one isn’t too expensive. The frustrating thing is that the Flames always seem to be on the verge of becoming great, yet they often slip back to good or merely OK. The West is tough, but also wide open, so maybe a move or two could push them to great in a more permanent way?
Second half outlook: The Flames have played nine more games (26) at home than on the road (17), and they’ll pay the troll toll soon. They begin a six-game road trip on Feb. 6, and the road run continues for there; from Feb. 6 to March 9, only four of their 17 games take place at home. That’s scary stuff for a team with a flimsy hold on a playoff spot right now, but maybe they really will “learn something about themselves” in the process?
- Edmonton Oilers
Season Review: Woof.
Instead of last season’s playoff run being the start of a new era, 2017-18 makes it look like an aberration. This has just been a parade of Peter Chiarelli’s mistakes, sometimes cruelly so. Few teams could claim to be even in the realm of disappointment as Edmonton this season. Grade: F. Maybe Z?
Biggest disappointment: Cam Talbot might be the NHL goalie answer to an NFL running back hitting a wall after getting too many touches. Last season, he easily topped the league with 73 games played and 2,117 shots faced (Frederik Andersen was the only other goalie who saw 2,000+), not to mention strenuous playoff work.
Whether he’s worn out or just was playing over the head, the drop has been steep. Talbot’s record is 18-17-2 with a lousy .901 save percentage. The Oilers minimal investments in a backup only compounded the problems.
Trade Deadline Strategy: There’s a post for that.
Second half outlook: In my opinion, the Oilers dug too deep of a hole for themselves for a playoff run. With that in mind, it’s another lost season for Edmonton, so the key is to set the table for 2018-19. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. Experiment with alignments involving Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, and others to see if you find something that sticks.
And cross your fingers that you infuriate the hockey world once more with a good bounce in the draft lottery, for the (checks notes) millionth time.
- Los Angeles Kings
Season Review: If this came up at the end of 2017, the grade would be higher, but you wonder if their magic is running out. The Kings have only won three of 10 games in January, failing to get any points in those seven defeats. Still, they’re in the mix for the wild card spot, which just about any Kings fan would’ve taken coming into the season. Grade: B-.
Biggest Surprise: The instinct is to say “take your pick,” yet Dustin Brown is probably tops. Who would have thought he’d be an effective top-line winger in 2017-18? Even if you justifiably give Anze Kopitar much of the credit, it’s still a staggering development.
Biggest Disappointment: If someone told you the Kings would be battling for a playoff spot with zero goals from Jeff Carter, you’d probably need to sit down for a minute. Carter’s only played in six games this season, collecting three assists. A healthy Carter could very well make or break this season.
Trade Deadline Strategy: A lot like their buddies in Anaheim, Los Angeles might want to pilfer the bargain bin. Granted, a bolder move could be more plausible if a team would take on Marian Gaborik‘s troubling contract. (Gaborik’s been more spry than expected, but it’s still a scary deal.)
- San Jose Sharks
Season Review: With an aging-but-still-skilled core, this might be the new reality for the Sharks. They’re not fighting for the Presidents’ Trophy any longer. The Sharks are currently second in the Pacific, but by a slim margin. That might just be the way in San Jose, at least while core players can still make a difference. Grade: B-.
Biggest Surprise: Young supporting cast players such as Kevin Labanc, Chris Tierney, and Joonas Donskoi aren’t dominating, but they’re generating supplemental offense for a team with aging stars. They’re all over 20 points, easing some of the pressure on big guns, to at least some degree. (Also Aaron Dell has been great as a backup.)
Biggest Disappointment: Lower-level veterans are letting them down: Mikkel Boedker has 15 points in 40 games as a $4M player. Joel Ward has nine points and Jannik Hansen has zero goals and four assists. Paul Martin is in the AHL. There’s a lot of poorly spent money on this roster, and the fear is that it’s a forecast for the future.
Trade Deadline Strategy: With an aging core and quite a bit of projected trade deadline cap space according to Cap Friendly, why not roll the dice with some rentals? Joe Thornton‘s knee surgery practically demands it, unless the Sharks decide to totally punt.
(They really aren’t formatted to punt.)
Second half outlook: Despite being 38, Joe Thornton is a crucial catalyst for the Sharks, and he’s out indefinitely after knee surgery. Really, the Sharks might be wise to make their trade deadline deals early, as their hold on a playoff spot isn’t especially secure. Their February schedule is brutal on paper. The good news is that the Sharks are very much in this; the bad news is that they could easily fall out of the mix without Jumbo Joe.
- Vancouver Canucks
Season Review: You kind of have to “grade on a curve” with these report cards, which is why the Canucks don’t fail. Every indication is that this season would be desolate, yet certain moments provide at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Still, the Canucks are tied for fourth-worst in the NHL. There’s still much work to do. Grade: D.
Biggest Surprise: Brock Boeser showed promise, but it was unclear if he’d stick with the team all year, let alone be a Calder Trophy frontrunner. Also, he has cool hair, looks like Thor, and just won the accuracy competition. That’s checking all the boxes.
Biggest Disappointment: Honestly, the Sedin twins really haven’t been that bad. This season stands as another reminder that they’re toward the end of the road, with twin expiring contracts only spotlighting that likely reality.
If that’s too esoteric, let’s go with Jake Virtanen‘s mediocre season.
Trade Deadline Strategy: Everything must go, aside from Boeser. Last year, the Canucks did fantastic work during the deadline. They don’t have as much to offer this time, but maybe they’d grab an extra asset or three anyway.
Second half outlook: This is a lot like the Coyotes’ situation. Travis Green’s made a solid impact already, but why not tinker with different ideas, maybe seeing if some AHL tricks translate to the NHL?
Let’s be honest. It’s also probably OK to lose a lot, which was sort of the original plan anyway.
- Vegas Golden Knights
Season Review: It’s almost February, and it’s still shocking just how good this team is in its debut year. They even dealt with a ridiculous run of goalie injuries, so it’s not like every bounce is going their way. And it seems like they’re actually getting better; during the last 25 games, they’re tussling with the Bruins and Lightning for the best possession stats. Grade: Is an A+ enough? Maybe an S?
Biggest Surprise: Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal have been big parts of Vegas’ success, yet you can make very legitimate arguments that other players have been more integral to this incredible run. William Karlsson‘s play has been sassier than his hair flips: a team-leading 27 goals, and second-best 42 points (Jonathan Marchessault leads the way with 46 points, as if Gerard Gallant’s no-brainer Jack Adams run wasn’t already a slap in the face of the Florida Panthers).
Seriously though, that hair flip. Maybe we should have known …
Biggest Disappointment: n/a?
OK, fine, the Vadim Shipachyov situation was a letdown. His NHL potential will remain a “What if?” question, it seems.
Trade Deadline Strategy: What kind of odds would you have needed to bet that the Golden Knights would potentially be buyers at the trade deadline if you were asked in October?
Vegas management still faces some conundrums. Neal is 30 and David Perron will be 30 in May, so even though they’re productive players, the Golden Knights must mull over their futures. It would be tough to blame them for rewarding some of the key cast members during this magical run, yet if that backfires, it’s the sort of thing that can hamstring a young franchise.
On the other hand, if they sell those guys off, who knows if they’ll be anywhere near this good in 2018-19 and other recent seasons? Cap Friendly projects their current cap space at $8.4 million, so rentals could really make sense … though the Golden Knights still need to use their picks to build their prospect pool.
Do you double down or cash out while wondering if you’re ending a hot streak too soon? Tough questions ahead for GM George McPhee.
Second half outlook: Certain hot streaks probably will cool off. Fleury’s unlikely to maintain a .942 save percentage all season. Karlsson’s shooting percentage won’t stay at 26.7 percent forever. This team is increasingly legitimate, but there are red flags here and there. That said, they lead their division by a ridiculous nine standings points right now. Figuring out just how good they really are is crucial to the trade deadline and to extension decisions, but William H. Macy would need to cool them full-time to thwart a playoff berth at this point.