NHL surprises and disappointments from the first half

The NHL reached the official midway point of the season Tuesday night. The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin in two months but there is still lots of hockey left to play and many things to monitor in the second half.

We’ve had plenty of surprises, disappointments, and news to discuss in the opening two months of the 2020-21 campaign. This unique season has been fun to watch and the divisional alignment has increased the opportunity for some teams to get to the playoffs.

As we get started on the season’s second half, the PHT team gave their picks for the surprises, disappointments, and more.

Let us know your choices in the comments.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Biggest surprise (team)

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. If you would have told me the Panthers would be in the running for a playoff spot in the potentially-crummy Central, I wouldn’t have been too shocked. They’re in the mix with the Hurricanes and Lightning, though, and that’s a knuckleball.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Florida Panthers. Every offseason this team adds six or seven new players and every year it is the same result. So you will have to forgive me if I expected the same this year. But here we are now and they are not only headed to the playoffs, they are competing for the division with Tampa and Carolina. I figured they would need a huge season from Sergei Bobrovsky for that to happen and they are not even getting that. It is a legitimately good team!

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: New York Islanders. I know the Isles were a final four team last year, but they always seem to go under-appreciated. Same deal entering this season, where many were pegging other teams in the stacked East Division to come out on top. Right now, it’s the Isles’ to lose.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s start out with saying that yes, they’ve beaten up on a weak first half schedule thanks to the division alignment for this season. But they’ve won the games they needed to and getting contributions from players who could help them in the future like Pius Suter and Kevin Lankinen while doing so without their top two centers. It likely won’t last, but they’ve banked 33 key points in 30 games.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Chicago Blackhawks. They are the biggest surprise as I thought they would be battling Detroit and Ottawa as the worst team in the NHL. At the start of the season, they had no goaltender and were missing their best two centers as well as having an aging blueline. But Chicago has turned it around as Kevin Lankinen has turned himself into a solid starting goaltender and they are fourth in the Central.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Minnesota Wild. Wow, things have really been wild, eh? The Kaprizov show and Joel Eriksson Ek have made the Wild — yes, that Wild — one of the most enjoyable teams to watch every night. I do not think that has ever happened before.

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Biggest surprise (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Carter Verhaeghe. He is turning out to be one of the best free agent signings of the offseason and a great find for the Panthers. He dominated the AHL, could not really get much playing time on a loaded Tampa team, and is now getting a chance in Florida and playing like a bonafide top line player with his point production and ability to drive possession.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Patric Hornqvist. Half way through the season and he’s second on the surprising Cats with 11 goals. We knew he was a power play asset, but this? This was unexpected.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Aaron Ekblad. This season may put to rest any notion that the former No. 1 overall pick was a bust.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Joel Eriksson Ek. Remember when Eriksson Ek seemed like a bust? Now he looks like a possible Selke finalist.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nikolaj Ehlers. Ehlers has been solid for a long time but he might surpass his career points total this season during a condensed schedule. The North is the wild west and goals are being handed out like candy, but the Jets have been a pleasant surprise led by Ehlers.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Marc-Andre Fleury. He continues to amaze me. Just when you think his career is on the downside, he bounces back. He was supposed to backup Robin Lehner but he has been spectacular as is 15-5-0 with a sparkling 1.77 goals-against-average and an equally sparkling .936 save percentage.

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Comeback player of the season so far

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Oskar Lindblom. The fact that he is back on the ice for the Flyers and contributing is amazing to me (even if it does make me incredibly nervous for a cancer survivor to be playing during a pandemic). He is not just coming back from a bad season or something like that.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Nolan Patrick. His story is really cool and he’s clearly vital to the Flyers success. He missed a whole season with a migraine disorder, and as a migraine disorder sufferer myself I think it’s really impressive he’s been able to come back and play really well.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Vincent Trocheck. He’s 100% healthy from that terrible leg injury he suffered in 2018 and he’s now leading the Canes with 13 goals and is second with 24 points.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, he entered COVID protocol recently, and dealt with a rough patch. But with Robin Lehner unavailable, MAF has put up the sort of numbers that could make him a Vezina Trophy finalist.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Alex DeBrincat. He’s had a tough year last season with only 18 goals and 45 points in 70 games. He has been a stud this season with 15 goals and 29 points in 25 contests.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Drew Doughty. He heard the criticism of his play loud and clear, and vowed to put his name back in the conversation of best defenseman in the league. So far, he’s delivered.

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Biggest disappointment (team)

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Dallas Stars. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season and are in tough to make it to the playoffs this season. Maybe the play of Jake Oettinger can save them.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Stars. It’s not totally fair because they got off to a delayed start and everything outside of their control has been very bad but I think we all expected a more dominant Stars team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Calgary Flames. As much as the Canucks have been a bummer, the Flames are far more lost and their older core faces a much smaller window. Failing in the North Division removes any remaining excuses, too.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Nashville Predators. The rubber may soon be hitting the road in terms of a rebuild for the Preds. Here’s hoping that somehow, some way, David Poile can get his name on the Cup before the end of his illustrious executive career.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: New York Rangers. You’d have hoped they were ready to take a big step forward this season, but not a lot has gone right so far.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Vancouver Canucks. Maybe expectations were a little high based on their bubble performance, but I really thought Vancouver would be more competitive than this, especially in that division. I know they are winning more games now but it is entirely goaltender driven with Thatcher Demko carrying them. This is just not a very good team after the top six or seven players on the roster.

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Biggest disappointment (player)

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Taylor Hall. It is hard for me to go with any player other than Hall. He took a one-year deal, reportedly turning down multi-year offers, to sign a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He is now not only stuck on the worst team in the league, but he is having a rough year that is doing nothing to help his value in free agency this offseason.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Taylor Hall. I thought he would have a huge year in Buffalo alongside Jack Eichel but he has only two goals on a horrible Sabres team.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Look, it was obvious Erik Karlsson’s contract would be a headache for the Sharks. It would’ve been nice to see him put together a last hurrah before albatross status; instead, Karlsson’s been disastrous.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Erik Karlsson. Only 30, I hoped there was something left in Karlsson’s tank. Instead, we’ll be talking about how much an albatross his contract — which expires in 2027 — will be on the Sharks going forward.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Jeff Skinner. A bad investment by the Sabres.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Carter Hart. I really thought the Flyers were going to go big this year and Hart was going to break out and establish himself among the elite. He’s had a tough go of it. I do think he has it in him to turn things around.

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Next coach fired (UPDATE: As we found out Wednesday, Ralph Krueger is the big winner here.)

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. Tortorella may be a favorite, but his contract expires after this season. That’s an easy decision to make if they miss the postseason. The situation in Buffalo, though, is reaching a boiling point and Kevyn Adams may be forced into making a change.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Ralph Krueger. We’ve seen this story before in Buffalo, but it seemed like they had finally found their guy in Krueger. This season has not gone their way, and Krueger may end up paying for it.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Ralph Krueger. It is the obvious choice, but sometimes you have to go with the obvious choice. Maybe Krueger has not done a good job or been the right coach for Buffalo, but at some point when a team keeps changing general managers and coaches and the results stay the same you have to start looking for the real problem.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: John Tortorella. Maybe it happens during the offseason, where it might technically count as merely letting Torts walk. But end the misery for everyone — Torts included.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: John Tortorella. He was my choice for the first coach fired before the start of the season and I still think he won’t last the season.

Marisa Ingemi, NHL writer: Dallas Eakins. Feels like the situation in Anaheim could boil over at any point. It’s probably not Eakins’ fault, everything there just feels volatile.

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    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”