Assessing each NHL team at midpoint of 2021-22 season

Every NHL team likes to begin the season thinking it has playoff hopes and compete for the Stanley Cup. But the harsh reality is that every team is starting with a different set of realistic expectations. At least when viewed externally. We tend to define a team’s success or failure by how they do in meeting those preseason expectations.

We expect some teams to be a playoff team and compete for the Cup. Maybe even win it. We look at other teams and expect them to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery. Other teams stumble around somewhere in the middle ground between those two levels.

Now that most (but not all, given postponements and games that still need to be played) teams in the league have started to reach the halfway point we are going to take a quick look around the league and assess how every team is doing in meeting their expectations.

Important to note: This is not ranking. This is not looking at which teams are the best and worst. We are simply looking at which teams are exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, and failing to meet expectations. That is it.

Exceeding expectations

Florida Panthers. The Panthers being good is not a surprise. The Panthers being this good and an absolute holy terror offensively is a little bit of a surprise.

Pittsburgh Penguins. The expectation for the Penguins seemed to be that they would start slowing down, maybe be a fringe playoff team, or maybe even miss the playoffs. They have been one of the best teams in the league.

New York Rangers. There was a ton of pressure on the Rangers to win this season, but not sure there was a realistic expectation for them to take this big of a step. There is still some question as to how good they really are right now, but an elite goalie, a Norris Trophy winning defenseman, and some superstar forwards can mask a lot and elevate any rebuilding team.

Nashville Predators. At the halfway point of the 2020-21 season this looked like a team in desperate need of a rebuild. They have a great goalie and a lot of their big-money players have bounced back.

Los Angeles Kings. The farm system is strong and their real window to contend is still probably a couple of years away, but they are very much alive in the playoff race this season. That is progress.

San Jose Sharks. Given the age of their core players, some of the contracts here, and the way they played the past two seasons this looked like a bad situation. Maybe it still is. But at the halfway point they are still fighting for a playoff spot and that might be more than anybody outside of San Jose realistically expected.

Anaheim Ducks. They are fading recently, but this is another team that looked like a likely bottom-feeder at the start of the season. But the young core, a bounce back from John Gibson, and a breakout season from Troy Terry have them in the playoff race.

Meeting expectations (because they are good and competitive)

Colorado Avalanche. The expectation here is to be one of the best teams in the league and a Cup contender. That is exactly what they are.

Tampa Bay Lightning. They are the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and have a legitimate chance to be the first three-peat team in over 40 years.

Carolina Hurricanes. If their goaltending gamble paid off they were going to be a force. The goaltending gamble is paying off.

Toronto Maple Leafs. Sheldon Keefe has not been happy with some aspects of their play of late, but after a slow start they are back near the top of the league. Meeting expectations in the playoffs is the only thing Toronto cares about at this point, though.

Minnesota Wild. When they are fully healthy (they have not been lately) this is a sneaky contender. Still amazed at how much Kirill Kaprizov has completely changed the outlook and dynamic of this team and its playing style.

Washington Capitals. Given their season long injury situation you might be able to make an argument they have somewhat exceeded expectations, but the Capitals were always going to be a good team with this roster. Might still need a goalie upgrade.

Vegas Golden Knights. Injuries crushed them early on, but when they are healthy (and Jack Eichel will soon arrive!) this is a top-tier team.

Boston Bruins. Get carried by the top line? Great season from Charlie McAvoy? Need some additional scoring depth? Make the playoffs? Check, check, check, and (most likely) check. Exactly what they looked like they would be.

Winnipeg Jets. This seems like the right spot for the Jets, right? Fringe playoff team with some high level players at forward, a great goalie, and some question marks in the middle of the roster.

St. Louis Blues. They should thank their lucky stars they held on to Vladimir Tarasenko and that he bounced back. The Jordan Binnington question is still one that will make or break their season, but the Blues have been in this position as a playoff team and contender for years. Business as usual here.

Calgary Flames. Darryl Sutter and some strong goaltending have turned them into a strong defensive team and Johnny Gaudreau is still electrifying. In the end they are still a fringe playoff team with some flaws. Not a surprise or a disappointment.

Meeting expectations (because they are not competitive)

Arizona Coyotes. They gutted their roster over the offseason and went full scale rebuild. That means a lot of losing.

Ottawa Senators. They play hard, have been very competitive lately, and there is some definite young talent here. Just need more time and more help.

Buffalo Sabres. They are doing what Sabres fans have been used to for more than a decade now. New season, same results.

Columbus Blue Jackets. Not a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but also not really a playoff team in a tough Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. One of those middle ground teams. The Seth Jones trade could be a franchise-changer, though.

Detroit Red Wings. You could make an argument this team is exceeding expectations to a degree, but the best hope here was simply to see progress and young cornerstones develop. Both have happened. The future is strong here.

New Jersey Devils. Maybe you would like to see more progress at this point, especially after some of the recent offseason moves and top picks, but this is probably where everybody expected the Devils to be in this division.

Failing to meet expectations

Edmonton Oilers. In a micro outlook this team is exactly what it should be. A couple of superstars with no depth, no defense, and no goaltending. This is exactly what we should have expected from this team. But in a macro outlook it is a complete organizational failing that in year seven of the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl era this is where they are as a team. Just a complete failure.

New York Islanders. Injuries and an early season COVID-19 issue really put this team in a hole.

Philadelphia Flyers. Whether or not you expected them to be good, you probably did not expect them to have two different 10-game losing streaks by the halfway point of the season.

Dallas Stars. Getting a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov back seemed like it could have been a real game-changer here. Has not happened, and now John Klingberg could be on his way out.

Vancouver Canucks. Bruce Boudreau is getting them back on track, but that start to the season was brutal in every way, especially after the offseason additions Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland.

Chicago Blackhawks. When you spend the money they spent this offseason you intend to be good, as misguided as that attempt may have been. They are not good.

Montreal Canadiens. Not even sure what a realistic expectation here should have been. Everybody knew they were going to take at least somewhat of a step backwards given the return to a normal division and playoff format. Then they had the free agency departures, then they lost Shea Weber and Carey Price, and then the bottom just fell out. Nobody expected worst team in the league levels of bad. New GM Kent Hughes has a lot of work ahead.

Seattle Kraken. Nobody should have expected them to repeat Vegas’ initial success. But this still seems like a team that missed some opportunities in building its roster and has been crushed by goaltending.

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    Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

    If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

    Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

    Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

    “I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

    The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

    “We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

    The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

    Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

    Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

    She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

    She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

    U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.