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The 10 players that will impact NHL playoff race in second half

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With the NHL All-Star break wrapping up and the second half of the 2019-20 season ready to begin, we are taking a look at some of the players, coaches, and general managers that could have the biggest impact on the Stanley Cup Playoff races and which teams end up making the postseason.

Here, we focus on 10 players that could stand out the most.

For the six coaches and general managers that could make the biggest impact, click here.

1. Elvis Merzlikins (Goalie), Columbus Blue Jackets. You don’t have to dig very deep to figure out how the Blue Jackets have exceeded all preseason expectations and played their way back into a playoff spot: It’s the goaltending. For as good as Joonas Korpisalo was to start the year, the play of Merzlikins is what has really helped turn this season around.

Since taking over in place of the injured Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 9-2-0 in his 11 starts (Matiss Kivlenieks also won a start in the middle of that stretch) with a save percentage well over .940. The Blue Jackets don’t score a lot of goals, they don’t have a ton of resources to deal from to strengthen the roster at the deadline, and while Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are both great defensemen, the team surrenders a lot of shots and doesn’t have great defensive metrics. But goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey and right now it is making all the difference for Columbus.

2. Sergei Bobrovsky (Goalie), Florida Panthers. While the Blue Jackets have found a tandem that works in net, their former goalie has made a very different impact with his new team. A bad one. There is plenty of reason for Panthers fans to finally be excited about their team, and they do enter the post-All-Star break stretch with a solid playoff footing despite the early struggles of Bobrovsky. He doesn’t have to be the Vezina Trophy goalie he was earlier in his career, but if he can bounce back in the second half the Panthers could become a very dangerous team given the strength of their offense.

3. Johnny Gaudreau (Forward), Calgary Flames. The Flames have regressed this season after finishing the 2018-19 season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. At the center of that regression is an offense that has gone from being one of the league’s highest scoring, to one of its lowest scoring. With only five goals in his first 29 games Gaudreau was a big factor in that team-wide decline offensively. He is currently on pace for the worst offensive output of his career, but over the past month or two has really started to show signs of breaking out and getting back to being the offensive difference-maker he is. If that continues down the stretch it could make all the difference in the Pacific Division.

4-5. Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie (Defensemen), Toronto Maple Leafs. Everyone knows the Maple Leafs’ flaw. Everyone knows the issue. It is defense. With Morgan Rielly sidelined for at least two months, the Maple Leafs are going to need Muzzin and Barrie to be great. Muzzin, probably the team’s best defensive player, has been sidelined since late December and it’s not a coincidence the team has struggled since then. Barrie was a huge offseason pickup, but has not yet met expectations. A healthy Muzzin and Barrie making the impact the Maple Leafs had hoped for would go a long way toward not only solidifying the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes, but also giving them a chance to finally make a run beyond the first round.

6. Carter Hart (Goalie), Philadelphia Flyers. His first full season has had some inconsistencies to it, and he is currently sidelined with an injury, but Hart has the upside and ability to impact the Flyers’ playoff chances more than any other individual player on the roster. He and Brian Elliott both have league average numbers this season, but Hart showed last year as a rookie (and has at times this season) that he is capable of far more than that. If he can get to that level on a regular basis there is no reason this can not be a playoff team, even in the wildly competitive Metropolitan Division.

7. Taylor Hall (Forward), Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes made their big trade deadline acquisition months before the actual deadline, and Hall gives them the exact type of difference-maker they have needed up front. If Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper are healthy, the Coyotes have the goaltending to win with a very good defense in front of them. They can shut teams down. The one thing they lacked was a top-line scorer. Hall provides that and seems to be settling in with 12 points in his past nine games. He carried the Devils to a playoff spot two years ago in his most recent fully healthy season, and he has a much better supporting cast on this team.

8. Jaccob Slavin (Defenseman), Carolina Hurricanes. Dougie Hamilton is most likely done for the season, and you simply can not replace what he has done this season, especially offensively. He has been arguably the best all around defenseman in the league so far. There is no trade to be made to add that back. There is no player sitting in the press box or player in the AHL that can step in and do it. Slavin is the Hurricanes’ best defensive player (and one of the best in the NHL), and without Hamilton in the lineup he becomes their biggest offensive presence on the blue line as well. That is a big role, but he should be capable of filling it.

9. Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Forward), Ottawa Senators — for now. He does not play for a playoff team just yet, but he will. With Hall already traded and the Rangers not necessarily guaranteed to trade Chris Kreider, Pageau might be the biggest name available on the trade market and he would be a significant add to any contender given his two-way play. He provides a shutdown defensive game as a second-or third-line center while also being on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Every playoff team in the league could find a use for a player like that, and he could be the type of secondary player that changes a game or two in the playoffs.

10. Dustin Byfuglien (Defenseman), Winnipeg Jets. On one hand, if he was going to play this season it seems like there would be more progress toward that right now. So maybe this is a long shot. But, if he did return it would be quite an add to a Jets defense that needs all the help it can get. They have managed to stay in the race for more than half of the season with a makeshift defense. They have the forwards, they have the goalie, they just need help on the blue line and there remains the possibility for a top-pairing player to walk through the door at some point. It would help.

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.

Roundtable: Biggest surprises, disappointments at NHL All-Star break

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What player has been your biggest surprise of the first half of the 2019-20 season?

SEAN: Tristan Jarry, Penguins. A season ago the Penguins netminder played only two games in the NHL having lost the backup job to Casey DeSmith. This season he’s usurped Matt Murray for the No. 1 job and helped backstop the team into contender status as the roster has dealt with numerous injuries.  He’s top five in even strength save percentage, goals saved above average, and has helped Pittsburgh to 16 wins in 22 starts.

JAMES: John Carlson, Capitals. Look, we all knew Carlson could score. He’s been rising up the defensive scoring ranks for a while now (interestingly, increasing even after he got paid). Still, 60 points in just 49 games, placing him comfortably in front of Auston Matthews for 10th overall in the NHL right now? Yeah, can’t say I saw that coming.

ADAM: Bryan Rust, Penguins. He has always been a pretty good complementary player, but this year his play has just reached an entirely unexpected level. He is on a near 50-goal, 100-point pace over 82 games! No one ever expected that from him. Even if he cools off in the second half he is still going to have career year.

JOEY: David Perron, Blues. He’s currently on a point-per-game pace and he’s also top 20 in league scoring. We knew he was a good hockey player, but he’s playing at a totally different level right now.

SCOTT: Artemi Panarin, Rangers. High-priced free agents have a long history of failing at Madison Square Garden but Panarin has been everything the Blueshirts could have hoped. The Russian winger is on his way to his first All-Star game and could be the star player that helps the Rangers right the ship.

What team has been your biggest surprise so far?

SEAN: Blue Jackets. They lose their two biggest stars and their trade deadline pick ups walk in free agency. The enter 2019-20 with one goaltender who posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-.900 save percentage and another who had spent his entire pro career in Switzerland. So of course they’d be sitting in a wild card spot on the heels of third place in the Metropolitan Division at the All-Star Break. Just as we all expected.

JAMES: Blue Jackets. Honestly, I’d expected the Blue Jackets to be scrappy, but without that extra oomph to avoid being (word that rhymes with scrappy). Instead, they’re in the thick of the East wild-card races, not that differently from last season, when they still had Sergei Bobrovsky and especially Artemi Panarin. Managing to hang in there with a legitimately crushing run of injuries makes them even more surprising.

ADAM: Canucks. The easy answer here is probably Columbus or Arizona, but I had fairly high hopes for both at the start of the season. So I am going to say the Canucks get the call for biggest surprise. I liked Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, and figured Quinn Hughes would make a big impact, but the rest of the team just seemed like it was years away from contention. 

JOEY: Blue Jackets. Somehow, they’ve found a way to be in a Wild Card spot at this point. John Tortorella is doing the coaching job of his life and he’s been able to get some reliable goaltending from unlikely candidates. It would be awesome to see them make it back to the postseason after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

SCOTT: Blues. I felt there was potential for a huge letdown after a surprising championship run last season and the Vladimir Tarasenko injury only strengthened those beliefs. However, they have been dominant at home and are sitting on top of the most competitive division in the NHL.

[MORE: PHT’S MIDSEASON NHL AWARDS]

What player has been your biggest disappointment?

SEAN: Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings. There’s a lot of work to be done in Hockeytown to make the Red Wings a playoff team again, but there is a small core of players for GM Steve Yzerman to build around. Athanasiou is supposed to be one of those players but has struggled mightily after posting 30 goals last season. Through 36 games he only has five goals and 19 points. You’d expect his 5.7 shooting percentage to jump in the second half, which he needs since he’ll be an RFA this summer and can earn himself a nice raise.

JAMES: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was that Subban would bounce back from a troubling 2018-19. After all, it seemed like Subban was injured. Instead, things have gone worse, as his offense dried up while he continues to struggle defensively. I’m not totally giving up on P.K. — he might still be less than 100 percent — but I’m not exactly betting on him being a $9M defender again, either.

ADAM: Sergei Bobrovsky, PanthersI thought Bobrovsky’s contract was going to be a problem in three or four years, but I figured the Panthers would at least get a couple of quality seasons out of him before that happened. They have not even been able to get that yet. I figured he would be the missing piece to get them back in the playoffs in the short-term, and while they might make the playoffs it is currently in spite of Bobrovsky’s and not because of it. 

JOEY: Alex Galchenyuk, Penguins. The Penguins gave up Phil Kessel in a trade for Galchenyuk, but things just haven’t worked out the way they had hoped with him. Despite all the injuries in Pittsburgh this year, Galchenyuk hasn’t been able to make an impact with his new team. He’s now played for three teams in three seasons and it doesn’t look like his stop in Pittsburgh will be very long. Who knows what’s next for him.

SCOTT: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was Subban’s career would be rejuvenated by a trade to the New Jersey Devils. However, not much has gone right in Newark and Subban’s disappointing play has been a factor in John Hynes and Ray Shero losing their jobs.

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What team has been your biggest disappointment?

SEAN: Predators. Teams you expected to be better but aren’t so far can pinpoint poor goaltending as a main factor. You wouldn’t expect that from Nashville but Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros — with a combined .918 even strength save percentage — helped sink Peter Laviolette and have kept the Predators outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.

JAMES: Sharks. How can it not be the Sharks? Looking at the age of that roster, many of us expected a stark reality … just not so soon. The parallels between the 2018-19 version of their hated rivals, the Kings, are honestly getting a little scary. Maybe the Sharks can be respectable again soon … kind of like the Kings, whose underlying numbers indicate they’re actually better than their place in the standings indicates.

ADAM: Sharks. Couple of options here but I think the Sharks take this title pretty easily. You had to know the goaltending was going to be a problem again, but it is far from their only problem. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have both had terrible seasons (by their standards), while several forwards have regressed or underperformed. This should still be a Stanley Cup contender and they are not only a disappointment, they are downright bad. 

JOEY: Predators. The Predators made a splash when they signed Duchene in free agency and another one when they dumped P.K. Subban on New Jersey. Unfortunately for them, those moves haven’t made them any better this year. They’ve already fired head coach Peter Laviollette and things haven’t looked much better since then.

SCOTT: Predators. A coaching change could help turn things around, but the Predators expected to compete for the Stanley Cup this season and are currently on the outside looking in.

What current team in a playoff spot will fall out by the end of the regular season?

SEAN: Oilers. Their team even strength save percentage is .909 and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl make up 35% of their goals scored. Winnipeg and Chicago are right behind them and Nashville is lurking.

JAMES: Blue Jackets. A competitive team is going to finish ninth in the East. To me, the Blue Jackets just don’t give themselves good enough margins for error. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at goal differential, and when you see that, it seems clear that the Blue Jackets are only slightly outscoring their problems.

ADAM: PanthersI want to buy into the Panthers because I love the way Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau play, but the goaltending question still concerns me and if they fall out of the top-three in the Atlantic Division I question if they can finish ahead of one of those Metropolitan teams in a Wild Card spot. 

JOEY: Blue Jackets. As impressed as I’ve been with the Blue Jackets, it’s hard to envision them making the postseason ahead of teams like Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida. They deserve credit for the job they’ve done, but they still have a long way to go before they clinch a playoff spot.

SCOTT: Blue Jackets. They have overcome great odds to remain competitive but eventually they will feel the loss of three star players. John Tortorella should be in the Jack Adams conversation with a strong first half, but a second-half slump could be looming.

What team currently out of the playoffs make it in?

SEAN: Predators. They’ve underachieved all season and the hole to dig out of isn’t too deep. If Saros and Rinne can start making saves again and Nashville’s special teams can wake up, they can find a way back in the postseason.

JAMES: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs aren’t perfect. They are brilliantly talented, however, and have been able to unleash the fury since Sheldon Keefe took over. I think that talent will help them push across the finish line.

ADAM: Maple Leafs. Toronto is too talented to not make it. I know they have their flaws defensively, but you have to think they are going to do something to address that and I just can’t imagine this roster missing. Do they have enough to get through Boston or Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But they will be in. 

JOEY: Maple Leafs. Yes, the Leafs are without Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin right now, but you have to imagine that they’ll figure things out before it’s too late. Toronto has too much firepower with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.

SCOTT: Flyers. It has previously taken teams quite a while to adjust to Alain Vigneault’s system. If the Flyers can figure out their struggles on the road and survive Carter Hart’s injury, they have the talent to find their way into the tournament.

What team needs to make a big splash at the February trade deadline?

SEAN: Maple Leafs. Their star core players are off their rookie contracts and three straight Round 1 exits means the pressure is on in Toronto. The blue line is the biggest area of need, especially with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin out injured. GM Kyle Dubas will need to shore up the back end in order to put them in a better position entering the playoffs — if they get there, of course.

JAMES: Oilers. Look, there are teams like the Bruins, whose windows could close in a hurry. But, frankly, we as hockey fans should be more outraged that Connor McDavid, hockey superhuman, is so rarely in the playoffs. It’s a travesty, and the Oilers need to give him some help. Not just for McDavid, but frankly, for all of us.

ADAM: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs need to do something on defense. Morgan Rielly’s injury is huge and Tyson Barrie has not quite worked out as hoped. Add to that the fact that Barrie and Jake Muzzin are unrestricted free agents after this season and they need to do something to strengthen the blue line for now and in the future. 

JOEY: Bruins. The Bruins could add a defenseman and/or some secondary scoring before Feb. 24. Boston is good enough to go on a postseason run, but they could definitely use some reinforcements.

SCOTT: Islanders. They have won with excellent coaching and strong defensive play, but they desperately need a big-time scorer up front. They missed out on Panarin this summer and didn’t pull the trigger on Mark Stone last season. Is Lou Lamoriello ready to bring in the proper support to help the Islanders advance through the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly out 8 weeks with fractured foot

Maple Leafs Rielly
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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 8-4 loss to the Florida Panthers on Sunday evening ended up being a lot worse than just an ugly final score.

It also cost them their top defenseman for the next two months.

The Maple Leafs announced on Monday that Morgan Rielly is going to be sidelined for at least the next eight weeks after fracturing his foot in Sunday’s game.

He will immediately be placed on injured reserve and re-evaluated in eight weeks.

The team also announced that Rasmus Sandin, their first-round pick in 2018, has been recalled from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.

A questionable defense gets even worse

There is no way to sugarcoat this for the Maple Leafs, it is a significant loss.

They are already thin on the blue line and were probably going to need add another player before the trade deadline even when they were healthy. Now they are going to have to find a way to replace their best defenseman for two months in the middle of a playoff push. Adding to their problems is that Jake Muzzin, one of their other top defensemen, is also currently sidelined on a week-to-week basis due to a foot injury of his own.

Sandin is a fine prospect and has been having a great season in the AHL, but the Maple Leafs’ defense is in shambles right now.

Their current list of healthy defensemen: Tyson Barrie, Travis Dermott, Justin Holl, Martin Marincin, Cody Ceci, and Sandin.

That is, quite simply, not a very good NHL defense. Especially for a team that is supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender. They are going to need a huge push from Frederik Andersen in goal to mask that.

The Maple Leafs have been one of the hottest teams in the league under new coach Sheldon Keefe, but because of their slow start they still have just a two-point cushion in the playoff race.

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.

Maple Leafs are better, more dangerous team under Sheldon Keefe

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to put it together.

Even though it was far from perfect, their 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday extended their current winning streak to five games and improved their record to 11-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

It was a wildly entertaining game, and while it showed the Maple Leafs still have their flaws (defensive play!), it also showed how much progress they have made over the past month with their new coach.

1. Quick strike offense for everybody

First, let’s take a quick look at the madness during Monday’s game.

This game was all about scoring runs and goals in bunches.

It began with the Maple Leafs racing out to a 3-0 lead in the game’s first five minutes, chasing Hurricanes starter — and former Maple Leafs goalie — Jame Reimer from the game.

The Hurricanes followed by scoring five consecutive goals, including three in 64 seconds midway through the second period, to take a 5-3 lead. After extending that lead to 6-4, the Maple Leafs responded by scoring the game’s final four goals, including three in 59 seconds. Two of those goals — Tyson Barrie‘s game-tying goal and Mitch Marner‘s game-winning goal — came just six seconds apart.

2. Marner’s domination

Marner is always going to have the spotlight on him because of his contract, but you can’t ignore the production.

He finished Monday’s game with five points and is now riding an eight-game point streak. He has multiple points in six of those games and is now on pace for 92 points in 71 games this season. That is also a 105-point pace over 82 games.

He scored two goals on Tuesday, the first of which came on an absurd spin-o-rama pass from Auston Matthews to bring the Maple Leafs within one goal.

His second goal came just six seconds after Barrie tie the game later in the third period.

3. The Keefe impact

This is never going to be a great defensive team as currently constructed. That is not where their strength is. It is not what they do best. It is not what they should be trying to do. That is where things went wrong for Mike Babcock as he kept trying to grind out 1-0 wins every night. Sometimes you just have to turn your talent loose a little bit. That is exactly what has happened in the first 15 games under Keefe.

The Maple Leafs are not only winning games and collecting points at a far higher rate, they also look like a team that has all-star level players. You could not always say that in the first part of the season.

The table below shows just how much things have changed since the coaching switch, looking at the team’s points percentage, as well as scoring chances (SC/60 and SCA/60), expected goals (xGF/60 and xGA/60), and actual goals during 5-on-5 play. They still give up some chances, but they are FAR more dangerous offensively. All data via Natural Stat Trick.

These numbers do not include Monday’s game.

They still have their flaws defensively, but they are at least letting their talent shine. All of the offensive numbers are not only higher, they are significantly higher.

One of the biggest changes has been with the freedom they have in the offensive zone, especially among their defense.

No one has benefited from that more than Barrie, the team’s key offseason addition. This is what he said five days ago on what Keefe wants from him:

You will never guess where he scored Monday’s tying goal from.

Right here…

After scoring zero goals and only seven assists in 23 games under Babcock, he has four goals and six assists in 15 games under Keefe.

No, they can’t expect to win every game 8-6. But this game was kind of fluky and should not take away from the improvement they have shown. This is a talented team that is starting to play to its strength.

Whether or not that is enough to get them over their playoff hurdles or closer to a Stanley Cup remains to be seen But they are definitely on a far better path than they were one month ago.

Related: Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Avs getting plenty of depth scoring this season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you think of the Colorado Avalanche, the first names that come to mind are probably Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, or Gabriel Landeskog. The trio produces an incredible amount of offense and they’re arguably the best line in the entire NHL.

Last season, MacKinnon (99 points), Rantanen (87 points) and Landeskog (75 points) were first, second and third in team scoring. Former Avs defender Tyson Barrie was fourth with 59 points, but no other forward on the team had collected more than 49 points (Carl Soderberg).

So yes, most teams would kill to have a top line like Colorado’s, but there’s no doubt that they also needed to add some depth scoring during summer. On top of that need, they also lost Rantanen and Landeskog for an extended period of time already this season.

What did general manager Joe Sakic do? He traded Tyson Barrie away, but Cale Makar has replaced his production in a big way by scoring 28 points in his first 29 games. That’s a step up offensively right there. In exchange for Barrie, the Avs were able to land Nazem Kadri, who is an important forward on this team at both ends of the ice. He also signed Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky to free-agent contracts.

How has that worked out so far?

Pretty well.

Kadri has 10 goals and 10 assists through 27 games, but again, he’s so valuable at both ends of the ice that he instantly makes the Avs a better team. He’s tough to play against and he’s capable of playing in both offensive and defensive situations. He’s sidelined with a lower-body injury now, but he should be back soon enough. It’s not surprising to see him do well with his new team.

On the flip side, Donskoi and Burakovsky’s offensive output this year has been downright shocking. Donskoi trails only MacKinnon and Makar for the team lead in scoring, as he has 13 goals and 27 points in only 30 games. He’s just 10 points away from matching his career high, which he set with San Jose last season. Whether or not he can stay on this pace remains to be seen, but the Avs will be a tough out if they keep getting that kind of production from him.

As for Burakovsky, he became available because the Washington Capitals were in a bit of a cap crunch during the summer. The 24-year-old posted a career-high 38 points back in 2015-16, but he failed to build on that season over the last three years with the Capitals.

Colorado paid a second-round pick, a third-round pick and Scott Kosmachuk (he’s moved on to the German League this year) for the former first-rounder, so they gave up quite a bit of draft compensation to roll the dice on this player. That trade has panned out pretty well so far though.

Burakovsky is up to 12 goals and 23 points in 27 games, which puts him fourth on the team in scoring as of right now.

Let’s also give honorable mentions to Matt Calvert, J.T. Compher and Matt Nieto, who have also helped on the offensive side of things this year.

Of course, the Avs are going to go as far as MacKinnon and the rest of their stars take them, but getting help is always an added bonus. Also, only the Columbus Blue Jackets have more cap space than the Avs right now, so there’s a chance they could improve their roster with a deal before the trade deadline.

Colorado upset Calgary in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year before being bounced by the San Jose Sharks in the second. Expectations will be much higher this time around.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

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.