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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.

Carlson, Makar, McDavid among PHWA 2020 midseason award winners

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For the third year in a row the Professional Hockey Writers Association has released midseason awards as its members submitted ballots in the days leading up the 2020 NHL All-Star break.

“We’re proud of the work our members put in throughout the entire season, crunching numbers, following trends and speaking to sources to gather the best ballot possible,” PHWA president Frank Seravalli said. “The Midseason Awards are the latest example of that, beginning an independent evaluation process in January that won’t conclude until early April when the real ballots are returned.” 

There were 117 writers representing all 32 PHWA chapters who cast ballots for 10 awards, including the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng, and Selke.

There were also votes for the Vezina Trophy, GM of the Year, as well as two non-traditional awards, including the Rod Langway Award, for best “defensive defenseman,” and Comeback Player of the Year, awarded to a player who has returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.

Here are the results:

Hart Trophy to the player adjudged to be most valuable to his team.
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
3. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins 

Norris Trophy to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-round ability in the position.
1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals
2. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
3. Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes 

Selke Trophy to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
1. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers
2. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Calder Trophy to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition.
1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks
3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres 

[NHL AWARDS: PHT hands out hardware at the All-Star Break]

Lady Byng Trophy to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.
1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
2. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
3. Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues 

Vezina Trophy to the goaltender adjudged to be the best at his position.
1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
2. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars
3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes 

Jack Adams Award to the coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.
1. Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
2. John Tortorella, Columbus Blue Jackets
3. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues 

Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award to the General Manager adjusted to have contributed most to his team’s success.
1. Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche
2. John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes
3. Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues 

Rod Langway Award to the defenseman who best excels in the defensive aspect of the game.
1. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators 

Comeback Player of the Year Award to the player who returned to a previous high level of performance that was interrupted by subpar play, long-term injury or major illness.
1. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
2. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators
3. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights 

Established in 1962, the Professional Hockey Writers Association is dedicated to preserving the rights and improving the access for members of the North American- based media who cover ice hockey. The PHWA is comprised of approximately 300 dues-paying members in NHL markets who write about the sport for newspapers, magazines and online media. PHWA members vote on the following seven NHL Awards: Hart Trophy, Calder Trophy, Selke Trophy, Lady Byng Trophy, Norris Trophy, Masterton Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy, in addition to NHL All-Star and All-Rookie teams.

PHT Morning Skate: Mystery of McDavid’s knee injury; Should Penguins make trades?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Don’t be surprised if the elite women’s hockey 3-on-3 ends up being the best part of the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Solving the mystery of Connor McDavid‘s knee injury. (Edmonton Journal)

• Arguing in favor of the Penguins being aggressive and making a trade to improve their supporting cast. Sidney Crosby is 32, while Evgeni Malkin is 33. Kris Letang is also 32. You never know when your championship window is truly going to close, so why not go for it? (Pensburgh)

• What the Maple Leafs can learn from the hated Bruins. (The Star)

• Could the Jets’ slippage cost Paul Maurice his job? The fellow is basically a coaching vampire, so I’ll believe it when I see it. (National Post)

• Rick Tocchet feels like most of us about replacing Gerard Gallant as Pacific All-Star coach because the latter was fired: weird. (Ottawa Sun)

• Justin Williams exceeded expectations during his return to the Hurricanes. (Charlotte News & Observer)

• Comparing Alex Ovechkin‘s remarkable 2019-20 season to his other best sniping years. He’s basically a Terminator robot on skates … right down to some good one-liners. (Japers’ Rink)

• Which forwards should the Ducks look to trade? I agree with Jake Rudolph that trading Ryan Getzlaf would be wise, and also agree that getting Getzlaf to sign off on a trade is a whole other ballgame. (Anaheim Calling)

• Gus Katsaros explores why the Islanders haven’t drawn many penalties. (Rotoworld)

• The Blues are showing off impressive depth during what’s been a strong title defense so far. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Larry Brooks argues that a lack of urgency might submarine the Rangers’ playoff hopes. Personally, I think “rarely having the puck” and “being bad at defense” rank higher on their list of worries. (New York Post)

• Breaking down the coaching job Alain Vigneault is pulling off with the Philadelphia Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Can the Coyotes use the All-Star break to regroup? They’ve slipped a bit lately. (Five for Howling)

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 hardware at the All-Star Break

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It’s the NHL All-Star break, which means it’s a good time to reflect on what’s happened during the first four months of the 2019-20 season. There’s been plenty of surprises and disappointments so far, and it’s never too early to begin discussing who could be up for the the major awards in June.

The PHT staff was polled for their top three choices for the Hart, Norris, Vezina, Jack Adams, and Calder. Below are our selections and our reasons behind our No. 1 selections.

Let us know your winners in the comments.

SEAN: The problem for the super duos in Boston and Edmonton is there are arguments to be made for McDavid and Draisaitl and Marchand and Pastrnak for MVP. All are worthy, but right now the top spot has to go to MacKinnon for what he’s done this season with the Avs. His 70 points puts him top three in NHL scoring and he kept on scoring as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog missed time with injuries. How important has been for Colorado? The second leading scorer on the team — Cale Makar — is 35! points behind him.

JAMES: Woof, this is a tough one. MacKinnon gets the edge for two reasons: First, his defensive impact is stronger than guys like McDavid (in a granular way) and secondly, MacKinnon generated big offense and huge shot totals even with key linemates out. He didn’t have the luxury of Mikko Rantanen as often as McDavid had Leon Draisaitl or Pastrnak had Brad Marchand (who’s just as worthy of consideration as Pastrnak).

ADAM: The Oilers’ roster still isn’t very good outside of the top-two or-three players, and McDavid is single-handedly putting that team on his back and carrying it. He is simply the most dominant player in hockey. He should be going for his third or fourth MVP at this point in his career.

JOEY: This may be the obvious pick, but the Oilers are so thin behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that it’s hard not to consider their captain the frontrunner to be MVP. McDavid is currently on pace to pick up 127 points, which is one point fewer than last year’s Hart Trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov, finished the season with in 2018-19.

SCOTT: Whether he wins the award or not, McDavid is by far the most valuable player in the National Hockey League

SEAN: A leg injury will likely derail Hamilton’s chances in June, but for now he’s been top for the class this season. He’s got the points (40), the possession stats (58% Corsi, via Natural Stat Trick), and is top five in goals above replacement (13.4) and wins above replacement (2.3), via Evolving Hockey.

JAMES: If Carlson’s scoring lead shrinks, I’d lean toward someone like Pietrangelo, who scores and also shines more in underlying metrics. Carlson’s still mostly … fine, though, really, and his offense has been impossible to ignore. Not just 13 goals and 60 points, but also six game-winners. Sorry, I can only ignore so many shiny points. Hamilton would be in the top three if not for his unfortunate injury — I assume we’ll sadly have to forget about him here.

ADAM: I say this knowing Hamilton is almost certainly not going to win at the end of the season because of his injury (and because Carlson’s point total will get most of the votes) but we are talking strictly first half performance here, and I think Hamilton was the best all-around defenseman in the first half before his injury given his dominance at both ends of the rink and his ability to control the pace of the game. He has always been underappreciated and a legit No. 1 defender, and this is his best performance to date.

JOEY: How can you argue with the Carlson pick? The 30-year-old is top 10 in league scoring, which is shocking at this point, and he’s on pace to surpass the 100-point mark. His overall game isn’t terrible either. What a year.

SCOTT: The offensive part of his game this season has been outstanding but Carlson’s play on both ends of the ice is a huge reason why the Capitals are atop the NHL standings.

SEAN: Hellebuyck is as important player to his team as anyone this season. As the Jets continue to struggle, the netminder has stood out keeping them above water and in the playoff race. He sports a .926 even strength save percentage, is top five in goals saved above average (10.75, per Natural Stat Trick), and leads all goalies in goals above replacement (16.3), wins above replacement (2.8), and standings points above replacement (5.5), as tracked by Evolving Wild.

JAMES: Hellebuyck deserves legitimate MVP consideration. The Jets would be lost without them, as they’re getting swamped and basically asking Hellebuyck to save the day. He’s doing so to a staggering extent. Bishop’s been incredible for Dallas, though, and is even impressive in certain stat categories. Sheer workload wins it for Hellebuyck.

ADAM: Bishop does not get enough attention for being one of the league’s best goalies. He has already been a Vezina finalist three different times in his career and should be there again this season. The Stars have a good team, but no one person is driving their success more than him.

JOEY: Hellebuyck might not have the best numbers of the three candidates on this list, but he’s done a relatively good job playing behind a less-than-stellar defense. The Jets lost Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba in the off-season, so being the goaltender on that team was never going to be easy.

SCOTT: Binnington busted on the scene last season but has proven that it was not a fluke with excellent play between the pipes.

Tortorella
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SEAN: The Blue Jackets are in a playoff spot, just as we all predicted back in July… Despite all of the departures in free agency Tortorella has gotten the best out of his charges, with a special thanks to the recent play of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins. As Cam Atkinson said before the season, Columbus came in with chips on their shoulders and have proved doubters wrong through the first half.

JAMES: Let’s be honest; “keeping your job” is the real Jack Adams Award for coaches in 2019-20. There are some great choices — including Barry Trotz, who didn’t make the top three — but Sullivan’s Penguins haven’t just rolled with huge injury punches. They’ve also managed to be a top team, not just a team clinging to wild-card contention. Sullivan’s versatility as a coach has really impressed me since he joined the Penguins.

ADAM: Sullivan. The Penguins not only lead the league in man-games lost due to injury, but the quality of players that have been sidelined is far and away above what any other team has had to deal with. They are still one of the league’s best defensive teams, one of the league’s best teams overall, and are playing like they did during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons when they won the Stanley Cup.

JOEY: Tortorella has had to make serious adjustments heading into this season. Losing Panarin and Bobrovsky is something most coaches wouldn’t be able to overcome. Whether they make the playoffs or not, Tortorella needs to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams.

SCOTT: With all the injuries that have ravaged the Penguins, they are still in prime position in the Eastern Conference and Sullivan has done a great job of integrating call-ups up and down the lineup.

SEAN: Makar and Hughes will be the top two finalists and so far it’s an incredibly close race. They’re tight in points (Makar leads with a 0.88 points per game average) and close in minutes played (Hughes is ahead by over a minute per night), but Makar gets the slight edge here with his impact offensively for the Avs. The only question come awards season is if Ilya Samsonov came play his way in being the third finalist.

JAMES: Hughes vs. Makar remains a tough choice, and picking third is tough, with Adam Fox and forwards like Victor Olofsson (injured) and Dominik Kubalik knocking on the door. The three defensemen above are bringing offense, but are also carrying significant workloads — and not just “for rookies.” Hughes strikes me as the most impressive from an all-around standpoint, while Makar’s offensive brilliance cannot be ignored. It’s a strong, strong year for rookie defensemen, and Marino’s a hidden gem. All three defensemen are averaging more than 20 minutes per night on playoff teams.

ADAM: Makar looks like he is going to be a superstar. While the forward trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is the foundation of the Avalanche roster, a player like Makar is what really takes them to another level as Stanley Cup contenders. An impact defenseman that can move the puck, play those minutes, and help drive the offense the way he does is a cornerstone player and the type of defenseman that has Norris Trophies in his future.

JOEY: Makar has averaged over 20 minutes of ice time in his first full year in the NHL and he’s managed to pick up 11 goals and 35 points in 40 games this season. The 21-year-old looks like he’s going to be a huge factor in Colorado for many years to come. He’s definitely the rookie of the year if he stays healthy.

SCOTT: The transition to the NHL shouldn’t be this easy but Makar has been a force on the Avalanche blueline.

Paul Maurice and the Jets could really use a win right now

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This was always going to be a challenging season for the Winnipeg Jets.

After a surprising run to the Western Conference Final during the 2017-18 season, they regressed last season and opened this season with a makeshift defense due to offseason departures and the still unsettled situation regarding Dustin Byfuglien. At times, and especially recently, the defense has looked has looked exactly like the patchwork unit that it is. They get bombarded on the shot chart, and had it not been for some superhuman play from starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck over the first couple of months their playoff chances for this season might already be in the toilet.

But they’re not.

They are still — for now — very much in the Western Conference Wild Card race, and with a win on Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could enter the All-Star break and bye week just a single point back of a playoff spot. Considering the state of the defense and the way the team has actually played at times, that would be a decent conclusion to the first half of the season.

It would also probably be a big win for coach Paul Maurice, whose seat seems to get warmer with each and every loss. And the losses have been piling up recently. After losing in Carolina on Tuesday night, 4-1, the Jets have lost five of their past six and are just 6-11-2 in their past 19 games.

On Tuesday, it was another tough start that saw the Jets give up three early goals and have to play from behind again. When asked about another slow start, Maurice was defiant in saying there was no slow start (using an expletive in the process) and instead defended his team’s effort and the way they played. It was a little surprising given how rough this recent stretch has been, especially the past three games when they’ve been outscored by a 16-4 margin. Listening to him talk about the team’s effort and how they “played their asses off,” it almost sounded like a coach that is resigned to his team being undermanned at a major position (defense) and that things are just unraveling. It was basically: They did everything they could, and this is all they had.

Given the current situation and the recent slide, it’s enough to wonder if Thursday’s game against Columbus is approaching must-win territory. It is believed that Maurice’s contract expires at the end of this season, and as Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s really hard to see the Jets giving him another contract extension after two straight years of declining results.

If there were ever a time for a team to consider a change, wouldn’t this be it? A coach in the final year of his contract, for a struggling team that seems to have hit its ceiling with that coach, while the team itself is still flirting with a playoff spot. Not to mention the fact that after Wednesday they have a week-and-a-half and an opportunity to hit the reset button coming out of the break.

Whether or not that would make a difference is certainly up for debate. There is probably not a coach or prospective coach in the league that can turn this defense as constructed into a contender, and no matter who is behind the bench is going to have to rely on the forwards being able to outscore their opponents and hope for Hellebuyck to return to his Vezina/MVP level from the first couple of months.

It just seems like the Jets and their coach are at a crossroads for this season, and maybe beyond.

It is difficult — and maybe even silly — to put so much emphasis on one regular season game in the middle of January, but Thursday’s game against Columbus seems like it has the potential to dramatically shift things one way or another for the Jets.

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.