As we pass the halfway point of the season, the Playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Some teams, like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators, are locks for the postseason. While others, such as the L.A Kings and Arizona Coyotes, can be written off almost completely, although not mathematically.
However, there are teams every year who enter the second half of the season in a better or worse position than many would have expected. For those teams, the second half of the season will either bring joy or despair. In this piece, we will look to try and find the teams that may rise or fall as the second half of the season plays out.
Not even the most hardcore Sabres fans expected this start to the season. A 10-game winning streak, which included a brief stint atop the NHL, seemed like a fairytale when looking at the struggles of the Sabres last few seasons. The emergence of Jack Eichel as a legitimate superstar, the Jeff Skinner trade bringing much-needed offensive firepower. Plus the solid goaltending of both Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark have led to the Sabres being in a wildcard spot at the halfway point of the season. They are also, by their own admission, a much happier and tight-knit group. The Ryan O’Reilly trade in the offseason is believed to have played a big part in this happier dressing room, which in turn has led to this positive start for the Sabres. But can it last?
The Sabres’ top line has accounted for nearly 45% of their total goals this season, and Buffalo has shown time and again that when their top line gets shut down, they struggle to win games. Add a recent Jack Eichel injury into the mix and it is hard to feel confident in a team that has let their fans down regularly in recent years.
Another potential issue is also appearing as the trade deadline approaches – can they sign Jeff Skinner to a new deal or will they be forced to trade him if he decides not to re-sign. Skinner has repeatedly stated that he was not going to focus on his future during the season, but it’s hard to imagine GM Jason Botterill not wanting to get something done as soon as possible. He will have a decision to make, and the loss of Skinner to a trade, or even a dip in form due to the distraction of contract talks could derail the Sabres season and see them slip out of the playoff picture.
The Carolina Hurricanes were a team tipped by many at the beginning of the season who could make a real push for the playoffs this year. A 4-0-1 start to the season added weight to this, with the team also scoring 21 goals in those four wins and looking threatening every time they attacked. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, this didn’t last long as their scoring dropped off dramatically. Couple this with mediocre goaltending and it has left Carolina sitting outside of a playoff spot and in danger of slipping out of a wildcard place altogether. It has left Hurricanes fans staring down the barrel of another season outside the playoffs. The wacky and imaginative postgame celebrations have done little to improve Canes fans moods.
All hope is not lost though, as
Goalscoring has been the main issue – although they have outshot their opponents so far this season, they are currently sitting at 28th in the league in goals scored. The trade deadline should be interesting as GM Don Waddell will almost certainly be looking for scoring help. It remains to be seen whether he uses one of their many defensemen to try and make that happen, and finding more goals could really propel them up the standings.
The Dallas Stars dominated the headlines during the Christmas period thanks to the comments made by CEO Jim Lites. He lamented the performance of star forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in a tirade almost unheard of in the modern NHL era. On listening to Lites comments, one could be forgiven for thinking the Stars had gotten off to a terrible start to the season but a quick look at the standings shows them in a wildcard position (at time of writing). The question is though, can they stay there?
Fans of the Stars will rightly be nervous – last season the Stars lost 8 in a row at the end of the season to miss the playoffs by 3 points. In a division as competitive as the Central is, there is no room for error. For a team as inconsistent as the Stars are, could end up missing out on the playoffs again. Jim Lites speaking out so forcefully about Benn and Seguin shows just how worried the Stars organization are about another season of mediocrity and another season without playoff hockey.
Their biggest issue appears to be their lack of depth, the “under-performing” pair of Benn and Seguin make up two of their top three scorers (alongside Alexander Radulov). On the back end, John Klingberg and rookie Miro Heiskanen provide the main offensive threats. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have provided a reliable tandem in goal. Should any of these players miss time due to injury, it is hard to see who else can step in and contribute offensively. For a team that already ranks near the bottom of the league in goals scored, that could spell disaster.
There’s not much left to say about the Oilers that hasn’t already been said over the past 5/6 years or so. Another disappointing start to the season has left some fans calling for GM Peter Chiarelli to be relieved of his job, whilst they get set for another early summer on the golf course. Coach Todd McLellan was given his marching orders and replaced by Edmonton native Ken Hitchcock, but the same complaints exist from last season, namely the lack of improvements made to the blue line and the questionable goaltending.
Chiarelli has already taken some steps to try and address these problems, acquiring Brandon Manning and Alex Petrovic to try and shore up their defense, especially whilst Oscar Klefbom is on IR. It is hard to imagine that Chiarelli is done for the season. So expect to see him look to try and bring in other faces before the trade deadline as he looks to keep the Oilers in the playoff picture (and keep his job). Whether they can get anything done remains to be seen, and it could already be too little too late.
With all that being said, they still have a chance of securing a playoff place, especially with Connor McDavid on the team and playing in a division as weak as the Pacific. Winning those conference games will be vital, and much of the onus will fall on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to lead the team to success. If the Oilers can find some secondary scoring, and the goaltending holds up, it is not inconceivable that the Oilers could be in the playoff picture come April.
Feature Image Credit: Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images